Timlaska’s Top Ten-est albums ever

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I recently decided that I needed to put together the definitive list of the top 10 bestest hip hop albums of all time. It is an on-going process which I hope will finally put this discussion to rest. I have set up some ground rules that include the following:

1. No albums released before 1988 or after 2005 are eligible, when the last great rap album (Kanye West’s Late Registration) was released. Sorry Raekwon, Cuban Linx two was good but not great. We need to be honest with ourselves in that historical significance and record sales have nothing to do with the quality of the record, which is why you won’t find any Run DMC, EPMD or Dre on here.

2. The album must still be good. I don’t care if it was great in its heyday, if it isn’t good today it won’t be considered. You need to compete in all eras of the music to be considered one of the all time greats, again see any Dre or Snoop album.

3. If half the album sucks it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the album is, so this rules out all NWA albums, all BDP albums, all Eric B and Rakim albums, and so on. Many of the most impactful albums in rap music were half bad. They were fortunate that they came at the right time and the portion of the album that was great was revolutionary enough that they could ride into the history books.

4. We will not confuse a long career of good with a onetime moment of trancendent greatness. Jay Z while a great MC with many great songs never had a trancendent moment. The same goes with Biggie Smalls. While Ready to Die is a great album it’s not trancendent and just because he died early we like to remember him as the greatest ever, when in reality he was probably top 10-15.

5. Any album on this list must get the “I see where you can make a case for this being on here even if I don’t agree” seal of approval.

6. The album must be known to at least a few hundred thousand people. This means no obscure underground shit. If your album wasn’t good enough to spawn some sort of movement, even if it was just among active hip hop fans then you aren’t on here.

7. Finally – No Tupac….he fucking sucked. Tupac fans are right up there with white kids with dreads and vice interns as the most annoying group of people ever.

This is going to be a long journey, it will probably take us at the very least a few months to get through it all but I imagine that by the time we are done you will agree that this is the most complete list of the top 10 rap albums ever:

Coming in at number 10 we have the aforementioned Kanye West with Late Registration. Originally I had this ranked higher at number 7. Partially because I feel it is a phenomenal album and partially because I knew placing it that high would piss people off and start up some discussion. When I bounced the idea off some friends I consider to be knowledgeable on the subject they all felt the mere inclusion of Kanye in this list would spark the same discussion and emotions. So I rightfully moved it to the 10 slot, the album is only four years old and has yet to stand the test of time.

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You probably think I am crazy for including Kanye on this list, but I as I make my case I hope you see my point. I think we can all agree that as a mc Kanye ranks between Phife Dog on the low end of the spectrum and maybe big Boi on the high end. Two 2nd fiddles in legendary groups, who were great as a complimentary voice to the lead vocals of Q-Tip and Andre 3000 respectively. Both have ventured into solo territory with varying degrees of success, Phife being an unadulterated failure and Big Boi having some marginal success and a few good jams. The difference is Kanye was able to pull off the average mc making a great album, outside of Guru he is the only subpar MC to make this list.

Most hip hop fans will shit on Kanye for his lyricism but with the exception of a few failed 40 year old producers still trying to get on they cannot front on the quality of his production, it is top notch. Much like with Primo, if you see a rapper you respect on a Kanye track you get that feeling in your gut that it is going to be a good time. And in all fairness this album doesn’t even crack the top 40 if it wasn’t for the production. I am going to go all in right now and state the facts. Kanye’s work on this album is one of the the greatest product effort since Nation of Millions. Simply because Kanye truly acted as a producer. He wasn’t just a beat maker. Sadly most of hip hops best producers were just that beat makers. They didn’t have a grander vision of what makes a great album. While they make exceptional beats, only an elite few were able to grasp the importance of overseeing a whole vision. The short list is The Bomb Squad, Dre, the Rza, Organized Noize and now Kanye. 

I do not wish to totally sell Kanye the MC short. What he lacks in skills he makes up for in content, catchy punch lines and song craftsmanship. Off all modern popular rappers his content is the most diverse, granted he isn’t on some super scientific shit, but that’s probably for the best. Kanye is a master of the club jam, as well as offering personal glimpse into his life, insecurities and shortcomings without coming across like an indie rapper with a severe case of depression and self doubt. What I find most fascinating about the Kanye persona is that he is perhaps the most self aware rapper to date. He isn’t worried about being a martyr or padding his image with imaginary tales from the street, or his conquering of women. Instead he focuses in on the emotions of situations and has the uncanny ability to make you take interest in his everyday dealings, even if that interest is just hatred, which wouldn’t be unwarranted. Kanye is above all an arrogant dick.

He might have earned that right; he is the only artist that matters in rap post 2004. Who else really matters? I guess one can argue Wayne, but only because we are watching to see when he finally overdoses.

Back to the album. The most striking aspect of this record is the movement in the music and this is where the genius of the comes in. Kanye brought in Jon Brion, who most of you may know from his work with Fiona Apple and on the soundtracks for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche NYC. He had Jon provide the mood for the entire album. Brion added elements to each song, whether it was strings, horns, or keys that helped the music morph and twist to fit the mood of the verses. He also helped build bridges and choruses up in a way that rap music, outside of Outkast has failed to do in the past. One of the other keys to the artistic success of this record is that it isn’t a clusterfuck of collaborations, using guest appearances in the hooks, much like De La Soul did with Guru on Buhloone Mind State or Tribe did with Busta on Midnight Marauders. He didn’t go overboard with R&B hooks and every collaboration works. There are no gratuitous guest spots for the sake of having a name. The only shortcomings I see are a few shitty sketches and the song “Hey Mama” which was sugary sweet shitfest and an obvious attempt to reach the Oprah demographic. Outside of that the album is killer.

While it might not be one of your favorite albums especially if you hate Kanye, it is one of the great artistic achievements in rap music and our number 10.

One final thought. A few years back when I was on the road I took a ton of mushrooms and locked myself in the car and listened to this album. It was the greatest musical experience of my life. Brion’s work, especially on “We Major” was alive in the car. I don’t know if this is a glowing endorsement or a major red flag, I just thought it was something I should share.

Kanye West – Late Registration –
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