This feature originally ran in 2013 and has since been updated.
Some stars shine brightest as part of a constellation, and others burn stronger on their own. Of course, there’s no telling which category an artist falls into until he or she drops that solo album. With Wu-Tang legend Raekwon just releasing his latest in a string of strong independent outings, The Wild, we turned our minds to thinking about some of our other favorite solo efforts.
But before we digress, allow us some context: An album was eligible for inclusion here only if its creator was better known as a member of a group at the time of release. Inevitably, that left some gray area, as we reluctantly ruled Snoop’s Doggystyle ineligible, but, in a previous installment of this list, decided Juicy J’s Stay Trippy was fair game, even though Juicy has been better known in the past couple years than he ever was with Three 6 Mafia.
So, here they are: our updated Top 20 Hip-Hop Solo Albums.
20. Q-Tip – Amplified (1999)
Member of: A Tribe Called Quest
You wouldn’t call Q-Tip a minimalist, but Amplified – even more so than his work with A Tribe Called Quest – was decidedly stripped back. It’s also the quietest record on this list; Busta Rhymes’ cameo on “N.T.” is the only surge of energy over its 47 minutes. Then again, Tip always thrived in sedative moods (think of Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation”), and its smoothness is what makes Amplified such a cohesive listen. A decade later, Tip would be enlisted by Kanye to work on the decidedly maximal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But Amplified, though its sound wouldn’t likely interest the masses if released today, was a thoroughly characteristic album from one of the ’90s’ most fluid MCs. –-Mike Madden
19. Eazy-E – It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa (1993)
Member of: N.W.A.
Some may point to Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It as his definitive statement as a solo artist. Produced by Dr. Dre, it certainly feels like a spiritual successor to N.W.A.; however, it was the record that he dropped after he began feuding with Dre that is the most notorious. While most rappers dedicate a lyric or verse to diss their nemeses, It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa is a concept album about how much Eazy, never one for subtlety, hates his former producer. Every track – except the porn-pop novelty “Gimme That Nutt” – is volatile and anarchic, raw and uncut. –Jon Hadusek
18. KRS-One – Return of the Boom Bap (1993)
Member of: Boogie Down Productions
Now aggressively anti-everything, there was a time KRS-One mixed accessibility and the ruckus quite well. The Bronx rapper was unapologetically street in Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded and socially conscious By All Means Necessary (sadly only after group member DJ Scott La Rock’s passing). KRS-One combined elements of the two and injected jazzy and funkdafied production for young and hungry Kid Capri and DJ Premier in The Return of the Boom Bap. KRS-One made sure his voice was heard throughout even though it was his first time fully commanding a project as an MC, whether it’s in the Jamaican patois weaved into the finger-pointing “Black Cop” or the intensely confident title track. By the time he left his soapbox, many were left inviting him right back on. –Brian Josephs
17. Wyclef Jean – The Carnival (1997)
Member of: Fugees
Wyclef Jean isn’t a commanding rapper on The Carnival, by any means, which should be a big downfall if we’re listening to the dude for more than 70 minutes. This isn’t your regular rappity rap ’90s album, however; the album’s main rapper’s main focus isn’t on rapping. Jean switched up the intensely focused, forward-pushing formula of the multiplatinum The Score for a body of work that’s more expansive. Jean plays a maestro conducting the sounds of the corners of the ghetto and the Caribbean, and succeeds in doing so not only because of his versatility, but his control. It’s hard to imagine any artist with the balls to take “Stayin’ Alive” and turn it into a convincing braggadocio cut while interpolating “Top Billin’” on “We Trying to Stay Alive”. Or what about switching up a Cuban anthem for a poetic, tense look at the fairer sex with a then-potent Lauryn Hill on “Guantanamera”. There’s an effervescence that ties everything together on even the more doleful cuts (“Gone Til November”). It’s more about feeling than making a statement, which makes it easier to dive into the festival of the final three tracks, which are performed in Haitian Creole. –Brian Josephs
16. Bun B – II Trill (2008)
Member of: UGK
Bun B was an elder statesman in the rap world by the time II Trill came out, and the guest list he assembled confirmed the respect a younger generation had for him – there’s Lil Wayne, Lupe Fiasco, Rick Ross, and Sean Kingston, and that only covers the first few songs. But, more important than appearing vital in Southern rap’s era of one-hit wonders was remaining faithful to UGK’s style after the December 2007 death of the Texas duo’s other half, Pimp C. Pimp handled most of UGK’s production, concocting rich beats from soul samples and two-string licks. II Trill‘s producers took many cues from Pimp’s sound and updated it, as the album had a digital whoosh that none of UGK’s own, organic releases did. Mostly eschewing mournful digressions and sentimentality, Bun sounded even more authoritative than usual without taking things too seriously. Ninth track “Pop It 4 Pimp”, a strip-club anthem dedicated to a real ladies’ man, is the most fitting one-track homage possible, but on the whole, II Trill furthered UGK’s legacy while proving Bun to be a dependable one-man act. –Mike Madden
15. Elzhi – Elmatic (2011)
Member of: Slum Village
Few tasks are as demanding as the one Elzhi undertook with Elmatic, a remake of Nas’ 1994 masterstroke. Directly or otherwise, Illmatic would influence every “lyrical” MC to follow, and some of its beats were among the most recognizable of the ‘90s. With help from Detroit outfit Will Sessions, who enriched the patterns of the original beats with horn blasts and sharp guitar licks, Elmatic did its predecessor justice. His mind may have been older, but Nas was only 20 at the time of Illmatic’s release; Elzhi was 32 and sounded that much more world-weary and wizened. By the time Pete Rock, producer of Illmatic’s “The World Is Yours”, shows up for an endorsement as the album winds down, it ain’t hard to tell that Elzhi is, indeed, one of the “illest Detroit MCs.” –-Mike Madden
14. Prodigy – Return of the Mac (2007)
Member of: Mobb Deep
Return of the Mac still stands as Prodigy’s best solo project, and at times it’s even at the same caliber as Mobb Deep’s works. That’s not to say he’s seeking to revere the golden era or trying to bring back “real hip-hop.” Prodigy and The Alchemist are moreso channeling those days in an album that reeks of inner city grime and a matter of factness that’s definitely New York. The duo pulls no punches here, and each of them lands hard. The Alchemist provides Prodigy with laidback production, as the rapper guides the listener through his reality in a way that’s both accessible and haunting. Prodigy finds a bit of cathartic joy within Alc’s backdrop as he spits revenge fantasy-filled lines with a smirk, like in “Mac 10 Handle”: “Smokin’ dope, loading bullets in my clip for you/ I ain’t even wiping my sweat, it’s keeping me cool.” At just under 40 minutes, Prodigy and Alc created an album that’s unapologetically blunt, but endlessly replayable. —Brian Josephs
13. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris (2013)
Member of: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All
It’s hard to overstate the expectations that Earl Sweatshirt’s fans had for the unbelievably precocious rapper’s debut album, Doris, and how thoroughly he delivered on those expectations. In 2012, Earl returned from his exile of sorts to Samoa, warmly greeted but overwhelmed by the attention OF gained while he was away from the States. Accordingly, he directly addressed connected topics on the album, particularly over the piano-creep of “Chum”: the aforementioned exile (including venom spat at the “Complex fuck niggas” that located his previously unknown whereabouts), fans’ sky-high hopes for his young rap career, and his relationship (or lack thereof) with his estranged father, famed South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. But while Earl’s penmanship was never less than sharp, the best part of it all was how the album encapsulated the sheer insurgent creativity that made the entire Odd Future crew so exciting in the early 2010s. –Mike Madden
12. The D.O.C. – No One Can Do It Better (1989)
Member of: Fila Fresh Crew/N.W.A. and the Posse
Before a car accident rendered his voice closer to that of a smoker from those harrowing CPD commercials, Dallas’ D.O.C. was one of rap’s funkiest songwriters – seemingly every line on No One Can Do It Better track “Mind Blowin’”, for instance, was a hook in and of itself. Entirely produced by Dr. Dre (DJ Yella gets a coproduction credit on closer “The Grand Finale”), No One had a delightful energy that so many of Tracy Curry’s g-rap peers avoided. When he dropped his sophomore outing Helter Skelter seven years later, things were understandably bleaker – but that only highlighted its predecessor’s status as one of hip-hop’s eternally danceable classics. —Mike Madden
11. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return of the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)
Member of: Wu-Tang Clan
The third solo record from the Wu-Tang camp and the first from the enigmatic Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a.k.a. Dirt McGirt, a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Chinese Restaurant) still stands as a testament to the permanent place that the absurd holds in the hip-hop pantheon. Opening the door for other unorthodox rappers with at times abrasive flows like Danny Brown and Tyler, the Creator, this debut effort marks the beginning of a short but prolific career by one of the strangest musical phenomenons ever to capture the zeitgeist. Dirty’s drunken flows over off-the-wall production coming mostly from Wu-mate RZA made for one of the most innovative hip-hop records of the ‘90s, helping make the entire Wu movement a staple of the musical culture of the era. ”Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is one of the most vital rap songs ever and will continue to be, as long as frat boys and hip-hop heads enjoy it in equal capacity, the audacious hooks and instantly recognizable piano line serving as a perfect microcosm of ODB’s warped personality. —Pat Levy
10. El-P – Fantastic Damage (2002)
Member of: Company Flow
In his underrated solo debut, El-P provided the first post-9/11 rap album that captures the disparity of a world gone straight to crap in Fantastic Damage. The MC’s key weapon here is claustrophobia. El-P is relentless as he bombards the listeners with walls upon walls of tensely packed sci-fi references, political criticisms, and straight disses. (Rawkus Records catches a huge middle finger on album standout “Deep Space 9mm”.) Then there’s the intricately layered production that clashes, meshes, and amalgamates its sounds in discord, a sense that everything is teetering on collapse. And El-P indulges in it all in spots like the funkdafied bass line on “Dr. Hellno and the Praying Mantis” and the unrestrained aggression of “The Nang, the Front, the Bush, and the Shit”. It’s paranoia, angst, fear, and… love? In “T.O.J.”, El-P reaches out to someone looking for embrace in what sounds like the end of the world. Jazzy drums and odd time signatures transfer into a titanic coda that’s sheer brilliance. There’s beauty in its destruction. —Brian Josephs
09. MF Doom – Operation: Doomsday (1999)
Member of: KMD
With Operation: Doomsday, MF DOOM – born Daniel Dumile, but known under a whole slew of aliases, some of which he slapped onto the credits of O:D – channeled his eccentricities into a template that rewarded the more they piled up. He’s always been a word nerd, and O:D was the first document of his hawkeyed linguistics – he starts a verse on “The Finest” with “sufferin’ succotash,” a la Looney Tunes‘ Sylvester, especially funny and fitting considering the density of DOOM’s style. He produced the thing himself, too, cooking up a tapestry of crumbly guitars and truncated disco samples. Most unique, though, is that Operation: Doomsday made the sheer art of rapping sound like a joy. —Mike Madden
08. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Member of: Fugees
The impact of Lauryn Hill’s lone solo album is something that’s easily quantifiable. The album went eight-times platinum, which is more than The Fugees’ seminal The Score. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the socially aware “Everything Is Everything” (which featured a then-unknown John Legend) and the heartbreaking “Ex-Factor” also spent some time on the charts. Perhaps most importantly, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the first hip-hop album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. Tangible achievements aren’t the best way to measure its greatness though. Light blossoms in many of the album’s corners, like in the beauty-in-the-struggle aesthetic of “Everything Is Everything”. In others, you can feel her passion stop time, destroy walls, transcend, and make many other hyperboles seem less hyperbolic for 70-plus minutes. In “To Zion”, a letter to her first son and one of the album’s peaks, she sings, “I knew this life deserved a chance/ But everybody told me to be smart/ ‘Look at your career,’ they said/ ‘Baby use your heart’/ But instead I chose my heart” Soul-stirring moments like these make her fall into a babbling shrew years later that much more heartbreaking. –Brian Josephs
07. Ice Cube – Death Certificate (1991)
Member of: N.W.A.
From the outset of the ‘90s, no rapper was as dangerous as Ice Cube. Arguably the progenitor of N.W.A.’s political undertones, Cube moved away from the cartoonish aspects of his former group to craft some truly biting indictments of post-Reagan America. While his debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, stirred the pot of a racially tense American society with pointed, antagonistic rhymes over Bomb Squad’s plunderphonics beats, platinum-selling followup Death Certificate honed Cube’s vitriolic rage with trademark sneering vocals and aggrandized takes on inner-city oppression. Voicing a gangsta-centric black nationalism and searing with controversy, the album met with critical praise and public outcry.
“The language of the streets is the only language I can use to communicate with the streets,” said Cube in his infamous interview with activist Angela Davis. Divided into “Death” and “Life” sides — “a mirrored image of where we are today” and “a vision of where we need to go”, respectively — the album detailed a roster of grievances alongside militant solutions, firing shots at sell-out race traitors, the military, Korean store owners, and the medical system, to name a few. If N.W.A. shocked the nation initially, it was Ice Cube that got them really listening. —Jack Spencer
06. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
Member of: Wu-Tang Clan
“I’d rather slip on the pavement than slip on my tongue.” The mantra of the most lyrical member of the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA, cements his reputation as a genius in the rap game, capable of verbal domination any time he touches the mic. Liquid Swords is a cinematic marvel of hip-hop and another stellar solo effort form the Wu-Tang camp, with almost all of the production once again coming from RZA. Interstitials ripped from the grindhouse samurai film Shogun Assassin, RZA’s eerie production, and features from several Wu members are all elements that serve to accent the razor sharp mind of GZA. The album introduction has the child of the titular character in Shogun Assassin telling his father’s story of seeking revenge and being hunted down by ninjas. His last words before GZA tears into his rhymes are, “That was the night that everything changed,” a jumping off point that fits all too well in the context of the massive effect that Liquid Swords would have on hip-hop. —Pat Levy
05. Scarface – The Diary (1994)
Member of: Geto Boys
For all its poignant descriptions of street life, Scarface’s The Diary stands as not only one of the best rap solo albums ever, but a classic of the form. Borrowing from the West Coast g-funk aesthetic for the beats, Scarface collects all the thoughts and ruminations too personal for his regular group, the Geto Boys, on The Diary. Like his contemporaries UGK, Scarface operates on the conscious side of southern hip-hop, balancing sentimental realism (“No Tears”, “I Seen a Man Die”) with the bloody violence surrounding the gangsta lifestyle (“The White Sheet”). —Jon Hadusek
04. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010)
Member of: Outkast
It sounded like a simple plan, really. Big Boi was supposed to release his solo debut, and then André 3000 was supposed to follow with his soon after. Finally, we would get that OutKast reunion album, and everyone would be pleased. We’re still waiting on André to do his part, so that plan obviously isn’t working out. But, it looked like the plan was already in danger before it even started for a while, as Big Boi disputed with Jive over the fate of Sir Lu
cious Left Foot. The label admitted the album was a work of art, but requested Big Boi make a song like “Lollipop”, because they didn’t know how to market the album. An insulted Big Boi took his album to Def Jam, where he released it to modest sales.
In retrospect, it’s easy to understand why Jive couldn’t understand Sir Lucious Left Foot. How can something so chaotic and bustling be part of such a linear plan? Big Boi’s debut takes the DNA of the exasperating “B.O.B.” — unquestionably one of OutKast’s greatest songs — and spreads it across 13 tracks with impressive results. “Shutterbug” fits bass-heavy burps, a synth jacked straight from Saturday Night ’80s cheese, and a funky guitar breakdown all within a fairly conventional runtime; cool down song, “The Train Pt. 2 (Sir Lucious Left Foot Saves the Day)”, throws in a rumbling bass line, quirky synths, and triumphant horns; and “Tangerine” winds up being a sex romp in the outskirts of Stankonia with narration by T.I. to boot.
It’s almost too much going on, but Big Boi ties it all together with a slick-talking nonsequitur presence that often pushes his earthy playboy persona to new dimensions. Nobody really knows what to do with Sir Lucious Left Foot; you’re only left pressing replay. For an hour, André isn’t so sorely missed. —Brian Josephs
03. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)
Member of: Wu-Tang Clan
Despite being Raekwon’s solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is often cited among the premiere records of the greater Wu-Tang Clan catalog. (Makes sense: RZA produced it and nearly every member of the Shaolin Nation appears.) Regardless of its connections to the Clan, the LP deserves heaps of credit not only for being entertaining and intelligent, but for pushing serious genre boundaries. At the most basic level, Raekwon’s rhymes are among their most efficient to date, towing the delicate line between pure intricacy and outright fury. Take a song like “Incarcerated Scarfaces”, which features this gem of a lyric: “Wit Mac-10’s and broke friends/ Ya got guns, got guns too/ What up son/ You wanna battle for cash and see who’s Sun Tzu?”. Drawing from his own life experiences in Staten Island, the album further cemented the so-called Mafioso movement, adding a new sheen of validity and grittiness to the burgeoning sub-genre.
Raekwon’s sword cuts much deeper, though. The album is framed brilliantly as a kind of “movie”, with Raekwon as the star, Ghostface Killah as the “guest-star”, and RZA as the “director”, creating a framework that borders on concept without relying on hokey gimmicks. This style would lay the groundwork for similarly theatrical albums like Reasonable Doubt and Life After Death. What’s more, the album’s use of nicknames and alter egos created a sense of disassociation within the genre, allowing for occasionally abstract creative approaches further down the road. Of course, Rae would revisit these tropes with 2009’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, but for those of us who grew up post-Gen X, the original Cuban serves not only as a road map but a shining example of modern rap’s true prowess and emotional connectivity. –Chris Coplan
02. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006)
Member of: Wu-Tang Clan
Fishscale‘s intro references Supreme Clientele‘s pitch-shifted shit-talker Clyde Smith, encouraging a comparison between albums. Clientele‘s bugged-out abstraction is hard to top, but once the hookless, 60-bar crime narrative “Shakey Dog”, possibly Ghost’s finest moment on wax, kicks off Fishscale, it’s clear quitting weed and tightening lyrics bolstered his unusual oeuvre. Breaking down a botched jux with unparalleled attention to detail, Ghost truly spits a movie, building the scene with tangents about septuagenarian murderers-for-hire and distracting plantain dishes. It’s the sign of a complex songwriter, as is the harrowing “Whip You with a Strap”: Ostensibly pro-corporal punishment, when told from his own perspective as a beaten child, the first-person angle muddies the subject with gruesome details.
Ghost complicates his reputation as a preeminent coke rapper with “Big Girl”, as he subtly flips from drug-dealing lothario to father figure, yet his Raekwon team-up “Kilo” may well be the best ode to slinging blow ever written. Fishscale shines with raw anthems like “Be Easy” and “The Champ”, but branches into shorter conceptual tracks like the slice-of-life “Barbershop” and the surreal “Underwater”. The latter was produced by MF Doom, who joins beatmaker luminaries like Dilla and Pete Rock in a nod to Ghost’s underground fanbase; simultaneously, the album had pop aspirations, as the Ne-Yo collaboration “Back Like That” hit #61 on the Billboard top 100 to become Ghost’s highest-charting single to date. It’s a multi-layered composite record only Ghostface could pull off, and even among the Wu-Tang catalog, it stands out as a classic. —Jack Spencer