The Best Year of Each Decade In Hip-Hop

“Hip-Hop Started Out in the Heart”

A fruitful genre that has provided the minority communities with a voice for decades, hip-hop has had a fantastic creative run dating back to the late 70’s.

Throughout time, we have gotten a plethora of years known for their volume of classic records; every era has its quiet, weak ends, but the highs more than make up for them. This post aims to look at the peak year from each decade for hip-hop – dating back to the 80’s – and explain why the year was such an important moment for the movement.

1988: The Year of Progress

At this point in time, hip-hop was making strong efforts to impose itself as a force both culturally and creatively. 1988 was home to some of hip-hop’s most pivotal, influential, and iconic records, pushing the genre beyond its conventional styles of flow, subject matter, and production.

Most Important Releases

  • It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – The most influential hip-hop album of all-time. This is the one that challenged the higher power, encouraging hip-hop artists to reach higher and use their voice to address issues. Political and conscious hip-hop’s most grounded root.
  • Follow the Leader – Eric B. & Rakim’s efforts to stand out were just as groundbreaking as that of their debut, Paid In Full. This album was a major contributor to a few key hip-hop trends, including improved rhyme schemes and shorter album length.
  • Straight Outta Compton – The west coast’s most important record, not only introducing its key “gangsta” style but also bringing attention to its scene. N.W.A. shook the world with this, birthing a wave of hardcore delivery that brought hip-hop from vibe to violence.
  • Straight Out the Jungle – The Native Tongues collective’s first effort is also one of its most important. This album encouraged positive lyricism and love for Afrocentric nature, highlighting these ideas through unique and flavorful sampling. This album was also among the first to truly merge the genre with house music, birthing later waves of alternative hip-hop.
  • The Great Adventures of Slick Rick – In what is perhaps the 80’s most charming album, Slick Rick truly defined what it meant to tell stories in hip-hop. Every song throws the listener into an alternate world, filled with the Ruler’s colorful and vivid lyricism.

Other Peak Years: 1989, 1987, 1986

1996: The Year of Presence

’96 was arguably hip-hop’s most involved year; nearly every big name dropped one of the most game-changing albums of their career, leaving it littered with classics still talked about to this day. This year can be credited with truly stabilizing the south as an essential region, as well as branching hip-hop out to more atmospheric, production-based styles.

Most Important Releases

  • All Eyez on Me – The west coast’s biggest commercial breakout up to this point. This defined Pac’s artistry, with a large chunk of content that allowed him to touch upon all areas. While his last few efforts were far more outspoken, this album took a lax, prideful approach reminiscent of The Chronic.
  • Reasonable Doubt – JAY-Z’s debut album took the mafioso rap trend to another level, creating one of the most iconic careers of all-time. The balance between grit and lavishness here is something few could replicate, and it is looked back upon as classic track on classic track.
  • ATLiens – The south was perceived as miniscule and one-dimensional up to this point, but Outkast’s sophomore proved it had a creative mind like no other. The spacey production and mesmerizing flows combined to craft something hip-hop had never seen prior.
  • Ridin’ Dirty – While ATLiens was making efforts to display versatility, UGK’s third album perfected the classic dirty south sound; so well, in fact, we didn’t see many records of its lane hit this caliber after. Rather, it pioneered a wave of aggression from the southern scene, later influencing trap and similar styles.
  • Endtroducing…. – A true gem of this year, ultimately solidified as an instrumental hip-hop necessity. This album led waves of trip-hop and beat tape releases, prompting producers to think more about the settings they create as opposed to simple rhythms. To this day, it is considered a 90’s titan.

Other Peak Years: 1998, 1995, 1994

2000: The Year of Change

By this point, hip-hop was experiencing a major artistic shift that would come to define the genre. Traditional boom bap beats were becoming less prevalent, and many artists were coming into their own as established acts with new room to experiment. Aside from this, the year provided us with some standouts from new faces.

Most Important Releases

  • The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem’s third album is widely considered an all-time classic, and is a record breaker as far as commercial success goes in the genre. The album brought horrorcore to the forefront, taking its violent and disturbing themes and lacing them with intelligent commentary on the world.
  • Stankonia – Outkast had brought the southern sound to a limit with Aquemini, so it was only natural that they dive left with the follow-up. Stankonia is a melting pot of unorthodox flows, erratic production, and surprisingly catchy melodies. Outkast leaned toward pop for this one, and they couldn’t have done it any better.
  • Supreme Clientele – At this point, all of the Wu-Tang Clan had released their own solo efforts, solidifying themselves with varying amounts of potential. However, Ghostface Killah’s sophomore album was considered one of the highest peaks the group had hit in quite some time. His charisma and confidence is something that went on to influence many – particularly the underground – and Clientele‘s sound still lives on today.
  • Like Water for Chocolate – This is where Common really hit a mark as a solidified conscious rapper. His insight is appreciated here, dropping gems over some of J Dilla’s finest beats. The two were a perfect match, and this album’s layered excellence has been looked upon as a huge landmark for conscious rap afterwards.
  • The Unseen – Madlib’s low-key release under the alter-ego duo Quasimoto has been reviewed in retrospect as an underground staple. The cartoon-like, adventurous samples and Lord Quas’ comedic character set a precedent for humorous styles in rapping, and its almost collage-like sound puts it among the most uniquely produced records.

Other Peak Years: 2005, 2006, 2004

2016: The Year of Involvement

This year is already viewed as one of the best in music history, and with good reason. This time was hard to define; you had heavy mystery surrounding some of the best artists (think Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered.), and a relentless commercial dominance from others (i.e. Views). While everything was celebrated in the moment, the sheer amount of volume put out is still being absorbed and given proper status right now.

Most Important Releases

  • The Life of Pablo – This is one of Kanye West’s most divisive releases, but there is no denying the sheer amount of hype and excitement it created with its odd rollout. Unfinished products and a plethora of snippets had fans anticipating what seemed to be such an intriguing album, and it was indeed. A true open canvas of color.
  • Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper had already grasped fame with his two celebrated mixtapes 10 Day and Acid Rap; Coloring Book, however, was his true transition to mainstream appreciation. It was remarkable to see an independent artist acknowledge his artistic maturity – while simultaneously expressing his religious beliefs – and its accolades only represent that.
  • Blank Face LP Oxymoron was already considered a positive for ScHoolboy Q’s career; after all, it net Top Dawg its first #1 Billboard placement. Blank Face LP can be argued as Q’s most genuine, though. It pays homage to the classic west coast sound perfectly, with a cinematic touch that is only amplified by the rapper’s exciting delivery.
  • We Got It From Here… – The Native Tongues collective was known for having a slight return to game this year, with long-awaited releases from De La Soul and Common. However, looking at A Tribe Called Quest’s first effort since their split nearly twenty years prior, an earthquake struck the hip-hop culture. This record is considered on par with their classic run, and was an amazing send-off to the late Phife Dawg.
  • Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown’s fourth album is widely considered his magnum opus, grasping an immediate cult following and never-ending praise among hip-hop heads. This is seen as one of the most successful executions of experimental hip-hop, with Danny’s jarring mic presence complementing the stressful production in all sorts of haunting ways.

Other Peak Years: 2015, 2018, 2011

The Culture’s Cemented...

After considering these things, it’s apparent that hip-hop has truly become one of the most excellent and high-profile genres. Its culture is insanely involved, with so many standout moments in only five decades. The fact it is at its peak in popularity so long after is proof of its excellence, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for it in the near future.

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