The Top 20 NYC Rap Albums of All Time: The Complete List

Categories: Hip-Hop

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1. Nas
Illmatic (1994)
Amongst the sins that Lupe Fiasco has committed (snubbing Tribe, releasing Lasers), one of the most unforgiveable was the subtitle of Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album. No one's going to fault ambition or self-aggrandizement, particularly not in rap music. But we already have the great American rap album and we've had it for some time now. That album, the platonic ideal of any New York (and thus, any American) rap album is Illmatic.

The stats, quickly: 10 tracks. Thirty-eight minutes of flawless rapping, without a single wack line. A dream team of producers, all of them operating at their apex, contributing to a coherent, well-defined sound. Five mics.

"I don't know how to start this shit," Nas mutters, at the beginning of "New York State of Mind." That's the last time you'll hear him hesitate. Over a divine Primo beat, he jets out, monkey-flipping other rappers, laying out his domain, baseheads near the corner, E&J brandy up in the stairway. It's cinematic, vivid, an undeniably full portrait of Queensbridge in the early '90's, details so real you could scrape them off your shoes.

Eight songs follow, each as fully realized as the last. The Gap Band provides a lugubrious nostalgia to contrast with AZ's snub-nosed nihilism. Large Professor sets the mood at "Halftime;" Nas wears Nikes and chains that excite the feds, in the streets with a ton of reefer, chilling with his fronts out, shouting out 40 side, John Jay high school, and all five boroughs.

Illmatic straddles two golden eras of Hip-Hop, marrying the late '80s and mid-90s into an undeniable fusion of pitch-perfect rapping and timeless, evocative production. It's the definitive rap classic because it defines how rich a rap album can be. It creates a world in which the specifics fill themselves in, an immaculate rendering of a one man's everyday life that encompasses an entire universe, extant within six blocks of New York City pavement. -- Jonah Bromwich

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