Part 2 of “The Evolution of Hip Hop” series will focus on 3 albums all called the greatest of their time and each widely hailed as the greatest album of all time, respectively.
A few years down the road from part (I) this edition will follow Nas’ Illmatic (1994), Kanye West’s The College Dropout (2004), and J Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014).
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
The debut album by Nas, Illmatic is frequently referred to as the greatest rap album of all time. At the time no debut album had taken the hip hop community by storm like this before, receiving the highest praise from dozens of fronts in the music world. However, the 5 singles failed to achieve chart success and initial sales were very low. Eventually Illmatic achieved platinum status and is now regarded as the revival of the East Coast rap scene (NWA, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, etc.). Wu-Tang Clan brought the eyes back on New York and then Nas brought back the crown with Illmatic.
Illmatic set the bar for New York hip hop and lyricism everywhere.
Kanye West – The College Dropout (2004)
Fast forward 10 years and Nas’ rival Jay Z’s protege/little brother/partner/mortal enemy Kanye West is ready to release his debut album, The College Dropout. A stellar album that I assume is what people refer to when they say “The old Kanye”. With the “Chipmunk soul” production style, where he sped up and altered the pitch of R&B singers, gospel choirs, and all of Kanye’s very own production work, this album was a step in a totally different direction than anything hip hop was doing at the time. The only thing coming close was whatever deliberately weird music Outkast was making at the time. Features came from Jay Z, Mos Def, Jamie Foxx, Syleena Johnson, Ludacris, Talib Kwali, Common, and a few others. Now certified triple platinum, The College Dropout would be the beginning of Kanye’s reign.
Kanye still had some conscious rap like Nas, but more gospel and jazz infused samples with some radio play worthy singles.
J Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
J Cole’s third and by far, in my opinion, best album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive was a flawless project that focused on the ideas of where he’s come from his childhood. Using the money he made from his fame, he bought back the home he grew up in that his mom fought so hard to keep, then recorded a fantastic album inside the house. The album was released with no promotion, no marketing, no singles, just a three week notice, then it went double platinum (with no features) in under two years. Signed by Jay Z, with a song on his last album titled “Let Nas Down”, and with a strange history between he and Kanye, it’s only fitting that these 3 albums fell in line.
J Cole’s Magnum Opus…
These 3 artists have strange ties to one another and all have some relationship with Jay Z. If you haven’t heard one of these albums, the 3 songs from each don’t do any of them justice. Showing the changes in conscious rap across a 20 year span of time, these 3 albums give great insight of the evolution of hip hop. 2 debut albums and J Cole truly finding his voice, all will go down in history as excellent examples of great rap music.
For the sake of this series I invented a system to give albums a rating that will be used to compare the 3 projects (Good songs on the album, divided by tracks on the project excluding interludes/skits, multiplied by songs I can’t live without). I used it on parts of the 2017 Hip Hop Album Ranking and think it actually kind of works well.
Illmatic – 9/10/6=5.4
College Dropout – 16/16/6=6
Forest Hills Drive – 13/13/10=10
My batshit crazy system of analysis agrees with my personal opinions. Once again, as hip hop evolved it got better too. Not to say that Illmatic isn’t phenomenal, as time goes on, as artists can study other artists, their craft can become better. I certainly don’t think I can name a more perfect hip hop project than 2014 Forest Hills Drive but every true fan of rap music should have heard each of these albums at one point or another.
Thanks for reading and let me know which album you think is best.
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