A few months ago I saw something very similar to this going around Facebook, where people would post their top twelve albums that have stuck with them through the years. I posted my own list, but I wanted to go deeper and longer (pause) just for fun for my 25th birthday. So here are 25 albums that have helped make me who I am today at age 25, in no strict order:
25. The Beatles – Yellow Submarine Songtrack (1967)
“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” –Eleanor Rigby
It has to start with The Beatles. With my dad being the biggest Beatles fan I know, I was basically raised to believe they were the greatest thing to ever happen to music. I’ve heard pretty much every single song of theirs over the years, although I never until recently heard their songs in the right order on their albums. For this reason, it wouldn’t feel right to put Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, The White Album, or Abbey Road on here, but the Yellow Submarine Songtrack is one that I played a lot as a kid. It has selections from both Sgt. Pepper and Revolver, and songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” were my first introduction to hip-hop-like wordplay.
24. Linkin Park – Meteora (2003)
“What do I have but negativity? ‘Cause I can’t justify the way everyone is looking at me” –Somewhere I Belong
Linkin Park is probably my first favourite band that I discovered on my own. I really liked their first two albums, but Meteora is the first album for which I’ve ever made a point of getting to the store early on the release date to pick up the deluxe edition. This also started my transition from rock to rap music, as Linkin Park was a good blend of both. While nostalgia is the main factor behind this album being here, the songs do stand the test of time as Linkin Park channels common emotions and covers issues people commonly deal with throughout the album.
23. Eminem & Various Artists – 8 Mile Soundtrack (2002)
“Since the Moon separated from Earth/ That’s why they say I’m the greatest that ever orchestrated a verse” –R.A.K.I.M.
The 8 Mile Soundtrack was my first real, in-depth introduction to hip-hop. Back when it came out, I was into typical top 40 radio music and was a big fan of Eminem, D-12 and 50 Cent. While they were featured on this soundtrack prominently, this also served as my introduction to legends like Rakim, Gang Starr, Nas and Jay-Z. This soundtrack got me into the competitive aspect of hip-hop, as most of the songs featured rappers flexing their lyrical muscles, mainly rapping about rapping. Songs like “Lose Yourself” and “Rabbit Run” especially stuck with me as I taught myself how to write rap songs.
22. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die (1994)
“So you wanna be hardcore/ witchya’ hat to the back, talking ’bout the gats in your raps/ but I can’t feel that hardcore…” –Machine Gun Funk
One of the most influential rappers of all time, of course Biggie had to be on here. As a kid I was drawn in by the pure creativity, along with the marketability of this album. It was my first time hearing a rapper play more than one character on a song and rap out a telephone conversation. There was also the hype and star power behind Biggie, and his singles “Juicy” and “Big Poppa“. As I got older though, this album taught me a bit about society. Biggie really showed what it feels like to be a worthless piece of sh** that chooses to sell drugs over gaining real life skills; while I generally avoided the street life and couldn’t really relate, this album taught me about a side of life I was blessed enough to avoid.
21. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)
“We get together like a choir/ to acquire what we desire” –Can’t Knock The Hustle
While Biggie showed the heartache of being a drug dealer, Jay-Z took the emotion out and made it purely about capitalism. This album taught me to put my financial wellbeing as a top priority, and while I haven’t experienced some of the dark places Jay touches on, I learned about the lows people reach while trying to increase or maintain their wealth. Jay also had some slick wordplay and rap flows that influenced my love for hip-hop in general.
20. Kanye West – The College Dropout (2004)
“Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/ or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams” –Last Call
When I first got into hip-hop as a kid, every rapper I listened to had to be “gangsta” or “hardcore”, like Biggie, 2Pac, DMX and 50 Cent. Kanye West first came out in my freshman year of high school, and my attitude slowly began to change. He rapped about a more practical lifestyle, achieving success through hard work, and showed that you can be cool wearing polo shirts instead of basketball jerseys (that’s all my teenage mind was concerned with back then). This album also opened my mind to more conscious rappers like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common, although they were more about having fun with their guest appearances.
19. Gorillaz – Demon Days (2005)
“Take me back to fallen town, where someone is still alive…” –O Green World
The Gorillaz were all fun and games to me when I was a kid, but they taught me about being humble and not seeking out the spotlight (Damon Albarn and his crew remain hidden behind these four fictional characters). Rather than a typical pop artist seeking a top 40 hit, the Gorillaz were all about talented, niche-market musicians creating a new identity in order to make pop, without necessarily having their name at the forefront. This album in particular helped me embrace the idea that good music is dying on the radio, as the songs here take us on a journey as the fictional band searches for signs of life. This was also one of my first times hearing MF DOOM rap, whom we’ll cover later in the countdown.
18. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)
“From the venue to the avenue/ we truly only got respect for a few…” –Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New
It took me a while before I could truly appreciate this album, as I only got into The Roots in the mid 2000’s, but now it’s become one of my favourites. While The Roots mostly jam out with Black Thought spitting braggadocios raps, it’s simply the title Things Fall Apart that stuck with me. You can apply it to hip-hop, how rappers careers fall apart while Black Thought and The Roots are still jamming out today. I like to apply it to life in general, and how you have to fight through things falling apart around you in order to strive like The Roots or most successful people have. This could even be applied to The Roots themselves, as the roster fell apart with Dice Raw, Malik B, Scott Storch and Rahzel all leaving the band after this album (although most of them still collaborate today). When things fall apart, only a few people have the fight in them to come out on top.
17. Nas – Illmatic (1994)
“Rappers, I monkey-flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’/ musician, inflictin’ composition of pain” –N.Y. State of Mind
Often referred to as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, the perfect rap album, the holy grail of hip-hop, Illmatic had to be on the countdown. While the stories don’t really relate to my life, the sheer creativity in these songs is what influenced me. Nas’ way with words and rhymes on this album are at a skill level that still surpass most rappers today, and his influence can still be heard in modern music. This album should be mandatory studying for anyone who wants to attempt to make good rap music, as it was for me. The tales of street life and lessons of hard work are similar to other albums on this countdown, but the art form behind the way it was presented is what grabbed me.
16. Big Pun – Capital Punishment (1998)
“Sometimes rhyming I blow my own mind like Nirvana/ comma, and go the whole nine like Madonna/ go try to find another rhymer with my kind of grammar” –The Dream Shatterer
Taking what Illmatic did for me a step further, Capital Punishment appealed to me mainly for the level of skill in the rhymes and wordplay. There are certain rappers that cannot be messed with, who even if they were to lose a battle, would still have a cemented reputation of greatness. Even though Big Pun didn’t live that long, this album put him into that elite class of emcee (in my opinion). Ever since I first heard this album, I’ve always considered the way Pun rapped on here to be the epitome of lyricism; a level that could be matched but never topped. This is one of my go-to albums when I need to get pumped up and ready to kill the competition.
15. MF DOOM – Operation: Doomsday (1999)
“Me: sci-fly, whole style stuck up/ used to talk to myself, I told him shut the f*** up/ buckle up, ’cause it’s about to be rough…” –The Finest
Going back to The Roots’ Things Fall Apart theme, for me, this album represents experiencing failure and having to restart and rebuild after things have already “fallen apart”. While my personal failures haven’t been as severe as DOOM’s, that’s also what this album represents for him too; losing his brother and DJ in a car accident, which meant losing his rap group, and then losing his record deal, only to disappear from the music scene and not return until he had completely reinvented himself. He used to be a fun-loving rapper named Zev Love X, but when he returned as MF DOOM he had a completely different persona, which made him the underground legend he is today. Sometimes you have to lose a lot before you become successful.
14. Royce Da 5’9″ – Death Is Certain (2004)
“My name is Nickel. I’m from the suburbs. It’s only a 10-minute drive to come and get you” –Something’s Wrong With Him
Royce Da 5’9″ has been one of my favourite rappers because of his flow, attitude, and sense of humour, but this album in particular helped me get through some angry times when I ran into obstacles and had to make changes. This album saw Royce coming off some of his own obstacles and fighting back. It took him a few years to regain that sense of humour in his music, but this album had him at his darkest hour as he set the course to bounce back. This album is about accepting the facts of your situation and taking the necessary steps to move forward.
13. System of a Down – Toxicity (2001)
“Life is a waterfall, we’re one in the river and one again after the fall” –Aerials
I don’t always listen to heavy metal, but when I do, it’s usually System of a Down. This is one of the few metal bands I’ve heard every album by, and I think they were in their prime with Toxicity, as Serj Tankian still had that gruffness in his voice that made him sound like he was about to go to war for Sparta. Toxicity had Serj in his prime as a vocalist, Daron Malakian’s ridiculous guitar riffs, and a synergy between the band members that made one of the coolest album intros I’ve ever heard. Serj and Daron complemented each other well as vocalists, and as lyricists they were able to touch on politics, religion, and social issues on a more global scale (as opposed to just focusing on North America). Not to mention the overall badass, aggressive sound of the album.
12. The Roots – Game Theory (2006)
“People tired of gettin’ pushed around, gettin’ gangsta now/ discipline’s the only way to bring some kinda change around” –Take It There
To me, this album represents what The Roots do best: represent for their city, rap about real life issues, and sound good while doing it. It’s also the first full album I ever listened to by them. Game theory is a topic covered in economics classes, about strategic decision-making enabling all parties to be satisfied. The Roots took the concept and applied it to life; they made it about making disciplined decisions to improve a bad situation or maintain a good one. Black Thought’s attitude, style and views expressed in his music are also big influences on how I carry myself.
11. Lupe Fiasco – The Cool (2007)
“…or maybe she’d retire as well/ a match made in Heaven set the fires in Hell/ and I’ll be…” –The Coolest
This was one of the first (new) albums that blew me away with lyricism after I had gotten into hip-hop and studied its past. Lupe Fiasco’s been known to have powerful messages in his music, but the way he speaks through metaphors makes it fun to try and figure out what he’s actually rapping about. One of his songs on this album can be interpreted as either being about a drug dealer or a cheeseburger, depending on how you take in the slang. Not only did this album make me more aware of world issues, but it also enhanced my appreciation of the English language and poetic devices.
10. Madvillain (MF DOOM & Madlib) – Madvillainy (2004)
“Lookie here, it’s just the way the cookie tear/ prepare to be hurt and mangled like Kurt Angle, rookie year” –Great Day
To me, this album is all about not being afraid to be different, and being confident in your own greatness. DOOM and Madlib didn’t need to conform to hip-hop norms, they just confidently went with their own style and shined. Yet at the same time, they stayed humble and almost hid from the spotlight; DOOM’s famous mask being a personification of the idea that music should be about the music rather than the image, and Madlib remaining behind the boards (or using a different name on the mic) and never tagging his beats with a name-drop. A lot of my attitude and personality comes from listening to MF DOOM.
9. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure (2012)
“I’ve got memories to lose, man, I am in a rush/ don’t make me suffer this dimension straight/ when we can bend face, let space pixilate” –Works Every Time
El-P has slowly become one of my favourite people in music over these past few years, with his futuristic production and his weird way with words. This album represents some of the ways I look at today’s society; like how modern mainstream music has gone “Full Retard”, how alcohol “Works Every Time” to help forget about negative aspects of our day, and how sometimes we need greater justice than what the legal system can provide. While a lot of modern day rappers have nothing useful to say, El-P’s satirist view of things is both refreshing and addictively entertaining.
8. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)
“I’m supposed to be number one on everybody’s list, let’s see what happens when I no longer exist…” –What More Can I Say
Between the Fade To Black documentary and The Black Album, Jay-Z showed me what a successful retirement looks like. The first Jay-Z album I ever owned showed me what to strive for; that feeling of accomplishment knowing you’ve done what you wanted to do, and you could either relax and survive or continue to do what you love and grow. Between the club hits and celebratory songs, this album has a lot of gems on working hard and becoming successful. It also has some reflecting on the past, making it one of the most personal albums by arguably the best business role model in hip-hop.
7. Eminem – The Slim Shady LP (1999)
“We see them dollar signs and let the cash blind us/ money will brainwash you and leave your ass mindless/ when snakes slither in the grass spineless” –Rock Bottom
Eminem has influenced a lot of people in many ways. For me, this album influenced my sense of humour, and also showed me that you can turn your biggest stresses into works of art to help get through them emotionally. This album allowed Eminem to live his darkest, most twisted fantasies by making songs as a fictional character rather than living them in real life (which would likely result in jail time). I also gained a better understanding of poverty, as I grew up knowing the rich Eminem struggling with fame and didn’t take in songs like “Rock Bottom” and “If I Had” until much later.
6. Kanye West – Late Registration (2005)
“Asked the reverend was the strip clubs cool/ if my tips helped send a pretty girl through school/ that’s all I want…” –We Major
This album could take most of the credit for me being voted “Most Changed Since Grade 9” in my high school year book. I used to listen to G-Unit and be about “gangsta” rap, but Late Registration (among other albums) changed my whole perspective and style. Kanye West made me go from wearing NBA replica jerseys to polo or button-up shirts to school, and helped me mature a bit earlier than most teenagers. Songs like “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and “Crack Music” taught me about real world issues, “Roses” and “Hey Mama” taught me about family values, and there were plenty of other life lessons throughout the album. I feel like having Kanye West blow up during my high school years made me wiser than those who grew up in the Drake/Rick Ross/Future/2 Chainz era.
5. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
“I put mad pressure on phony wack rhymes that get hurt/ sh**’s played like zodiac signs on sweatshirts” –Liquid Swords
Liquid Swords is one of the first Wu-Tang albums I heard, and it completely changed the way I listen to music. I already mentioned that I used to just buy into all the marketing and listen to whatever was “gangsta”, but GZA made me start paying attention to the lyricism and actual talent behind an emcee. This was one of the first albums that blew me away with the lyricsm (but it was ten years old by the time I heard it), with innovative wordplay on songs like “Labels“. GZA also put me on to the idea that greater knowledge leads to being a greater rapper, which helped motivate me to do well in school. This is part of the Wu-Tang culture, which I’ll touch on later in the countdown.
4. MF DOOM – MM..FOOD (2004)
“Read the signs: No Feeding The Baboons/ seeing as how they got your back bleeding from the stab wounds” –Deep Fried Frenz
I’ve already written a lot about DOOM earlier in the countdown. This album was my first time ever hearing him rap, and right from the first song I could no longer look at mainstream hip-hop the same way. The album concept had each song somehow related to a type of food, whether it was in the title, lyrics or sample. The first song had the huge build-up with the sample from old 1980’s Spiderman cartoons, and then MF DOOM started rapping with his talking style of delivery, which made the lyrics stand on their own. Mainstream hip-hop died once I heard the bars “To all rappers: shut up with your shutting up/ or keep a shirt on, at least a button up/ yuck, is they rhymers or stripping males?/ out of work jerks since they shut down Chippendales”. Not only did DOOM’s style and attitude move me, but some of his life lessons on songs like “Deep Fried Frenz” have stuck with me. He may have a weird way with words, but that’s what makes his art brilliant.
3. Jedi Mind Tricks – Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell (2006)
“I’m eager to learn, but I’m holding my breath/ and everyday alive is just another closer to death” –Black Winter Day
I first heard this album when it came out during high school, but I didn’t really appreciate it until years later. For me, this album represents growing up and maturing. It has the highs of that “f*** you, it’s my time” attitude, the lows of wanting to give up after experiencing failure, and just shows a greater sense of awareness of the world around it. Aside from the braggadocios, personal and emotional tracks, the songs here made me more aware of war (with R.A. The Rugged Man’s true story often regarded as the greatest verse of the decade), sweatshops & slave labour, propaganda and economics. Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell has Vinnie Paz at his finest, and is Stoupe’s masterpiece as a producer.
2. The Roots – Phrenology (2002)
“The hustle is a puzzle, each piece is a fraction/ and every word that’s understood is a transaction” –Sacrifice
Never ones to flaunt their riches without letting us know how hard they worked to get them, The Roots are some great role models to look up to. While Phrenology may be known to most for its poppy singles like “The Seed 2.0” and “Break You Off“, it’s gems like “Sacrifice” and “Water” that make this album really meaningful. Black Thought proves to be the most well-rounded emcee, as he brags and jams out just as much as he gets deep and thought-provoking on this album. Aside from his technical proficiency, his style, attitude, personality, and outlook on life make his music something I can play anywhere, anytime. He’s arguably my favourite emcee, and one of the most influential on my life.
1. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
“This technique attacks the immune system/ disguised like a lie, paralyzing the victim” –Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’
Wu-Tang is more than just music, it’s a culture within itself. Mastering your craft, whatever it may be, like how a tenth-degree black-belt masters their martial art; protecting your family and yourself, both physically and financially; learning from your mistakes and making smart, tactical decisions; finding your Witty, Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game; these are just some of the principles Wu-Tang taught me in order to ultimately be a better person. While this album doesn’t encompass the entire culture, it’s the spark that set off the flame that would burn for over two decades and dominate hip-hop. This album taught me to see the best in every situation, as the Wu-Tang Clan made this masterpiece in RZA’s basement, before any of them had money. They may have been violent and vulgar, but Wu-Tang really was for the children, as I got a lot more life lessons from them over the years than Puff Daddy, who simply made “hits” (ODB Grammy’s reference).