Before we begin, I would just like to state that I'm not saying the albums listed below are the best hip-hop and rap albums of all time (though maybe a few could argue for that title), I'm just saying that for the person interested in expanding his or her hip-hop and rap horizon, or for the person who wants to hear some good hip-hop and rap, but doesn't know where to start, then these albums provide a solid foundation for the Gangster Rap genre.
There's something about Snoop Dogg that's just cool, and his debut album Doggystyle (the alleged sequel to Dr. Dre's The Chronic) exudes that coolness with it's clear P-Funk influenced sounds that so many west-coast rappers use for inspiration, if not use to sample. I like Snoop's tone of voice and flow and I think they are what make his tracks so addictive; he can rap about something so hard (like drive-by's and murder) but make it so sound so smooth and easy to listen to.
Notable Tracks: Gin and Juice, Lodi Dodi, Murder Was the Case, Who Am I (What's My Name)?, Pump Pump
Get it here: Doggystyle
Illmatic was produced on the backbone of jazz-rap producers like Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor, which provide rugged beats for Nas' highly comprehensive lyrics. What makes Illmatic one of the greatest rap albums of the 90's is Nas' supremely fluid rhymes and his ability to recall the grim reality of street life without losing hope of being able to see the lighter side of every situation. I like this album because when I first started listening to rap and hip-hop, I wasn't into those super hard and loud beats. I liked the more old-school sound. Obviously, I acquired that hard and loud taste in music seeing as my view of what constitutes "good" rap widened, which is evident based on some of the other albums listed below.
"Morgan says anybody who can't quote Illmatic is ignorant." - Dr. Reed, Criminal Minds
Notable Tracks: N.Y. State of Mind, Halftime, It Ain't Hard to Tell
Get it here: Illmatic
Ready to Die, 1994
The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready to Die is still recognized as one of the best hardcore rap albums ever recorded, which is mainly due to Mr. Small's ability to paint vivid pictures with his easy-to-understand rhymes. I like Biggie's voice and appreciate his talent for being able to transition back and forth from character to character in his stories while still making it obvious when he's narrating. What I think makes all of Biggie's music so good though, is that it's real and you can hear the honest emotion coming through his words.
Notable Tracks: Things Done Changed, Gimme The Loot, Machine Gun Funk, Warning, Ready to Die, Juicy, Everyday Struggle
Get it here: Ready to Die
All Eyez on Me, 1996
If I had to use one word to describe this album, that word would be "raw". Easily my favorite 2Pac album, All Eyez on Me is an excellent depiction of the west-coast gangster lifestyle told by an artist with a lyrical rapping skill arguably unparalleled by all hip-hop and rap artists except for The Notorious B.I.G. and Nas (notice how I said "arguably"). What I really like about several of the tracks on the double-disc set are the beats; you can definitely hear the funk coming through. There's also something about 2Pac's style that makes him rowdy, yet refined, and I admire that kind of control.
Notable Tracks: Ambitionz Az a Ridah, All About U, How Do You Want It, 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted, California Love, I Ain't Mad at Cha, Can't C Me, Shorty Wanna Be a Thug, Picture Me Rollin', All Eyez on Me
Get it here: All Eyez on Me
Bow Down, 1996
I first heard the the track "Bow Down" on Hip Hot Hits: Vol. 1 when I was 11 years old, but I couldn't really appreciate it. Then when I was 17, I remember revisiting the song and I knew I wanted to hear more of what the Westside Connection could do, so I went and bought the album. Their beats hit hard, west-coast hard, like the gang lifestyle they rap about, and the three group members, Ice Cube, Mack-10, and WC have a rapping chemistry similar to that of the Beastie Boys; you don't want to listen to just one of them because they all compliment each other throughout each track, which helps emphasize the content of their lyrics and their music as a whole.
Notable Tracks: Bow Down, Gangsta's Make the World Go Round, The Gangsta, The Killa and the Dope Dealer, King of the Hill, Hoo Bangin' (WSCG Style)
Get it here: Bow Down
Ghetto D, 1997
Before I listened to this album I thought that Master P's music was just noise, but to be honest, I had only heard about five of his songs. Then I was introduced to Ghetto D by a good friend of mine as we were driving across the country from San Diego to Ann Arbor back in 2006. We put the CD in the stereo and the first track, appropriately titled Ghetto D, began to play. I was hooked. In terms of content, it's almost entirely about street life and the drug game, which is fine with me, but I know that even a lot of hip-hop and rap listeners get sick of it. I found Ghetto D to be rather educational because at the time, I was also watching The Wire, so a lot of procedures and details being rapped about were cleared up for me.
Notable Tracks: Ghetto D, Let's Get 'Em, Weed & Money, Stop Hatin, Make 'Em Say Ugh, Gangstas Need Love, Pass Me da Green, Burbons and Lacs
Get it here: Ghetto D
What I like about 2001 are Dr. Dre's collaborations with other artists and his always-original music production. A few of the tracks on 2001 will be with us forever because of their pure musical presentation; the beats, synthesizers, strings, and vocals are simply perfect. I wouldn't expect anything less from Dr. Dre. Since the beats and melodies are what I really like most about music in general, this album takes it up a notch with the lyrics (which aren't entirely about drugs and violence) and its featured artists like protégés Snoop Dogg and Eminem, Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Xzibit.
Notable Tracks: The Watcher, Still D.R.E., Xxplosive, What's the Difference, Forgot About Dre, The Next Episode, Some L.A. Niggaz, Bang Bang
Get it here: 2001
High Society, 2000
You're probably asking yourself one of two questions, "Who are the Kottonmouth Kings?" or "Why would he label a Kottonmouth Kings album as gangster rap?". The Kottonmouth Kings are an all-white, west-coast rap group based out of southern California and have been consistently producing albums since 1998, many of which I own. The reason I'm including one of their albums (which also happens to be one of my favorite KMK albums) in this gangster rap starter kit is because when they're not lobbying for the legalization of marijuana in their lyrics, they're rapping about various drug-related escapades and making fun of their own stoner habits, though their music overall is significantly less violent than most of the other albums on this list. Personally, I like the Kottonmouth Kings because of their unique sound that blends electronic and hip-hop music styles, though they have several hard rock, punk rock, and psychedelic tracks as well.
Notable Tracks: Here We Go Again, First Class, Day Dreamin' Fazes, The Joint, The Lottery, Round & Round, Elevated Sounds
Get it here: High Society
I consider OutKast to be one of the more "out-there" mainstream rap artists, mainly because their music is more diverse, but that's what I also like about it. Though this is probably not technically a gangster rap album, I'm including it with this starter kit because I think it's important for rounding out the sound and talent of the other albums on the list, and because some of these tracks are just too good for a rap and hip-hop fan not to listen too. André and Big Boi don't tend to dwell on the gang lifestyle, especially in Stankonia, but just because they don't rap about it doesn't make them any less raw or explicit. They definitely throw down in this album, and the result is some funky-good, techno hip-hop.
Notable Tracks: Gasoline Dreams, So Fresh, So Clean, Ms. Jackson, B.O.B., Xplosion, Humble Mumble
Get it here: Stankonia
Word of Mouf, 2001
Word of Mouf is probably my all-around favorite Ludacris album because of the number of songs I like on it. It's actually similar to Stankonia in a way, such that there are different sounds stylistically; Ludacris brings that kind of diversity to this album, among his others, where the beats and moods can be totally different from one track to the next. Word of Mouf is very colorful and is great to listen to really loud because of the impressive music production behind it. Ludacris rounds out his lyrics on this album with a touch of humor, whether he's rapping about beating someone up or chasing skirt, which has been an enduring characteristic with his music throughout his career.
Notable Tracks: Coming 2 America, Rollout, Area Codes, Growing Pains, Move B*tch, Saturday (Oooh Oooh!)
Get it here: Word of Mouf
The Black Album, 2003
If you're a die-hard Jay-Z fan and you're reading this, then you'd probably pick a different Jay-Z album to put in this starter kit. However, I would argue that The Black Album is one of Jay-Z's best overall due to its auditory balance. On this album, which the artist said would be his last, Jay-Z demonstrated modesty with reflection on his life and career while also gangsterly exhibiting his player lifestyle and declaring that he's one of the best rappers of all time. When you add those themes to the music laid down on The Black Album's tracks, you'll understand why I picked it; Jay-Z has a unique ability to describe why he's better than the rest of rap and hip-hop's artists without making himself sound cocky, and I believe that just makes him more of a badass. When Jay-Z recorded The Black Album he was on top, and he knew he was on top... Turn on the radio today and you'll see that he still is.
Notable Tracks: What More Can I Say, Encore, Change Clothes, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, 99 Problems, Justify My Thug, Lucifer
Get it here: The Black Album
The Carter II, 2005
The Carter II was my gateway drug for the gangster rap genre and also happened to be Lil Wayne's gateway to the top of the hip-hop and R & B charts. Lil Wayne's flows are just insane sometimes (most of which are freestyled), with the way he weaves phrases and metaphors together when explaining the intricacies of recklessly driving exotic cars, picking up drug mules from bus stations, and distributing only the finest cocaine (in both powder and rock form) throughout local neighborhoods. Then, when you add those war stories to the super ghetto, hardcore, Timberland boot stomping beats, it just puts a smile on your face. There are some softer tracks too, don't worry. Enjoy.
Notable Tracks: Tha Mobb, Money on My Mind, Fireman, Best Rapper Alive, Lock and Load, Oh No, Hustler Musik, Receipt, Shooter, I'm a Dboy
Get it here: Tha Carter II
This is another one of those albums where I really fell in love with the music before I even remembered what the lyrics were about, but you can assume they're something along the lines of thug life. A lot of what T.I. raps about can be redundant, despite his ability to say it in different ways, but what the King album lacks in content variation more than makes up for it with the music production; I like the use of samples, synthesizers, and hard-hitting bass with this album. I wasn't even a T.I. fan until I heard "What You Know", but one track was enough to make me want more. You can also definitely hear T.I.'s smoothness come across in his vocals throughout the King album (something he's known for as a rapper), which is a trait he displays when rapping about throwing a murder weapon off of a bridge, as well as attempting to court a beautiful woman. You'll like him a little more after hearing some of this album, I promise.
Notable Tracks: King Back, Front Back, What You Know, Ride Wit Me, Why You Wanna, Top Back
Get it here: King
When I think about The Game and this album in particular, what stands out to me is how vivid and real of a picture he paints with his lyrics. This is evident from the very first track on the album, "LAX Files", where The Game leaves out no details depicting day-to-day gang life in South-Central Los Angeles with a slow-paced, theatrical feel that's filled with strings and sound effects from the streets. And because The Game stays true to his west-coast gangster rap roots, the rest of LAX files is just as raw. This album also includes a solid list of collaborators like Ice Cube, Raekwon, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Common, and Ne-Yo to round out the awesomeness of some of its hardcore beats. Turn your stereos up for this one and you'll also appreciate The Game's clarity.
Notable Tracks: LAX Files, State of Emergency, Money, Cali Sunshine, Touchdown, Dope Boys, Letter to the King, Big Dreams, Camera Phone, Nice
Get it here: LAX