Jay Z, Reasonable Doubt – released on June 25th, 1996
Fans of Jay’s have often been split on whether Reasonable Doubt is his greatest work, but either way it’s pretty damn strong for a debut album, especially when you consider that he released it on his own label Roc-A-Fella Records. Clearly, he’s been entrepreneurial since he arrived on the scene. At the time of its release, West Coast gangsta rap was in its chart-topping heyday, and Sean Combs’ Bad Boy arsenal of artists was all about flash and pomp. Jay Z came in rapping with bravado and effortless cool about the raw reality of a street hustler’s life, and the occasional taste of luxury, likening the story of Reasonable Doubt to a mafia lifestyle.
Classic tracks: Dead Presidents II, Brooklyn’s Finest, 22 Two’s
Outkast, ATLiens – released on August 27th, 1996
It’s expected nowadays that rappers will experiment with other genres and vocals because it’s “in,” but ATLiens experimentation was a really risky move in 1996. It was only Outkast’s sophomore album – second efforts tend to be cursed – but they were clearly already in the mood to move away a bit from Southernplanalisticadillacmuzik, even though it was well-received. Always ones to push the limits with their sound, ATLiens boasted a futuristic theme and still found Big Boi and Andre 3000 introspective and reflecting on life in the South. Always leaving a unique mark, the album wove in unusual topics like extraterrestrials and outer space, when a lot of their rivals were bragging about guns or bottles of Dom.
Classic tracks: Elevators (Me & You), Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)
Tupac, All Eyez on Me – released on February 9th, 1996
The story of how Pac landed a deal at Death Row Records sounded like it was a shady offer he couldn’t refuse. Stuck in jail because he was too broke to pay his $1.3 million bond, Death Row co-founder and CEO Suge Knight told him he would handle it, in exchange for three albums. All Eyez on Me was the first one, a double-disc work that was reportedly done with one-take verses and 12-hour days. It showcased a combative and much more arrogant side of Tupac, a far cry from his earlier socially-conscious lyrics. He had also fully embraced being a West Coast rapper: “California Love” was the first single. Tragically, All Eyez on Me would be his last album ever. He was murdered in Las Vegas seven month later, only deepening and cementing the legend of this album.
Classic tracks: 2 of Americaz Most Wanted, I Ain’t Mad at Cha, California Love
Nas, It Was Written – released on July 2nd, 1996
Nas and Jay Z went at each other in a scathing war of lyrics around the turn of the millennium, but back in 1996 they were also fighting indirectly as new rappers. It Was Written wasn’t Nas’ debut album – that was the now-essential Illmatic two years earlier– but it was his breakout. With It Was Written, he shifted from an underground sound to one that was more palatable for mainstream, eventually adopting a Mafioso type alter ego called Nas Escobar. The album still showed off his extraordinary talent as a storyteller and cemented his status as a soon-to-be-legend.
Classic tracks: If I Ruled the World, Street Dreams, The Message
The Fugees, The Score – released on February 13th, 1996
Aside from All Eyez on Me, the albums on this list mark beginnings for the artists or came earlier enough in their careers that they overshadow the beginning. For The Fugees, however, The Score was an end. It was their second and final album together, but it was a hell of a way to go out. Though it relied on a lot of sampled tracks, the sound itself was original and unique: it was hip-hop but also mixed in sounds of reggae, doo wop, and soul, and while it felt like freestyle the lyrical content spoke thoughtfully to social issues. Somehow it just all worked. While all members went on to successful solo careers, most notably Lauryn Hill’s brief but incredible rise and fall, it’s The Score that remains their most lasting hip hop legacy.
Classic tracks: Ready or Not, Fu-Gee-La, How Many Mics, Zealots