Relative to its historic lifespan, hip-hop has only recently emerged into mainstream acclaim as a significant genre. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, hip-hop was almost entirely underground, a reflection of how contemporary Black art was consumed by American listeners. Hip-hop is, by definition, a product of Black history. For the last 50 years, the genre has been a living document of changing—and often unchanging—facets of Black life. As this Black History Month comes to a close, here are five hip-hop albums to celebrate hip-hop, an unstoppable force of transcendent, Black art.
“Fear of a Black Planet” (1990) by Public Enemy
Notable Line: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”
Choosing a Public Enemy album to discuss political hip-hop is no easy task. Between the rebellious group’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988) and “Fear of a Black Planet” (1990), I went with “Black Planet.” The bombastic confidence with which Chuck D delivers his now-famous bars explains how Public Enemy amassed such a widespread fan base. Notably, the final track, “Fight the Power,” has been cited as one of the greatest protest anthems of all time. The powerful chorus, repeating the title of the song, inspired protest songs of the future.
“Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star” (1998) by Black Star
Notable Line: “I find it distressin’ there’s never no in between//we either n—–s or kings, we either b—–s or queens.”
The collaboration of two quintessentially conscious, East Coast rappers jumps out of the speakers on “Black Star.” Talib Kweli and Mos Def are well-respected New York MCs, each regarded in their own right. The duo flows off each other’s energy like the two walls of a pinball machine, highlighting their respective strengths in each song. An undisputed classic, the album came during a moment of hip-hop history in which growing commercialization and fame were beginning to overshadow artistry. The duo shines a Blacklight on the changing landscape, staying true to the genre’s origins with old-school, looping beats and altered takes on legendary songs, especially “Children’s Story,” a cover of Slick Rick’s 1988 song of the same name.
“Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor” (2008) by Lupe Fiasco
Notable Line: “I think the world and everything in it//Is made up of a mix, of two things//You got your good, y’know, and your bad/You got your food, and your liquor”
In the late 2000s, hip-hop was a burgeoning force, taking over American culture with bonafide stars like 50 Cent, Ye and Jay-Z. Lupe Fiasco represented the genre much differently in his music, paying homage to the less-mainstream voices of the Black community, or as Fiasco calls them on the album, the “traveling band of misfits and outcasts” who “nod they heads from Misfits to OutKast.” “Food & Liquor” is a brilliant debut album speaking to the young, New York adolescents kicking and pushing their skateboards to escape adult problems. From racial degradation to food insecurity to lack of parental guidance, Fiasco tells his story through the narrative of a disheartened but persistent protagonist; one that doesn’t always get air time in today’s cultural terrain.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) by Kendrick Lamar
Notable Line: “Dark as the midnight hour, or bright as the mornin’ sun//Brown-skinned, but your blue eyes tell me your mama can’t run”
With “Butterfly,” Lamar connects threads from West Coast hip-hop, American Jazz and traditional African music: three scales of Black music layered into one album. Lamar has a knack for making impossibly-difficult topics consumable, but this album is in no way simple. On “Butterfly,” Lamar actively reflects on his Blackness and its presence in the world as we know it. Tackling topics such as colorism, imposter syndrome and being “cocooned” into an institution, “To Pimp a Butterfly” remains one of the most deeply introspective projects I’ve ever heard, while also targeting issues at a macro level. In the #1 spot on many critics’ album of the decade lists, almost all that can be said about “To Pimp a Butterfly” has been. If you haven’t listened to this album in full, you should.
“Eve” (2019) by Rapsody
Notable Line: “And still we persevere like all the 400 years of our own blood, Africa//Old panthers lookin’ back like who gon’ come up after us?”
“Eve” is perhaps the most unrestrained Black feminist hip-hop album ever made, with each track named for a different Black, female icon. Rapsody has cemented herself as the greatest female rapper since Lauryn Hill. From “Hatshepsut,” the first female Egyptian Pharaoh, to Nina Simone, Serena Williams and Oprah, Rapsody leaves few Black, female legends unrecognized. Having risen to community acclaim with her guest verse on “Complexion (A Zulu Lie)” on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” there is seemingly no limit to the creativity of the Brooklyn MC. Transitioning from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, there is no better modern album to celebrate intersectionality.
Ben Brodsky (he/him) (25B) is from Scottsdale, Arizona. He has explored hip-hop history since 2019, first on his blog SHEESH hip hop, and now with “Hip Hop Heroes,” a series of essays on narrative in hip-hop. When not writing about Jay-Z, you can find him writing “Brodsky in Between,” an Opinion column on political nuance, graphic designing and playing basketball.