As far as the classic years in hip hop history go, there is one year which immediately stands out: 1996. It’s a year that is often seen as being the golden era for the genre, providing some of the most loved and critically acclaimed albums to date.
Hip hop dominated the mainstream with Fugees, The Score, being nominated for the album of the year award at the Grammys and the west coast taking control of the charts. Yet, it was also a year that saw attention moving to areas outside the east and west coasts of America with OutKast’s sophomore album, ATLiens, reaching number two on the billboard charts.
Ninety-six is often overshadowed by the brewing rivalry between the east and west coasts of America through the figures of 2Pac and Biggie and the tragic death of 2Pac but the music from this period is some of the greatest hip hop has seen. In this list, I have tried to attempt the impossible – to pick five must listen albums that turn 25 this year.
5. IT WAS WRITTEN // NAS
When fans and critics believe an artist’s debut is one of the greatest albums ever made, the pressure on their sophomore is even greater. Yet, Nas turned this pressure into a diamond, creating an album that is a fitting predecessor to Illmatic.
It Was Written is an album that moves away from the underground roots of Illmatic. In 1996, Nas was already becoming a renowned name in hip hop, cemented in large part by his second effort. There is a leaning toward a more commercially friendly sound on this project from Nas’ rendition of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, his collaboration with Fugee’s member Lauryn Hill and experimentation with Mafioso rap.
The mafioso theme of the album runs into the name that Nas coined throughout its release, Nas Escobar. Nas joins the likes of Kool G Rap, Jay Z and Raekwon in making a mafioso album that stems from the gangsta rap sub-genre that fuelled the late 80s and early 90s rap scene.
However, motifs from his debut are still noticeable on this project. The violent cycle of street life in Queensbridge is explored on I Gave You Power where Nas raps from the perspective of a gun, showcasing some of the greatest storytelling in hip hop.
While It Was Written is often overshadowed by Illmatic, this album provides an evolution to Nas’ sound that allows it stand outside the shadow of its predecessor. No list of hip hop albums from 1996 would be complete without It Was Written.
4. ALL EYEZ ON ME // 2PAC
1996 was one of the greatest years for hip hop but also one of the most tragic. Both sides of this can be seen through one artist, 2Pac. He released two iconic albums: All Eyez On Me and Don Killuminati, under the moniker Makiaveli, but also passed away in a drive-by shooting as a result of a gang related feud. After much thought, All Eyez On Me was the album I chose for this list.
Having just been released from prison, the album’s title is fitting. In an interview with MTV, 2Pac spoke about the title saying “everybody’s looking to see what I’mma do now so All Eyez On Me.”
The album is a celebration: a celebration of what 2Pac had achieved which made his death seven months later even more tragic. Features from the likes of Method Man, Snoop Dogg and Redman all serve to boost Pac to some of his best rapping performances.
All Eyez On Me was 2Pac’s last ever release while he was alive and commercially it became the biggest album of 1996. It showed his increasing popularity by selling 566,000 first week sales and being the first double sided album to be sold mass commercially.
This year is synonymous with 2Pac. He not only dominated the charts but also music fans hearts with his tragic death in September 1996. All Eyez On Me provides a fitting closure to 2Pac’s discography which unapologetically celebrates his thug lifestyle.
3. THE SCORE // FUGEES
If you fancy a challenge, try to count the number of genres that Fugees experiment with on their sophomore classic, The Score. Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras come together to create an album that can’t just be pinned down to one sound. It is a melting pot of music that influenced the group with hip hop, reggae, R&B and soul all finding their place.
The group reignite iconic songs such as The Delfonics’ ‘Ready or Not’ and Charles Fox’s ‘Killing Me Softly’. Lauryn Hill’s vocal performances are mesmerising and Wyclef Jean’s reggae vocals on the rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ do the original justice.
While each member is rapping at a high level on this album, Lauryn Hill is on another level. Her lyrics are packed with metaphors and similes and her delivery is relentless. Her opening verse on ‘How Many Mics’ is a perfect example of this.
The Score was so well received it became the second ever hip-hop album to be nominated for the Grammy album of the year award. They also won the best rap album at the Grammys, furthering their commercial success.
2. REASONABLE DOUBT // JAY Z
Jay Z in 1996 was not the billionaire hip hop legend we know today. He was relatively underground appearing on a Big Daddy Kane track and starting up his own record company, Roc-A-Fella Records.
Hov’s debut album Reasonable Doubt is a mafioso rap album incorporating the themes of drug dealing and hustling with a class that only Jay Z can pull off. He explores his life before rap as a drug dealer in Brooklyn. The success from which he boasts about in ‘Dead Presidents 2’ where he raps one of Hov’s most famous lines, ‘and I’m still spending money from ’88.’
There are some classic features on this album including, Biggie, Mary J. Blige and Foxy Brown and with production from the likes of DJ Premier and Clark Kent the foundation is set for Jay Z to create a truly classic album. On Reasonable Doubt, he does just that.
This album also infamously kickstarted the feud between Jay Z and Nas when Nas didn’t turn up to a recording for Dead Presidents 2.
Reasonable Doubt has a rawness and hunger to it that no other Jay Z album has. My favourite Jay Z album and one of the best albums from 1996 – it simply had to be on this list.
1. ATLIENS // OUTKAST
The previous albums on this list have been products of the east and west coasts of America. Yet my favourite album to turn 25 this year is from the south. An area that was beginning to earn well deserved recognition through groups such as OutKast and UGK. When OutKast member Andre 3000 infamously said ‘the south got something to say’ after the group were booed at the 1995 source awards, their sophomore album became highly anticipated.
ATLiens is an album that can’t be replicated. Turning away from their funk infused debut, this album’s soundscape is otherworldly. The futuristic spaced out and stripped-down production influenced by George Clinton lends for a euphoric listening experience. The album title itself links to the spaced-out production. OutKast see themselves as outsiders to the east/west style of music. They are from Atlanta and their sound is uniquely theirs.
The chemistry between Big Boi and Andre 3000 on this album is unmatched. The duo trade verses with a greater maturity than on their previous project. They explore the purpose of their music with Andre rapping “take this music dead serious while others entertain / I see they’re making their paper so I guess I can’t complain / or can I?”.
ATLiens is not only futuristic in its production but with its lyrics. The duo are looking to the future with what their music can achieve and the impact hip hop can have on people. It’s a classic album that transcends the boundaries of rap.
Each album in this list is integral to the sound of hip hop from 1996. From the mafioso rap of Reasonable Doubt and It Was Written to the thug life of All Eyez On Me to expanding the boundaries of what hip hop is with The Score and ATLiens. These five albums are must listens for the casual listener and the die-hard hip hop fan.
Words by Tom Manning
Support the Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.