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Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 2000s: T.I., Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi & More

The 2000s saw the ascension of now-household names while holding space for established rappers to enter new phases. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, revisit 10 albums fron the 2000s that captured the genre's diversity and influence.

GRAMMYs/Jul 19, 2023 - 04:52 pm

Rap albums of the 1990s showcased diverse sides of the hip-hop landscape, broadening both the sound of the underground and hits of the mainstream. By the 2000s, reigning hip-hop artists were either reinventing themselves —  among them, Jay-Z, Nas, Snoop Dogg and Lil' Kim — or giving way for up-and-comers. 

The 2000s hip-hop held space for rappers entering different phases of their careers, from luxuriant to conscious. Most 2000s hip-hop soundtracked a rowdy decade-long party, where Timbaland became a sought-after beatmaker for his experimental sounds, and the Neptunes’ synthetic production made them dominate radio play. Rappers continued to retell their rags to riches stories, while celebrating the fruits of their labor. 

A creative streak permeated throughout the decade, creating new styles and geographical hotspots. While the East, West Coast and Midwest held down their rap enclaves, hip-hop’s core largely went below the Mason-Dixon line, giving cities such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston and Miami well-deserved respect in the game. 

In the 2000s, different sectors of entertainment wanted to cash in on hip-hop's ever-growing traction. Hood films of the ‘90s evolved into heists (Paid In Full), biopics (8 Mile) coming-of-age stories (ATL) and dance flicks (Honey), many which had rappers taking their first acting roles. These new faces of Hollywood were also even tapped to star in TV advertisements for the likes of Nike and Sprite, the latter which has championed hip-hop for over 35 years. At the same time, a diamond-encrusted bling redefined hip-hop style, and several artists helmed self-established streetwear brands. 

Most importantly, the music kept spinning, turning hip-hop into a free-for-all playground that grew more inclusive as the years rolled on. While hip-hop’s golden age had undoubtedly ended, the 2000s saw the ascension of now-household names whose music is now being reworked by Gen-Z rap and pop artists. Here are 10 albums that captured hip-hop’s growing diversity and influence in music in the first decade of the new millennium. 

Nelly - Country Grammar (2000)

The East vs. West Coast cataclysm took over in the late 1990s, but the Midwest waved its flag high in the Y2K era. St. Louis-raised Nelly unapologetically recited nursery rhymes and dished out heartland twang on his seminal debut Country Grammar. Bringing local culture to the masses, Country Grammar catapulted Nelly into megastardom, as the album topped the Billboard 200 in its first week.

Cornell Haynes Jr., Nelly would forgo his baseball dreams when"Country Grammar (Hot S—)" ran hip-hop airwaves. A consistent run of hits followed: party-starter "E.I.," the hoedown-worthy "Ride Wit Me," and the "The Jeffersons"-dedicated "Batter Up," which featured Nelly’s side project, St. Lunatics. The rapper’s commercial appeal made him an instant favorite for kids and club-goers, both who raved over Nelly’s sing-a-long music. Nelly gave the world a glimpse of his "derrty" character, solidifying him as an early 2000s rap mainstay. 

Missy Elliott - Miss E... So Addictive (2001)

If Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly and Da Real World were the one-two punch of the late ‘90s, those releases were also a prelude to her most globally successful album. Elliott  sent her progressive sound out of the stratosphere on her third album Miss E… So Addictive. Hypnotic, authentic and brilliantly innovative , So Addictive imagined spaced-out hip-hop and R&B scenes that fans could revel in. 

Timbaland-produced lead single "Get Ur Freak On"—which heavily used elements of non-traditional Punjabi music Bhangra — burned up dancefloors worldwide and won a GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance in 2002. The near-misandrist bedroom banger "One Minute Man" shamed weak male lovers while Elliott and Ludacris asserted their sexual dominance. 

So Addictive dropped just months before the death of Aaliyah, Elliott’s longtime friend and collaborator. Elliott later dedicated the downtempo ballad "Take Away" to the late 22-year-old. Elliott’s most experimental LP yet made her a powerhouse that never ran out of off-the-wall ideas.

Eminem - The Eminem Show (2002)

Already a superstar due to 1999’s The Slim Shady LP and 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show gave the Detroit native the title of the highest-selling rapper of all-time. The album would even earn two GRAMMY Awards, one for Best Music Video ("Without Me") and another for Best Rap Album.

For his fourth studio album, the Real Slim Shady went rogue. Hip-hop needed "a little controversy," EM rapped on lead single "Without Me," offering the middle finger to sensationalized celebrities and political figures. Zany and comedic in nature, "Without Me" spoofed impressionable suburban kids and Electronic musician Moby. 

Yet The Eminem Show offered more than just shock value. On "White America," Eminem acknowledged that his commercial appeal was partially due to being a white rapper. He continued confronting his problematic childhood, troubled relationship with his mother and faults on the cathartic "Cleanin’ Out My Closet." 

"Sing for the Moment,"  which interpolated 1973 Aerosmith classic "Dream On," garnered more radio play while harkening back to Eminem's impoverished upbringing and rocky start to fatherhood. As Eminem was just six years into his career, The Eminem Show was a lightning rod in a continued streak as a polarizing artist.

Clipse - Lord Willin’ (2003)

Missy Elliott wasn’t the only Virgina-bred rapper who reigned during the 2000s. Virginia Beach rhymesayers Pusha T and No Malice, known jointly as Clipse, rode high on their major label debut Lord Willin’. An early act on the Neptunes’ record label Star Trak Entertainment, Lord Willin’ predestined the legacy of the twin brothers.

Bars of fury flew throughout the regional statement album, ensuring that lunchroom tables would never be the same when lead single "Grindin’" released. The song’s table-beating and locker-slamming nature recalled high school cypher nostalgia, while Clipse boasted of their hustle mentality. 

Pharrell Williams (one half of the Neptunes) acted as Clipse’s hype man with adlibs and memorable hooks throughout the album. Faith Evans belted on "Ma, I Don’t Love Her," where Clipse pleaded for their significant other to avoid messy dating gossip. Club banger and MTV favorite "When’s the Last Time" still brought the wordplay, as Pusha T cleverly referenced a legendary 1980s crooner ("What did it, the whip appeal or my baby face?").

Both in the zone, Clipse made their mixtape rap flair a crossover smash. The brothers, who would shut down ComplexCon for the LP’s 20th anniversary, continue to salute their groundbreaking debut during rare performances, the next being IQ/BBQ in Queens.

50 Cent - Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2003)

Queens titan and Eminem protégé 50 Cent brought hip-hop to its knees with his 2003 debut, daring critics to test his gangsta. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, just three years after 50 Cent recovered from being shot nine times. Over 19 tracks, the G-Unit frontman retold his story of victim to villain. 

The former Jam Master Jay protégé kicks down the door on "What Up Gangsta," and denies being anyone’s Superman ("They say I walk around like I got a S on my chest / Nah, that's a semi-auto and a vest on my chest."). He keeps his enemies close and depicts near-death experiences on "Many Men (Wish Death)." The rapper showed his affectionate side on "21 Questions," where he probes his partner’s loyalty. He flosses his extravagant lifestyle on the steel pan-tinged "P.I.M.P.," which was customary to blinged-out artists of the 2000s. 

The album’s biggest single, "In Da Club," made a resurgence when 50 Cent was a surprise guest during the Dr. Dre-curated Super Bowl LVI halftime show in 2022. 50’s brief spot during the performance paid homage to his "In Da Club" music video, where his bold entry into hip-hop paved the way for his East Coast rap successors to reclaim the streets.

Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)

Atlanta rap forerunners Outkast brought quintessential funk to their fourth studio album. Released as a double album — where Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx boomed and André 3000 opened up his innermost romanticism on The Love Below  — each record highlighted the duo’s individualism. 

Big Boi gave a masterclass in rhyme and flow on Speakerboxxx, exuding a warmth that made songs like "The Way You Move," "Bowtie" and "The Rooster" playlist selections for summertime gatherings for years to come. The nightmarish "Bust" featuring fellow ATL emcee Killer Mike references a mid-’70s era George Clinton. The electronic production on "Tomb of the Boom" is the perfect freestyle backdrop for Boi to trade verses with  rap trio Konkrete, fellow Dungeon Family member Big Gipp and Ludacris.

3000 demonstrated his multi-hyphenate chops, acting as singer/-songwriter, rapper, producer and maestro on The Love Below. He falls into lustful temptation on the Prince-inspired "Spread" before finding his close-to-perfect match ("Prototype"). An Outkast reunion takes place on the soulful "Roses," where 3000 wails about a snobby "Caroline." Karaoke staple "Hey Ya!" invented whimsical and now-classic lines like "What’s cooler than being cool? (Ice Cold)" and "shake it like a Polaroid picture." 

Speakerboxxx / The Love Below preceded Outkast’s 2006 musical film Idlewild, which reinterpreted select songs, and the album scored three GRAMMY Awards in 2004, including the coveted Album of the Year. By 2004, Outkast approached their hiatus, which has continued albeit a brief music festival run in 2016.

T.I. - King (2006)

Titled after the rapper’s fifth child, King made a statement that T.I. had the "top spot," as declared on DJ Toomp-produced lead single "What You Know" (which also won a GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Performance in 2007). The album was a perfect cross-promotion with T.I.’s acting debut in the comedy-drama ATL, which arrived in theaters just days after the release of King.

T.I. recruited top hip-hop producers from all coasts to bring their best to his fourth studio album. The effort paid off, as Alabama’s Kevin "Khao" Cates reimagined Crystal Waters’ 1991 deep house anthem "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" on "Why You Wanna." Bronx-born superproducer Swizz Beatz brought out the sirens on the marching band sounds of "Get It." The piano-laden "Goodlife" featuring Common was courtesy of the Neptunes, with Pharrell Williams providing the song’s hook. 

Whilst calling out his competition, the self-appointed King of the South came to the game with nothing left to prove.

Kanye West - Graduation (2007)

In 2007, Kanye West and 50 Cent went head-to-head over first week sales. The two were well into their respective careers, but the friendly rivalry went public, including a competitive Rolling Stone cover shot. 

But West would win the war, amassing 957,000 in first-week sales and earning the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for his third studio album Graduation. Exploring more sonic ground, Graduation marked an end to West’s alt-rap heyday.

The Chicago-raised artist aired out his frustrations on "Stronger," which expertly sampled the 2001 Daft Punk single "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." The synthy and anthemic "I Wonder" finds West reaching his hip-hop dreams. The rapper gives a shout out to "Summertime Chi" and flaunts his riches on the head-knocking "Good Life." Barely escaping the clutches of a vengeful ex, "Flashing Lights" shows a more vulnerable West, who admits his relationship flaws. 

West’s final Graduation Bear era would earn him two GRAMMY Awards in 2008, in the categories of Best Rap Song ("Good Life") and Best Rap Album.

Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III (2008)

New Orleans lyricist Lil Wayne conquered mainstream hip-hop with his sixth studio album, Tha Carter III. In lieu of guest appearances and frequent mixtapes, Wayne challenged Jay-Z’s "best rapper alive" status while boasting features with some of R&B’s elite players. In fact, Wayne nabbed Jay-Z for  the chipmunk soul of "Mr. Carter," titled after the pair’s shared last name (no relation). 

The daring move paid off, as TC3 won GRAMMY Awards for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Solo Performance ("A Milli") and Best Rap Song ("Lollipop"). Hip-hop’s top hook singer of the mid-2000s, T-Pain, contributed his auto tuned vocals to the frenzied "Got Money." Bobby V’s absurd police car sounds coated "Mrs. Officer," where Weezy shows his affections for women in uniform. 

His agile rhyme schemes run rampant throughout the album, notably "Phone Home," where he proclaims "we are not the same, I am a martian." TC3 proved that Wayne was surely from another planet, and the rapper continues to demonstrate that he’s inimitable.

Kid Cudi -  Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009)

Kanye West walked so Kid Cudi could run. Both hedonistic and conscious, the Cleveland rhymer marched to his own drum on Man on the Moon: The End of Day. Split into five acts, MOTM hazily conceptualized Cudi’s path to inner peace. 

Production that ranged from psychedelia to synth-pop also made the rapper distinct from his peers in the blog era of rap. Arguably the most memorable track, the diamond-certified "Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)" played as an electronic rap midnight jam session with collaborators MGMT and Ratatat. 

"Soundtrack 2 My Life" detailed Cudi’s mental health woes and the death of his father. The minimal ambience of "Day ‘N’ Night" saw Cudi taking shape as "The Lonely Stoner," who uses medication to escape depression. Despite Cudi’s bleak outlook on life, he gave space to his "wildest dreams" on "Enter Galactic (Love Connection, Pt. 1)," which later titled his 2022 Emmy-nominated animated Netflix special. 

MOTM gave way to a forward-thinking side of hip-hop, where rappers could ambitiously experiment with a multitude of genres. Cudi's fans include Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper and A$AP Rocky, each of whom followed Cudi's example in distinct ways.

Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1990s: Snoop Dogg, Digable Planets, Jay-Z & More

A black-and-white photo of pioneering rap group Run-DMC
Run-DMC

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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'Run-DMC' At 40: The Debut Album That Paved The Way For Hip-Hop's Future

Forty years ago, Run-DMC released their groundbreaking self-titled album, which would undeniably change the course of hip-hop. Here's how three guys from Queens, New York, defined what it meant to be "old school" with a record that remains influential.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:49 pm

"You don't know that people are going to 40 years later call you up and say, ‘Can you talk about this record from 40 years ago?’"

That was Cory Robbins, former president of Profile Records, reaction to speaking to Grammy.com about one of the first albums his then-fledgling label released. Run-DMC’s self-titled debut made its way into the world four decades ago this week on March 27, 1984 and established the group, in Robbins’ words, "the Beatles of hip-hop." 

Rarely in music, or anything else, is there a clear demarcation between old and new. Styles change gradually, and artistic movements usually get contextualized, and often even named, after they’ve already passed from the scene. But Run-DMC the album, and the singles that led up to it, were a definitive breaking point. Rap before it instantly, and eternally, became “old school.” And three guys from Hollis, Queens — Joseph "Run" Simmons, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels — helped turn a burgeoning genre on its head.

What exactly was different about Run-DMC? Some of the answers can be glimpsed by a look at the record’s opening song. "Hard Times" is a cover of a Kurtis Blow track from his 1980 debut album. The connection makes sense. Kurtis and Run’s older brother Russell Simmons met in college, and Russell quickly became the rapper’s manager. That led to Run working as Kurtis’ DJ. Larry Smith, who produced Run-DMC, even played on Kurtis’ original version of the song.

But despite those tie-ins, the two takes on "Hard Times" are night and day. Kurtis Blow’s is exactly what rap music was in its earliest recorded form: a full band playing something familiar (in this case, a James Brown-esque groove, bridge and percussion breakdown inclusive.)

What Run-DMC does with it is entirely different. The song is stripped down to its bare essence. There’s a drum machine, a sole repeated keyboard stab, vocals, and… well, that’s about it. No solos, no guitar, no band at all. Run and DMC are trading off lines in an aggressive near-shout. It’s simple and ruthlessly effective, a throwback to the then-fading culture of live park jams. But it was so starkly different from other rap recordings of the time, which were pretty much all in the style of Blow’s record, that it felt new and vital.

"Production-wise, Sugar Hill [the record label that released many key early rap singles] built themselves on the model of Motown, which is to say, they had their own production studios and they had a house band and they recorded on the premises," explains Bill Adler, who handled PR for Run-DMC and other key rap acts at the time.

"They made magnificent records, but that’s not how rap was performed in parks," he continues. "It’s not how it was performed live by the kids who were actually making the music."

Run-DMC’s musical aesthetic was, in some ways, a lucky accident. Larry Smith, the musician who produced the album, had worked with a band previously. In fact, the reason two of the songs on the album bear the subtitle "Krush Groove" is because the drum patterns are taken from his band Orange Krush’s song “Action.”

Read more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1970s: Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang & More

But by the time sessions for Run-DMC came around, the money had run out and, despite his desire to have the music done by a full band, Smith was forced to go without them and rely on a drum machine. 

His artistic partner on the production side was Russell Simmons. Simmons, who has been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault dating back decades, was back in 1983-4 the person providing the creative vision to match Smith’s musical knowledge.

Orange Krush’s drummer Trevor Gale remembered the dynamic like this (as quoted in Geoff Edgers’ Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever): “Larry was the guy who said, 'Play four bars, stop on the fifth bar, come back in on the fourth beat of the fifth bar.' Russell was the guy that was there that said, ‘I don’t like how that feels. Make it sound like mashed potato with gravy on it.’”

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It wasn’t just the music that set Run-DMC apart from its predecessors. Their look was also starkly different, and that influenced everything about the group, including the way their audience viewed them.

Most of the first generation of recorded rappers were, Bill Adler remembers, influenced visually by either Michael Jackson or George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Run-DMC was different.

"Their fashion sense was very street oriented," Adler explains. "And that was something that emanated from Jam Master Jay. Jason just always had a ton of style. He got a lot of his sartorial style from his older brother, Marvin Thompson. Jay looked up to his older brother and kind of dressed the way that Marvin did, including the Stetson hat. 

"When Run and D told Russ, Jason is going to be our deejay, Russell got one look at Jay and said, ‘Okay, from now on, you guys are going to dress like him.’"

Run, DMC, and Jay looked like their audience. That not only set them apart from the costumed likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it also cemented the group’s relationship with their listeners. 

"When you saw Run-DMC, you didn’t see celebrity. You saw yourself," DMC said in the group’s recent docuseries

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Another thing that set Run-DMC (the album) and Run-DMC (the group) apart from what came before was the fact that they released a cohesive rap album. Nine songs that all belonged together, not just a collection of already-released singles and some novelties. Rappers had released albums prior to Run-DMC, but that’s exactly what they were: hits and some other stuff — sung love ballads or rock and roll covers, or other experiments rightfully near-forgotten.

"There were a few [rap] albums [at the time], but they were pretty crappy. They were usually just a bunch of singles thrown together," Cory Robbins recalls.

Not this album. It set a template that lasted for years: Some social commentary, some bragging, a song or two to show off the DJ. A balance of records aimed at the radio and at the hard-core fans. You can still see traces of Run-DMC in pretty much every rap album released today.

Listeners and critics reacted. The album got a four-star review in Rolling Stone with “the music…that backs these tracks is surprisingly varied, for all its bare bones” and an A minus from Robert Christgau who claimed “It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever.” Just nine months after its release, Run-DMC was certified gold, the first rap LP ever to earn that honor. "Rock Box" also single-handedly invented rap-rock, thanks to Eddie Martinez’s loud guitars. 

There is another major way in which the record was revolutionary. The video for "Rock Box" was the first rap video to ever get into regular rotation on MTV and, the first true rap video ever played on the channel at all, period. Run-DMC’s rise to MTV fame represented a significant moment in breaking racial barriers in mainstream music broadcasting. 

"There’s no overstating the importance of that video," Adler tells me. vIt broke through the color line at MTV and opened the door to a cataclysmic change." 

"Everybody watched MTV forty years ago," Robbins agrees. "It was a phenomenal thing nationwide. Even if we got three or four plays a week of ‘Rock Box’ on MTV, that did move the needle."

All of this: the new musical style, the relatable image, the MTV pathbreaking, and the attendant critical love and huge sales (well over 10 times what their label head was expecting when he commissioned the album from a reluctant Russell Simmons — "I hoping it would sell thirty or forty thousand," Robbins says now): all of it contributed to making Run-DMC what it is: a game-changer.

"It was the first serious rap album," Robbins tells me. And while you could well accuse him of bias — the group making an album at all was his idea in the first place — he’s absolutely right. 

Run-DMC changed everything. It split the rap world into old school and new school, and things would never be the same.

Perhaps the record’s only flaw is one that wouldn’t be discovered for years. As we’re about to get off the phone, Robbins tells me about a mistake on the cover, one he didn’t notice until the record was printed and it was too late. 

There was something (Robbins doesn’t quite recall what) between Run and DMC in the cover photo. The art director didn’t like it and proceeded to airbrush it out. But he missed something. On the vinyl, if you look between the letters "M" and "C,", you can see DMC’s disembodied left hand, floating ghost-like in mid-air. While it was an oversight, it’s hard not to see this as a sign, a sort of premonition that the album itself would hang over all of hip-hop, with an influence that might be hard to see at first, but that never goes away. 

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Baby Keem GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Baby Keem (left) at the 2022 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Baby Keem Celebrate "Family Ties" During Best Rap Performance Win In 2022

Revisit the moment budding rapper Baby Keem won his first-ever gramophone for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards for his Kendrick Lamar collab "Family Ties."

GRAMMYs/Feb 23, 2024 - 05:50 pm

For Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar, The Melodic Blue was a family affair. The two cousins collaborated on three tracks from Keem's 2021 debut LP, "Range Brothers," "Vent," and "Family Ties." And in 2022, the latter helped the pair celebrate a GRAMMY victory.

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, turn the clock back to the night Baby Keem accepted Best Rap Performance for "Family Ties," marking the first GRAMMY win of his career.

"Wow, nothing could prepare me for this moment," Baby Keem said at the start of his speech.

He began listing praise for his "supporting system," including his family and "the women that raised me and shaped me to become the man I am."

Before heading off the stage, he acknowledged his team, who "helped shape everything we have going on behind the scenes," including Lamar. "Thank you everybody. This is a dream."

Baby Keem received four nominations in total at the 2022 GRAMMYs. He was also up for Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, and Album Of The Year as a featured artist on Kanye West's Donda.

Press play on the video above to watch Baby Keem's complete acceptance speech for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

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Eminem
Eminem

Photo: Sal Idriss/Redferns/GettyImages

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4 Reasons Why Eminem's 'The Slim Shady LP' Is One Of The Most Influential Rap Records

Eminem’s major label debut, 'The Slim Shady LP,' turns 25 on Feb. 23. The album left an indelible imprint on hip-hop, and introduced the man who would go on to be the biggest-selling artist of any genre in the ensuing decade.

GRAMMYs/Feb 23, 2024 - 03:44 pm

A quarter century has passed since the mainstream music world was first introduced to a bottle-blonde enfant terrible virtuoso who grabbed everyone’s attention and wouldn’t let go

But enough about Christina Aguilera.

Just kidding. Another artist also exploded into stardom in 1999 — one who would become a big enough pop star, despite not singing a note, that he would soon be feuding with Xtina. Eminem’s biting major label debut The Slim Shady LP turns 25 on Feb. 23. While it was Eminem's second release, the album was the first taste most rap fans got of the man who would go on to be the biggest-selling artist in any genre during the ensuing decade. It also left an indelible imprint on hip-hop.

The Slim Shady LP is a record of a rapper who was white (still a comparative novelty back in 1999), working class and thus seemingly from a different universe than many mainstream rappers in the "shiny suit era." And where many of those contemporaries were braggadocious, Eminem was the loser in his rhymes more often than he was the winner. In fact, he talked so much about his real-life childhood bully on the album that the bully ended up suing him.  

It was also a record that played with truth and identity in ways that would become much more difficult once Em became world famous. Did he mean the outrageous things he was saying? Where were the knowing winks, and where were they absent? The guessing games that the album forced listeners to play were thrilling — and made all the more intense by his use of three personas (Marshall Mathers the person; Eminem the battle rapper; and Slim Shady the unhinged alter ego) that bled into each other.

And, of course, there was the rhyming. Eminem created a dizzying array of complicated compound rhymes and assonances, even finding time to rhyme "orange" — twice. (If you’re playing at home, he paired "foreign tools" with "orange juice" and "ignoring skill" with "orange bill.")

While the above are reason enough to revisit this classic album, pinpointing The Slim Shady LP's influence is a more complicated task. Other records from that year — releases from Jay-Z, Nas, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, and even the Ruff Ryders compilation Ryde or Die Vol. 1 — have a more direct throughline to the state of mainstream rap music today. So much of SSLP, on the other hand, is tied into Eminem’s particular personality and position. This makes Slim Shady inimitable; there aren’t many mainstream rappers complaining about their precarious minimum wage job, as Em does on "If I Had." (By the time of his next LP, Em had gone triple-platinum and couldn’t complain about that again himself.)

But there are aspects of SSLP that went on to have a major impact. Here are a few of the most important ones.

It Made Space For Different Narratives In Hip-Hop

Before Kanye rapped about working at The Gap, Eminem rapped about working at a burger joint. The Slim Shady LP opened up space for different narratives in mainstream rap music. 

The Slim Shady LP didn't feature typical rags-to-riches stories, tales of living the high life or stories from the street. Instead, there were bizarre trailer-park narratives (in fact, Eminem was living in a trailer months after the record was released), admissions of suicidal ideation ("That’s why I write songs where I die at the end," he explained on "Cum on Everybody"), memories of a neglectful mother, and even a disturbing story-song about dumping the corpse of his baby’s mother, rapped to his actual child (who cameos on the song). 

Marshall Mathers’ life experience was specific, of course, but every rapper has a story of their own. The fact that this one found such a wide audience demonstrated that audiences would accept tales with unique perspectives. Soon enough, popular rappers would be everything from middle-class college dropouts to theater kids and teen drama TV stars.

The Album Explored The Double-Edged Sword Of The White Rapper

Even as late in the game as 1999, being a white rapper was still a comparative novelty. There’s a reason that Em felt compelled to diss pretty much every white rapper he could think of on "Just Don’t Give a F—," and threatened to rip out Vanilla Ice’s dreadlocks on "Role Model": he didn’t want to be thought of like those guys. 

"People don't have a problem with white rappers now because Eminem ended up being the greatest artist," Kanye West said in 2015. You can take the "greatest artist" designation however you like, but it’s very true that Eminem’s success meant a categorical change in the status of white rappers in the mainstream.

This turned out to be a mixed blessing. While the genre has not, as some feared, turned into a mostly-white phenomenon, America’s racial disparities are often played out in the way white rappers are treated. Sales aside, they have more room to maneuver artistically — playing with different genres while insulting rap a la Post Malone,  or even changing styles completely like Machine Gun Kelly — to commercial approbation. Black artists who attempt similar moves are frequently met with skepticism or disinterest (see André 3000’s New Blue Sun rollout, which was largely spent explaining why the album features no rapping). 

Sales are worth speaking about, too. As Eminem has repeatedly said in song, no small amount of his popularity comes from his race — from the fact that white audiences could finally buy music from a rapper who looked like them. This was, as he has also bemusedly noted, the exact opposite of how his whiteness worked for him before his fame, when it was a barrier to being taken seriously as a rapper. 

For better, worse, or somewhere in between, the sheer volume of white rappers who are currently in the mainstream is largely traceable to the world-beating success of The Slim Shady LP.

It Was Headed Towards An Odd Future

SSLP laid groundwork for the next generation of unconventional rappers, including Tyler, the Creator.

Tyler is a huge Eminem fan. He’s said that listening to Em’s SSLP follow-up The Marshall Mathers LP was "how I learned to rap." And he’s noted that Em’s Relapse was "one of the greatest albums to me." 

"I just wanted to rap like Eminem on my first two albums," he once told GQ. More than flow, the idea of shocking people, being alternately angry and vulnerable, and playing with audience reaction is reflected heavily on Tyler’s first two albums, Goblin and Wolf. That is the template The Slim Shady LP set up. While Tyler may have graduated out of that world and moved on to more mature things, it was following Em’s template that first gained him wide notice. 

Eminem Brought Heat To Cold Detroit

The only guest artist to spit a verse on The Slim Shady LP is Royce da 5’9". This set the template for the next few years of Eminem’s career: Detroit, and especially his pre-fame crew from that city, would be his focus. There was his duo with Royce, Bad Meets Evil, whose pre-SSLP single of "Nuttin’ to Do"/"Scary Movies" would get renewed attention once those same two rappers had a duet, smartly titled "Bad Meets Evil," appear on a triple-platinum album. And of course there was the group D12, five Detroit rappers including his best friend Proof, with whom Eminem would release a whole album at the height of his fame.

This was not the only mainstream rap attention Detroit received in the late 1990s. For one thing, legendary producer James "J Dilla" Yancey, was a native of the city. But Eminem’s explosion helped make way for rappers in the city, even ones he didn’t know personally, to get attention. 

The after-effects of the Eminem tsunami can still be seen. Just look at the rise of so-called "scam rap" over the past few years. Or the success of artists like Babyface Ray, Kash Doll, 42 Dugg, and Veeze. They may owe little to Em artistically, but they admit that he’s done great things for the city — even if they may wish he was a little less reclusive these days

Is Eminem's "Stan" Based On A True Story? 10 Facts You Didn't Know About The GRAMMY-Winning Rapper

Notorious B.I.G. Biggie Smalls in 1994
Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn, 1994

Photo: Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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How 1994 Changed The Game For Hip-Hop

With debuts from major artists including Biggie and Outkast, to the apex of boom bap, the dominance of multi-producer albums, and the arrival of the South as an epicenter of hip-hop, 1994 was one of the most important years in the culture's history.

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2024 - 05:22 pm

While significant attention was devoted to the celebration of hip-hop in 2023 — an acknowledgement of what is widely acknowledged as its 50th anniversary — another important anniversary in hip-hop is happening this year as well. Specifically, it’s been 30 years since 1994, when a new generation entered the music industry and set the genre on a course that in many ways continues until today.

There are many ways to look at 1994: lists of great albums (here’s a top 50 to get you started); a look back at what fans and tastemakers were actually listening to at the time; the best overlooked obscurities. But the best way to really understand why a single 365 three decades ago had such an impact is to narrow our focus to look at the important debut albums released that year. 

An artist’s or group’s debut is their entry into the wider musical conversation, their first full statement about who they are and where in the landscape they see themselves. The debuts released in 1994 — which include the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nas' Illmatic and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik from Outkast — were notable not only in their own right, but because of the insight they give us into wider trends in rap.

Read on for some of the ways that 1994's debut records demonstrated what was happening in rap at the time, and showed us the way forward. 

Hip-Hop Became More Than Just An East & West Coast Thing

The debut albums that moved rap music in 1994 were geographically varied, which was important for a music scene that was still, from a national perspective, largely tied to the media centers at the coasts. Yes, there were New York artists (Biggie and Nas most notably, as well as O.C., Jeru the Damaja, the Beatnuts, and Keith Murray). The West Coast G-funk domination, which began in late 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, continued with Dre’s step brother Warren G

But the huge number of important debuts from other places around the country in 1994 showed that rap music had developed mature scenes in multiple cities — scenes that fans from around the country were starting to pay significant attention to.

To begin with, there was Houston. The Geto Boys were arguably the first artists from the city to gain national attention (and controversy) several years prior. By 1994, the city’s scene had expanded enough to allow a variety of notable debuts, of wildly different styles, to make their way into the marketplace.

Read more: A Guide To Texas Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Events

The Rap-A-Lot label that first brought the Geto Boys to the world’s attention branched out with Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious and the Odd Squad’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody!! Both had bluesy, soulful sounds that were quickly becoming the label’s trademark — in no small part due to their main producers, N.O. Joe and Mike Dean. In addition, an entirely separate style centered around the slowed-down mixes of DJ Screw began to expand outside of the South Side with the debut release by Screwed Up Click member E.S.G.

There were also notable debut albums by artists and groups from Cleveland (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Creepin on ah Come Up), Oakland (Saafir and Casual), and of course Atlanta — more about that last one later.

1994 Saw The Pinnacle Of Boom-Bap

Popularized by KRS-One’s 1993 album Return of the Boom Bap, the term "boom bap" started as an onomatopoeic way of referring to the sound of a standard rap drum pattern — the "boom" of a kick drum on the downbeat, followed by the "bap" of a snare on the backbeat. 

The style that would grow to be associated with that name (though it was not much-used at the time) was at its apex in 1994. A handful of primarily East Coast producers and groups were beginning a new sonic conversation, using innovations like filtered bass lines while competing to see who could flip the now standard sample sources in ever-more creative ways. 

Most of the producers at the height of this style — DJ Premier, Buckwild, RZA, Large Professor, Pete Rock and the Beatnuts, to name a few — worked on notable debuts that year. Premier produced all of Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East. Buckwild helmed nearly the entirety of O.C.’s debut Word…Life. RZA was responsible for Method Man’s Tical. The Beatnuts took care of their own full-length Street Level. Easy Mo Bee and Premier both played a part in Biggie’s Ready to Die. And then there was Illmatic, which featured a veritable who’s who of production elites: Premier, L.E.S., Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip.

The work the producers did on these records was some of the best of their respective careers. Even now, putting on tracks like O.C.’s "Time’s Up" (Buckwild), Jeru’s "Come Clean" (Premier), Meth’s "Bring the Pain" (RZA), Biggie’s "The What" (Easy Mo Bee), or Nas’ "The World Is Yours" (Pete Rock) will get heads nodding.

Major Releases Balanced Street Sounds & Commercial Appeal

"Rap is not pop/If you call it that, then stop," spit Q-Tip on 1991’s "Check the Rhime." Two years later, De La Soul were adamant that "It might blow up, but it won’t go pop." In 1994, the division between rap and pop — under attack at least since Biz Markie made something for the radio back in the ‘80s — began to collapse entirely thanks to the team of the Notorious B.I.G. and his label head and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs. 

Biggie was the hardcore rhymer who wanted to impress his peers while spitting about "Party & Bulls—." Puff was the businessman who wanted his artist to sell millions and be on the radio. The result of their yin-and-yang was Ready to Die, an album that perfectly balanced these ambitions. 

This template — hardcore songs like "Machine Gun Funk" for the die-hards, sing-a-longs like "Juicy" for the newly curious — is one that Big’s good friend Jay-Z would employ while climbing to his current iconic status. 

Solo Stars Broke Out Of Crews

One major thing that happened in 1994 is that new artists were created not out of whole cloth, but out of existing rap crews. Warren G exploded into stardom with his debut Regulate… G Funk Era. He came out of the Death Row Records axis — he was Dre’s stepbrother, and had been in a group with a pre-fame Snoop Dogg. Across the country, Method Man sprang out of the Wu-Tang collective and within a year had his own hit single with "I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By." 

Anyone who listened to the Odd Squad’s album could tell that there was a group member bound for solo success: Devin the Dude. Keith Murray popped out of the Def Squad. Casual came out of the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics. 

Read more: A Guide To Bay Area Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From Northern California

This would be the model for years to come: Create a group of artists and attempt, one by one, to break them out as stars. You could see it in Roc-a-fella, Ruff Ryders, and countless other crews towards the end of the ‘90s and the beginning of the new millennium.

Multi-Producer Albums Began To Dominate

Illmatic was not the first rap album to feature multiple prominent producers. However, it quickly became the most influential. The album’s near-universal critical acclaim — it earned a perfect five-mic score in The Source — meant that its strategy of gathering all of the top production talent together for one album would quickly become the standard. 

Within less than a decade, the production credits on major rap albums would begin to look nearly identical: names like the Neptunes, Timbaland, Premier, Kanye West, and the Trackmasters would pop up on album after album. By the time Jay-Z said he’d get you "bling like the Neptunes sound," it became de rigueur to have a Neptunes beat on your album, and to fill out the rest of the tracklist with other big names (and perhaps a few lesser-known ones to save money).

The South Got Something To Say

If there’s one city that can safely be said to be the center of rap music for the past decade or so, it’s Atlanta. While the ATL has had rappers of note since Shy-D and Raheem the Dream, it was a group that debuted in 1994 that really set the stage for the city’s takeover.

Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was the work of two young, ambitious teenagers, along with the production collective Organized Noize. The group’s first video was directed by none other than Puffy. Biggie fell so in love with the city that he toyed with moving there

Outkast's debut album won Best New Artist and Best New Rap of the Year at the 1995 Source Awards, though the duo of André 3000 and Big Boi walked on stage to accept their award to a chorus of boos. The disrespect only pushed André to affirm the South's place on the rap map, famously telling the audience, "The South got something to say." 

Read more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

Outkast’s success meant that they kept on making innovative albums for several more years, as did other members of their Dungeon Family crew. This brought energy and attention to the city, as did the success of Jermain Dupri’s So So Def label. Then came the "snap" movement of the 2000s, and of course trap music, which had its roots in aughts-era Atlanta artists like T.I. and producers like Shawty Redd and DJ Toomp. 

But in the 2010s a new artist would make Atlanta explode, and he traced his lineage straight back to the Dungeon. Future is the first cousin of Organized Noize member Rico Wade, and was part of the so-called "second generation" of the Dungeon Family back when he went by "Meathead." His world-beating success over the past decade-plus has been a cornerstone in Atlanta’s rise to the top of the rap world. Young Thug, who has cited Future as an influence, has sparked a veritable ecosystem of sound-alikes and proteges, some of whom have themselves gone on to be major artists. 

Atlanta’s reign at the top of the rap world, some theorize, may finally be coming to an end, at least in part because of police pressure. But the city has had a decade-plus run as the de facto capital of rap, and that’s thanks in no small part to Outkast. 

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