Top 20 Best Los Angeles Rap Albums of All Time

Top 20 Best Los Angeles Rap Albums of All Time


January 28th, 2017


From the hardcore gangster rap of N.W.A. and Dr. Dre, to the g-funk of Snoop Dogg and Warren G, to the underground sounds of Quasimoto and Freestyle Fellowship, to the new school of Kendrick Lamar and Odd Future, some of the best rap albums ever made have come from Los Angeles.

This month, Red Bull Sound Select Presents: 30 Days in LA is bringing numerous concerts — including performances by Pusha T, Tory Lanez and YG — and music-centric events to venues across the city. To celebrate the city and its music, we put together a list of the 20 greatest LA rap albums of all time.

Some of the albums below have been accepted into the canon for years; others, like the more recent albums from Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples, are new additions. By this time next year, there could be different names and titles on the list. For now, these are the 20 best.


20. Rage Against the Machine, “Rage Against the Machine” (1992)

Is this a rap album? Sure. But we’ll put it at number 20 just to be safe and sound. Perhaps Rage Against the Machine — vocalist Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, drummer Brad Wilk — put out two albums after this 1992 debut, i.e., “Evil Empire” and “The Battle of Los Angeles,” that were more LA-oriented, but this one is the best one. Twenty-five years later, Morello’s guitar attacks are still weird and fresh as heck, and no mainstream band has ever been able to educate mainstream listeners on people and topics such as Leonard Peltier and COINTELPRO quite like de la Rocha, the mad boy who gripped the microphone with a fistful of steel. The political and angry music RATM specialized in, and brought to the radio and pop charts, owed a ton to LA rap legends N.W.A. (whom they were known to cover at their explosive live shows) and also LA punk bands like Bad Religion and the Germs. They were a worldly band, sonically and lyrically, but a band that probably couldn’t have started anywhere but LA. (ES)


19. Tyler, the Creator, “Goblin” (2011)

Odd Future, with Tyler, the Creator, at the helm, ushered in a new era of LA rap. The LA collective, which includes breakout artists Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean, burst onto the Internet with outrage-ready videos, but nothing was more shocking than how organized and talented and needed they were. “Goblin,” Tyler’s self-produced debut album, is one of the collective’s finest. Like his hero Eminem, Tyler adopts different characters and voices and perspectives and this contributes to the bedlam. Listen closely and it’s clear Tyler knows exactly what he’s doing, and that’s somehow the scariest thing about “Goblin.” Where previous LA rappers might film their big debut video on the city streets to make a big statement, Tyler filmed “Yonkers” in a studio with a simple backdrop so all eyes could be on him and only him and his tragic end. (ES)


18. Vince Staples, “Summertime ’06” (2015)

Vince Staples jumped off the roof. “Senorita,” the harrowing and haunting John Carpenter-esque first single for his debut Def Jam LP, “Summertime ’06,” was the antithesis of a commercially salable song. The rest of the concentrated double album wasn’t any different. Instead, it dared to be different. As far as LA rap is concerned, it has almost no sonic forefathers. With beats courtesy of No I.D. and Clams Casino, much of the percussion sounds culled from Long Beach ports, echoing from the inside of metal pipes and shipping containers, the dark melodies are a direct refutation of the sunnier g-funk of the ’90s. Lyrically, Staples moves from emptied clips to closed caskets with an incisiveness and wizened perspective afforded to few of his peers. The grim gang-banging narratives he relays here aren’t glorified. They are real and cautionary. With “Summertime ‘06,” he cemented his place as the best rapper in Long Beach. He has some asking whether he’s the best rapper working. When was the last time you heard him on your city’s rap radio station? (MB)

17. YG, “My Krazy Life” (2014)

YG’s “My Krazy Life” is the most complete gangster rap record of the 2000s. After a flurry of locally celebrated, occasionally bloated mixtapes, the Bompton (Compton) native pared his direct rhymes down to the essential. YG’s longtime collaborator, DJ Mustard, wedded the rubbery, keyboard-plinking bounce he cribbed from Shreveport, Louisiana’s “ratchet” originators with the sun-dappled synths of his g-funk forebears. The markedly concise album retains a loose autobiographical narrative, moving seamlessly from the party (“I Just Wanna Party”), to block bred altercations (“Bicken Back Being Bool”), to the finer points of household robbery (“Meet the Flockers”). Ultimately, the sub-rattling memoir is a microcosm, reminding listeners that the horrors of LA haven’t changed since N.W.A.’s first album. Somehow, the will to succeed and celebrate in spite of those terrors hasn’t either. (MB)

16. Earl Sweatshirt, “I Don’t LIke S–t, I Don’t Go Outside” (2015)

The rap world is such that it romanticizes impossibly big statements, instant “classics.” This second album by Earl Sweatshirt is not that — it’s just a darn good album. The gloomy sonics, made by Earl, swirl around Earl’s grim narratives. He’s tormented by ghosts real and imagined, so he sits alone in a dark room drowning in demons with only his pen and his pad and his microphone to navigate the void. The result is a beautiful and concise statement that allows us to peek inside the mind of one of the most compelling young rappers alive. (ES)

15. Suga Free,” Street Gospel” (1997)

The game is impregnable and direct from Pomona. His waves are as deep as Redondo Beach and humidity messes up his perm. Enter Suga Free. As the bishop of pimp rap, his influence on LA rap is indelible. For evidence, see his appearance on Schoolboy Q’s “Oxymoron,” the sample of “Why U Bulls—tin’?” on YG’s “My Krazy Life,” or listen for his music on LA radio station KDAY. Purportedly recorded in a garage in Compton, “Street Gospel” remains his most famous sermon. Produced entirely by DJ Quik, each beat is a catechism in the art of funk and groove, lush and swinging with sitar samples and live instrumentation. Suga Free tackled the tawdry with inimitable flair and flow, his silky timbre deftly oscillating between high and low registers. No rapper since has sold or told tales of the world’s oldest profession with such charisma and comedy. (MB)

14. Tha Alkoholiks, “21 & Over” (1993)

The Liks — DJ/producer E-Swift, rappers Tash and LA native J-Ro — definitely loved to have a good time. Maybe sometimes they took it too far — but they also rapped like maniacs on this debut album. In the history of West Coast party rap, it was overshadowed by Snoop’s “Doggystyle,” which was released in the same year. But “21 & Over” is an essential piece of that canon. On “Only When I’m Drunk,” J-Ro’s narrative is derailed by burps, which is both hilarious and — if you think hard about it hard enough — avant-garde. “Turn the Party Out,” another raging anthem, introduced fellow Likwit Crew members Lootpack to the world. “21 & Over'” turned 21 two years ago, so it is officially 21 and over and can now attend its own party. Not sure what that means, but the album remains a uniquely good time. (ES)


13. Cypress Hill, “Temples of Boom” (1995)

The first two Cypress Hill albums were solid. They contained B-Real, Senn Dog and Muggs’ classic singles “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Insane in the Membrane.” Unforgettable tunes. But on album number three, “Temples of Boom,” which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, Muggs took that raw, weird, stabbing sound and transformed it into a haunted, otherworldy, smooth, psychedelic rap masterpiece. It’s music for a fantastical thunderstorm night in LA that sounds more like the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” than any other rap album at the time (and perhaps since). With Muggs providing dreamy atmospheres and tripped beats, B-Real and Senn went into a nightmarish and paranoid lyrical direction that continues to haunt. And boom. (ES)

12. Ice-T, “Power” (1988)

Most young people likely know Ice-T as an actor who plays a cop on “Law & Order: SVU.” But he first broke into the world as a rapper who rapped about the inherent corruption of the very notion of cop-ness. “Power,” his second album, began with a bizarre skit that showed T having a conversation with himself, a dude who really wants to hear the first Ice-T album, and then some other guy who says he has a copy of the new album, and then the former guy accidentally kills the latter guy for the tape. It’s complicated. But what follows are 12 tracks of T in straight Machiavelli mode, delivering knowledge about how to make it in a cold world that’s a day away from frozen. It’s no “Straight Outta Compton,” but it’s a fine example of West Coast gangster rap with a smart edge. If you cruise the streets of LA listening to “Drama” — which you should go do right now — it sounds as fresh as ever. (ES)

11. Freestyle Fellowship, “Innercity Griots” (1993)

Every review of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” should’ve mentioned Freestyle Fellowship, the LA rap quartet who honed their rhymes at the Good Life Café, the now-defunct health food store that hosted the most famous rap open-mic LA has ever known. Together, Myka 9, Aceyalone, Self Jupiter and P.E.A.C.E. essentially invented LA jazz rap, their cadences purposefully imitating the trumpet and sax solos of jazz greats. Their second album, “Innercity Griots,” is perhaps the most polished iteration of this aesthetic. The production knocks with propulsive percussion, and even the sampled grooves feel as though they’re being played live in the studio. Each rapper delivers Afrocentric rhymes with equal directness and complexity, articulating the socioeconomic inequity and racial discrimination they faced while stretching and bending syllables at will and in rhythm. It’s not a concept record, but some songs are as conceptually rich as entire albums. (MB)


10. Warren G,” Regulate … G-Funk Era” (1994)

Warren G will never get enough credit for his contributions to “The Chronic.” Fortunately, he didn’t gift every synth-laden sample to his stepbrother. Instead, he made a hit (“Indo Smoke”), properly introduced the world to Nate Dogg and saved a then declining Def Jam with “Regulate … G-Funk Era.” Backed by samples from ’80s radio staples like Mtume and Michael McDonald, Warren G glided over the mellow suites of his solo debut with a smoothness that sat in stark contrast to Dre’s baritone. He also detailed life in Long Beach with a compelling duality, alternating between melodic braggadocio and rhymes that tackled the struggle of standing at the crossroads every day. G-funk wouldn’t have been the same without him or this album. It might’ve been an ellipsis. (MB)

9. The Pharcyde, “Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde” (1992)

Early-’90s LA was a troubling time, sure, but for every furrow-browed gangsta rapper, there was a West Coast spitter providing much-needed levity. The Pharcyde thrived in this context. With a lighthearted, jazz-inflected sound laced with funky grooves and Native Tongues influence, producer J-Swift provided the perfect backdrop for the comedic jabs and intricate, storytelling rhyme schemes of rappers Fatlip, SlimKid 3, Imani and Bootie Brown. This one’s all prank calls and masturbation, not lyrical gang bangs and $20 Sack Pyramids, and it resulted in one of LA’s funnest, most hilarious rap albums. It certainly hasn’t been a fairy tale for the Pharcyde: Sales were modest despite its acclaim, follow-ups were not well-received, and by 2004, the group had dropped to a duo. But in 1992, the Pharcyde somehow managed to release one of the most influential underground rap albums of all time. Even Yeezy — aka “God’s vessel” — once named it his “favorite album of all time.” (YCL)

8. Tupac, “All Eyez on Me” (1996)

This album marked the turning point in Tupac’s career, namely a move to LA and his alignment with Death Row. It was also his last album before he died, released just a few months earlier. That move ended in the worst way, but this double album’s a stone cold classic, packed with hits like “How Do U Want It” and “California Love” and some of the deepest tunes Tupac — and arguably any artist — ever made. Seriously, play “Heartz of Men” and “Life Goes On” and try not to cry. West Coast sonic architect Dr. Dre produced a few tracks, and there are features by West Coast legends Snoop and Nate Dogg. The album had a different gloss and glitz than previous Tupac releases, and it shows him making a smooth transition to that West Coast rap sound. (ES)


7. Ice Cube, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” (1990)

After Ice Cube left N.W.A., the group found itself without its primary songwriter and its most vicious rapper. They were on their way down, but Ice Cube was quickly on his way up. No one remembers “100 Miles and Runnin’,” but who hasn’t heard of Ice Cube’s debut album, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”? Produced by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team, the album saw Ice Cube in his element, capturing a sobering look at late-’80s, early-’90s South Central identity politics with an especially prescient depiction (on “Endangered Species”) of the kind of racial turmoil that led to the riots almost exactly two years after its release. Even without much marketing, the album unexpectedly garnered commercial success and critical acclaim, showing not only that Ice Cube could go it alone, but also that his outspoken demeanor mixed with his playful attitude would have the entertainment industry following him for decades afterward. (His acting premiere came just a year later with “Boyz n the Hood.”) Sure, we got some crap movies out of the deal and some pretty subpar albums too, but as he raps on “Rollin’ Wit the Lench Mob,” “It’s all about how much bacon you bring,” and “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” was just the beginning. (YCL)

6. DJ Quik, “Safe + Sound” (1995)

You don’t get a name like DJ Quik for sitting on your hands. Around the time that his third album, “Safe + Sound,” was released, Quik had his hands everywhere, including production work for Death Row releases like “Above the Rim,” “Murder Was the Case” and “All Eyez on Me.” He of course had time to focus on his solo career too, with not one, but two albums recorded during this time. While one release never made it to the public — apparently Quik, unhappy with the results, smashed the masters to pieces — its prompt follow-up, “Safe + Sound,” was released with cuddle monster Suge Knight as executive producer. Quik is Compton-based and funk-leaning like his Death Row counterparts, but his style here was a little more East Coast (don’t say that to his face) and his ideology a little more underground. Or, as he so succinctly put it on “Street Level Entrance”: “That funk without the P just ain’t funky enough for me.” (YCL)


5. Quasimoto, “The Unseen” (2000)

When rap gets weird, it gets really weird, and on “The Unseen,” Quasimoto — better known as rapper/producer Madlib — led the crate-digging weirdos and encyclopedic freaks into an exciting, unpredictable 21st century. Unlike Madlib’s other productions (Madvillain, Yesterday’s New Quintet, Madlib Medicine Show, etc.), Quasimoto’s focus was on rapping. But what Lord Quas was rapping about on “The Unseen,” his debut album, was second to what his rapping actually sounded like: a b-boy on a cocktail of smoke and helium. Unhappy with his rapping voice (imagine Barry White rapping), Quasimoto pitch-shifted his vocals to sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the result was a psychedelic brain melt for the LA set that assimilated influences ranging from John Coltrane and Sun Ra to “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” and René Laloux’s incredible “Fantastic Planet.” It was the kind of weirdness that all classics should aspire to. (YCL)

4. Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Doggystyle” (1993)

We met Snoop on Dre’s “The Chronic.” But we didn’t really get to know him until his debut solo album, “Doggystyle,” another classic of the g-funk canon. Party rap anthem “Gin and Juice” provided a perfect companion to the brutal reality and blood of LA’s gangster rap aesthetic, showing what happened when the workday tools were put away and the house party started. “Murder Was the Case” and “Lodi Dodi” showcased Snoop’s storytelling, which combined humor and grit and was delivered in his signature laidback manner. Plus there are appearances by Nate Dogg and Warren G on “Ain’t No Fun,” which is still a pretty fun song even if a bit problematic. (ES)

3. Kendrick Lamar, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” (2012)

Conceptualize your release and they — the critics — will come. When Kendrick Lamar dropped his second album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” back in 2012, critics swarmed to it faster than most of them would to Compton itself, the southern Los Angeles County city upon which the album was built. After all, the album was subtitled “short film by Kendrick Lamar,” a near-guarantee that critics would perk up. But in contrast to the loose thematic ties you might hear on “The Chronic,” Lamar’s album flourished under his complex, narrative-based storytelling, which saw K Dot tackling topics like gang violence, misogyny and family politics as he interpreted them growing up in the city. Thus, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” went well beyond satiating critical demands, offering vantages and life lessons, not simulations and exaggerations, leading to an album that was at once open-minded and open-hearted, a snapshot of growing up surrounded by gangs and drugs, just below the hustle and bustle of downtown LA. (YCL)

2. NWA, “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)

This past summer, N.W.A.’s group biopic “Straight Outta Compton” hit theaters and told the story of how a few kids from Compton made one of the meanest rap albums of all time. Now, nearly 30 years later, many of its members are household names: Dr. Dre. Ice Cube. Eazy-E. All legends. Back in ’88, when N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” album dropped, it hit listeners with brutal, sometimes real, sometimes fantastical, tales of violence and nihilism and protest. It put the city on the rap map, and though the group quickly deteriorated, its members went on to create some of the best rap music of all time. (ES)

1. Dr. Dre, “The Chronic” (1992)

“The Chronic” was an antidote to the often lifeless, caricatured permutations of mainstream rap, which at that point had been transparently political, brainlessly party-oriented and overtly commodified. But Dr. Dre, armed with whining synths, Funkadelic beats and brilliant rhymes from himself and his cohorts (most notably the nascent superstar Snoop Doggy Dogg), brought a welcomed, disorienting “terror” to suburbia while transforming inner-city Los Angeles from a hushed ghetto curiosity to the epicenter of mainstream rap. But beyond the shock of its lyrical expressions of violence and illegal activity, “The Chronic'” changed rap through a new, exciting sound that was raw yet pristine, dirty yet refined. And that it was delivered with staunch idiosyncrasy, a frightening range of g-funk versatility, and an often overlooked humor contributed to a special moment in music history that served not only as a beacon for LA rap, but also as a benchmark for music in general. (YCL)

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