Vote for the Final 4
The Hardest Albums Already Eliminated, Reviewed
Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – “Live and Let Die”
At face value, Kool G Rap’s 1992 album, Live and Let Die, is the hardest in his entire discography, literally—its cover art depicts upward of a dozen felonies, including kidnapping, conspiracy, murder and even what appears to be animal cruelty. Its a grim, cinematic listen that plays out like an anthology of crime fiction—a much harder, less accessible take on The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. And what it lacks in mass appeal it more than makes up for in novelty.
Sir Jinx, best known for his production on Ice Cube’s early solo work, provides a largely dark, clamoring backdrop, over which G Rap marries the hardboiled quality of the title track from his previous album, Wanted Dead or Alive, with a thoroughly disturbing thirst for blood and debauchery. Outside of its lead single, “Ill Street Blues,”Live and Let Die is rarely canonized, but its influence casts a long shadow over both the horrorcore and mafioso subgenres, the latter being a conduit for several of the greatest rap albums of all time. —Harold Stallworth
Notorious B.I.G. – “Ready to Die”
Forget about all the other factors for a second. The struggles, both interpersonal and existential. The often crass sexuality. And the hits, my god, those hits. (Eternal house party staple “Big Poppa” and life-affirming rags-to-riches story “Juicy” are songs that will exist as long as people like listening to things that make people feel good, which in our think-piece-obsessed social climate, might not be for very much longer.) Ready to Die was, and still is, hard as an iron curtain, as you might expect from an album that contains a song called “Machine Gun Funk.”
A testament to Christopher Wallace’s gifts as a writer, his debut album created a variety of rough tones. “Things Done Changed” flipped around the romantic worldview of New York as a modern Wild West movie and showed its grisly side; he warns, “Step away with your fist-fight ways” while painting the city’s metamorphosis into a maze of cold brick buildings riddled with bullet holes. The album’s funniest song, “Gimmie the Loot,” includes shooting cops and the infamous line of pregnant women getting held at gunpoint for their #1 Mom pendants. (If the song had just the indelibly delivered line “I’ve been robbing motherfuckers since the slave ships” over and over, it would have been just as good.) “Warning” not only gets a Lil’ Fame shout-out onto MTV, but finds Biggie threatening to explode his potential robbers Boyd Crowder style.
The bleak worldview of the majority of the album, exacerbated by Smalls blowing his own brains out on “Suicidal Thoughts,” with all its abject poverty and nihilism and the idea that its author does not believe in the sanctity of human life, proves one theory about hardness that cannot be disputed: There’s nothing scarier than going up against somebody who feels they have nothing to lose. — Martin Douglas
Twista – “Adrenaline Rush”
Twista’s 1997 album, Adrenaline Rush, is precisely that. It’s the terrifying whoosh you hear just before being sucked down the gravitational well of a black hole. Entirely produced by The Legendary Traxstar, the album bears his slow, booming signature sound. The production slinks with the grace of a jungle cat, and Twista, true to his moniker, barrels through each track at a Tasmanian pace.
What results is arguably the wordiest album to ever be tailored for subwoofers rather than earbuds. To be sure, there’s a few less-than-menacing tracks, like “Feels So Good” and “Get It Wet,” which, on a scale from Lil Zane to Lil Fame, register somewhere between Lil Twist and a post-Love and Hip Hop Lil Scrappy. But these jarring spikes in moistness are anomalies, easily offset by the album’s opening skit, wherein Twista exacts revenge on a man whom he believes to have murdered his cousin in cold blood. — Harold Stallworth
Bone Thugs N Harmony – “E. 1999 Eternal”
Before Young Thug, the rappers that nobody knew what the hell they were rapping about were Cleveland’s own Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The group’s often impenetrable, signature flow might have been deeply melodic and fun to imitate but you would have to Babel fish to decipher what the hell they were saying.
A lack of a translator does not stop BTNH’s classic E. 1999 Eternal from being one of the hardest rap albums to ever grace a record store shelf. Bone Thugs were one part Eazy E and one part gangster Boyz II Men, E. 1999 simultaneously explored themes of violent gang life, the occult, an appreciation for bud and a deeper spirituality that pondered the heavens above.
Classics tracks like “1st Of Tha Month,” “Budsmoker’s Only” and Eazy E tribute “Tha Crossroads” made Bone Thug’s an unlikely crossover sensation in the summer of 1995 when the album dropped, selling a staggering five million copies nationwide and earning two Grammy nominations. More than critical acclaim and records sold though, E. 1999 Eternal is known for that innovative sound that could not only rule the charts but seem unflinchingly gangster in execution. After all, Cleveland is the city. — Doc Zeus
Waka Flocka Flame – “Flockaveli”
Waka Flocka’s Flockaveli is to hip-hop what Cro-Mags’ Age of Quarrel is to punk: the most uncompromising, aggressive, loud, and flat-out physical record of its era, taking whatever puny bullshit that had come before it and clobbering it with its auditory Hulk Hands. Sure, there had been aggressive Southern scream-rappers before Flocka burst unexpectedly into rap like a tentacle in a hentai porn, but none had been so dedicated to uncompromising, blunt-force-trauma aggression as the scion of the untouchable Mizay Management Empire.
The most remarkable thing about Flockaveli isn’t just producer Lex Luger’s Great Wall of Sound or how “No Hands” inadvertently resuscitated Wale’s career, it’s how beloved the record was for its time. Flocka and Lex Luger cowtied mainstream hip-hop and completely changed its sound, leaving behind a legion of imitators in their wake who couldn’t quite capture the mojo of the originals. Flocka flowed over Luger’s beats the same way an industrial mower flows over a field of steel beams, his threats, adlibs, and bizarre asides jumbling together to create a record harder than frozen carbonite. — Drew Millard
Geto Boys – “We Can’t Be Stopped”
The Geto Boys didn’t bring horror to Houston. It was already there, waiting for them. Backed by sample-heavy boom-bap, Scarface penned more incisive and deranged rhymes in his early twenties than most do in their entire careers. High school probably would’ve hindered him and he knew it. Bushwick Bill and Willie D proved equally crazed counterparts. The former is the closest rap will ever get to Chuckie, possessed and pint-sized. The latter was as articulate as he was aggressive. Together, they rendered the horrors they knew intimately with visceral and penetrating detail. They pushed flour and pressed enemies whenever and wherever. They also took their animus to the soapbox, raging against Bush and the Persian-Gulf War.
“Mind Playing Tricks On Me” cemented their place in the rap canon. In five minutes you get a Rorschach in landscape. Paranoia, love, hatred, regret, fear and everywhere they bleed into one another. The group’s seminal single on what is arguably their best album, the song illustrates why the Geto Boys were great, why they were hard. All of the nut hanging and homicides only begat more nightmares—they weren’t scared of being afraid. — Max Bell
2 Pac – “Makaveli: The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, 1996“
Tupac Shakur made Me Against the World after the Quad Studios shootings; he made the Makaveli album after he died. It’s not just a posthumous record—listen to “Hail Mary” and tell me the vocal takes aren’t from beyond the grave. The 7 Day Theory was released some eight weeks after the world’s greatest rapper died in a Vegas hospital, yet on every track, there he is, defeated but defiant, bullet-riddled but bulletproof.
You think Prodigy slept easier knowing that “Bomb First” was made by a dead man? Jay was left to wander the halls at Marcy, tail tucked between his legs, Hawaiian shirt half-open. To paraphrase another revered rapper-slash-actor, 7 Day Theory isn’t just vitriol hurled at Pac’s enemies, but it’s that, too. “Toss It Up” could be a radio hit, until he’s taunting Puff and Teddy Riley and Dre (who’s “gay-ass Dre” at the end of the sentimental “To Live and Die in L.A.”).
Pac’s vocals on The 7 Day Theory play like a vicious, booming stream of consciousness, his beliefs, his point of view, even his threats coming into focus right in front of our eyes. “Look at me laugh at my competition flashing my jewelry/ You’d be staying silent if you niggas knew me.” The best 2Pac record is probably one of the ones with his given name on the cover, but Makaveli’s was the meanest, the most desperate, the one that couldn’t be killed. The hardest. Maybe ever. — Paul Thompson
Dr. Dre – “The Chronic”
If you ask my mother what her favorite album of all time is (not rap album, mind you—album) she will tell you proudly that it is Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. As time slows while you begin to process this, gaze shifting from her shiny straightened hair to her blue eyes to her wide smile to her pink-painted fingernails and fuzzy socks, maybe you can understand why it’s so hard for me to call this album hard.
I was born in 1989 in Long Beach, California. I don’t remember a world before The Chronic—the swirling G-funk melodies on “Let Me Ride” and “Nuthin But A G Thang” are as much a part of my early memories as chocolate covered bananas and the streamers on the handlebars of my first beach cruiser. For my mom, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Warren G were logical extensions of her music sensibility—Parliament/
And maybe that’s the hardest part of The Chronic, after all. An album that weaves together explicit stories of illegal gang activity with clips of the L.A. riots was able to shuffle into popular culture through the (laid-)back door. It became so inescapable that white America played it (at high volume, preferably in a residential area) at barbecues with its in-laws. Mom always held that my first words were “Love Momma,” but she’s a known liar and one warm night in Los Angeles while the two of us shared a clove cigarette and a glass of red wine she finally confessed that they were “Deeez Nuuuts.” — Haley Potiker