Hip-hop will probably never see another day like Sept. 29, 1998. Nevermind the fact that up in Harlem, XXL commissioned Gordon Parks to capture one of the most iconic photos in the genre’s history, uniting 177 rap artists at the site of Art Kane’s legendary “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph. On this date 24 years ago, back when albums still came out on Tuesdays (remember?!), five marquee acts from various corners of the culture went head to head, dropping LPs that we still talk about... ’til this day!
In the modern music industry, most artists are scared to compete with their peers, instead opting to play release date musical chairs to ensure their project doesn't find itself in the shadow of another. In the attention economy—where an album's success is partially dependent on how much it trends in the days after its release on social media—can you really blame them? Plus, so few of the biggest rappers alive right now make tight albums. These releases are heavy on the filler, no goose down.
But I digress. Sept. 29, 1998. A legendary day in hip-hop due in part to an elite slate of releases. Here they all are, ranked. Disagree? All good. Send me a note. I'm sure you'll, ahem, find a way.
5. Foundation, Brand Nubian
It’s hard to do a reunion album after a group’s break-up and make it feel fresh and organic, as if fights over creative differences never happened. Brand Nubian achieves this with Foundation, the first album they released with the original lineup of MCs intact since their 1990 debut, One For All. Let this be your lasting memory of Brand Nubian—and not the hours of footage of Lord Jamar being a weirdo on VladTV.
4. Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z
Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life occupies a strange space within Jay-Z’s discography. It’s not in the top five records he’s made, and while some heads may prefer it to the solo albums that came before and after, the bars pale in comparison (see: Vol. 1’s “Imaginary Players” and Vol. 3’s “Come and Get Me”). But Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life is perhaps his most important work—the project that turned Hov into a superstar. Undeniable songs like “Can I Get A…,” "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” "Money, Cash, Hoes,” "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99),” and “Money Ain’t a Thang” each helped set Jay on a trajectory that would have him logging onto some shit called Twitter two decades later to complain about being called a capitalist.
3. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Black Star
Mos Def and Talib Kweli could’ve easily gone down as one of hip-hop’s greatest duos had they committed to releasing music in tandem over the course of their careers. On their first album, the lyrics are taught, clever, and packed to the brim with depth. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is the holy grail of backpack rap—a shining star and central force for a new burgeoning movement in hip-hop just as another was fading out. (See: next entry.)
2. The Love Movement, A Tribe Called Quest
Hot take alert! Not gonna hold you, this ain’t the best Tribe record by a long stretch. And there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in naming an album The Love Movement when there was very little love going around behind the scenes. However, The Love Movement is a vibrant thing, with flows as ambidextrous as the group’s ever had. The real star of the show here is J Dilla’s production, which adds a layer of funk to Tribe’s arsenal you didn’t know was possible. The Love Movement is the chillest, most lively, bass-thumping party the Tribe’s ever thrown and deserves a critical reappraisal immediately. How can you hear “Find a Way” and not immediately get the screwface and move your hips?
1. Aquemini, OutKast
Before OutKast released Aquemini, the twosome had a reputation for being a little out there—but the music didn’t necessarily back up the perception. Was ATLiens really all that otherworldly, or was it just hard bars paired with something slightly left field? Did people get this idea in their heads because Big Boi and André 3000 hail from a planet called The South? Or were folks just tuned into the future?
Aquemini is the group’s first LP to truly get weird with inventive production and themes, and unconventional song structures. It’s a masterpiece that combines that Southern good shit—hip-hop, R&B, soul, and g-funk—so much so that they had to acquire the services of the godfather, George Clinton. Aquemini is not just the best album that dropped on Sept. 29, 1998; it also makes a very strong case for the best album across all genres in the 1990s. Go and marinate on that for a minute.