Although there's plenty of room in the rap universe for love and happiness, angry gangster rap has been a prominent style of hip-hop for well over two decades. Sometimes, it comes off as cheesy and contrived. In other instances, it can be borderline bone-chilling to hear what these rappers have to say.
Here are 10 of the hardest rap albums of all time.
10. The Diary - Scarface
All you really need to know about The Diary is that both of the singles off of the 1994 album (“Hand of the Dead Body” and “I Seen a Man Die”) had their names changed for radio play because they were too violent. Scarface is notorious for his intelligent, dark, and violent lyrics, both in his solo career as well as his work with the Geto Boys, and The Diary is no different. The Diary was one of the first albums to (almost) top the charts that centered around bashing everything from government to journalists, which makes it not only one of the hardest albums of the ‘90s, but also one of the iconic albums of the ‘90s.
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9. Adrenaline Rush - Twista
It’s really tough to find a “hard” skit that actually sounds hard. Most of the time, an aggressive skit on a rap album just sounds like the audio of a scene out of a bad gangster movie at best and the cliffhanger finale of a soap opera at worst. The third Twista album opens up with the exception, where the introduction is violent and accurate enough to be part of a Tarantino film, and most of the rest of the record is plenty hard (and fast) to soundtrack just about any killing. Even the "slow jams" (see above) go harder than most songs.
8. Death Certificate - Ice Cube
For most rap groups, it’s easy to pick the best album that an individual released as a solo effort, and it’s generally not much harder to pick the toughest release from any of the rappers. N.W.A. (and Wu-Tang Clan, to a lesser extent) is the exception. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate is undeniably tough, but is it really any more gangster than The Chronic or It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa? If you ask us, it is (ever so slightly), in part because it was banned in certain areas both nationally and internationally upon release. It’s probably safe to say it’s also the hardest album ever released by someone who would later go on to star in children’s movies.
7. Super Tight - UGK
Over a decade before Southern rap legends Underground Kingz became household names in suburbs across America with their 2007 self-titled album and the subsequent death of Pimp C, the duo released the hardest rap album to ever come out of the South with 1994’s Super Tight. There must’ve been something in the water in Texas that year, as Super Tight is one of the most unrelenting albums ever released (as is Scarface’s The Diary, as previously mentioned). While groups like N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan, and Mobb Deep were rhyming about the violent struggles going on in the coastal areas, no one covered the problems in the South like UGK.
6. The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory - 2Pac
Tupac Shakur may be better known as a poetic rapper than as a tough rapper, but that’s only because some of his poetry was off the charts. The posthumous album (sometimes better known as Makaveli) isn’t the late rapper’s most popular work, but it’s undeniably his most aggressive. The album calls out just about the entire New York hip-hop scene on “Bomb First (My Second Reply” and proceeds to lay verbal assaults on so many others over the course of the record. Factor in that it was released about two months after Shakur died, and the whole thing gets an extra creepy ghost vibe added to the personal attacks and violence.
5. Ready to Die - Notorious B.I.G.
When it comes to the hardest storytelling rappers of all time, Biggie is as good as it gets. His debut album is his best, his most popular, and his toughest release. It might not be quite as much of a “gangster” album as some of the records that came out around the same time, but the way it paints the violent harsh realities of growing up poor in the Big Apple. If you were to make a list of the 10 best rap albums of all time, it would pretty much have to be included on that one too.
4. The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem
No one in rap history has managed to turn hard, violent, aggressive, offensive lyrics into huge hits quite like Eminem. The Slim Shady LP could make a lot of lists on the same level as The Marshall Mathers LP, but the prequel is a little more self-centered and ridiculous, whereas the 2000 follow-up is blatantly angry at the world. Tracks like “Bitch Please II” and “The Way I Am” would be the hardest tracks on most rappers’ hardest albums, but not on a disk containing a song like “Kill You.” Oh, and don’t even get us started on the genius that is “Stan,” which rappers are still trying to find ways to imitate.
3. Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A.
If you ask suburban moms pretty much anywhere in the country who the hardest rappers of all time were, a lot of them would probably say N.W.A. It helps that there’s been documentaries about them (and now a full movie) and that their names are easy to remember, but N.W.A. struck fear in people’s hearts more than possibly any other group. Their iconic recording is no different. If you really need it explained to you, go see the movie of the same name. It’ll be better for everyone.
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2. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - Wu-Tang Clan
The debut album from the greatest rap group to ever pick up microphones might just be the best hip-hop album of all time. That’s not what’s being discussed here. To this day, almost any member of Wu-Tang Clan still seems like they’d be totally cool with killing you if you did them wrong and then going about their day like nothing ever happened. Tracks like “Protect Ya Neck” and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” are as hard (and as classic) as any songs in hip-hop history, and the fact that all eight (nine, at the time) of them would still live by their words (even RZA) just makes it all the tougher.
1. The Infamous - Mobb Deep
Even now in their early 40s, Prodigy and Havoc are not guys you’d want to look at the wrong way in an empty alley. Per capita, the Queensbridge duo are probably the hardest musicians alive today, and their phenomenal 1995 release is an absolute lesson in gangster rap. “Shook Ones Pt. II” is almost unquestionably the toughest rap megahit to ever release, and the rest of the album doesn’t slow down from there. Tracks like “Survival of the Fittest” and “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef is Mines)” make most modern gangster rap sound like children’s songs, and no one (except for postmortem 2Pac) seems to be terribly interested in challenging them for that throne anytime soon.