Making a great album is not easy. Making another one is even tougher. However, the task of making three great albums in a row is a rare feat indeed, one that the vast majority of hip-hop artists, even the great ones, have failed to do.
Don’t believe me?
Think about this: neither of the (arguably) two greatest MC’s of the modern era, Jay-Z and Nas, have a stretch of three great albums in a row.
Let’s start with Jay. His three best albums, in no particular order, are Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album. If you think his run started with Doubt, then that means In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life are just as good. I love those albums, but they’re not. What about The Blueprint? Well, it was preceded by Dynasty: Roc La Familia, a fine album, but one that was certainly not great and, in all honesty, was more of a compilation, and The Blueprint2, a bloated project full of filler. Which brings us to The Black Album. It was preceded by The Blueprint2 and followed by Kingdom Come, so we know that doesn’t qualify. Jay-Z’s success and longevity is unparalleled, but his career is full of peaks and valleys.
What about Nas? His three best albums are probably Illmatic, It Was Written, and Stillmatic. Nas had a chance for a three-peat in 1999 after Illmatic and It Was Written, but while I personally like I Am… (and defend it and Jay’s American Gangster in my latest book), it is not nearly a classic and probably falls in the middle of Nas’s discography in terms of quality. And Stillmatic? If you included The Lost Tapes, you could make a streak of Stillmatic, The Lost Tapes, and God’s Son, for which you could make a compelling case, but those tapes were lost and ultimately became a compilation so it is disqualified. Instead, you get God’s Son and Street’s Disciple after it and I Am… and Nastradamus before it. That’s a no. A case can be made that Nas is the greatest lyricist to ever do it, but post-’96, he’s struggled when it’s come to making complete albums.
The same is true for Drake and Kendrick Lamar. We could argue about the level their albums have reached (good, great, classic) and the two certainly have a stranglehold on the current generation, but they have yet to put together three straight great works. Of course, both are still early in their careers and they, along with J. Cole, Jay Electronica, and others have the talent and potential to do it.
In fairness to those artists, the industry is far different now than it was the late ‘80s and ‘90s so not only are albums not as singularly important to an artist’s rep and legacy as they once were, but that there really is no longer any difference between a mixtape and album.
With that said, what artists have managed to go back-to-back-to back with great albums? Here are eight that have managed to do it (in chronological order):
Eric B. & Rakim
Paid in Full (1987), Follow the Leader (1988), Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990)
Rakim forever changed and elevated the art of rhyming when he came on the scene, but his reign extended for several years. While Paid in Full was the introduction, its two follow-ups saw the duo build upon and expand their sound and content without losing any impact. The magic faded with 1992’s Don’t Sweat the Technique as the sound of the culture was moving in a different direction and Rakim became preachy, but before that they were three-for-three.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), Fear of a Black Planet (1990), Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
Beginning with the greatest rap album in history, Public Enemy provided the soundtrack to a revolution. Chuck D’s voice, Flavor Flav’s adlibs, and the Bomb Squad’s production all combined to wake up the masses and shake them from their collective slumber. “Black Steel in the Hour of Choas,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “911 is a Joke,” “Can’t Truss It,” and the amazing “Fight the Power” all came during this time. It was too powerful to be sustained, of course, like trying to corral a tornado, but for a brief stretch of time, hip-hop was dominated by the prophets of rage and their teachings.
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990), Kill at Will (1990), Death Certificate (1991)
Some may claim this is a cheat since Kill at Will was an EP, but this list could have either included Straight Outta Compton (1988), on which he was the mastermind as both lead writer and performer, at the beginning or The Predator (1992) at the end. Either way, it’s obvious that Cube had an incredible – and prolific – run from ’88 to ’92, making classics on each coast and, along with Chuck D and others, made hip-hop more than just a music that made you dance. Within his rhymes he explored sociopolitical issues, poverty, government oppression, the battle of the sexes, police brutality, and so much more. It’s rare for an artist to be able to convey so much explosive rage into words, but Cube did it perfectly for a half-decade.
A Tribe Called Quest
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), Midnight Marauders (1993)
The first word that comes to mind when describing Tribe’s music is “beautiful.” Soulful samples, lush backdrops, and layered sounds provided a funky, jazzy vibe over which Q-Tip and Phife Dawg explored deep lyrics while also warning sucker MC’s not to challenge them. They got better over time, their formula becoming expanded and perfected. As Ludacris said, they were “they completely mastered the form and culture of what hip-hop is supposed to be.” Tribe was different. Tribe was experimental. Tribe was fun. Tribe was conscious. Tribe, in short, was beautiful.
The Infamous… (1995), Hell on Earth (1996), Murda Muzik (1999)
A compelling argument could be made that Prodigy was the best rapper in NYC over the course of the second half of the ‘90s, firing back at 2Pac and, along with Havoc, creating three classics that embodied the best of New York hip-hop, a mixture of aggression and vulnerability over haunting, atmospheric beats. The Infamous… was a revelation and some people, including me, believe Hell on Earth is even better. Murda Muzik is a minor step down, but it’s still damn strong (and could’ve been even stronger), as the sound evolved, including working with Alchemist, and “Quiet Storm” remains one of the duo’s best tracks.
Me Against the World (1995), All Eyez on Me (1996), The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory [as Makaveli] (1996)
In less than two years, from March, 1995 through November 1996, 2Pac released three albums, including a double disc. All three of them went to number on the Billboard 200 and showed the different sides of ‘Pac: the introspective man full of regrets and nostalgia sitting behind bars (Me Against the World), the newly freed arrogant loudmouth that wanted nothing more than to party and fight (All Eyez on Me), and finally the end result of it all, threatening enemies while also hoping for a better future, made all the more chilling since it was released after his death (The Don Killuminati). Me Against the World is his best and most cohesive body of work, but Makaveli is fascinating in forecasting what kind of artist he was becoming. Interestingly enough, All Eyez on Me, the project that sent his career into the stratosphere, is the weakest of the three, bloated and at times directionless. Even now, twenty years later, 2Pac’s work is still making an impact.
ATLiens (1996), Aquemini (1998), Stankonia (2000)
In 1995 and 1996, while N.Y. and L.A. were threatening each other, something special was happening in Atlanta. In ’95, Goodie Mob put out one of the best albums in a year full of great releases and a year later, Outkast followed it up with their second album, but the first that really focused on their uniqueness. They followed it up with two more great projects, each better than the last, on which they experimented with different sounds and approaches while keeping a consistent vibe thanks to the production provided by Organized Noize and Earthtone III (Outkast and Mr. DJ).
The Slim Shady LP (1999), The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), The Eminem Show (2002)
First dismissed for being a white rapper, Slim Shady was quickly labeled a one-hit wonder gimmick when “My Name Is” was released, but he proved he could put together an entire CD with The Slim Shady LP, which mixed all of the different elements of an Eminem album we’ve come to know: humor, shock value, rage, defiance, celebrity name-dropping, playfulness, a mixture of self-confidence and self-consciousness. It wasn’t perfect and he improved upon it the following year on his record-breaking Marshall Mathers LP before topping himself once again two years later. His artistic process is something to behold.
And the ones that just missed the cut:
Ghostface Kilah – Ironman and Supreme Clientele are classics, but Bulletproof Wallets fell short. If you count Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, on which Ghost “co-starred,” then Tony Starks could be on this list.
Boogie Down Productions – BDP’s third album, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, was strong, but it did not have the impact have KRS-One and company’s first two offerings, Criminal Minded and By All Means Necessary.
Scarface – ‘Face has one of the best catalogues in rap history and, if you ask me, he is the greatest MC the south has ever produced. But with such a long track record, there are bound to be some duds and while The Diary and The Untouchable came back to back, they were preceded by The World is Yours and followed by My Homies, neither of which were as strong. The Fix is probably Scarface at his best, but it was a peak during a period of otherwise lesser results. The man himself agrees with me.
Wu-Tang Clan – My favorite musical act of all time, Wu followed up their classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers] with the sprawling, brilliant Wu-Tang Forever. For their third trip to the plate, they dropped The W, a very solid project, but one that was lean like the first LP, but a step down overall.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. In addition to his own site, his work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.