Oct 15 by Alex Bodin
New York City is undeniably the birthplace of hip-hop, but after years of NY dominating the genre, it was bound to spread around the country. The first region to steal the hip-hop crown away from New York was the West Coast, specifically the city of Los Angeles. LA came on the scene with it's own unique sound, and although there has been tons of change over the years, the sound of an LA record is unmistakable.
Join me for a top down drive in my imaginary '64 Impala as I lay out my list of the Top 5 West Coast Albums to Get You Into Hip-Hop.
1. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
This is the album that put the left coast on the map in a big way and defined the sound of the region for years to come. Straight Outta Compton may not have invented gangsta rap, but it was incredibly innovative and became the inspiration for the next wave of artists in LA. This was NWA's introduction to the world, and they made a huge impression. They were loud, offensive, declarative, and above all, talented. Each member of the group brought something unique to the music. The de-facto leader, Eazy-E, defined the group with his unique voice and brash attitude, Dr. Dre established the sound of the west coast with his production, Ice Cube was the man behind the lyrics, and was a dope MC in his own right, DJ Yella put in work on the turn tables, and MC Ren added to the narrative with his writing and rhymes. This may not be the biggest or best album to come from LA, but it is undeniably the most important.
2. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
This project was an absolute juggernaut when it dropped, and the shock waves it made are still felt to this day. The Chronic had it all, huge singles, dope videos, hilarious skits, and a truly iconic album cover. No one had heard anything like it when it dropped, and after that, it was the only thing people wanted to hear. The strength of this record was powerful enough to wrest control of hip hop back from the east coast, which had stolen it from the west after NWA's time in the limelight. More than anything, The Chronic is remembered as the album that pioneered “g-funk”, a sub-genre of rap that samples funk music and uses synthesizers and a unique, smooth style of rapping to create a new type of sound. The album was also the beginning of Death Row Records dominance, and set up Dre to become the mogul he is today.
3. 2Pac – All Eyez On Me (1996)
This iconic double album was an intense magnum opus, recorded immediately following 2Pac's release from prison and signing with Death Row Records. The record is much darker than his previous releases, because it was an honest representation of his life at the time. It came in the middle of the infamous beef between the east coast and west coast hip hop communities, and Pac did not hold back in the music. The lyrics are powerful and violent, and he speaks of his own death as inevitable. The album includes the wildly disrespectful diss track, “Hit Em Up”, but also has some classic hits, like “California Love”.
4. The Game – The Documentary (2005)
The 90s is jam-packed with hits that could fill this list ten times over, but I wanted my list to be more varied and give a full picture of what west coast hip hop has to offer, which led me to pick The Documentary. Although this album would likely not fit in many hip hop heads pantheon of classics, you can't deny the impact it had on the landscape of hip hop when it dropped. In early 2005, when The Documentary was released, the west coast was being dominated on the charts by huge new artists from the south and the Midwest. The release of this album, which debuted at number 1 and went on to sell over 5 million copies, was the spark that reignited the popularity of the west coast and set the stage for a new generation of stars to come. Not to mention, the album features some of the biggest producers of all time, with names like Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Timbaland, and Just Blaze lending their sounds to the project, and also strong guest features from big artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, and Busta Rhymes.
4. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)
Rounding out the list is this incredibly vivid & intricate concept album that details one fateful day in the life of young Kendrick. Good Kid is essentially a short film, written and directed by Lamar, with complex, narrative storytelling. He manages to produce deep commentary on very intense topics, including gang violence, drug culture, street life, race politics, misogyny, & family dynamics, all from the point of view of a young black man from Compton. The album is amazing even if you're just listening casually, but if you decide to do a deep dive into the lyrics and narrative, you will realize that this is one of the best hip hop records ever produced.
As always, I hope that I was able to open your eyes to some music that you had been missing out on, and all I can ask is that you check out at least one of these albums and give it the listen it deserves.