The 20 Best Southern Rap Albums Ever - The Ringer clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The 20 Best Southern Rap Albums Ever

We argued, voted, voted again, and we’re standing by these classics

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.


Let me begin by saying I have a religious objection to prizing one great Southern rap album above another; I love them like they’re my children. But like children, there are wayward ones, and favored ones, and neglected ones. Meaning, while we’re saying that Southern Rap Album A is appreciably better than Southern Rap Album B, I do not accept the legitimacy of the court in which I’m being tried. It seems ludicrous not to include Da Drought 3 or Trap or Die or Sailin Da’ South or any of Gucci’s tapes, but those were mixtapes, and if we included all of the classic tapes, we’d be here until Tha Carter V finally comes out. Sometimes you just need rules. So a small group of Ringer experts convened, argued, voted, voted again, and did this in the manner we saw fit.

Below you’ll find our Southern rap album ranking; feel free to yell about your favorite that we left off. (Don’t @ us; submit a short — as in, under 150-word — blurb in defense of your fave via this form, and we might just publish your rebuttal.)
 — Micah Peters

20. Master P — Ghetto D (1997)

Hip-hop critics tend to talk like Atlanta inherited hip-hop’s center of gravity from New York, as if there wasn’t a 10-year stretch when Georgia’s crunk rappers and trap pioneers shared power with Louisiana’s bounce hoodlums. It was a glorious time defined by tacky album cover art, diamond dentistry, synth claps, baggy fashion, and Silkk the Shocker flows that defied time signatures and physics. Ghetto D is the most comprehensive overview of the No Limit diaspora’s stars (Percy, Mystikal, Mia X, C-Murder, and Silkk), its virtues (money, independence), and its emotional range (Tasmanian rage, the blues, everything in between). “Make ’Em Say Uhh” to “Goin’ Through Some Thangs” is perhaps the most violent tonal whiplash that a rap album has ever achieved, and yet both those songs are crucial.
Justin Charity

19. Future — DS2 (2015)

In one of rap’s all-time best heel turns, Atlanta’s favorite warbling, lovesick pop star broke bad on his third studio album, transforming into a lean-sipping hedonist for whom the only meaning in life could be found at the bottom of a Solo cup. The opening notes of DS2 — the fizzing of the soda bottle, the mixing with cough syrup into a deadly confection, the Sprite-commercial-level cheese of that thirst-quenched “ahhhhhh” — are the sounds of a man falling into a pit of radioactive ooze and emerging as a supervillain. Coming on the heels of his broken engagement with Ciara, the album saw Future embracing all of his basest desires — namely drugs, sex, and violence. These are common fixations in rap, but rarely are they presented in such a disaffected stupor. The album’s lack of moral urgency was its own statement about what’s left to care about in our world, and Metro Boomin’s dour production ensured that the “no hugging, no learning” directive would remain consistent throughout (the closest we get to romance is a track called “Rich $ex”). DS2 captures a destructive but alluring way of coping with grief, and it helped accelerate the nihilist bent that currently predominates in Southern hip-hop. When we look back at this decade of sullen young rappers, suffocating self-absorption, and sparse production, we’ll see DS2 as the blueprint.
 —Victor Luckerson

18. Rich Boy — Rich Boy (2007)

Rich Boy is not what makes Rich Boy important. I am really into his voice and flow, but that’s beside the point. Rich Boy was a canvas, and Polow da Don was the painter. And you can’t tell the story of Southern hip-hop without mentioning Polow da Don. When I first heard this album, I thought it was the greatest piece of music I had ever listened to. That had a lot to do with a guy from Interscope playing me this record at a squirrel-killing volume, telling me it was the greatest piece of music I had ever listened to. But that’s the best way to listen to Polow-produced tracks: It’s at the point of shattering your ear drums that you really feel their power.

Rich Boy arrived on the scene with “Get To Poppin’” with an intoxicating Totó La Momposina sample backing his liquid Alabama flow. His was a distinctly Southern drawl, but it was malleable. Polow understood this, and on Rich Boy’s major label debut (after an incredible Gangsta Grillz tape), he used the MC’s voice as just another instrument in a psychedelic, globe-trotting symphony. He produced a majority of the record, including “Boy Looka Here,” which features bleacher-stomping bass drums, marching band horns, and a friggin’ mandolin, as well as the one hit that the rapper is still remembered for: “Throw Some D’s.” One of the most infectious Southern rap tracks this side of “International Players Anthem,” “Throw Some D’s” is a glorious ode to rims, and it’s a New Wave ear worm that would make Prince jealous.

Maybe Rich Boy will go down as a footnote in rap history, but Polow’s music should be studied for years to come.

— Chris Ryan

17. 8Ball & MJG — Comin’ Out Hard (1993)

Nestled somewhere between Mike Conley–Marc Gasol and Elvis Presley–Scotty Moore in the hierarchy of essential Memphis duos, 8Ball & MJG make music that rolls slow but can creep up on you fast. Their debut, recorded on the cheap and with modest equipment, is one of most suffocating, intoxicating albums of its time. And the effortlessly furious tension — marked by drug talk, armed robbery, and pimping — set the template for a plainspoken Southern gangsta gothic that would come to dominate rap 15 years later. Recorded for Tennessee impresario Tony Draper’s Suave House Records, Ball and G’s debut presaged nearly everything outside of Texas and Miami — particularly Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia (which preceded it by two years), and its lionization in Hustle & Flow (by more than a decade). Without them, there is no Cash Money and no Lil Wayne, no Jeezy or T.I., no Clipse or Gucci Mane, no Young Thug or Kodak Black. There’s no South as we know it today.
— Sean Fennessey

16. Mystikal — Let’s Get Ready (2000)

In his review of Mystikal’s 1997 album Unpredictable, the critic Robert Christgau deemed the volatile MC “the only No Limit rapper with a style worth talking about.” Despite his uncharitable Northern bias, Christgau had a point. Being a No Limit soldier had its limitations. The dynamism of Mystikal’s singular growl — raucous and unbridled, yet somehow precise and self-contained — felt burdened by the label’s penchant for quantity over quality. Mystikal had memorable songs for No Limit, but they were outnumbered by generic-sounding tracks bloated with obligatory cameos from tank hangers-on.

As it turns out, Unpredictable would be the first of only two Mystikal releases for No Limit. His first post–No Limit project, Let’s Get Ready, was a revelation. Out went Silkk, Fiend, and Mac; in came Pharrell and Outkast. “Shake Ya Ass” and “Danger,” both produced by the Neptunes and by far Mystikal’s biggest hits, sprung the rapper into the mainstream. The Neptunes, who contributed four tracks in all, had the right idea on how to best complement Mystikal’s flow: lay a sparse, bass-heavy track and get the hell out of the way. His voice was a dish that needed very little seasoning. Mystikal would preach to you, then berate you, then serenade you — all in the same verse, with an energy that made Busta Rhymes seem like a wallflower. Rather than being diluted on the double-platinum Let’s Get Ready, Mystikal’s trademark sound was only amplified. “The Man Right ’Chea” rightfully became the man everywhere.
Donnie Kwak

15. Trina — Da Baddest Bitch (2000)

In the unfairly siloed landscape of “female rap,” the women of New York loom large. It’s Brooklyn-bred MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Young M.A who have dominated airwaves and public dialogue alongside Queen(s) bee Nicki Minaj and Bronx icons Remy Ma and Cardi B; Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah are both from Jersey. But since 2000, only one person has been Da Baddest Bitch. Miami’s Trina, née Katrina Laverne Taylor, changed the game when she dropped her debut album. Da Baddest Bitch fused all the slick, feminine vulgarity of Kim’s Hard Core with Miami bass and heavyweight features to mesmerizing effect. The album was bold, brash, and undeniably catchy. Nearly 20 years later, it’s still the blueprint for assertive, ass-shaking rap that positions — and celebrates — its artist as both subject and object.

Trina came out swinging, “representin’ for the bitches,” on the titular track (and lead single). She was and is a star, full stop, no qualifiers needed, but Trina never shied away from reminding you that being a woman only made her floss even harder. There is no “Feeling Myself” without “Da Baddest Bitch,” no “Bodak Yellow” without “Ball Wit Me.”

Trina flipped the script on the male gaze with confidence and bounce. “Pull Over,” the album’s Trick Daddy–assisted second single, features Trina subverting street harassment by interweaving Trick Daddy’s chorus (“Whoop! Whoop! / Pull over that ass is too fat”) with her own self-affirmations:

This ass even make Black Rob say whoa
I got a fat ass nann nigga can’t pass up
Juvenile couldn’t even back this azz up
Bone don’t you know lil’ mama fully loaded
I got a fat ass and I know how to tote it

Trina’s music dances in the gulf between her ability and desire to pleasure men. Sure, you can look in wonder, but don’t for a moment think she wasn’t looking at herself first.
 — Hannah Giorgis

14. Three Six Mafia — Underground Vol. 1 (1999)

In the mid-’90s, you gave Three 6 Mafia fans the right of way. You were next in line? Cool. This guy is wearing a T-shirt of a group that has a song called “Now I’m High, Really High” that actually doesn’t sound like being high, unless your idea of being high is sleep paralysis. Give him some room. Underground Vol. 1 is a compilation of some of the Memphis group’s early work, and it is probably the hardest listen on this list. Long before “Stay Fly” and the celebrity that came with it, Triple 6 made this music at a time when it felt like there was actual distance between regions, both in terms of sound and sensibility. So while there are touches of Houston, New Orleans, and even L.A. in the music, the songs on Underground sound like they were made in a different dimension. It is not … pleasant, by any means.

But it is a triumph of DIY inventiveness over big studio access and major label budgets. And it’s a monument to a bunch of people—Juicy J and DJ Paul, along with Project Pat, Gangsta Boo, and others—working outside the industry, doing whatever the hell they wanted, at a time right before the South became the sound of hip-hop. It is a regional masterpiece, and the region is hell on earth.

— Chris Ryan

13. Clipse — Lord Willin’ (2002)

It might be churlish of me to do so, but I categorize Lord Willin’ as a “Southern rap album” with an asterisk. Malice and Pusha T were born in (and heavily influenced by) the Bronx; Virginia Beach natives Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who produced the entire thing, might as well have been from Mars. No “Virginia sound” (outside of Timbaland and Missy) existed for these guys to glom onto, so the two duos — Clipse and the Neptunes — simply created one of their own. The result was the most fruitful MC-producer marriage since Guru and DJ Premier.

“Grindin’” — Clipse’s bracing first single, a lunch-table knocker on HGH — was their clinical mission statement: “We sell coke way better than you.” That mantra pervades Lord Willin’, their debut album, a veritable technicolor dreamcoat of drug rap. Pusha T and Malice made themselves the stars of a crime epic that was fit for an art house, its clever menace carefully enunciated and elegantly composed. There are no skippable tracks on Lord Willin’, only a succession of crescendos: peak Neptunes, again and again and again. Every song could have been a single, and it remains a shame that “Gangsta Lean” wasn’t. So is it a proper Southern rap album then? Well … come to think of it, Gang Starr repped Brooklyn, yet Guru’s from Boston and Premier’s from Texas. OK, lose the asterisk.
— Donnie Kwak

12. Lil Wayne — Tha Carter II (2005)

I’m not going to talk about “Shooter.” It’s great, and Robin Thicke is on it, and I’ve considered getting “if we too simple, then y’all don’t get the basics” tatted on my chest. No, not seriously.

The second Carter installment wasn’t primarily produced by Mannie Fresh like the first was, and was proof enough that he could do this [points to platinum certification, no. 5 debut on the Billboard Hot 200] on his own. Wayne exported that chunk of the work — finding complements to his voice, which was gaining weight — outside of Cash Money. There was Cool & Dre, the Runners, and two songs by the Heatmakerz. “Hustler Musik,” Top-1 sturdiest rap songs ever made — we’ll just have to disagree on this — was produced by T-Mix, who started out making songs for 8Ball & MJG.

This was around the time Wayne was rapping like he was possessed. He lapsed into that on Tha Carter (“When we hungry you look like pie / Sweet potato-ass nigga you lemon meringue, apple custard / Cherry jelly, don’t make me get the biscuit busta”), but here he was more deliberate, in a way that was scary. Look at the third verse from “Money on My Mind”:

There ain’t a stain on these Pradas
I’m just being modest
Got me a goddess
Show her how to divide it
She still down
And she don’t get none of the profit
Wheel around the city, let the tints hide me
“That’s a cold motherfucker, whoever inside it”

He stretches and swallows vowels, the rhymes double back onto each other. It’s as mystifying as a marksman using a mirror to pick someone off from behind cover, as effortless (and needless) as draining a 3 on a fast break. He said he was the best rapper alive on “BM J.R.” and “Bring It Back” a year prior; this time around you had no choice but to take it seriously.
 — Micah Peters

11. Scarface — The Diary (1994)

Might I say two things please? First: It is truly unacceptable that Scarface, the second-most intoxicating and brilliant r-a-p-p-e-r Southern rapper ever, has only one album on this list. I don’t get it. I don’t get it and I don’t like. The Fix should be on here. (Right around this time two years ago, Noisey, Vice’s music offshoot, asked Scarface to rank all of his albums. He ended up settling on The Fix for first place, followed by The Diary for second.) I suppose there’s maybe an argument to be made that The Fix was the least Southern-y of all of Scarface’s albums, and so since this is a thing about the best Southern rap albums then it had to be left off. And if you want to do that, then sure. Go for it. You’d be wrong, but go nuts.

Second: I’m at least glad that the one Scarface album that did make it on here is The Diary, which was his first masterpiece and also the most daring and creative album of his career. The Diary was dark and somber and insightful and incredible. All of the songs felt like they’d been dragged through a graveyard, or like they’d been washed in sin and bleakness, which only sounds like a stupid way to describe music if you’ve never heard “I Seen a Man Die,” because on that song he swung his voice back and forth like it was a sickle, and I don’t think anyone’s been able to pull off that feeling quite as well ever since. You could probably say that about the entire album, really.
— Shea Serrano

10. Geto Boys — We Can’t Be Stopped (1991)

The cover of this album is a picture of Bushwick Bill being pushed on a hospital gurney by the two other members of the group — Scarface and Willie D — after he survived a gunshot to the head. The Geto Boys brought the same type of bracing honesty to their music, with 14 incredibly raw tracks about life in Houston and the crime-filled environment where all three grew up. The song everyone knows is “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” in which they talk about how the paranoia that comes with their lifestyle can turn toward madness. The Geto Boys were N.W.A without the glitz and glamour, and while they didn’t have the same crossover appeal, there was more heart and substance to their lyrics, which is why they had such a lasting impact on the rap scene in Texas, and throughout the South. Scarface, who went on to a legendary career as a solo artist, is the unquestioned star of the group, but Willie D and Bill can more than hold their own.
Jonathan Tjarks

9. Goodie Mob — Soul Food (1995)

The group that coined “the Dirty South,” Goodie Mob preside over the history of Southern rap — specifically southwest Atlanta — like the great thinkers in Raphael’s “The School of Athens”: casually wise, devotedly unresolved. Soul Food, the quartet’s debut, may not seem like the most influential work in the genre’s history, with its gruff meditations on a life without privilege and a sound design that recalls wooden cuckoo clocks and the bustle around a Thanksgiving dinner. But Cee Lo, T-Mo, Big Gipp, and Khujo were a mighty counterweight to their funkier labelmates Outkast, as interested in life on the ground as a transfiguration in the sky.

There has never been a song like Soul Food’s masterpiece “Cell Therapy,” and there never will be. It is paranoia and anger writ large. “Look out for the man in tha mask / On the white pony,” Gipp raps in the song’s fourth and final verse, after disquisitions on Hitler’s genocide from Khujo, a devastated vision of a community destroyed by drugs from Cee Lo, and a self-incriminating portrait of an addict by T-Mo. When the song appeared in 2016’s Moonlight as a theme song for the grown Black, it marked a hardening, a hard-won maturation. Goodie Mob’s members were in their early 20s when they recorded Soul Food, but even then they knew something most of us can’t.
— Sean Fennessey

8. Missy Elliott — Supa Dupa Fly (1997)

You’ll never hear it described as such, but Missy Elliott’s solo debut, Supa Dupa Fly, was the seminal visual album of the ’90s. Its iconography is inextricable from its source material — immediately identifiable in the vein of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and world-building like Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. It says something about an artist when their most quintessential representation can be seen 10 seconds into their debut single’s music video: Missy, clad in a billowing black bag, as amorphous as her music, the shades covering her face peacock, unfurling into a sort of crown.

Her visual album didn’t need a 30-minute short film, or even an 11-minute music video. There were no long-form ambitions here, because, if we’re being real, that would’ve just belabored the point: Missy was the future; our fearless, Gmail-repping planetary crusader seven years before Gmail was created. Packed inside her four-minute videos were some of the most indelible images of my childhood. Our world wasn’t ready for the world she’d just spawned. Sure, plenty by that point in the mid-to-late ’90s had fetishized the Y2K aesthetic, but she gave that sensibility a rightful home — in her distorted alternate reality. Compared with Missy’s subsumption of the fad, you were either playing dress-up, or you were playing catch-up.

Supa Dupa Fly celebrated its 20th birthday in July, and it remains one of the most self-assured debuts I’ve ever listened to. It’s a prismatic look at femininity in all its musculature and vulnerabilities, flowing as seamlessly as Missy herself does through the realms of rap, R&B, and pop. It didn’t hurt that she had Timbaland, a childhood friend and coconspirator who knew exactly the scope of what she was hoping to build.

“Me and Timbaland, ooh, we sang a jangle / We so tight that you get our styles tangled,” Missy rhymes in the first verse of “The Rain.” Over Tim’s skittering, stuttering beats and oblong, digi-stretched grooves, Elliott and her esteemed featured guests presented the Bitch Era as the way of the future. Virginia’s place in the Dirty South’s hip-hop continuum might be disputed, but in 1997, Missy floated above regionalism, sexism, and just about everything else. She helped expand the outer limits of the genre and was comfortable enough to get really weird with it — which might as well be the motto for the history of Southern rap.
 — Danny Chau

7. Outkast — Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994)

Way before they were pop stars, André 3000 and Big Boi made their debut with an album that helped put Southern rap on the map in 1994. It may not be the best Outkast album, but it’s their most grounded. Still teenagers when it was released, Big and Dre were primarily focused on girls, cars, and drugs, though there was still plenty of the social consciousness and musical experimentation they would become known for. This album is the blueprint upon which an entire generation of Atlanta rappers built their style — and it still bangs more than 20 years later. “Player’s Ball” would be a hit if it were released today, and “Git Up, Git Out” is just as relevant to kids now as it was to their parents. Hearing Southernplayalistic is like watching Michael Jordan at UNC; the seeds of greatness were in the soil, even if they hadn’t fully bloomed yet.
 — Jonathan Tjarks

6. Young Jeezy — Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)

Thug Motivation 101 is a great album, but here’s my one regret about its legacy: There are people who weren’t alive when it dropped, and so they’ve forever missed out on the phenomenal excitement surrounding the release of TM 101. Suddenly every Escalade speaker in the Southern U.S. flooded streets and highways with these big, brassy anthems that sounded like nothing rap radio had ever before played to death. Jeezy was just different. His voice, his demeanor: He was a loudmouth with a certain, authoritative caution about him. He was unapologetically simplistic. He was also a goddamn genius. T.I. came in the game riffing on a certain traditionalist, East Coast lyrical style, and then Jeezy launched a revolution against it. There are traces of crunk music in TM 101, but Jeezy is such a slick talker, his voice is so hoarse, and his perspective so wise that you’d never mistake him for Pastor Troy. Plus, Shawty Redd had Jeezy sounding like a 21st-century cowboy with six marching bands at his back.
— Justin Charity

5. T.I. — Trap Muzik (2003)

“I’m this far from being a star / And just that close to quitting,” T.I. rapped on a song called “I Can’t Quit,” and he didn’t, and soon he was a superstar. Trap Muzik brought to a close Clifford Harris Jr.’s brief career as an underdog, a brusque Atlanta firebrand with an underperforming debut (2001’s I’m Serious) behind him and a chart-topping megawatt career just over the horizon. His first big hits are here, from the swaggering “24’s” to the absurdly rousing “Rubber Band Man,” wherein producer David Banner builds an ascending organ-riff-and-children’s-choir stairway to heaven, or at least to the upper half of Billboard’s Hot 100.

T.I.’s lethally charismatic drawl sells everything on Trap Muzik, from “Bezzle” (a pummeling summit with Bun B and 8Ball & MJG) to “Doin My Job” (a gorgeous chipmunk-soul anthem produced by a young Kanye West). “T.I. vs. T.I.P.,” meanwhile, is a heated split-personality pep talk between the volatile underground hero and the business-minded crossover superstar, each worried one was going to screw it up for the other, a conceit so juicy a few years later he’d make a whole album about it. The song’s better. T.I. would go on to greater heights, commercially and maybe even critically. But this is as lean and hungry as he ever sounded, in part because it wasn’t yet clear that he’d ever be fed.
— Rob Harvilla

4. Lil Wayne — Tha Carter III (2008)

My favorite moment on 2008’s Tha Carter III (which is different from favorite song) is “Dr. Carter,” which ostensibly takes cues from the Common “I Used to Love H.E.R.” school of personifying hip-hop and then running a thousand miles with her on your back. Swap out the histrionics of Common’s lament and swap in a folding chair and the original Milton Bradley version of Operation. Then tie one of Wayne’s arms behind his back. Then press play. Tha Carter III was hyped to be Lil Wayne’s statement album. What emerged was a dizzying display of irrational confidence and sheer force of personality that shattered the preciousness of the “Greatest Rapper Alive” mantle.

Irrational confidence got him a song with Jay-Z as the coheadliner. Irrational confidence is what brought Kanye West to his doorstep with so many beats Wayne had to tell Kanye to go home and quit sending him shit. Irrational confidence is “Lollipop,” a half-court, fuck rap, I’m the King of Pop now heave that landed him a Grammy and bent top-40 radio askew, where it’s been left ever since.

Irrational confidence is following that up with “A Milli,” a siren song and invitation to your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper and everyone in between to Wayne’s domain for a freestyle open run … that just happened to crack the top 10 in the Billboard Hot 100. Irrational confidence is what turned the Fireman into the Human Torch. Wayne knocked the game off its high horse and set an example for the next generation. Genius doesn’t have to feel forced. Just press play.

In 2012 I remember obsessing over Young Thug’s I Came From Nothing 2 mixtape. The album’s best track (and still, in my opinion, one of Thug’s best, full stop), “Keep in Touch,” is pure Wayne-influenced pop, but without the winking, nudging subversion. It was earnest and sweet, and weird, and rough around both the edges and its core. The kids have been listening. The kids are alright.
— Danny Chau

3. Juvenile — 400 Degreez (1998)

Generally speaking, about rap and flexing, the cars are already paid off and at least a calendar year out from hitting the market. The idea is that you can’t just walk into any old dealership and buy one. But on “Flossin’ Season,” in 1998, when cars barely had smart keys, Mannie Fresh was boasting about having a car from 2010. Not only would you need to have a guy, you’d also need a time machine.

Mannie was, as they say, on some other other shit. The story goes something like this: Juvenile heard a song — a Mystikal dis track, “Drag ’Em ’N’ tha River” — that Mannie Fresh produced for UNLV, Cash Money’s first supergroup. About then and there, Juvenile decided he needed to be wherever Mannie was at. Their first joint effort, Solja Rags, was locally popular, and together they banged out Juvenile’s third and most successful album to that point (it went platinum), with the strangest lead single rhythmic radio had ever laid ears on. “Ha” barely has any rapping on it; it’s Juvenile talking at you, with his hands, about how you shouldn’t be pushing your luck west of the Ponchartrain Expressway. On Magnolia Street, near the C.J. Peete Projects, to be specific, before it was renamed Harmony Oaks.

400 Degreez bottles the absurdity, the severity, and the rank unpredictability of existing in the parts of New Orleans tourists don’t go there to see. How do you talk about all of those things and sound seasoned but not resigned, and somehow, at the same time, triumphant, invincible? Daring you to try, even. Juvenile was singular; a storyteller who lived every one of his stories and growled them from a porch you weren’t allowed to set foot on unless you knew somebody. With a rag tied around his neck and wearing Girbaud jeans, probably.

Do I need to continue selling you on this? Do you or do you not have a Pavlovian response to the first 20 seconds of “Back That Azz Up,” the greatest party anthem ever made ever, of all time? That’s what I thought.
— Micah Peters

2. UGK — Ridin’ Dirty (1996)

Discussing Ridin’ Dirty is always tricky because, I mean, you’re talking about the very best rap album from what many (though probably nobody from Atlanta) would argue is the greatest Southern rap group that’s ever been. You’re talking about the album where Pimp C, always a master producer, reached a level of production brilliance only a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy list of producers have ever reached; a level of production brilliance so gargantuan that he turned the album from an album into a living, breathing thing; a level of production brilliance so perfectly crafted that he made Southern rap not only unmistakable, but undeniable. And you’re talking about the album where Bun B, who’d flashed greatness on the group’s first two albums, fully grabbed hold of it and turned in what remains the premier, most perfect, most unbeatable verse in the history of Southern rap (his verse on “Murder”). You’re talking about the album that directly shaped what happened in Southern rap for at least the following decade (you can draw straight lines from no fewer than four other albums on this best-of list straight back to Ridin’ Dirty). You’re talking about the album that gave us what might be the most impenetrable five-song set ever on any rap album, let alone a Southern rap album (“One Day” to “Murder” to “Pinky Ring” to “Diamonds & Wood” to “3 in the Mornin’”). So you’re talking about all those things, and you have to talk about them without sounding like you’re being hyperbolic or like you’re exaggerating or like you’re being anything other than completely serious. It’s tricky, if not impossible.
 — Shea Serrano

1. Outkast — Aquemini (1998)

Outkast goes places. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik lets listeners ride shotgun through streets of Atlanta. ATLiens blasts them into orbit. But Aquemini transfers them to a parallel dimension where time has folded in on itself. A civil-rights-themed party anthem featuring a 30-second harmonica hoedown shares space with an Auto-Tuned screed about the dangers of technology, and it works. A nostalgic, breezy ode to a pair of lost loves is paired with a screeching apocalyptic sequel about the last song recorded on earth, and it works. A gospel-inspired dirge about the tensions between celebrity and art is followed by a wailing electric guitar solo, and it works. There was no idea too strange or genre too distant for Aquemini, which still manages to be more than the sum of its many excellent parts. “People just couldn’t understand how we were making the type of music we were making,” Big Boi said in a 2010 oral history of the album. “By that time we’d gotten to a point where we were in our own world,” André 3000 added.

The Outkast world is hard to pinpoint; this is a group that made a prototypical trap song before it was subgenre but is also being played at a wedding in Nebraska this weekend, without question. Their best work always traces back to Atlanta and the centuries of creative contributions by black Southern musicians. Aquemini plumbs this lineage more deftly than any of their other work, offering an earthy, down-home sensibility spliced with a funky futureshock that feels both retro and forward-looking. (Can some hacker/burglar please get access to the unreleased collaborations between ’Kast and George Clinton?) There’s a reason Outkast albums never sound of their era.

The impact of Aquemini is so disparate that it’s hard to quantify (besides the ubiquitous “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” horns, that is). The album marked the transformation of Dre into André 3000, the cerebral weirdo who inspired Young Thug, Lil Yachty, and a whole generation of off-kilter Atlanta rappers. Its sprawling scope smashed notions of what a rap album could and couldn’t be, paving the way for modern genre-benders like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. And it firmly discarded any lingering notions that important rap emerged from only the coasts, becoming the first Southern LP to earn five mics from The Source. Soon enough the growing creative differences between Big Boi and André would cause an irreparable fissure, but here, for the last time, the two dope boys were one.
 — Victor Luckerson

The Dave Chang Show

Dinner Music, With Hrishikesh Hirway of ‘Song Exploder’

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Magic Tweets After Lakers Loss; Now Vogel Out? Plus, the Origin of Wu-Tang With S.H. Fernando Jr.

Sound Only

‘Station Eleven’ Mailbag, ‘Dawn FM,’ and ‘SICK!’

View all stories in Music