Many rappers have crafted some classic debuts that are superior to anything in their respective catalogs. Think Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Ready to Die, etc. Still, there have been more than a few rappers who struck out their first time out, only to come back swinging. Others have built on their solid music to eventually make it big. There have also been a few who failed to make it big with a strong underground sound, and sold out to make it big, losing their artistic integrity in the process. This list combines all three to give you a collection of little-known debuts from some of your favorite hip-hop artists.
GZA – Words from the Genius
Contrary to popular belief, the 36 Chambers was not the first full-length by a Wu member. GZA dropped Words from the Genius in’91 to little fanfare. Though the album gave a glimpse of the brilliance of The Genius, said brilliance was not fleshed out in the form of a classic LP. The production is also different here than on signature Wu tunes; Easy Mo Bee is the chief boardsman instead of RZA. Of course, GZA would eventually sharpen his Wu-sword and team up with RZA and the rest to create the group’s masterful debut. (Words from the Genius was re-released in 1994 with “Come Do Me” being replaced by “Pass the Bone.” While neither of these versions is still inprint, an extended version released in 2006 is.)
Mobb Deep – Juvenile Hell
Havoc and Prodigy were still in their teens when recording this album, a fact that they betray with an overload of boasts and hardcore poses throughout the album. Usually, a debut like this will end a duo’s rap career. Fortunately for Havoc, P, and the hip-hop community at large, they learned from their mistakes and used creeping production and an almost-spoken flow from Prodigy to get their point across on the duo’s stellar follow-up, The Infamous… The album included “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever recorded. Since then Mobb Deep has been a household name.
The Fugees – Blunted on Reality
In the early to mid 90’s, hardcore and gangsta rap were at their respective peaks, and The Fugees attempted to cash in on that fact with an album that sounds nothing like their classic follow-up, The Score. However, instead of gaining respect as a hardcore group, they came off more as the new kids trying to fit in. Sadly, it didn’t work. Thankfully, they wised up and recorded the creative, genre-bending The Score, which is one for the ages.
Eminem – Infinite
Back when Eminem was “straight backpackin’” and selling records out the trunk of his Tracer, he recorded an independently released album that showcased his trademark multi-syllabic lyricism and simple,underground production. However, critics labeled him an imitator of the likes of Nas and AZ with no real voice of his own. Still, Em drops some great punchlines on this record, and you can hear the raw emotion in his voice when he yearns for better times. While this album in no way compares to some of his later work, it’s still pretty dope. Still, Marshall knew that if he didn’t find his own lane, he’d never make it. So, he created Slim Shady and, presto, you have one of the greatest MCs of all time.
Mos Def (as a part of Urban Thermo Dynamics) – Manifest Destiny
The Mighty Mos burst onto the scene with Talib Kweli, creating the classic Black Star album and never looking back. That’s how it happened, right? Not exactly. While his collaboration with Kweli is what propelled him to top-tier heights, he had already showcased his exceptional rhyming talent a year before with his kid brother Ces and kid sister DCQ as part of Urban Thermo Dynamics. Mos makes a smart move keeping it all in the family; the Smiths’ rhyming excellence is either genetic or family tradition. In either case, this album is an underrated gem.
50 Cent – Power of the Dollar
Although not Fiddy’s official debut- the album was shelved after he was infamously shot nine and dropped from Columbia Records- it is his first complete work of art. Power of the Dollar gave listeners their first taste of Fiddy’s wit and love for sh*t starting. The lead single, How to Rob- a song about literally robbing famous rappers and singers- spread ripples throughout the hip-hop community. More than just punchlines, though, this album tells the original story of Curtis Jackson, and it’s a fascinating tale. Fortunately for us, 50 used that go-getta mentality he had hustling and applied it to rapping, recovering fully from the shooting and signing with Eminem. We all know the story from there. (The album was released in limited quantities after 50 hit it big, but is no longer available. Trust me, I looked everywhere.)
Clipse – Exclusive Audio Footage
Super-producer Pharrell has an eye for seeing talent when others are blind to it (more on that later). When Pharrell heard the Thornton brothers spit, he knew they were something special. After he helped them secure a contract with Elektra Records, they recorded a full-length album and dropped a single, “The Funeral.” While the single excited their fanbase, it didn’t do well commercially. The album was shelved, and it was back to the drawing board for Clipse. Lord Willin’ arrived in 2002, but several years of label drama followed. Undaunted, Malice and Pusha T released Hell Hath No Fury, which received widespread critical acclaim.
Young Jeezy (as Lil J) – T.U.I.
It’s a good thing that Jeezy is on his grind as hard as he boasts in his rhymes, because his first album, Thuggin’ Under the Influence, is the unpolished work of an amateur. Still, Jeezy kept at it and eventually got noticed by the bigwigs. Though he’ll never be in the conversation of the great lyricists, Jeezy nonetheless has made quite a few bangers over the years.
T.I. – I’m Serious
The Pharrell-dubbed “Jay-Z of the South” had another name for himself: King of the South. Unfortunately, T.I.’s music failed to match his bravado, and Arista Records didn’t help matters with poor album promotion. While T.I. showed promise, the album was bogged down by stripper anthems and mundane boasts. Dropped from his label, T.I. returned to his roots, crafting the brilliant Trap Muzik, and took off from there (multiple prison stretches notwithstanding). Pharrell’s title for Tip proved to be prophetic; he became an excellent crossover emcee.
Wiz Khalifa – Show and Prove
No, the painfully bland Rolling Papers wasn’t Wiz’s debut. Released in 2006, Show and Prove merged club tunes with a soulful sound for a great listening experience. Wiz’s flow and lyricism is so different (in a good way) that you may wonder if you’re listening to the same rapper who recorded “On My Level.” Since then, Wiz has been on a lyrical and musical decline, culminating in his disastrous major label debut released this past March. Still, Wiz got what he wanted; he made it big, and at least he seems to be enjoying himself.