Have you ever been listening to a hip-hop album from top to bottom and realized that every word, every beat and every cadence is an almost perfect representation of the city you’re from? Have you ever taken a step back and noticed how much an album “sounds” like a very distinct place? That is the power of hip-hop albums; they serve as city soundtracks.
No matter where you’re from across the globe, there is undoubtedly a rap album that you feel represents where you’re city. This could simply be because the album’s artist is from that particular city, but in most cases it’s deeper than that. When each snare, each chorus, each punchline has the ability to paint a picture of that city like no other piece of work could, you know you’ve found that particular city’s soundtrack. Even Dr. Dre’s refers to his latest release Compton as a soundtrack rather than an album for that reason exactly; it is meant to “sound” like the storied streets of Compton, California.
With that said, we decided to look at nine major cities across the world and determine which hip-hop album serves as its very own metropolitan soundtrack. If we didn’t include your city, let us know in the comments below what album best represents your turf.
New York City
NEW YORK CITY
Illmatic – Nas
It would almost make more sense to break down NYC by borough because of how culturally and musically diverse they are, but for the sake of this article, we decided to sum it up in one 10-track masterpiece. Illmatic is one of our genre’s most celebrated albums, for good reason.
Nas’ ability to paint a picture of what life is like in Queensbridge is almost too good. He focuses on all aspects of life in the ghettos of NYC with a distinct narrative that is easy to listen to over and over again. The reason this albums really hits home with all New Yorkers is because his perspective isn’t just Queens-centric. Lines like “When I was young at this, I used to do my thing hard/Robbin’ foreigners, take their wallets, their jewels, and rip their green cards/Dipped to the projects flashing my quick cash and/Got my first piece of ass smokin blunts with hash” speak to any young hustler in any borough.
“NY State Of Mind” is obviously the standout track that fills the “anthem” role on the album but deep cuts like “Memory Lane” and “The World Is Yours” have the power to make us feel like we are sitting right there in the park with Esco himself. Not to mention the inherently “New York” sounding beats from DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor. From top to bottom, Illmatic sums up New York and the people it houses in a way that no other album has ever done.
The Chronic 2001 – Dr. Dre
This is almost a clear winner. Sure, Dre’s latest release is titled as the “soundtrack” to Compton but L.A. as a whole fits perfectly with his second LP. The Chronic 2001 is the epitome of West Coast rap music. Literally every aspect of the album is influenced in some shape or form by SoCal. It was released at the height of the gangster rap resurgence that took place over mainstream hip-hop, and is widely regarded as one of the most influential projects in music. Period.
Those hoppy basslines and piercing synths make this album the holy grail of authentic G-Funk rap music. It’s almost as if it was made specifically for riding around in souped up Lowriders while wearing khakis with a cuff and a crease. It also captures a very summer-y vibe that plays perfectly in Southern California’s 70 degree year-round weather.
It has a perfect balance of hits and deep album cuts causing the replay value to be unmatched. Songs like “Still D.R.E.,” “The Next Episode” and “Xxplosive” have become staples in the L.A. hip-hop world. You would be extremely hard-pressed to not hear one of those tracks while exploring the L.A. nightlife.
Did we mention the features on this album?
Just about every living and notable West Coast MC was is on this album, making it a true Los Angeles collab. From Snoop Dogg to Tray Dee and everyone in between, The Chronic 2001 is L.A. to the fullest.
Ridin’ Dirty – UGK
You could really put any one of Slim Thug’s albums on here but there is something about Ridin’ Dirty that screams H-Town. Even on the intro you can hear the very slang that makes Houston such a unique hip-hop headquarters. The album has no singles, no videos, incredibly minimal featured artists and all in-house production– if that isn’t Houston, I don’t know what is.
We all know Bun B and Pimp C are superior lyricists but it’s the album’s instrumentation that makes it Houston’s soundtrack. Chopped and slowed samples mixed with psychedelic riffs stacked on groovy basslines are so distinctly Houston that it makes you wonder why they don’t play it in full on all flights into Houston International Airport. In fact, I’m convinced that “Diamonds & Wood” could very well be played before every Rockets home game and no one would be opposed.
Flawless production aside, Bun and Pimp really do get into the inner-workings of street life in Houston in a very articulate way. From the codeine inspired love songs to that dirty south hustling anthems, Ridin’ Dirty is a vivid look into what goes on in Houston for real. Even reading the album’s song titles gives you a pretty good grasp on how folks get down in H-Town.
I Got S**t On My Mind – Uncle Luke
Will Smith may have “Welcome to Miami” but if you want to talk about full albums that sound like Miami, Uncle Luke has it covered. His 1992 release, I Got S**t On My Mind is hands down the most distinctly Miami-sounding album out. It is a constant party from beginning to end, and if you have ever been to Miami for more than 5 minutes, you would agree that it is exactly that.
The album features a ton of dance records including the iconic “I Wanna Rock,” which has been sampled probably over 100 times. From the pump party records like “I Wanna Rock” and “Sonia” to the smooth afterparty vibes on “You & Me” to the braggadocious rhymes on “Fakin’ Like Gangstas,” this album has all of Miami flawlessly wrapped into 57 minutes.
Those who had never been to Miami when this record came out started to take note of the real hip-hop party palace that it was. Of course, we’ve seen other rap pioneers come from the sunshine state, but this Uncle Luke album really put the scene on the map and I would be willing to bet that more than half this album still gets played at Spring Break beach parties.
Resurrection – Common
Nowadays, the soundtrack to Chicago could very well be any record from Chief Keef and his gang of drill rappers, but Common’s Resurrection sums up the Chi pretty darn well. The album is just about as technically sound as it gets in hip-hop– its complexity is made for both deep thought and easy listens. Chicago, in many ways, is the same way.
Chicago has a plethora of different walks of life. You’ve got some of the U.S.’s most intense poverty as well as some of the country’s richest and powerful. The contrast from one block to another is terrifyingly polarizing. The same concept applies to this album. On one end of the spectrum, you get songs like “I Used To Love H.E.R.” that are some of the most clever rhymes ever put on a beat, while you have songs like “Sum Shit I Wrote” that are a little more menacing. Actually, if you listen to “Chapter 13” while walking down East 51st street you can literally see the Rich man vs. Poor man divide he is talking about.
Plus, No I.D. handles most of the production which mixes classic boom bap beats with a more sophisticated musicality that was practically invented in the Windy City. There may not be any standout anthems on this project but from top to bottom, Resurrection feels exactly like summer time Chi or fireworks over lake Michigan.
Word Of Mouf – Ludacris
When someone says “ATL anthem” so many songs come to mind and in many ways, Atlanta is the home of the “rap anthem,” but when you try and narrow it down to a real soundtrack album, it gets a little tougher. However, Ludacris’ Word of Mouf really does edge out any other project from this city– for a couple of reasons.
For starters, just look at the title. It’s hard to deny that this is the ultimate Atlanta album when, even before you hear one rhyme, the word “mouf” hits you in the face like a ton of bricks. As you get into the album, you start to hear the anthem rollouts (pun intended). Songs like “Rollout” and “Move Bitch” still ring off in any ATL club from Peoplestown to Home Park. The sounds are a mix of the classic dirty south bangers with a sprinkle of light tunes that could be well received in even the classiest of southern country clubs. Well, maybe not.
Luda is unapologetically himself on this album and that reflects most of Atlanta’s core population. Atlanta is a proud city and for good reason– Luda highlights that theme from the second the album starts to the very second it ends. In short, the best part about Word of Mouf is that is has a song for every part of Atlanta. Want to meet up with an out of town girl for the night? Listen to “Area Codes.” Want to relax on Sunday with a special someone? Listen to “Keep It On The Hush.” Want to rep Hotlanta ’til the death? Listen to “Welcome To Atlanta.”
There is literally something for every ATL situation.
The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem
There is no doubt that the Motor City has some hip-hop classics. Everything from Slum Village and J Dilla to Trick Trick and Royce Da 5’9. There is no doubt that rappers from Detroit know how to put an album together. But the one that sounds most like D-Town? Eminem’s third studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP.
The album is as deep, complex, twisted, fun and thrilling as Detroit itself. There are so many layers to this album it’s hard to pinpoint its strongest tracks. Obviously “The Real Slim Shady” is one of Detroit’s most prized songs but tracks like “Stan” and “The Way I Am” also show another side of Eminem– who at most times is a walking representation of the city itself.
Some people might argue the fact that since Dr. Dre produced most of the album discredits its “Detroit-ness” but on the contrary, Dre does a great job of sonically capturing the beauty and the struggle of Detroit’s hip-hop scene. Not to mention the amount of controversy and acclaim this album received is almost parallel with Detroit’s very own rises and falls.
Take Care – Drake
There are plenty of albums that represent Toronto but none quite like Drake’s second studio album Take Care— although, if we had waited a bit longer to do this feature, it’s possible you’d be seeing Drizzy’s forthcoming Views From The 6 in this particular spot.
The entire album is produced by Drake’s longtime collaborator Noah ’40’ Shebib along with some serious collaborations with Toronto natives The Weeknd, T-Minus, Boi-1da and Illangelo. Songs like “Take Care” carry a certain Caribbean vibe that has become a staple in Toronto culture whereas songs like “Over My Dead Body” and “Marvins Room” have the feel of a cold, dark winter; something Torontonians are faced with year in and year out. Not to mention, Drake has paved the way for r’n’b bleeding into hip-hop, now a distinguishing character of the Toronto sound, and a style both those songs carry.
However, it still has some serious Toronto anthems like “Headlines” and “HYFR” that get played at any party, anywhere in the city. Whether you are from Scarborough or Mississauga, Take Care has the unique ability to curate the playlist for either your late night summer drives or gloomy 8-month-long winter commutes.
Boy In Da Corner – Dizzee Rascal
London has perhaps one of the most interesting hip-hop scenes in the world. On top of pumping out a strong number of international anthems, the grime scene is filled with incredibly talented rappers that could quite possibly rap circles around your favorite rapper. One of those rappers is Dizzee Rascal. Dizzee is one of the UK’s most celebrated rappers, and his 2003 debut sounds so much like London that when you listen to it you might actually think you’re across the pond.
The album is all over the place, in a good way. It features so many different sounds and styles that at points you aren’t even sure if it’s Dizzee even rapping. It has clear electronic influences, especially on songs like “I Luv U” and then you get the most simplistic beat on songs like “Fix Up Look Sharp.” Either way you slice it though, Dizzee brings the bars. At times his rhymes are grime style and at others he slows things right down.
His style-blending is everything the London hip-hop scene represents; consistently pushing the envelop without compromising a single bar.