Back when it was considered the Bible of Hip-Hop, getting a 5 Mic rating in The Source put an album in rarified air. It signaled a perfect project, an album that would have gotten 5 stars in a rock magazine, or 5 stars in a newspaper. The distinction led to countless debates and dozens of lyrical references, either pining for 5 Mics or bemoaning an album that didn’t.
The Microphone symbol itself represented a hip-hop spin on rap reviews and only 15 LPs earned The Source’s celebrated 5 Mics status in real time. Agree or disagree, here they are.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (released April 10, 1990)
A Tribe Called Quest’s debut project extended the Afrocentric Native Tongues movement the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul introduced. Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi put a jazzy, good-natured spin to their memorable sonic journey, which includes a cross-country road trip (“I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”), an ode to Q-Tip’s shapely woman (“Bonita Applebum”), their dietary preferences (“Ham ‘N’ Eggs”), and one of the quartet’s biggest songs (“Can I Kick It?”). Q-Tip was a steady, sage presence on the mic, while Phife dazzles with his distinctive wordplay on his handful of appearances.
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (May 16, 1990)
Fresh off his departure from N.W.A, Ice Cube left little doubt that he’d be just fine on his own. The South Central Los Angeles rapper takes aim at everything from America’s institutionalized racism and classism to the lack of quality material on the radio to unworthy women. Musically, the cinematic, funk-drenched work of The Bomb Squad and Sir Jinx results in a fiery batch of beats that perfectly match Ice Cube’s lyrical fury. With more of a political bent than his previous crew, Ice Cube instantly established himself as one of rap’s premier talents.
Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em (June 19, 1990)
Eric B. & Rakim’s third LP was a remarkable exercise in lyrical supremacy. Rakim’s relentless rhyme assault includes arresting alliteration on the title track and seemingly non-stop flowing on “No Omega.” Rakim expands his creative repertoire, too, delivering two of his best and most recognized thematic tracks. The stark “In The Ghetto” features historical and philosophical insight, while “Mahogany” traces his experience with a remarkable woman. The taut 10-track project’s musical muscularity hits hard, but the album is really about Rakim’s rhymes. As he says on “Step Back,” all Rakim wants you to follow is poetry.
One For All (December 4, 1990)
Brand Nubian’s debut album was a collective triumph for its three distinctive rappers, but also showcases sensational solo songs. “Feels So Good” features the lighthearted vibe of Grand Puba, Sadat X, and Lord Jamar’s approach, which, like the rest of the album, was informed by the teachings of The Five-Percent Nation. Each rapper takes turns warning women about living foul on “Slow Down” and denounces what they see as America’s uncivilized existence “Drop The Bomb.” Then going as Derek X, Sadat X shines on “Concerto In X Minor,” while Lord Jamar brings a militaristic mentality to “Dance To My Ministry” and Grand Puba celebrates some of his favorite rappers on “Dedication.”
De La Soul Is Dead (May 14, 1991)
Eager to ditch the hippie tag it earned after its landmark debut album, De La Soul shifted. Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo’s second LP De La Soul was equally inventive, but decidedly darker, both thematically and sonically. “Bitties In The BK Lounge” shows an early glimpse at atrocious custom service, while “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” delicately covers the horrors of sexual abuse. Somber hit single “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” examines how to deal with fans eager to get put on. It’s a bleak masterpiece buoyed by thematic brilliance and supreme storytelling.
The Low End Theory (September 24, 1991)
Phife uses A Tribe Called Quest’s second LP to prove that Q-Tip wasn’t the only star in his group. The 5-Foot Asssassin stood tall on lyrical exercises “Buggin’ Out” and “Jazz (We’ve Got),” the former an energetic tag-team exercise, while the latter glides along with a sublime groove as Phife brings his punchline-heavy flow to the second verse. Album-closing “Scenario” stands as one of the best posse cuts of all time, with Phife dropping eye-popping sports and sexual rhymes. The project’s beats live up to its title, with thunderous, bottom-heavy soundscapes backing Q-Tip and Phife at every turn.
Illmatic (April 19, 1994)
After delivering several notable verses on other people’s songs, Nas delivers a masterpiece with his debut album. Illmatic showcases Nas’ distinctive, wistful, and poetic lyrics that brought out the best of a stable of some of rap’s best producers. Pete Rock brings a subtle, piano-driven elegance to Nas’ street ruminations on “The World Is Yours,” while Q-Tip offers a reflective, xylophone-propelled beat for Nas’ jail letter narrations on “One Love.” The Queensbridge representative delivers what may be the best aural representation of the City That Never Sleeps on the menacing DJ Premier-produced “N.Y. State Of Mind.” It all adds up to musical magnificence.
Life After Death (March 25, 1997)
Released less than a month after The Notorios B.I.G.’s murder, this double album solidified Biggie’s status as an all-time great. The late Brooklyn, New York rapper delivers a masterful pop braggadocio cut (“Hypnotize”), an abrasive warning to haters (“Kick In The Door”), an X-rated ode to sex (“Fuck You Tonight”), a paradoxically upbeat posse cut about the trappings of fame (“Mo Money Mo Problems”), and a manual on the drug game (“Ten Crack Commandments”). Biggie expertly traverses pop and hardcore hip-hop with credible crossover cuts and next-level street storytelling.
Aquemini (September 29, 1998)
Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s third album stands as an aural kaleidoscope. The energetic “Rosa Parks” features a roaring harmonica solo, while the bouncy “Skew It on the Bar-B” features an unexpected Raekwon appearance and Big Boi lamenting that OutKast’s debut LP didn’t earn 5 Mics. On the pensive title track, the dynamic duo ruminate on street life and spiritual truths, all while delivering the hardest shit since MC Ren. Even in 1998, some doubted the potency and skill of Southern rappers. This Atlanta duo shows for the third time that its skills are unparalleled.
The Blueprint (September 11, 2001)
JAY-Z was on a mission with his sixth album. The Brooklynite blasts rivals on “Takeover,” masters lyric-driven crossover rap with “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” celebrates his money-making abilities on “U Don’t Know,” and laments the target on his back as an A-list celebrity with “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love).” He also details his drug dealing prowess on “Never Change” and shows a rare wistful side on “Song Cry.” Producers Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Bink deliver sonic brilliance by providing a largely soulful and sometimes menacing backdrop for Jigga to ruminate on his brilliance as an artist, businessman, and hustler.
Stillmatic (December 18, 2001)
Nas heard the whispers. Many wondered if he’d fallen off after the release of 1999’s Nastradamus. God’s Son hadn’t, of course, and his fantastic fifth album made that abundantly clear. Nasir berates JAY-Z on “Ether,” flips rap on its head with the conceptual marvel “Rewind,” rides rhythmic crescendos to their climax on “One Mic,” and takes Cormega and others to task on “Destroy & Rebuild.” Elsewhere, “2nd Childhood” showcases Nas’ storytelling prowess, while “Got Ur Self A…” features his distinctive chest-thumping. It adds up to another excellent project from Queensbridge’s finest.
The Fix (August 6, 2002)
Scarface’s first Def Jam Recordings album was a coronation of sorts. After years of being one of rap’s most respected but underappreciated artists, The Geto Boys member earned the music industry’s respect with his seventh album. The Houston rapper brings his signature blend of political and street commentary to “Safe,” while the reflective hood tale “In Cold Blood” continues his standing as a rap storytelling titan. “Guess Who’s Back” with JAY-Z and Beanie Sigel brought ears and interest from listeners in the northeast, while the reflective “On My Block” stands as of one of his biggest solo songs. More than a decade into his legendary career, Scarface showed the world was still his.
The Naked Truth (September 27, 2005)
As one of rap’s most prominent artists, Lil Kim is the first and only female rapper to earn a 5 Mic rating from The Source. The Brooklynite was headed to prison on a perjury charge as the LP arrived and blasted her former crew Junior M.A.F.I.A. on “Whoa.” “Slippin” addresses people who kicked her while she was down and “All Good” describes how everyone wasn’t, but Lil Kim’s fourth album isn’t a purely somber affair. She pays homage to both her home and reggae culture on the popular “Lighter’s Up” and teams with comedian Katt Williams to address the rumors and gossip surrounding her life and career on the fiery “Shut Up Bitch.” There’s a lot of anger throughout The Naked Truth, an intimate look into the life of a rap star at a personal and professional crossroads.
Trill OG (August 4, 2010)
Nearly 20 years into his career, the UGK member showed that his extensive vocabulary, wild wordplay, and beat selection was as potent as ever on his third album. His “Trillionaire” duet with T-Pain shows he could collaborate with a pop star and return his trillness, while his teaming with Jeezy on the hard-hitting “Just Like That” illustrates the project’s street-certified side. The bluesy “Put It Down” features one of Drake’s lesser-known appearances and late icons Pimp C and 2Pac join Bun and Trey Songz on the brassy “Right Now.” The well-rounded project celebrates the Port Arthur rapper’s OG status and timeless relevance. As he says on the intro, “I got the streets on fire, so forget a buzz.”
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (November 22, 2010)
Kanye West returned to a more traditional rap approach on the follow-up to 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, but the Chicago rapper-producer’s fifth LP was anything but routine. Throughout the LP, ’Ye vacillates from being on the edge of insanity to a quest for redemption (“Gorgeous”) to lashing out at his detractors as he appreciates his gifts and his accomplishments (“Power”). The festive horns and Rihanna’s sensual crooning belie the mental chaos West examines on “All Of The Lights.” With a robust, A-list guest list MBDTF’s “Monster” detonates thanks to incredible JAY-Z and Nicki Minaj verses. All the while, West’s genius shines.