Sometimes, a debut album shows an artist's sound in full bloom. Sometimes, it merely offers a glimpse of brilliance, a capacity to blossom into greatness. It's no surprise, then, that several artists have recorded follow-up albums that manage to rival their first for greatness. Here are 10 sophomore albums that turned out better than their predecessors.
Honorable Mention: Mecca & The Soul Brother (Pete Rock & CL Smooth), Late Registration (Kanye West), Resurrection (Common Sense).
Third time was the charm for Clipse. While the duo's very first album, Exclusive Audio Footage, drummed up enough buzz to secure a spot on Elektra's roster, it was eventually shelved. They later migrated to Star Trak to go work with The Neptunes. Their Start Trak debut, Lord Willin', gave rise to a handful of bangers (including "Grindin'" and "Cot Damn") but the rest of the album didn't live up to expectations. It was 2006's Hell Hath No Fury that finally established Pusha T and Malice as a force to reckon with.
Prodigy and Havoc were unseasoned 19 year-olds when they dropped their forgettable first album, Juvenile Hell, in 1993. By the time '95 rolled around, the Queens duo had undergone a musical metamorphosis like no other. Their rhymes were sharper. Hav's beats were stunningly impressive. The guest list read like a who's who in New York hip-hop: Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface, Q-Tip. Propelled by street anthems like "Survival of the Fittest" and "Shook Ones II," The Infamous went on to become an authentic manifesto that would shape 90s hardcore soundscape.
It's easy to forget that GZA launched his solo career prior to Wu-Tang's collective debut. His first outing, Words from the Genius, dropped in 1991 and is often credited as the first solo album by a Wu member. While that album was produced primarily by Easy Mo Bee, RZA took the production reins on Liquid Swords and laced his cousin with a cinematic backdrop for his gritty narratives. Liquid Swords was rap as literature.
A white MC from Detroit? Odes to drugs and violence? The task before Eminem seemed illogical. Yet, he managed to turn trials into trophies within a year of bursting onto mainstream consciousness. Complaints about his "evil" music failed to stifle his success, as The Slim Shady LP went on to shift a whopping 5 million copies. Unperturbed by the outburst, Em served up another manic slice of dysfunction on his outstanding sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP. It churned some of Eminem's best songs and cemented his status as a tour de force in hip-hop.
Good things happen when you hang out with De La Soul. As one-third of the Native Tongues family, A Tribe Called Quest joined De La and Jungle Brothers in leading the charge for hip-hop's Afrocentrism movement. In return, the other two gave Q-Tip and co a blueprint that would eventually make Tribe the most accomplished group in the Native Tongues movement. Low End Theory best showcased Tribe's role as a stylistic median between Jungle Brothers and De La Soul by combining the former's jazz-rap sound with the latter's bizarre sense of humor.
Anyone who listened to the Fugees' Blunted on Reality and The Score can be forgiven for assuming that they were recorded by two different acts. The Score was so much more compelling that everyone quickly forgot about their first LP. Indeed, it was a remarkable improvement on the lackluster Blunted.
Ice Cube's solo debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, painted a frighteningly morbid portrait of mutual distrust in society. It was a certified street masterpiece. He followed that up with an even more venomous album dubbed Death Certificate. Sure, Cube caught some heat for his misogynistic and antisemitic lyrics, but he also turned in a brilliant work of art. The album's 'Death' side presented an image of the present, while the 'Life' side offered a vision of the future. Standouts include the scathing "No Vaseline" and the highly controversial "Black Korea."
No one knew exactly what De La would do for their second go-round. The Long Island crew had already redefined rap with 3 Feet High & Rising -- a groundbreaking debut that challenged hip-hop with its playful and innovative sound. At a time when rap was a "shoot 'em up" playground, De La peddled rhymes about daisies and body odor. After being derided as hippies, the group dropped a follow-up album that was notoriously edgiy yet remarkably impressive. The title (De La Soul Is Dead) and album art (an image of withering daisies) signified the end of daisy-era De La. They broke out of the envelope that supposedly limited their art without sacrificing their core sound. De La Soul was very much alive.
Critics dismissed the Beastie Boys as a one-hit wonder after the arrival of the group's flawless debut, Licensed To Ill. To add salt to injury, they had also severed ties with producer Rick Rubin. As people were busy writing them off, Ad-Rock, Mike, and MCA were holed up in their L.A. studio working feverishly on a strong follow-up. The result was Paul's Boutique - an album that packed a combination of creative depth and multi-layered production. Their extensive and innovative use of sampling helped establish the practice as an art.
Simply put, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the most important hip-hop album ever made. While Yo! Bum Rush The Show showed Public Enemy banging on the door of societal injustice, It Takes a Nation knocked down the door, ran into the building and burned the whole thing down. Chuck D's politically salient rhymes combined with Bomb Squad's searing, ferocious sound to yield a groundbreaking work that remains the standard for politically charged rap.