Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. 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.
We here at The Ringer really, really love Outkast (so much so that we imagined what a Love Below 2 might look like). So when we assembled our list of the 20 best Southern rap albums, it pained us greatly to adhere to silly, made-up conventions like “not obviously favoring one group over all the other artists from the region by dedicating 20 percent of our entire ranking to them.” The only correct course of action would have been to put both ATLiens and Stankonia on our list, even if it would have meant four out of 20 albums would have been Outkast records.
But we’re human, and human beings make questionable choices sometimes. So we rounded up your nominations for the most influential Southern rap albums. Submitted via Google Form, email, and carrier pigeon, these are the records y’all said our list was incomplete without:
1. ATLiens, Outkast
Cooler than a polar bear’s toenails and tight like nuts and bolts, ATLiens marked the moment when Outkast started to reach their potential as genre-bending world conquerors. In just two years, they came a long way (like those slim-ass cigarettes from Virginia) from chicken-fried, playful funk to a darker, more cerebral take on life in Atlanta and the struggles of a young artist in the music industry. But underneath it all, the main attraction is the two dope boyz themselves, wise as sages but still with something to prove behind the mic. Classics like “Elevators (Me & You),” “Two Dope Boyz (in a Cadillac),” and the title track stand up to anything in their oeuvre, and underheralded tracks like “Mainstream,” “Wheelz of Steel,” and “Decatur Psalm” round out the biggest omission from The Ringer’s Southern rap list.
— Dan C.
2. Stankonia, Outkast
When designs for the Falcons’ new stadium were being submitted, the winning submission was called the “Pantheon” for its futuristic features and amenities. In local Falcons blogs, it was referred to as the Stankonia Dome. It’s been nearly 20 years, and Stankonia is still in every Southerner’s lexicon.
3. The Fix, Scarface
Not only is this one of the 20 best Southern rap albums ever, it’s one of the best 20 rap albums ever. Scarface is as earnest as ever as he delivers his spooky soliloquies straight from the heart of the south side of Houston. Face invites the two best NYC rappers alive to guest, and more than holds his own. Still in the making-a-name-for-himself phase of his career, a young Kanye West contributes what remains one of his best efforts behind the boards with “Guess Who’s Back.”
— Mark B.
4. King, T.I.
While Trap Muzik is wonderful, it is the Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton SuperSonics of albums — fun, loud, and shows promise, but ultimately falls short of the crown. King, on the other hand, is the anthemic coronation of a new day. It is what winning sounds like. It is the Houston Rockets’ back-to-back titles. He stepped up and stepped out. The first four tracks, “King Back,” “Front Back,” “What You Know,” and “I’m Talkin’ to You” are unrivaled in their straight braggadociousness. They let any listener know that Atlanta was the new home of rap royalty.
— Conor D.
5. Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, Nappy Roots
Aw naw! Hell naw! You guys may have decided that Kentucky isn’t a Southern state, but this album and this group are banner Southern rap. “Po’ Folks” and “Country Boyz” highlight the vibe, and the organ intro leading into the above-mentioned lyrics is the iconic prelude to a true anthem.
— Matt J.
6. Back for the First Time, Ludacris
Southern rap has three musts: bangers, skits, and more bangers! That’s all this is! Luda’s growl and those fucking beats are insane. Jermaine Dupri was at his peak. I wasn’t worried this didn’t make the list until I finished it because even when I was at no. 2 I thought, “I don’t know if it’s no. 1, but it kind of makes sense to put it there.”
7. The Minstrel Show, Little Brother
LB resurrected the boom bap era with 9th Wonder’s soul samples, he is one half of what is arguably the last great rap duo to record an album, and let’s not forget that Phonte’s Everyman rap has clear descendants in more commercially successful rappers like Drake (who credits him for this sing rap style), Wale, J. Cole, and Kanye.
8. A Piece of Strange, CunninLynguists
This is a Southern rap album quite literally about the American South. Through a loose narrative structure, as well as some fantastic features (Tonedeff, Immortal Technique, CeeLo), we get a story told from many points of view, all struggling to reconcile Christian tradition and the wisdom of the dead with the poverty and racial hatred they see in front of them. This would probably all get too heavy if it weren’t set to a smooth instrumental that connects each track and makes for an exceptional full listen. A Piece of Strange is a work of art made by people who simultaneously recognize the South for all its flaws and love it unconditionally.
— Matt D.
9. Word of Mouf, Ludacris
We don’t typically put Ludacris in the pantheon of Southern rap trailblazers, and that’s fair. But the Geto Boys sat so that No Limit could walk; No Limit walked so that Outkast could fly; Outkast flew so that Luda could have a song on the soundtrack of every movie released in 2001. You could make a case for five songs on Word of Mouf as the Best Post-DMX, Pre–50 Cent Rap Single (“Move Bitch,” “Area Codes,” “Rollout (My Business),” “Welcome to Atlanta,” “Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!)”).
The album opens with a fake “Coming 2 America” sample, which is followed by Luda boasting that he packs “more nuts than Delta Airlines,” before a young Tity Boi delivers a spoken interlude. The rest of the album is equally fun. Everything changed the day Luda cut his cornrows and put out that ridiculous song with Mary J. Blige, but he was once the funniest rapper alive, and this album was his peak.
— Alexus S.
10. R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike
Southern rap is at its best when it speaks truth to power, and no one does that better than Killer Mike. He indicts our political leaders, eviscerates our criminal justice system, and showcases the reality of life in Atlanta, all while telling stories that Slick Rick would be proud of. Few rappers would be bold enough to feature two Southern legends (Bun B and T.I.) on their album’s opening track, “Big Beast,” and even fewer are gifted enough to out-rap them both with a rare combination of ferocity and wordplay. But Mike is, and he does so without a reduction in listenability-while-driving-around-aimlessly-on-back-roads. And before anyone starts complaining that El-P’s production disqualifies R.A.P. Music as a Southern album, I’ll let Mike speak for himself: “I keep a blunt and a Bible and a gun on me / Why? Cause I’m country-bred.”
— Sidd M.
11. As Nasty As They Wanna Be, 2 Live Crew
Either you decided that Florida isn’t part of the South, or this is another case of someone born in the ’70s saying that you damn millennials don’t respect anything before the ’90s. My junior high halls rocked with the sounds of Straight Outta Compton, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, By All Means Necessary, Paul’s Boutique, and As Nasty As They Wanna Be. New York, L.A., and Miami. My junior high was in rural Vermont. If that doesn’t tell you how deeply 2 Live Crew penetrated pop culture in a pre-internet era, when they were too obscene for TV and radio, I don’t know what could.
12. Crime Mob, Crime Mob
Knuck If You Buck. That’s it.
— Mat G.
13. Just Tryin’ Ta Live, Devin The Dude
Devin was the soul behind Rap-A-Lot records for years. Legends such as Scarface, Dr. Dre, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Pimp C, and André 3000 count him as one the most original artists to come out of Houston. His second album came at the height of his scene-stealing appearance on Dr. Dre’s 2001 track “Fuck You.” You can still hear his influence today in artists like Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, and Curren$y.
14. Who Is Mike Jones? Mike Jones
It’s a travesty that the Houston rap boom of the early ’00s isn’t represented here. This album has its flagship song, “Still Tippin.’” It’s also just a damn good album. More hits — “Back Then” — and gems like “What Ya Know About.” You’re going to tell me [the best example is] Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Dirty. You’re going to say “Swishahouse”? I know, I get it, it’s not Rap-A-Lot or Jive, but this is the real deal. A Swishahouse record featuring Paul Wall, Slim Thug, and Bun B.
— Nick F.
15. Teflon Don, Rick Ross
Not a single album on this list has a production credit by Lex Luger. Sure, Wayne and André successfully eroded the idea of what a star rapper could sound like, look like, or rap about. But Lex Luger obliterated any vestiges of East Coast influence in Southern rap production. You can’t nod your head to a Luger beat; you can only lose your fucking mind when you hear that signature ascending run of notes. “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” is one of Luger’s highest-reaching credits on the rap charts and it’s the lizard-brain core of the greatest rap album that the state of Florida has ever produced: Rick Ross’s Teflon Don. If a Clipse album is Southern, a Miami album is Southern. Miami is 500 miles closer to the equator than Atlanta. Ross has rendered himself underrated after years of oversaturation and inconsistency, so it falls upon me to remind you all of the man’s capacity for greatness. Ross’s greatest superpower is his ability to warp reality. On “Free Mason,” Jay-Z is a man who never left his prime and John Legend is an egotistical asshole. On “B.M.F.,” Styles P issuing threats becomes pop music. This is an album of inspiring delusion by a rapper who was refusing to let rap’s early-2000s marriage to opulence fall apart. This is a bailout bank giving a bonus to a CEO during the recession, and it sounds amazing. By Teflon Don, Ross’s fourth album, he had perfected the physical act of rapping. Nothing sounds forced; everything flows flawlessly over beats that sound like a billion dollars. When you combine this with his unparalleled understanding of the power of words and the importance of staying on brand (rap game Don Draper), you get lines like “James Bond coupe pop clutch 100” — an action movie scene in six words.
— Chris R.
16. Bad Azz, Boosie Badazz
This album came out and suddenly no party was complete without “Set It Off,” “Zoom,” or “I’m Mad” being turned up to hazardous levels. Also if you were into a more mellow vibe, “Smoking on Purple” was played in my car so often that I’m pretty sure my Pontiac knew the lyrics by heart. Just know that for a few years in Louisiana this album made Boosie vs. Wayne a thing.
— Scott G.
17. Cadillactica, Big K.R.I.T.
During the compilation of “best of” lists, albums that served as innovators for their genre are often given greater status at the expense of newer music that draws from those sources to produce a more refined craft. Cadillactica falls into the latter category, as it sees an artist channeling great Southern rap originators from Outkast to T.I. to create a sprawling magnum opus. Throughout the album, K.R.I.T. is able to maintain a precarious balance by rapping with aggression while waxing philosophically, slotting songs about stealing your bitch because he drives a Cadillac (“Cadillactica”) directly alongside an exploration of how different generations define love (“Soul Food”). Perhaps this is simply the sort of ambition that is to be expected of an album inspired by a drawing of a Cadillac crash-landing to Earth and whose first single was an incendiary response to Kendrick Lamar’s epic dis verse on “Control.”
— Quinn M.
18. Book of Thugs: Chapter AK Verse 47, Trick Daddy
This album put Miami on the map post-Luke and pre-Ross. All the staples of the South loud are here: horns, crazy bass, and thug raps. Trick was at his peak and “Shut Up” is an underrated anthem.
— Ian S.
19. Da REAList, Plies
It didn’t have the biggest hit, or the cover with Plies serenely emerging from the Holy Bible, but the final installment of the Real trilogy had everything else. Jacksonville’s finest slurred a universal language on Da REAList — equal parts hedonistic triumph and street tough wisecracking — that had my friends and me dreaming of going to the mall and buying everything we wanted.
— Nathan F.
20. Hard to Kill, Gucci Mane
Your inclusion of Jeezy (while having no Gucci) is an affront of the highest level to Mr. Zone 6. He literally pioneered the genre known as trap music, influencing a countless number of artists today. Hard to Kill is predominantly produced by Zaytoven, one of the South’s most seminal producers, who deserves more than a mention when talking about Southern rap standards.
These submissions have been edited for clarity and accuracy.