Across the generations, many of the artists who’ve become the centerpieces of the industry have accomplished nearly everything there is to do — yet still falling short of entering the exclusive diamond club. An honor only bestowed on those who’ve sold upwards of 10 million album-equivalent units, it’d be reasonable to assume that most transcendent stars even suburban parents could identify would’ve found themselves holding this distinctive honor.
Yet in spite of their acclaim and massive success, icons such as Jay Z, Kanye West, Drake, and Dr. Dre have all fallen short of the mark.
At the time of writing, only 7 hip-hop artists can boast a diamond plaque, two of them being received posthumously. With such a tight-knit field, it’d stand to reason that each of these projects should’ve irreversibly changed hip-hop. For the most part, that is the case. In others, this landmark accomplishment reminds us that, for a moment in time, these artists captivated the world — even if they were incapable of scaling back to those heights again.
In the wake of a new record joining the pack, now is the time to reexamine these pillars of hip-hop’s commercial landscape. Before we begin, it’s important to note that compilations have been omitted from this re-evaluation, though 2Pac Shakur’s 1998 Greatest Hits album is indeed certified diamond.
MC Hammer – Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990)
1990 Capitol Records.
If you grew up anytime after the ’80s and heard the phrase “diamond certified artist,” it’s likely that MC Hammer wouldn’t be among the first names that sprang to mind. But after proving his upside potential on early hits such as “Turn This Mutha Out,” Capitol/EMI’s confidence in his charisma would pay off to the tune of over 10 million sales.
“U Can’t Touch This” became a clearcut example of how a single can catapult an album to implausible heights. Oddly, the track that spawned a million parachute pants and frequent use of the phrase “hammer time” never actually made it to number one on the singles charts, peaking at number eight due to the fact that it was only ever released as a 12”. However, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em’, the collection that houses both this smash single and the “When Doves Cry” sampling “Pray,” spent an astounding 21 weeks at the top of the charts.
Although technically listed under pop on sites likes Apple Music, this record’s lead single was undeniably a turning point for hip-hop’s infiltration of the mainstream. But with its historical context cast aside, it’s hard to imagine anyone pushing play on this record today and emerging believing that it was time well spent. Despite noble efforts from Hammer, his reimagining of The Chi-Lites solemn soul classic “Have You Seen Her” falls short of the mark, while the disjointed “Crime Story” felt like a non-committal attempt to appease the growing gangsta rap market.
Defined by uninspired tracks and a dated sound, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em’ accounts for both the prime of the Bay Area MC’s career — and the beginning of the end of the audience’s tolerance for his output.
2Pac – All Eyez On Me (1996)
Death Row Records
With the February 1996 release of All Eyez On Me, this idea was laid to rest as the Californian emcee delivered a project that kept up with his aspirations and multi-dimensional personality. Where Pac had previously attempted to consolidate his ideas onto a singular compact disc, his newly inked deal with Suge Knight’s Death Row allowed for his creativity to run rampant for a combined 132 minutes of blistering rhymes, revelations, and unchecked braggadocio.
Inspired by Pac’s decision to live unapologetically even as his enemies analyzed his every move, All Eyez On Me is a true accomplishment. The gangsta rap rallying cry “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” The ominous “Ambitionz Of A Ridah” and “Heartz Of Men.” The contemplative “I Ain’t Mad At Cha.” The animalistic lust of “How Do You Want It.” No other album demonstrated Pac’s versatility with as much style, poise, and versatility.
Containing both readymade anthems (“California Love,” “All About U,” “Picture Me Rollin’”) and sleeper hits that have aged magnificently (“Thug Passion,” “Tradin’ War Stories,” “Heaven Ain’t Hard To Find”), this is undeniably the most accomplished record of Pac’s career. Granted, there is certainly fat that could’ve been trimmed and its runtime can lead to listener fatigue, but the sheer force of Pac’s magnetic presence means that this project deserves its diamond certification and then some.
The Notorious BIG – Life After Death (1997)
1997 Bad Boy Records
From its eerie cover art shot on location at Cypress Hills cemetery to the brash bars imploring his enemies to take their best shot, the mythology surrounding The Notorious B.I.G’s swansong can often overshadow the record itself. In many ways, this was bound to happen given the tragic nature of his passing. Ironically, the tendency to view every syllable through the lens of loss was actually established on Tupac’s own farewell, Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.
Ramping up Biggie’s mafioso persona tenfold, Life After Death sees Biggie relish his position as both a supreme lyricist and commanding figure in the game. Beyond the magnetic worldwide smashes in “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and “Hypnotize” — tracks that ushered in the ‘jiggy rap’ era that he’d sadly never get to see play out — the venomous “Kick In The Door”, “Somebody’s Gotta Die” and the drug-dealing instructional “Ten Cracks Commandments” showed that this was an artist who most certainly wasn’t finished evolving.
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998)
1998 Ruffhouse Records
When it comes time for an artist to shed their role in an established group and branch out on their own, they’re often struck by confidence issues or an identity crisis. Yet as Lauryn Hill emerged from the rubble and toxicity of The Fugees’ final days, the best was yet to come.
Largely recorded between New York and Jamaica, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has a universality to its appeal that makes its recently-awarded diamond certification feel natural. Compelling from start to end, this is less of an album as it is a chance to enter the psyche of Ms Lauryn Hill, providing a candid insight into her life, worldview, and the music that molded her into a peerless artist.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
2000 Interscope Records
If there was any one album that you could pinpoint as the catalyst for Eminem making the leap from cultural icon to a man etched in stone on hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore, it is undeniably his sophomore studio album The Marshall Mathers LP. Both uproarious and filled with a persistent self-loathing, this record displayed the fusion of Em’s vocal barrage and Dr. Dre’s production at its most visceral.
In addition to Em’s tour de force performance throughout, the album also benefits from an impeccable roster of supporting players, many of whom went on to hold it down during the legendary Up In Smoke Tour: Dre, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, Nate Dogg, RBX, D12, and more. While the masterful “Kill You”, the maniacal “Kim” and its enduring singles like “The Way I Am,” “Stan, and “The Real Slim Shady” may differ in tone and intention, they’re all propelled by an enduring intensity. You couldn’t pry yourself away even if you wanted to.
Nelly – Country Grammar (2000)
2000 UMG Recordings
Capable of inhabiting the middle ground between singing and rapping like few that’d come before him, Nelly’s distinctive flow and regional dialect resonated with audiences almost instantly. Infamously dismissed by some of Universal’s top brass when he was signed, Nelly would make all the doubters eat their words when 2000’s Country Grammar propelled him to worldwide fame, with both its irrepressible title track and the City Spud assisted ‘Ride Wit Me’ still filling dancefloors to this day.
But while the uninitiated may find Nelly’s diamond status bizarre and might assume that it succeeded on the merits of its enduring singles alone, further exploration of Country Grammar shows that it doesn’t live and die on the basis of two-era defining anthems after all. In fact, it’s a cohesive project that’s low on filler and high on infectious tracks, positioning Nelly as the prototypical crossover star, archetypical for the many that have followed in his footsteps.
Eminem – The Eminem Show (2002)
2002 Aftermath Records
By the time that Slim Shady’s third album arrived in June of 2002, Eminem was more than one of hip-hop’s era-defining stars. To an entire subset of the audience who hung on his every word — he essentially was hip-hop.
Amidst all of the fanfare, Marshall Mathers found himself saddled with controversy on all sides. Exasperated as a result, The Eminem Show harnessed the chaotic energy that arose from his world becoming a media circus and deployed it in ways that purposefully shocked — all while placing a magnifying glass on some of America’s pressing societal issues.
Beginning in incendiary fashion with “White America,” Em commences this record with one foot on his critic’s necks and the other taped to the gas pedal. Loaded with unmistakable hits, offerings such as “Business”, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, the introspective “Sing For The Moment” and, of course, the bombastic “Without Me” are as punchy as ever. By the same token, overlooked classics such as “Till I Collapse”, “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” and the menacing “Square Dance” help to depict the sheer range that Em possessed in his heyday.
Outkast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below (2003)
2003 Arista Records
Of the many characteristics assigned to Outkast, it’s their otherworldliness that truly separates them. After years on the grind, that commitment to operating in a sphere of their own eventually paid off in dividends when 2003’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below crash-landed to earth.
Although it skyrocketed to diamond certification through massive hits such as Andre’s “Hey Ya!” and “Roses” and Big Boi’s “The Way You Move,” what makes Speakerboxx/The Love Below such a seminal moment in history isn’t how it allowed group members to exist singularly, nor that it was the last rap project to win “The Album Of The Year” Grammy.
More importantly, it revealed the sheer scope of what hip-hop could accomplish, all while being among the most subversive releases in the culture’s history.