Putting together an album isn't easy. There are a lot of moving parts, from thinking of a title or concept, lining up producers, deciding on features if any and then getting them to contribute, selecting which songs need to stay or go and more. All of these things have to be well-executed. For many hip-hop albums, there is also the role of executive producer, in short, the person who makes sure the album sounds right and is put together properly. It isn't solely a one person, my-way-or-the-highway role; the artist and their team still has input, while the executive producer makes sure all bases are covered. Rappers have even become executive producers of other artists' albums. Here, XXL highlights some memorable hip-hop albums that were executive produced by rappers.
Rappers who got their start in the 1990s have executive produced quite a few albums. Jay-Z, a legendary artist-turned-mogul, executive produced Freeway's 2003 debut, Philadelphia Freeway, the home of Free's timeless single "What We Do," which features Hov and Beanie Sigel. Sean "Diddy" Combs, a very experienced executive producer in his own right, oversaw both of The Notorious B.I.G.'s albums that he created while alive: Ready To Die and Life After Death, along with Ma$e's debut album, Harlem World, in addition to nearly every Bad Boy Records release. Both Jay and Diddy's involvement in those respective records made a difference in how they were received, and show that experience is always valuable.
On the same token, younger acts are also trying their hand at the executive producer role. J. Cole executive produced Bas' 2018 album, Milky Way, lending a hand to his Dreamville artist on what is one of his best albums to date. Young Thug was at the helm of Lil Keed's 2020 mixtape, Trapped On Cleveland 3, as executive producer, and Gunna did the same on Lil Gotit's Top Chef Gotit, which arrived this past June. The brothers-in-slime helped out two siblings who are tied to the Young Stoner Life crew.
Artists extending themselves to help guide other artists projects is a very direct way to give back, and it's a beautiful thing. Check out the list below for a guide to memorable hip-hop albums executive produced by your favorite rappers.
In 2006, Lupe Fiasco's then-upcoming debut album, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, was one of the most anticipated projects that year. After his single "Kick, Push" took off, plus his already rock-solid mixtape history, everyone wanted to hear more from Lupe—fans and legendary rappers in their own right like Jay-Z. In his travels, Lupe met Jay-Z, who quickly took a liking to him and later helped him get a deal with Atlantic Records.
That relationship would lead to Jay-Z executive producing Food & Liqour. While there isn't much concrete information on Jay's involvement, he appears on "Pressure," a huge song in Lupe's discography on which they both bring their A-game, and Lupe holds his own. This album began Lupe's run as one of the most talented rappers out, and he did so under the wing of Jay-Z, someone who knows a thing or two about becoming a star in the booth.
After forming a friendship with fellow New York native Pop Smoke on his come up—and even seeing some of himself in the Brooklyn rapper—50 Cent was happy to work alongside Pop. The young rhymer was making a name for himself all over the city with his brand of Brooklyn drill. After Pop lost his life in a shooting in Los Angeles in 2019, 50 took it upon himself to finish putting together Pop's second album, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon.
Under Fif's tutelage, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and sold 251,000 copies in its first week, the best sales output and charting position of Pop's career. The LP is more commercially appealing than his previous works, with hit songs like "The Woo" featuring 50 and Roddy Ricch, and the inescapably catchy "For The Night" with DaBaby and Lil Baby sounding like scaled-up versions of the sound Pop was working on before his passing.
Without 50 Cent at the helm, this album would have turned out differently; he saw something in Pop and believed in his star potential. Fif's history as a certified hitmaker shows all over the album, from the other features—Future, Quavo and Tyga, to name a few—to multiple more romantic songs like "Something Special," originally just a sought after snippet.
Jay Rock is one of the early foundational blocks of Top Dawg Entertainment, vital to the label rising to the heights it now occupies. Kendrick Lamar eventually became the superstar, but the label has plenty of talent, and Jay Rock is surely in that conversation. He released his third album, Redemption, in 2018, on which K-Dot earned an executive producer credit. He also appears on one of the album's most fun songs, "Wow Freestyle," on which the two old friends bounce bars off each other like a game of hot potato.
Arguably his best album, Jay Rock's Redemption is concise and refreshing, with the talented MC rapping about his struggles within rap and his life, being patient and working his way from the dark to the light over a very modern set of beats. The LP was highly acclaimed upon its release, and pushed Jay Rock up the ranks of talented lyrical rappers. The album's title is fitting, as he sounds like an artist with a new perspective on both life and music, and Redemption being such a concise and easy listen only helped the overall project.
Dropping a little over two weeks after his death in 1997, The Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death is a classic album. The Brooklyn MC's star turn. Executive produced by Diddy, this sophomore album expanded on the world the duo created with B.I.G.'s Ready To Die.
Biggie was still the brooding street cat who wouldn't let anyone try him, but he was also a successful rapper with multiple hits under his belt. So this album allowed him to be free to ball and revel in all that comes with being a winner. Diddy's touch for knowing a home-run sample when he hears it and keeping Biggie focused and motivated helped make this album what it is.
"Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems" are hits in every sense of the word, but Biggie never cheapened himself or his style. The synergy between The Notorious B.I.G. and Diddy always worked, from beginning to end.
Part of Detroit's rap renaissance, 42 Dugg has been winning over fans with his features and overall demeanor; he makes street rap in the truest sense. Being signed to both Yo Gotti's CMG label and Lil Baby's 4PF imprint puts Dugg in excellent company; both label CEOs also executive produced Dugg's 2021 project, Free Dem Boyz.
Interestingly enough, Gotti nor Baby appear on the tape, but both have artists from their respective labels dropping in for features. 4PF's Rylo Rodriguez is on "Still Miss My Niggas" and CMG's latest buzzing act, Kentucky rapper Est Gee, appears on "Rose Gold." Both songs are solid, and Free Dem Boyz definitely feeds the fans, who surely wanted more 42 Dugg rhymes. The project is dedicated to Dugg's incarcerated friends, a touching decision for a project that came out at a critical point during his rise. Being under the tutelage of a successful and respected veteran like Yo Gotti, and a true street rap star like Lil Baby helped in the culmination of the final product.
Mach-Hommy, the elusive New Jersey-bred, Haitian American rapper, released his highly lauded album Pray For Haiti in May of this year. Executive produced by Griselda Records frontman Westside Gunn, this album is Mach's most approachable work, on which he rhymes in layered terms about his life in America, Black pride, love, the streets, and everything in between.
In interviews, Gunn has explained his role as seeking out production for the project, then letting Mach create as he does. Mach-Hommy has always been a skilled MC, but his references and wordplay can be a code that is difficult to crack for some. That barrier of entry is eased a bit while still delivering high-level lyricism over incredible production.
This reunion of friends who were once at odds worked out for both parties, as Gunn's touch in the background—plus a few feature verses—and Mach's fresh rhymes are a match made in heaven.
The Diplomats are one of the most popular rap crews in New York City hip-hop history, and their appeal reached far outside of the tri-state area. For the unaware, its core members are Cam'ron, Juelz Santana, Freekey Zeekey and Jim Jones, the latter of which became more respected as a rapper near the end of the group's run. Jones simply got better around the studio and with his bars, and reached the summit with his hit single "We Fly High," which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 a few months after its October of 2006 release. His third album, Hustler's P.O.M.E. (Product Of My Environment) dropped the next month, executive produced by both Jones and Cam'ron.
The album sold 106,000 copies in its first week, a success for a rhymer like Jones. Cam'ron appears on "Pin The Tail," and was likely around during the album's entire creative process, as the Dipset crew was tight-knit and held each other down in those times. The Diplomats always managed to make unique music as solo acts, and maintained the fly yet tough Harlem aesthetic that they always preached. Hustler's P.O.M.E. (Product Of My Environment) is a solid example of how far that can go.
Swizz Beatz and DMX came up together as friends and brothers, both becoming stars simultaneously as members of the tight-knit Ruff Ryders crew. Loyal friends through it all, last year, Swizz teamed up with X for his Exodus album, which would release shortly after The Dog's death this past April. Not a posthumous album in the typical sense, X and Swizz worked hand-in-hand the entire time, and finished the album before its late May release.
He wanted Exodus to be a celebration of X's life and accomplishments, thus he recruited newer rappers like Moneybagg Yo ("Money Money Money") and the Griselda gang ("Hood Blues"), along with pulling in X's old friends like The Lox ("That's My Dog") Jay-Z and Nas ("Bath Salts"). This album served as a time capsule of two brothers through music and life lifting each other up, which became more of a testament to loyalty and giving someone their roses while they can still smell them. Swizz celebrated X when he was here, and he continues to do so after his passing.
Part of the Dreamville Records team, Queens MC Bas released his third album, the worldly Milky Way, in 2018. J. Cole came through as one of its executive producers, helping add to the album's appeal for its use of sounds from across the diaspora, including baile funk, South African house and pop.
J. Cole has always been hands on with Dreamville releases, and this time around, he appeared on the album's biggest single, "Tribe." Milky Way is also Bas' most concise release yet, touching on life, love and survival in a seamless and consistent way, without ever being heavy-handed. This album helped increase Bas' popularity on a talented label, led by a clear-cut rap superstar. The tones and themes aren't unlike a Cole album, but Bas' thoughtfulness and framing of the everyman lifestyle as something he both embodies and is stepping away from is refreshing.
When an artists is affiliated with the Young Stoner Life, the crew led by Young Thug that has produced successful runs from Gunna and Lil Keed, there's a certain standard that is expected to be upheld. Lil Gotit, a rapper who isn't signed to YSL but is within that circle being that he's Lil Keed's brother, has continued to get better with his artistry by the year, since his debut in 2017. As his talent becomes more focused and he keeps dropping music, Gotit decided to try something different for his most recent album, Top Chef Gotit, realesed in June. He embraced Gunna, who already has multiple hits of his own, as his executive producer on the project
Lil Gotit explained that Gunna decided to do this project because they understand each other's creative vision, plus Gunna wants to see Gotit rise up to Gunna's level of fame and success. The executive producer role included Gunna going over songs, phone conversations with Gotit and giving Gotit advice for each track. Gunna's hands-on approach helped make Top Chef Gotit one of Gotit's best and most streamlined projects. Gunna also raps on the song "Work Out," leaving more of his fingerprints on the work.
Bad Boy Records was in a tough spot after The Notorious B.I.G.'s death, but Ma$e's debut album, Harlem World, helped the label transition into its next phase. While Biggie was the thoughtful yet tortured soul on the mic, Ma$e was the fun-loving youth who had a natural bounce to his work and a penchant for catchy songs. Ma$e's pedigree as a rugged street rapper once getting his start in the much-respected group Children of the Corn (a crew featuring Big L, Cam'ron and other Harlem MCs) allowed him the space to hop into one of Bad Boy's "shiny suits" and refrain from losing credibility. He was cool, and so was Diddy, and they both wanted to make hits; it's a match made in heaven, which earned Diddy a spot as executive producer on the LP.
Harlem World features "Feel So Good" and "What You Want," songs that loom so large that anyone who was around at the time remembers the tracks today. Diddy can sometimes be seen as formulaic, as so many of his big hits rely on samples of huge tracks from yesteryear, but that's a bit unfair. He knew how to get the best out of the artists on his label and move them to the next level, and did so with this effort.
Young Stoner Life has been steadily rising as one of the more intriguing young rap crews over the years, especially as the leader Young Thug and second-in-command Gunna have turned into stars. Lil Keed is next in line for his big break, as his music and style has continued to develop over the years. Trapped On Cleveland 3, Keed's 2020 project, is executive produced by Thugger, who believed in the youngster from early on.
Trapped On Cleveland 3 is one of Keed's best projects, and it's partially due to the sequencing. The album feels well thought-out with the way the songs are placed, in addition to Keed's ability to let his voice be used as a melodic instrument. He also separates himself sonically from Thug. While Thugger appears on one of the album's singles, "Kiss Em Peace," they both have unique approaches on the song. YSL's future continues to unfold, and Thug's hand in helping Keed's project come to fruition shows just how much he cares.
Juelz Santana is one of the reason Dipset had a meteoric rise in rap in the early 2000s. His charisma, penchant for one-liners and style brought eyes and ears in his direction. He was the young up-and-comer to Cam'ron's grizzled industry veteran status and Jim Jones' gruff persona. The Diplomats worked off each other, and that sense of teamwork positioned Juelz as the second most popular member. So when it was time for ’Elz's debut album, From Me To U, to hit the streets in 2003, Cam'ron and Jones both executive produced the effort.
Cam'ron was around for each of the early Dipset albums coming together, so it's no surprise he appears on From Me To U, rapping the hook on the classic "Dipset (Santana's Town)" and also showing up on "Let's Go." Meanwhile, Jim Jones is on "This Is For My Homies," "Wherever I Go" and the "My Love (Remix)." The album sold 74,000 copies in its first week, and paints a gritty picture of what it was like to be around in the era of The Dips.
In the early 2000s, Roc-A-fella Records was still a powerhouse, led by Jay-Z, and bolstered by signees and producers like Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Just Blaze, Kanye West and other acts. Freeway was a rising rhymer, signed after his appearance on the 2000 Roc posse cut "1-900-Hustler." When it was album time for Free in 2003, the project that would come to be known as Philadelphia Freeway was executive produced by Jay-Z and the two lead Roc-A-fella execs: the inimitable Dame Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke.
According to Freeway, the trio was around for the recording of the album, and kept a watchful eye as Freeway steered the ship. Jay-Z's verse on "What We Do," a classic single from the LP, was originally just going to be some ad-libs, but Hov took it on himself to rhyme on the song. Then later, Beanie Sigel did the same, piecing together one of the biggest—if not the biggest—songs of Freeway's career.
Philadelphia Freeway is an incredible album, full of tales of making a way out of the tight grip of the Philly streets over 10 Just Blaze-produced beats—on a 16-song project. Kanye's contributions are nothing to shake a stick at either. Overall, Philadelphia Freeway is one of Roc-A-fella's best releases ever.
Ready To Die, The Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album, is a bona fide classic that put the rap world on notice on two levels. First, Biggie Smalls from Brooklyn wasn't just the future, he was the present of elite rhyming. Second, his partner-in-crime, Bad Boy Records founder Sean "Diddy" Combs had a vision unlike any other. Even today, the way Biggie approached songwriting and lyricism is incredible, with the seemingly endless well of flows he was comfortable with and a sort of dark charisma permeating it all.
The talent was there, and Diddy did what any record label exec should do with their artist—go hard. It was Diddy that nudged Biggie to be the smooth ladies' man that we hear on "Big Poppa," one of The Notorious B.I.G.'s career-defining tracks. Diddy knew that B.I.G. was a superstar lying in wait, and his ability to put songs together and create a central vision helped propel him to that rarefied air he exists in now.