Insane Clown Posse are, quantifiably, the most maligned act in music.
They have been voted the worst band ever. They've been called the worst rappers of all-time. They have inspired think pieces describing their music "as part of a reactionary groundswell of American culture that sees ignorance of science and book-learnin' not as a weakness, but as a virtue." Even the FBI has labeled their hardcore fans, called Juggalos, "a loosely organized hybrid gang."
To say they've been "demonized" is an understatement.
Do they deserve it, though?
Like any band with a career stretching almost three decades, Insane Clown Posse—Joseph "Violent J" Bruce and Joseph "Shaggy 2 Dope" Ustler—have had their low points, sure. But I've long thought there is no way that these two extremely successful musicians—who've spawned countless imitators, their own record label, an annual music festival, a merchandising empire and a devoted subculture—could've accomplished what they have without their music having some artistic merit.
To test this hypothesis, I listened to all 13 Insane Clown Posse albums, in chronological order.
What follows is a ranking of ICP's studio albums—its 12 compilations, 13 EPs, three collaborative records and four solo efforts were too much for this undertaking—from worst to best. For each album, I have provided my listening notes, a short overview and a standout track. And what I found may surprise you. Namely, that J and Shaggy might be the most underrated rappers in hip-hop.
13. Carnival of Carnage (1992)
Sounds Like: Cypress Hill covered Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted while blacked-out drunk.
Chalk this one up to inexperience. Then 18 and 20 years old, and only a few demos and EPs deep into the rap game, Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J's wear their 90's West Coast influences on their sleeves. It's an extremely sloppy start. Producer Mike E. Clark shows promise with his acid spin on atonal late '80s funk, but the bloated tracklist drags. Carnival of Carnage is more trouble than it is worth.
Standout Track: The ultra-primitive late 80s throwback "Guts on the Ceiling."
12. The Great Milenko (1997)
Sounds Like: Carnival of Carnage—but with guitar!
Although it is usually seen as the album where ICP came into their own, The Great Milenko suffers from a case of ADD only slightly less serious than that of Carnival of Carnage. The "anything goes" whimsy of Ringmaster and Riddle Box disappears into a whirlwind of mid-paced, scratch-and-kick, drum-heavy beats, accented by guitar licks which clash more than complement. Although Clark's production takes a big step up, The Great Milenko offers little ICP hasn't already brought to the table, and does not improve on the formula.
Standout Track: "Pass Me By" is an early, melancholy taste of the uplifting pop that ICP come to master later in their career.
11. The Marvelous Missing Link: Lost (2015)
Sounds Like: ICP by way of Danny Brown's Old and Flosstradamus.
The Marvelous Missing Link: Lost sees Clark relinquish control of production to a team of in-house Psychopathic Records regulars. Although conceptually and sonically most similar to Hell's Pit, Lost swaps trip-hop atmosphere for dark, aggressive and polished Danny Brown and Waka Flocka-style molly rap that sacrifices silliness for violent morality tales. Although technically proficient, ICP foregoes its strengths—pop and murky horrorcore—for a cold and relentless litany of darkness. Breaking things up with painfully earnest Scott Stapp-style vocals at a few unfortunate moments certainly doesn't help.
Standout Track: The punishing atonality of "Shock" does a good job of channeling Godflesh's sparse industrial metal classic "Pulp."
10. Bizaar/Bizzar (2000)
Sounds Like: Insane Clown Posse fulfilling their contractual obligations.
Bizaar/Bizzar pushes the circus themes and skits mostly to the side for a rap-rock double album that signals the end of ICP's flirtations with the mainstream. The final albums that ICP recorded as part of its tempestuous deal with Island Records is heavy on murder and mayhem, but comes off as sterile and forced rather than fun or menacing. Not without its high points (the singles "Let's Go All the Way" and "Tilt-A-Whirl" are particularly strong), Bizaar/Bizzar mostly sounds like the Clowns wanted to get on with their business away from the pressure of chart success.
Standout Track: Insane Clown Posse are very good at doing moody, ambient rap. The Twiztid-featuring "Crystal Ball" is one of their best songs in this style.
9. Ringmaster (1994)
Sounds Like: Souls of Mischief as produced by DJ Paul.
ICP's second album steers the screeching chaos of Carnival of Carnage toward the funky silliness of mid-'90s backpack rap, with acidic nods toward Memphis' then-burgeoning horrorcore sound. Although J and Shaggy still sound more like a product of their time rather than an act of their own, Ringmaster is a fusion of disparate influences that works for about half of its 70 minutes.
Standout Track: The dark, psychedelic dub of "The Dead One" predicts the strength of Hell's Pit.
8. The Tempest (2007)
Sounds Like: Insane Clown Posse's take on KMFDM's Metropolis Records days.
One recurring theme in Clark's production is the influence of KMFDM-style industrial rock. Where hints of the German groups Wax Trax material used to show up in small flourishes in the '90s, the influence of the band's polished, modern material is explicit on The Tempest. This album succeeds when it doesn't lean too heavily toward nu-metal, making for a solid bridge between the new and old ICP.
Standout Track: Although most of ICP's "dick-joke narrative rap" songs are in the first chunk of their catalog, "Hum Drum Boogie" is one of the best in that particular style.
7. Riddle Box (1995)
Sounds Like: A cross between Massive Attack, Pharcyde and early Three 6 Mafia.
Clark weaves the psychedelic weirdness of Ringmaster into the funky murkiness of British trip-hop. The result is a more distinctive voice which pushes Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope's "Dark Carnival" mythos toward a unified aesthetic. Although many songs are still often longer than necessary, the miasma of atmospheric horrorcore that enshrouds the second half of Riddle Box makes it the high-point of ICP's early career.
Standout Track: If you like Massive Attack's Blue Lines, you'll love "Ol' Evil Eye."
6. Hell's Pit (2004)
Sounds Like: An alternate-reality version of Massive Attack's Mezzanine.
The Wraith's companion album is its conceptual and sonic opposite. The sound of Hell's Pit stands out from the rest of ICP's catalog through Mike Puwal's restrained minimalism, reminiscent of mid-period Massive Attack and J Dilla, which is unusually prescient of the critically acclaimed dark electronics of The Haxan Cloak and Demdike Stare, which it predates by a few years. Although the first half of the album bears a little too much of a resemblance to Korn's disappointing output of the early 2000s, the consistency of the second half of Hell's Pit makes it one of ICP's stronger offerings.
Standout Track: The haunting sparseness of "Manic Depressive" make it one of ICP's best and darkest tracks.
5. Bang! Pow! Boom! (2009)
Sounds Like: A combination of Gong, Billy Joel, Dead Can Dance, Ice Cube, The Surfaris, The KLF…and Hanson.
Bang! Pow! Boom! is the album that introduces the modern, and best, incarnation of the Insane Clown Posse. Mike E Clark directs a marked shift away from the narrative-driven rap that dominated most of ICP's career to this point, pushing it toward pop-first songwriting which has always been J and Shaggy's biggest strength. The closest thing to a primer on ICP's eclectic career, almost every song on B!B!P! illustrates a different facet of the group's strengths while letting them finesse their classic pop and rock influences. From the gothic earnestness of "Vera Lee" to the Halloween surf rock of "The Bone," B!P!B! sees J and Shaggy shape a cornucopia of influences into a cohesive whole with very little fat.
Standout Track: The 2010 video for "Miracles" made it the butt of a lot of jokes, but the song itself is an excellent interpretation of early '90s acid house that is better than anyone wants to admit.
4. The Marvelous Missing Link: Found (2015)
Sounds Like: New Atlanta maximalist pop-rap by way of late '80s R&B funk.
The most recent ICP album, Found, continues the trend J and Shaggy started with Bang! Boom! Pow! of hook-filled, pop-first rap, and to great affect. Distinctly influenced by Rick James and Prince, the same production team that engineered the aggression of Lost create a package of saccharine, ambient beats that significantly better suit J and Shaggy's renewed silliness. Unapologetically upbeat, Found finds the Clowns embrace New Atlanta and Chicago progressive pop rap to their benefit.
Standout Track: Insane Clown Posse have a lot of hilariously idiotic songs, but the bouncy, mid-'90s, East Coast rap-inspired "I Fucked a Cop" may be the most hilariously idiotic of them all.
3. The Wraith (2002)
Sounds Like: Young Jeezy hired The Polyphonic Spree to back him up on a hard-rock album.
The first Insane Clown Posse album without Mike E Clark (who stepped away due to health issues), Mike Puwal's festive, wall-of-sound production is a strong complement to ICP's newly positive, community focused lyrics. Firmly planted in rap-rock and significantly heavier than other ICP albums to date, The Wraith is an upbeat party of varied, maximalist production reminiscent of the best parts of Jeckel Brothers with an aggressively triumphant bent.
Standout Track: The fun, Twiztid-featuring ode to friendship "Juggalo Homies."
2. The Mighty Death Pop! (2012)
Sounds Like: Demdike Stare produced Sun Kil Moon's Benji.
Insane Clown Posse usually deliver their death-first subject matter through a veneer of cartoonish ultra-violence that puts it in the world of tongue-in-cheek self-parody. This is not the case with the distinctly melancholic The Mighty Death Pop!, in which ICP approaches its typical subject matter in a way more bitterly sardonic than silly. Clark's clean, Detroit techno and dark ambient-flavored production suit J and Shaggy's tales of people driven to sudden, early deaths, with poppy palette cleansers providing welcome distraction. Death Pop!'s tight songwriting and unusual humanity makes it one of ICP's best albums.
Standout Track: The title track is one of the best disco tracks written in many years.
1. The Amazing Jeckel Brothers (1999)
Sounds Like: The best Beastie Boys album ever written.
Insane Clown Posse have arrived. The Amazing Jeckel Brothers sees a distinctive shift in songwriting away from the meandering narrative rap of the first four albums toward tight pop arrangements which suit their bombast remarkably better. Familiar rap elements are beefed up with significantly more nuance thanks to Mike E Clark's meticulous production and guitarist Legz Diamond's tasteful flourishes, and the album is allowed to breathe with genuinely funny skits and high profile features from Snoop Dogg and Ol' Dirty Bastard. The Amazing Jeckel Brothers sees ICP hit their stride and transform the clunky rock elements of The Great Milenko into a varied, seamless rap-rock classic.
Standout Track: "Another Love Song" is a hilarious take on Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morisette-style alt-pop.