The album peaked at number 42 on the Billboard 200 chart. By August 1989, it was certified platinum in sales by the RIAA, after shipments of one million copies in the United States. The album was very well-received by writers and music critics, and appeared on many publications' "best album" lists.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back has been regarded by music writers and publications as one of the most significant albums of the 1980s, as well as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all-time. The work has been hailed for its production techniques as well as the socially and politically-charged lyricism of lead MC Chuck D. In 2003, the album was ranked number 48 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, the highest ranking of all the hip hop albums on the list.