The Top 30 Rap Albums of the Decade (So Far)

KRS-One is standing behind me with a gun. I don’t know how much time I have left, so let me get a few things out of the way: Hip-hop is always “dead” or “dying”; at the very least, it will never be what it once was. Today’s rappers are softer, wacker, more prone to biting than their predecessors. Today could be today or 2008 or 2002—it doesn’t matter. Today is 1,500 feet below sea level. Things done changed, and not for the better. Love the culture™. War is peace. Freedom is slavery.


Explaining where rap is in 2014 is complicated. There is a din seeping out from Soundcloud and your Twitter feed that is too much to take in, much less delineate. But we can point to some curious sea changes in the last five years: raucous trap and its offshoots (“I Don’t Like”) ruled 2011 and 2012, until it gave way to the woozy negative space (“U.O.E.N.O.”) that sprouted ratchet and whatever you want to call what’s happening in Atlanta. But isn’t ratchet just hyphy with more guns and less indecipherable slang?

The most capital-I important rap album of the half-decade, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, came out on a major label, but was uncompromising and lacked a true hit single. The biggest hitmaker not named Drake, Future, is ubiquitous, but his albums aren’t. Kanye West is more determined than ever to flex his star power, but he stopped dictating the sound of his peers. Jay Z and Eminem put out albums, apparently. I can’t quite remember.

Ignorance, after all, might be strength. Backpacks have either evaporated into thin air or been shoved in closets. Migos will likely go down in history for their stylistic innovation more than their actual music, but they typify the style most of today’s most creative rappers have adopted. Of course, “ignorant” is pejorative and inaccurate, but Young Thug is not the voice of the moment for his careful consideration. He doesn’t appear on this list, but his overactive id finds its roots in many of these albums.

And as romantic as the notion of the young, boundless upstart is, another demographic group decided to make its presence known. There is a small contingent of New York rappers who were swept into a Brooklyn laboratory where they spent a decade perfecting their craft, hidden from the sunlight. Ka, billy woods, and Roc Marciano take up the banner here with albums that are steeped in New York’s mid-‘90s golden age, but are also recklessly forward thinking.

There was no airtight methodology at work. I don’t know how to navigate Excel. I didn’t cross-reference sales numbers with word counts broken into columns marked ‘Club’, ‘Girls’, and ‘Childhood’. These may not be the thirty most influential rap albums released between January 1st, 2010 and August 31st, 2014. But my gut says they’re the best. The order was scrutinized, changed, then torn apart, but that’s beside the point. What follows are thirty records by twenty-four rappers that are marvels of either technical precision or creative vision—sometimes both. There are heartfelt tapes shaped by divorces and midlife crises; there are coldly emotionless arguments for gangsta rap’s relevancy fifteen years past its expiration date. If nothing else, this is irrefutable proof that rap is very, very alive.

Paul Thompson

September 2014, Los Angeles.

100. "2 Phones" - Kevin Gates

A1/Freebandz/Epic (2012)
Michael Jordan was meant to play basketball. Winston Churchill was born to lead men. And Nayvadius “Future” Wilburn was put on Earth to communicate joy. Pluto is not a perfect record; maybe Epic was trying to even out the risk-reward balance, pitching the Dungeon Family disciple as simply a reliable pop hook crooner. So you’re left with hiccups: “Parachute”, the opening number, is essentially an R. Kelly solo song; Drake tries his damndest to dial “Tony Montana”’s menace down to a 6. But when left to his own devices, Future is a revelation—a pop auteur who filters his bizarre tastes and syntax through a kaleidoscope of mid-2000s rap influences. What’s more, Future has the rare ability to shed his self-consciousness without losing his vicious edge. “Turn on the Lights” is an achingly vulnerable love song, but he’s still cooking dope on “Same Damn Time”. And for all the images of bare cots and stash spots, “Straight Up” is the happiest you can legally be in the state of Georgia.

30. Pluto - Future

A1/Freebandz/Epic (2012)
Michael Jordan was meant to play basketball. Winston Churchill was born to lead men. And Nayvadius “Future” Wilburn was put on Earth to communicate joy. Pluto is not a perfect record; maybe Epic was trying to even out the risk-reward balance, pitching the Dungeon Family disciple as simply a reliable pop hook crooner. So you’re left with hiccups: “Parachute”, the opening number, is essentially an R. Kelly solo song; Drake tries his damndest to dial “Tony Montana”’s menace down to a 6. But when left to his own devices, Future is a revelation—a pop auteur who filters his bizarre tastes and syntax through a kaleidoscope of mid-2000s rap influences. What’s more, Future has the rare ability to shed his self-consciousness without losing his vicious edge. “Turn on the Lights” is an achingly vulnerable love song, but he’s still cooking dope on “Same Damn Time”. And for all the images of bare cots and stash spots, “Straight Up” is the happiest you can legally be in the state of Georgia.

29. Niggas Is Men - Quelle Chris

Mello Music Group (2014)

In 2013, Quelle Chris put out a critically acclaimed record on Mello Music Group. With it, the Detroit rapper-producer willed his way onto radio and critics’ lists and iPods, making a name for himself as a formalist with a sense of humor, a throwback artist who could embrace the avant-garde. This is not that record. That was Ghost At the Finish Line, a perfectly fine, clever LP, home to “Super Fuck”, the modern underground’s version of “The New Workout Plan”. But the best Quelle Chris project of the year was a little-heard compilation, dropped unceremoniously in March. That was Niggas Is Men: a record that’s lean, soulful, thoughtful, hilarious. The plaintive declarations (“We Eat It” shrugs: “Just feed the poison to the rats”) drive home the unrest—are we eating right? Is this a career? Does she look like trouble? With Cavalier comfortable in the Ghostface role, Quelle Chris delivers the smartest, grimiest tape you missed this decade. “Listening to ratchet music made by niggas with Bachelors.”

28. Black Up - Shabazz Palaces

Sub Pop (2011)

Black Up is the kind of record that can slip right through your fingers. The same qualities that make it rewarding—the unconventional structures, the oft-oblique lyricism, the intentional ambiguities—can render it, perhaps, too artful, something to be admired rather than engaged with. “Are you… Can you… Were you? (Felt)” goes to explicit lengths to dispel this notion. It begins with a simple, repeated mantra, one that will come back later: “It’s a feeling.” The voice belongs to Ishmael Butler, formerly of Diagable Planets. Toward the end of the last decade, Butler retreated to his native Seattle and, together with producer Tendai Maraire, formed Shabazz Palaces. Black Up makes no concessions to convention, but it is not the stubborn articulation of a single point of view. The second half of “Youlogy” pops and sizzles with the angriest boom-bap revivalists; “yeah you” is a vaguely industrial chant that barely qualifies as rapping. Butler and Maraire found a corner of the country, of the genre, where they can slither back and forth, unbound by rules or dogma. And you get to catch them

27. Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang - Raekwon

EMI (2011)
Raekwon was never meant to be a protagonist. He has the notes from a villain’s theme coursing through his veins. The evil streak runs so deep, in fact, that he’s even the adversary in his own group. Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang was conceived as a Wu-Tang album that was meant to be independent of the RZA’s influence, a response to the much-maligned 8 Diagrams. Instead, the Chef took it upon himself to be the anti-hero. With Shaolin, he accomplished what he couldn’t with Immobilarity: follow a classic with a companion piece, on his own, no RZA, no baggage. “The Scroll” is as relentlessly grimy as anything from ’95. The imagery is still there—“Silver Rings” catches he and Ghost jetting from Egypt back to the U.S. Open, never taking off their fleeces or their Asics. It was wrong of us to hold Raekwon as a relic from another era. He’s the bad guy, and the world bends when he says so.

26. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

Fool’s Gold (2013)

Run the Jewels is an exercise in redemption, except it isn’t. It’s tempting to trace the narrative all the way back—to talk about how El-P built an empire only to watch the internet tear it down; to remember Killer Mike as the unjustly forgotten arm of the Outkast reign. But Run the Jewels was inevitable. It’s the marriage of two bullish creative forces, a wrecking ball equipped with and MPC and years of frustration. There are no running storylines, no hidden metaphors, no skits that tie together if you play the album backward and peer through the vinyl in direct sunlight. The guys are doing dances on your windpipe and spitting cocaine flows, no re-rock. “Sea Legs” is a boom-bap classic if you grew up on Mars. Put simply, Run the Jewels bangs, because it was always destined to bang.

25. Acid Rap - Chance the Rapper

Self-released (2013)

Chance the Rapper has, thus far, been largely excepted from the conversation that reads all Chicago rap as political. The teenager—ironically, the son of a one-time aide to the Obama administration—has been lauded for his simple rapping ability above all else. He wears his influences (Wayne, Kendrick, West) nakedly and proudly, and takes great joy in his ability to synthesize them into something new, something pliable and witty and mean and endlessly fun. But for all the buoyant ad-libs, all the slang-drenched turns in the verses, all the “Juice”s and all the “Favorite Song”s, Acid Rap is, at its core, about how it feels to be dispossessed. On “Paranoia”, he gives names, faces, backstories to news-ticker statistics. “I know you scared—you should ask us if we scared, too.” He urges his classmates to say their goodbyes on the last day of school because so many die over the summer breaks. From “Chain Smoker”: “Lot of niggas wanna go out with a bang/But I ain’t trying to go out at all.” Chance’s Chicago is papered with images of his favorite rap stars, but it’s still a perilous place, and he’s just trying to survive.

24. Blue Chips 2 - Action Bronson

Self-released (2013)

Exactly eight minutes into Blue Chips 2, Action Bronson raps “Since the last time I seen you, boo, I’ve been around the world.” He hasn’t, but that doesn’t matter. Bronson doesn’t just step out of reality—he triple-back-flips off the balcony into the tan Porsche and speeds off to Sicily with ethnically ambiguous models. The 30-year-old chef from Queens came into his own in 2012, shedding the Ghostface comparisons and shooting up critics’ lists with Rare Chandeliers and the first Blue Chips installment. But it was on 2013’s sequel that Bronson and producer Party Supplies doubled down. There were more 12,000-calorie meals, more guns in Patrick Ewing’s face, more wink-and-nod Youtube samples. Cartoonish luxury seeps even from the throwaway lines: “360 on the Seadoo in a tux/Call my homie, tell him meet me down at Lido Beach for lunch”; “If you see me in a leather, know it’s reaching the floor”; “Come in the crib every night, and I kiss my daughter/Same lips spit on the lawyer”. Action Bronson might be today’s best New York rapper, but he’s certainly the most New York rapper.

23. My Krazy Life - YG

Def Jam (2014)

“I used to rob niggas—that’s probably why they’re trying to rob my style.” YG has built something, slowly and deliberately. Along with DJ Mustard and four carefully chosen piano keys, the young Blood from Compton made the rarest of things: an uncompromising, auteurish rap debut on a major label. My Krazy Life takes a long, hard stare at the skeletons of G-Funk and (especially) hyphy, then rearranges the bones into something lean and visceral. As he weaves through the familiar streets—Spruce, Rosecrans, Alameda—YG’s world is revealed as a delicate balance. This is a swap meet with tacit understandings, a house party with two too many guns. “I Just Wanna Party” qualifies its title in the most earnest way possible; “Bicken Back Being Bool” injects a lazy afternoon with creeping, unshakable dread. Just as importantly, YG proves himself an unexpectedly clever writer: his verses on “Meet the Flockers” and “Smokin’ ‘N Drinkin’” are show-stopping, the latter upstaging another touted newcomer from Compton.

22. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty - Big Boi

Def Jam (2010)

Toward the end of Outkast’s run, you could feel the tension. It wasn’t necessarily personal--Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin were just bound to different creative orbits. With 3 Stacks fully indulging his peripatetic streak, it fell to Big Boi to anchor Stankonia in feathered hats and freshly buffed Cadillacs. The trial separation, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, won the Grammy but lost the plot; Big Boi’s half is, for the most part, a compelling rap record, but has been forever relegated to footnote status. Then, not suddenly—the label red tape stuck for years—but eventually, Big Boi’s shoulders were light again. His proper solo debut, 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is a record that cannot be brushed off. Big Boi toes an important line: Sir Lucious has all the requisite funk, but never feels like a throwback project. “Daddy Fat Sax” and “General Patton” are undeniable, relentless; “Shine Blockas” and “For Yo Sorrows” are home-run collaborations with all-star casts. There might be a world outside of West Savannah, but for fifty-seven minutes, it doesn’t matter.

21. A Badly Broken Code - Dessa

2010, Doomtree

If someone has pitched you Dessa’s music, chances are they buried the lede. Yes, she raps and sings preternaturally well. She’s a woman in a male-dominated group, scene, genre, world. She has work in print and in orchestra halls. But A Badly Broken Code is not an experiment in hopping genres or flexing her philosophy degree or extended spoken-word breaks. The Doomtree emcee’s 2010 solo debut is something else, something better. A Badly Broken Code deals in personal indignities (“Crew”) and the metaphysical (“Poor Atlas”), but transcends when it brings the two to a haunting intersection. On “Children’s Work”, Dess and her younger brother are “the little mystic and his handler”; “Seamstress” reduces a broken relationship to a neat—albeit cautionary—fable. The vision is narrow, because her writing works so well in tight confines. From “Momento Mori”: “The prettiest girl in the room stood, collected her things/Fastened her coat up around her fine throat/And though you didn’t notice, there for just one moment/Well, I was the prettiest woman with you.”

20. Yeezus - Kanye West

Def Jam (2012)
Yeezus is, above all else, a midlife crisis. Kanye West was doing just fine—he came back from (choose: Taylor Swift/George Bush/Amber Rose) a hero, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy running the table with critics and fans, “Runaway” the misguided rallying cry for guys with locks on their phones. He was a pop star again. Dark Fantasy missed out on an Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys, but West didn’t make a peep. He started dating the girl of his dreams, and the couple was soon expecting a child. But it wasn’t enough.

So Kanye West went to Paris, holing up in an empty loft with a small circle of friends and collaborators. He came back with Yeezus, a forty-minute fever dream obsessed with sex and loss—in either order. Yeezus is a rap album in the only the loosest sense: Borrowing heavily from drill and house music, Kanye screams into the microphone (“I Am a God”) and resurrects his 808s & Heartbreak-era bloodletting-by-Autotune (“Blood on the Leaves”). Kanye’s id is ripping him apart from the inside, and he is alternately anguished by it (“Hold My Liquor”) or along for the ride (“Send It Up”). Coupled with “New Slaves” and its incisive critique of the private prison industry, Yeezus is the most unrestrained, unfiltered Kanye West record yet. It’s messy, because so is West.

19. History Will Absolve Me - billy woods

Backwoodz Studioz (2012)
“Eyes on the horizon, thinking ‘That nigga couldn’t have survived it’, but I’m full of surprises.” billy woods was adrift for a long time. He lurked on the periphery of New York’s underground for a while—on Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, Vordul Mega recounts the robbery of an apartment inhabited by woods and his then-girlfriend. But after some early solo efforts, woods played the background, running a small label and only recording as half of the Super Chron Flight Brothers. He had carved out a small niche in the post-Def Jux boom years, and that, it seemed, was that.

So no one was prepared for what happened in 2012. Drawing on a childhood that bounced between Africa, Jamaica, and New York City (not to mention his father’s experience as a political refugee), billy woods delivered History Will Absolve Me, a dense, stunning LP. History is expansive, to the point where it should be incoherent. It isn’t. “Cash 4 Gold” is a biting deconstruction of the scene at a strip club; “Pompeii” follows government officials from war crimes trials to the firing squad; “Bill Cosby” leaves the proverbial Cliff Huxtable in a pool of blood at his son’s hand. woods is one of the sharpest writers working today, and History allows him to flex his pen in dozens of different ways.

18. Skelethon - Aesop Rock

Rhymesayers (2012)
The last song on Skelethon is the most gut-wrenching number in Aesop Rock’s catalog—a catalog that is often uncomfortably personal. Foregoing his usual crypticism, Ian Bavitz starts the third verse of “Gopher Guts”: “I have been completely unable to maintain any semblance of a relationship, on any level.” It’s a cleansing of sorts, a way to purge latent guilt after you accidentally saw women in half. But this is not the conclusion of a decade-long unraveling from the first-class emcee. What haunts you, what sticks in the front of your mind hours after “Gopher Guts” cuts off is not the image of a man in disrepair. It’s the control, the cool, deliberate precision. This is Skelethon, and Skelethon is Aesop Rock’s show—his demons have had their day.

His first proper release since 2007’s None Shall Pass, Skelethon loses the training wheels longtime collaborator Blockhead represented. The result is a tour de force on both sides of the boards, a razor-sharp, hyper-focused record with nary a wasted syllable or snare kick. The rhymes are dense as ever, but delivered with the loose charisma most underground legends chase their whole careers. Aes is preposterously witty—“Grace” is a genuinely hilarious power struggle between a parent and child over a plate of vegetables. Ian Bavitz left New York for the Bay Area in the middle of the last decade, but it doesn’t matter: he’s from another planet altogether.

17. Life Is Good - Nas

Def Jam (2012)
The most famous skit in hip-hop takes up arms on Nas’ behalf. On “Shark Niggas (Biters)” from Raekwon’s seminal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Rae and Ghostface lament the unoriginal, the imitators. Included among the snakes is Biggie, who they allege bit the Illmatic cover with his own baby pictured-up Ready to Die. This has always (or at least since ’95) been Nas: fighting for his place at the table, sure of his worth but not of his title. The videos with Puff, the purist revivals, the Bentleys, projects. But in 2012, the blunt smoke cleared for fifty-eight minutes. Nas, thirty-eight years old and fresh off a divorce, was finally, simply, Nas.

The one-time wunderkind from Queensbridge (“At 17 I made $17,000, living in public housing”) is looking back from the same project window he first appeared behind. Tracing his life from his too-public divorce from singer Kelis (“Bye Baby”) back through his adolescence as a stick-up kid, Life Is Good is bursting with images only Nas can render. But anchoring the syrup sandwiches and the rap sheets that “look like obituaries” is a reinvigorated Nasir Jones, the one roused only intermittently since the mid-‘90s. Some credit, no doubt, goes to No I.D., who produced five songs on the record. The sharpest of their collaborations, “Loco-Motive”, is a door into pissy, humid subway stations; trains rattle the tracks, shoulders rub too closely. At the end of the song, Nas extends an unexpected shoutout: “This for my trapped-in-the-‘90s niggas.” He knows who he was, what made him—but he’s finally ready to move on.

16. Stranger Than Fiction - Kevin Gates

Self-released (2013)
There is no such thing as a casual Kevin Gates fan. He broke came barreling into the national consciousness in 2013, but had been a regional hero for a half-decade before that, filling the vacuum in Baton Rouge left by Lil’ Boosie’s incarceration. Much like Boosie, Gates’ appeal is staked on a perplexing ability to blend menace and vulnerability—his credentials are unquestioned (and terrifying), but you frequently feel as if you’re crashing a therapy session. This inspires a fanatical following, complete with live shows that more closely resemble evangelical gatherings than rap concerts. Stranger Than Fiction, the second of his phenomenal 2013 mixtapes, is the best argument for Kevin Gates as high priest.

Stranger Than Fiction is too long, but it doesn’t matter. Gates is a figure so captivating (as both a writer and performer) that you can’t look away for fear of missing the next big reveal. “4:30 AM”, on which Gates recounts a struggle with a late friend over a pistol, should be the emotional climax of the whole record. It isn’t. On “Smiling Faces”, he keeps waking up in the middle of the night; “Every bitch I’m with find out I ain’t shit after three weeks of just fucking with me.” He invites his sharpest stylistic cousins—Starlito, the Migos, Juicy J—and out-raps them all. Stranger Than Fiction is a decidedly Southern effort, but its appeal is more fundamental: Kevin Gates, as much as any rapper working, is the master of ceremonies.

15. Section.80 - Kendrick Lamar

Top Dawg (2011)
As a concept record, Section.80 largely fails. Kendrick Lamar didn’t make a generation-defining album; he couldn’t rally young twenty-somethings around a common philosophy or a couple of catchphrases. When he tries for the Important Rap Song, he often falls backward into moralism that is broad and trite (“No Make Up”) or well intentioned but paternalistic (“Keisha’s Song”). So when, on “Ab-Soul’s Outro”, Lamar boasts that he can “talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history—all in the same sentence”, you can’t help but roll your eyes. Section.80 is not the record he set out to make. It’s something else—and it’s better.

When it lets its hair down, Section.80 is bolder, more adventurous, more rewardingly weird. “Blow My High (Members Only)” is built entirely around Pimp C’s verse from “Big Pimpin’”, but it’s also an Aaliyah tribute, but it also commemorates Left Eye, and it also sounds like it’s been sipping lean for 96 hours. “Rigamortus” is a master class in technical rapping, but it’s too loose and jubilant to fit in a backpack. And “A.D.H.D.”, the record’s emotional center, can’t decide if it’s a detail-heavy portrait of a house party or a thesis on Kendrick’s vocal aesthetic—so it’s both. If Section.80 falls short as a rap debut by the prescriptive, formalist criteria, it dazzles as a bizarre creative tangent. Kendrick knows this, at least subconsciously. Despite his grand ambitions, his speech on “Ab-Soul’s Outro” comes with an important qualifier: “I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human-motherfucking-being, over dope-ass instrumentation.”

14. Night’s Gambit - Ka

Iron Works (2013)
On “Barring the Likeness”, Ka says of his youth: “Lost my innocence on the porch of tenements.” Poetic but economical, vivid but impersonal—this is Ka. This is the closest we’ll get to an origin story. The one-time also-ran, the avant-garde revivalist. We don’t know the names of uncles or neighbors, the address of the stash spot, the brand of blunt wraps. We don’t need to. Night’s Gambit picks up where Grief Pedigree left off: the part of Ka’s brain that was frozen in 1995, then warped into something inhuman.

There are still almost no drums. The vocal samples border on the melodramatic. But Ka’s writing is planted firmly in the piss-stained hallways from which he came. “Peace Akhi” is as undeniable a song as has come out of New York in a decade. The Roc Marciano duet “Soap Box” is as far from street preaching as can be—they wouldn’t expect their audience to follow their lead, because their audience doesn’t know the mathematics. Night’s Gambit is the work of an auteur with a chip on his shoulder. With nothing left to prove to critics or his peers, the Brooklynite can’t help but stay the course: hushed, gritty, relentless.

13. NoYork! - Blu

Self-released (2011)
NoYork! is the definitive Los Angeles rap album. Back up. The first half of the 2000s saw at last half a dozen half-hearted ‘movements’ to Bring L.A. Back. The practice, perched on the shoulders of forgettable rappers (and mirrored in perpetuity on the other coast) was futile, of course. No number of Guerilla Blacks or even Games can be stacked up to box with Dre and Snoop. But before Kendrick, Tyler, et al. started knocking down buildings, there was Blu. His formalist debut, 2007’s Exile-produced Below the Heavens, was heralded on its release as an underground classic.

In the eyes of many, he would never live up to Heavens—but as his Jansport straps and grip on reality loosened, Blu got more inaccessible, more indulgent, and better. NoYork! is the illegitimate child of a brief stint on Warner, who would never release the record. Dumped online without ceremony in the dog days of summer 2011, it has its finger squarely on the pulse of L.A.’s bubbling beat scene. “Hours” is a psychedelic blue-collar lament drowned in sythns; “Tags” marries percussive boom-bap to Low End Theory electronica. At its best, NoYork! falls so far down the rabbit hole it plays like a case study. It’s sprawling, hazy, and reliably surreal—just like L.A.

12. XXX - Danny Brown

Fool’s Gold (2012)
Danny Brown never met a party he didn’t like. On “Die Like A Rockstar”, the second track on his star-making XXX, he even raps: “Experiment so much, it’s a miracle I’m living.” But for all the reckless hedonism, all the riot-inciting verses that careen in and out of drugged-out fever dreams, XXX is anchored by a sense of dread. This is a last chance, a hail Mary with the biological clock running out. “If this shit don’t work, nigga, I failed at life!”

So Danny Brown got meticulous. You wouldn’t know it by picking a song at random; for this, his last shot at a career in rap, the Detroit veteran pushed his jaw-dropping party tricks and vocal tics to the point of absurdity. There’s a whole song about cunnlingus, because why wouldn’t there be? But XXX was constructed by a rap obsessive, the kid who spent his entire youth poring over the classics and studying what makes them tick. Brown even calls attention to this; “Radio Song” is a deconstruction of the clean-cut single he wouldn’t give Fool’s Gold. Danny Brown may be the most versatile rapper walking the Earth, and here he runs the gamut, desperately looking for something that sticks. “EWNESW” is the po-faced origin story, “Scrap or Die” is the inversion on the hustler’s story. But Brown keeps coming back to the party, perhaps poking his head in to make sure he’s still allowed. XXX bought him at least another decade of white girls and blunt smoke.

11. Marcberg - Roc Marciano

Fat Beats (2010)
Roc Marciano has no narrative. Sure, he has an impressive Rolodex—the Long Island native has been closely tied to Busta Rhymes, Pete Rock, and even the Wu-Tang Clan, among a litany of other New York stalwarts. Marci had been rapping professionally for well over a decade when he dropped his self-produced debut Marcberg in 2010. But if you come expecting harrowing tales of industry rejection, you’ve come to the wrong place: Roc Marciano is a pimp, and that’s all there is to it.

Marcberg is a master class in distillation. Once you isolate the things that sell your product—sharp turns of phrase, cartoonish luxury, menace for its own sake—why dilute it? So this is uncut. “Panic” is little more than a two-bar loop and an endless string of one-off gangsterisms (“Steel cage match, peel waves back/Reveal an eight-pack, black, gangster mack”). On “Snow”, Marci is “Al Pacino with a tan”, on “Pop”, he’s knee-deep in “Eighty-thousand-dollar Jags and crabs”. There’s no room for nuance when there’s this much color. Yet Marcberg has depth, character, soul. New York has become, in the last fifteen years, notorious for its conservative faction, the crowd that raps exclusively about how rap isn’t what it used to be. Marci has no time for such laments—he’s too busy keeping his eyes soarin’ like Dionne Warwick, somewhere in Belize blowin’ sour dies’, living life extra large like his tee size. You wouldn’t understand.

10. R.A.P. Music - Killer Mike

Fool’s Gold (2012)
Michael Render lived through the crack years. Growing up in Atlanta (“where everybody got a sack of dope and a gun”), the husky kid with the huge voice saw first-hand the systemic oppression his friends and neighbors faced. And it festered. By the time Outkast tapped him (for 2000’s Stankonia, then their hit single “The Whole World”, then a guest spot on a Jay Z album, and on and on), Killer Mike was a frothing mouthpiece for the disenfranchised. But it wasn’t long before the muzzle was back on: his 2003 debut Monster performed well enough, but he became collateral damage in Big Boi’s half-decade odyssey through label hell. Other than some minor acclaim for his exceptional I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series, Mike had been quieted, a regional champion with no upward mobility.

Then, there was El-P. The Def Jux empire-builder linked up with Killer Mike in the middle of 2011, and the two clicked. Released in May of 2012, R.A.P. Music is Killer Mike’s definitive work. An undeniably Southern album produced entirely by a white guy from New York, R.A.P. is unapologetically political, unrepentantly angry. “I leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead” is not the pitch for an NPR residency.

Drawing comparisons to early-‘90s Ice Cube, Killer Mike moves furtively, daring the cops to mistake his cell phone for a gun. Even setting aside politics, on a fundamental level, Mike is one of the most vicious rappers working. The El-P-featuring “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” is a breathless clinic in braggadocio; intro and lead single “Big Beast” rattles Impala frames, speaker systems, your soul. R.A.P. Music is the opposite of period rap—you could beam Killer Mike forward or back in time, and he would still leave foes trembling.

9. Grief Pedigree - Ka

Iron Works (2012)
Ka would make for a terrible Greek myth. His Ithaca is a studio apartment in Brownsville, his Troy a short-lived stint in a long-forgotten rap group. And he wasn’t navigating foreign waters or conquering armies—he was just…kind of waiting. Maybe his brain chemistry is just a bit different from his peers. Realizing his shortcomings, he split from Natural Elements and became, by the end of the ‘90s, a ghost, too insignificant even to qualify as a point of trivia. But all the while (until the GZA of all people tapped for a guest verse in 2008), Ka was biding his time, trying to perfect a craft he feared had passed him by. The twist? He did it.

Grief Pedigree shouldn’t work, but it does. It should be nostalgic period rap, but it isn’t. If you try to read up on Ka, you’ll see a couple of adjective pop up again and again: Ka is focused, Ka is monotone, Ka is gruff. All of these are true, but they don’t paint the full picture. Grief Pedigree (which is, notably, almost devoid of drums) is like the whispered dialogue in mob movies—cold, economical, never showy.

Narratives become images; trains of thought are confined to a single bar. The record opens with “Chamber”’s plaintive “Was crazy poor, now I’m trying to get mad rich/With a good girl, you couldn’t tell, but she’s a bad bitch”. Eight bars later, you’re in an “ill place—milk crates, mangy sofas/All gloom, small room, no range of motion”. Then, a declaration: “I’m black when I rap”. Lots of great records deal in hunger: the creeping fear, the what-if, the juxtaposition of superstardom and its alternatives. Grief Pedigree carries the weight of living out the worst-case scenario—and surviving.

8. Dark Comedy - Open Mike Eagle

Mello Music Group (2014)
“Idaho”, the eighth song on Open Mike Eagle’s fourth album, Dark Comedy, starts off small. And it is—two lonely rappers, only one awake, driving nervously through a perversely cold desert. They drank too much at the after party; they spent too much on gas; they left too late; they have too far left to drive. But right around the two-minute mark, producer Kenny Segal’s growling synths overpower the track, just as sleep starts to overcome Eagle in the driver’s seat. Instruments spin out of control. Letters pop off street signs and rearrange themselves. And Mike Eagle can’t help but think he should have crashed in the last city.

This is Dark Comedy, and Dark Comedy is a triumph. Just as he and his partner slipped quietly past the point of no return on the interstate, the record—Open Mike Eagle’s best—chases all the rapper’s darkest, funniest, most personal impulses to and past their natural conclusions. A card-carrying member of the storied Project Blowed, Eagle marries his cypher-ready dexterity with an innate sense for pop. “Very Much Money” and “Jon Lovitz (Fantasy Booking Yarn)” lean heavily on a nimble singing voice, one that’s employed frequently and to great effect across the rest of the album. In fact, most of the A-side could be in your cookout playlist for the next three presidencies. But after “Idaho”’s road trip gone awry, Dark Comedy becomes markedly darker. “Sadface Penance Raps” is bitingly funny, until it isn’t. The Busdriver-produced “Deathmate Black” is a sunny, but nearly fatalist treatise on our irrationalities. And for all the nods to television comedy, closer “Big Pretty Bridges (3 Days Off in Albuquerque)” plays like the alternate ending to a noir film, the version Hollywood deemed too hard to digest. Yet at both ends of the spectrum—the dark and the comedic—there are layers, qualifiers abound. No matter the topic, Eagle is unafraid to let his pen careen out of control until he lands on the truth.

7. Step Brothers Two - Starlito & Don Trip

Self-released (2013)
“No chorus but it’s going on four minutes.” Step Brothers Two is a rap album. No frills, no filler, no fucking around. Starlito and Don Trip have each been through the industry wringer, and they came out the other side sharper, meaner, more relentless than ever. The mercenaries from Tennessee can be thoughtful—the Kevin Gates-assisted “Leash on Life” is strikingly empathetic—but more often than not, they’re lashing at the microphone. “Paper, Rock, Scissors”, “4x4 Relay”, “Something For Nothing”: the self-proclaimed “best friends in rap” are unimpeachable writers even without direction or stakes.

“Got more fake friends than songs with radio spins.” But from A&Rs to crooked connects, they pair has been stabbed in the back enough to sense it coming. “Caesar & Brutus” is a black-box Shakespeare production pulled off without a hitch. “Shut Up” (“Shut up, bitch, I’m grinding!”) doesn’t suffer fools. Even “Pimp C 3000” prefers to keep it moving rather than flossing, borrowing its namesake’s “If I told you cocaine numbers, you would think I was lying”. So why try?

“Real recognize real, and we ain’t never seen you.” Perhaps the most impressive quality Step Brothers Two boasts is its pacing. The record moves at a furious clip, barely stopping to catch its breath. That it can still pack as much depth as it does is a testament to the emcees’ superlative writing credentials. This is the proverbial rewind-button tape, the one that wears out your thumbs and ears as you try to catch each nook and cranny in every verse. You won’t, but you might as well try.

6. Dour Candy - billy woods

Backwoodz Studioz (2013)
In 2012, billy woods took out a new lease on life. History Will Absolve Me, his de facto comeback record, was an expansive treatise on, well, just about everything. As the listener, you were in musty Brooklyn stairwells, then East Africa, then 1992. It was a showy, audacious album, the kind that would go down in flames were it left to a less capable writer. Maybe woods proved what he had set out to prove: the follow-up, Dour Candy, is decidedly narrower, but it’s also darker—and better.

Produced in its entirety by longtime Aesop Rock collaborator Blockhead, Dour Candy does most of its work in close quarters. woods still leans on ciphers to channel his problems, but this time they’re closer to home. From “Central Park”: “Now that it’s too late, a whole bunch of predictable hand-wringing/Blame the family, blame myself, or blame the system/Fact is, gun charge with two priors? My little cousin’s going to prison.” Flings (“One Thousand One Nights”) and old flames (“Gilgamesh”) are filtered through ancient myths and anecdotes about Dominican dictators, but they’re unmistakably in the first person.

Dour Candy spends much of its time brooding, mired in gritty naturalism and re-ups clutched nervously in backpacks. But woods is also bitingly funny: “Hack” is a sincere lament from an independent rapper that doubles as a hilarious send-up of the industry machine. “Pro Wrestling” isolates the absurdity of American political theatre. There is no pedantry—the Marechera references are just there for color. This is a fantastically smart album that instead chooses to deal in the visceral. As woods says on “Redacted”: “There’s nothing on that high moral ground but more corpses.”

5. Old - Danny Brown

Fool’s Gold (2013)
Danny Brown is an agent of chaos. The voice. The hair. The teetering-on-the-brink self-destructive bent. It might be tempting to read Old as a brain-numbing, trunk-rattling accident, the product of an overactive id and a supernatural grasp on English. An eight-song EP to keep him flush in festival cash tacked onto his therapy sessions. The front half reeks with the must of his youth in Detroit, his trashed hotel rooms, the crowded airports in nameless cities. The EDM on the B-side is a din too loud to think over. But this is deliberate. This is the plan. Two years after catching his second wind and becoming a critical darling, Danny Brown crafted the most haunting cautionary tale in recent memory. This is how one of the most sought-after live acts in rap processes his new lot in life. This is Old.

Danny Brown made two albums. The one that pays his rent and his barber is a synth-drenched eight-song run, all up-tempo, all Molly, all the time. It’s anchored by Brown’s rapping—often innovative, always unimpeachable—but it’s designed for 20,000 rolling concertgoers. The other album is the one he made to satiate people: the heads, the critics, his ghosts. Brown moves deftly through each, as one would expect. But at some point during the sessions for the record, he made the decision that would define Old. Flipping convention, the hangover comes first, then the party. So when he’s playing maestro to the crowd, you know he’s dodging calls from his daughter. You know little Danny got robbed while walking to the grocery store. It’s important you remember these things, because Danny Brown can’t forget.

What sells Old so effectively is Brown’s earnestness. When he steps on stage, he dives in. The party songs aren’t cynical send-ups; the Bruiser Crew really does make 2 Live Crew look like some Mormons. Codeine in cereal, blowjobs from “model twins”, Russian gymnast-level handstands. But the context Brown gives us first—the t-shirt he just bought could have been his cousin’s groceries, and he knows it—colors the experience. What’s more, Brown’s age (a running theme since 2011’s XXX) is a ticking clock; if he’s going to clean up, he had better do it soon. And yet, night after night, stage after stage, he’s right back at it. Is anybody nervous?

4. Pinata - Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Madlib Invazion (2014)
In another world, Freddie Gibbs would be your favorite experimental rapper. On “High”, the fourth track from Pinata, his 2014 collaboration with the illustrious Madlib, the 32-year-old glides over the beat with razor-like precision. The “trillest nigga Linda ever pushed out” lets the syllables fall just so, keeping step with Danny Brown, rap’s reigning eccentric-in-chief. Time and time again on Pinata, Gibbs proves himself a masterful technical rapper, sliding easily into the pocket of beat after beat. But Freddie Gibbs isn’t here to try out new flows or play cat-and-mouse with the hi-hats. The Gary, Indiana native has seen things he can’t un-see, and he’s passing them on to you.

When Gibbs does show cracks in the veneer (“Maybe you grew up and I’m still living like I’m sixteen”; “And honestly, I know I’m out here fuckin’ up”), he swiftly and smoothly qualifies the break in character. He would rather bring his ugliness to you than endear himself—on “Shitsville”, he drives home a single, haunting point: “You motherfuckers just like me.”

Yet at its core, Pinata is Madlib’s show. The Oxnard-born recluse pulls out all the stops; Pinata is soulful, unsettling, brooding, joyful. “Shame” and “High” are sunny and carefree, and “Knicks” is nostalgic, even innocent. But while Madlib is famous for his isolated recording process—Gibbs was almost never in the same room with the producer—the chemistry is undeniable. When, on “Harold’s”, Madlib allows for some negative space to seep in, Gibbs fills it with his unshakable cool: “Adidas suit with a plate of chicken, got mob ties.” Pinata is not complicated. Why would it be?

3. good kid, m.A.A.d. city - Kendrick Lamar

Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope (2012)
Two days before good kid, m.A.A.d. city was released (and three days after it leaked online), Kendrick Lamar let loose “The Heart, Pt. 3”, a desperate, autobiographical record. By the fall of 2012, Kendrick was the heir apparent to everything—Compton, the West coast at large, hip-hop itself—and “Heart 3” tracked his rise from the very beginning. At the end of the song, he poses a question about his looming debut’s commercial prospects: “Will you let hip-hop die on October twenty-second?”

It’s an exaggeration, to be sure, but Kendrick’s gravity at the time was such that you believed him. Buy the record, or fail the culture. This was the culmination of the year-plus hype train, the self-mythologizing, the famous cosigns. A precocious, preternaturally talented kid from one of the most famously destitute neighborhoods in America was at the precipice. Stakes was high, by Kendrick’s own design. This was an Event Record of the highest order. But it was funny—when you ripped the plastic off good kid, m.A.A.d. city, you would never know it.

good kid, m.A.A.d. city is, in almost every way, aggressively small. The first track has no orchestras, no horn sections, no self-aggrandizing. Instead, there’s a muted three-minute narrative about a high school kid with a crush. No one gets shot, stabbed, robbed, killed. There’s no hook. Of the two album cuts designed to rattle your car’s stereo system, one is called, simply, “Backseat Freestyle”. Kendrick’s TDE cohorts Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q—both burgeoning stars who make triumphant appearances on “The Heart, Pt. 3—are nowhere to be found. The only A-list casting calls are for Drake, who raps on a staid flip of a Janet Jackson song, and Dr. Dre, who is essentially window dressing while hawking his headphones.

What Kendrick Lamar delivered was not a blockbuster rap debut. Rather, the record is refreshingly narrow, a self-contained, cinéma verité take on the city of Compton. “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees” make for a twelve-minute antidote to the after school special: no moralizing, no superheroes, no learning. On “m.A.A.d. city”, Kendrick taps MC Eiht to play the unfettered alpha he could never quite imitate. What he can do, however, is rap preposterously well. The color motif on “good kid”; the imagery on “Peer Pressure”; the flow that, on “m.A.A.d. city”, feels primed to come unraveled at any second, but never quite does. Of course, Kendrick Lamar harbored ambitions of being the next Great Rap Star, but good kid, m.A.A.d. city succeeds because he’s closer to the kid freestyling in his friend’s car, dreaming of living life like rappers do. By retreating within himself, Kendrick made the album he never could were he to mold himself in the image of his predecessors.

2. theGODleebarnes(lp) - Blu

Self-released (2010)
Blu’s best work is not available on limited edition colored vinyl. You can’t find it in commemorative box sets or as a special remastered deluxe package. In fact, the Angeleno’s masterpiece was only officially released as a single seventy-minute mp3. On Myspace. Distortion rules the day; there are points where you need to strain to make out the lyrics. There are songs that have still never been formally titled. Welcome to theGODleebarnes(lp).

‘Godleebarnes’ began as a production moniker. After breaking through with the Exile-produced Below the Heavens, Blu started experimenting behind the boards, to increasingly bizarre results. Herfavoritecolo(u)r, a 2009 EP, is riddled with tics—certainly not the West Coast Savior resume-builder fans had hoped for. But some time between Heavens and his ill-fated deal with Warner, Blu fell down a static-filled rabbit hole and crafted the most soulful rap album in years.

GODleebarnes is unconcerned with Blu’s place in the rap canon. It’s an album about adolescence, coming of age, carving out an identity. From “never dream”: “I used to shoot the shit with the Crips and the Bloods/Funny thing about it is I didn’t know they was/Told ‘em they was gods, ‘cause they didn’t know they was.” Young Johnson Barnes spits game to the prom queens and watches porn at his day job, because what else is he supposed to do? He’s a kid, and he’s having fun.

To wit, what strikes you first is the looseness. “be go(o)d!” ends with Blu stopping and starting a freestyle over a drum break; that song moves seamlessly into an in medias res scene of he and Co$$ stealing CDs from a record store. There are spoken word vignettes (“difficulties”) and impromptu guest verses tacked onto the end of songs (“grandma’s kitchen”). In the songs proper, Blu is effortlessly charismatic. “on mars with the stars” feels entirely off-the-cuff; Blu brags of “compressing the depression out my message”.

There are frantic tracks like “spanish winter” and somber cuts like “’til we die”, but GODleebarnes doubles down, over and over again, on joy. When, on “the gods & me”, Blu boasts “Style support—no child by 25/No smile, ‘cause I aborted four by the age of 24”, it’s with a smirk. Bullet dodged. “crowns” takes it a step further: “Picking cotton is the easiest job I’ve ever gotten/It’s like throwing products in a shopping bag.”

“my boy blu!”, the final track, drives this home. He’s sending money to his mother—“No worries, mama, I got plenty coming my way.” Blu has no time for those or any other worries; he’s busy on a yacht somewhere. He’s probably talking to OGs, honey, hush. Been around the world, traveling, came back with the same accent. He’ll probably catch life if a microphone is on him. Cali out of him? It can’t happen. GODleebarnes is the most thoroughly satisfying rap record in the last five years—there is no stone unturned, no piece of Blu’s past he can’t look back on with a grin. It’s a learned behavior: “My grandfather turned 89 last week/Blind out of one eye and still sees peace.” So, too, does the grandson.

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West

Def Jam (2010)
The key to understanding My Beautiful Dark Fantasy might be a song that didn’t make the album. On August 11th, 2010, Hot 97 premiered “See Me Now”, a breezy summer cut wherein Beyonce sings “My niggas is home” and Kanye West wears boat shoes. The record ends with two minutes of Kanye’s rambling ad-libs; “I know you thinking ‘This that Yeezy we all love’…I’m back, baby!” Kanye’s prior single, “Power”—released in May of the same year—was an urgent, tortured attempt to bear the weight of the world. “See Me Now” shrugged it off. “Power” made the album. “See Me Now” did not.

But “See Me Now” was not a misfire, something meant for the LP and scrapped at the last minute. This was the intended rollout. After the 2009 VMAs—where Kanye famously upstaged Taylor Swift—the rapper drifted into a self-imposed exile in Europe. The Swift incident, though, only gives half the necessary context. Kanye West had been in hot water before. Four years prior, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he famously hijacked a televised benefit by insisting then-president George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. But after Bush (who later described Kanye’s comments as “the low point” of his presidency), the Chicagoan had a trick up his sleeve: Graduation. When the slew of stadium-filling singles hit radio, all was forgiven. This, evidently, was a lesson Kanye took to heart.

So to understand Dark Fantasy, you have to first understand that it’s an exercise in pop. “See Me Now” was pertinent promotional material, because this was never really Kanye’s art-house record. The first five cuts on Dark Fantasy—“Dark Fantasy”, “Gorgeous”, “Power”, “All of the Lights”, “Monster”—move at a nearly identical clip. There is gloss, glamour, stunt casting abound. For all the jokes about his ego, Kanye surrounded himself with a superlatively talented supporting cast, deferring production duties to No I.D., Mike Dean, and even the RZA. The effect is that of a collage: Raekwon here, Elton John there, American Apparel-as-straw man stitching it all together. Even when the songs revel in their excess (“All of the Lights” is coda after coda), they steadfastly refuse to be inaccessible. After 2008’s deliberately unfriendly 808s & Heartbreak, Dark Fantasy’s A-side is a shrewd move back to the middle.

And it could end there. As much as Kanye West likes to rattle cages and make news anchors uncomfortable, he does pop exceptionally well. “Good Life”, “Gold Digger”, “Izzo”. “See Me Now”. But as Justin Vernon’s outro on “Monster” bleeds into “So Appalled” and its minor keys, Dark Fantasy starts to spin out of control. Look at the B-side songs in succession; they oscillate back and forth from Kanye’s most cynical, jaded material, to his most unabashedly happy. Is he the self-aware misanthrope from “Runaway”, even when he qualifies it with “Hell of a Life”? But what about the last verse on “Blame Game”? Why is “Lost in the World” celebratory if the girl just blew his money on coke for her brother? Is he really laughing off the “text message breakups, the casualties of tour”, or is he wallowing in his sorrow over Pete Rock drum breaks?

So this is Dark Fantasy: A record that tries desperately to be palatable, uncomplicated—but just can’t help itself. Before Yeezus was released in June of 2013, Kanye implied in a New York Times interview that Fantasy was a utilitarian effort, a means to an end, a mea culpa for a public that had made him an outcast. Maybe he believes this; probably not. In setting out to retake the Billboard charts and our Twitter feeds, Kanye took a few too many left turns, and ended up with a record darker and more conflicted than its front half would suggest.

In the same Times story, he dismisses Fantasy as “perfect”, where perfect suggests a lack of character or vitality. He’s wrong. The last three minutes of “Runaway” are nothing but indulgent. Rick Ross is superfluous on “Monster”. Fergie of all people gets eight bars on “All of the Lights”. There’s a two-and-a-half-minute skit where Chris Rock pines for the watch Twista wore in an issue of The Source. But in all of this, there’s value; Kanye’s pop instincts are firmly intact, but unrestrained by pop format. “Dark Fantasy”’s hook could land in any Clear Channel-owned top-40 rotation, but it goes on two minutes too long. That extended end of “Runaway” feels like a necessary bloodletting. And “Power”, the song that officially introduced Dark Fantasy to the world, ends with a foreboding prediction: “This’ll be a beautiful death.”

A year after the album came out, Talib Kweli told a story about seeing Kanye just before he fled the country. The producer, Kweli said, played him the skeleton of a song that was meant to be the first single from West’s fifth solo record. Of course, it was “See Me Now”. That song’s exclusion says what Kanye wouldn’t tell the New York Times. Dark Fantasy is an exceptional pop album, sure—but it’s more. “See Me Now” is as bright as you could hope for, but there are no chips on shoulders, no dark undercurrents. Fantasy deals almost exclusively in that haunting subtext; “All of the Lights”, for all its pyrotechnics, is an allegorical custody battle.

On some level, Kanye has to have known this. At the end of the album, after Gil Scott-Heron enjoys the final track to himself, there’s a small spattering of applause. The sound can’t be of more than a dozen people. Fantasy is an album notable for its ambition, its grandiosity—but it’s also painfully, uncomfortable intimate. And so, maybe it’s plausible that only ten people are left in the room as the tape runs out. Because after Kanye West’s redemptive play for pop stardom succeeds, it crashes and burns. And that’s okay.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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