6. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, 'Piñata'
As an unapologetic chronicler of the gangster's life in an age of pop-rap astronauts, Indiana's Freddie Gibbs has often languished in the genre's second tier. On "Deeper," a standout track from what may be his best album, he bemoans sell-outs: "You cut a nigga deep," raps Gibbs with sadness in his voice at how "she" — a reference to Common's '94 classic "I Used to Love H.E.R." — has become soft and complacent. But Gibbs is in good hands with Madlib, who lavishes him with dusty sure-shot loops, including the lush disco of "High," the haunted jazz-rock fusion of "Bomb" and the silky quiet storm of "Broken." The latter finds him alongside Houston legend Scarface as he details life as a drug dealer, rapping, "A young nigga that's been thuggin' since the old days/Promise I've done seen everything except old age/Pray my demons never catch me for my old ways." Gibbs may never scale the Billboard charts, but he's "Thuggin'" anyway because "it feels so right" — and it sounds refreshing too. M.R.