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20 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013

Kanye, Jay Z, Eminem and more – who made the best albums this year?

2013 was a huge year for hip-hop, with high-profile releases from some of the biggest names in rap – including Kanye West, Jay Z, Drake, Eminem, Lil Wayne – doing battle on the charts and in fans' hearts. It was also a great year for underground flag-carriers like Run the Jewels and Ka and regional stars like Yo Gotti. At times, it felt like (almost) every rapper in the world put out an album this year. So who did it best? Read on for our Top 20.

Contributors: Jon Dolan, Will Hermes, Jeff Rosenthal, Rob Sheffield, Matthew Trammell, Simon Vozick-Levinson

Self Made 3

Courtesy of Maybach Music Group

20

Maybach Music Group, ‘Self Made Vol. 3’

MMG rolls deep, but Self Made Vol. 3 gets its best output from its bench players: Rockie Fresh resurrects that shiny-suit Ma$e vibe on "What Ya Used To," Stalley and Omarion both turn in solid work and Gunplay ties lyrical knots with Boy Scout precision: "Mommy poor, Daddy poor, what's the antidote?/Gun through the window pointed at the cantaloupe." This album is so super-sized you almost forget it also includes Meek Mill's street smash "Levels."

Mac Miller, Watching Movies With the Sound Off

Courtesy of Rostrum Records

19

Mac Miller, ‘Watching Movies With the Sound Off’

Mac Miller surprised critics and fans alike with his experimental Album Two. The plucky Pittsburgh MC culled influences from everyone from Flying Lotus to Schoolboy Q, while showcasing his own brand of dusty, space-funk-influenced production. He stepped his bars up too, sneaking in inventive flows and bugged-out imagery on stoned meditations like "S.D.S" and "Watching Movies."

French Montana, Pardon My French

Courtesy of Bad Boy Records

18

French Montana, ‘Pardon My French’

French Montana spends his studio debut bumbling along over bombastic beats and somehow winding up in exactly the right place. The first five tracks hit with undeniable force: "Ain't Worried Bout Nothin'" delivers a double-cup on a lazy susan; "Paranoid" boasts the hardest Young Chop beat this side of Chief Keef. And, in the rare instance French actually uses lyrics, he uses them well: "Got your bitch tip-toeing like Gregory Hines."

16. Ka, the Night's Gambit

Courtesy of Iron Works Records

17

Ka, ‘The Night’s Gambit’

Just last year, Ka said, "You can't Google me! Cirque du Soleil kills me – they have that show, Kà." Today, the hard spitter straight outta Brownsville is on the rise, making year-end lists everywhere and sounding like Wu-Tang forever. On his latest, internal rhymes swordfight one another: "Do it quick for ruger clip, make it burst apart/Till then disperse, not a verse but a work of art" (from "Jungle"). As for Google? Now he comes up fifth.

Yo Gotti, I Am

Courtesy of Epic Records

16

Yo Gotti, ‘I Am’

Yo Gotti found a new deal and new context this year, exporting his smokey Memphis twang to the West Coast with the Jeezy- and YG-assisted "Act Right." Gotti mimicked bigger hits and broader sounds, sure, but did it well enough to appease day-one die-hards and new fans alike. Assists from peers like T.I., Wale, and J.Cole didn't hurt, either.

Tyler the Creator, Wolf

Courtesy of Odd Future Records

15

Tyler the Creator, ‘Wolf’

Odd Future's de facto frontman remained one of rap's most fascinating figures in 2013. Wolf's videos were just as outrageous and gripping as the viral clips that shot his crew into infamy a couple years ago – but deep cuts like "Answer" and "Bimmer" revealed a growing mind and expanding sound, and the pastel-colored Pharrell collab "IFHY" cemented Tyler as the gravel-pitched voice of an emerging generation.

Run the Jewels

Courtesy of Fool’s Gold Records

14

Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels’

When El-P produced Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music in 2012, it was an inspired pairing. On their official debut as a mic-passing duo, the results are straight-up hysterical – a wild trip full of bad drugs and good sex, threatened pets and donkey imitations. The best news? The madcap adventure will continue with a sequel, due next year.

Kevin Gates, the Luca Brasi Story

Courtesy of Bread Winners Association

13

Kevin Gates, ‘The Luca Brasi Story’

Kevin Gates is what the South's been missing – a lyricist dealing with heavy topics like depression and heartbreak with the work ethic of a drug-runner steady on the grind. It's incredible and emotional, even as the Baton Rouge MC stays positively numb: On the organ-stomping standout "Paper Chasers," he says, "Live the hustle, probably die, gangsta and etcetera." Damn.

A$AP Rocky, Long.Live.ASAP

Courtesy of Polo Grounds Music

12

A$AP Rocky, ‘Long.Live.ASAP’

Don't hate him because he's the prettiest motherfucker. Rocky's eagerly-anticipated debut LP leaked a month early in December 2012 and still hit Number One on Billboard when it arrived properly. Posse cut "Fuckin' Problems" and Skrillex collab "Wild for the Night" murdered dance parties while "1 Train" – featuring Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Joey Bada$$ and Big KRIT – started "best verse?" arguments in every playground and rap blog forum.

2 Chainz, BOATS 2: Me Time

Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

11

2 Chainz, ‘B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time’

2 Chainz was inescapable this year, cresting on a string of show-stealing features and an impactful 2012 debut. On his follow-up, trap's reigning king expanded his domain: the Pharrell-produced "Feds Watching" evoked late-1970s car-chase melodrama as a soundbed for 2 Chainz' luxury raps, and album cuts explored a breadth of topics from fallen homies ("Live and Learn") to on-demand sextapes ("Netflix"). The man's chains still glisten on the cover, but his charisma shone the brightest.

Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail

Courtesy of Roc-A-Fella Records

10

Jay Z, ‘Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail’

Jay Z rates his latest effort his sixth-best ever – dead center, halfway between transcendent classics (Reasonable Doubt) and time-stamped missteps (Kingdom Come). That's spot-on. The legendary MC explored of-the-moment sounds, textures and tempos in ways only he could – see the proper noun stop-and-repeat hook on "Tom Ford" and the spacey, WorldStar-primed "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt." Even on a bit of an off day, Jay is still plenty impressive.

A$AP Ferg, Trap Lord

Courtesy of RCA Records

9

A$AP Ferg, ‘Trap Lord’

If A$AP Mob are today's Dipset, Ferg is the Juelz to Rocky's Cam'ron. The Mob wingman delivered two of New York's biggest street heaters this year with "Work" and "Shabba"; the rest of Trap Lord expanded the crew's sonic reference points, landing somewhere between Bone Thugs for the Tumblr sect (check his mournful croning on "Hood Pope") and an SNL parody of a Nineties-era Bad Boy compilation. Good, hearty fun for all.

Earl Sweatshirt, Doris

Courtesy of Columbia Records

8

Earl Sweatshirt, ‘Doris’

Odd Future's brightest cult star lives up to his reputation as an unholy verbal wizard on his long-awaited debut album. He also upends it — pushing past the amoral bomb-lobbing that won him notoriety with a newly introspective style, perfectly suited to third-eye-opening beats courtesy of Pharrell, RZA and Earl himself.

J Cole, Born Sinner

Courtesy of Columbia Records

7

J. Cole, ‘Born Sinner’

Releasing your major-label rap record the same day as Kanye took balls. So did staying true to hip-hop's vaunted edutaining tradition with a set of hypersmart, excellently self-produced tracks that recall, well, vintage Kanye in their ability to dramatize the tension between Hov-size career ambition and post-Pac truth saying.

Pusha T, My Name is My Name

Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

6

Pusha T, ‘My Name is My Name’

The cockier half of the Clipse didn't choose to go solo — he had to after his brother found God. Pusha, in turn, found Kanye West, whose stark and twisted production helped make My Name Is My Name feel like a more lyrically focused companion piece to his own Yeezus. It's the year's sharpest hit of street philosophy.

Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap

Courtesy of Chance the Rapper

5

Chance the Rapper, ‘Acid Rap’

The second mixtape from this 20-year-old Chicago MC is the ultimate in psychedelic hip-hop. Chance spins Lil Wayne-meets-Hendrix language swirls punctuated by the real-life observations of a kid who grew up in a world where "it's dark a lot . . . easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot."

Eminem, Marshall Mathers LP 2

Courtesy of Interscope Records

4

Eminem, ‘Marshall Mathers LP 2’

On the sequel to his 2000 masterpiece, Eminem taps the maniac genius who first scared America into submission — Stan's little brother even came back to murder Mr. Mathers. But on "Headlights" he made peace with his estranged mom in what's gotta be Slim Shady's huggiest moment ever.

Danny Brown, Old

Courtesy of Fool’s Gold Records

3

Danny Brown, ‘Old’

The year's most gripping hip-hop street-life narratives came from a crazy-coiffed Detroit native with a gift for vivid introspection and a taste for wild beats, from the Detroit techno of "Dubstep" to the avant-trap of "Side B (Dope Song)." It doesn't get much more disturbingly real than the raw-sex chronicle "Dope Fiend Rental."

Drake, Nothing Was the Same

Courtesy of OVO Sound

2

Drake, ‘Nothing Was the Same’

With Kanye breathing fire in rarified air, Drake is the people's rapper, a smart kid conflicted about his fame, heart, family, everything except his mic potency. But what makes his lonely fantastic voyage matter is its emotional weight, which gets crucial amplification from Noah "40" Shebib's whirlpool beats.

Kanye West, Yeezus

Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

1

Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’

Kanye's electro masterpiece is his most extreme album ever, which is saying something. No wonder the late, great Lou Reed embraced Yeezus, since it's basically the Metal Machine Music concept translated into futuristic hip-hop, all industrial overload and hypertense egomania and hostile vibes. The music is part Eighties synthblitz dark wave, part Jamaican dancehall. But it's all Kanye, taking you on a guided tour of the dark shit inside his brain. He rages about racial politics ("New Slaves"), he demands his damn croissants ("I Am a God"), he comes on like a robot sex machine ("I'm in It"). He kibitzes with the Lord, who agrees Kanye is the shit. And he ends with the Seventies-soul send-up "Bound 2," maybe the most audacious song he's ever written, not to mention the most beautiful.

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