The 25 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2022
In 2022, the hip-hop world experienced a real reshuffling of the decks. At the top of the year, megastars Drake, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar delivered landmark albums that fell shy of possibly outsize expectations. In Ye’s case, one of the genre’s brightest stars fell shamefully into a stance of bigotry and confoundingly bad choices, all as the music deteriorated. But rap is built on movement, and 2022 proved that the well of talent in the hip-hop world is as fresh and exciting as ever. A new generation of artists — like JID, Smino, and Mavi — is entering new heights in their careers, dropping some of the year’s most compelling releases.
Elsewhere, underground stalwarts like Roc Marciano and billy woods continue to build confidently on the expansive creative vision that’s kept rap’s independent heart pumping into the age of social media. Women like Megan Thee Stallion, Little Simz, Flo Milli, and Latto continue to reshape rap’s gender dynamics. And global superstars like Stormzy and Central Cee are beginning to gain traction stateside.
Still, even amid rap’s shifting dynamics, some things stay true. Nas, whose been particularly prolific in recent years, joins the consistently hard-working lyricist Pusha T as the two rap elder statesmen who released some of their best work this year.
And that’s only scratching the surface.
Drake and 21 Savage, ‘Her Loss’
Drake is no stranger to collaborating with today’s up-and-coming artists, but he took it a step further by translating the chemistry he’s had with 21 Savage over the years into an impressive full-length album. Drake himself has confirmed that Her Loss can be seen as the final part of a trilogy that started with last year’s Certified Lover Boy, then continued into the uptempo Honestly, Nevermind: Read the titles together as “I’m a certified lover boy honestly, nevermind her loss,” and you’ll get an idea of how he pulled off his biggest conceptual project yet over three albums. On Her Loss, Drake and 21 Savage set themselves up to flourish as they trade bars and melodies over impeccable instrumentals. Safe to say we will keep seeing bars from this album as Instagram captions well into the new year. —D.G.
Shape-shifting rapper IDK and in-demand electronic producer Kaytranada began working on IDK’s EP Simple. two years before it dropped this spring. IDK says he didn’t predict that Black pop music would storm the dance floor with the force it did this year, but he personally wanted to juxtapose somber stories of a Washington, D.C., project he grew up near with production that would make you more likely to move your body than rack your brain. “I wanted to create an album where people can ‘dance to real shit,’” he said upon its release. Over a lively and urgent piano loop, on “Dog Food,” and a more subdued one on “The Code,” IDK details a desperate pursuit of power and evading law enforcement along the way. Featured guests Denzel Curry and Mike Dimes coalesce around these ideas and give the EP even more texture. Simple. blatantly concerns itself with violence and disadvantage, leaving it in stark contrast to Honestly, Nevermind and Renaissance, and balancing out the year in dance music. —M.C.
Rome Streetz, ‘Kiss the Ring’
When New York’s Rome Streetz officially signed with Griselda, the moment felt like the well-deserved culmination and an opportunity for the talented spitter to reach new eyes and ears as part of hip-hop’s most recognized stable of gritty lyricists. Fans of projects like this were anticipating how Westside Gunn’s executive producer Midas Touch would make the Rome Streetz experience even more impressive, and they weren’t disappointed by Kiss the Ring.
Over a 16-pack of beats from Conductor Williams, Rome stakes his claim as the world’s best rapper, and even if you disagree, you can’t dismiss his case. From the album intro, “Big Steppa,” Rome immediately steps on necks and continues to display his master-level craft throughout the project. Whether the production is idyllic, as in “In Too Deep” or “Armed & Dangerous,” sinister as in “Tyson Beckford,” or brilliantly confounding as in “Ugly Balenciagas,” Rome finds the pocket and executes. He weaves in boasts, wordplay, and memories into his package, hurling them at you at all angles. He longs to provide an updated version of the classic ‘90s New York feel, and he makes it seem effortless on Kiss the Ring. —A.G.
Flo Milli, ‘You Still Here, Ho?’
When an album opens with a spoken-word preamble from the eternally underrated 2000s reality star Tiffany “New York” Pollard, you know it’s going to be a good one. That intro sets the tone for the solo debut from Mobile, Alabama’s finest — a boisterous barrage of ultra-snarky bars about how broke and lost everyone other than Flo Milli is, delivered with a level of confidence best described as “Very Real Housewife.” Flo has insults for days, and hooks, too, on riotously catchy highlights like “Bed Time,” “PBC,” “No Face,” and “Conceited.” For anyone who listened to her out-of-the-blue hit “Beef FloMix” in 2019 and heard a superstar, You Still Here, Ho? is a promise fulfilled. —S.V.L.
Billy Woods, ‘Aethiopes’
The rapper Billy Woods (styled as billy woods) weaves intricate missives from a shape-shifting and dynamic vantage, like bearing witness to a medium receiving a transmission from a distant dimension. Woods’ 2022 release, Aethiopes — named after the Homeric description of Black Africans — weaves its own Odyssey, connecting narrative tendrils with moments in history and philosophy. His resonant delivery flows with the subtle intensity of tidal waves, assisted by the varied and far-reaching sample curation from the producer Preservation, an elusive veteran whose past credits include a stint as Yasiin Bey’s tour DJ. On “Christine,” Preservation’s tactile construction makes for a lush cinematic feel. The vinyl crackle on the slinking, dramatic guitar sample offer woods an outlaw’s entrance. His verse, a freewheeling tale full of vivid imagery that hit like memories, shows he’s comfortable swimming in the bottomless waters of the unknown. —J.I.
Elucid, ‘I Told Bessie’
On I Told Bessie, ELUCID (styled with all caps) kicks convention’s ass and makes us ponder who entrenched our sonic standards in the first place. The talented Backwoodz Studios artist delves deep on the 14-track album, telling his story in thought-provoking couplets and mantras. The ELUCID experience often feels like a sonic windstorm where six-word stories and ideas swirl around incisive couplets like “I’ve already closed the book of whatever/All the stories they tell us” and the chorus of “Impasse:” “Going through it, maybe’s like a threat/Might be, then it ain’t, if I hold my breath.” Throughout the project, listeners search to interpret shifts into a deeper excavation of their own psyche and why we reach the conclusions we do. His lyricism unfurls over a soundscape that feels caustically atmospheric and aptly suited, from the warped breakbeats of “Ghoulie” and “Old Magic” to the ominous tones of “Nostrand” and “Split Tongue.” I Told Bessie isn’t interested in palatability, but it succeeds at provoking thought. —A.G.
Quavo and Takeoff, ‘Only Built for Infinity Links’
For those of us who watched the rise of the hip-hop trio Migos in the 2010s, the idea of an album without the third member, Offset, was a tad disappointing for our nostalgia. Yet the project came out swinging. Infinity, Quavo says in the album’s opening moments, is “the strongest link in the world … it runs in the blood.” As the first track, “Two Infinity Links,” goes on, he adds, “I never want to see the day I lose my bro to one.” Weeks later, that line unintentionally became a heartbreaking spiritual prophesy that seemingly foreshadowed the death of Takeoff. In retrospect, it may have been divinely necessary for Takeoff and his uncle Quavo to make an album as a duo, sealing their bond from being raised as brothers to growing as superstars. And by putting Takeoff in the spotlight, showcasing once again the rhythmic genius that launched the group’s success, it ends up as a fitting bookend to a remarkable and underrated career. —M. Jordan
Smino, ‘Luv 4 Rent’
Luv 4 Rent marks St. Louis rapper Smino’s first studio album since his 2018 release Noir. The album’s title reflects how love is not permanent in some cases but what Smino describes as more “seasonal.” Across 15 tracks, Luv 4 Rent showcases an array of skills the rapper has mastered over time. Like on the single “90 Proof,” featuring J. Cole, which he says was made in 20 minutes. The inspiration came from a girl he was seeing at the time. Not knowing how to emotionally deal with the fact that their relationship could be over, he headed to the studio. “I told the guys I am about to get sad right quick and make this song,” he recalls in an interview with Rolling Stone. The album feels just as honest —D.G.
Saba, ‘Few Good Things’
Saba’s 2018 album, Care for Me, earned widespread acclaim for its melancholy exploration of youth buoyed and burdened by life and tragedy on Chicago’s South Side. More than three years later, Few Good Things finds him adjusting to that success. “Money don’t mean wealth, that just mean rich,” he harmonizes on “If I Had a Dollar.” He has a lot more guests this go-round — mostly local homies like Smino and Pivot Gang, though Bone Thugs-N-Harmony OG Krayzie Bone makes a winning appearance on the summery gem “Come My Way.” The mood is soulful and vibey, but Saba has a strong, clear voice that gives this album propulsive life. —M.R.
Denzel Curry, ‘Melt My Eyez See Your Future’
Released in March, Denzel Curry’s fifth studio album includes features from Robert Glasper, T-Pain, Rico Nasty, and Slowthai, which should offer a sense of the scope of the Florida MC’s vision. A distinct turn in the rapper’s sound, Melt My Eyez See Your Future finds Curry’s lyricism at its most robust. The dynamic range of sonic inspirations makes for rhythmic anthems punctuated by pulsating flows drenched in his Florida-infused twang. The album is yet another of the year’s sleeper hits, a project with intricate and spacious pacing featuring a well-curated slate of producers, including JPEGMafia and Thundercat. As a rapper, Curry is skilled enough to keep you guessing, his staccato rapid-fire fusing seamlessly on songs like “Mental,” which rides a smooth, shimmering beat assisted by Bridget Perez’s heaven-tilted vocals. The track closes with a spoken word poem by Saul Williams that manages to clasp into the song’s mood like a locket. 2022 was a year when rap’s most talented young stars shared statement albums that prove the genre’s artistry is plenty intact. —J.I.
Freddie Gibbs, ‘$oul $old $eparately’
Freddie Gibbs’ major-label debut is a solid work by an established character. Gibbs discusses his Gary, Indiana, origins. He flips many lines about drug distribution, and remembers low moments that must be quite distant, given his status, yet still haunt him. “Tell me what bitches know about hard times/Empty stomach give you the heart to do a homicide,” he harmonizes on “Dark Hearted.” Even the “Space Rabbit” animal motif he adopts is reminiscent of an earlier, zebra-shaped cocaine piñata. And yes, there is a cameo from Pusha T, the yayo god himself. “My cocaine novella/Soap opera shit/These are the days of our pies,” he raps on “Gold Rings.” Thank you, King Push. —M.R.
Little Simz, ‘No Thank You’
Emotion is Little Simz’s secret weapon. She has a knack for sharing heartfelt tales with marked conviction that settles deep in your sternum. She’s a bona fide technician, no doubt. But the sheer technicality of her rhymes is not at odds with her natural ability to craft poignant songs that make you laugh, cry, and silently rage. On No Thank You, the follow-up to her excellent 2021 breakthrough, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Simz gives us 10 choice cuts (showcasing her brilliance and breadth) that convey the whole emoji board of riveting emotions. —W.D.
Latto’s second official album may be centered around “Big Energy,” her wildly successful interpolation of Mariah Carey’s classic “Sweet Fantasy” (which itself builds around Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”). But the onetime Queen of Da Souf uses the moment to spit “like I got a vendetta” on the rest of the album, offering brittle hard-rap cuts while testing her flow against guests like Lil Durk, Nardo Wick, and 21 Savage. “Bottega heels in the club/Who ever thought that a bitch would be up?” she chants on “It’s Givin,” as she pays homage to crunk-rap heroes Crime Mob — an entirely different tradition than the pop-rap delights of “Big Energy,” and one she inhabits with ease. —M.R.
Earl Sweatshirt, ‘Sick!’
Earl Sweatshirt is at peak form on Sick!, unfurling his dense lyricism over largely nonconformist production that serves to make musings like “They start hackin’ when they can’t shrink us,” on “Old Friend,” seem all the more otherworldly. This album feels like it was as revelatory for him to create it as it is for the listener to hear it, as he explores the tumult of the pandemic and applies previously learned lessons to these times. Earl also invites in Armand Hammer and Zelooperz to the proceedings as features, but it’s largely a solo lyrical exhibition — one that outclasses just about everything else released this year. —A.G.
Central Cee, ‘23’
The U.K. takeover is only just getting started, and London’s Central Cee is poised to cross the pond in a big way soon enough. There’s a passionate and warm sincerity to the autobiographical missives that make up his debut, 23. Set to the slinky and electric U.K. drill sound that’s by now taken over the globe, Cee makes a valiant case for the sonic backdrop’s potential for new realms. Across the album’s 14 tracks, Cee approaches his life with an open-faced honesty that gives his penchant for one-liners (he’s responsible for the TikTok craze taken from the first verse of his track “Doja”: “How can I be homophobic?/My bitch is gay”) the power to cast triumph and struggle with a lens that’s undeniably genuine. On “Straight Back to It” he admits, “Took me an L, no problem/I got on my grind, got straight back to it,” with an anthemic energy that could make any listener see the bright side of a bad situation. —J.I.
Mavi, ‘Laughing So Hard, It Hurts’
As Mavi shared in an October profile, his worry about the ramifications of the Covid pandemic and other social epidemics was compounded by grief. He was brave enough to lift that weight off his chest and share it with the world on Laughing So Hard, It Hurts, a diaristic project that he mostly wrote a cappella, then paired to beats from producers Dylvinci, Monte Booker, and Wulf Morpheus. Mavi delves into the toll of losses and the conclusions he reached from them, from the doleful to the ultimately hopeful. The project’s art and standout track “High John” both reference John the Conqueror, a figure of African American folklore who represents joy amid pain. Mavi channeled that energy on a project that challenges listeners to feel all of their emotions, but also appreciates life’s gift of being able to feel at all. —A.G.
Stormzy, ‘This Is What I Mean’
There were always clues that British rapper Stormzy would make an album like This Is What I Mean. On it, he croons as much as he spits, his voice gentle and the songs hymnal, with more pleas to a higher power than assertions of his own. As one of his country’s biggest stars, Stormzy has done historic and high-energy shows to massive crowds, from shutting down Glastonbury Festival in 2019 as the first U.K. rapper to do so to thrilling London’s famed O2 arena when it reopened after the heights of the pandemic, full of devotees who had held on to tickets for two years. His latest offering, though, is full of masterful and quiet reflection, something that would better serve an intimate theater than a field of fans. Since 2017’s Gang Signs & Prayer, he’s peppered his albums with solid and spiritual singing amid his bold raps. “I think I’m Kanye mixed with Donny Hathaway,” Stormzy says on the title track of his latest, where his cunning and emotive turns of phrase are impeccably complemented by lush, serene production. —M.C.
Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Traumazine’
“Let me get the beat, so they remember who I am,” Megan Thee Stallion spits on “NDA,” the blockbuster intro to her sophomore album, Traumazine. Across it, Megan channels three years of impeccable heights and unimaginable lows into 18 diverse peeks into her psyche. Tackling business, anxiety, love, lust, and heartbreak, she isn’t as consumed with her trauma here as one might have predicted, tossing bouncy and braggadocious bars back and forth with Latto on album standout “Budget,” and getting sexy and seductive on “Red Wine.” When she does confront the loss and violence she’s faced during her relatively recent stint as a superstar, she’s as riled up as she is revealing, working to honor her pain while staying true to her status and immense talents. “I gotta watch my back, ’cause I forget that I’m the shit now,” she continues on “NDA.” “I walk up in the studio pissed off and lay that shit down — Wait, stop, bitch, I really rap,” she says, an important memo among the BS. —M.C.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’
Several months later, the incendiary debate over Kendrick Lamar’s first album in five years still burns. Yet for all the arguments over his “Auntie Diaries” and “cancel culture” lyrics, his recruitment of troubled rap star Kodak Black for several numbers, and industry concern that sales weren’t as stellar as 2017’s DAMN. … it’s still more dynamic and thought-provoking than nearly everything else in rap. Some critics will retort that his sense of ambition is an albatross, and that he should drill down on head-nodders like “Humble” or “Backseat Freestyle.” But after several game-changing albums, Mr. Morale is Lamar’s moment to explore a future filled with family, therapy, and a sense of himself. He’s not focused on the past. Judging from his sold-out world tour, there are millions ready to join him. —M.R.
Metro Boomin, ‘Heroes & Villains’
As a helpmate to Atlanta stars like Future (“Mask Off”), 21 Savage (“X”), and Migos (“Bad & Boujee”), Metro Boomin earned a reputation for glossy synths and skittering percussion programmed into inhumanly complicated effects. His use of crazy “drums” distinguishes his work from the vibe-y, computerized washes that define so much of contemporary mainstream rap. He knows how to elicit good vocal performances: Travis Scott, Drake, and even Post Malone have recorded some of their strongest work with him. Heroes & Villains signifies his growing ambition. The album arrives with a six-minute short film that resembles Matt Reeves’ The Batman, including Lakeith Stanfield as a maniacal villain driving a flame-spewing fire truck, and Morgan Freeman in his familiar “God” role as philosophical adviser to the hero, Young Metro. It finds the St. Louis-to-Atlanta musician cementing himself as one of a handful of rap superproducers to emerge in the past decade. —M.R.
Vince Staples, ‘Ramona Park Broke My Heart’
How did Vince Staples follow up one of the past decade’s strongest runs of critically acclaimed, fearlessly inventive full-lengths? With his most personal body of work to date. Named for the part of Long Beach, California, where he grew up, Ramona Park Broke My Heart is an inside look at what it’s like to be from where he’s from. And while he’s been exploring those themes since his 2015 debut, this album displays his growth as a songwriter. “When Sparks Fly” is a brilliant play on comparing his relationship with a firearm to a romantic relationship; the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted single “Lemonade,” probably Staples’ most radio-friendly track to date, captures the essence of West Coast music past and present. Staples uses melody to get his message across, singing on the hook, “Feelin’ like ice-cold lemonade/Nowhere to go when we in the shade/Nowhere to go when we in a cage.” It’s one of the finest rap albums of the year, and it’s hard to see how it got not even one Grammy nomination. —D.G.
Roc Marciano and Alchemist, ‘Elephant Man’s Bones’
Roc Marciano and Alchemist have a well-worn formula for success, catering to the sample-heavy sensibility of rap’s boom-bap contingent. Alchemist’s signature drum sequencing and crate-digging ethos pair well with Marci, a slick lyricist with a knack for etching flows into rhythmic pockets of soul samples like he was rapping into the vinyl’s grooves himself. Had the pair simply built on the success of their 2018 collaboration, “In Case You Forgot,” from Alchemist’s Craft Singles series, fans would have likely cheered a new offering from some of the best in the game. That is not what Alc and Marci decided to do with September’s Elephant Man’s Bones. Continuing a prolific run of releases and collaboration, Alchemist finds new modes of creation within the production sensibilities he’s known best for. “Quantum Leap” finds a way to infuse a hushed luxuriousness to the hard-nosed drum hits that punctuate lines like “I made murder sexy,” delivered in a cool monotone from one of rap’s most gifted wordsmiths. The whole album builds on an apparent creative chemistry that runs deeper than any of the pair’s collaborations could have suggested. —J.I.
J.I.D, ‘The Forever Story’
If there was an award for best storyteller of the year, it ought to go to J.I.D. The Atlanta rapper’s latest album features an all-star cast of guests, from Dreamville colleagues Ari Lennox and Earthgang to hip-hop MVPs like Lil Durk and 21 Savage. But the stories that J.I.D tells throughout this project are his own, adding up to a narrative that brilliantly shows the complexities of his life. As told on this album, he’s no stranger to love, loss, family, or fighting for what he believes in, even if that means getting into a brawl in New Orleans at age 17 because a man hit his sister. The Forever Story has room for all of the people and experiences that made one of today’s most compelling lyricists who he is. —M. Jordan
Nas, ‘King’s Disease 3’
In late November, the discussion around King’s Disease 3 diverted from Nas’ excellence to his relevance. And while the banter felt more like opportunism for bloggers than anything else, the hysteria became an inadvertent opportunity to note that what the 49-year-old is doing is historical. Only a select few of his peers are still as compelling as he is three decades into rap, and few are releasing as much as he has lately. He’s found a groove with Hit-Boy on the King’s Disease projects, where the versatile producer laces him with breakbeats and loops that induce a stink face on first immersion, yet still maintain enough gloss to feel intent on mass appeal.
That dynamic is once again at play on KD3. On “Thun,” Nas churns through a Mafioso score that gives his golden-era reflections the gravitas they deserve. “Once a Man, Twice a Child” is a harrowing glimpse of facing mortality, where he muses, “If you lucky you get old.” And “Michael and Quincy” is another lyrical exercise where his rapid-fire storytelling feels invigorated. Everything feels just a notch better on King’s Disease 3. Hit-Boy’s sample choices are more emotive. Nas is rapping faster and sharper, elevating this era into an integral juncture of his timeline. Even if his releases don’t strangle social media like an artist such as Drake does, efforts like this will last the test of time. —A.G.
Pusha T, ‘It’s Almost Dry’
There’s something different about the pinnacle from which Pusha T views today’s rap game. These days, he’s firmly in command of his place among rap greats, and the clarity of his vision has given us some of the best work of his career. Pusha T’s fourth solo album is a testament to the nimble ingenuity that’s been a hallmark of his style from the start. Push’s intricately detailed dope raps put forth a simple philosophy: To stay on top, you’ve got to have the best product. Across his post-Clipse releases, Push is keen on reminding us how dialed he’s got the recipe with a fierce bravado that lands somewhere closer to your gut than a mere brag. And therein lies the brilliance of It’s Almost Dry. Here, Push is as crystalline as ever in his lyrical precision, but his aperture’s been adjusted ever so slightly, revealing, in the subtle corners of his rhymes, a vantage point of wisdom. “Neck and Wrist,” with Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams, has a vivid interiority, concerned with the trappings of wealth, sure, but also with what it means to really have taste. It’s a subtle nuance that separates Pusha T from the pack. —J.I.