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40 Best Rap Albums of 2014

From Young Thugs to Old Droogs, Rich Gangs to broke MCs with expensive taste — the year’s best in rhymes

Best Rap Albums

The Best Rap Albums of 2014

The traditional idea of the major label rap album seems on the decline — though that didn't stop Nicki Minaj, Future and YG from making great ones — as fans of hip-hop, a genre in its 41st year, are more and more driven by the Internet, bringing worldwide attention to local talent from Washington, D.C. (Shy Glizzy) to Santiago, Chile (Ana Tijox) to Atlanta (too many to name). Though this often means SoundCloud singles (the lo-fi hits of I Love Makonnen, Dej Loaf, Bobby Shmurda and OT Genesis are giving modern rap radio its most independent feel since the Eighties), there's no shortage of great mixtapes, free drops and, in the case of Run the Jewels, high-quality 320kbps self-drops of an album headed to record stores. Here are 40 of the best.

Snootie Wild, 'Go Mode EP'
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Snootie Wild, ‘Go Mode EP’

On this crisp, compact six-song EP, this Memphis protégé of local star Yo Gotti is game to please, doing his Future Jr. thing in an Auto-Tune-y flow over butterfly hi-hat clicks, sharp snare shots and smeary synths swirls. "Made Me" sounds like purped out Steve Reich, while the hit single "Yayo" rides a hero's march stomp and spins a dumb-but-infectious series of cocaine-as-food metaphors. J.D. 

Ana Tijoux, 'Vengo'
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Ana Tijoux, ‘Vengo’

French-Chilean singer-MC Ana Tijoux exchanged samples for in-studio production on her luscious, impeccably paced fourth album. Tijoux aligns herself with Chile's indigenous people through Andean panpipes and charango guitars, deplores urban overdevelopment and, in "Todo Lo Sólido Se Desvanece En El Aire" (All That Is Solid Melts Into Air), imagines a world without capital. An album informed equally by KRS-One and murdered nueva canción singer Victor Jara. R.G.

Vince Staples, 'Hell Can Wait' EP
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Vince Staples, ‘Hell Can Wait’ EP

The North Side of Long Beach as described by Vince Staples, a fatalist by 14, scarred by witnessing brutal police, rival gang sets, constant funeral services and his father selling methadone and heroin through the screen door. Hell Can Wait details the broiling summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school. The beats thump with punishing low-end, ratcheting the tension in Staples' tales of shootouts similar to the Wild West — or at least the ones immortalized by Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound. But don't mistake this for West Coast gangsta rap revival. The 21-year old assassin interpolates everything from Goodie Mob to Mary J. Blige, and shouts out Black Panthers and the obscure corpses slain by cops that never incited a movement. For the final nail, Staples raps with the cockiness and surgical details of a young Pusha T. J.W.

2 Chainz, 'Freebase' EP
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2 Chainz, ‘Freebase’ EP

With his first free mixtape release since 2011's breakthrough T.R.U. Realigion, the rapper born Taheed Epps sends his uniquely silly punchlines raining down from hip-hop's penthouse — but he isn't always satisfied with the view. "Crib in My Closet" celebrates the Dolce inside, but when Epps looks out he sees burdens, responsibilities and memories from a haunted past. "Freebase" explores the last of those as distorted voices swirl in the background, and on "Trap Back" he stays awake longing for the days when he lived at ground level, selling drugs rather than making music. Uneasy lies the neck that wears the chainz. N.M.

Ghostface Killah, '36 Seasons'
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Ghostface Killah, ’36 Seasons’

On recent albums like last year's Twelve Reasons to Die and this year's 36 Seasons, the Wu-Tang Clan's most consistent solo artist has refocused on concept albums that blend his love of Blaxploitation-style action and vintage Seventies cop funk. 36 Seasons is backed by the Revelations, a New York retro-soul unit that spin elongated grooves out of old soul standards like the Fuzz's "I Love You For All Seasons." As for the comic-book plot, it's a thrilling tale straight out of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. Tony Starks returns to Shaolin after a nine-year absence only to be betrayed by rapper AZ, who performs magnificently in a co-starring role as a crooked cop: "The link to the cartel…it's that Denzel in Training Day shit." M.R.

Gangsta Boo & BeatKing, 'Underground Cassette Tape Music'
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Gangsta Boo & BeatKing, ‘Underground Cassette Tape Music’

Memphis rapper Gangsta Boo, a veteran associate of local stars Three 6 Mafia, and Houston's BeatKing collaborate on a mixtape-themed-album that celebrates their hometowns and the idea of Southern underground hip-hop itself. There are appearances from H-Town artists like Lil Flip and Paul Wall (who's on a song that turns his own "Still Tippin'" into a gauzy creeper) and Tennessee titan 8 Ball. The beats are rife with horror-flick string swipes, spine-tickling keyboard runs and crisp drum crackle. BeatKing brags about his in-demand dick and drops lines like "Fuck you, loser/I been getting money since the PT Cruiser," and Gangsta Boo gives us a fright-night image of walking red-eyed on ghetto streets looking for a feast that'll have you going to bed with the lights on. J.D.

The Roots, '…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin'
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The Roots, ‘…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’

TV's smartest and most eclectic hip-hop crew got dark and real on their second conceptual album in a row, a bleak 33-minute threnody of self-professed satire that won't leave you laughing. Nina Simone, musique concrète, wanton atonality and jazzy spirituals provide interstitial inspiration throughout this concrete-jungle collage of hustlers, strivers and creeps. Piano, strings and spacious beats sculpt the contours of nihilistic notions like Black Thought's "No idea how much time's left, fuck tryin' to cherish it." R.G.

Serengeti, 'Kenny Dennis III'
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Serengeti, ‘Kenny Dennis III’

Wise words from Kenny Dennis: "You've got to bet big. Win big. Lose big. No even stevens." Few creative gambles come more risky than the high-concept Kenny Dennis saga, now three records and an EP, in which Chicago indie-rapper Serengeti plays a middle-aged, blue-collar ex-rapper into the Bears, Tom Berenger and Benzedrine. The jokes grow more insular with every plot twist as he raps with a Great Lakes accent as thick as his mustache. On Kenny Dennis III, our hero forms hip-house candy-rap group Perfecto with his old pal Ders (played by Anders Holms of Workaholics). They tour Midwestern malls, squabble in drive-thru parking lots and generally "have a time." What makes it special is that, somehow, Seregenti infuses the Adult Swim off-brand jokes with ineradicable sadness — the slow fade of time's passage, the desire to recreate one's youth, the impulse to go hard and potentially cash out one last time. J.W.

Boosie Bad Azz, 'Life After Deathrow'
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Boosie Bad Azz, ‘Life After Deathrow’

For a while it seemed like we'd never hear new music from Lil Boosie (now Boosie Bad Azz), the celebrated Louisiana rapper who went to prison in 2008 and was indicted on murder charges in 2010. After a protracted legal battle, Boosie was released this past March, and the day before Halloween he dropped Life After Deathrow, a mixtape whose mere existence is a minor miracle. His first full-length of new material in four years was released into a changed hip-hop landscape, but Boosie sounds like no one other than himself, delivering origin stories and tales from the streets in a direct, conversational flow. On opener "I'm Coming Home" he writes about his time in prison and then gloats about his freedom, which makes "Life That I Dreamed Of" — in which Boosie contrasts his wealth with so many of his friends who could only dream as far as Biloxi, Mississippi — one of the most victorious rap songs of 2014. J.S.

IamSu!, 'Sincerely Yours'
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IamSu!, ‘Sincerely Yours’

Richmond, California's IamSu! built his rep on addictively louche hits like "100 Grand" and E-40's "Function." On Sincerely Yours, the rapper and his HBK Gang reveal broader ambitions, from sampling Jazzanova's nu-jazz gem "No Use" for "Ascension" to culling from the Jones Girls' "Nights over Egypt" for "Martina." He alternates between rhyming melodically on "I Love My Squad" and, in the case of the synthesized funk of "Girl," adopting his sweetest Drake pose. And yes, he doesn't forget the ratchet cuts either. For all the viral buzz of earlier projects like Million Dollar Afro, this is IamSu!'s chance to prove that he's not just an underground rap star, but an artist with emotional range that uses "the music as my therapist." M.R.

 

Chief Keef, 'Back From the Dead 2'
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Chief Keef, ‘Back From the Dead 2’

Chief Keef's work since 2012's Finally Rich remains, by and large, beneath the radar. Media fascination, restricted largely to his arrest record and controversies, has moved on. Yet the rapper has retained a creative restlessness and cohesive, evolving aesthetic. While rappers from Bobby Shmurda to Dej Loaf to O.T. Genasis build upon his older work to massive success, he's moved in new directions. On Back From the Dead 2, he became a rapper-producer, releasing a record that seethed with menacing, coiled energy. The bleak world from which he came still shapes his sound; it's a bleak and lonely record, with few guests and a darkly psychedelic shape formed by drugs and likely PTSD. Yet he finds a gleeful humanity inside the world's rotten core, with bluntly potent, economical rapping that gets strong mileage per word. D.D.

Shabazz Palaces, 'Lese Majesty'
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Shabazz Palaces, ‘Lese Majesty’

The marvelously dense Lese Majesty may be the most surreal album to come from Seattle's Black Constellation unit. It's not so much a suite of overlapping songs as thought balloons from leader Ishmael Butler. Sounds swerve from the shoegaze drone of "Dawn in Luxor" (where he testifies how "blackness is abstracted and protracted by the purest"), to the dubby bass of "They Come in Gold," the loping fusion jazz of "The Ballad of Lt. Maj. Winnings," and the booty bass shake of "#Cake," perhaps the group's most accessible moment. Lese Majesty evokes post-millennial, futurist images of black kings and queens, a "New Black Wave," with enigmatic sounds as mysteriously intoxicating as any produced this year. M.R.

Bishop Nehru & DOOM – NehruvianDOOM
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NehruvianDOOM, ‘NehruvianDOOM’

Bishop Nehru is an 18-year-old with true school New York rap pumping through his veins; DOOM is a timeless rap presence (why do you think he wears the mask?) who was around 18 when he first appeared…in 1989. Together, they're more comfortable than two artists separated by two decades should be. Bishop is the young straight man spitting like he studied his Special Ed and Chill Rob G; DOOM is the older wild card with beats that land on something kitschy and comfortably weird between Prince Paul and Madlib. C.W.

Homeboy Sandman, 'Hallways'
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Homeboy Sandman, ‘Hallways’

Homeboy Sandman songs are dense and word-drunk, spilling past the margins, demanding repeat listens. They're modern East Coast koans in perpetual communion with that old Freestyle Fellowship challenge: Can you find the level of difficulty in this? Hallways represents the latest unfurling from the Ivy League-educated Queens native, whose wry angst and self-reflection have filled up two full-length albums and five EPs since signing to Stones Throw in 2012. Over restless slaps and cartilage-cracking beats from Oh No, Jonwayne and Knxwledge, Sandman unleashes a therapist's office worth of anxiety fit for a lost rap soundtrack to Deconstructing Harry. He frets over infidelities, hypocrisies and loneliness; the smell of tobacco smoke and what his proximity to hipsters says about him. Obsessed with the noise in his head and the rapidly changing neighborhoods surrounding him, Homeboy re-works rap forms and functions into something truly personal. J.W.

Isaiah Rashad, 'Cilvia Demo'
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Isaiah Rashad, ‘Cilvia Demo’

To call Isaiah Rashad's first release a "demo" is to both accurately describe and underrate its qualities. It's so raw that you can almost hear the hiss of low-bitrate MP3 compression and the Chattanooga, Tennessee artist still sounds like he's processing his thoughts. On "Ronnie Drake" he leapfrogs from bragging about his "coke flow" to decrying an overly aggressive police force. He'll sing for a spell about how his absentee father left him "having problems with myself," and then he'll decide to go hard on "niggas who fake trill." Meanwhile, the production from TDE's in-house team of laptop beat wizards recalls the clouded highs of past free-lease classics like Kendrick Lamar's Overly Dedicated and Ab-Soul's Longterm Mentality. Given how casual Rashad sounds, it's remarkable how often he achieves frisson, whether it's the croaked vocals of "Hereditary," or just holding his own with labelmates Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q on "Shot You Down." Rashad is destined for more polished work, but with luck he won't sacrifice the honesty of Cilvia Demo in the process. M.R.

Big K.R.I.T., 'Cadillactica'
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Big K.R.I.T., ‘Cadillactica’

Big K.R.I.T.'s second Def Jam album offers country-rap metaphysics for a post-OutKast era. On "Do You Love Me for Real," his ride represents a beautiful woman (memorably voiced by the jazz singer Mara Hruby) that he caresses with erotic abandon over bluesy Southern soul. "Cadillactica" is both muse and metaphor. It's a life force that propels him to rise above the humble origins of "Mo Better Cool" without forgetting the value of family, community and "Soul Food"; and mourn the world's troubles on the quiet storm melancholy of "Angels." K.R.I.T. has long embraced his role as a post-millennial student of Nineties Dirty South vintage, but here he's got a new confidence in his own abilities, no homage required. He raps alongside Devin the Dude and Bun B as an equal, not a student, and when he asserts himself as a "King of the South," it's hard to argue. M.R.

Rick Ross
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Rick Ross, ‘Mastermind’

On his sixth album, Rick Ross' music hasn't substantially changed: He still writes each verse with dense snowflakes of words, consonant rhymes of elegant architecture; his beats still recall hip-hop's commercial zenith even as the genre slips further from the klieg lights. A surging rookie class pushes Ross' name from the headlines — art more ridiculous, art more real, art that does both at once — but no rap music is quite as opulent, as lushly orchestrated, as formally executed as the clean droptop raps of "Supreme," as evocatively grandiose as "Rich Is Gangsta." Mastermind may not be his best album but consistency is rarely this effortless or rewarding. D.D.

Mac Miller - Faces
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Mac Miller, ‘Faces’

In the most underwhelming year for commercial rap music since Rick Rubin woke up in his dorm room, Mac Miller signed a record deal worth a reported $10 million. That contract came on the heels of Faces, a primarily self-produced mixtape that's the least pop full-length the 22-year-old has ever released. So what gives? Miller has deftly aged along with his fanbase, slowly transforming his music from squeaky and excitable kegger anthems to insular, stoned scribbles. Faces is his most blunted album yet, a 24-track inventory of drugs, snacks, Will Ferrell quotes and punchlines absentmindedly mashed into his iPhone. People in suits are betting money on this kid, but he remains blissfully focused on the everyday banalities of life: "I'm playing hot potato on the Winnebago/The chips are stale but they taste OK, though, when they dipped in queso." In a year this messed up, even the idea of eating Ruffles in peace was welcome escapism. J.S.

Schoolboy Q, 'Oxymoron'
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Schoolboy Q, ‘Oxymoron’

Pippen to Kendrick Lamar's Jordan in the Los Angeles crew TDE, at least in terms of songwriting, Schoolboy Q is no even-keeled second banana. And while some critics have diminished Oxymoron for its thematic chaos, this major-label debut tingles and palpitates with nonstop personality and moment-to-moment drama. An ex-drug-dealing daddy (daughter Joy pops up here and there) who still gets high on his own supply, Q pings in and out of skeevy debauchery and terse reflection with believably confused fervor. In fact, "Break the Bank" (produced by the Alchemist) and "Collard Greens" (produced by THC and Gwen Bunn and featuring Lamar) reach levels of ferociously heady humanity and effusive musicality mostly unmatched by his 2014 peers. And then he easily slumps into the cut on the slinky, rogueish R&B slow-jam "Studio." Dude's got m.a.a.d. chops. C.A.

Kevin Gates, 'Luca Brasi 2'
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Kevin Gates, ‘Luca Brasi 2’

The Baton Rouge-based rapper Kevin Gates has moved in a steady incline over the past two years. The definition of a street-rap auteur, Gates has yet to produce a major crossover single, but his fanbase is one of hip-hop's most passionate and invested. Like last year, 2014 hosted two Kevin Gates tapes. The early By Any Means included a few of his best records, but overall felt like an odds-and-ends compilation. But this month's Luca Brasi 2, much like its prequel, is one of the year's most consistent releases. Packed with emotive, confessional rapping ("In My Feelings") and laced with sung choruses that manage the neat trick of sounding at once gritty and soothing ("Wassup With It"), Gates bridges the soft/hard divide like few others. D.D.

Step Brothers, 'Lord Steppington'
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Step Brothers, ‘Lord Steppington’

Chalk up Lord Steppington as another winner for the Alchemist, the beat chemist who has toured the world as Eminem's DJ and crafted street bangers for Queensbridge thug poets like Nas and Mobb Deep. His stepbrother-in-crime is Evidence of backpacker heroes Dilated Peoples, and the two recruit friends like Action Bronson, Styles P and Roc Marciano for an album that turns off-kilter samples into no-frills bangers. Ev and Al just wanna make music to smoke to, whether it's the piano-laced blaps of "Mums in the Garage," the drum roll blasts of "Just Step," the bass strums of "See the Rich Men Play" or the synth licks of "Dr. Kimble." Check for the hard knock boom of "Byron G," which features a cameo from Scott "Mad Skillz" Caan — yes, the Entourage actor — who used to rap with Al as part of Nineties Cypress Hill protégés the Whooliganz. M.R.

Clipping., 'CLPPNG'
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Clipping., ‘CLPPNG’

Opening with a full minute of ear-piercing high-pitched feedback (thanks for that), this L.A. trio spool out creatively organized noise on their second album. The band's two producers bring varied pedigrees (Jonathan Snipes composed the score to Room 237) and he's in an experimental noise band with Clipping's other soundbomber William Hutson. The tracks they make together rattle and bray with wobbling low-end, synapse-tweaking synth/sample shards and crinkly, contrarian beats, making at times funky, at times infuriating musique concrète that would probably sound more radical if we didn't live in a world where Yeezus was global superstar pop music. Rapper Daveed Diggs compliments with weedy wordpainting: The bit in the evocatively moody "Taking Off" about being broke and alone in a roach hotel apartment while your neighbor annoyingly bumps Black Flag resonates more than the stuff about girls and drugs and cops and politics, speaking in the realtalk of wan slacker suffering. J.D.

Your Old Droog, 'Your Old Droog LP'
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Your Old Droog, ‘Your Old Droog LP’

This remarkably skilled Coney Island mystery emerged from nowhere with a engaging new twist on the Kool G Rap, Big L and Sean Price school of punchline rap. He mixes an e.e. cummings-esque zeal for assonance with references are as deep as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, making him possibly the most quotable rapper of the year. (Some examples: "2014 George Thorogood/Thorough, good in any borough or hood"; "Stifle yourself like Edith or get played/Like a Paul Reed Smith, you and them cats you smoke weed with"). A "rewind that!" record for the age of iTunes progress bars and Wikipedia. C.W.

Lecrae, 'Anomoly'
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Lecrae, ‘Anomaly’

Chart-topping rapper Lecrae built his fanbase independently, releasing six albums on his own Reach Records, a label that spreads a Christian message. He's set to be the first rapper from the devotional circuit to find a pop audience, and has caught the attention of mainstream rap like none other before. While several songs celebrate his love of Christ, Anomaly is a record about principles. On "Outsiders," he casts his religiousness in a secular society as pure freedom "to be what I'm supposed to be" and criticizes America as a place "where we'll do anything for the money." He warns against the dangers of promiscuous sex on "Runners," employs fast-rap deftness on "Timepiece" to explain his rejection of fame for personal benefit, and even flips a bounce style over a trap rhythm on the practice-what-you-preach anthem "Dirty Water." M.R.

DJ Quik, 'The Midnight Life'
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DJ Quik, ‘The Midnight Life’

Rap music in 2014 is a place where artists float songs to the Internet with wishes of catching a wave — and then hoping its long enough to cobble together a coherent album. It's a place where your single might be produced by the same guy who has 10 other beats on the radio and 10 more to come. DJ Quik's ninth album, The Midnight Life, on the other hand, arrived fully formed, sounding like nothing else except the classically funky beats he's been crafting for more than two decades. It opens with the Compton legend rapping over a banjo and closes with an instrumental of laid-back guitar riffs and piano chords. In between he laments the cancellation of Arsenio Hall's revived talk show and devotes an entire song to longtime session guitarist Robert "Fonksta" Bacon. J.S.

Azealia Banks, 'Broke With Expensive Taste'
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Azealia Banks, ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’

Razor-tongued rapper Azealia Banks was in the 212, Montreal, London, Los Angeles, underwater and in your Twitter mentions. During the five-year gestation of her debut album, the Harlem beefmaster alienated rivals, record executives and fans — seemingly for sport. But for all her burns and bumps, Broke with Expensive Taste is the sort of effortless triumph that deserves to outshine the Internet circus. No one in rap shifts gears this fluidly. One second, Banks is spitting double-time heat over deep house, the next she's the bandleader for Afro-Caribbean funk grooves from Spanish Harlem. Then she's singing over broken London bass like Katy B. Ariel Pink shows up on "Nude Beach a Go-Go," because of course he does. It's like if Lil Kim's long-lost daughter remade Paris is Burning in contemporary Berlin. No one had such poison-pure creative vision, originality or versatility. J.W.

Lil Herb, 'Welcome To Fazoland'
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Lil Herb, ‘Welcome To Fazoland’

Chicago rapper Lil Herb and his frequent collaborator Lil Bibby are teenagers with mannish voices in the drill tradition of Chief Keef — but they follow more traditional standards of lyricism than most of their Chiraq peers. For example: "We was bangin', slangin' all the white/But we ain't Oberweis." Welcome To Fazoland, Herb's first project with mixtape legend Don Cannon, dials up the production values with steel spaceship beats that suit his rapidfire delivery better than a constant raining of hi-hats. On the emotional standouts "Fight Or Flight" and "Mama I'm Sorry," Herb shouts out his mother and apologizes for youthful mistakes A.S.

DJ Mustard, '10 Summers'
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DJ Mustard, ’10 Summers’

L.A. producer DJ Mustard has been producing hit after hit all year with tracks that wobble in the hard-to-work middle ground between hip-hop, R&B and EDM — and make their point with all the subtlety of a slam-dunk. On 10 Summers his blurping synth squirts get yoked to a whirring G-funk smoothness that recalls classic Dre (see the Eazy-E homage amidst the vintage West Coast peacocking of "Ghetto Tales"). Mustard amasses a ton of starpower, including Rick Ross, YG, Lil Wayne and Big Sean without cluttering up the album's bright, laidback mood. J.D.

Migos, 'Rich Nigga Timeline'
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Migos, ‘Rich Nigga Timeline’

In terms of unique lyrical tics — stoner drones, pulse-pounding flow and cadence shifts, dislocating WTF bleats, agitated interwoven glossolalia — these Atlanta artful dodgers are virtuosos. And Rich Nigga Timeline is the crew's most virtuosically fascinating mixtape/album yet. Okay, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset's subject matter is mostly confined to sex, crime and turning up, but if that bugs you, see American pop culture. While a dozen pair of hands contribute to these 19 relentlessly lively tracks, the keyboard frippery of Gucci Mane go-to man Zaytoven (producer behind 2013 Migos hit "Versace") best fits the trio's rococo absurdity (yes, they "mooo" like a cow when advising style-biters "you better mooove"). Faux-churchy closer "Struggle" gets far more reflective than expected. And this year's absurd meme "Migos > the Beatles" is just another example of how these mischievous MCs are maddeningly stirring the pot. C.A.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, 'Piñata'
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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.

Future, 'Honest'
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Future, ‘Honest’

One of the most vital music-makers of the moment returns with his unique ear for garbled pop hooks and infectious sing-rap. On his second proper album, Future's honesty isn't about getting the facts straight or grounding his music in life story told through rap autobiography. There's some of that, of course, but here the Atlanta artist's greatest accomplishment is how thoroughly he can embody each track, giving himself completely over to every beat, concept and syllable. Whether he's moving that dope over a Mike Will deep sea transmission, pledging his devotion through unhinged vocal melodies or undoing that promise in a song that repeats the question "How can I not?" 50-plus times, Future seems to be willing his work — and himself — into new territory. N.M.

Young Thug & Bloody Jay, 'Black Portland' and Rich Gang, 'Tha Tour Pt. 1'
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Young Thug & Bloody Jay, ‘Black Portland’ and Rich Gang, ‘Tha Tour Pt. 1’

Atlanta's Young Thug started 2014 on the fringes of rap, having accumulated a small following by reimagining Lil Wayne's career as never leaving the place where he felt like dying. Young Thug ended 2014 more integral to Cash Money Records than Wayne himself. This evolution from avant curio to reliable radio hitmaker can be traced in the distance between Black Portland and Tha Tour Part I, the two mixtapes that bookended his year. The first, with fellow ATLien Bloody Jay, oozes with mumbled hooks and verses so esoteric that it sometimes feels like the two are interpreting each other's hieroglyphics. The second, with fellow radio staple Rich Homie Quan, features a half-dozen songs that could — should — be getting airplay right now. Black Portland starts with a lullaby about fellatio; Tha Tour with a regal, clear-eyed ode to a luxury clothing brand. Black Portland peaks with a song about staying true to your homies; Tha Tour with a celebration of living life like Flavor Flav. Birdman, currently the most powerful mogul in rap, shows up on only one of them — it's the one that ends with a song called "Who's On Top." J.S.

Nicki Minaj, 'The Pinkprint'
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Nicki Minaj, ‘The Pinkprint’

Nicki Minaj's third album arrives at a critical point in the rapper's career: One of the genre's true superstars, she's played with hip-hop's expectations for months, with leaks that hint at one direction and singles that move another. One could practically put together a strong second album out of the songs ("Yass Bish," "Boss Ass Bitch") that ended up on the cutting room floor. But Pinkprint refuses to capitulate to the twin poles of manic "lyricism" or pop crossover — and it's ultimately her most successful attempt at balancing both. Frontloaded confessional songs aim for the emotions, while the album's middle third moves in musically adventurous directions, jumping from the Bad Boy throwback "Four Door Aventador" to the Jeremih-assisted gem "Favorite" to the caribbean groove of "Trini Dem Girls." Then, of course, there's the addictive Beyoncé collaboration "Feeling Myself," which flips a Mac Dre concept into a slinky future smash. D.D.

YG, 'My Krazy Life'
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YG, ‘My Krazy Life’

Released in March, YG's major label debut has been accepted as one of 2014's great rap albums for so long that it's easy to overlook how unlikely the whole thing is: a previously middling one-hit wonder (see 2010's "Toot It and Boot It") putting out a deep, emotionally rich, narrative-heavy, unstoppably bouncing album that sits comfortably next to the Cali classics he emulates. It's easy to pin it all on DJ Mustard, executive producer and undisputed beatmaker of the year. But, in reality, YG pulls off the album's concept — which traces a day in the life of a Compton gangster — by himself and with aplomb, each song building on the narrative but also standing out on its own. YG is a wildly illustrative MC, as adept at sketching out a home robbery as he is navigating the album's R&B section. In a redemptive year for West Coast rap, My Krazy Life was the crown jewel. J.S.

Run the Jewels, 'Run the Jewels 2'
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Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 2’

The second album from hip-hop's knottiest insult comics expands the emotional palate of their previous collaborations — coming with a protest song for Ferguson and New York ("Early") and a ballad that flips rap's drug tales into a struggle with guilt ("Crown"). But the appeal is still in their giddy disses, labyrinthine boasts, alliteration, bravado, alpha male antics — basically the stuff that Killer Mike and El-P enjoyed about rap in 1989. It's a throwback in that it cares about set-ups, punchlines and feats of skill — but its distorted explosions of synth noise keep an eye to the future, maintaining a brand "where destruction's the number one commitment." C.W.

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