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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.

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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