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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.

Big K.R.I.T., 'Cadillactica'
20

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
19

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
18

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'
17

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'
16

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'
15

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'
14

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'
13

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'
12

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'
11

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'
10

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'
9

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'
8

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'
7

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'
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.

Future, 'Honest'
5

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'
4

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'
3

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'
2

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'
1

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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