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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.

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'
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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.