40 Best Rap Albums of 2014 – Rolling Stone
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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.

Serengeti, 'Kenny Dennis III'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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

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'

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'

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'

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

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

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'

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'

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'

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'

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.