The year's most outstanding hip-hop music includes protest anthems, melodic coups, the return of grime to Stateside awareness and a Broadway soundtrack about a Founding Father.
Flatbush duo the Underachievers continue to turn inward on their second album, Evermore: The Art of Duality. The album burrows deeper into the idea of double consciousness by splitting the album into halves, with Issa Gold rapping "So a nigga ain't have no direction/Locked up in my own mental prison/Suicide on my mind, no one listen/Made a nigga remain so distant" on "Chasing Faith." There's otherworldly funk ("Star Signs") contrasted with haunted church chants ("Generation Z") on an album that seeks to discover one's place in the mortal world. D.T.
The Jacka's tragic murder at the beginning of 2015 marks the end of an era in Northern California's hip-hop scene. Jacka's first posthumous project was the third – and presumably final – entry in his collaborative series with Taylor Gang's Berner, a rapper whose own style has become surprisingly fluid in recent years. Much like earlier iterations of Drought Season, the production is top notch; unlike earlier editions, the record serves as a farewell for the cast of artists who'd joined forces with the local legend over the years, including spots from Paul Wall, Freeway and Cormega. Yet from the spiraling, lush production of "One Sound" to the epic finale "So Much Pain," it's Jacka's LP: Each verse is typically spare, giving space for meaning to echo in between the lines. The Jacka was one of his era's truly singular stars, and his loss brings no silver linings. D.D.
Puff Daddy's return finds him casting aside the Auto-Tuned rich man's blues of Diddy-Dirty Money for life as a Harlem boss. At 46 years old and with a reported net value of over $700 million, he's certainly earned the title. More importantly, he's learned to inhabit the role, with his voice having grown rough and coarse, possibly from smoking too many Cuban cigars. The best moments of MMM find him doling out advice like a Godfather on "Facts," and holding court on the Blaxploitation funk of "Auction," while "Money Makin' Mitch" finds Future bouncing over the beat like a rubber toy. Puff's old Bad Boy crew have set aside their differences and returned to the dinner table, too: Lil Kim, the Lox and the Hitmen are here. The Notorious B.I.G. is gone, of course, but Puff Daddy honors him nonetheless: "And almost 20 years later, still Biggie we mourn/Baby baby!" M.R.
The 10-track debut from East New York M.C. Junglepussy is, in part, a cleverly crafted examination of relationships and sexual politics by a woman who is partially an around the way girl, partially an alpha boss and totally a wildly entertaining rapper. On "Spicy 103 FM" she plays the roles of JP, the fed up wife and – with an effect to make her voice deeper – the guy who is the cause of her dissatisfaction. The guy cites the money he's spent and the times he took her out to defend himself. JP let's him know that "relationships are more than food and lusty interactions, dude." T.A.
Despite his moniker's resemblance to Ty Dolla $ign, Ty Money is working from a completely different playbook. Ty is a nimble street rapper from Harvey, Illinois, a downtrodden suburb to Chicago's south. His early work showed extreme promise, with a sense for narrative detail that gave his stories an authentic, lived-in feeling. With 2015's Cinco De Money, he locates a new sound, one suggesting musical savvy to match his topical depth. This step came in large part from his interest in newer rhythmic patterns, as his style evolved from the longer lines and fluid delivery in the lineage of T.I. to a more rhythmic, repetitive approach. Nothing was lost in the transition: songs like the narrative "Ricky Killer" and lyrical exercise "Just Bars" are both contiguous with his wider story, and powerful songs in their own right. But his real strength is a rap style in which conflicting moods of anxiety and confidence, strength and vulnerability all coexist and collide. D.D.
Living Legend lead single "Tell 'Em" was one of the year's hardest, an irrefutable trunk thumper in which our Floridian hero belted out his bona fides like some kind of braggy, juicehead personal trainer. Gunplay's delivery is at least half of his appeal, and his bluster is the other half, both of which he displays with characteristic excess and fealty to the streets that made him that way. He sounds like he not only hit the concrete, but that he poured it, too. Living Legend's aspirational pusher fables come part and parcel with Gunplay's repertoire but, partnered up with mostly lesser-known producers who know the meaning of a subwoofer, it landed like a kickbox knock-out. J.E.S.
Life can be absurd for this blue collar MC/producer from Detroit whose talent outweighs his fortune; and Denmark Vessey addresses his ups and downs with a sharp sense of humor. Take for example "Think Happy Thoughts," an introspective look at life's challenges held together by a positive-thinking mantra Vessey got from mother and late grandmother. The track's soothing vocal harmonies and guitar strumming supplied by Exile give way to a comical church skit and then the disjointed strings of "Keep Your Hoes In Check" where Vessey ponders deep questions like "Does your road to success have a cul-de-sac?" and not-so-deep questions like "Fuck you mean I can't put head on the rider? T.A.
Travis $cott's Rodeo is big, dumb and fun. Is there a problem with that? The Texas newcomer drew a lot of criticism for making an album that is about nothing more than making a huge racket. Kanye West mulled over racial inequality and domestic bliss on his loud Yeezus; but all that animates Scott is popping pills, sipping syrup and getting racks. But he sounds great while he's doing it. His voice is drenched in echoes as he shouts and chants on "Oh My Dis Side," and a guitar loop circulates like a scratched piece of vinyl. "3500" is pure bellicosity enhanced by Future's signature drawls and 2 Chainz's brag about "drinking breast milk out a lean cup." "Maria I'm Drunk" offers the unlikely alliance of Young Thug and Justin Bieber, and West himself blesses the gurgled blues-rock of "Piss on Your Grave." Gee, it seems like all your favorite rappers and trappers are having a blast on Rodeo. You should, too. M.R.
In the ten years since the Game released The Documentary, something remarkable happened: He grew up as a person and out as an artist, resuscitating a career that was nearly thwarted in 2005 after a highly publicized G-Unit break-up (and shooting incident, which he details here), widening his artistic palette to depths no one could have predicted. The Documentary 2 and 2.5 is a sprawling double-album on which the Game totally deserves to preserve this moment, boasting a phalanx of guests. His assists come mostly from the West Coast (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, DJ Quik, Kendrick Lamar, YG and more), showing that even though his tastes run from rider's anthems to woke dirges, home is where the heart is. We couldn't have predicted Game prevailing like this, but we're all better for it. J.E.S.
Scarface of the Geto Boys is in his 26th year as a recording artist and still creatively vital, time only increasing the potency of his words. As a rapper, he relies not just upon his perfectly marbled baritone, but on his purposefully written lyrics and fully formed songwriting. Whether the fashion of an era was technical acuity or bluesy expressiveness, Brad Jordan keeps each element in a steady balance, never letting one handle the load. Deeply Rooted, his 11th solo release, is not his best album, but in its focus on conveying the urgent lessons of hard-earned wisdom, his work suggests a singularity of purpose, something common only to artists whose work has outlasted thousands and will survive many more. D.D.
Open Mike Eagle speaks to the anxiety that is the byproduct of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The topics of his stream-of-consciousness rhymes are as random as those on your Twitter timeline but accented by an internal dialogue that pokes fun at and questions everything – including himself and his chosen profession. "I'm a rapper, we lament being broke/All the comics get money, but they spend it on coke" he raps on "Dark Comedy Late Show." When he says "We should play a big Scrabble game and make every word a confession" he gestures toward humanity in a world he sees as consumed with facade. There's nothing wrong with a little earnestness in the era of the microceleb. T.A.
Boosie Badazz emerged from a prison-induced hiatus to a hero's welcome in 2014, releasing the acclaimed Life After Deathrow tape and hitting stages across the country. He also faced serious health concerns: At his first New York show, Boosie – who is diabetic – became sick on stage after a few minutes and couldn't perform. Later in the year, he was diagnosed with cancer, for which half of his kidney was surgically removed. Yet he kept recording. Touchdown 2 Cause Hell, his official major label album and first in nearly five years, sold well, but remained an underground phenomenon, with no major hits. Yet from a creative perspective, it reaches for the commercial gold ring without compromising Boosie's essence: an expressive voice that radiates pathos, and a story in which mythic triumph and cold, ambiguous realism are locked in permanent battle. The epic story of an artist's rise against the odds is baked into hip-hop's DNA; Boosie is one rapper whose music – and life – affirms this narrative's power while shattering the fairy tale. D.D.
Don't call this five-song EP a reboot. Yes, T.I. resurrected his Tip moniker to rap again as the dope-slinging "Rubber Band Man" from days before Bowen Homes was razed and Bankhead Highway was renamed to revitalize his crime-ridden Atlanta hood. But he also hasn't ever sounded as villainous as he does in this neo-Western. While Young Dro and Young Thug act as willing henchmen in "Peanut Butter Jelly," Tip is plenty intimidating on his own as trap game Anton Chigurh: "You don't want us to make a motherfucking scene," he whispers. C.L.
"Dense" doesn't begin to describe Tetsuo & Youth, an album that marks a turn towards rococo stylings from one of hip-hop's most accomplished technicians. Lupe is not always right, but he's always a step past you: a step smarter, maybe, and sometimes one step closer to getting lost in his own head. No rapper in the modern era has as thorough a command of hip-hop's tools, a more fully interrogated knowledge of its tropes. His verses are shaped by imbricated wordplay and elaborate syllable sculptures. There may be a message in this music, but it's Lupe's best album since 2007's The Cool because it enjoys the journey and not the destination. D.D.
Over muted washes of instrumentation by Kenny Segal, the slippery, wordy, motormouth flow of this California-via-Wisconsin art-rapper doesn't come across as showy; instead, he simply seems like someone searching for life's answers everywhere he possibly can, from Busdriver to the Hagakure (which Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring, under his rap alias Hemlock Ernst, asks to borrow). Sometimes Milo's quest can seems futile, like when he offhandedly recalls how Darrien Hunt was shot by police while cosplaying as a Samurai Champloo character. But it is also tough to think of a better skill Milo inherited from Busdriver than to patiently work through his own anxieties: Noble hawk-eye, but mumble like I'm pea-brained/Usually identified by the ghee stain/Moved to California just to mispronounce the weed strains." C.L.
It was a banner year in British grime, with veteran artists putting down some of the best work of their careers, and the underground pirate radio stations that nurture it experiencing a resurgence both terrestrially and online. Stateside, no one had a bigger year than Skepta, whose collaborations with Kanye and Drake (and boots-down touring schedule) cracked the mainstream consciousness for the first time since the mid Aughts. Globally, no one had a better year than Skepta's brother JME, whose third studio album exemplified why grime has stayed vital: malleability and nimbleness have enabled it to keep its raw roots, to the point where Integrity>'s second track, "96 Fuckries," is actually a single from 2012 but still sounds hulking and anti-gravity-chamber futuristic. JME's bars are multitudinous, stick sharp and funny, varying from road brags to exhortations of his veganism to anthems that offer a good argument for unionizing grime MCs ("The Money," featuring Wiley). On "No You Ain't," he raps: "I'm a Eighties baby/The best MC lately? Maybe." In London parlance: Safe. J.E.S.
Though we've seen Ratking's slight, nasally frontman flex on projects like So It Goes, Lil Me is the first taste of Wiki concentrate. He's got the charisma, presence and flow that makes him a stellar heir to the cabal of NYC indie rap that spawned Das Racist, Mr. MFN eXquire and Despot. Here he experiments with new flows, sounds and subject matter: "Living With My Moms" is about the humbling experience of coming home from touring to do just that; he ponders his own coming of age on "Sunshowers"; and on "Bless Me" we get a glimpse of the lighter side of Wiki as he confesses that though he's no ladies' man, the ones who do like him find him unforgettable. Diversified topics go hand in hand with diverse production: The gamut runs from 808-based trap to refined boom bap thanks to Sporting Life, Kaytranada, Black Noi$e and Madlib. T.A.
Before his death in August, Sean Price was New York's greatest stylist of a particular strain of bugged-out punchlines, effortless internal rhymes and mean-mugging hard-assness – or as Nineties hip-hop heads called it, "rapping." His fourth commercially released mixtape (his 15th-or-so release in all), is as dependable, hilarious and technically stunning as nearly everything in his catalog since his celebrated 1996 debut with Heltah Skeltah. Loosies and new tracks are sliced and diced with aplomb by D.J. P.F. Cuttin', leaving little in the way of hooks and just an ocean of amazing bars, including the inspired MF Doom impersonation of "Metal Beard" ("We outshout the posse/Clappin' trey, happy days to Ralph Malph and Potsie"). Just another great release from a classic NYC boastmaster, who remained on of rap's most quotable until the very end: "Defending my bars first/Never respond to a fuckin' Kendrick Lamar verse." C.W.
Lots of rappers were prolific in 2015, but none were as consistent as Mozzy. Over four solo records and multiple collaborative releases, Mozzy jumped from an obscure mixtape rapper from a forgotten rap city – Sacramento – to one of the genre's true shooting stars. Bladadah was, by a hair, the most substantial of his solo projects, from the Paid In Full-sampling title track to the lush morbidity of "Love Slidin." It takes time feel the definition of his sound. But his words are artful, his language creative, his slang unique, his lyrics full of unexpected twists and turns, his verses full of rigorous discipline that never allows for a wasted line. Perhaps his core talent is to convey violence in a way that feels honest, which makes his competition seem mediated, dishonest, even exploitative. His lyrics are full of paranoia, drug abuse and depression, punctuated by a disturbing comfort with the tools of bloodshed. He feels no shock, leaving that for his listeners. D.D.
Cut out all the peripheral noise surrounding troubled rapper Meek Mill, like his inability to stay out of legal trouble, his ill-conceived "beef" with Drake and his tendency to weigh down his albums with gauche attempts at radio airplay like "All Eyes on You," his googly eyed duet with paramour Nicki Minaj (and Chris Brown officiating the ceremony). Just focus on lines like this one from "The Trillest": "One milli, two milli, three milli, buried it/Since they say I'm underground I run that bitch like Harriet." Name another rapper giving shout-outs to Harriet Tubman in 2015? Or check out this visual from "Cold Hearted," which may be one of the finest rhymes set to tape this year: "We started off as kids, stomachs touching our ribs/In these streets all nights like we ain't have nowhere to live." Meek Mill may nominally be a Philly "street rapper" in the Beanie Sigel tradition, but he really hearkens to a hip-hop lyricism that seems all but lost in our current obsession over flows and melodies. When Dreams Worth More Than Money soars, and it does more often than not, Meek Mill reminds us that he has potential to be one of the greats. M.R.
On paper, Pusha T has had one of the best years of his life: His voice soundtracked what seemed like every movie trailer of the summer (Entourage, especially) thanks to Yogi's "Burial"; and he rose from his status as hip-hop elder statesman to label executive. "The president of G.O.O.D. Music has been announced," he rapped on the Biggie-sampling "Untouchable. "A quarter million in a year and then I'm bounce." But his ubiquity and diversified portfolio did not soften the ice-cold flow that got him there. On his second solo album, the man who coined the term "eghck" throws street narratives like knives with his signature killer syntax, perhaps besting even 2013's stellar My Name Is My Name in weight in the ring. A typically bonkers bar: "Swordfish/My reality is morph-ish/Banana clips for all Curious Georges/Woo!" J.E.S.
Vic Spencer's music sounds like nothing else coming out of Chicago. It channels a forgotten branch of hip-hop history, a vituperative, pugnacious, irascible counter-trend to the eager enthusiasm which glimmers around the city's more positive scenes. Spencer is not positive. What he does have is his own sound, his own style, his own obnoxious sense of humor: "The coldest rapper that Chicago got/Live and direct rollin' up in a Wells Fargo lot/Invent something new like some cargo socks/Rappers in my city, which one of these retardos hot?" Spencer has no fear of burning bridges, beefing with more popular stars or "Slapping Gatekeepers." But he isn't simply promoting conflict and negativity: He's pushing for honesty, a ruthless curmudgeon whose raps argue that the genre is at its best when calling out false prophets. D.D.
Raury's discerning, Andre 3000-inspired philosophizing helps portray him as a storybook hero, while his expansive folk rock makes his universe feel foreign. But this precocious newcomer, otherwise known as the artist who wore a Mexican soccer jersey with Donald Trump's name crossed out to his late night TV debut, stresses that he isn't daydreaming or depicting some fictional world: "I could be MLK, I could be Juicy J/Or a lame on Instagram that shows the world his AK." To listen to All We Need, where Big K.R.I.T. is a wizened sage and RZA a boho-hippie balladeer, is to view the world with fresh eyes, and from someone who actually seems to puff out his chest when he calls himself a "millennial." C.L.
Since his first mixtape dropped in 2012, New York spitter Joey Bada$$ has seen his overflowing talents diminished since his music sounds like the year of his birth, 1995, in a genre that values the new and contemporary. But from the opening jazz boom-bap of Statik Selektah, his debut full length shows he never paid the critics much mind. In fact, his devotion to vintage styles of New York rap is what keeps his lyricism in top form, whether he's trash talking ("Christ Conscious") or reminiscing over the past ("Curry Chicken"). D.T.
The second disc of this 2-CD package sets a brave new course for the noise-rap trio, inventing new ways to be funky (growling like the sound of revving motorcycle for starters) and uncovering new ways to be abrasive – there's room for Atari Teenage Riot-style electro-punk rants ("I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States"), bouts of feedback-soaked Smashing Pumpkins rock ("On GP"), robot funk-metal ("Why a Bitch Gotta Lie") and even something that leans towards the noise-punk of drummer Zach Hill's former band Hella ("Beyond Alive"). MC Ride's lyrics dwell in the social anxiety and the Internet hall of mirrors that powers everything from vaporwave to PC Music to Earl Sweatshirt, but since he's bellowing them at Waka Flocka levels, it turns introversion into an hardcore cry of community in solitutude, shouting "I don't care about real life!" and "I like my iPod more than fucking!" C.W.
Don't test DeJ Loaf's patience. With the exception of her concerned mother, the rising Detroit rapper with the childlike voice cannot be bothered with anyone who could slow her down – critics, Jabronis or one-night stands who think they are more deserving. She may sound harsh ("If I fuck and make you come, you gotta promise not to stress me"), though this six song EP also makes it tough to argue with her. By enlisting Big Sean for the nyah nyah nyah banger "Back Up" and Future for the weightless "Hey There," she shows how it pays to be selective with the company she keeps while toying with the already-blurred lines between today's rap and R&B. As for the diaristic meditations before, after and in between ("I'm so little, but I feel like Shaquille"), they seem more than justified. C.L.
On his second major label album, A$AP Rocky eschewed a second spin on the pop merry-go-round. Instead of trying to repeat the success of 2013's "Fuckin' Problems" or score another a festival hit like "Wild for the Night," At.Long.Last.A$AP went full psychedelic rap. Sixties rock signifiers are all over the album – "L$D," "Electric Body," "Jukebox Joints" – yet it still maintains a sense of individuality. A woozy trip among a side of rock rarely touched by hip-hop since the Native Tongue era. D.T.
The debut album from Paterson, New Jersey's gushing romantic Fetty Wap delivers on the promise of "Trap Queen," "679," "My Way" and even "Again," which probably should have been a hit considering it's made of the same stuff. Fetty deals in gritty subject matter, candy-coated melodies and an exasperated, brink-of-ecstasy/brink-of-tears delivery that constantly crosses the line where his throat breaks and his voice cracks. In a year where the melodic tics of Young Thug and Future started sinking even deeper into the framework of the way people rap in 2015, Fetty was all dessert, all the time: 17 trap-pop songs that aimed for the hugest hooks possible, sang almost exclusively like the spots where Auto-Tune changes notes, featuring melodies that he rode into the ground like AC/DC would a riff. C.W.
Future's partner DJ Esco spent nearly two months in a Dubai prison, and in celebration of his return they teamed up for the darkest record of the rapper's career. Self-medication, women and heartbreak drive Future's club hits, trap anthems and unabashed love songs; but 56 Nights drains everything out until all that's left are morose drug meditations. That hard left turn gave birth to hard yet melancholy songs like "March Madness" and "Trap Niggas," both of which had a refusal to give up that turned Future into something of an inspirational figure. No matter how dark his music got, through the murk shined a light of exuberant confidence: "Waking up fresh, that's Kodak/Killing these niggas you know that." D.T.