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40 Best Rap Albums of 2015

Ambitious LPs, masterful mixtapes and more

Kendrick Lamar

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 27: (EDITORS NOTE: Image was shot in black and white. Color version not available.) Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock concert at Staples Center on June 27, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Christopher Polk/BET/Getty

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.

22. Sean Price, 'Songs in the Key of Price'
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Sean Price, ‘Songs in the Key of Price’

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.

21. Mozzy, 'Bladadah'
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Mozzy, ‘Bladadah’

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.

Meek Mill, 'Dreams Worth More Than Money'
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Meek Mill, ‘Dreams Worth More Than Money’

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.

Pusha T, 'King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude'
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Pusha T, ‘King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude’

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.

 

19. Vic Spencer, 'The Cost of Victory'
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Vic Spencer, ‘The Cost of Victory’

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.

18. Raury, 'All We Need'
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Raury, ‘All We Need’

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.

17. Joey Bada$$, 'B4.Da.A$$'
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Joey Bada$$, ‘B4.Da.$$’

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.

16. Death Grips, 'The Powers That B'
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Death Grips, ‘The Powers That B’

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.

Dej Loaf
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Dej Loaf, ‘#AndSeeThatsTheThing’ EP

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.

14. A$AP Rocky, 'At.Long.Last.A$AP'
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A$AP Rocky, ‘At.Long.Last.A$AP’

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.

Fetty Wap, 'Fetty Wap'
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Fetty Wap, ‘Fetty Wap’

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 framew