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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.

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$$, 'B4.Da.A$$'
17

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
15

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'
13

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 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 & DJ Esco
12

Future & DJ Esco, ’56 Nights’

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.