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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.

23. Wiki, 'Lil Me'
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Wiki, ‘Lil Me’

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.

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 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
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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.

11. Dr. Dre, 'Compton'
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Dr. Dre, ‘Compton’

The year's second most ambitious hip-hop album is a master class in production courtesy of Dr. Dre, the man who invented the idea that hip-hop can sound as much like Abbey Road as Crenshaw Blvd. Ostensibly inspired by reminiscing over the West Coast gangsta rap that he helped invent, his third solo album ends up an arms-wide-open opus inspired by the crush-and-jitter Atlanta trap ("Talk About It"), the muted groove-slash of J. Dilla's Detroit ("Satisfiction") and DJ Premier's New York ("Animals"). Dre's arrangements bustle to the point of being cramped, full of drops, reverses, live drums, skits, strings and – no kidding – a flugelhorn. Rap's most showboating MCs add to the wide-screen vision, including Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and newcomer King Mez. C.W.

10. Young Thug, 'Barter 6'
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Young Thug, ‘Barter 6’

As victim of a massive data leak, Young Thug has one of 2015's messiest catalogs. Yet he still managed to open the year with a concise release, a dark vacuum of a record with a sound perfectly complemented by the brown-red scheme of its cover art. The Barter 6 is a coherent statement from an artist accused of incoherence, where melodies shimmer and emerge from the molasses silence to form singular shapes, embedding in the brain like memory foam. Every guest spot – including two vintage Birdman verses – seems to stand on the same fluid stage. Despite Young Thug's reputation for eccentricity and wackiness, The Barter 6 is a record of great musicality, poise and a subtle autobiographical sadness which seeps into its final songs. It was initially greeted with skepticism: Where are the hits? But then, of course, it produced two ("Check" and "With That"), proof that great artists shape their world and don't let it shape them. D.D.

9. Dr. Yen Lo, 'Days With Dr. Yen Lo'
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Dr. Yen Lo, ‘Days With Dr. Yen Lo’

Forty-something Brooklyn firefighter by day, wildly gifted rapper by night, Kaseem "Ka" Ryan is the most noir personality in hip-hop's celebrated lineage of dizzying assonance enthusiasts: He's got the brain-bending intricacy of Kool G Rap, MF Doom and avowed fan Earl Sweatshirt, but does it all with an chilly groan like he's constantly exhaling from a cigar. The crime stories of his fourth album, a collaboration with producer Preservation, are like the whispers behind the tales Raekwon was proud to shout, mostly spun with his vowels in tidy rows: "Was bopping through every possible obstacle/My options grew until the cops pursue." Often eschewing snares entirely, Days With Dr. Yen Lo can sound like the minimalist dark-jazz of Bohren and Der Club of Gore getting a gritty guest verse to steal the smoky spotlight. C.W.

8. Earl Sweatshirt, 'I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside'
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Earl Sweatshirt, ‘I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside’

The former Odd Future wunderkind may not have developed into the irreverent, Eminem-style, super-lyrical spitter some thought he would – but he's proven that his talents extend well beyond shock value and intricate rhyme schemes. On his sophomore album he thinks and feels deeply, articulating the emotional world of a young man reconciling newfound fame and fortune with inner turmoil and strained personal relationships. This transparency is transfixing: "Grief" draws you into his world of mistrust and isolation, "Mantra" begins as a boastful status update but becomes a description of love gone sour. Perhaps most affecting is "DNA" where Sweatshirt is defiant in the face of authority figures and opportunists alike and guest Nak'el's verse is a threnody for a dead homie. I Don't Like Shit is heavy and heady and never relents from being as real as life itself. T.A.

7. Rae Sremmurd, 'SremmLife'
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Rae Sremmurd, ‘SremmLife’

It feels distant now, as Rae Sremmurd's two biggest hits both struck in 2014. Yet at the top of the year they released a lean, mean record of concise, punchy pop-rap. It's a record in which novelty and craft not only coexist, but feed upon one another. A PG-13 dance record, it was a refreshing splash of water after the discomfiting shock of YouTube gangsters and club-chasing paeans to codeine addiction. Two fresh-faced stars flaunted their talents – and, importantly, irreverence – with the precision production of Mike Will's Ear Drummers team hitting hard and getting out of the way. Its spirited jouissance is never contrived, yet its surface is clean and brightly packaged. SremmLife is an exacting product, but never lets that get in the way of a good time. D.D.

Vince Staples, 'Summertime '06'
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Vince Staples, ‘Summertime ’06’

Summertime '06 is what results when a Northside Long Beach Crip engages with the genre-less beat streams of Internet culture. Clams Casino's amniotic melodies pulse underneath Vince Staples as he croons, "This could be forever, baby." The rapper spends as much time harmonizing soulfully as he does throwing signs, and sharply retorting on "Lift Me Up," "I never vote for Presidents/The presidents that change the hood is dead and green." He may be a (former) gangsta like his Daddy, and raps with poise and confidence, but he opts for haunted laptop arrangements from DJ Dahi instead of the lowrider funk of his forbears. The world he occupies looks unfamiliar because it's owned by a younger generation that's savvy about the social media-connected world around them, yet are just as committed to their neighborhood, and the sometimes deadly rituals that define it. As Staples raps on "Norf Norf," "Nate Dogg still here 'cause of niggas like me." M.R.

5. Future, 'DS2'
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Future, ‘DS2’

Magic City still belongs to Future. His touring DJ Esco still plays the ever-popular Monday nights at the now world-famous strip club, while, as of this spring anyway, the TV screen behind its stripper pole plays scenes from his "Magic" video. Yet DS2, a hazy nightcap to his triumphant 2014-2015 run of four releases, Future is no longer the reliable paid endorser of the trap-rap lifestyle. The Auto-Tuned crooning that once had Miley Cyrus singing along has all but withered away. Any leftover notions of grandeur ("The Percocet & Stripper Joint"'s faint horns, "Where Ya At"'s cascading harps) only seem hearken back to his now-distant past of his last studio album, Honest. Even when he sings of money showers, his voice grows listless. Yet because of how convincing Future is – how he draws you closer by barely seeming conscious, how he self-medicates to Henny and sex despite himself – he is as compelling as ever, if not more. C.L.

4. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, 'Surf'
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Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, ‘Surf’

Though his team went to great lengths to clarify that Surf was no sequel to Chance the Rapper's game-changing sophomore tape Acid Rap, fans were nonetheless surprised to discover an oddball pop-jazz record with more left turns than a racetrack. Still, standout lead single "Sunday Candy" would not have sounded out of place on the rapper's breakthrough. With the breathless enthusiasm of a high school musical, the song is a nesting doll: Hidden in plain sight, it's a love song, within a song of familial love, shown through symbols of faith. As a whole, the album travels far beyond Chicago's South Side, yet the attitude which pervades "Sunday Candy" is decidedly local: dancers, street rappers, entertainers, legends. It's an adventurous record that celebrates imagination and collaboration; a chorus of youthful voices taking their first confident steps, and a few older ones rediscovering their footing. D.D.

3. Various Artists, 'Hamilton: Original Broadway Soundtrack
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Various Artists, ‘Hamilton: Original Broadway Soundtrack

To pull off the impossible and become the world's first blockbuster hip-hop musical about a Founding Father, Hamilton had to be historically accurate, dramatically compelling and true to the art forms used to tell its tale. This was a feat particularly suited to Tony Award-winning playwright, composer and MacArthur Grant-certified "genius" Lin-Manuel Miranda. A native of New York's Washington Heights, Miranda is as much a hip-hop head as he is a theater buff. From the opening number to the musical's close the listener is enthralled by the story of a "bastard, orphan son of a whore and Scotsman" who, in true hip-hop underdog fashion, improved his station in life by hustling his way to the top. Along the way there is levity, romance, intrigue and tragedy all peppered with clever nods to songs like Busta Rhymes' "Pass The Courvoisier" ("My Shot") and Biggie's "Ten Crack Commandments" ("Ten Duel Commandments"). Manuel has made history and reaffirmed that hip-hop is as American as apple pie. T.A.

2. Drake, 'If You're Reading This It's Too Late'
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Drake, ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’

Sometime between Drake's half-decade as a silky smooth half-rap/half-croon heartthrob and our current "Hotline Bling" era came this glorious Ferrari joyride speed-bump of a mixtape. If You're Reading This fulfilled all the promises of the Common beef and the Migos co-sign – Drake basically reinventing him as a capital-R rapper who cared more about making hot lines than making hot songs (in turn, neither of its singles cracked the Top 50). Swaggering around more like Rick Ross than a vulnerable ex-soap star, Drake takes aim at against haters, exes, fakes, clones, shot-takers, Tyga and, er, Rolling Stone. He's buying islands, ignoring texts from centerfolds and serving "beef well done on the double with cheese." He raps with the same funk-over-all attitude of Young Thug or Bobby Shmurda: "The shit was gettin' too predictable/The new shit is on steroids, I would never pass a physical." Who cares who wrote it? C.W.

Kendrick Lamar, 'To Pimp a Butterfly'
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Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

What more can be said about an album that landed in March with a thump, as if it were a 1,000-page novel? Kendrick Lamar's masterwork may not be the length of Infinite Jest — its 79 minutes makes it about as long as a late-Nineties rap CD. Yet we're still trying to unpack his meditations on post-millennial blackness, Christian struggles with "Lucy," assertions of lyrical superiority in the new West Coast and communion with spiritual forefathers like Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton and DJ Quik. Lost amidst the endless discussion of its themes, however, is how exhilarated Lamar sounds throughout. "Alright" is a celebration of being alive, and neither the danger of not living up to God's plan nor the specter of random police violence can diminish that feeling. He sounds like a spoken-word poet gone mad in the coffeehouse on "For Free?" "King Kunta" finds him throwing bows in a drop-top Chevy as he takes in the L.A. sunshine. Lamar's mind never shuts off, and he challenges us to follow his thoughts — but he always reminds us that life is a joyous blessing. M.R.

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