(Note: Someone else here is ranking the best mixtapes of the year, so the free stuff isn't on this list. I've already said that if “Blue Chips,” “1999,” and “Rich Forever” aren't on that mixtape top 10, I'm tendering my resignation.)
10. “Lace Up,” MGK
We might be a little biased here. MGK gave us one of the funniest interviews ever on this site, and we'll just be forever grateful for a rapper who extolls to us the virtues of “shitting in bags and throwing them at people.”
(Alright, one more sample from that interview:
Okay. So the album went No. 4, right? What's the first thing you did when you found out it went No. 4?
[long pause] Ate a blueberry muffin, I think?
Biases aside, though, MGK's album does deserve a spot on this list. It received middling reviews, but I found it a gripping collection of confessionals that rewarded several listens—once you got through the rapid-fire delivery, which is admittedly the rapper's hook and reason why people ever paid attention to him in the first place, you're left with some of the best lyrics any rapper wrote this year. It's the story of a poor kid living a white-trash life in Cleveland, dreaming of something more and dealing with his many substance-abuse and peer-pressure related demons. Meaning, when you give it a spin, all of a sudden it's 1997 again, and you're back listening for the first time to that other white guy who came from a similar background. It's a good memory.
9. “Cruel Summer,” G.O.O.D. Music
I wrote this a few months ago when “Cruel Summer” came out, and I disagree with nearly all of the first impressions I made then. “Cruel Summer” benefits from multiple listens, if only to really appreciate its utterly crazy-ass production—the fact that I called “Higher,” which sounds so unlike anything else on the radio, a “filler track” in that earlier article was particularly criminal. As was my dismissal of “Creepers,” which might be a signal that Kid Cudi has one more comeback left in him.
Yes, the album is far from perfect. Kanye West doesn't show up enough, it's borderline schizophrenic in its themes, and for every great verse (particularly the impassioned Pusha-T on “New God Flow”), there's an uninspired appearance from someone, like, Cyhi the Prince. But it also has some of the best and most fearless minds in hip-hop coming together for an uncommercial and boundary-expanding collaborative effort (this wasn't radio rap: the album actually didn't do that hot sales-wise). For that reason, I'm more than willing to give Kanye and company credit.
8. “God Forgives, I Don't,” Rick Ross
Sure, “Rich Forever” was better, but we're ranking real albums here. “God Forgives, I Don't” is ridiculous, bombastic, and probably more fun to listen to then anything else on this list. Play it out of a tricked-out Maybach and be a fucking bawse today, son.
7. “The Stoned Immaculate,” Curren$y
Curren$y has admitted before that he's recorded some of his mixtapes in only two days (no, seriously), so it was nice this year to see the talented New Orleans rapper take his time and produce a full-fledged, major-label work with guest stars and diverse producers, all while not changing his unique, stream-of-consciousness “lifestyle rap” to fit more mainstream conventions. He'll always be the No. 1 weed rapper to true enthusiasts of the genre (sorry, Wiz).
6. “Live From the Underground,” Big K.R.I.T.
There's a moment at the very end of the album's second track, “Live From the Underground,” when the song begins to segue into the worst of all rap album conventions—the sketch. This one actually means something, though, if only to provide a sly way of acknowledging that, yes, this album is a big deal for Big K.R.I.T. fans.
Stranger: Hey, are you okay down there?
K.R.I.T.: Yeah, I'm fine. Where am I?
S: You're in the mainstream. This is A&R-ville. Where are you from?
K: I'm from Cadillactica, by way of the underground. For short, the South.
Big K.R.I.T., who has given away what seems like hundreds of songs over his career, finally hit it big this year with a mainstream effort. That alone warrants inclusion of “Underground” on here, but the album also happens to be one of the best examples of Southern hip-hop since the OutKast heyday. These are songs about moonshine, country debauchery, and the working poor. It's anti-”Watch the Throne” aimed at the 99%. And, most importantly, it's funky as shit.
5. “The OF Tape, Vol. 2,” Odd Future
I'm not sure how this happened, but according to the infallible gods of the iTunes Most Played section, this was the rap album I listened to the most this year. This actually wasn't that surprising. I've always liked the “Fuck you” attitude of Odd Future—even after essentially pissing on $25 and seeing them play a terrible, all-screamfest show this year—but this album took the shock rap that's made up most of their oeuvre and added incredibly original lines and a retro yet markedly improved production from Tyler, the Creator. Highlights included “NY,” a menacing track that made the case that Hodgy may end up being the best rapper of the bunch, “Rella,” featuring one of the funnier Tyler verses ever, and “White,” a Frank Ocean solo piece that's so out of place it kind of surreally works.
The album showed that for all their clowning around, the group is actually committed to improving as artists. Well, except for maybe Taco and Jasper.
4. “Habits and Contradictions,” Schoolboy Q
Unfairly overshadowed by the leader of his Black Hippy crew, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q quietly released one of the best hip-hop albums of the year all the way back in January. “Habits and Contradictions” occasionally reaches a gripping, Danny Brown-level of weirdness—Schoolboy's rapping style is all over the place, from a low growl on “Oxy Music” to a world-weary flatness on “How We Feeling,” and he seems like he may be on strong narcotics for at least 70% of the album—but the real hook of the album is the production. It takes an obvious influence from late-90s, early-2000s chopped n' screwed producers, but then just when you're lulled into a cough syrup-esque haze, it hits you with fast snare drums and a thumping, car-speaker-shattering bass. (The best way I can describe these transitions is that it's like the jarring transitions that make up The Weeknd's best songs).
You really should listen to this album.
3. “R.A.P. Music,” Killer Mike
Almost unclassifiable, “R.A.P. Music” swerves between a political screed, an homage to the '80's, and Outkast-style funk rap. It also rocks—check out the slowly building beat and machine-gun volley of words in the album's opener “Big Beast,” and try not to nod your head.
2. “Life is Good,” Nas
It's a not so little secret that right around Jay-Z's dismantling of Nas in 2001's “Takeover,” the rivalry between the two became more like the rivalry between a hammer and a nail than that of two contemporaries. Jay became the mogul and the king of New York, and everyone seemed to forget that Nas made the best rap album ever and generally was widely seen as 'Hov's superior for much of the '90s. (Nas also married the chick responsible for “Milkshake,” while Jay pulled Beyonce, so there was another strike against Mr. “Illmatic.”)
Then Nas released “Life is Good” this year, and all of a sudden we were reminded why hip-hop purists have always considered the Queens native the best pure rapper alive. The album is essentially a multilayered analysis of how Nas and Kelis' marriage fell apart (that's a replica of Kelis' wedding dress he's holding on the cover), and it's as honest and raw as any work in the braggadocio-heavy genre. I think the reason I liked it so much, though, was how his nolstagic look back at the good times of his marriage really becomes a nolstagic look back at the golden days of rap. In a year when many up-and-coming rappers found success paying homage to the music they grew up with—think Joey BadA$$ and the late '90's, A$AP Rocky and the Houston chopped-and-screwed scene, Kendrick Lamar and West-Coast gangsta rap—here was an originator revisiting his old material with the wisdom that only the old guys can get away with. Every rapper should go through a contentious divorce sometime.
1. “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” Kendrick Lamar
Before “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” finally dropped, I'll admit that I had my doubts about Kendrick Lamar. “Section.80″ was a great, underappreciated album, full of slippery rhymes delivered over jazz riffs and spaced-out horns, but for all its strengths, it was also heavy-handed and overly earnest. Part of this was Lamar's tendancy to slip into Kid Cudi mode, which can vaguely be defined as Eeyore-lite. Part of this also, I think, was the pressure Lamar put on himself before making the album. He once said that Tupac visited him in a dream and told him: “Keep doing what you're doing, don't let my music die.” Okay, easy there, kid.
But then this album came out. And holy shit, it's amazing. It's so autobiographical you think you accidently walked into Lamar's Compton house a few years ago, and these sounds are what surrounded you. It's innovative, with a story that manages to be coherent but just mysterious enough that it forces you to pay attention. And it's fun, with the big beats and even bigger boasts that we expect from any rapper worth his Ace of Spades. Try listening to “Backstreet Freestyle” and not forcing a smile.
Album of the year in any genre. Bow to the new rap king.