Contrary to what some out-of-touch folks may try to tell you, this has been a very good, healthy, exciting year for hip-hop. I’m almost mad at that, since it made compiling this “best albums” list all the more time consuming. I admittedly had missed out on quite a few acclaimed LPs at the time of their respective releases, as I’ve spent the majority of this year holed up in either the studio or inside my head, perfecting my own debut album, dropping next year. But with my baby finally about ready to head to mastering, I’ve had some well-deserved time at the end of the year to catch up on the all the projects I missed out on as a fan.
Before I get into this list, let me clarify the qualifiers, or “rules”, if you may. This is a list of what I feel are the best rap albums of 2015, meaning official full length LP releases only. That means no mixtapes/free releases (ex. Future’s 56 Nights, Young Thug’s Slime Season 1 & 2, Big K.R.I.T.’s It’s Better This Way, Lil’ Bibby’s Free Crack 3, etc.) no EPs (Mick Jenkin’s Wave[s], RATKING’s 700 Fill, etc.), and no albums that are classified as genres outside of hip-hop that contain a couple rap features (Ty Dolla $ign’s Free TC, Raury’s All We Need, Snoop Dogg’s Bush, etc.). Only full length official albums which are mostly made up of rhyming words rhythmically need apply.
As for other exclusions, I thought the projects by legends like Scarface and Ghostface Killah as well as southern heavyweights Jeezy, Boosie Badazz and Curren$y were good but let me down a bit considering what I know they’re capable of. Also, there were some solid efforts from Doomtree, The Game, Michael Christmas, Malik B & Mr. Green, Logic, Czarface, The Underachievers, Fashawn and more that I enjoyed (yes, I dug the Drake & Future project too), but I only got 25 spots here, so cut me a break y’all.
First, I’ll sum up numbers 25 through 11. In a year with hundreds and hundreds of full length hip-hop releases, a good deal of those being decent-to-good, being ranked in the top 25 is nothing to be ashamed of. As you can see from these first 15 albums listed, 2015 pumped out solid LPs in all sub-genres of rap music. They range from more expansive, experimental projects like Travis Scott’s Rodeo, Mac Miller’s GO:OD AM, and A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP, to more traditional, lyric-focused “boom-bap” LPs such as Joey Bada$$’ B4DA$$, Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo and Youth, and Oddisee’s The Good Fight, to glossy, well-produced “pop” leaning albums like Rae Sremmurd’s single-laden SremmLife; Big Sean’s best effort to date, Dark Sky Paradise; and Wale’s The Album About Nothing, also the best work of his career.
Two very dark, low key projects impressed me this year: Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and the virtually percussion-less Days With Yen Lo by Dr. Yen Lo (rapper Ka and producer Preservation). Genre-bending “sleeper” albums, or LPs that I haven’t seen on many year-end lists that should be, that made my list include Joey Bada$$ wingman Kirk Knight’s Late Knight Special and Goldlink’s And After That, We Didn’t Talk, which is so house and R&B influenced that it barely qualifies as a rap album. Freddie Gibbs had a solid (but slightly inferior) follow-up to last year’s Madlib-produced Piñata album in Shadow of a Doubt, and while I enjoyed Dr. Dre’s long-awaited Compton, I found myself feeling somewhat underwhelmed overall, considering his track record. However, those albums both earned their spots on the list, and them not even being in the top 10 is a testament to 2015 being, again, a very good year for rap.
Now, on to my top 10 Best Rap Albums of 2015. Keep in mind that this is my opinion, and only mine, so don’t go blaming OogeeWoogee as a whole just because MC Dingleberry’s Rapid Rapz of Fury Part 3, or whatever other album you might’ve thought was dope, didn’t sound that way to my ears. And if you haven’t heard some of these albums, I highly recommend giving them a shot. Never hurts to expand your palette.
Possibly the least-known artist on this entire list, Ceschi Ramos quietly released the best work of his career this year. I’m fortunate enough to not only have seen Ceschi live twice, once playing the show with him, but also lucky to maintain a friendly relationship with the talented songwriter. But if you think that has created a strong enough bias for me to put him in the top 10, you are mistaken, as a bunch of my other friends put out albums this year (some very good) that still didn’t crack my list.
Ceschi really comes into his own more than ever before, fully utilizing his numerous talents from his nimble, malleable flow, to his acoustic guitar playing ability to, perhaps most notably here, his unique, oddly soothing singing voice. In fact, four of the twelve songs are straight up acoustic ballads without any rap (so it still counts as a rap album on the whole, damn it), and each of them hit their mark very well. Ceschi has a gift for emotionally poignant writing that can strike a chord with anyone not afraid to have some humanity in their hip-hop, all the while showcasing his objectively sound technical skill. Factor Chandelier produced the LP, and he does his job well, carrying the somber but at times hopeful (ex: single “This Won’t Last Forever“) sound without ever trying to overpower Ceschi, who makes sure every word counts. If you’re in the mood to be moody and throw rap in a blender with indie rock and acoustic singer/songwriter material, give Broken Bone Ballads a try.
Another example of a more avant-garde rapper putting out the best work of his career in 2015 is Milo’s short-but-bittersweet So The Flies Don’t Come. Born in Chicago, raised in Wisconsin, sharpening his teeth as an emcee in LA, to say Milo has had an interesting journey to this year is an understatement. The wordy, laid back but still cynical emcee is very self-aware of his appearance, saying on this very album that “indeed a nigga might look bookish” then following that up with a reminder that “you can be next in line to catch a hooked fist“. It is this dichotomy of endearing self-deprecating humor combined with thick-skinned sarcasm and biting wit that makes Milo’s writing throughout this barely-over-30-minute LP so engaging.
The low-key, sample-based (and clearly Madvillain-influenced) production by LA beatsmith Kenny Segal is very cohesive without becoming boring. On “re:animist“, Segal even employs haunting 808 drums as a variation from the traditional sampled percussion, and Milo’s flow becomes the most exciting it is on the whole album. If you are the type of listener who does not give a solitary fuck about lyrics, you will not enjoy this LP. However, if you’re someone who gets excited by literary references, triple entendres and some of the driest humor out there (as I am), you need to hear So The Flies Don’t Come.
And here we go from one end of the “weirdo rapper” spectrum to the other with the most polarizing figure in hip-hop right now, one of the most interesting emcees around with one of the least interesting names, Young Thug. One could call him the polar opposite of Milo, as rather than heavily focusing on lyrics and sometimes sacrificing a more exciting delivery, Thug spits out most-likely-freestyled non-sequiters in some of the (in my opinion, THE) most intriguing and sonically pleasing cadences in rap. Barter 6 is Thug’s most cohesive, centered and enjoyable project without question, thanks to the sparse but still bass-heavy production giving Thugger a consistent canvas to paint his catchy-as-hell hooks and endlessly entertaining verses on.
It seems you either love or hate Young Thug, as some just can’t fathom a rapper not really caring about “rapping” in the traditional sense (or they just won’t listen to him because of how he dresses, which is a whole new level of closed-mindedness), while some, like myself, don’t give a damn what he looks like, as we can’t deny his melodic talents and creativity in the booth. Sure, the lyrics on this album won’t change your life, but once you realize that Thug’s elastic vocal cords are doing things that literally no one else (besides his imitators) are doing in rap, and god damn it, it’s fun, you just might understand the greatness of this LP. If you can’t at least bust out a head nod and smile to “With That“, you’re probably the type of person who goes to a party just to hold the wall up in your B-boy stance and complain about how hip-hop is “dead”. Go away.
7. Future – DS2
Ahhhh, Future. Another very controversial figure in rap music who makes what some barely consider rap music. Much like Young Thug, Future is not a lyric-focused artist, as it is his extremely emotive delivery that brings out whatever feeling he chooses to convey, switching from a dreary, sad bluesman-like croak to a manically excited yelp at a moment’s notice. However, there is not much of the latter on DS2 (short for Dirty Sprite 2, a sequel to an old mixtape of his), as it is arguably the most depressing album on this list. It may be easy for a casual skimming listener to miss that amongst some of the goofier quotes from this record, or refusing to listen just a little bit harder to decipher Future’s Auto-Tune infused delivery (it’s really not that hard), but godDAMN this album is dark.
Opening with the sound of ice cubes fizzing and popping due to Actavis cough syrup being poured into a cup of Sprite (hence the title), DS2 is essentially one long account of Future’s downward spiral into depression-fueled addiction, masked behind 808-laced “turnt” production and what sound like “fun” choruses. Even when the dreadlocked lothario seems to really be having fun, like on the Drake-assisted smash “Where Ya At“, the instrumental is still dark and dank, sounding like the audio form of the grey skies shown in the video. I admit that sonically, Future is not for everyone, especially those who only want to hear clearly enunciated, lyric-driven hip-hop at all times. But for the more open minded, he has put out arguably his best work (only last year’s Monster mixtape is comparable) while simultaneously making me pretty concerned for his mental, and physical, health. Get well soon, Nayvadius.
Here is another album that barely qualifies as a rap record, as it blends genres like soul and jazz into its audio tapestry, but it still contains some of the best recorded rapping of the year. Donnie Trumpet (government name Nico Segal) is a master of the instrument his nom de plume is named for, and his collective The Social Experiment are equally talented at their respective positions, including the most famous member, Chance the Rapper, who delivers and then some every time he pops up on Surf. This album is pure sunlight all the way through, without becoming corny or sounding forced. In a year full of dark sounding production and aggressive, hedonism-fueled lyrics abounding, this LP is a nice little slice of unbridled positivity that can put a smile on the most weathered, dejected face.
Each feature here, from the warm vocals of the legendary Erykah Badu and relative newcomer BJ the Chicago Kid, to excellent verses from J. Cole (whose album dropped LAST year, for everyone wondering why it’s not on this list) and Migos member Quavo. Even the usually harmless but insufferably corny B.O.B. delivers a dope verse, alongside a top-form Busta Rhymes, no less. One of the albums’ most notable highlights is “Wanna Be Cool“, an ode to being yourself, with verses from Chance, college-rap babyface KYLE and most shockingly, a rapper who you could argue personifies “wanna be cool”, Big Sean, who delivers a grounded, self aware home run of a verse. Surf is in the top tier of ensemble cast albums in that, despite it’s lengthy list of highly diverse features, it manages to bring the same optimism and happy energy out of everyone involved.
If there was a “Most Improved Rapper” award for 2015, I would undoubtedly vote for TDE’s perennial underdog, Jay Rock. I thought his 2011 debut LP Follow Me Home was decent but overall underwhelming, considering his potential. It’s safe to say that his sophomore effort 90059 (named for his hometown Watts, CA zip code) coming four years later, was worth the wait. The gravelly voiced emcee experiments with his delivery and flow more than ever before, sounding like he’s having the most fun just rapping than he ever has, and sadder and angrier than he ever has when he needs to. The cohesive sound of the album is lent to the spacious, moody without being overly-sad production, as well as the melodic and chant-worthy hooks on every one of the LP’s 11 tracks. The influence from his TDE brethren Kendrick is there in Jay Rock’s experimentation with cadences and melodies, but it’s all put through his distinct gruff, much tougher filter.
I may even go as far as to say that 90059 is the most underrated rap album of 2015, which is something Jay Rock is used to, being the least famous member of his star-studded collective. But the 29-year-old rapper has more than proven himself to me here, arguably outshining all three TDE members on posse cut “Vice City” and holding his own next to an awesome Busta Rhymes verse on “Fly On The Wall” (that guy is getting around this year, huh?). One could argue that the production on this album is almost too in the pocket, too uniformly “chill”, but I see that sound as a necessary glue holding the LP together oh-so-well. This is a very solid piece of work, and pound for pound, it’s better than any album Schoolboy Q or Ab-Soul has released. Yeah I said it.
The newly crowned GOOD Music president fucked around and dropped one of the best albums of the year right at the end of it, as I was trying to get this list together. If he wasn’t in my own personal top 5, I might’ve not even listened to it in time. But I can’t deny the influence that the Virginia-born wordsmith’s structure has had on my own work, so I had to listen, and I’m so glad I did. In a tight 35-or-so-minute, 10 song package, Pusha has put out, bar for bar, the best lyrics in 2015 rap on one disc. There is not a weak line on this thing, and that includes the two features, right hand man Ab-Liva and Beanie Sigel (!!!) who delivers an incredible verse on “Keep Dealing“. Not an artist typically known for his hooks (numerous songs on here don’t really have a hook, not that they even need one with production and bars like this), Pusha has some awesome choruses here, courtesy of the very reliable The-Dream and, somewhat shockingly, the duo of A$AP Rocky and his boss Kanye West on “M.P.A.” (which is produced by J. Cole, making it the most star-studded track by far).
Darkest Before Dawn – The Prelude (yes, this is apparently only a prelude to the King Push album) is so damn good because of its balance; the immaculate production, the fantastically layered wordplay, the aforementioned quality hooks, all coexisting on an LP with seemingly infinite replay value, even if just to decode some of Pusha’s more complex lines (which I already did for you here). This is dark, this is gritty (Push even got Timbaland to bring out his more stripped down, gritty side on a few tracks), this is crime-ridden; this is Pusha-T, god damn it. While he opens the album imploring the listener “leave your conscience at the door”, the braided up legend ends it with what is probably his most “conscious” song to date, the police brutality-criticizing “Sunshine“, featuring Jill Scott sounding as amazing as ever on the hook and bridge. One can only hope Push explores this dichotomy more on his next release, along with employing all the perfect features for more great hooks, and he just may take that number one spot for me in 2016.
Aubrey Graham is winning right now. No amount of defiant, bitter hating ass haters can take away from the staggeringly great year he had. But I’m not here to talk about how he could’ve potentially ended Meek Mill’s career with a Grammy-nominated (!!!) diss track, or how his “Hotline Bling” single is still getting nonstop radio airplay worldwide; no, I’m here to talk about his full length release from back in February, known for its Jim Joe-designed bare bones cover. Starting off with what I still think might be the best album opener of the year, the Ginuwine-sampling “Legend“, Drake sounds comfortable but still hungry, confident bordering on arrogant (I mean, listen to that hook), but ya can’t really argue with him and his vice grip on popular music, and culture, as a whole. From then on, the album unfolds into a simultaneously cohesively cold, sparse but still banging and interesting album, spanning a normally-too-long 17 tracks without getting old. An album this length has no right having this much replay value. From smash singles “Energy“, “10 Bands” and “Used To” (the latter including a featured Lil’ Wayne returning to form), to more sprawling, emotional tracks like “Company” with Travis Scott and breakup anthem “Now & Forever“, IYRTITL is a perfectly-fitting puzzle made up of pieces that all look just as good on their own, too.
It could be argued that Drake needed 17 tracks to fully show the pure scope of his versatility, being able to jump from smirking braggadocio to seducing the very women he’s about to be brooding over, to one of the album’s highlights, where he has a detailed conversation with his mother on the heartstring-yanking “You & The 6“. They say the 6 God is the most methodical player in the game, and this LP lends to that theory, as even though it was released in the dead of winter, its track list is strategically broad-spanning, mood wise, and could be played year round…and boy, has it been. Chances are, you’ve heard this album being played by everyone from suburban white girls who listen to rap to piss their parents off, to inner-city residents driving down their city blocks up to no good, to guys who fit the stereotypical dorky “indie rock” band member look and mostly listen to old punk, but still like Drake because “there’s just something about his stuff, dude.” And that guy is right, there is something about a Drake project that can take you from feeling like the man, dancing with a gorgeous girl in the club, to crying to yourself over that same girl in the shower later on, to just sitting there and enjoying the general vibe, all in one run-through. It’s this dynamic, multi-purpose lyrical approach, while maintaining that distinct “OVO Sound” as he calls it, that makes his next album Views From the 6 so highly anticipated and If You’re Reading This… such an almost-guilty pleasure, especially considering that Drake himself doesn’t even consider it a “real” album.
When I first heard Vince Staples five years ago as a feature on the best song on Earl Sweatshirt’s debut, while I dug his verse, I never would have thought the kid would eventually put out one of my favorite hip-hop albums of the modern era…and that it would be a double album at that. Gone is the imitation Eminem brand of shock value-baiting horrorcore lyricism he had in his early stage Odd Future collabs, thankfully. Staples has evolved into a full fledged songwriter, a wise-beyond-his-years inner city griot, complete with an understandable chip on his shoulder and an endearingly dry, dark sense of humor. On his full length debut LP, Staples does a more-than-commendable job of painting a vivid picture of life as a young black male living in the north side of Long Beach, California. The aptly named lead single “Norf Norf” sets the tone of the whole album, with it’s eery, murky beat that still manages to bump hard in the whip, as Vince chants “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police” in a deadpan voice that still sounds overtly defiant towards the system trapping him and his peers in their own habitat.
Staples is a realist in every sense of the word, recognizing how depressing and selfish this cold world really is without ever coming off as melodramatic or self-important. The album’s features are expertly placed and well nuanced, from Jhene Aiko on the bouncy “Lemme Know” to Kilo Kish’s spooky, muted hook on “Surf“. The whole album plays like something you shouldn’t listen to alone in the dark, and I mean that as a high compliment. The generally shorter-running average song length helps for the 20-track album to not grow tiresome, and to maintain replay value, which was a wise decision. More so than the song lengths and sequencing, it is the wisdom running through Summertime ’06 in lyrics like “in Planned Parenthood playing God with your mom’s check, you ain’t even been to prom yet” that will make you ask “wait, he’s how old again?”, which makes it so fucking interesting. Double albums in hip-hop are a bad idea 9 out of 10 times, but Vince Staples, with his young, sarcastic, goofy ass, went against the grain and shattered that stereotype, putting together a fantastic body of work here.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. This is on top of damn near everybody’s list this year. I’m just a trendy conformist, picking Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus as the best rap album of the year because…well, that’s what I’m supposed to do, right? This album was not made for me, let’s keep it a buck and a half. I’m a white, suburban-born male. While my upbringing was far from that of The Brady Bunch, it wasn’t Compton, either. To Pimp A Butterfly, on a purely lyrical level, was written for black people in America, period. One listen to tracks like, most obviously, “The Blacker The Berry” as well as interlude “For Free?” (which contains one of the best extended metaphors I’ve ever heard in rap music), and you will hear that immediately. Shit, one look at the controversial (and brilliant) album cover will tell you that. This is frustration, brought on by the ongoing struggle against the oppressive American justice system and government, expressed through various forms of music originated by the same race of people being oppressed (not just hip-hop, but funk, soul and jazz lace the entire album’s production). But, this is also triumph, this is perseverance, this is the undying drive of artists like Mr. Lamar to be heard, even when everything around them seems to want otherwise. Lyrically, the pint-sized West Coast emcee puts on the performance of his relatively short (no pun intended) career, which hasn’t had its shortage (ok, maybe intended there) of excellent performances. The writing on this album is really next level as far as his word choice and diction, as well as the way he alternates his delivery to portray different moods and characters like a rap Jim Carrey (just check the hiccuping drunk hater he portrays in the second half of “u“). The featured rappers even seem to know they better come with it and say something on this record, as veteran Snoop Dogg raps with a focused concentration I haven’t heard from him in years on “Institutionalized” and Rapsody makes the very most of the biggest feature spot of her career on the very pretty sounding “Complexion“.
I know what you may be thinking (if you’re someone who actually denies this album’s pure magnitude): “that’s all well and good, Voss, but what about the actual music? This album is so damn all over the place! It’s over-hyped, it’s pretentious, it’s too much at once!” Well, allow me to retort: To Pimp A Butterfly is not too much at once; perhaps you yourself are just not enough yet. The pure sonic eclecticism radiating throughout this album is adventurous, it’s sure as hell different from anything out right now (in an already experimental time), and it’s fucking FUN, if you just open your mind to these glorious sounds. Thundercat‘s bass is Bootsy Collins level on this whole LP, which is saying a whole hell of a lot if you’re familiar with the latter. The Isley Brothers sample in “i” (presented here as a pseudo “live” version, which fits perfectly into the loose story line and framework of the album) is some of the best sample flipping of the year. If you can’t move your body to “King Kunta” then you have the personality of a bowl of dry Rice Chex. And this music wasn’t made for you.
Which brings me to why I personally enjoy this album so much, even though I’m fully conscious that Kendrick and his cohorts didn’t write it with a guy like me in mind: it’s. just. good. music. This is a mini history lesson in black American music in a little over an hour, from jazz to blues to rock n’ roll to a goddamn clinic in the mechanics on how to just plain rap well. And as far as the content, while I will never pretend to know the struggle of a minority in America, I can say that seeing it first hand in my friends, my lady, and my peers in the art form I create, as well as having the ability to separate myself from my own racial identity to just exist as a human for an album’s length has enabled me to fully appreciate music with a message like the one Kendrick conveys here. The rapper gradually unfolds a poem, line by line, interspersed between tracks, finally giving away in the closing epic “Mortal Man” (SPOILER ALERT) that he was reading it to 2Pac all along. After listening to the entire body of work, this makes perfect sense, as Kendrick is carrying the very same torch 2Pac unknowingly handed to him. Just like Shakur before him, Lamar is a multifaceted artist capable of making his listeners bounce and smile in one breath and then think, unite and mobilize as a people in the next.
If you’re comparing To Pimp A Butterfly to Kendrick’s previous album, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, you just don’t get it. Both albums are pretty much objectively great examples of the heights rap music can reach in this modern era, but those heights are on top of two entirely different mountains. Where good kid was a largely introspective look within Kendrick’s younger self as a Compton youth over very dope, but still mostly contemporary sounding production, the TDE star’s sophomore effort reaches outward rather than inward, a call to arms touching on issues that span the reach of the entire country socially, politically and personally, all the while experimenting with a much wider palette of influences on its backdrops. The saying “apples and oranges” comes to mind here, unless of course you don’t like one of those fruits, then just compare it to two equally awesome but totally different things. Kendrick recognizes the reality of 2015 America on TPAB; he sees and reports on the bleakness and the negativity and the evil in the world today. But still, through it all, he assures his listeners (and himself) in the chorus of the biggest hit single on an album that couldn’t be less concerned with hit singles, “we gon’ be alright“. And I’ll be goddamned if I can’t see the beauty in that picture, regardless of the colors it’s painted in.