The Best Hip-Hop of 2014

This year's push of stylistic diversity, craft, and experimentation adds fuel to hip-hop's movement into the future.

Best hip-hop album of 2014? It ain’t hard to tell which release should get the crown — why, clearly it’s the 20th anniversary of Nas’s 1994 opus Illmatic! No, not really, but isn’t it cool to see Illmatic get the double-disc (original LP + remixes) anniversary treatment, along with a documentary (Time Is Illmatic) about its creation?

Back in 1994, hip-hop experienced paradigm-shifting growth via a slew of diverse and innovative releases. Did we realize this at the time? Perhaps with Illmatic or Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, but I’m not sure we understood the full creative import of Organized Konfusion’s Stress: The Extinction Agenda or Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb as building blocks to a more expansive aesthetic. Yet, here we are, decades later, with many of the same innovators still in action: Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets has another album with Shabazz Palaces; Common had Resurrection in 1994, and this year he’s got Nobody’s Smiling; DJ Premier and Guru joined forces for Gang Starr’s fourth LP Hard to Earn, and Premier has teamed up with Royce da 5’9″ for a new project, entitled PRhyme.

Truth is, it’s premature to compare the 2010s to the 1990s, but tell that to those of us calling Killer Mike the new Ice Cube and El-P the new Bomb Squad. I know I’m guilty of it, thinking of how great it is to have had OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in ’94 and to have Big K.R.I.T.’s Cadillactica now. Besides, Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man released Tical near the end of 1994, so it seems appropriate that Wu-Tang Clan and Ghostface Killah would have albums in December 2014. Unfortunately, timing makes them ineligible for our current list of superlatives.

Nevertheless, hip-hop is experiencing an important push of stylistic diversity, craft, and experimentation through its elder statesmen (Common, Ghostface, Pharoahe Monch, the Roots, and so on), as well as through the talents of newer acts (Clipping, Vince Staples, Ratking, Schoolboy Q, YG, to name a few). Time will tell whether our favorite 2014 releases should receive that coveted “anniversary” treatment in 2034. rating_circle_full-14 Quentin B. Huff


Artist: Schoolboy Q

Album: Oxymoron

Label: Top Dawg/Interscope

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Schoolboy Q

For Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q stepped up from his past releases by lessening and smoothing out some aspects of his music (the declarative creepiness) in favor of heightening everything overall — the atmosphere, the arrogance, the sense of epic-ness. From the opening, where his daughter’s voice declares, “My dad is a gangsta,” it’s clear what setting we’ve entered. This is designed as classic West Coast gangsta rap, and is the year’s finest rendition of that — it’s tough, dark, arrogant party music with undertones of remorse and inner turmoil. The title follows 2012’s Habits and Contradictions in portraying Schoolboy Q as conflicted, ever doing things he feels bad about after, with guest MCs serving as devils and angels on his shoulder (mostly the former). Woven into an album of tough-hitting power anthems is a series of carefully detailed stories about childhood, about growing up in a complicated environment. His daughter’s voice starts off the album for more reasons than one. rating_circle_full-14 Dave Heaton


Artist: Common

Album: Nobody’s Smiling

Label: Def Jam

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Nobody’s Smiling

Cynics might see Nobody’s Smiling as opportunistic or even exploitative: Hollywood celebrity Common returns to his hometown of Chicago to cry about its violence and feature some of its current homegrown hip-hop talent. That might be a valid argument, but it’s hard to care when listening to the actual music. Nobody’s Smiling is the best thing Common’s done in roughly a decade, at least, and one of the most consistent, cohesive hip-hop albums of the year. A key reason for its success is the degree to which Common knows when to yield the spotlight to others; his skills on the mic seem stronger because he spends less time on it. His second straight album produced entirely by No I.D., it has its own musical style, one synced up well with the content of the songs. It’s Common’s least ego-driven album in perhaps his career, and in 2014 he wears that approach well. rating_circle_full-14 Dave Heaton


Artist: Open Mike Eagle

Album: A Dark Comedy

Label: Hellfyre Club

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Open Mike Eagle
A Dark Comedy

No hip-hop label had as creatively fertile a year as Hellfyre Club. Between Busdriver’s dense adrenaline rush Perfect Hair and Milo’s free-associative A Toothpaste Suburb, there seemed little room for yet another great album from the tiny label. But then there was Open Mike Eagle, whose A Dark Comedy set a new quality bar for the Hellyfyre squad both in terms of incisive wit and comedian guest verses (word to Hannibal Burress’s honest-to-God flow on “Doug Stamper”). Mike’s delivery is slippery, playing with sparse beats that sound almost lo-fi, giving A Dark Comedy an intimate feel. Mike has a talent for pairing raw truth with lyrical goofs, and the record is full of biting social commentary paired with gut-busting observations, constant one-two punches of hard truths and playful non-sequiturs. On “Qualifiers”, Mike has some dagger-sharp things to say about white perceptions of black artists’ ability to speak for their demographic, but he keeps the song from skewing too serious by invoking a chorus of “We’re the best, mostly / Sometimes the freshest rhymers / We the tightest, kinda / Respect my qualifiers,” a casual middle finger to the swag rap aesthetic, proving that one needn’t be boastful to shine bright. rating_circle_full-14 Adam Finley


Artist: Black Milk

Album: If There’s a Hell Below

Label: Computer Ugly

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Black Milk
If There’s a Hell Below

It’s no mistake that the cover for Black Milk’s No Poison, No Paradise recalls the unsettling yucky-ness of Boogie Down Productions’ cover for 1992’s Sex & Violence: our world is populated by some harsh realities, despite our wish to mitigate them through humor and comedy. Black Milk’s 2014 set, If There’s a Hell Below, features a close-up on a bugged pair of eyes, as if to magnify the horror from the previous album. Black’s music is insular yet more intimate, wherein Black takes care to de-escalate the electronic-meets-banging-drums rampage previously heard on albums Tronic and Album of the Year. Instead, he has dimmed the lights, turned up the bass to increase the moodiness, and incorporated some boogeyman vocal effects. Better still, he’s improved his rapping beyond the usual producer-is-decent syndrome, although it seems impossible to stay lyrically complacent on an album populated with cameos from Blu, Bun B, familiar pals Random Axe, and energetic legend Pete Rock (!). And dig this: the title of If There’s a Hell Below borrows a line from Curtis Mayfield but it delivers hip-hop soul in a style reminiscent of Roy Ayers. rating_circle_full-14 Quentin B. Huff


Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Album: Lese Majesty

Label: Sub Pop

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Shabazz Palaces
Lese Majesty

I have a hard time describing what draws me to Lese Majesty. There’s something hypnotic in every note and Ishmael Butler’s words slide around strangely and enticingly. That’s part of it, but there’s something more. Lese Majesty feels like a monolithic record. The sound it conveys is the size of a Giza pyramid and as easy to get lost in as the Labyrinth. Indeed, the simple act of putting on headphones when the first moments of “Dawn in Luxor” warp into reality is akin to being transported to another planet. It’s the sort of album that’s terrifyingly easy to get lost in, and, more importantly, intoxicating enough to keep you coming back again and again. rating_circle_full-14 Nathan Stevens

5 – 1

Artist: Clipping.


Label: Sub Pop

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Gangsta rap obsesses over body counts, drug deals, and Roman levels of decadence, but, in spite of all this, not much of it treads into dark musical territories. Clipping, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to dive head first into the darkest parts of human nature, with the type of production that sounds more like Ministry than Dre. CLPPNG sounds evil, down to the core. William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes make beats liable to burst ear drums, and MC Daveed Diggs isn’t just one of the best storytellers in the game, he’s also impossibly technically gifted. He’s ready at a moment’s notice to unleash triple time rhymes and comfortable rapping over mindboggling time signatures. But even without the technical cred, CLPPNG thrills and shocks with a sociopathic mindset, seeing every bloody detail in the moments after the murder. This ain’t for the faint of heart. rating_circle_full-15 Nathan Stevens


Artist: Hail Mary Mallon

Album: Bestiary

Label: Rhymesayers

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Hail Mary Mallon

Where this trio of strange rap-fellows — Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz — might have been a tad inconsistent on the group’s debut Are You Gonna Eat That?, there’s less room for complaint with Bestiary. The beats are consistently fresh, most notably the barebones guitar approach in “Used Cars”, “Hang Ten”, and “Merlin”, but the claustrophobic bump of “Krill” and the undulating rhythms at the album’s backend cannot be denied. Rock and Sonic are lyrical sharpshooters, trading off verses with precision, amplifying each other’s intensity and finishing each other’s challenging flights of wordplay. Cohesive and entertaining, Bestiary boasts a bounty of indelible tracks, each coming after the listener’s attention like the unrestrained beasts depicted in the album art.

Topically diverse, the tracks are held together by recurring skits about an attempt to save a bowling alley via a fundraising concert. The skits prove that humor is the key to the success for these emcee juggernauts heaving their oddly phrased verses at us. Rock and Sonic are funny as all hell, plus they pack more TV, movie, comic book, and literary references than the average nerd can handle. Loads of skill, and lots of fun. rating_circle_full-15 Quentin B. Huff


Artist: Big K.R.I.T.

Album: Cadillactica

Label: Cinematic Music Group

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Big K.R.I.T.

For fans and critics who thought they knew who Big K.R.I.T. was and what he was about, Cadillactica was a shock to the system, a concept album that’s as brilliant as it is surprising coming on the heels of a major label debut that aimed, but ultimately failed, to produce any major club singles. By broadening the production slate beyond himself and stretching creatively with big themes, K.R.I.T. has produced one the finest albums in Southern rap memory, one that remains strong from the opening whispers of “Kreation” to the abrupt, defiant end of “Lost Generation”. Rather than concretizing the loose concept, K.R.I.T. leaves it open to interpretation, encouraging listeners to take part and connect the pieces into whatever whole they wish, or to ignore them entirely, focusing instead on the swoon-worthy beats, first-class (even for him) lyricism, and dynamic delivery. Cadillactica is possibly the most futuristic Southern rap album to bless our ears since ATLiens, one which begs for the oft-lobbed but seldom truly deserved moniker of instant classic. rating_circle_full-15 Adam Finley


Artist: Run the Jewels

Album: Run the Jewels 2

Label: Mass Appeal

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Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 2

For three years running, Killer Mike and El-P have linked up to create gold. In fact, the previous two efforts landed in the number one spot on our list in 2012 (Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music) and 2013 (Run the Jewels). Run the Jewels 2 continues the saga with the same formula that made the original a hit. Menacing, at times cartoonish, back-and-forth rapping over El-P’s hard hitting beats, over in less than 40 minutes. It’s old school in spirit, but the production is too shiny to sound at all dated. The duo finds the balance between the braggadocious, energetic side of hip-hop and its political, socially aware half, not unlike Public Enemy was doing 25 years ago. It’s that combination of being able to have a message in your music while simultaneously being able to have fun with it and not taking yourself too seriously that makes Run the Jewels the revered group that they are. Here’s to hoping we have another Killer Mike and El-P connection to list on the best albums of 2015. rating_circle_full-15

Logan Smithson


Artist: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

Album: Piñata

Label: Madlib Invazion

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Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

In a year full of great releases, there was still one album that managed to distance itself from the competition. The hype meter behind the long-awaited collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib had grown to a height that surely couldn’t be reached, but Piñata delivered on everything it promised and then some. Not every rapper could fit over Madlib’s abstract beats, but Gibbs sounds right at home, while coming through with some of the most vivid gangsta rap imagery of the 21st century. The album is so meticulously crafted, with Madlib paying attention to every little detail and adding Piñata to the long list of reasons he’s one of the best producers hip-hop has ever seen. Piñata is one of those albums that you know is special from the moment you hear the first note. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib did everything necessary to create a great hip-hop album. However, Piñata isn’t afraid to bend the rules, and the result is an entirely unique sound that is responsible for an album that will help define this generation. rating_circle_full-15 Logan Smithson

Honorable Mention

Honorable Mention

Artist: Father

Album: Young Hot Ebony

Label: Awful

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Young Hot Ebony

With ILoveMakonnen breaking into the Billboard Top 40 this year (with Drake’s help), it seems likely that more of Atlanta’s most unique hip-hop talents will start breaking nationally. Perhaps it’s the right time for everyone to discover producer/MC Father, perhaps the strangest of the bunch, and his Awful Records imprint. His album Young Hot Ebony is a somnolent trip that seems like it was made by a bunch of drugged-up kids messing around with machines in the middle of the night. Father’s raps are driven by a warped sense of humor and an equally warped sense of what sounds hot. And yet hot it does sound, while also strange and singular. The album seems to live in its own universe, yet song to song he and his companions (including Makonnen, Pyramid Quince, and Archibald Slim) are coming at hip-hop from all kinds of interesting angles. rating_circle_full-16Dave Heaton


Artist: Pharoahe Monch

Album: P.T.S.D.: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Label: W.A.R. Media

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Pharoahe Monch
P.T.S.D.: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

On a lyrical and technical level, Pharoahe Monch is almost peerless. The Organized Konfusion alum continues to canvas beats with his scattershot rhythm-bending spells. His 2011 album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), saw Monch as a soldier battling political collusion, population destabilization, and systemic mind control. His character fought valiantly against a global conspiracy, of which the music industry itself seemed to be a contributor. Here, he is faced with the aftermath of that battle. Monch plays the psychologically tormented hero with resigned glee, eager to tell his tale but without hope of a full recovery. Felled by mental illness, battles with asthma, and substance abuse, Monch inhabits the horrors over heavy rock and blues-influenced beats. He sings, he screams, he growls, he rhymes circles around everyone (except Black Thought), and he brings it all to life. Slightly paranoid, a bit confined by its conceptual framework? Maybe, but it’s a fascinating approach. It’s worth the price of admission just to hear Monch personify a bullet again on “Damage”, incorporating a line from LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” for a hook that helps him complete the series on gun violence he started in the ’90s with “Stray Bullet” and continued in ’07 with “When the Gun Draws”. rating_circle_full-16Quentin B. Huff


Artist: Isaiah Rashad

Album: Cilvia Demo

Label: Top Dog

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Isaiah Rashad
Cilvia Demo

With a TDE sticker glaring on the back cover, Cilvia Demo had a lot to live up to. Who is this rapper from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and where did he come from? One listen to Cilvia Demo and you realize it doesn’t matter. Its dark tone sets the stage for Isaiah Rashad to showcase his lyrical talent, but more importantly to relate his human side. You may have known nothing about him before, but by the end of the album Rashad has left his story with you. The autobiographical nature of the album is suited by the incredibly atmospheric production that invites you to sit back and vibe out. Isaiah Rashad may have started 2014 as the odd man out, but looking forward he’s arguably the most exciting TDE prospect to watch out for. rating_circle_full-16Logan Smithson


Artist: Ratking

Album: So It Goes

Label: XL

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So It Goes

The one quote from So It Goes that got the most press attention was “This ain’t ’90s revival / It’s earlier it’s tribal revival.” Thing is, the angry young men at the center of Ratking did make the record feel more primitive and untouched by any major hip-hop touchstones. Yes, it’s a fervently New Yorkian album, but it’s hard to say if it has more in common with Nas or El-P. By the same factor, it does have traces of the post-Death Grips noise-hop sound, but producer Sporting Life twists his beats with gorgeous soul samples just as often as he sets off ear grenades. What made So It Goes great was an utter lack of fear; MCs Wiki and Hak spit instantly recognizable deliveries and forged their own strange path in a year full of oddball releases. rating_circle_full-16Nathan Stevens


Artist: Kate Tempest

Album: Everybody Down

Label: Big Dada

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Kate Tempest
Everybody Down

“We all need to love

And be loved

And keep going.”

— Kate Tempest, Brand New Ancients

Kate Tempest flew largely under the radar of the non-UK music press this year, but the Mercury Prize-nominated, Ted Hughes Award-winning poet, playwright, and spoken word artist made one of the most interesting rap albums of the year, a sprawling, cinematic tale of love, lust, drugs, and tragedy played out across 12 “chapters”. Everybody Down features an elaborate plot filled with developed characters, Tempest performing in a voice heavily accented with pain, as though she’s inhabiting her tragic characters. With club-indebted production that underscores her performance without overpowering it, Everybody Down harkens back to another seminal British rap record, A Grand Don’t Come for Free. Be warned: it’s difficult at first. Tempest simply drops the listener into the middle of a fully formed world with characters in action, requiring multiple listens to catch the whole plot, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like a great short story, Everybody Down rewards those willing to spend time in its world. Its denizens experience actual character arcs, learning hard lessons and changing as they grow with the audience into a shared understanding that, whatever we choose to pursue in life, be it money, power, happiness, or fame, the only thing that can really save us is each other. rating_circle_full-16Adam Finley