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. Quentin B. Huff

Artist: Schoolboy Q

Album: Oxymoron

Label: Top Dawg/Interscope


Display as: List

List Number: 10

Display Width: 200

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. Dave Heaton

Artist: Common

Album: Nobody's Smiling

Label: Def Jam


Display as: List

List Number: 9

Display Width: 200

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. Dave Heaton

Artist: Open Mike Eagle

Album: A Dark Comedy

Label: Hellfyre Club


Display as: List

List Number: 8

Display Width: 200

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. Adam Finley

Artist: Black Milk

Album: If There's a Hell Below

Label: Computer Ugly


Display as: List

List Number: 7

Display Width: 200

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. Quentin B. Huff

Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Album: Lese Majesty

Label: Sub Pop


Display as: List

List Number: 6

Display Width: 200

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. Nathan Stevens

Next Page




90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.