Music

The Best Hip-Hop of 2015

Adam Finley
Graffiti wall with hip-hop, via Shutterstock.

No year in hip-hop was as eclectic as 2015, representing different gender identities, sexualities, geographies, worldviews, and genre infusions.

At its best, hip-hop serves as a voice for the voiceless and a vehicle for the marginalized. This was certainly true in the early days, and over time the groups, ideas, and sensibilities represented within the wider hip-hop ecosystem have slowly expanded. At the same time, the stylistic diaspora of hip-hop has spread far and wide, gobbling ideas and genres, inventing or repurposing techniques, and constantly pushing boundaries. This process has been ongoing: look no further than last year, when Shabazz Palaces and clipping. stood shoulder to shoulder with Freddie Gibbs and Schoolboy Q on this very list.

But no year in hip-hop was as eclectic as 2015, representing different gender identities, sexualities, geographies, worldviews, and genre infusions. Hip-hop has never been more expansive, more inclusive, more diverse. It's a beautiful sight to behold, and we're all excited to see what boundaries hip-hop pushes in 2016.

 
Artist: The Alchemist

Album: Israeli Salad

Label: Alc Records

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/a/alchemist-album-2015-200x200.jpg

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List Number: 15

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The Alchemist
Israeli Salad

This is the challenge for “instrumental hip-hop”: how do you craft beats that sound perfect for a talented emcee without everyone bemoaning the absence of emcees? Enter the Alchemist’s Israeli Salad as a successful example of this delicious balance of dope beats begging for lyrical flavor, but possessing enough pizzazz to stand alone. Here, the legendary producer adds bright flavors to his already consistent palette of foreboding and premonitory compositions. Heavy percussive elements provide the staple, while the 20-track offering caters expertly chopped guitar riffs and finely diced Jewish folk songs.

Think of Israeli Salad as taking a generous helping of Canadian DJ SoCalled’s klezmer-inspired Ghettoblaster (2007) and turning it into a platter like J. Dilla’s Donuts (2006). Like these masterworks, Israeli Salad is an intensely personal undertaking. Despite being originally culled and cultivated from the Alchemist’s 2011 trip to Israel, the collection is uniquely garnished with a sense of urgency and self-revelation from its creator’s cultural exploration. -- Quentin Huff

Stream Israeli Salad by the Alchemist

 
Artist: Open Mike Eagle

Album: A Special Episode Of

Label: Mello Music Group

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List Number: 14

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Open Mike Eagle
A Special Episode Of

Let’s chart the rise of the anxiety raps. Thanks to the absurdly great output from Open Mike Eagle compatriots Milo, Busdriver, and the rest of the Hellfyre club, hip-hop is a much more inward-looking world. But no one quite paints the canvas of the mind like Open Mike. A Special Episode Of referenced the Legend of Zelda, had Open Mike hosting his own TV show, and held late night revelations. Able to switch from hilarious self-deprecation (see the opening to “Late Show”) to deep-dive lyrical depression in seconds, Open Mike was liable to give you the emotional bends. We wouldn’t have it any other way. -- Nathan Stevens

 
Artist: Le1f

Album: Riot Boi

Label: XL

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/r/riot-boi-album-2015-200x200.jpg

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List Number: 13

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Le1f
Riot Boi

Electronic dance music may have been lifted from its predominantly gay, black, and urban roots in the ‘80s only to become a major tenet of suburban white culture in the here and now, but Le1f’s debut album Riot Boi, in an act of subversive historical revisionism, roundly rejects that version of history and invents its own where that never happened. A melding of Le1f’s headstrong flow and guttural tenor with a collection of ear-splitting electronic beats, Riot Boi is a statement of hardcore self-confidence and leftfield rap insurgency made as loud as musically possible. Over the course of the album, he trades off soulful electro ballads (“Tell”) with heady noise rap bangers (“Grace Alek Naomi”) with unprecedented agility, sometimes even within the span of a single song (“Rage”), proving that rap with retro style and modern swag hasn’t yet been mined dry. -- Colin Fitzgerald

 
Artist: Georgia Anne Muldrow

Album: A Thoughtiverse Unmarred

Label: Mello Music Group

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Georgia Anne Muldrow
A Thoughtiverse Unmarred

An independent-minded impresario with diverse musical tastes and a mind that brilliantly wanders, Georgia Anne Muldrow followed up a string of self-produced, fascinating instrumental odysseys with what’s been described as her first album as a rapper. Produced by Chris Keys with a minimalist, golden-age-turned-new age style, the philosophical yet take-no-prisoners A Thoughtiverse Unmarred finds Muldrow ruminating impressively on her place in the universe, her place in her ancestors’ footsteps, and how to raise wise children in a world of white supremacy, violence, and corporate control. It’s tempting to call her style sci-fi, but as much as she focuses on the infinite powers of the mind, she also rhymes hard about the evils and complexities of the world. -- Dave Heaton

 
Artist: Joey Bada$$

Album: B4.DA.$$

Label: Cinematic Music Group

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/badass.jpg

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Joey Bada$$
B4.DA.$$

B4.DA.$$ is an impeccable recreation of ‘90s NYC hip-hop, a deep dive hauling up echoes of Black Moon, Showbiz & AG, Jeru the Damaja, and countless other underground heroes. Retro-revivalism is one thing, but Joey Bada$$’s sheer talent in rhyme and storytelling -- his “mellow-schizo” energy level even when the pace is slow, his poetic representations of street justice and criminal injustice -- washes away any such label. His eff-the-police attitude might make him a throwback as well, but in his hands it comes across more like he’s reading the newspaper, every day, and seeing how his people are being treated. His confident handling of today’s news and yesterday’s hallowed styles is buoyed by an introspective swagger and some instant-classic production from a variety of old and new names. -- Dave Heaton

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