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The Best Hip-Hop of 2015

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

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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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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

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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

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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

10 – 6

Artist: Lupe Fiasco

Album: Tetsuo & Youth

Label: Atlantic

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Lupe Fiasco
Tetsuo & Youth

I can’t say whether Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth is better than Food & Liquor or The Cool, the albums most beloved in his discography. What I can say is that Tetsuo & Youth makes me believe he’s been listening his audience. On the R&B-infused “Blur My Hands”, I get that from the line, “Spoiler alert / I can hear you all sayin’, ‘Boy, you’re a jerk”. Often, I’ve linked Lupe Fiasco to that Family Guy scene where Peter Griffin confesses he “did not care for the Godfather” because “it insists upon itself.” Yes, I’m saying Lupe Fiasco insists upon himself.

I understand why. He’s a clever dude. But on Tetsuo & Youth, he’s back to showing us what makes him so clever rather than lording his cleverness over us. “Mural” is a Jackson Pollock of colorful wordplay tempered by Charles Wilbert White-style craftsmanship and structure. “Madonna” and “Adoration of the Magi” appropriate the Pietà and the Nativity to our urban post-modernity. “Deliver” turns pizza delivery into a construct for social and racial hierarchies, and I have to say, as a would-be consumer who could never get pizza delivered to my neighborhood, I’ve been waiting on this song for years. And that’s the point, really—Lupe Fiasco has connected with us again.

Here, we find him more approachable, down to earth even, as in the epic trap session “Chopper”, which blends satire with seriousness (“Filet mignon with my food stamps”). It’s this manner of relating that elevates the project, enabling us to be insiders to the jokes and masters of their meanings. That’s why, in “Mural”, when he declares, “I like my pancakes cut in swirls”, I finally have a chance to say, “Oh, yeah? Well, so do I.” Better still, I get to say, “Bravo.” — Quentin Huff

 

Artist: Rae Sremmurd

Album: SremmLife

Label: Interscope

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Rae Sremmurd
SremmLife

It should be enough that they made the most fun rap album of 2015 (maybe the decade), but the minutia of Rae Sremmurd turned the album from pure raucousness to one that allowed discovering new aspects of the music each listen. From the airtight production on every track to the ebullient “Fraaaaaankliiiiiins, rainin’ on your baaaaaaaahhhhhhdyyyyy”, the sum of the album’s well-crafted little parts added up to the finest party of the year. Never mind that they made what should be Donald Trump’s campaign song months before he announced his candidacy. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Future Brown

Album: Future Brown

Label: Warp

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Future Brown
Future Brown

Hip-hop, like all of popular music today, is as much an amalgamation of numerous genres as a singular aesthetic. Nowhere is this more apt than in the self-titled debut by Future Brown, who melded global sounds into one (ahem) futuristic performance. The purest rap moments on the album still signify the genre’s ever-changing form, with standout moments from AutoTune masters paired up with respected veterans and an unforgettable example of why critics’ long-predicted invasion of grime in American hip-hop looks to come true. As with any impressive release, the singles sound good individually but are great in the context of the all-encompassing album itself. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Future

Album: DS2

Label: Epic

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Future
DS2

Future raps like he has two marbles in his mouth and he’s afraid to let them touch. This is part of his persona: the tortured artist drugged beyond human-ness to propel him to even greater heights, which he found this year on DS2. An 18-track love letter to codeine, DS2 placed our android astronaut in perfect context, warbling and ad-libbing his way through a wasteland of booming trap beats and styrofoam cups. Combining The Weeknd’s grimy lust with Drake-style aw-shucks delivery and Migos-flavored trap evangelism, Future brought his syruped-up vision to life, giving a glimpse of the world through Future Hendrix’s eyes. He’s on a brilliant creative spree, releasing a mountain of great music, embracing borderline-incoherence and riding it to the top of the Atlanta rap scene, and somehow making Gucci flip-flops the filthiest image of 2015. At this point, there’s not much he can’t do. — Adam Finley

 

Artist: Young Fathers

Album: White Men Are Black Men Too

Label: Big Dada

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Young Fathers
White Men Are Black Men Too

How could we not have the “Liberian/Nigerian/Scottish psychedelic hip-hop electro boy band” on this list? The lads continued their excellent run of form with White Men Are Black Men Too, serving as a brilliant reminder of how political and how weird hip-hop can be. Young Fathers’ thrilling DIY aesthetic radiated from every note, with the rushing “Shame”, the devastating cry for peace on “Sirens”, and the creaky organ vamp of “Rain or Shine”. The music was as provocative as the title, pushing the boundaries of their own musical capabilities all the while. — Nathan Stevens

5 – 1

Artist: Jay Rock

Album: 90059

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

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Jay Rock
90059

As far as street rappers go, Jay Rock may not be the hardest, the funniest, the most introspective, or the most lyrical, but he is a stoic, unassuming combination of all four. His sophomore album is a concentrated, candid glimpse into his character, and at just 11 tracks, it looks like a remarkably modest outing on the surface. The more you delve in, though, the more Jay’s quiet versatility reveals itself in the beat switches and voice changes that give 90059 its personality. Add in some of the heaviest, darkest, and rawest production that Top Dawg Entertainment’s in-house team can provide along with stellar contributions from the rest of the TDE and Black Hippy crews — including next-level posse cut “Vice City” — and 90059 becomes among the most well-rounded sleeper hits of the year. — Colin Fitzgerald

 

Artist: Heems

Album: Eat Pray Thug

Label: Megaforce

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Heems
Eat Pray Thug

Much has been made of the duality Heems uses to undergird his 2015 outing Eat Pray Thug. That’s a valid approach to an album that pits “this” against “that”, “pretty thin” versus “pretty fat”, places xenophobia next to heartbreak, and has no problem contrasting New York-style beat-making with sweltering minimalism. While we’ve been quick to connect Eat Pray Thug’s opening track “Sometimes” to Nice & Smooth’s 1991 single “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow”, we’ve been slow to reach for a more obscure but apt reference: Digital Underground’s 1996 song “I Want It All”. Instead of being a mess, and mass, of contradictions, Eat Pray Thug is, like the Digital Underground track, about seamlessness rather than dichotomy. After all, it’s quite natural for us humans to want what we don’t have, and to have what we don’t think we want, and then to ponder the distance, if any, between the two. Heems isn’t juxtaposing post-9/11 racism against heartbreak—he is equating them. In this way, “this” can become “that”, “pretty thin” can be “pretty phat”, and racism becomes heartbreaking. Eat Pray Thug reminds us that life isn’t about crossing boundaries, it’s about moving with fluidity in areas where the so-called boundaries have already been blurred. — Quentin Huff

 

Artist: Earl Sweatshirt

Album: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

Label: Columbia

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Earl Sweatshirt
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

In hindsight, the implosion and dissolution of the Odd Future collective was inevitable. It was a volatile alchemy that worked for a while, but as the kids grew individually, their music changed. Tyler went the eclectic route, ladling piano, punk rock, and strings into his rap stew. Frank Ocean broke into the R&B mainstream. And Earl Sweatshirt turned inward, creating some of the most focused and compelling music in the Odd Future universe. The title says it all: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Produced almost entirely by Earl himself, the record is dark and insular, recorded from an emotional closet, a slow 30-minute jog through the inner world of the now-man born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile. By going small, he’s created something truly big, something that is slight without feeling slight, a perfect follow-up to the also-excellent Doris. Earl has never sounded more confident; claustrophobia has never felt so cathartic. — Adam Finley

 

Artist: Vince Staples

Album: Summertime ‘06

Label: Def Jam

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Vince Staples
Summertime ‘06

Every rapper wanted to be a filmmaker in 2015. Kendrick wanted to be Spike Lee, Chance made Broadway by way of Chicago, and Earl settled on Eraserhead horror. Vince Staples directed deftly with Summertime ‘06 as well, but there weren’t any filters, no big name stars. If Kendrick filmed on 80 millimeter, Staples was using a GoPro, catching every nasty detail. His descriptions matched the iPhone-filmed videos of Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death, leaving un-washable blood on the scene. There wasn’t a false note to be found between twitchy and abyssal production to Staples’ own pitch-black bars focused on murder, economic devastation, and a version of L.A. that would kill you as soon as look at you. Staples doesn’t hide from anything on Summertime ‘06 and, rest assured, he won’t let you either. — Nathan Stevens

 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: To Pimp a Butterfly

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

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Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar is hip-hop’s greatest unifier. From early tracks describing his generation in a way that rap’s old guard would appreciate (“A.D.H.D.”) to a shoe line looking to unite gangs, he’s always thinking of ways to eliminate division. Even his legendary “Control” verse served as glue for the industry; everybody seemed to come together for the friendly purpose of trying to out-rap the man on top. It’s no surprise, then, that his third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly united critics in a way no rap album had since his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, by committing itself to bringing disparate concepts together. Genres are blurred in a bubbling mixture of standard hip-hop, (g-)funk, and free jazz to create a sound without comparison. Lyrically, he meditates on the unique perch he occupies, and the album’s most striking moments come when he realizes that, despite the power he possesses, he simply can’t unify every aspect of a country undergoing one of its most fractious times. Even the line between life and death is attempted to be crossed, when the album splices an interview of Tupac’s with Kendrick asking him questions. In this way, the album shares many traits with the king of acclaimed 2010s hip-hop, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Unlike that album, however, which is purely Kanye on Kanye, To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick on America, inviting all to enter the conversation. — Brian Duricy

Honorable Mentions

Honorable Mentions:

 

Artist: Young Thug

Album: Barter 6

Label: Atlantic

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Young Thug
Barter 6

How does the most talked-about new rapper of the last two years introduce himself on his first proper album? By branding it a mixtape, doubling-down on his idiosyncratic style, and creating a treasure trove of deep cuts for his most die-hard fans to devour and critics to praise while scratching their heads at what it all means. That last part is simple: it means that the game has changed—that albums no longer carry the same weight that they used to, and that keeping fans satiated with new material is the way to stay ahead of the curve. Sounding like Atlanta hip-hop stretched beyond its logical extremes, Barter 6 came equipped with no ready-for-radio singles, instead opting for wonderfully self-aware lines; “Every time I dress myself, it go mothafuckin’ viral”—who needs radio when that’s the case?

 

Artist: Angel Haze

Album: Back to the Woods

Label: Self-released

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Angel Haze
Back to the Woods

After some promising self-released mixtapes (and a guest spot on Crudbump’s “Illuminati Shit”), Angel Haze’s major label debut, Dirty Gold, was a mild disaster—a failure to either make hits or encapsulate Haze as an artist. So Back to the Woods was a recalibration, a retreat into the core of Haze’s artistic persona, an album of self-rediscovery. It must have worked, because Back to the Woods is a great album: engaging, fast-paced, and uncompromising as Haze dispenses with choruses entirely at times to focus on the razor-sharp rap cadence, strong singing voice, and vivid, unapologetic lyricism that made Reservation and Classick such compelling mixtapes. Let’s hope that the step back provided Haze a clear path forward.

 

Artist: Father

Album: Who’s Gonna Get F**ked First?

Label: Awful Records

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Father
Who’s Gonna Get F**ked First?

The mastermind behind Atlanta’s ever-growing Awful Records collective, Father continues to pepper his sarcastic, reckless sex-drugs-and-nerdom aesthetic with confident eccentricity, twisted humor, and unexpected moments of professionalism considering how often it all seems a goof. The album title and cover evoke a 2015 version of Kool Keith’s Sex Style, and perhaps it is, but this is nowhere near as straightforward as a “sex rhymes”-type album. Father has more of a millennial’s ADD approach to hip-hop. He has a multi-faceted, tossed-off yet skillful rapping style, one that pairs well with the sensuous grooves built in primitive fashion. And he surrounds himself with other young talents who themselves put out great stuff with a similar demeanor this year: Abra, Tommy Genesis, Ethereal, KeithCharles Spacebar.

 

Artist: THEESatisfaction

Album: EarthEE

Label: Sub Pop

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THEESatisfaction
EarthEE

Despite the grounded title, EarthEE sounded unlike anything produced by this small, blue marble. The Seattle duo Stas Irons and Cat Harris-White took to the stars with Grace, peering into the future and soaring around nebulas with their celestial combination of Soul, R&B, and Hip-hop. So sit back, put on your headphones, and allow THEESatisfaction to take you to the next galaxy over.

 

Artist: MED, Blu & Madlib

Album: Bad Neighbor

Label: BangYaHead

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MED, Blu & Madlib
Bad Neighbor

To a certain extent, anything Madlib puts out—even at this stage of his career—is worth listening to. The producer’s last high-profile release, 2014’s excellent Freddie Gibbs collaboration record Piñata, altered preconceptions about gangsta rap and alternative hip-hop in one fell swoop; Bad Neighbor does nothing so drastic, but it is an indisputably solid collection of hazy rhymes, infallible beats, and quality guest spots. As usual, Madlib’s winding soul samples and retro funk beats bring the best out of the rappers involved, and, while the record may not end up a career highlight for anyone involved, that doesn’t stop it from being an intricate, dynamic, genuinely fun hip-hop highlight for 2015. Even if Bad Neighbor was just another excuse to get together with old friends like MF Doom and Oh No, it ultimately leaves us with some classic, satisfying underground hip-hop sounds—one of the few things this excellent year for rap actually lacked.

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