AFH:14 Best Hip-Hop Albums Of 2014 (Food For Thought)

2014 was a special year in Hip-Hop music. Rather than a usual suspect front-running in spotlight, this was a democratic crop of albums—where new artists made cohesive introductory works, veterans advanced their skillsets and redefined their reputations, and underground MCs challenged the mainstream. There were artists who released multiple works, albums closely built around social and personal themes, and sneak-attack releases from industry A-listers.

Quality reigned supreme in the year that was, with a lot of enduring releases. Here are the 14 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2014, according to the staff at Ambrosia For Heads (in chronological order).

Cilvia Demo by Isaiah Rashad (January 28, Top Dawg)

After success developing and branding four MCs from Greater Los Angeles, Top Dawg Entertainment was at the helm for a relative unknown in Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Isaiah Rashad. Following 2013’s “Shot You Down,” the label launched a full project (like they’d done in the early 2010s with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q). Cilvia Demo keeps everything in-house (and still managed a Top 40 debut) for the then-22 year-old. What was within was raw talent. Rashad offered insightful perspectives from a place (geographically, and in terms of fame) that’s rarely heard at this level from artists in Hip-Hop. What’s more, despite his age, Rashad showed strong ties to his Southern forefathers, only adding to his sources of wisdom and ability to reach farther appeal.

See: “Soliloquy”

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OXYMORON by ScHoolboy Q (February 25, Interscope/Top Dawg)

Following Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 rise to super-stardom, Top Dawg Entertainment and Interscope Records partnered to take an elevated interest in another Black Hippy artist: ScHoolboy Q. A vastly different artist than K-Dot, Quincey Hanley’s South Central upbringing was colored with gang affiliations, sports, and addiction. These elements played into his major label debut, OXYMORON, an album that Heads seemed to find in line with his Top 200-charting independent releases (2011’s Setbacks, and 2012’s Habits & Contradictions). However, this time Q’s party invited veteran guests such as Kurupt, Raekwon, and Pharrell, as well as his contemporaries. Reaching new fans with a more Pop-minded sound (ScHoolboy later blamed his major label stakers), this album had the Hoover Street native’s brutal honesty, concrete-rooted perspective, and ability to make a hit.

See: “Break The Bank”

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Mastermind by Rick Ross (March 3, Def Jam/Slip-N-Slide/Maybach Music Group)

On his sixth studio album, Rick Ross got a little bit more personal. Surviving a drive-by shooting a year prior, the self-proclaimed boss goes further into his own untouchable status. Mastermind plays to that attitude. The Miami, Florida MC’s fifth #1 release is an ensemble effort, with Puffy Daddy on executive production. From Kanye West to Keith Sweat to Jay Z, the stars came out in droves to support Rawse on his latest. The ever-evolving booming sound dating back to Port Of Miami held true, with Rick Ross waxing his mafiaso truisms on the album, showing that he cannot be faded on the block or in the landscape of Hip-Hop.

See: “War Ready” featuring Young Jeezy

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My Krazy Life by YG (March 18, Def Jam/CTE World/Pu$az Ink)

As Los Angeles’ mainstream Hip-Hop is being redefined by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kid Ink, and Tyga, YG calls back to the late ’90s Gangsta Rap party that seemingly ended too soon. From the streets of Compton, this patiently-waiting veteran dropped his studio debut after four years of plugging away at his sound. Like Snoop Dogg with Dr. Dre, or Ice Cube with DJ Pooh and Sir Jinx, YG entered with a production partner who brought so much charm to My Krazy Life. DJ Mustard, responsible for eight of the LP’s 14 tracks, made thumping records (in the vein of Too Short and The Click) that nodded to strip clubs and candy-painted convertibles alike. For an album that did not run from its ties to the Tree Top Piru street gang (the same one DJ Quik chanted 20 years ago on “Dollars and Sense”), artists like Drake, Rich Homie Quan, and K-Dot fit snugly in, on songs about loyalty, hopelessness, and refusing to live by any other code than that of the streets.

See: “Who Do You Love?” featuring Drake

Purchase My Krazy Life by YG

PTSD by Pharoahe Monch (April 15, W.A.R/InGrooves)

For much of his 25-year career, Pharoahe Monch has clutched dark subject matters in his rhymes. Arguably, the Queens veteran MC has never been as cohesive and personal as found on PTSD. On the fourth solo LP, Monch delves into his personal depression, touching on suicidal thoughts, career lows, and his surprising struggle with asthma (given his amazing deliveries). Not just stuck in the darkness, PTSD shows P’s bounce-back, adding hope and arc to his narrative. One of the most intricate wordsmiths of the last 20 years continues to amaze, and put tremendous purpose and concept into his albums. Although it lacked the club-friendly moments from his Rawkus or SRC days, Heads could easily argue that PTSD is in the running for Monch’s finest solo set.

See: “Broken Again”

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Mega Philosophy by Cormega (July 22, Slimstyle)

After a five-year hiatus Queensbridge veteran Cormega returns with his sixth LP, Mega Philosophy. A product of the early ’90s Hip-Hop scene, ‘Mega opted to join his longtime friend Large Professor on a full tandem album. The former incarcerated street figure famously name-checked on Nas’ “One Love” now opted to put aside drug references and work to restrain profanity on an album that was rich in global perspectives, and fearless commentary. As he’s done for 23 years on wax, ‘Mega also brought focus to pure Hip-Hop lyrical displays, welcoming the likes of AZ, Redman, Styles P, Raekwon, and Black Rob to his thoughtful, matured essay.

See: “Industry”

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Nobody’s Smiling by Common (July 22, Def Jam)

In his 22nd year releasing albums, Common is out to make a statement in 2014. In the midst of street wars in “Chiraq,” Common looks to his city, and decries the senseless violence, especially plaguing teens on Nobody’s Smiling. Now a Def Jam Records artist, Comm worked closely with the man who helped him garner so much acclaim in the mid-late 1990s, No I.D. Sounding nothing like Resurrection or One Day It’ll All Make Sense, this release has a sound and lineup of guests (including Lil Herb and King L on one of the LP’s cover packagings) rooted in the moment, just like its message.

See: “Kingdom” featuring Vince Staples

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The Midnight Life by DJ Quik (October 14, Mad Science/InGrooves)

For his ninth solo album, DJ Quik flexed his sonic relevance for 2014. The Compton, California mainstay had reportedly ghost-mixed a chunk of YG’s My Krazy Life. In making his independently-released The Midnight Life, the onetime Profile Records star showed just how much he’s laid out the blueprint for DJ Mustard, Ty Dolla $ign, and DJ Dahi. Rather than just aim for the present-day club sounds, the longtime hit-maker looked to future, and unraveled a sound that only he knew how to use. Moreover, Quik threw the kind of party that honored his career by implementing Suga Free, Tweed Cadillac, and El Debarge, while also utilizing Dom Kennedy and yet another Dr. Dre strayed pupil in Bishop Lamont. Quik’s musicality is unrivaled in an album that scored a Top 70 debut, and still felt slept-on.

See: “Pet Semetary”

Purchase The Midnight Life by DJ Quik.

Under Pressure by Logic (October 21, Def Jam/Visionary Music Group)

While Def Jam was a proud home to albums from Common, Rick Ross, and The Roots, the label also added to the mainstream Hip-Hop conversation care of YG and Logic. The latter, a long-buzzing DIY Gaithersburg, Maryland MC wrote about his life with uncompromising honesty, vivid detail, and Everyman humility in a way that seemed as though there could not have been a host of free previous projects. There were. However, with No I.D. at the helm, Under Pressure fits somewhere between the introductions of Kendrick Lamar and Drake, with a refined flow, stylized delivery, du jour production, and a storyline that felt fresh in the space. Although radio may have seemingly evaded Visionary Music Group’s star, a Top 5 debut and cult acclaim were the envy of the industry newcomers in the last 12 months.

See: “Under Pressure”

Purchase Under Pressure by Logic.

Run The Jewels 2 by Run The Jewels (October 24, Mass Appeal)

For the second time in as many years, Killer Mike and El-P gave the wack a wedgie in the form of Run The Jewels. RTJ2 as its also known by marked a move to the Mass Appeal family, and an even more menacing sound from the Brooklyn-Adamsville connection. Mike Bigga and El-Producto not only brutalized the “fuck-boys” of the world, the album (a Top 50 debut that was also given away for free) tackled crooked cops, delusional minds, and simple, safe, Rap music. More than just a one-off, Run The Jewels stands tall as two men being the change they aimed to see.

See: “Oh My Darling, Don’t Cry” featuring Michael Winslow

Purchase Run The Jewels 2 by Run The Jewels.

Blasphemy by Apollo Brown & Ras Kass (October 27, Mello Music Group)

In the last three years, Detroit, Michigan’s Apollo Brown has been sonic savior to several supreme lyricists. From work with O.C. (Trophies), to Guilty Simpson (Dice Game), The Left producer and Mello Music Group set their sights on Ras Kass. The Carson-to-Watts MC had long conceived the religious and politically-inspired Blasphemy. However, for an elite rapper oft-criticized for his choice in beats, the resulting collaborative album stunned skeptics, impressed critics, and dazzled fans, who championed the work as a return to top form for the onetime Priority Records star, and a West Coast wake-up call for one of Hip-Hop’s most dependable and cooperative producers. This album hit ears and minds in the face with dusty samples, charged commentary, and the kind of fire that felt like a ’90s Rap album.

See: “Deliver Us From Evil”

Purchase Blasphemy by Apollo Brown & Ras Kass.

Cadillactica by Big K.R.I.T. (November 10, Cinematic/Def Jam)

The epitome of consistency, Big K.R.I.T. did it again, in his second Def Jam Records album. Cadillactica traveled to space with butter-soft leather interior, in Krizzle’s big block spaceship of sound, style, and swagger. The album was a balanced offering of car songs and sex songs, met with Justin Scott’s fiercest mic bravado to date, and some insightful social commentary. The Top 5 debut seemed to have it all, as the MC/producer seemed to commit to stepping beyond his 2010-2012 pocket. This work was less about emulating influences, and more about carving out legacy, and charting growth for the Meridian, Mississippi cult hero.

See: “Soul Food” featuring Raphael Saadiq

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2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole (December 9, Dreamville/Roc Nation/Sony)

J. Cole shocked the release year with a sneak attack to close out 2014. Highly personal, Colematic’s third studio album not only kept things exciting, they kept them heartfelt. The North Carolina MC/producer made tangible songs about losing his virginity, his love for his mom, and clawing for his own crown within Hip-Hop, nudging his peers. Although Cole is arguably one of Hip-Hop’s most consistent young stars with at least three titles to his name, this early reaction seems to stand as Jermaine’s most complete work, out from Nas’ approval, and out from Jay Z’s shadow. Not only did the Roc Nation breakout add to his resume with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he muffled critics that the year was not exciting. In action and in contents, this album was a shocker.

See: “Apparently”

Purchase 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole.

PRhyme by PRhyme (December 9, PRhyme/InGrooves)

After 15 years of collaboration, Royce Da 5’9″ and DJ Premier teamed to form a group in 2014. On short notice (to the public), the Bad Meets Evil/Gang Starr connect raided Adrian Younge’s arsenal of samples, and combined their Rolodex of friends to bring Nickel Nine back to his core sound, and reignite Premo in ways unheard since the early 2000s. At just nine songs, this album had great Hip-Hop of yesteryear in mind, giving quality above quantity, and a Top 60 debut, showing that major artists can make music on their terms, with a proud commercial response. This lucid, B-Boy-driven LP makes a run at topping Royce’s solo catalog, and being Premier’s finest helmed album since Moment Of Truth.

See: “U Looz”

Purchase PRhyme by PRhyme.

Related: Ambrosia For Head’s 13 Best Hip-Hop Albums Of 2013 (Food For Thought)