Ambrosia For Heads Present…Our Picks For The 15 Best Hip-Hop Albums Of 2015
2015 watched a lot change in the music industry. Streaming culture kept Heads on the edge of their seats, as Hip-Hop superstars “pushed the button” on a whim. Reclusive legends released new product, while patient veterans made massive breakthroughs. No matter large or small, burgeoning or veteran, all artists seemed to put greater emphasis on the album. By that token alone, this year has been incredible for Hip-Hop music.
In honoring our tradition of counting off the yearly best, Ambrosia For Heads is proud to present our Top 15 albums of 2015, listed chronologically:
B4.Da.$$ by Joey Bada$$ (January 20, Pro Era/Cinematic/Relentless/Sony Red)
With the January release of his debut studio album, Joey Bada$$ managed to live up to the hype that he’d been amassing since the ripe old age of 17, when he dropped 1999, a mixtape that caught the attention of even the most old-school Heads. The Brooklyn, New York MC and flagship artist of the city’s Pro Era/Beast Coast movement demonstrably proved his lyrical capabilities on B4.DA.$$, a cleverly titled LP that also served as a reference to his strident pursuit of indie fame (as he says on the DJ Premier-produced “Paper Trail$,” “I won’t sign to no major, no wager”). While singles like “Big Dusty,” “No. 99,” and “Christ Conscious” were indicative of the dungeony Brooklyn progenitors like Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun from whence Joey arose, it was in album cuts like “Hazeus View,” “Piece of Mind,” and “Paper Trail$” where Joey proved the album was a gift to fans who weren’t just casual listeners. And, with the beautiful video for “Like Me,” (featuring BJ the Chicago Kid) he presented a moving tribute to Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and others who died around Joey’s age in neighborhoods much like his own.
See: “Paper Trail$”
Dark Sky Paradise by Big Sean (February 24, G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)
Big Sean raised the stakes in a major way with his third studio album, Dark Sky Paradise. The Detroit, Michigan MC kept his wordplay and cocky demeanor in tact, but a more matured G.O.O.D. Music artist was also able to break new ground. While supplying the party-minded hits in “I Don’t Fuck With You” and “Play No Games,” he also added depth in the catchy “Blessings,” and the introspective “One Man Can Change The World.” Kanye West’s careful hand wove in some Trap-infused Chipmunk Soul in “All Your Fault.” Big Sean stepped away from peer comparisons, and into the next level of album making. Rewarded with a #1 on the charts, Sean made a hybrid of club, message, and young, wild, and free music. Sean Don leaves 2015 with much higher stock than he began, and has the album that shows his range, his mind, and his gift at making a totally cohesive product to which Heads can relate.
See: “One Man Can Change The World” featuring Kanye West & John Legend
Another Time by DJ EFN (March 3, Crazy Hood Productions)
Miami, Florida’s DJ EFN follows years of mixtapes and radio work with a blueprinted album, from front-to-back. Another Time recreates the curated chemistry of 1990s DJ albums by the likes of Funkmaster Flex, DJ Clue, and the Soundbombing series. The Crazy Hood founder created a place where Blu, Kam, and MC Eiht can wax poetics together on “South-West.” He established common grounds for Stalley and Scarface, as well as Troy Ave on DJ Premier production in “Who’s Crazy?” Indicative of the inclusions such as O.C., King T, Milk Dee, and Umar Bin Hassan, this is an album made by a true Hip-Hop Head. However, it deftly showed that the walls and categories used to separate MCs due to age, era, region, and style are self-inflicted. EFN is not only a master DJ, but an A&R living the dream when it came to his true breakthrough LP. From an era when collaborations were true opportunities to work with somebody, Another Time earns its name in the 2-0-1-5.
See: “Paradise” featuring Redman, Talib Kweli, & Wrekonize
To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (March 16, TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar made one of the statement albums of 2015 in To Pimp A Butterfly. Following up his 2012 platinum major label debut (good kid, m.A.A.d. city), K-Dot dimmed the lights and made an insightful album that seemingly could not be skipped. While T.P.A.B. lacked the radio-aimed dynamite of its predecessor, it instead identified with the grassroots social activists in the streets. Songs like “Alright,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” and “Mortal Man” took on lives of their own, resonating with the tones, themes, and headlines of 2015 at large. Kendrick Lamar once again proved that he’s a poet, prosing what the world poses. This album was a heavy listen, and densely lyrical—but a raised bar in succinct album-making. With George Clinton, Ronald Isley, and the spirit of Tupac Shakur at the epicenter of Kendrick Lamar’s inspiration and album-making process, this electric circus was not only a lyrical trapeze act, but a fire-breathing commentary on race, sexuality, class, and manhood in 2015 America.
Mr. Wonderful by Action Bronson (March 23, Goliath/Vice/Atlantic)
Action Bronson’s major label, full-length debut was a far cry from his self-released Dr. Lecter nearly five years ago. Suddenly a digital star, the Queens, New Yorker embraced his psychedelic side, and made an album with wide-reaching sounds, and intricate production. The witty lyrics, big on detail, in-the-know references, and lush imagery remained. However, Bronson’s presentation gave way to more soul-bearing. Underneath the jokes, crudeness, and hyper-specific allusions, Bam Bam rapped about a curious childhood, the stresses of fame, and love gone terribly wrong. Songs like “Terry,” “Baby Blue,” and “Only In America” had considerable depth to their aesthetic. Moreover, Bronson masterfully applied his underground roots and mixtape strengths into an album that nodded to Rock & Roll, break-beats, and mash-up all at once. In the same year that would see him engaged in strong conflict with one of his sources of inspiration, the Vice star made an LP devoid of any comparisons, sun-bathing in his own originality.
See: “Baby Blue” featuring Chance The Rapper
The Good Fight by Oddisee (May 5, Mello Music Group)
More than 15 years into a career, Oddisee hit his stride in a major way in 2015. The Diamond District front man had made multiple acclaimed works in the past, but The Good Fight truly celebrated his relatable rapping, and themes as a complicated, complex creative. Songs like “That’s Love” were warm blankets in a cold year for humanity. “Book Covers” stepped out of genre, and tapped the Mello Music Group flagship artist into the spotlight—showing how he had as much in common with Bon Iver as he did J. Cole. Oddisee wrote and produced seemingly for himself and his own therapy, but made a product that spoke so strongly, and evocatively of an attitude, a feeling of marginalization, and a hope for tomorrow. The Good Fight is as reflective as any album released in 2015, and the gifted double-threat proved that regardless of what the charts may tell you, he is among the most consistent, versatile and original Hip-Hop musicians of the 2000s. (This album is available for full, free stream).
See: “Belong To The World”
At.Long.Last.A$AP by A$AP Rocky (May 26, A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)
A$AP Rocky’s sophomore album was another drug-tinged journey into the psyche. The Harlem, New Yorker basked in the neon glow of feeling as a man apart, in his culture, in his newfound fame, and at times, in his faith. “Holy Ghost” was a sinister kneel at the alter of the Most High, while “Everyday” was Rocky’s own spin on Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” The sonics of At.Long.Last… maintained the creative courage associated with the A$AP Mob front man. While Kanye West and Mark Ronson played key roles in the album, A$AP’s mentee Joe Fox proved to be a secret sauce in mastering the tone of a wavy, at times dreary look outside Rocky’s penthouse windows. Just as the mixtapes affirmed at the top of the decade, Rakim Mayers is incredible at taking Hip-Hop to new points of interest, and covering lots of real estate without ever losing his passport.
See: “Everyday” featuring Rod Stewart, Miguel, & Mark Ronson
The Growing Process by Dizzy Wright (May 26, Funk Volume)
Dizzy Wright has fast become Las Vegas, Nevada’s Hip-Hop hero. The independent stalwart has amassed a huge following, globally, through connecting with his audience in energy and in values. The Growing Process was just that however. The young MC not only made songs about self-medication and living the free life, he opened his mind up, and laced every musical hot-box with tons of game. “Can I Feel This Way” provided pungent in-the-moment reflections, that never sacrificed exceptional deliveries. Dizzy inhaled some Bone Thugs-N-Harmony vibes on the tandem “Regardless” and “Don’t Ever Forget,” with Layzie and Krayzie, respectively. “God Bless America” was among the year’s most evocative commentaries (and collaborations) as Wright held the line, alongside Tech N9ne and Big K.R.I.T. At a time when artists are categorized in fell swoops, the Funk Volume sensation proved he is many things, and regardless of whether he’s blowin’ smoke, spittin’ game, or ventin’ deep thoughts, he’s never not giving it his all.
See: “Higher Learning”
Yes! by Slum Village (June 16, Ne’Astra Music)
For longtime listeners of Slum Village, Yes! contained some earmarks reminiscent of the Detroit crew’s earliest works, namely Fantastic Vol. 2. From the “Fantastic” refrain on “Love Is,” a single featuring Bilal and Illa J to the vast majority of production coming from the group’s late founder, J Dilla, Yes! was equal parts nod to the past and focus on the future. The first heavily Dilla-inspired LP released under the group’s current manifestation (a duo featuring original member T3 and Young RJ), Yes! plays like a yesteryear version of Slum Village without feeling like it’s trying to do so. The Phife Dawg-assisted “Push It Along” and “We on the Go!!” with Frank Nitt and Black Milk sound fresh, and not just because they are produced by Young RJ and Black Milk, respectively. Even on the Dilla-produced “What We Have,” “Tear It Down,” and “Expressive,” the two manage to bring the classic sound into a new era with immaculate synergy. The De La Soul-steered “Right Back” is a brooding, slightly mournful beauty that triumphs for the underrated of the world, but the album’s real hero is the “Yes Yes Remix.” A joyous cut that begins with a J Dilla voiceover, it’s co-produced by Young RJ, which gives it a real sense of coming full circle.
See: “Expressive” featuring BJ The Chicago Kid, Illa J, & Rosewood
Professional Rapper by Lil Dicky (July 31, CMSN/David Burd Music)
Lil Dicky’s Professional Rapper took the Masta Ace/Prince Paul world on incredibly detailed concept, and applied to it the world of a suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native’s Hip-Hop immersion. David Burd’s studio debut shows that he can absolutely, unequivocally, rap his ass off. Dicky’s flows and timing were otherworldly, while his self-deprecation, humor, and ability to tap into pop culture amazed. “$ave Dat Money,” featured Rich Homie Quan and Fetty Wap) was tongue-in-cheek, but worked as a single with a subversive message. “White Crime” was hashtag play white-boy Gangsta Rap. However, unlike gimmicky plays of the past (from rappers and beyond), Dicky injected comedy, but never wavered in his sincerity. Professional Rapper really is an artist trying to get on, without lying, or compromising his narrative. The album pulled across the genre for key, role-playing guests, but Dicky never relied on names or profile. Instead, the MC creates his own sideshow, and pokes fun at himself, the industry, and preconceived notions about rappers, but all along the way really wants his skills, imagination, and truest self to be the calling card.
See: “Professional Rapper” featuring Snoop Dogg
Compton by Dr. Dre (August 7, Aftermath/Interscope)
Sixteen years later, Dr. Dre followed up 2001. It was a sneak attack of sorts, but Compton was a key companion to Dre’s N.W.A. biopic, and attention to his musical genius. While the album was a unique trajectory from the last two solo albums, it still showed that D-R-E had a keen ear for new talent, and had hardly lost his ability to bust meaningful raps into the microphone. Andre Young created a hearty revue of talent that dealt with the same issues Dre music always had: street life. “One Shot One Kill” was chest-pounding Gangsta Rap, as “Loose Cannons” was a warning shot to the testers. Along the way, Dre invited an ensemble cast of producers, MCs, and singers to achieve what may be the Compton, California mogul’s greatest gift: cohesion. Songs like “All In A Day’s Work” and “Deep Water” found Dr. Dre playing with the new sounds and styles of today, without kneeling to the level. Compton had changed a lot since the mid-1980s, but Dr. Dre helped put it on the musical map then, and he was the statue in the center of Hub City now.
See: “Issues” featuring Ice Cube, Anderson .Paak, & Dem Jointz
90059 by Jay Rock (September 11, TDE)
Jay Rock’s sophomore album, 90059, was 4 years in the making, but the wait yielded the best work of the TDE OG’s career. Much had changed since 2011’s Follow Me Home, including the rise of his label mates Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q, but Rock’s figurative voice remained uniquely his own. As had always been the case, on the new LP, he made music for himself and for his people, particularly those in his native city of Watts. Songs like “Money Trees Deuce” and “Gumbo” continued his tradition of keeping it 100, when it came to weaving narratives of life in the streets. However, always one to provide cautionary tales, rather than glorify, Rock added an element of inspiration that had not been as prevalent before. He sought not only to acknowledge, but to inspire. A major divergence from his past work was how he used his physical voice. The raw power remained, but he took on radically different deliveries than before, as evidenced on tracks like “Easy Bake” and “90059.” And, while he had help from his now formidable crew, on songs like “Easy Bake,” “Wanna Ride,” and “Vice City,” it was unquestionably Jay Rock who carried the project from front to back.
See: “Money Trees Deuce”
GO:OD AM by Mac Miller (September 18, REmember/Warner Bros.)
Few artists on his level, seem to evolve as much between albums as Mac Miller. Two LPs removed from being a figurehead in the early 2010s indie-digital movement, Miller went from a fresh-faced trouble-maker to a psychedelicized troubled artist in 2013. For GO:OD AM, it was a stripped down approach. As Mac Miller transcended from teen star to abstract MC, he seemingly found a style (as rapper and producer) that was all his own. This LP, his first without Rostrum, would build upon that earnestly. Songs like “Break The Law” showcased wordplay, while “Jump” put flow on first. Mac could be unconventional, but play with a sound that was perhaps more accessible to the clubs. The sounds, flows, and attributes of each song may change drastically in listening to the third LP from the Most Dope front man, but the lucidity, and sense of theme have awakened from an artist who truly makes every release an opportunity to step away from the last.
See: “Brand Name”
The Documentary 2.5 by Game (October 16, Blood Money/eOne)
Game released his Documentary sequel as a two-part, two-week process. While both independent works were crowd pleasers, the second of the two soared especially. The Documentary 2.5 was an uncompromising ride back in Compton, with Game not posing for photos, but showing listeners the grim realities of the city he reignited 11 years ago. “Gang Bang Anyway” brought in Black Hippy’s Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q for a rugged psychology of today’s rag wearers. “Up On The Wall” pocketed some 1980s New Wave Funk, with a celebration of the old Cali vibes set against the new SoCal behaviors. “Crenshaw/80s and Cocaine” was a funky drive, with a heart full of pride and waistband full of steel. “Last Time You Seen” brought in Scarface for a chilly breakdown of all that was lost in Hip-Hop and humanity the fateful 1996 night when Tupac Shakur died. The Documentary 2.5 was an overflowing cup of spirited raps, grabbing beats, and everything that’s made The Game such an entertaining, prime source of style in Rap. Jayceon Taylor offered two of his finest albums in one month, as The Documentary joins the ranks of the most important Rap franchises.
See: “Quik’s Groove” featuring DJ Quik, Sevyn Streeter, & Micah
The Incredible True Story by Logic (November 13, Visionary Music Group/Def Jam)
For those who were not familiar with Logic’s extensive mixtape catalog, there may have been an anticipation of a sophomore slump, after the critical and commercial success of his debut album, Under Pressure. Instead, Logic won by doing more of the same, but better. His formula on The Incredible True Story contained the same elements of masterful rapping, insightful lyrics and stellar, sonically cohesive beats. Despite the futuristic theme of the album, much of The Incredible True Story consisted of Logic reflecting on his past and present in order to look forward. “Fade Away” was a direct response to his critics who saw him as a one-hit wonder in the making. “Young Jesus” was an ode to the raw lyricism Logic always favored, as influenced by giants like Big Pun. “Innermission” was sonically and thematically inspired by legends like A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, who placed as much emphasis on their cadences as the music that accompanied them. Throughout the album, however, the consistent thread was Logic’s overarching desire to be in the game not for one or two albums, but for the long term. The Incredible True Story was another stone in what is proving to be a strong foundation.
See: “Young Jesus” featuring Big Lenbo
Memoirs Of Dayne Jordan (Free Album) by Dayne Jordan (July 21, JTown Music)
DJ Jazzy Jeff’s latest protege, Dayne Jordan released an incredible, honest, and accessible debut album in Memoirs Of Dayne Jordan. The North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania MC gave his work away for free (a critical practice used by Big K.R.I.T., Run The Jewels, and Rapsody), which made it something for everybody, and absolutely something worth supporting. (The whole album is available for free stream and download).
See: “In Progress”
Words Paint Pictures (EP) by Rapper Big Pooh & Apollo Brown (March 24, Mello Music Group)
Albeit just a nine-song EP, Rapper Big Pooh’s first of two 2015 releases may be his finest work since Sleepers. The Virginia native teamed with Apollo Brown to make a grabbing and soulful commentary, as rich and pointed as any in his celebrated career. (The whole EP is available for free, full stream).
This is our Top 15 (with two additional notable considerations). What does your list look like?