Here Are Ambrosia For Heads’ Top 25 Rap Albums Of The Decade

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In the final hours of a decade, Ambrosia For Heads presents our Top 25 Hip-Hop Albums. The 2010s were a wild ride, with an onslaught of important new voices, and incredible maturation from veteran MCs. It was a 10-year span where artists and songs were discovered new places (including the birth of AFH), music was consumed in new ways, and the expectation of rappers evolved with the times. Among the selections are albums that were free mixtapes, LPs that were never made available for sale, and a few releases that are just a few months old.

Celebrate a game-changing decade Hip-Hop with AFH’ Top 25 Rap Albums Of The 2010s (listed chronologically):

Big K.R.I.T. – K.R.I.T. Wuz Here

Big K.R.I.T. began this decade with big dreams and a unique sound. At a time when who you know, where you’re from, and what label you’re signed to seemed paramount, Justin Scott conquered all, and did so with his roots planted in Meridan, Mississippi. Although there were prior releases, that journey soared with this K.R.I.T. Wuz Here mixtape—the kind of project that helped redefine the meaning of the term. Staked by Cinematic Music Group (Smoke DZA, Joey Bada$$, etc.), Krizzle’s booming beats, candy-painted-car songs, and strip club influence aligned him with UGK and 8Ball & MJG. However, songs like the Adele-sampling “Hometown Hero,” Al Green-revamp “Something,” and “Voices” displayed an introspective poet. Big K.R.I.T. refused to be boxed in, or denied access to Rap. This mixtape commanded attention from major labels, elite peers, and thousands of listeners. Before his 24th birthday, King Remembered In Time proved to be just that, a beacon of “Country Sh*t” with a lot on his mind, soul in his sampler, and dreams in his eyes. K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was a slow-burning, long-lasting reminder that anything is possible, early in a changing-of-the-model (and the guard) decade. This tape was the first basecamp to climbing “Mt. Olympus.” – Jake Paine

Released: May 4, 2010
Label: self-released
Guests: Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sant, Devin The Dude, Smoke DZA, DJ Wally Sparks, DJ Folk
Producers: self

Roc Marciano – Marcberg

Before 2010’s Marcberg, Roc Marciano had spent years waiting for his turn at the plate with Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad. He’d also been part of The UN, a group once signed to a label co-owned by Carson Daly. No matter the opportunity, Rahkeim Meyer began the decade in a place not unlike MF DOOM at Operation Doomsday a decade or so earlier. He went for broke. Roc bundled up in his apartment to write, produce and record a full-length LP. Marcberg was grimy, gully New York album full of indifference toward his peers, and threats promises of violence to all of his enemies. The results were cartoonish and yet sincere: Roc Marciano is no joke. On “Don Sh*t,” Marci twists his word every chance he gets with vivid imagery: (“B*tch, I’m back, and I’m filthy as ever, hot stepper / Red pepper steak dinner, weight spinner, ladykillers, chains glimmer“). When Marci admits that “to smack you is an involuntary movement,” over rough boom-bap drums and string-loops on the Ka-assisted “We Do It,” the “Pimpstead” Long Island product is believable. His production is sometimes loud and brazen (“Jungle Fever,” “Marcberg”), other times channeling ’70s cinema (“Whateva Whateva,” “Shoutro“). Marcberg launched a hard-hitting, DIY revivalist movement of ’90s Hip-Hop that sits comfortably alongside contemporaries like Action Bronson, Griselda, and Mach-Hommy. He’s got the punches to prove it. – Kevin Cortez

Released: May 4, 2010
Label: Fat Beats Records
Guests: Brownsville Ka
Producers: self

The Roots – How I Got Over

In 2010, a couple of years after releasing Rising Down, The Roots somehow managed to find time in between working as the backing band of The Tonight Show and released their most frank album to date. It’s a cold world out there, and The Roots poured their hearts into this record to tell us about it, and how we can maintain. While the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania outfit had been dealing with hard times, this album turned the page into hope. The obvious “Dear God 2.0” aside, nearly every song on How I Got Over feels like a prayer in itself. Black Thought raps hurriedly throughout the record, begging God for relief from the outer stressors in his life: constant work, natural disasters destroying homes, crime sprees and police brutality killing civilians, and technology’s grip on humanity. The themes on the LP are consistent. Guests Blu and P.O.R.N. deliver engaging internal-rhyme schemes about the distractions in their lives on “Radio Daze.” Phonte and Black Thought reflect on their respective daily grinds on “The Day,” before Tariq keeping his desire aflame on “The Fire.” After touching on the anxieties spinning around our heads, Black Thought, Peedi Crakk, and Truck North unleash a barrage of bars and fury on “Web 20/20,” a near-three minute track of straight raps with no hooks. As hopeful as it is worrisome, How I Got Over prepared Hip-Hop Heads for a complicated and complex decade ahead. – Kevin Cortez

Released: June 22, 2010
Label: Def Jam Records
Guests: Blu, Phonte, John Legend, Dice Raw, Peedi Crakk, Truck North, STS, P.O.R.N., Joanna Newsome, Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle, Monsters Of Folk (Jim James, Connor Oberst, Mike Mogis, M. Ward, Will Johnson), Patty Crash
Producers: self, Richard Nichols, Dice Raw, Rick Friedrich

Rick Ross – Teflon Don

By his fourth album in four years, Rick Ross had fully hit his stride. The Miami, Florida-based star had no problem churning out hits, tirelessly doing features, and feeding the masses during a restructuring of the commercial music industry. Artists like Eminem, 50 Cent, and Nelly were yielding to artists like Lil Wayne, Kanye West, T.I., and Ross. 2009’s Deeper Than Rap was by no means a flop. Teflon Don allowed Rick Ross to cherry-pick street-approved hits from his Albert Anastasia EP mixtape. Rather than try to use tapes to promote albums, Rick Ross used the streets to A&R his fourth LP just as much as DJ Khaled did. With producers like Lex Luger, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and JAY-Z mentor DJ Clark Kent on deck, T.D. had a sound that stuck. This gold-certified LP pulled Rick Ross away from the pack, and delivered him from stardom to Hip-Hop superstar. Two Lex Luger mixtape songs would amplify the movement. “B.M.F” was Ross talking—not to the Rolling Stone crowd, but to the Feds magazine readership. Shouting out real-life gangsters over pounding beats, Ross started at his core, and the mainstream took notice. Prior to Teflon Don, it could be argued that even at Def Jam, William Roberts II was not the biggest star. On an album that began with the sarcastic “I’m Not A Star,” Rick Ross proved he was. Teflon Don retooled Ross’ formula. His first work of the 2010s cemented that he was here to stay, and only getting better. – Bandini

Released: July 20, 2010
Label: Maybach Music Group/Slip-N-Slide/Def Jam Records
Guests: JAY-Z, Kanye West, Drake, John Legend, Cee-Lo Green, T.I., Erykah Badu, Jadakiss, Styles P, Gucci Mane, Ne-Yo, Puff Daddy, Trey Songz, Chrisette Michele, Raphael Saadiq, Gabriel Bartolomei, Jeff Bhasker, Adam Brooks, Tanner Chung, Andre Cleghorn, Andrew Colella, Kaye Fox, Samuel Gibbs, Jacob Goins, Derrick Jackson, Rennie Johnson, Darrel Jones, Sang Kang, Brent Kolatalo, Juliene Kung, Stephen Lawrence, Ken Lewis, Michael Lu, Phil Mallory, Duncan Osborn, Kevin Randolph, Antonie Swain, Forrest Watkins, Jonathan White, Edward Williams III, Tony Williams, Brandon Wilson, Steve Wyreman, Tina Yu
Producers: Lex Luger,Kanye West, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League (Rook, Colione, & Barto), No I.D., The Inkredibles, DJ Clark Kent, The Remedy LLC, Danja, The Olympicks (B.P., J-Fab, Flawless, & Knoxville)

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

In 2010, Kanye West was a man apart. Two years prior, ‘Ye lamented his woes on arguably Hip-Hop’s most influential album of the last decade: 808s & Heartbreak. Now, he wanted to get back to rapping, but strictly on his terms. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was primarily made on a Hawaiian isle. There, Kanye invited muses and collaborators across the genres for an onslaught of regimented living, playing, and diligent creating. What resulted was a 13-track album ensemble. With full creative control, this decadent work was a baron’s fantasy camp: complete with RZA, No I.D., and Mike Dean on assistance, and relegating multiple diamond-certified singers to over-dubbed background vocals. Just as Kanye West did so amazingly on his College Dropout debut, his fifth album played god with casting. “Monster” was the latest and boldest in the power-cypher revival. The explosive lineup of Rick Ross, JAY-Z, and ‘Ye returned the rapper to his MC status. However, all knowingly, West gave way to Nicki Minaj, who stole the show in one of her breakthrough lyric-benders. “Runaway” welcomed King Push to G.O.O.D. with a melancholic tale about taking the blame for failed relationships. Kanye built the track with a far-reaching Pete Rock drum riff, adding his own evocative pianos and effects. Moments later, “Hell Of A Life” took a shot of vodka and turned the page, looking for the next fling. West masterfully balanced rapping with some of the style he etched on 808s. ‘Ye blurred the lines of rough sex with racism in 2010s America. These confusing messages were never disjointed. M.B.D.T.F. was a lost weekend. No longer in anybody’s shadow, void of anything to prove, the G.O.O.D. Music founder lost himself in the possibility of his “power” and found his future. – Bandini

Released: November 22, 2010
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Records
Guests: JAY-Z, Rick Ross, Raekwon, RZA, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, CyHi The Prynce, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, Gil Scott Heron, Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Elton John, Drake, The-Dream, Dwele, Elly Jackson, Tony Williams, Amber Rose, Teyana Taylor, Chris Rock, John Legend, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson, Ian Allen, Tim Anderson, Richard Ashton, Chris “Hitchcock” Chorney, Wilson Christopher, Rosie Danvers, Uri Djemal, Alvin Fields, Simon Finch, Danny Flam, Kay Fox, Andrew Gathercole, Mark Frost, Tony Gorruso, Philip Judge, Salma Kenas, Ken Lewis, Mike Lovatt, Chloe Mitchell, Rachel Robson, Tom Rumsby, Jenny Sacha, Kotono Sato, Chris Soper, Chloe Vincent, Brent Kolatalo
Producers: (self), Mike Dean, RZA, Jeff Bhasker, No I.D., Mike Caren, Andrew Dawson, S1, Tommy D, DJ Frank E, Emile, Noah Goldstein, Plain Pat, Peter Bischoff, Alex Graupera, Phil Joy, Gaylord Holomalia, Brent Kolatalo, Christian Mochizuki

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

Approaching mid-2011, Kendrick Lamar was an anomaly. The Compton, California’s 2010 release, Overly Dedicated broke on the Rap charts. He was appearing on LPs by Rapper Big Pooh and Tech N9ne, despite a relatively low profile beyond the blogosphere. That quickly changed with July’s Section.80. The digitally-exclusive independent project was as inventive of an album as Heads expected from Mos Def, Andre 3000, or Lil Wayne. The Jay Rock protege once known as “K-Dot” revealed a CPT as treacherous as it was in N.W.A.’s verses, but stunningly more complex. Kendrick Duckworth rapped about prostitutes in search of father figures, the numbed attention spans of his peers, and how Rap verses were the new Egyptian hieroglyphics. Admittedly bookish and reserved, Kendrick was the attentive young head with gang-banging uncles in and out jail. Lamar’s narrative was too original to be inauthentic, and his opinions were too precise to be plagiarized. “HiiiPower” was proof that an artist with a low-profile could make a song as socially and racially uplifting as Kanye, Nas, or the like. “Poe Mans Dreams” and “Keisha’s Song” showed the externalization of Lamar’s mind. He could write about more than just his life, with a novelist’s gift for character and conflict. Kendrick was an old soul in a young man’s body. However, as Section.80 subtly suggested, K-Dot was a survivor and an outlier in his own world. – Jake Paine

Released: July 2, 2011
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Guests: ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, GLC, Colin Munroe, Ashtrobot, BJ The Chicago Kid
Producers: Sounwave, THC, J. Cole, Willie B, Tae Beast, Tommy Black, Dave Free, Wyldfyr, Terrace Martin

Phonte – Charity Starts At Home

At the onset of a decade-long hiatus for Little Brother, the world got an understanding of Phonte’s inner-workings and evolution. Charity Starts At Home offered a portal into ‘Te previously unavailable in LB and Foreign Exchange. Instead, this collection of songs was the soundtrack to jarring times. “Everything Is Falling Down” may have applied to the artist’s life as it did the headlines of a season marred by scandal, market collapse, and protests in the streets. “The Good Fight” saw Phonte lean into his reputation as a masterful “Everyman” songwriter with a “ranthem” for the over-worked, under-paid, and laid-off. However, the indie LP is not without its hope. Tigallo took a bow after the applause with “The Life Of Kings,” a perfect, albeit unlikely union of Big K.R.I.T. and Evidence. Even while losing grips, the album found love, longing, and self-respect at just the right moments. At a time when Phonte was forever measured against Little Brother’s beginnings, his solo Rap debut showed that his placemat belonged at the head of the table. Always a revered lyricist, Phonte reintroduced himself as an elite songwriter who grew with his fan-base. – Jake Paine

Released: September 27, 2011
Label: Foreign Exchange Music
Guests: Elzhi, Pharoahe Monch, Evidence, Big K.R.I.T., Median, Sy Smith, Eric Roberson, Carlitta Durand, Jeanne Jolly
Producers: self, 9th Wonder, Khrysis, Swiff D, Stro Elliott, Zo!, S1, Fatin “10” Horton, E Jones

Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

Nine years removed from his Top 10 debut, Killer Mike reinvented his career with R.A.P Music. Rebellious African People updated Mike Bigga’s sound, replacing the Trap elements with El-P’s apocalyptic-meets-Golden-Era glory. With the new backdrop, Killer Kill focused his efforts and boiled down the fat to his most cohesive, poignant body of work thus far. The chemistry that would ultimately pivot to Run The Jewels began on this take-by-force, heavy mental album of its own. “Big Beast” was boom-bap gone brutal, as Mike, Bun B, and T.I. orchestrated a heist of the sound. “Go!” postulated what would happen if Mantronix spent a night at Magic City, and Rick Rubin set up shop at Stankonia. The hard 808 drums of this album were the body shots to Mike’s onslaught of verbal upper-cuts. The album dealt with encouraging masculinity and traditional core values in Hip-Hop. “Reagan” played like a Chuck D and Bomb Squad indictment. This time, Mike and El challenged the notions that the 40th US President was—as the Discovery Channel polls touted, “The greatest American.” Mike retraced America’s troubled steps to free markets, and the most explosive days of crack cocaine. “Anywhere But Here” was a soundtrack to the #Occupy era. One a one-off for Cartoon Network’s record label laid out new steps to destiny for Killer Mike and El-P, with Hip-Hop as the engine. – Jake Paine

Released: May 15, 2012
Label: Williams Street Records
Guests: El-P, Bun B, T.I., Scar, Trouble, Emily Panic, DJ Abilities, Torbitt Schwartz
Producers: El-P, Wilder Zoby

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

With Dr. Dre and Aftermath/Interscope Records backing at his disposal and advisers on his board, Kendrick Lamar was forecast to go big on good kid, m.A.A.d city, just like Eminem and 50 Cent had done before him. However, when the album released—audiences showed no disappointment in Dre’s production absence. Instead, G.K.M.C. proved that Kendrick’s formula as an independent was wildly intact as a chart-soaring platinum act. The themes, the guests, and the sound of Kendrick Lamar were unscathed. However, the focus, refinement, and brilliant execution of concept were refined—whether due to artistic maturity, or the enhanced world surrounding the MC. The 24-year-old went back to his childhood, his family’s inner-workings, and Hub City to find a detailed world of circumstance. “The Art Of Peer Pressure” was a charged ride-along with adolescents doing bad, at extremely high stakes. “Good Kid” and “m.A.A.d city” were one-two punches on the juxtaposition of a highly-observant, “chosen” prodigy living in a world where street-gangs, hard drugs, and survival rule. Kendrick Lamar did not describe a world that delivered him. Instead, his beats, cadences, and angst kidnapped the listener to Rosecrans Avenue, fed ’em a Tam’s Burger, and tucked their chain in. Just as he’d done on the last album, Lamar showed that while the rest of the world was evolving, the C-P-T was still as Darwinist as any ecosystem in the world. – Bandini

Released: October 22, 2012
Label: Top Dawg/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records
Guests: Drake, Jay Rock, MC Eiht, Dr. Dre, ScHoolboy Q, Kent Jamz, Anna Wise, Ill Camille, JMSN, Chad Hugo, Amari Parnell, Mary Keating, Charly & Margaux, Gabriel Stevenson
Producers: Just Blaze, Pharrell Williams, Hit-Boy, Tha Bizness, Sounwave, DJ Dahi, Tabu, Scoop Deville, Terrace Martin, Likewise, Skyhe Hutch, T-Minus, THC

Drake – Nothing Was The Same

In late 2013, Nothing Was The Same was an intended return to Drake roots. Now with the grandeur, resources, and mood-lighting of Hip-Hop’s mainstream poster-child, Aubrey Graham would use his third studio album to restore his Rap-first, sing-second balance of the late 2000s, with the subject matters, pressures, and sounds of scale. A master of flashing images and attitudes with which listeners could identify, “Started From The Bottom” would be an anthem. Mike Zombie’s pounding drums would awaken Drake—melodically to break down why this was no buy-in. Unabashedly simple, the song was a set-up for others. “Wu-Tang Forever” created a decidedly hard song, that was still about love. This was a Wu-Tang Clan inspired feat, pointing to artists like Ghostface Killah and Method Man, who had done it so uncompromisingly. But just as he could open up, Nothing Was The Same had some closed-off tones too. In many places, the acutely self-aware star spit at critics and peers that dismissed him, or his manhood. “Pound Cake” returned Drake to a key figure in his come-up, JAY-Z. Like the song would say, the multi-threat decided to go back home with his abilities—find the joy and competition in rapping, and limit the distractions. As the culture was still making sense of the Toronto, Ontario takeover since 2009, this was the kind of album that was promised in his mixtape greatness. – Bandini

Released: September 24, 2013
Label: OVO/Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic Records
Guests: JAY-Z, Majid Jordan (Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman), Detail, Jhene Aiko, Sampha, Big Sean, Cappadonna, Rachel Craig, Adrian “X” Eccleston, Chilly Gonzales, G Koop, Grace Gayle, Brian Hamilton, Paul “Nineteen85” Jeffries, Shawn Lawrence, Owen Lee, Hudson Mohawke, DJ Dahi, PartyNextDoor, Omar Richards, Not Nice, Noah “40” Shebib, Patricia Shirley, Dalton Tennant, Trae Tha Truth, Jennifer Tulloch, Dionne Wilson, Mike Zombie
Producers: Noah “40” Shebib, Hagler, Jake One, Mike Zombie, Detail, DJ Dahi, Paul “Nineteen85” Jeffries, Majid Jordan (Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman), Boi-1da, Hudson Mohawke, Allen Ritter, Vinylz, Sampha, Jordan Evans

J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive

Following a stellar mixtape run, Jermaine Cole made two acclaimed, commercially-successful albums in Cole World and Born Sinner. While each stood tall against the competition, it would be 2014 Forest Hills Drive that felt like a true breakthrough. Devoid of marketing, promotion, and features—this was a deliberate and orchestrated effort to reintroduce J. Cole. In doing so, it stripped away his major label and elite associations, putting all the strengths and weaknesses square on Jermaine’s shoulders. There were little to no flaws, as J. Cole finally arrived in making the kind of album that seemed timeless, and unrestrained. Far from his debut, 2014… felt like a first album, in the sense that J. Cole dealt with things that predated his fame and fortune. Within, the Dreamville founder recounted losing his virginity (“Wet Dreamz”), being inspired by his mother’s work ethic (“Apparently”), and navigating puberty (“’03 Adolescence”). However, not all of the album was sheer nostalgia. “Fire Squad” was Cole letting loose, jockeying for the trophy—and presumably answering Kendrick’s “Control” bell properly. Besides Kanye, Oddisee, and Blu, none of Cole’s peers could challenge the industry on a self-produced song. 2014 Forest Hills Drive was J. Cole reverting back to the mixtape formula that ushered him in. With careful sequencing and attention to cohesion, J. Cole refused the grandeur frequently associated with #1 Rap albums. 2014 Forest Hills Drive manifested the destiny of the wunderkind heard in the late aughts. – Bandini

Released: December 9, 2014
Label: Dreamville/Roc Nation/Columbia/Sony
Guests: Ronald Gilmore, Nate Jones, David Linaburg, Travis Antoine, James Casey, Chargaux, T.S. Rose Desandies, Kaye Fox, Jeff Gitelman, Nuno Malo, Yolanda Renee, Carl McCormick, James Rodgers
Producers: (self), Willie B, !llmind, Cardiak, Ron Gilmore, Vinylz, Dre Charles, Team Titans, Nick Paradise, Phonix Beats, Dexter “Pop” Wansel, JProof, DJ Dahi, Damone Coleman, Nervous Reck

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar followed up his platinum major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city in the most atypical way. 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly was not a concept album. Instead, it was conceptualized around the medium of albums. In a year where streaming platforms would officially become the consumptive means to music, Kendrick Duckworth cast a light on his album’s sums, not its parts. That sum was an evocative work that dealt with uplifting messages to the oppressed, assertions for self-love, and poetic odes to the female reproductive organs. “Alright” is the triumphant centerpiece of T.P.A.B. With Pharrell on hand for the track, the song meshed a rallying cry with Trap and Jazz. Arguably the most significant MC in present-day Hip-Hop still found a way to stand with the underdogs, and offer hope, courage, and assurance. The song would organically become a soundtrack staple to the Black Lives Matter movement. Album closer “Mortal Man” measured the heart of the people. Whether the lyrics applied to loyalty, Rap careers, or daily stakes, Kendrick Lamar checked in with his audience for their commitment. Symbolically, the song closed with an edited conversation between Kendrick and Tupac, who once shared the same treacherous South Central skyline as the MC. “The Blacker The Berry” spoke bluntly about the images of Black men in America. Unrestrained in his writing and his delivery, Kendrick Lamar not only spoke to oppressors, but to himself for hypocrisy surrounding violence. Breakout single “i” was one of the pillars of 2010s cool, reminding the world that love starts at home, with oneself. Kendrick knew the nutrition lacking in music, and gave fans a glorious meal of fruits and vegetables for the mind. – Bandini

Released: March 15, 2015
Label: Top Dawg/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records
Guests: Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Rapsody, Bilal, George Clinton, Ronald Isley, Thundercat, Anna Wise, James Fauntleroy, Dr. Dre, Whitney Alford, Lalah Hathaway, Josef Leimberg, Robert Sput Searight, Rogét Chahayed, Robert Glasper, Brandon Owens, Ab-Soul, Craig Brockman, Marlon Williams, Darlene Tibbs, Wesley Singerman, Matt Schaeffer, Dave Free, Ash Riser, Larrance Dopson, Talkbox Monte, Pete Rock, Javonte, Paul Cartwright, Gabriel Noel, Pedro Castro, Sam Barsh, Kamasi Washington, Gregory Moore, SZA, Adam Turchin, Terrace Martin, Jessica Vielmas, Pharrell, Candace Wakefield, Dion Friley, Preston Harris, Wyann Vaughn, Chris Smith, Keith Askey, Kendall Lewis, Edwin Orellana, Junius Bervine, Devon Downing, Ambrose Akinmusire
Producers: Sounwave, Pharrell, Terrace Martin, Taz Arnold, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Flippa, Rahki, Knxledge, Tae Beast, Lovedragon, The Antydote, Boi-1da, KOZ

The Game – The Documentary 2 & 2.5

A decade after his benchmark debut, The Game delivered a collector’s edition double-pack of more than two albums, released across two weeks: The Documentary 2 and 2.5, respectively. No longer contractually tied to Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, or the Interscope Records machine, Jayceon Taylor proved that he could still pull orchestrated massive ensembles and brilliant concepts. This two-piece of sprawling albums retraced Game’s steps back to a West Coast Rap revivalist right alongside his Hip-Hop fandom. Across 36 tracks (and additional bonus materials), the Compton, California O.G. positioned himself as N.W.A.’s stepson (“Don’t Trip”), Black Hippy’s active uncle (“Gang Bang Anyway”), rapped non-fiction about his slain hero (“Last Time You Seen”), and banged on wax for old time’s sake (“My Flag/Da Homies”). Often dismissed for his stunts, pageantry, and ability to drive gossip columns, The Game’s album-making did not get the credit it deserved throughout the 2010s decade. He was now doing it himself, and adhering to the blueprint he’d learned from Dre, Fif, and others. However, this MC’s sprawling discography reminded everybody that he was always a rapper first. – Bandini

Released: October 9, 2015 and October 16, 2015
Label: Blood Money Entertainment/eOne Music
Guests: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Nas, Lil Wayne, DJ Quik, Scarface, E-40, will.i.am, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Drake, Snoop Dogg, Anderson .Paak, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Busta Rhymes, Puff Daddy, Ab-Soul, Q-Tip, Problem, Ty Dolla Sign, YG, DeJ Loaf, Sha Sha, Jelly Roll, Eric Bellinger, Future, Sonyae, Fergie, Koofreh Umoren, Adam Turchin, Asia Bryant, Stacy Barthe, Deion, Sevyn Streeter, Micah, Mvcus Blvck, Lil E, Jay 305, Mitchy Slick, AD, Joe Moses, RJMrLA, Skeme, King Mez, JT, Jon Connor, Harlem Caron Taylor, King Justice Taylor, Elijah Blake
Producers: self, Kanye West, DJ Premier, DJ Quik, Alchemist, DJ Khalil, will.i.am, Mike WiLL Made It, Hit-Boy, The Mekanics, Pops, Bongo, Jahlil Beats, Cool & Dre, iLLa, Just BonaFide, Jones, Jelly Roll, Flippa, JProof, Stat Quo, Caviar, Sevn Thomas, Tarik Azzouz, Streetrunner, Cardo, Johnny Juliano, THX, Fred Wreck, Travis Barker, G Koop, Kevin Bivona, Battlecat, DJ Mustard, Mike & Keys, Tone Mason

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Three years removed from his last solo mixtape, Chance The Rapper released Coloring Book from a completely different stratosphere of profile. The Chicago, Illinois MC/singer has gone from sheepish obscurity to the only unsigned featured musical guest on SNL, a member of Kanye West’s studio ensemble, and a major festival mainstay. However, what this May full-length proved was how little C.T.R. had changed despite his surroundings. Yes, the not-for-sale mixtape involved Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and ‘Ye—but with Chance gripping the conductor baton. With his creative crayons, the MC filled his project with gratitude, as a young father, a fiance, and a success story surrounded by “Angels.” Following leads by Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, Chance emerges as an even more modest superstar—less concerned with materialistic riches or bragging points than artistic integrity. He celebrates his city’s vibrance above its violence. Just as he did with Acid Rap, the Social Experiment artist can put his thumbs on the pulse of more innocent times, and illustrates experiences that resonate far beyond the Windy City, or fellow early-twenty-somethings. From roller-rink dances to crutching painkillers for peace, the unabashed honesty of Chance’s writing, and the warmth in his delivery, are exceptionally (and most cohesively) carried out. The first stream-only work to ever make the Billboard Top 200 (in this case the Top 10) is something that appears to have themes, sounds, and attitudes that history will look back on, and understand as a sea change. Even without the “acid,” Chance The Rapper’s music still drives a psychedelic journey of self-reflection and possibility. – Bandini

Released: May 13, 2016
Label: self-released
Guests: Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Chicago Children’s Choir, Jeremih, Francis And The Lights, Jamila Woods, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Saba, Justin Bieber, Towkio, Jay Electronica, Nicole, Knox Fortune, T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Eryn Allen Kane, Noname, Ty Dolla Sign, Raury, BJ The Chicago Kid, Anderson .Paak, Future, Grace Weber, Isaiah Robinson, Jack Red, Sima Cunningham, Teddy Jackson, Vasil Garnanliever, HaHa Davis, Jaime Woods, Jonathan Hoard, Lakeitsha Williams, Rachel Cato, The Mind, DRAM, Elle Varner, Macie Stewart, Nico Segal, Lolah Brown
Producers: Kanye West, The Social Experiment, Francis And The Lights, Brasstracks, Jordan Ware, Lido, CBMIX, Stix, Rascal, Cottontale, Garren Sean, Cam O’Bi

Oddisee – The Iceberg

Oddisee followed up benchmark LP The Good Fight with another album smack dab in the American zeitgeist. The Iceberg found MC/producer/musician Amir Mohamed el Khalifa looking within and outwardly for inspiration. The artist of Sudanese-Muslim descent provided moving accounts of the xenophobia and racism he felt long before Trump was elected (“NNGE”) and the pressures of measuring up to immigrant parents’ expectations while in a non-traditional career (“Rain Dance”). The listener gets to know Oddisee at a “Digging Deep” level, without the artist always focusing just on himself. He used stories, both true and illustrative to enhance his seamless narrative. This album’s introspective themes balance with rich instrumentation and lush arrangements. The mind of the Diamond District co-founder is complex and so is his sound. Oddisee never stops rapping but created an album that somehow transcends genre. The Iceberg is a Hip-Hop mass that melts away to reveal rich layers of of Jazz, Soul, and splashes of House. From one of the genre’s most self-contained and low-key artists this body of work is tenacious, widely accessible, and ageless. This beautiful listen is by one, for all. – Jake Paine

Released: February 24, 2017
Label: Mello Music Group
Producer: (self)
Guests: Toine, Olivier St. Louis

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar’s career has been a prototype for realizing one’s own magnitude and handling it with the utmost care. K-Dot knows he’s the certified Top Dawg in Rap, is fully cognizant of the weight of his words, and doesn’t take his reach lightly. He can singlehandedly sway culture, and his mighty composure, paired with the self-applied pressure to manufacture a certain altitude of music that aligns with his vision of progress, is unparalleled. That’s what makes him King Kendrick. He sits alone on the throne, and DAMN. was our gratifying introduction to a disrobed and accessible royal. While DAMN. is brimming with spiritual layers, conflict, and imperfection, the social commentary is a bit mitigated in comparison to good kid, m.A.A.d city, and especially To Pimp A Butterfly, instead emphasizing a more sonically mellisonant experience. While boundaries are non-existent within Kendrick’s conceptions, and in this instance as an album that has relevance played both forwards and in reverse, DAMN. was his most classicist approach to Rap music. Authenticity is the foundation upon which DAMN. was built. Whether he’s elaborating on his insecurities (“PRIDE”), his heritage (“DNA”), feeling isolated (“FEEL”), the juxtaposition of libido and affection on adjacent tracks (“LUST” & “LOVE”), political and religious climates (“XXX”), or his own accomplishments (“HUMBLE” & “GOD”), it’s his humanity that stayed rooted throughout. DAMN. revealed Kendrick’s grand ambition in seeking out the parallels and contradictions of emotion and sorting through the sense of it all, a perpetual exploration that we all undergo. The album allured, evoked feeling, and reminded us that it’s not just Kendrick Lamar’s story, it’s all of ours. – Michael Blair

Released: April 14, 2017
Label: Top Dawg/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records
Guests: Rihanna, Zacari, U2
Producers: Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, 9th Wonder, Alchemist, Tae Beast, Terrace Martin, Bekon, BadBadNotGood, Cardo, DJ Dahi, Mike Will Made It, Sounwave, Greg Kurstin, James Blake, Ricci Riera, Kuk Harrell, Steve Lacy, Pluss, Teddy Walton, Yung Exclusive

JAY-Z – 4:44

The line between JAY-Z the rapper and JAY-Z the mogul has seemed blurry for some time now. Hova has evolved into a corporate visionary in front of his admirers’ eyes with one of the richest portfolios, both in business and music catalog. The natural progression from lyricist to capitalist, for one as ambitious as JAY-Z, was inevitable. As focus shifts, unavoidably, so does the product. Facing mixed reviews in recent years, a majority of JAY-Z’s enthusiasts seemed willing to chalk it up to simply that: A busy Jay. Even so, his layups are grander than most MC’s slam dunks. Here’s the thing though: A G.O.A.T.’s burning desire is to remain a G.O.A.T., in all facets. To a man with the world at his fingertips, there is no price on pride. Hov apparently heard the criticism and knew his musical legacy wasn’t complete. The mastery of words for a sensei of his stature never diminishes. Enter 2017’s 4:44. Honest, personal, anguished, vulnerable, forthright, and sincere. This is the only Shawn Carter that made musical sense at this point in his career. It had to be all or nothing with the Maybach curtains fully drawn back. And boy did Jay deliver, plus some. Hov commenced the entirely No-I.D.-produced album by admitting infidelity (“Kill JAY-Z”), presenting racism in a new way (“The Story of O.J.”), and eventually reminiscing on his younger days in the projects (“Marcy Me”), and finally, his hopes for the future (“Legacy”). The line between JAY-Z the Hall Of Fame songwriter, and JAY-Z the enterprise was entirely unblurred for this much-needed chapter, and music is infinitely better because of it. – Michael Blair

Released: June 30, 2017
Label: Roc Nation
Guests: Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Damian Marley, Gloria Carter
Producers: (self), No-I.D., James Blake, Dominic Maker

Evidence – Weather Or Not

Evidence delivered a robust, 16-track composition in Weather Or Not. The fourth solo LP from the Los Angeles, California MC married the gracious with the glib, with themes of perseverance, accomplishment, sadness, integrity and mortality. With guest spots from Styles P, Rapsody and Khrysis on one song (“Love Is A Funny Thing”); heat from Alchemist, who hopped on “Sell Me This Pen” alongside Mach-Hommy; to fellow Dilated Peoples Rakaa and DJ Babu; the album remains stellar. Its brightest moments, though, shined through with Evidence performing solo. As he spit on the LP’s opener, “I’m at my best when I’m back into the factory,” he’s both boastful and merciful. On the title track, he was cheekily self-referential and on the DJ Premier-laced “10,000 Hours,” in prideful stride. “Throw It All Away” may embody Weather Or Not‘s DNA most acutely: “Out the gate a bit late, but the champ is back / I need a third hand to wear my rings and hold plaques.” He saved the true poignancy for the album’s closer, however. On “By My Side Too,” he celebrates his late life partner—as she was battling Stage III breast cancer—as well as his son, who was born during the recording process for Weather Or Not. As he told AFH in early ’19, “The reward of being an open book is way more tremendous. There’s a bigger purpose to it.” – Amanda Mester

Released: January 26, 2018
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Guests: Rakaa, Alchemist, Slug, Defari, Rapsody, Styles P, Krondon, Jonwayne, Mach Hommy, Khrysis, Catero
Producers: self, Alchemist, DJ Premier, Nottz, Budgie, Twiz The Beat Pro, Samiyam

J. Cole – K.O.D.

Jermaine Cole had been displaying his self-exploration in plain sight throughout the 2010s. Each album formulated by the Fayetteville, North Carolina MC/producer has essentially been a verbal diary, meticulously detailing his pilgrimage through both the music industry and his understandings of existence. K.O.D., Cole’s fifth LP, found him at his most enlightened, concerned, and transparent chapter to date. It bears a title serving as a triple entendre (Kids On Drugs, King Overdosed, Kill Our Demons) is cloaked in the severe dangers of addiction, ego, and greed. King Cole met kiLL edward (an embodiment of his former stepfather) to sort through the effects of drug and alcohol dependency (“The Cut Off”), infidelity (“Kevin’s Heart”), the selfish pursuit of wealth (“ATM” & “Motiv8”), the inability to assess insecurities and ultimately face those personal demons (“FRIENDS”). What made Cole’s decisive cautionary tale that is K.O.D. so powerful though, is that he seemingly came to terms with his own self-inflicted shortcomings while simultaneously cautioning his peers and fans about the destruction of theirs. Without self-awareness, administered advice falls on deaf ears, and for an artist that has already hung their hat on unapologetic authenticity so intently, Cole found even more strength in his sentiments throughout K.O.D. because of how mindful he was about the repercussions of his own tendencies. K.O.D. is both therapeutic and instructive in a time when honest leadership from a respected veteran was absolutely critical. Cole knew this, and K.O.D. is his grand contribution to the overall well-being of the music industry. Without vanity, Cole has demanded that all parties listen closely and choose wisely. – Michael Blair

Released: April 20, 2018
Label: Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope
Guest: kiLL edward
Producers: self, Ibrahim Hamad, BLVK, Mark Pelli, Ron Gilmore, T-Minus

Royce 5’9 – The Book Of Ryan

In a career filled with a variety of impactful releases, Royce 5’9’s most personal and complex offering arrived after 20 years. Book Of Ryan had Royce reflecting on chapters of his childhood as he took audit on his life as a proudly sober family-man. It was easily his most intimate, introspective album to date, as he went through his past page by page, exploring his father’s struggles with addiction on “Cocaine,” the physical abuse his family endured on “Power,” and even life’s loss of innocence on “Boblo Boat.” Nickel Nine can paint vivid pictures with his words to put the listeners directly in the shoes of both his younger and present-day self. For Heads who are more used to Royce demolishing a beat first and asking questions later, he had a few competitive joints sprinkled between his story, reuniting Bad Meets Evil on the Eminem-assisted “Caterpillar” and recruiting Pusha-T, Jadakiss, and Fabolous for the hyped “Summer On Lock.” Book Of Ryan proved to be Royce’s best look into the mirror, and has him evolving beyond the killer MC he’s known as, and into a true artist that can resonate with his story. – Sypher

Released: May 4, 2018
Label: Heaven Studios/eOne Music
Guests: Eminem, J. Cole, Pusha-T, Jadakiss, Fabolous, Logic, Boogie, Marsha Ambrosius, Robert Glasper, T-Pain, King Green, Ashley Sorrell, Agent Sasco, Melanie Rutherford, Chavis Chandler
Producers: Mr. Porter, S1, AntMan Wonder, Boi-1da, Cool & Dre, DJ Khalil, 808-Ray, Epikh Pro, Frank Dukes, Fuse, !llmind, Key Wane, The Maven Boys, StreetRunner, Tarik Azzouz

Pusha-T – DAYTONA

Amidst a career filled with flare, 2018 saw Pusha-T release his magnum opus, DAYTONA. As unapologetic as it is air-tight, the seven-track album plays out as brief, yet sharp, glimpse into Pusha’s life at the top. With its title partly inspired by a Swiss watch, this G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam affair was about the luxury of time. In the last decade, Push’ transformed from one half of The Clipse dealing with label woes to an artist who drives playlists and headlines at once. All of the beats bleed with equal parts Soul and Miami Vice montage neon, thanks to Kanye West’s sample and drum-heavy production. Meanwhile, no feature feels amiss; Rick Ross, singer 070 Shake, and ‘Ye made their appearances without overstaying their welcome. Though a kingpin removed from the grindin’, Push’s cocaine raps somehow seemed as fresh as ever. True to the $85,000 cover-photograph from Whitney Houston’s bathroom, the MC seems his best when he’s sinister, relentless, and vengeful. Opener “If You Know You Know” showed Pusha dropping double entendres about how far back his concrete roots go. The Rick Ross-assisted “Hard Piano” saw the two rappers going toe-to-toe over a piano loop and dramatic hook. Closer “Infrared” tried to grab Drake by the jugular before both artists continued their offensives off-album. DAYTONA sits as his King Push’s most consistent, confident, and concise project to date. It also was a class leader in sending Rap albums to all-killer, no-filler 30-minutes-or-less experiences. – Kevin Cortez

Released: May 25, 2018
Label: GOOD Music, Def Jam
Guests: Rick Ross, 070 Shake, Kanye West
Producers: Kanye West, Pi’erre Bourne, Andrew Dawson, Mike Dean

Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

On his third studio album ASTROWORLD, Travis Scott raised the ghost of a Houston, Texas amusement park that was shuttered in 2005. What that means in terms of sound is layered, rich Southern Rap that is not afraid to take an experimental ride. This 17-track release had as much in common with Psychedelic Rock as it did with Trap. The highly-conceptual effort featured an army of producers and a laundry list of high-profile guests, who sometimes add nothing more than a single background vocal. That is how exacting Scott is. And no matter the producer, every drum and sound was crystal clear and crisp. That is largely due to the impeccable ear of legend Mike Dean, who mixed and mastered nearly the whole project. Some of the more unexpected contributions came from Stevie Wonder and James Blake, who play harmonica and sing, respectively, on “Stop Trying To Be God.” Meanwhile, John Mayer strummed his axe on “Wake Up.” Scott should also be credited for paying homage to Hip-Hop pioneers on cuts like the H-Town anthem “RIP Screw,” or “Carousel,” which incorporated the Beastie Boys’ chanting from “The New Style.” “5% Tint,” also served as a 2018 version of Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy.” Few Rap artists took their sound further out there than Travis Scott. And it was all for our amusement. – Jordan Commandeur

Released: August 3, 2018
Label: Cactus Jack/Grand Hustle/Epic Records
Guests: Drake, Frank Ocean, Stevie Wonder, James Blake, John Mayer, Swae Lee, Big H.A.W.K., Phillip Bailey, Kid Cudi, BJ The Chicago Kid, Sheck Wes, Juice WRLD, Tame Impala, The Weeknd, 21 Savage, Gunna, Nav, Quavo, Takeoff, Don Toliver, Thundercat, Mike Dean, Sheldon Ferguson, Nineteen85, Isaiah Gage, Tim Shuby, Stephen “Johan” Feigenbaum
Producers: self, Mike Dean, Tay Keith, Hit-Boy, Frank Dukes, Sonny Digital, Wondagurl, Allen Ritter, Murda Beatz, Nineteen85, John Mayer, Tame Impala, Thundercat, 30 Roc, B Corn, B Wheezy, Cardo, Cubeatz, David Stromberg, Felix Leone, FKi 1st, Gezin 808 Mafia, J Beatzz, June James, London Cyr, Matty, OZ, Ramy, River Tiber, Rogét Chahayed, Sevn Thomas, Tim Suby, Turbo, Vegyn, Wallis Lane

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s latest entry in their collaboration trilogy, Bandana, played out like a fine piece of cinema. Five years removed from Piñata, the “Freddie Caine” character is a reformed drug kingpin, at least at the surface. In a Hip-Hop adaptation of Carlito’s Way, he wants the straight path, but the underbelly of his past won’t let him chill. Although a comedic portrayal in the LP’s music videos, the character’s lyrics are reinforced with Gibbs’ uncompromising stories from his life outside of Rap. He deploys the tales using various flows, sometimes jack-hammering his words into the sample-based beats. Madlib, whose soulful production (reportedly made on an iPad) creates a visual mood for Freddie Gibbs to showcase his criminal escapades within. As always, Otis Jackson, Jr. walks the line between film score and Hip-Hop through his own controlled chaos. Gibbs paints a picture of the success he’s achieved through an underworld of drugs on “Crime Pays.” He spits candidly of a secret love affair with “Practice.” The MC also reflects on how murder affects a person’s sanity on “Fake Names.” The features may be even more exciting, from Anderson .Paak’s powerful impression on “Giannis,” to stellar appearances from Killer Mike, Pusha-T, Yasiin Bey, and Black Thought on “Palmolive” and “Education,” divided respectively. Packaged with skits, obscure Soul samples, and flawless transitions, Bandana feels at home with other recent Gangsta Rap releases, yet unconcerned with competition of any kind. – Kevin Cortez

Released: June 28, 2019
Label: Keep Cool/RCA Records
Guests: Killer Mike, Pusha-T, Anderson .Paak, Yasiin Bey, Black Thought
Producers: self

YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy

With YBN Cordae’s debut album, The Lost Boy, the North Carolina and Maryland-reared rapper gathered guest appearances from Pusha-T, Meek Mill, Anderson .Paak and Chance The Rapper, plus a J. Cole production credit. The 21-year-old’s breakout success showcased his lyricism and his singing abilities, but also the wise-beyond-his-years approach to family, love, loss, triumph, death, addiction, and (as the album’s title suggests) self-examination. Counting Jedi Mind Tricks and Black Star as inspirations, Cordae opted to feature the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack on his duet with Chance, “Bad Idea,” another example of the young talent’s appreciation for those who laid the foundation. While promoting the acclaimed album since the March release of lead video single “Have Mercy,” Cordae amassed plenty of recognition as a freestyle rapper, too. While visiting Funkmaster Flex at HOT 97, he delivered three exceptional verses in which he touts reading The Qur’an at 12, toasts JAY-Z and admonishes rappers who rap for rapping’s sake. In October, he released one of 2019’s most memorable music videos for his Paak-assisted “RNP (Rich N*gga Problems).” Again, Cordae uses Black icons who came before him as inspiration, paying homage to Shaft and Superfly. This young MC made an album that older generations of Hip-Hop Heads can enjoy, but rather that he reminded us we’re never too old to rediscover ourselves. – Amanda Mester

Released: July 26, 2019
Label: [email protected]/Atlantic Records
Guests: Chance The Rapper, Pusha-T, Anderson .Paak, Meek Mill, Ty Dolla $ign, Arin Ray
Producers: self, Cardiak, J. Cole, Kid Culture, Bongo ByTheWay, Terrace Martin, illuid.haller, Flippa, Nils, CoopTheTruth, Smoko Ono, Take a Daytrip, CoopTheTruth, Russ Chell, Bazexx, Slim, G Koop, Maneesh, Rasool

Rapsody – Eve

Rapsody is a veteran who got her start rapping as a member of Kooley High back in the 2000s, but for many Eve signaled her overdue acknowledgment as one of the best rappers out today, period. She did it with a serious devotion to Black femininity, choosing to title each track after her heroes, all of whom are women of color. She celebrates financial independence alongside Leikeli47 on “Oprah,” honors her Hip-Hop forefathers and foremothers with GZA and D’Angelo on “Ibtihaj,” and triumphs the women who’ve helped her along the way with Queen Latifah on “Hatshepsut.” Together with her Jamla family including 9th Wonder and Khrysis, Rapsody released a monumental piece of work that coupled discussions about undeniable lyrical talent with love letters to Black women, reminding us with the album’s title that we all come from the same, original Black woman hundreds of thousands of of years ago. And for those who may have missed the unfettered bars she spits all over the album, it only takes one spin of the opening track, “Nina,” to be reminded that Rapsody isn’t hiding behind a high-brow concept album nor satisfied with being known only as the best female rapper: “Know I’m a God MC, ’cause ni**a, I made the devil wait.” – Amanda Mester

Released: August 23, 2019
Label: Jamla/Roc Nation
Guests: Leikeli47, K. Roosevelt, GZA, D’Angelo, Mereba, Elle Varner, SiR, J.I.D, Queen Latifah, J. Cole, PJ Morton
Producers: The Soul Council, (9th Wonder, Eric G, Khrysis & Nottz), Mark Byrd

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Top 15 Hip-Hop Albums Of 2019 List