For better or for worse, hip-hop remains an unnerving microcosm for watching the world’s larger themes surrounding race and gender play out. These days, I’ve begun to think of it as the only form of music actually capable of changing the world. And while it feels like some of the major players were waiting in the wings this year, that only meats emerging rappers had the necessary space to claim 2015 as their launching pad. Not that Kendrick didn’t punch in early, demonstrating his wizardry and wisdom right at the top of the year. Here’s what resonated in 2015.
20. Freddie Gibbs — Shadow Of A Doubt
Not only does he write rhymes, but Freddie Gibbs pens incredible op-eds, and has been churning out high-level, diverse rap releases for over a decade. Sure, major labels fucked it up, but that hasn’t slowed down Gibbs for a second. Shadow Of A Doubt is a surly, sharp entry into Gibbs’ already sizable discography. Black Thought shows up here, as does Gucci Mane, E-40 and the angel-voiced still-rising Dana Williams along with a few others. Still, the album bends to no trends and whirrs with Gibbs’ technical precision, like a stainless steel appliance that will continue to function regardless of what else is happening in the kitchen.
19. The Game — The Documentary 2
The Game’s Instagram hashtag game already had his name on the lips of plenty of women–seriously, go read some of these mini love letters; they’re a hell of a lot better than any romance novels I’ve ever read. And The Documentary 2 is full of all that same passion, arrogance and bliss. It’s a riveting exercise in big, bombastic swagger rap and boasts a guest roster that includes nearly every A-list rapper in the game. The Documentary 2 is proof of hip-hop’s ability to let artists reinvent themselves as many times as they want, and that West Coast funk remains wildly underrated.
18. Dr. Dre — Compton
Compton is important because of its place in rap history, the long-awaited follow-up to Dr. Dre’s almost universally lauded The Chronic. It’s also important because it serves as the soundtrack to this year’s film about the LA neighborhood, what it’s like to be black in America, and the rise of NWA. Yet, the record lacks cohesion, and billing it as a soundtrack undermined it slightly, so does the reality that this film left out Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women. It’s that history that colors the way I listen to Compton, just as it colors the way I listen to Dr. Luke in wake of Kesha’s allegations against him. I could use this space to list off the major players who appear on the album, or I could use it to ask you: Why are they still working with this known abuser? Yes, the album is well-made. Yes, it’s an important part of music this year. But while you’re listening to it via Apple Music on your Beats headphones, ask yourself: Is this album more important than Dee Barnes? And if so, why is that?
17. Le1f — Riot Boi
The first time I saw Le1f he was rapping his face off at like 2am on 285 Kent’s (RIP) extremely unglamorous warehouse stage in 2012. Three years later, he’s serving the same fiercely expressive face on debut full-length Riot Boi, but this time, there’s glamour here. Riot Boi is silky and glittery courtesy of production by SOPHIE, Evian Christ, Lunice and Le1f himself. And as important as these sounds are, it’s Le1f’s raging, rippling rapping that hammers all of 2015’s most important themes into chipped, clever talking points. Gender, race, sexuality, and respect all flow through his limber, exhilarating voice. Give him even bigger stages.
16. Remy Banks— higher.
Like any born and bred New Yorker, Remy Banks is a dreamer, and higher. is the first fulfillment of the Queens rapper’s aspirations. Banks has had much success as part of the collective World’s Fair and as a member of Children Of The Night, but higher. is his first personal thesis, and it listens like the first bold strokes from a rapper with plenty more to say. Before you’d even heard “Cha Cha” Banks was enlisting D.R.A.M. for the joyride party funk anthem “the function,” and his taste in collaborators remains supreme: Black Noi$e, King Krule, Left Brain, Syd (of The Internet), and Erick Arc Elliott all appear here in suprirsing ways. Whoever the players though, Banks lords over them all, executing his vision, establishing his presence, and dreaming big as the city that made him.
15. Fetty Wap — Fetty Wap
The first time I heard “Trap Queen” I was unimpressed. As the earworm crack-cooking anthem simmered from mixtape notoriety to full-on, boiling famous, even I had to acquiesce to this Jersey jubilance. (For me, it was actually Lebron James singing “My Way” that confirmed Fetty’s complete domination). Fetty Wap does not stray from the formula that drove “Trap Queen” to the top, it’s all happy-drawled stories of everyday life spiked with the glee of love. There’s an element of the gothic here, but always cloaked in Fetty’s big, bright gold voice; it’s like a yellow lab barking at you from behind an ominous gate. Rad dog, though.
14. Young Thug — Barter 6
While Young Thug preens in his gender-confounding accoutrements, and pogoes all over the conception of what a human voice sounds like, Barter 6 works like a placeholder for his true major label debut. Looks like Hy!£UN35 will hang back to compete with the highly-anticipated Kanye and Drake records slated for next year, and in the meantime this tape serves as a middle finger to Lil Wayne and a sharp reminder of how far Thugger is stretching the boundaries of the genre. The hazy bop of “Constantly Hating” is the best first track on an album this year, and Birdman is yet another unsettling reminder of the industry’s insidious underbelly. The Wayne beef supposedly stems from Birdman’s malicious–or at least corrupt–treatment of Weezy, and has spread by proxy to Thug, Drake, Nicki and the rest of Young Money. How can I listen to “Constantly Hating” on loop and relish Birdman’s thudding cleverness without also considering his nefarious label boss activities? This unease spreads as I listen to the rest of Barter 6; could Young Thug be Cash Money’s next victim? Just might be.
13. DVS — DVTV
There’s really not enough words in any human language to convey how I feel about DVS. Full stop, the man is one of the funniest and most clever people to ever attempt the rap game. Here’s what I wrote about this tape for Stereogum back when it came out:
To me, genius is when someone risks utter failure, namely by doing things in a way that no one else is. That’s what DVTV is: a weird, twisted labyrinth of mostly-unknown producers and newspaper columns’ load of words somehow slammed and massaged into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rap verses that no one else could’ve possibly made. “DVNY” lays out his thesis most clearly, a polaroid of Manhattan’s crude, tawdry underbelly that seethes with gospel-and-guitar tension, oblivious to the the verses hammered over it. Who else would append a Looney Tunes-screwed sample of “Yesterday” as an outro for “Tomorrow Is Here,” a boast track that spends half its time eviscerating the crimes of our country? Who else could cram the defunct Das Racist trio, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and the best line from Swingers into an after-hours strip club beat?
Who else? Only uptown Internet kingpin DVS. Long may he prosper.
12. Meek Mill — Dreams Worth More Than Money
In 2015, Meek Mill was discussed more for his blossoming relationship with rap game boss bitch Nicki Minaj, or his monumental claims that Drake employs ghostwriters, than his actual music. Which is a shame because Dreams Worth More Than Money is a rap opera on post-jail life told by a theatrical man full of incredible passion. The weirdest thing about listening to this album post-feud… is that Drake is on it. Meek is a traditionalist of the highest order who values honor over keeping crucial bridges established, so this is definitely the last time Drake will make a cameo on a Meek Mill song. As you listen though, you get the feeling that even with knowledge of the aftermath, Meek would still flick that lighter and let the bridge burn all over again. Every time, no questions asked. In a game full of phonies, we’ll always know what Meek respects. That’s valuable in its own way.
12. Earl Sweatshirt — I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Is it any surprise that the exalted Odd Future member who was exiled during their rise would return, survey his kingdom, and go back to bed? Earl Sweatshirt’s self-imposed solitary confinement doesn’t really sound enjoyable, but I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is beyond enjoyable listen to. Earl’s ability to hurdle over words like they’re in his way has never been paralleled, he uses the sounds like shapes, re-imagining and rearranging language in ways that astonishes. Frustration has never sounded so fun. If you imagine rapping as riding a bike, Earl sounds like he’s constantly popping a wheelie, grinning back at his friends while he continues to move forward. One response to the ever-darkening world outside is to stay indoors, but despite his assertions, Earl is letting us into his world via words. Even for those who despise Odd Future, Earl works like a gateway drug into their juvenile, loopy rap universe. Odds are though, Earl’ll go different places than the rest of his friends.
11. Future — DS2
While I remain truly baffled by the redemption narrative the music-writing Internet has afforded this Atlanta trap soothsayer–all the while maligning Drake for far more commonplace softboy misogyny–DS2 slithers icy like a reptilian rap god’s inevitable success. Cold-blooded, sure, and deeply difficult listen to as a woman who cares about, oh I don’t know, being seen as a human being? Considering the album starts off with the line “I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops,” it’s hard to believe things can get more fucked up from there. But they do. Practically every song here includes some rumination on his failed relationship with Ciara (this is not even speculative), a reflection on the drugs he’s using to numb himself to the pain, or a reference to the women he’s blindly fucking to forget about her. And despite all of it, I find myself humming that Gucci line, and others, again and again, even with a certain sense of glee. I find myself listening to the album and deeply enjoying it, even when it hurts me. Even in its ugliest corners of agony, it’s a beautiful album. Welcome to cognitive dissonance of the highest order, DS2 is a fucked-up velvety croaked masterpiece about unspeakable things. But maybe when we talk about Future, we should speak of them.
10. Drake And Future — What A Time To Be Alive
Fuck it, this album is just fun as hell to listen to. A lot of people have noted how it feels like a Future album that Drake jumped on, or how they are poorly matched, and I think this is true in a lot of ways. But also, while DS2 starts to wear on me with its sheer desolation, What A Time To Be Alive benefits from Drake’s spry, perfect whining. Where Future is slippery and consumed by nihilism, Drake is quick and carefree, flickering in and out of Metro Boomin’s gloomy thick production like a lightning bug. This record functioned like a bonus disc for Drake and Future since they’d both already added important records to their oeuvre in 2015. Maybe that’s why the album feels better and better as time goes on–it has nothing to prove. Honestly, it was nice just to have some new quotables from Drake to use as Instagram captions, and getting them over some of Atlanta’s best production was a welcome surprise. If there’s any medium Drake ruled over this year, it’s Instagram, and his album operates on the same principle as any good ‘gram: To truly stunt on the rest of the world you need public proof of your relationship. What A Time To Be Alive is basically a Drake and Future “ussie” in album form, and it’s been filtered to perfection.
09. Rae Sremmurd — Sremmlife
The brothers Sremm remind us that surviving as a young black man in America is a political act in itself. Just a few years ago Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy were homeless, but over the course of the last year their jittery, jack-in-the-box rapping helped render Sremmlife‘s gothic exultation as a lifestyle. They gave us superhero slang like “Unlock The Swag,” “Lit Like Bic,” and of course “No Flex Zone,” with the air of benevolent royals doling out wealth to commoners. There’s no need to stingy when you have brimming vaults back home. This first dispatch was a stunning exercise in partying with purpose, but just the first installment of what they’ll bestow on us eventually. Consider Sremmlife to be the first chapter in a very good novel. By the time we’ve finished the book, they might have given us a whole new language.
08. Haleek Maul — Prince Midas
Haleek Maul is a rapper who manages to sound vicious and joyful at once, my favorite kind. I love how his signature Barbadian drawl shows up all over Prince Midas, I love how he sounds like he’s grinning even while he drops barbed insults, I love how this tape sounds fresh because he’s working with all his own obscure producers. “Dead Em” is an ultimate, eerie kiss-off and the fact that Danish pop weirdo Kill J shows up to drip her icicle soprano all over “Feuer” further proves Maul’s ear for the uncanny. Watch the throne–this golden child is not afraid of becoming a usurper, and no one’s spot is ever a given.
07. Dej Loaf — #AndSeeThatsTheThing EP
Look around and notice that Dej is the only girl in the room. Do you know what it feels like to be the only girl in the room? If you do, then you understand the immense pride that every woman who loves rap feels while we watch Dej succeed. #AndSeeThat’sTheThing is monumental because of Dej’s voice, because of her confidence, because it strays explicitly away from the vibe of her plucky breakout death-rattle “Try Me” and because she is a fucking good rapper. It doesn’t hurt that she’s the only one this year to coax love-song-“Turn On The Lights”-Future back out of his lean-strewn abyss, and he sounds straight-up gushy on “Hey There.” Imagine what else becomes possible when there is a woman in the room. “Hey There” is so good it almost cancels out Big Sean’s piddling verse on “Back Up.” But the best thing about both of those songs, and the other four here, is they establish Dej as a serious contender in this industry. We need warriors like her more than ever.
06. A$AP Rocky — At.Long.Last.A$AP
It’s all there in the title. After grinding away toward superstar status, A$AP Rocky finally made it to the top. What he lost along the way only underscores the importance of this album’s arrival. Sure, it needs editing, but we already know Rocky lost his editor and his best friend at the end of last year when A$AP Yams passed. At.Long.Last.A$AP comes to us without the proofing and trimming Yams surely would’ve given it, and you can almost feel him there in the rough corners that remain. But damn, if Rocky didn’t do him proud anyway. I can’t think of anything more difficult than finishing an album that represents the pinnacle of a career you built with someone else. A$AP Yams was the conductor and Rocky was just the loudest part of the A$AP Mob choir. Now, not only is he grappling with a larger professional responsibility that must feel enormous, but he’s doing it while grieving his best friend, and participating in an activity that reminds him the most of that person. Despite all this, the album is a cohesive luxurious exercise in New York rap filtered through the unrelenting sieve of the Internet’s sonic hodgepodge. It’s often cluttered with over-production, random cameos, and the weird, unrelenting presence of London unknown Joe Fox, but the most clearly Yams’ instincts proved right was always when it came to Rocky’s presence and voice. He’s a star, with a huge, emotional presence that dominates this album with enough charisma and character to iron out its flaws.
05. Milo — So the Flies Don’t Come
Milo’s starlit zen rap is one of the year’s quietest breakouts; it’s lullabye rap for a world weary of confronting death, hatred and loss at almost every turn. So The Flies Don’t Come unfolds like an off-the-cuff musing, but Milo’s compositions are far too sleek to be freestyles. They hold that same sort of raging wonder though, the possibility of opening your mouth and finding treasure is flowing out. Kenny Segal produces here, and I’ll bet millions that Segal will crop up all over strong rap singles next year, if he wants to. It’s a sneaky thing to be a producer who enhances a rapper’s soliloquies by rescinding into the background, but Segal does that. And building upon these plush platforms, Milo’s words begin to poke, prod, comfort and keep us mesmerized. “The patriarchy is on autopilot” is probably the wisest thing a man has said about that system since it began, but Milo speaks even more candidly on the very real specter of death that haunts him as a black man in America. He interrogates ghosts with dead-eyed detachment, packing all the emotion into the phrasing and not the delivery. In examining nihilism Milo finds purpose, even if it’s just the practice of looking for meaning. While he looks, we listen, and find purpose too.
04. Heems — Eat Pray Thug
It’s rather chilling how imperative Heems’ Eat Pray Thug feels now that our nation is once again wracked by Islamophobia and the horrific truth that blatant racism still claims a major stake of American politics. That’s why the brazen, zero-fucks-given, decidedly Indian-American Eat Pray Thug is such a necessary part of this year’s conversation about hip-hop. First and foremost, this genre was built off the idea of giving voice to the voiceless, and as history reshapes who is disenfranchised, the form flexes its borders, offering understanding, expression and power when no other venues have room. Himanshu Suri established himself as part of the tongue-in-cheek pop-rap group Das Racist–a cultural force in their own right despite what our current moment believes–but on Eat Pray Thug he reinvents himself, too. Suri is a New Yorker who experienced the backlash of 9/11 firsthand as an Indian-American in this city, and “Flag Shopping” slices through American prejudice while still revealing all his own personal pain. Every time I hear him decrying white idiocy about turbans and calls his own a crown, I want to erupt in applause. “Jawn Cage” goes a different direction, meshing indie-folk synth hooks with the indeterminacy that its namesake helped establish, and “Home” is enhanced by the presence of Dev Hynes, but proves Suri can handle matters of the heart with an elegance that matches his nuance tackling matters of the homeland. Eat Pray Thug is a clever, moving and brilliant album that is crucial both to our current moment and the future we pray we’ll reach.
03. Travi$ Scott — Rodeo
Travi$ Scott’s noir autotuned symphonies are punctuated by the weirdest twist: We don’t really know if his entire output is utterly influenced by Kanye, or if he had his entire style jacked for Yeezus. Rodeo disappointed a lot of people, but I love it for all the same reasons I adore Cruel Summer. Of course, that points more toward Ye’s influence on Scott. But I still wonder, is part of the reason Scott is so confused about where to go with his career because anytime people hear his aesthetic they automatically associate it with Yeezus? What if that sound was largely lifted from Scott? Especially in light of the Drake ghostwriting scandal, this theory seems more and more feasible to me. Listening to this album, I’m struck by how many tracks sound exactly like whole swathes of Yeezus. These are smeared, purply fever dream of sex and late-night musings full of longing for people who are long-lost and a strange, unsettling desire for something bigger than money, drugs, or power. Scott wrestles back and forth with the overwhelming idea of having everything, where his ambition is carrying him to, and what he should do when he gets there, wherever it is. Rodeo also captures how it feels to be young, reckless, lonely and in love in Los Angeles with acute specificity. “90201” isn’t gorgeous just because of Kacy Hill’s nightingale soprano, Scott is crooning here too about the city, and anyone who has lived there will immediately recognize LA in these warped gothic synths. This record is unwieldy and weird, a strange and twisting puzzle that feels like the soundtrack to a Sin City installment set in Hollywood. Like most talented young people who flee to urban centers, Scott is torn between his Houston roots and the way he’s absorbed California and Kanye into his system. But while all this disorganization bothered many critics, it’s exactly what drew me to Scott. He doesn’t know where he’s going yet, he’s not fully sure of who he is, and that swirling mass is what makes the struggles and stories on Rodeo intriguing. Plus “Antidote” is the best folk song a rapper’s ever done. It’s no surprise Wondagurl produced both the best songs here, that one and “90210.” Waiting for her album next.
02. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
It’s a testament to the sheer enormity of music this year contained that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late already feels like an artifact from another time. The initial run of songs on this tape from “Legend,” “Energy,” “10 Bands,” “Know Yourself” through “No Tellin'” might be the strongest five song streak in the history of rap albums. It is a stunning showcase of Drake’s multifarious talents, reveling in his ability to morph from machine-gun-sampling braggadocio into the most quotable rapper alive, and then fall back into a reflective and truly moving old school crooner. Sure, the back half of the tape lags a lot, and those PARTYNEXTDOOR tracks are hot garbage, but even the posturing in this tape’s surprise release and “mixtape” language made it an exceedingly interesting pawn in the intricate chess game that is rap. This isn’t quite a checkmate, but the one thing it establishes is it’s now definitely Kanye’s move.
01. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly would be one of the most important record of the year if it was only an album of effervescent, burbling funk, if it was only a schizophrenic examination of race and exploitation that interpolates skyscraping bursts of jazz and soul, if it was only a scathing indictment of America’s insidious, poisonous institutionalized racism. But it is all of those and even more. It seems to be an album that expands exponentially with every listen until it covers more ground each time. When “i” came out preceding the album, I was one of the few people who latched onto it immediately, while most laughed it off as soft or cheesy. Taken in context–especially as the new live version here –those comments seem rather deluded don’t they? But even when we’re not looking at To Pimp A Butterfly as an opus, the individual songs it gave us are gifts enough to last all year long: “King Kunta,” “The Blacker The Berry,” “Alright,” Rapsody’s world-stopping verse on “Complexion.” This year one of the rappers I despise the most put out a song called “One Man Can Change The World.” Instead of singing about that possibility, Kendrick went ahead and did it. That’s the difference between a king and a god.