In 2013, it felt like the heavens opened up and began to rain quality hip-hop albums, and it's exciting to say that 2015 has been another stellar 12 months for rap music.
Great projects just kept coming: from Drake's surprise mixtape to Lupe's mind-bending album at the top year, followed by Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment's musical masterpiece, Future's cult favorite and, of course, Kendrick Lamar's critically-acclaimed follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city. Some of our favorites, including A$AP Rocky's A.L.L.A, Fetty Wap's self-titled debut and Meek Mill's Dreams Worth More Than Money didn't make the list, but only because there wasn't enough room. We've definitely been bumping those since they dropped.
Here are our Top 10 of 2015.
Tetsuo & Youth, Lupe FiascoAtlantic Records
Lupe followed his game-changing debut Food & Liquor with The Cool, another great project, then label politics had him twisting in the wind for a bit with an album like Lasers, which he wasn't particularly proud of. But if you're a fan of 2006 Lupe, then Tetsuo & Youth should live up to, and surpass your expectations. This one finds the Chicago rapper masterfully stacking rhymes so dense that it might make your head spin. After binging on it for a week straight when it dropped, I still couldn't unpack half of his socio-political commentary, but the stellar production soothed the knots he created in my mind. Don't even try speaking to me while the instrumental rides out for the last minute and a half of "Body of Work." -- Nadeska Alexis
Sremmlife, Rae SremmurdInterscope Records
Some people probably still can’t properly pronounce Rae Sremmurd (understandably), but it seemed like every rap fan was singing along to their debut album in 2015. Released in the first week of January, Sremmlife reflected the Mississippi natives’ collective demeanor, combining never-ending partying and unyielding energy to create one of the most catchy and enjoyable rap albums of the year. Quick to prove that their Mike Will Made It-produced 2014 breakouts, “No Flex Zone” and “No Type,” weren’t merely happy accidents, Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy kept the onslaught going with “Throw Some Mo,” “Come Get Her” and “This Could Be Us.” -- A.F.
Summertime '06, Vince StaplesDef Jam
Vince Staples' Summertime '06 isn't full of sunshine. On this critically acclaimed LP, Vince raps openly about a broken home, underaged sex and abortions ("Surf), describes never-ending pain ("Lift Me Up") and going through "hell and back" with a distraught mother and drug-addicted father ("Like It Is"(. Sometimes, reality can be cold. Vince also reflects that with political and social commentary about racism. "My skin is brown," he raps on "Birds & Bees." "I'm fighting with the law." Other standouts like "Señorita" show his versatility. No, the Def Jam rapper's debut studio album isn't full of summertime fun, but it is a standout 2015 LP with thought-provoking lyrics and cautionary tales about the harsh, overwhelming and often deadly realities of street life. -- Andres Tardio
Surf, Donnie Trumpet & The Social ExperimentDonnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
As fans impatiently awaited Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap follow up, the Chicago native instead bucked expectations and norms, as he’s done continuously throughout his career. A solo effort was jumped in line by a group project from Chano’s band, billed here as Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment. With Donnie and the trumpet setting the tone and Chance as a tour guide (he’s on nine of the project’s 16 songs), the group takes us on a jazzy trip through love, loss, family and self-assurance, with the help of guests J. Cole, Busta Rhymes, Quavo, Erykah Badu and more. -- Adam Fleischer
The Album About Nothing, WaleMMG/Atlantic Records
Wale's been making "Seinfeld"-themed mixtapes for years, and things finally came full circle on The Album About Nothing, with Jerry Seinfeld teeing up the skits on every track. Over the course of 14 songs, Wale explores a range of topics, from the violence that sneaker culture breeds, to the complications of relationships (both with friends and lovers) and even bares his soul about losing a child. The project is melodic, with addictive hooks -- "The God Smile," "The Need To Know," and too many others to name -- and oscillates between highs and lows, making it a compelling listen all around. -- N.A.
DS2, FutureEpic Records
Future's one of this year's most prolific stars thanks to three solo projects and a joint effort with Drake, but DS2 remains his most potent of 2015. It carries highlights like "Where Ya At," "Thought It Was A Drought," and the celebrated street cut, "F*ck Up Some Commas." But behind those singles, lies some sadness. The LP’s celebration of a drug-fueled bash is coupled with lyrics about feeling "aggravated" by intoxication ("I Serve The Base"). Tracks like "Rotation," where he calls himself "a certified junkie,” portray paranoia and an inability to trust others. Reflections like those stand out because much of DS2's content is hard to endorse on good conscience. Still, Future's knack for infectious club and street anthems, thanks in large part to Metro Boomin, made this one of 2015’s biggest releases. -- A.T.
Rodeo, Travis ScottEpic Records
When Kanye got on stage at the VMAs and demanded that we "listen to the kids" -- at least one of the kids he was referring to, is Travi$ Scott. The Houston-bred rapper and producer left his imprint on Yeezus, and has continued to build his momentum with a series of great mixtapes like Owl Pharaoh and Days Before Rodeo, finally culminating with the release of his debut Rodeo. The raw, moody project boasts hypnotic, anthemic hits like "Antidote" and "3500" which feel uniquely native to Scott, and his unapologetically anti-establishment persona. Though he might not be an excellent lyricist, his production oozes with raw energy that has rightfully catapulted him to the forefront of youth culture. There's no doubt that his music will have a profound effect on rap culture for years to come. -- N.A.
Dark Sky Paradise, Big SeanDef Jam/G.O.O.D Music
Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise is the Detroit rapper's best yet. Its' singles "I Don't F--k With You" and "One Man Can Change The World" exemplify the album’s multifaceted approach. One is an upbeat break-up anthem dropped after his failed engagement to Naya Rivera while the other is an emotional ode to his deceased grandmother. In between that, Sean provides punchlines (see the Lil Wayne-assisted "Deep") and star power ("Blessings" which features Drake and “All Your Fault" which includes Kanye West). He even adds in a smooth touch (“Win Some, Lose Some" and "Play No Games”). It may not be perfect, but by creating some cohesion with all these different styles, Sean Don crafted one of the year’s best and his most compelling to date. -- A.T.
If You're Reading This It's Too Late, DrakeCash Money Records
What A Time, right? Drake's gotten to the point in his career where he can say f--k it to a roll-out plan and sell a million copies of a mixtape in a few days. On "Underground Kings," he bragged that he "got rich off a mixtape," but If You're Reading This It's Too Late took him to a level way beyond So Far Gone. The appetizer for Views From The 6 was stacked with earworms like "Energy" and "10 Bands," and "Know Yourself" which can literally command an entire music festival to lose their sh-t when he performs it live (I relay this from actual experiences at OVO Fest and Governors Ball). Plus, there's the casual bonus track ("6PM in New York") where he throws a dagger dipped in poison at his former YMCMB labelmate Tyga. Light work. -- N.A.
To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick LamarTDE/Interscope Records
In an age of increased paparazzi and inescapable social media, Kendrick Lamar has managed to remain at the top of the rap game strictly with his music. To Pimp A Butterfly only cemented that reputation. An eclectic mix of hip-hop, funk and jazz, the album is a staggering example of the continued evolution of Kendrick as an artist and a person. With a poem released in pieces throughout the project serving as a thematic anchor, Dot attacks everything from fame to self-doubt to self-love, particularly as they each relate to growing up as a black man in America. Sharp as ever as a storyteller, lyricist and emotional communicator, Kendrick Lamar released an album that felt right on time in 2015. -- A.F.