Notable Rap Albums of 2015

Here’s a brief list of 25 notable rap albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.

1. The Alchemist, Israeli Salad

2. Blackalicious, Imani, Vol. 1

On Blackalicious’ first album in 10 years, the duo contemplates the passage of time. “You’ll never relive yesterday/You can’t rewind this tape,” raps Gift of Gab in an autumnal tone. Chief Xcel updates the group’s sound with Bay Area boogie-funk, including “Inspired By” and its talk-box chorus from Bosko, and chopped beat loops on the cipher session “Alpha & Omega,” where Lyrics Born calls himself “the rap Kurt Vonnegut.” Blackalicious’ conscious rap may be out of vogue in 2015, but they’ve persevered. As Gab puts it on “The Blowup,” “If you ain’t about this lyricism, homie, kick rocks.” (Rhapsody – September 24, 2015)

3. Boosie Badazz, Touch Down 2 Cause Hell

“They said I wasn’t coming home,” says Lil Boosie on “All I Know.” But the extraordinary tale of how this Baton Rouge rapper beat a murder charge is only one story behind Touch Down 2 Cause Hell; the other is that he’s made his best work to date, or at least his most diverse. There’s a strip club song (“On That Level”), a lame Chris Brown song (“She Don’t Love Me”), and a smoking song (“Kicking Clouds”). Most importantly, there are songs that reaffirm his commitment to the dirty bottom and the struggle of ordinary folks like himself. As he says on “Sorry,” “Black power, they scared of us.” (Rhapsody – May 23, 2015)

4. Death Grips, The Powers That B

The mercurial Sacramento group experiments on this double album. Niggas on the Moon weds their patented digital aggression with echoes of onetime collaborator Bjork’s voice. “Up My Sleeves” breaks down in data overload and gong-like vibrations, and on the superior ”Say Hey Kid” Stefan Burrett teases, “Hey, don’t you OD, come play dead.” Jenny Death, finds them inspired by an earlier generation of punks: the sludgy hardcore metal of Black Flag. They striate fuzzy guitar through “Turned Off,” and on the title track Stefan bellows against authority in his quest for thug omnipotence. (Rhapsody – April 8, 2015)

5. Dej Loaf, #AndSeeThatsTheThing EP

6. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf

7. Dr. Dre, Compton

Dr. Dre’s first album in nearly 16 years is inspired by the recent Straight Outta Compton biopic. It reaffirms his status as the James Cameron of entertainers, and it’s loaded with overwrought gestures, overly plotted raps, and too many producers and rappers to count. Amidst the sound and fury, Kendrick Lamar shines on “Deep Water,” and so does Anderson .Paak on “Animals.” Dre treats Compton as a farewell letter to his life as a superstar, and his reminisces about NWA and the late Eazy-E on “It’s All on Me” and “Talking to my Diary” give the album meaning beyond its sonic bombast. (Rhapsody – August 18, 2015)

8. Dr. Yen Lo, Days With Dr. Yen Lo

9. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

Drake has called If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a “tape,” and the hour-plus project aspires to that format’s reputation for raw, unprocessed raps. He bellows on “Energy,” “I’ve got two mortgages, 30 million in total,” and refines the art of the humblebrag on “Star67” and “No Tellin’,” while collaborator Noah “40” Shebib ties his strands together with their usual blend of screwed R&B anomie. The “tape” ends with “You and the 6,” “Jungle,” 6PM in New York,” and the kind of mock-depressed musings that has defined him in spite of his frequent efforts to be the “new shit on steroids.” (Rhapsody – February 13, 2015)

10. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

This mini-album isn’t as fully developed as 2013’s revelatory Doris, and Earl Sweatshirt echoes many of the same themes, namely his stunted emotions (“Faucet”) and the vagaries of indie rap fame (“Inside”). But unlike his peers in the New West Coast style of po-faced raps and introverted, bare-bones beats, he has a strong grasp on hip-hop songwriting, which makes this album an appealing one. Several tracks rise above the murk, including “Grief,” “Off Top,” “AM/Radio” and “Inside,” where he raps “When it’s problems I don’t holler, rather fix ‘em by myself.” (Rhapsody – March 21, 2015)

11. Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap

What if you crossbred Chief Keef, Future and Gucci Mane, then added a bit of Corey Hart-styled yelping to boot? You’d get Fetty Wap, a New Jersey rapper who dominated summer 2015 with four massive pop hits. His biggest was “Trap Queen,” a romance about teaching a stripper girlfriend how to cook crack “pies.” If that sounds strange, then consider that his self-titled debut is improbably entertaining. “My Way,” “Again,” “I’m Straight” and “Couple Bands” are decent variations on the “Trap Queen” style. But be warned: listening to all 20 of these tracks in one sitting will give you a headache. (Rhapsody – September 22, 2015)

12. Future, Dirty Sprite 2

Future’s rise is yet more evidence that the mainstream values rhythmic flow, melodic hooks, and aural charisma. Being called a great rapper no longer means writing witty and metaphorical verses. We judge them based on how they package their words and communicate them to us. Hip-hop traditionalists who would rather listen to Kendrick Lamar eviscerate an opponent with sharp-edged lyrics might object to calling a Future an MC. Yet Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five, and other old-school pioneers used to sing and harmonize, too. (In fact, much of the Furious Five’s 1982 debut The Message consists of winsome R&B songs.) Future takes that party rocking aesthetic to an extreme. (Rhapsody – December 4, 2015)

13. Mick Jenkins, Wave[s]

On his latest project Wave[s], Mick Jenkins emphasizes spiritual growth. He uses rap as a vehicle for self-acceptance and self-improvement on “Get Up Get Down” and “Alchemy,” and states humbly on the latter, “Don’t greet me as ‘god’…nigga I ain’t no deity.” And like Chance the Rapper, he tends to luxuriate in the beat and harmonize, particularly on the sensuous boogie rhythm of “Your Love.” Waves meanders a bit as Jenkins croons on too many tracks. It regains focus when he proves on “Ps & Qs” that he can spit as well as any new school rapper. (Rhapsody – August 18, 2015)

14. Milo, So The Flies Don’t Come

15. Joey Bada$$, B4.DA.$$

Joey Bada$$ claims he’s “one of the last standing MCs” on “Like Me,” and he certifies his underground rep over these buttery, boom bap-inflected throwbacks. “Drawing weapons with the raps,” he reflects on a difficult childhood with “Piece of Mind” and “OCB (Only Child Blues),” and flips styles on “Big Dusty.” He has a Caribbean-tinged flow and a fussy voice honed in NYC’s cloistered battle rap scene, and his best moments arrive on “Save the Children,” “Hazeus View,” and the aggression of “No 99.” Guests include sundry members of his pro Era camp, Chronixx, DJ Premier, and Action Bronson. (Rhapsody – January 19, 2015)

16. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

What more can be said about an album that landed in March with a thud, as if it were a 1000-page novel? Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork may not be the aural length of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – it lasts 79 minutes, about as long as a late-90s rap CD. Yet we’re still trying to unpack his meditations on post-millennial blackness, Christian struggles with “Lucy,” assertions of lyrical superiority in the new West Coast, and communion with spiritual forefathers like Tupac Shakur, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg and DJ Quik. Lost amidst the endless discussion of its themes, however, is how exhilarated he sounds throughout. “Alright” is a celebration of being alive, and neither the danger of not living up to God’s plan nor the specter of random police violence can diminish that feeling. He sounds like a spoken-word poet gone mad in the coffeehouse on “For Free?” “King Kunta” finds him throwing bows in a drop-top Chevy as he takes in the L.A. sunshine. Lamar’s mind never shuts off, and he challenges us to follow his thoughts, but he always reminds us that life is a joyous blessing. (Rolling Stone – December 23, 2015)

17. Lupe Fiasco, Tetsuo & Youth

Tetsuo & Youth’s songs are like action paintings that barely congeal, whether it’s a lyrical “nerd storm” like “Mural” or “Deliver’s” metaphor of pizzerias afraid to do deliveries in ghetto neighborhoods. The effect is thrilling and frustrating as Lupe forces us to follow him. “We should have been poets, somewhere between amateurs and masters of iambic pentameter,” he says on “Little Death.” Or perhaps after years of battling critics over his political agit-raps, he’s simply exhausted. If folks don’t understand his motivations anyway, why not go abstract with a few “Dots & Lines”? (Rhapsody – January 16, 2015)

18. Meek Mill, Dreams Worth More Than Money

Cut out all the peripheral noise surrounding the troubled rapper Meek Mill, like his inability to stay out of legal trouble, his ill-conceived “beef” with Drake, and his tendency to weigh down his albums with gauche attempts at radio airplay like “All Eyes on You,” his googly-eyed duet with paramour Nicki Minaj (with Chris Brown playing pastor). Just focus on lines like this one from “The Trillest”: “One milli, two milli, three milli, buried it/Since they say I’m underground I run that bitch like Harriet.” Name another rapper giving shout-outs to Harriet Tubman in 2015. Or check out this visual from “Cold Hearted,” which may be one of the finest rhymes set to tape this year: “We started off as kids, stomachs touching our ribs/In these streets all nights like we ain’t have nowhere to live.” Meek Mill may nominally be a Philly “street rapper” in the Beanie Sigel tradition, but he really hearkens to a hip-hop lyricism that seems all but lost in our current obsession over flows and melodies. When Dreams Worth More Than Money soars, and it does more often than not, he reminds us that he has potential to be one of the greats. (Rolling Stone – December 23, 2015)

19. Quelle Chris, Innocent Country

20. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife

Rae Sremmurd are a pair of Deep South “trendsetters” who “Unlock the Swag” over Mike Will Made It’s laser synths and slumping bass drums. “I’m breaking down the kush/ Don’t it look so plush/ Take a couple puffs/ Up like Donald Trump!” chants Slim Jimmy. But the self-proclaimed “YNOs (Young Niggas On)” can’t hide their neuroses about women. The vindictive “Shining on my X Bitch” is the duo’s angriest track; and on “Come Get Her” Swae Lee chants worryingly, “Somebody come get her, she’s dancing like a stripper.” This is bubblegum trap for teenyboppers, with “No Flex Zone” and “No Type” among the hits. (Rhapsody – January 4, 2015)

21. Raury, All We Need

Raury takes as many cues from the orchestral pop of Bon Iver and Danger Mouse (the latter appears here as a producer) as he does from the usual post-millennial touchstones like Andre 3000 and Kanye West. That’s not unusual in our current era of melodic crooners and pop-timists, but Raury’s twist on Southern hippie-dom is notably different. He raps about “Forbidden Knowledge” alongside Big K.R.I.T., and sings, “I thought you loved the clouds” alongside RZA on “CPU.” “I can take your ass to church and show you glimpses of heaven,” he claims on “Devil’s Whisper.” He sounds like a dreamy kid too sweetly earnest to be a rapper, yet tough enough to express himself. (Rhapsody – October 12, 2015)

22. Travis Scott, Rodeo

Travis Scott’s Rodeo is big, dumb, and fun. Is there a problem that? The Texas newcomer drew a lot of criticism for making an album that is about nothing more than making a huge racket. At least Kanye West mulled over racial inequality and domestic bliss on Yeezus; all that animates Scott is popping pills, sipping syrup and getting racks. But he sounds great while he’s doing it. His voice is drenched in echoes as he shouts and chants on “Oh My Dis Side,” and a guitar loop circulates like a scratched piece of vinyl. “3500” is pure bellicosity enhanced by Future’s signature drawls and 2 Chainz’s brag about “drinking breast milk out a lean cup.” “Maria I’m Drunk” offers an unholy alliance between Young Thug and Justin Bieber, and West himself blesses the gurgled blues-rock of “Piss On Your Grave.” Gee, it seems like all your favorite rappers and trappers are having a blast on Rodeo. You should, too. (Rolling Stone – December 23, 2015)

23. Vince Staples, Summertime ’06

Summertime ’06 is what results when a Northside Long Beach Crip engages with the genre-less beat streams of Internet culture. Clams Casino’s amniotic melodies pulse underneath Vince Staples as he croons, “This could be forever, baby.” The rapper spends as much time harmonizing soulfully as he does throwing signs, and sharply retorting on “Lift Me Up,” “I never vote for Presidents/The presidents that change the hood is dead and green.” He may be a (former) gangsta like his Daddy, and rap with poise and confidence, but he opts for haunted laptop arrangements from DJ Dahi instead of the lowrider soul and funk of his forbearers. The world he occupies looks unfamiliar because it’s owned by a younger generation that’s savvy about the social media-connected world around them, yet are just as committed to their neighborhood, and the sometimes-deadly rituals that define it. As Staples raps on “Norf Norf,” “Nate Dogg still here ‘cause of niggas like me.” (Rolling Stone – December 23, 2015)

24. The Underachievers, Evermore: The Art of Duality

Are the Underachievers just rap dudes lusting for weed, bitches and cash like everyone else? They’re obviously aware of the contradictions, but Evermore: The Art of Duality places these adventures in a present-tense context. Perhaps they’re simply acknowledging their flawed humanity. Just as likely, they don’t yet realize that their perspectives on sex and violence can be as tough to break as the mental prisons that damaged their troubled youth. Perhaps that’s too harsh an assessment of the duo’s theories, though. The Evermore journey is an engaging one, but it would have slid into a New Age torpor if not for the spate of ugliness near the album’s end. The coarse “Generation Z” shenanigans give the earlier “Chasing Faith” added urgency. We now know why the Underachievers strain to ascend their earthly selves. (Pitchfork – September 23, 2015)

25. Young Thug, Barter 6

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