Exclaim!'s Best of 2014: Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums

2. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
(Stones Throw)

Piñata's jacket, covered in zebra print, features a portrait of Freddie Gibbs smoking a blunt on a park bench through chain-link. It's a perfect introduction to what Gibbs insists should be Cocaine Piñata, an animated, emotional exposé of the world of drug-slinging, law-ducking, learning from betrayal and growing up in (and out of) an unfair world.

Left-field West coast beat laureate Madlib is at his best here, creating instrumentals as challenging as ever, with avant-garde jazz cuts, weed smoke and 1970s blaxploitation film samples that obscure the rhythmic undercurrent and demonstrate Gibbs' ability to flow over nearly anything. Gibbs, meanwhile, is menacing in his experiential reflections, accessing painful and often violent scenes of dealing as a preteen in the bleak city of Gary, Indiana.

Making no apologies for the climate from which Piñata was born, Gibbs demonstrates an acute political awareness, contemplating, "Why the Feds worried 'bout me clocking on this corner, when there's politicians out here getting popped in Arizona?" on "Thuggin'." "Real," meanwhile, is a scarring diss track that devours Young Jeezy and other rappers who think social media activity passes as "beef." Piñata is significant gangsta rap, and one of 2014's must-hears. (Eric Zaworski)