Our Best of 2015 albums lists by genre continue today with our staff picks for the 10 best hip-hop albums this year.
Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.
To see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2015 lists, head here.
Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums:
- 10. Jazz Cartier - Marauding in Paradise
- 9. Joey Bada$$ - B4.DA.$$
- 8. BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface - Sour Soul
- 7. Oddisee - The Good Fight
- 6. Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
- 5. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment - Surf
- 4. A$AP Rocky - At.Long.Last.A$AP
- 3. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
- 2. Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late
- 1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
10. Jazz Cartier
Marauding in Paradise
In a year that saw the floodgates open for a talented freshmen class of Toronto rappers — OVO-affiliated and otherwise — the most exciting newcomer was 22-year-old Jazz Cartier. Produced by his right hand man Michael Lantz, his debut project Marauding in Paradise is — to paraphrase Drake circa 2009 — a mixtape that sounds like an album. While Cartier told Exclaim! this spring that he spent his childhood in many places, the 16 tracks here paint a portrait of downtown Toronto that captures the city's grit and glamour in equal measure.
The songs range from bruising trap anthems ("Switch," "Dead or Alive") to odes to failed romance (the Toro y Moi-sampling "Rose Quartz/Like Crazy," "Wake Me Up When It's Over") while never flagging in energy or cohesiveness. Throw in a handful of darkly sumptuous music videos and chaotic live performances, and you have the makings of the next Canadian star.
The best part? He's only going to keep getting better.
9. Joey Bada$$
(Cinematic Music Group/Pro Era)
In an era that prizes game-changing debuts, using an established template to make "just" a good one is undervalued. But while Joey Bada$$'s B4.DA.$$ shifts no paradigms, it's the best '90s New York hip-hop album of this or any year in recent memory.
Much has been made of the Brooklyn MC's age — he was barely out of the womb when many of his heroes were working at their peak. Yet it's this distance that allows the Pro Era co-founder to get out from under the enormous weight of their legacies, approaching the canon through the lens of a young black man living in America in 2015. On his album, Bada$$ uses his dense wordplay to make reference to '90s stalwarts (Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie) and even enlists DJ Premier for "Paper Trail$," but never confuses nostalgia with slavish devotion.
Hip-hop is, paradoxically, both a genre that preaches respect for the past and prizes the here and now. Rarely do artists strike a balance between the two, yet on his album, Bada$$ succeeded with aplomb.
8. BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface
The collaborative Sour Soul marked something of a return to roots for BADBADNOTGOOD. While the first few solo albums of BBNG have proven the Toronto trio's mastery of post-bop prog-jazz, they earned their initial notoriety on the back of sharp instrumental covers of Odd Future and Gucci Mane, and thanks to the ever invigorated rhymes of the legendary Ghostface Killah, Sour Soul is their most hip-hop full-length yet.
If you didn't know they were original compositions, you'd think the beats on this album were all made out of samples from classic Blaxploitation soundtracks: the drums pop and swing, the guitars prickle and groove, and the keys are rife with old-school flavour. Even if Ghostface merely fulfills the expectations of his lyrical imagination rather than exceeding them, there are enough quality guests to overcome any such criticism. DOOM nails a comic-bookish turn on "Ray Gun" before cinematic strings lead to blasts of bombastic brass in the outro, while Danny Brown crushes his verse on "Six Degrees."
The beats really sell this album, though. The deeply resonant, string-laden instrumental "Stark's Reality" sounds like Hot Buttered Soul-era Isaac Hayes, no fooling. Focusing on that, it's easy to see why this was shortlisted for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize.
The Good Fight
(Mello Music Group)
Oddisee is an artist from whom we've come to expect good things, but it still came as some surprise that he hit us with such a great thing in 2015. The Good Fight is a lesson in perseverance; here, Oddisee has built a lane so defined, it's impossible to miss.
Whether embracing his hypocrisies on "Contradiction's Maze" or reminiscing about love and his career on "Meant It When I Said It," we are made acutely aware of who he is both as a rapper and human being here. These are unapologetically introspective and enthusiastic songs, but also jams in their own right. "That's Love" revisits the feel-good vibe of Kanye's self-esteem boosting "Touch the Sky," redirecting the kudos to those who helped instill that confidence.
Throughout The Good Fight, Oddisee's vantage alternates between distance glimpses of artistic success, and looking out from it, as he balances groove and emotion. His expertise is in making something you can get down with in every sense of the phrase.
Michael J. Warren
6. A$AP Rocky
Exhibit A in the case for drugs as a wonderful enhancer of art, At.Long.Last.A$AP demonstrates the psychedelic rule-bending that can result from a full-bodied toke after you've split from your pop-star girlfriend and been hit with the death of one of your best friends.
When our New Harlem fashionista could have played it safe with a reboot of his stellar debut, 2013's Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky instead went for something more honest, soulful and, frequently, weird. With a plethora of voices and producers jamming their hands in the pot — M.I.A., Kanye West, Mark Ronson, Danger Mouse, Mos Def, Rod Stewart, Lil Wayne and more — A.L.L.A could've been a mess. Instead, we get brutal looks at spirituality, some cold views on love and death, and bouts of Rocky's gleeful id (see the ScHoolboy Q-assisted "Electric Body"). Rocky also plays A&R, introducing the world to protégé Joe Fox, a London busker who Rocky literally scooped off the street.
Not since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy have we seen a collaborative rap project so well curated, off-kilter but assuredly on-point.
5. Earl Sweatshirt
I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
A lot of 2015 was spent trying to come to terms with the dissolution of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, who continuously flip-flopped about whether or not they still existed. On I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, however, a decidedly antisocial Earl Sweatshirt proved why we don't need them — he sounds best when he's alone.
Sure, Shit isn't entirely agoraphobic loneliness — guest rappers include Dash, Wiki, Na'kel and Vince Staples, plus a beat from fellow OF performer Left Brain — but while everyone involved does a bang-up job, the album is ultimately the bleak sound of one young man feeling the weight of isolation, mining his loneliness for relatable rhymes about depression and anxiety.
His rapping makes being confessional sound endlessly cool, but Earl produced the majority of the album on his own, making for a cohesive listen and a telling contrast from his Odd Future brethren. If the Wolf Gang used a colourful, cartoony palette, Shit is Earl Sweatshirt in bleak black and white, and the results are stunning.
4. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment
After he released his lauded 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, the world was Chance the Rapper's oyster. Buoyed by all that good will, he could've lazily floated out similar fare for his follow-up; instead, he decided to delve into uncharted waters with Surf. The album was offered for free on iTunes, and barely qualifies as a rap release, affording equal prominence to both the MC's rhymes and the elaborate playing of his jazzy band, the Social Experiment, going so far as to name the project after trumpeter Donnie (a.k.a. Nico Segal) instead of the star rapper.
All those unconventional aspects could've been bloated liabilities. Instead, they make for a beautifully unpredictable listen, and one of the most boundary-pushing hip-hop LPs of the year. The outfit's boldly creative stance is apparent in the brassy stomp and swaggering trumpeting of "Slide," the jovial piano on "Sunday Candy" and the glitzy synth playing on "Questions." Amongst that torrent of talent, Chance still makes Surf a hip-hop affair, thanks to his sweetly humble spitting on "Windows," (the lyrics of which are a touching tribute to his newborn boy) and "Warm Enough," where he and fellow Windy City scribe Noname Gypsy trade romantic rhymes. On Surf, Chance rocks the hip-hop boat and comes thrillingly close to tipping it over.
3. Vince Staples
"Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew," Vince Staples wrote in an Instagram post this past June. "Youth was stolen from my city that summer and I'm left alone to tell the story." The story Staples tells across both discs of Summertime '06, detailing the street life and gangbanging culture that he was exposed to at age 13, isn't an easy one, but it's part of what makes it one of the most important rap records of this year.
His increasingly powerful delivery pulls no punches in setting the scenes over bleak beats from No I.D., Clams Casino and DJ Dahi for those who weren't there, whether he's incredibly sharp and expressive ("Señorita," "Jump off the Roof"), mired in melancholy ("Summertime") and even when it's not even his own voice ("Might Be Wrong"). If 2014's Hell Can Wait EP was the coming-out party, Summertime '06 was undoubtedly the arrival.
If You're Reading This It's Too Late
(Cash Money/Young Money/OVO Sound/Republic)
As the world awaited Views from the 6, NBA player DeMar DeRozan hinted, at the end of 2014, at a project that would come much sooner than the highly anticipated album. In fact, as Toronto celebrated the 20th anniversary season of the Raptors in February, Drake unleashed the menacing surprise album — or mixtape, depending on who you ask — If You're Reading This It's Too Late.
Bolstered by Boi-1da's wistful production and peppered with contributions from PARTYNEXTDOOR, Wondagurl and 40, IYRTITL became a project almost exclusively created by Toronto, for Toronto. It caught worldwide, though: "6 God," "Energy," "Legend" and "Know Yourself" were instantaneous hits, while "Jungle" and "You & The 6" offered reflective musings about what the 6 looks like, feels like and sounds like these days.
More relaxed and more personal, and reading something like a coming-of-age tale, IYRTITL cemented Drake's role in hip-hop — one that Canadians had yet to establish. IYRTITL is unapologetic for what it is or where it's going, a reminder that even on a "mixtape," Drake is still at the top of the game.
1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly
Since the days following its January release, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly has held strong as one of the most hotly debated and dissected rap albums in recent memory. Music journalists, social commentators, activists and fans of every stripe all raced to the Internet to offer their opinions, and much of the resulting debate has focused on the album's blackness.
Some openly asked how listeners should navigate such a thematically "black" record — a telling question rarely asked about an artist within a genre so dominated by black men — while others raised points about respectability politics and the questionable portrayal of black women (when present) in Lamar's vision of the struggle.
Another recent article even attempted to stride around that common thread by electing instead to question the logic of Kendrick's musical decisions on TPAB, an album that makes very deliberate forays into the worlds of free-form jazz and classic funk, and provides marquee space to legends George Clinton and Ronald Isley. However, what that particular author viewed as a confounding stylistic divergence from the comparatively straight-ahead and more easily digestible good kid, m.A.A.d city isn't nearly as substantial if you consider race as part the conversation — and it should be.
For a hip-hop album to spark so much thoughtful discussion is itself extraordinary, and while it's impossible to completely set aside its politics, it must be said that TPAB is also a stellar — and almost unprecedented — piece of music. With collaborators like Thundercat, Bilal, Flying Lotus, Anna Wise, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and so many others crowding the record's long list of esteemed personnel, the album's greatness was guaranteed long before a single note hit the speaker, but the issues Kendrick confronts here with such nuance ensure To Pimp a Butterfly will resonate long into the future, too.