Exclaim!'s Best of 2014:

Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 15, 2014

Our Top 10 albums lists by genre continue with our staff picks for the best of hip-hop this year. Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.

Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2014:
To see more of our Year-End Top Tens, head over to our Best of 2014 section.

10. Ratking
So It Goes
(XL Recordings)

One of only a small number of hip-hop acts signed to XL Recordings, Ratking were successful in delivering one of 2014's most forward-thinking, sonically unique records with So It Goes, in what many felt was an off-year for the genre. The Harlem, NY trio, fronted by MCs Patrick "Wiki" Morales and Hakeem "Hak" Lewis, created a hard-hitting collection of tales from their environment, covering everything from addiction ("Eat") to distrust in the NYPD ("Remove Ya").

Entirely produced by in-house beatsmith Sporting Life, the brash, intricate instrumentals are largely characterized by precise sample chops and infectious rhythms. They sometimes come off as busy as the Big Apple itself, but when dialled back for the laid-back snap of the King Krule-assisted "So Sick Stories" or the playful bounce of "Puerto Rican Judo," they prove effective. One would be hard pressed to find many more hip-hop releases as compelling as the debut from the young New York crew this year, spurred on by the energy of their native city. (Calum Slingerland)

9. Black Milk
If There's A Hell Below
(Computer Ugly/Fat Beats)

Relocation has always been a delicate subject in a genre so focused on where you rep, so the news of Black Milk's exodus from Detroit to Dallas left many wondering how that would play out. If There's A Hell Below is largely an ode to those stomping grounds, from Black Milk's childhood to now. But contrary to what that title suggests, the landscape isn't nearly as blighted; survival is celebrated, and fears are dulled by dance tracks.

Aesthetically, If There's A Hell Below carries on the post-Dilla Motor City sound he and fellow BR Gunna member Young RJ first debuted with Slum Village a decade ago: soulful, synth-heavy, dramatic, with plenty of early drum machine flourishes. A greater emphasis is placed on his lyricism this time around, through more intricate couplets, narrative arcs and dramatic twists. On Hell, his covert development as a capable solo artist with a defined flow has left us with another great album for our ear buds or car stereo. That absorption in isolation is complementary to Milk's cloistered creation process; there's something to be said in having an album written, produced, recorded, and mixed in the same living room as it's packaged and shipped out to you. (Michael J. Warren)

8. Common
Nobody's Smiling
(ARTium/Def Jam)

Chicago rap veteran Common's tenth album finds him rejuvenated by training his focus on his hometown. It's a sobering homecoming though, with the gun violence that has particularly affected the Windy City in recent years looming large over the proceedings. Consequently, tracks like "No Fear" are poignantly sober insights into Common's Chicago state of mind. While his lyrics often reminisce on his early years in the city, he ensures the new generation of Chicago MCs is represented via the presence of Lil Herb and Dreezy in notable cameos.

Common's childhood friend and frequent collaborator No I.D. helms the whole project, often constructing sparse soundscapes that showcase Common's voice at the forefront of "Speak Ya Piece" and on the fraternal and ruminative "Rewind That." Yet Nobody's Smiling's highlights arguably surface on ornately fashioned entries like the '70s soul-tinged "The Neighborhood" and the spiritual "Kingdom," giving Common's poetically personal reportage a tangible, cinematic dimension. (Del F. Cowie)

7. Future

In a year largely devoid of quality major label rap albums, Future stepped up to the plate, delivering a sophomore effort that expands on the pop proclivities first exhibited on 2012's Pluto while it's also the Atlanta rapper's most varied project to date. Honest is chock-full of boldface guests, but Future manages to ride roughshod over all of them, while getting the most fired-up verse from Pharrell since his Neptunes days on the bruising "Move That Dope" and a rare vindictive 16 bars from André 3000 on Dungeon Family passing-of-the-torch anthem "Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)."

He's at his best when he's wearing his heart on his sleeve: "Blood, Sweat, Tears" sees him delivering a bleary-eyed victory toast over a swelling Boi-1da beat; elsewhere, "Honest" is a ballad that's equal parts braggadocio and vulnerability, a worthy successor to Future's 2012 benchmark hit single "Turn On The Lights." He may no longer be the hottest or even the weirdest rapper from Atlanta (the latter honour belonging squarely to Young Thug), but with Honest, he's making sure newcomers don't forget who's blazed a trail for whom. (Max Mertens)

6. YG
My Krazy Life
(CTE/Def Jam)

In 2014, YG's debut album, My Krazy Life, did two things: 1) it brought DJ Mustard's signature handclaps and rigid synths to the forefront of this year's sonic landscape, and 2) it brought back gangsta rap in a storytelling form that has been nearly non-existent for the past decade. While YG may not be the most lyrically endowed MC, the Def Jam signee's album aligns the most important elements of a great rap album: witty bars, a well-curated track list, a creative artist-producer relationship and, of course, catchy hooks.

Earning comparisons to Dr. Dre's 1992 album The Chronic, YG revives the art of hood storytelling, carefully crafting it to be as crass as possible while remaining celebratory thanks to DJ Mustard's L.A. G-funk and Bay Area sonic coding. Smash hits such as "My N****" and "Who Do You Love?" offer relentless feel-good vibes, while "Bicken Back Being Bool" and "BPT" tell tales of a gritty gang lifestyle. In addition to YG's undisturbed lyrical deliveries, the moral narrative he puts forth throughout the album (i.e. "Sorry Momma") ties together a sense of humanity and rawness. Ultimately, he succeeds in creating a cohesive body of work that paints a picture of how "krazy" YG's life truly is. (Erin Lowers)

5. Isaiah Rashad
Cilvia Demo
(TDE Records)

Top Dawg Entertainment's Isaiah Rashad turned a lot of heads in the opening throes of 2014 with the release of Cilvia Demo, his first project for the label and an immediate, assuaging response to those initially surprised by the largely unknown Southern rapper's recruitment into the L.A. collective. Named affectionately after the Chattanooga native's old '95 Honda Civic, the record revealed touches of the thematic maturity and unvarnished, daily life commentary that first gripped listeners in labelmate Kendrick Lamar's statement-making jumpoff set Section.80, albeit more fragmented and conflicted.

Sonic nods to hip-hop's past and a general vibe-out feel offered further insights into the rapper's influences and musical development, but it was Rashad's own frank delivery and complete unreservedness rapping about an absent father, a complicated love and his resulting fatherhood, suicidal thoughts and Rashad's past as a cutter that provided the record's most captivating trait. Fellow TDE artists SZA, Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q lend a sparing hand, but Cilvia Demo is Rashad's show, and as proper introductions go, this one laid down some pretty exciting promises for the future of TDE's newest MC. (Kevin Jones)

4. Azealia Banks
Broke With Expensive Taste

Who'd have thought, after numerous online spats and countless delays, that Azealia Banks' debut, Broke With Expensive Taste, would finally be released in 2014, not to mention that it would end up on this year's best list? And yet, here we are.

Behind Banks' self-damning verbal tirades, she has always been adept at stringing together her silver-tongued verses over a blend of genres. From the deceptively upbeat house sounds on "Soda," which documents her bouts of depression — "Night time, is mine to lie eyes awide and I/ I'm tired of trying, trying not to cry" — to the random Ariel Pink-assisted beach anthem "Nude Beach A Go-Go" to the UK dubstep-sampling "Desperado," sonically the album is all over the place, but still feels cohesive.

Ultimately that's why Broke With Expensive Taste stands out: Each of the musical threads sewn throughout the album are charmingly unpredictable and uncompromising in their execution, much like Banks herself, which makes for a fantastic listen and one of 2014's best releases. (Jabbari Weekes)

3. ScHoolboy Q
(TDE Records)

Its gun-clap of an introduction sends the message loud and clear: Oxymoron is a gangsta rap record. The way N.W.A were yelling "Gangsta Gangsta" in 1988, ScHoolboy Q is yelling the same (with 50 percent more "Gangsta") 26 years later, and the dark energy knock-knock-knocks.

Half-cut and half-dangerous, bucket-hat aficionado Quincy Hanley holds the TDE brand down while unapologetically walking for the Hoover Crips over the course of 70 minutes that veer from pants-sagging fun ("Los Awesome") to druggy delusion and depression ("Prescription/Oxymoron"). Guest spots from Kurupt, Raekwon, Suga Free and Jay Rock enhance, not detract, from the overall effect. A liquid flow and bubbling personality keeps Q captivating throughout the album, while "Man of the Year" could well be Song of the Year.

Keep your trap music; Q's siding with gangsta music, and with Oxymoron, he's convincing us to as well. (Luke Fox)

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)

1. Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 2
(Mass Appeal)

If someone made a better rap album than Run the Jewels 2 this year, I don't want to hear it. My mere mortal mind couldn't possibly handle anything better than the lyrical mixture of vehement rage and deep introspection, delivered with top-of-the-class lyrical dexterity, that El-P and Killer Mike handed out on this album. Nor, for that matter, could I handle listening to a pair of MCs who trade verses more skilfully and flawlessly than that dynamic duo.

I certainly couldn't handle a record with denser, darker, more manic industrial-influenced production than the beats served up by El-P on RTJ2; it would be too heavy. I might collapse under the sheer weight of its chest-rattling, brain-twitching power. So yeah, there may well have been a better rap record released this year, but I don't want to hear it, 'cause it could only be some CIA-weaponization-of-rap scheme meant to incapacitate us all.

Still, between their political smarts and sharp-tongued delivery, El-P and Killer Mike would probably welcome the challenge. (Chris Dart)

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