PARTYNEXTDOOR, PARTYNEXTDOOR (2013)
Though Drizzy Drake was shouldering the load for OVO in the early 2010s, he finally found a reliable running mate when PND released his self-titled debut mixtape in 2013. Drenched with lustful intentions ("Relax With Me") and a criminally underrated verse from Toronto's 6 God ("Over Here"), PARTY puts the music industry on notice with his indomitable pen-game and buttery hooks. - CARL LAMARRE
Aminé, OnePointFive (2018)
Aminé and his refreshing wit commanded acclaim with 2017 debut album Good for You and its platinum Hot 100 hit “Caroline.” In the walkup to his sophomore album, the rapper issued this in-between stepping stone. Dismissed by some for lacking any accessible hits or Good’s sharp lyricism, OnePointFive still merits attention as Aminé reflects on the trappings of success. “Blackjack” with its ear-worming Jack Black refrain and the pun-filled “Shine” prove Aminé hasn’t lost his wordsmith skills or ear for tightly crafted beats. - GAIL MITCHELL
Isaiah Rashad, The Sun's Tirade (2016)
With Isaiah Rashad keeping a low-profile, It would be easy to gloss over his project in a year that featured albums from Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Drake, and Beyonce. For those who pressed play on The Sun’s Tirade, they were greeted with a vivid depiction of a then 25-year-old baring his soul and persevering through life obstacles such as depression and substance abuse on tracks like the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Wat’s Wrong” over a range of hazy beats. - MICHAEL SAPONARA
REASON, There You Have It (2018)
As if TDE wasn't already a music juggernaut, in 2018, they strengthened their roster when they recruited REASON for their rap squadron. His debut project There You Have It, showcases his gruff voice, taut lyricism, and polished storytelling abilities. Tracks such as "Better Dayz" and "Summer Up," find the Carson MC rapping with aplomb, and inevitably, forging his lane as Top Dawg's next lyrical assassin. - C.L.
Tinashe, Nightride (2016)
During her tenure at RCA Records, Tinashe was trying to balance pop star requirements and staying true to her dark R&B roots. And for Nightride, the singer's sophomore album, she opted to dive deep within murky waters. Filled with sounds that made longtime fans of her experimental mixtapes thrilled, the record proved just how creative her mind was. From the defiant "Lucid Dreaming" to the thumping "Ride of Your Life" suited for the dimmest of basement parties and the sparkling "Ghetto Boy" closer, Tinashe proved that she wasn't just another singer made to fit in the industry's box. - BIANCA GRACIE
Rapsody, Eve (2019)
The North Carolina rapper fully comes into her own as a 21st century griot as she pays homage to the struggles and resilience of pioneering black females. Each song on the 16-track set is dedicated to a Rapsody hero, including Michelle Obama, Nina Simone, Aaliyah and civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams. Eve stands alongside Beyoncé’s Lemonade as illuminating and compelling treatiseS underscoring black females’ pivotal role in black culture. - G.M.
Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs, Alchemist, Fetti (2018)
The mainstream misfits came together for an underground masterpiece on Halloween of 2018. Fetti finds Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y meshing their contrasting rhyming styles, while The Alchemist serves as the conduit architecting the cinematic soundtrack behind their nine-track highlight reel. With a runtime of only 23 minutes, Fetti left us hungry for a sequel. - M.S.
Nipsey Hussle, Crenshaw (2013)
Amid his mixtape grind, Nipsey Hussle shook the rap game up and hammered the competition with his searing mixtape, Crenshaw. An ode to his beloved stomping grounds, Hussle exudes the spirit of a marathon runner with his tireless work ethic on "Don't Take Days Off" while ripping through the soulful production of 9th Wonder on "Face the World." To up the ante, Hussle sold a limited amount of copies of Crenshaw for $100, with Jay-Z purchasing 100 copies. - C.L.
Thundercat, Drunk (2017)
A 23-track album featuring yacht rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and hip-hop/pop stars Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell sounds intriguing -- and too surreal to work. But visionary bassist Thundercat pulls it off, delivering a hypnotic, funky fusion anchored by his floaty falsetto and fearless bass. As Thundercat shifts from engaging (“Them Changes”) and playful (“Friend Zone”) to serious topics like mortality (“Lava Lamp”) and gang culture (“Walk on By”), one thing is clear. Drunk is a sonic wonderland worth revisiting for years to come. - G.M.
Diddy, Last Train to Paris (2010)
Diddy was already a legend by the time the new decade rolled around, but he decided to push his artistic boundaries even further with 2010's Last Train To Paris. It was the official introduction to his new group Dirty Money, comprised of Danity Kane's Dawn Richard and singer-songwriter Kalenna Harper, and was filled to the brim with A-list features from Grace Jones to Justin Timberlake.
The "Hello Good Morning" remix was dominated by Nicki Minaj's monstrous verse, "Yeah Yeah Yeah You Would" displayed Richard's and Harper's glossy harmonies and "Loving You No More" toyed with tender R&B. In a time where rap was still heavily rugged, Last Train To Paris showed just how far the genre's sound could stretch -- and its elasticity hasn't ended yet. - B.G.
The Game, Jesus Piece (2012)
Mixing themes of God with gangster rap can be a daunting task, but that’s exactly what The Game achieved with his Jesus Piece album. A refreshed Compton native grapples with religion and its impact on his daily life, all while meshing a star-studded guest list that pits rising stars such as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole alongside hip-hop heavyweights like Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Rick Ross. Game agrees that the project is often overlooked in his discography, calling it his “third favorite album.” - M.S.
Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce (2014)
One of the decade's most soberingly adult albums in any genre, Love, Marriage & Divorce occasionally went big with its emotional swings -- like Braxton's chilling, spiteful solo missive "I Wish" -- but mostly found its power in a gentle intimacy, the familiarity and chemistry between its veteran performers, and an emotional and sonic warmth that made even its most hurtful moments feel disarmingly tender. An impressively rich album for listeners both in and out of long-term relationshps to grow old with, we can only hope we finally get the long-rumored sequel set in the decade to come. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Ty Dolla $ign, Free T.C. (2015)
Though Ty Dolla $ign quickly won fans over with his penchant for club bangers ("Paranoid" and "Blase"), on his 2015 debut album Free T.C., he stretches himself beyond the topics of bedroom fodder by offering soul food for broken spirits. Not only does he pilots listeners through his hometown of "L.A." with Kendrick Lamar, Brandy, and James Fauntleroy, but he also promotes resiliency on "Guard Down" along marquee stars Kanye West and Diddy. - C.L.
Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste (2014)
Azealia Banks is now notorious for her ongoing beefs with various celebrities and s--t-talking rants, but you can never dismiss the Harlem native's consistent talent. After wowing us with her breakout anthem "212" and solid mixtapes like Fantasea, the rapper roped everyone into her bizarre yet exciting world with her debut album. "Nude Beach a Go-Go" is a cheeky dose of '60s nostalgia, "Heavy Metal & Reflective" revs up as much heat as a motorcycle and "Yung Rapunxel" is witch-pop at its finest. Putting her controversial moments aside, and Broke With Expensive Taste is a stunning display of her multi-faceted range (she sings just as strongly as she spits), knack for choosing off-the-wall beats and maddeningly intricate wordplay. - B.G.
Brent Faiyaz, Sonder Son (2017)
Brent Faiyaz’s 2017 debut album also doubles as the indie singer’s autobiography. The elegant simplicity of the set’s 12 compositions don’t stint on Faiyaz’s honesty and vulnerability -- a welcome oasis in an R&B/hip-hop world often dominated by bravado. His silky voice squarely faces the realities of the past and the present as he reflects on his youth in the DMV (“Home” and move to Los Angeles (“L.A.”) to pursue his career. Grammy nominated for his guest stint on GoldLink’s 2017 “Crew,” Faiyaz proves here that solo-wise he’s got the goods. - G.M.