Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Vince Staples & Meek Mill: 2015 Is Rap's Best Year in Recent Memory (Opinion)

Courtesy Photo
Kendrick Lamar

This is the year that the biggest hip-hop records stopped pandering & repeating and returned to disturbing & pioneering.

It's no quiet sentiment that 2014 was far from a banner year for hip-hop, where full-length albums are concerned. Most of hip-hop's A-List sat the year out: Rick Ross released a pair of albums to increasingly diminishing sales, and Nicki Minaj presented a characteristically uneven effort with The Pinkprint. The vacuum was such that Iggy Azalea was able to ascend to the upper reaches of rap's consciousness and become the year's biggest mainstream breakout. It was enough to make the late A$AP Yams, a repository of hip-hop history, lament that 2014 was "the worst year of rap music ever" to XXL magazine.

While that claim is subjective, it resonated with a whole lot of people for a reason. Luckily, the first half of 2015 has shown that hip-hop is musically righting itself after a dismal calendar year, with a string of high-profile releases that are among the strongest that the genre has seen in recent history. 2015 may be the first time today’s young hip-hop listeners are experiencing such a spate of boundary-pushing, genre-forwarding albums all at once.

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To be fair, the resurgence of greatness actually began late in 2014, with veteran underground duo Run the Jewels' Run the Jewels 2 in October, rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T.'s Cadillactica in November and perennial underdog J. Cole's intimate-but-worldly 2014 Forest Hills Drive the following month. All three records reached a level of craft that was largely missing in the previous 12 months. 2014 Forest Hills Drive contained no pre-release singles or credited collaborating vocalists but was nonetheless the biggest-selling rap album of 2014, according to Nielsen Music, selling 577,000 in 2014 and providing a template for some of the albums that would make waves this year -- music that cherished the immediacy of big ideas rendered personally, with an emphasis on lyrics and wordplay as much as songwriting and melody. This year hearkens back to hip-hop's late-1980s/early 1990s golden era, when rap tried to be everything, but not to everyone; when it pulled every sonic style within its circle of concern into its own center.

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First there was Drake's unannounced If You're Reading This It's Too Late release, on which the rapper bypassed his contacts list and mostly went at it alone while ignoring radio-oriented numbers. Songs changed direction midway, Drake thumped his chest and rapped like he had something to prove -- not exactly a formula for success with casual listeners. Still, he broke streaming records on Spotify and moved a half-million copies in his first week of release, easily topping the Billboard 200. Similarly, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly largely eschewed a reliance on traditional singles. It was the opposite of easy listening, with challenging song structures and political views that gave many listeners zero points of entry ideologically. But it, too, broke Spotify records and topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks. In May, A$AP Rocky dropped the genre-hopping AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, an album that reflected the kaleidoscopic way that people actually listen to music in this new age. It was a collage of niches and eccentricities, and like J. Cole and Lamar’s albums, it debuted at the top spot on the charts.

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Upon their releases, all three albums were critically adored and consumer favorites, largely because of their willingness to defy expectations and abstain from obvious crossover attempts. All three seemed to emanate from an artistic vision that spread outward, as opposed to mimicking commercial trends. It was as if hip-hop, after nearly a decade of navigating the new frontiers of digital distribution and an exponentially growing, evolving "mixtape" scene, figured out how to take the best qualities of the digital playgrounds and apply them to make a new mainstream on its own terms. 2015 is the year that the biggest hip-hop records stopped pandering and aping, and returned to disturbing and pioneering.

But it hasn't all been avant-garde, free-thinking product that's been connecting this year. In January, the half-size Mississippi-bred duo of Rae Sremmurd took a more traditional route by rolling out a pair of pre-release platinum singles before coming with Sremmlife, a buoyant and silly but enjoyable album that was pop-ready and strip-club-friendly in equal measure. Further into the mainstream, Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise emerged as an accomplished suite of contemporary rap, while Meek Mill's recent Dreams Worth More Than Money surfaced as a sturdy street album of pop smarts with few compromises.

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For the lyrically inclined who stick to what's traditionally referred to as "underground hip-hop," there were a pair of opuses in Joey Bada$$' B4.DA.$$ and Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt and the textured street tales of Vince Staples' Summertime '06. Even old heads have something to grab on to this year in Raekwon's Fly International Luxurious Art, a long player full of vivid imagery and hermetic language that's as good as anything ever made by a rapper with more than two decades years in the game. And there's still the promise of more to come, with Drake and Kanye West anticipated to present proper albums this year. (In this market, it wouldn't be crazy to expect something from Jay Z to appear on TIDAL as well.)

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There have been great years for hip-hop albums -- notably 1993, which saw classic debuts from Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, Black Moon, Digable Planets and more; 1994 featured debuts from The Notorious B.I.G., Nas and OutKast and some half-dozen influential cult favorites from Scarface, Common and others. And 1988 is widely regarded as the best year for hip-hop due to politically charged masterpieces (Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Boogie Down Productions' By All Means Necessary), lyrically dense powerhouses (Eric B & Rakim's Follow the Leader, Big Daddy Kane's Long Live the Kane); gangsta rap classics (N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, Ice-T's Power), fun and funny whimsical moves (DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, Biz Markie's Goin' Off) and avant-garde feats of strength (Ultramagnetic MC's Critical Beatdown, Jungle Brothers' Straight Out the Jungle). But after reaching a commercial peak in the late 90's, the early aughts saw hip-hop embracing singles-driven game (see: ringtone rap, if you dare).

2015, while not quite ready to be compared to the golden days of yore, is hip-hop returning to its musical roots and subsuming the breadth of its strengths in a way that hasn't been seen in quite some time. On If You're Reading This It's Too Late's "No Telling," Drake offers up oblique commentary about the dismal state of the genre, rapping, "I took the summer off to get it right/ Yeah, I gave these boys a shot and they f---in' failed." That's not something he can say about this summer.