Hip-hop was allergic to release dates in 2015 with several noteworthy projects making out-of-nowhere arrivals, like Dr. Dre‘s Compton, Drake‘s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly. The past 365 showed an explosion of successful rap releases (a nice change from last year), from rookies and seasoned MCs alike. While the soundtrack for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway breakout Hamilton was No. 2 on Billboard‘s top albums of 2015 list, it was excluded from this lineup for being a borderline rap LP, blending genres like rock, pop and hip-hop for its double-disc, 46-track offering. Regardless, there were enough releases to light up New York and beyond.
10. Meek Mill, Dreams Worth More Than Money
This album was scrapped and re-made a few times because of Meek Mill’s legal troubles and eventual jail stint in 2014. But in the end it proved worth the wait. Always transcendent in his openers, Meek kicked things off with the epic, orchestral “Lord Knows” before stripping down to a simple piano line for “Classic” and heading down to Atlanta for an excellent Future feature on “Jump Out The Face.” The Philly rhymer’s budding relationship with Nicki Minaj paid off in two standout collaborations — the Biggie-biting “All Eyes On You” and the sultry, excellent “Bad For You” — and while his Drake collaboration “R.I.C.O.” may have stolen the headlines as the impetus for their now-infamous beef, it speaks to the quality of DWMTM that it’s not even among the album’s best cuts.
9. A$AP Rocky, At.Long.Last.A$AP
Sure, he had fans standing by for more than two years for his sophomore album, leaving some to wonder if it would materialize at all. But when A$AP Rocky finally did release his second LP earlier this year, all was forgiven. Less a pure hip-hop album than an amalgamation of the psychedelic, trippy moods that have helped Rocky transcend the genre, ALLA‘s diversity makes it tough to pick a favorite song. It’s probably somewhere between twists and turns found on the choral exploration of album opener “Holy Ghost,” the trap breakup descent of “Fine Whine” with Future and M.I.A., the psychedelic slog of “L$D,” the syrupy Houston vibe of “Wavybone” and the left-field collaboration with Rod Stewart, Mark Ronson and Miguel on “Everyday.”
8. Dr. Dre, Compton
After the destruction of Dre’s long-awaited Detox, lost in 16 years of promises, rumors, scrapped sessions and increasing frustration, 2015 saw the emergence of a new album, Compton, the triumphant companion to the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton that arrived this summer. Dr. Dre didn’t totally abandon G-funk, but he loosened the strings a bit on his third and final album, resulting in a much more diverse sound than his previous LP 2001 while retaining the heavy drums and lyrical lines that have made his work endure over the years. As usual, Dre rifled through his extensive Rolodex to grab excellent features from Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, The Game and Ice Cube and helped introduce a new generation of rappers and songwriters in Anderson Paak, Justus, King Mez and Jon Connor to an audience that will need new music to replace Dr. Dre’s now-finished catalog.
7. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife
It was hard to know what to expect from the boisterous party kids from Tupelo, Miss., who followed up their breakout single “No Flex Zone” with the dreamy soundscape of “No Type” last year. When their full-length debut arrived in January, brothers Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee didn’t take their feet off the gas, delivering a tight 11-song LP that is like the sonic equivalent of spending an hour in Mike Will Made-It‘s backyard bounce house, with intermittent chants weaving in and out of floating production, and catchy single after catchy single.
6. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s art project Surf wasn’t just a platform for Chance The Rapper, Nate Fox, Peter Cottontale and the headlining Trumpet to humblebrag about their collective. Tapping the likes of J. Cole, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu, this debut is a grab bag of high notes, blending brass-y instrumentals and snappy grooves while teetering in and out of pop and gospel soul. The album’s bread and butter, though, are bars with purpose. “I don’t wanna be cool, I just wanna be me,” Chance says on “Wanna Be Cool.” Later he’s sending prayers up on the upbeat church jam “Sunday Candy.” Trumpet, born Nico Segal, architects a triumphant opus that celebrates diversity without being grandmama-preachy.
5. Big Sean, Dark Sky Paradise
Big Sean lifted his catalog higher than SoundClouds with his No. 1-charting third studio release Dark Sky Paradise. The follow-up to 2013’s lukewarm Hall of Fame LP saw the Detroit rep capitalize on his witty punchlines and attitude problems (See: “I Don’t Fuck With You”) with the help of an all-star cast of collaborators: DJ Mustard, Mike Will Made-It, Drake, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign and his G.O.O.D. Music mentor Kanye West. Despite his complicated love life (Sean called it quits with ex-fiancee and Glee star, Naya Rivera, before entering a short relationship with Ariana Grande), Mr. Big still played Guy for the ladies with the “Piece of My Love”-sampled R&B jam “Play No Games.” The most important role Sean plays on the LP, though, is life coach with the Kanye and John Legend-assisted “One Man Can Change The World,” an uplifting record inspired by his late grandmother.
4. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
What a time to be Drake. The Toronto rap star blurred the lines between mixtape and album by releasing the 17-track set for free on iTunes in February. Labels aside, Drizzy drenched 2015’s first-million selling LP with brooding bars and ominous production, heard in standouts like “Energy,” “10 Bands” and “Star67,” featuring his Young Money boss Lil Wayne. He breaks character for the sensual “Jungle,” which made the set list during his festival run this year. October’s Very Own owned the Hot R&B/ Hip-Hop Songs chart when the entire If You’re Reading This album entered the chart (he had a record 21 entries popping at the same time). But there’s no calculating how many folks exhausted this line on social media: “Running through the 6 with my woes.”
3. Future, DS2
It’s hard to argue that anyone had a better 2015 than Future, whose incredible mixtape run starting with last October’s Monster culminated in July’s DS2, an album that brings his mixtape output into the mainstream in both sound and energy. In the process, Future evolved by devolving, abandoning the pop leanings and high-profile featured guests of his last album, Honest, for a project consistent in tone and complex narrative. The move allowed Future the artist to emerge by shining a light on Future the person, even if he might not always like what he sees. The result is a masterpiece of luxury and self-destruction, a celebration of his success and an unflinchingly open dialogue about his demons. Future knows the devil is real, and he’s openly explicit about the headspace that results from self-medication via codeine and Xans, groupies and oxys. It’s raw hedonism as chillingly excellent art.
2. Vince Staples, Summertime ‘06
Left Coast rapper Vince Staples plays rap god on his ridiculously ambitious Def Jam/Artium/Blacksmith debut, Summertime ‘06. The double-disc set hosts a series of dark narratives that bring Staples’ past to light, including fleeing the police (“Norf Norf”), hustling on the block (“Dopeman” and “Get Paid”) and gang-banging (“Hang N’ Bang”). The hour-long, 20-track LP features production by rap beat guru No I.D. and contributions from producers Clams Casino, DJ Dahi and Christian Rich. “Senorita” is one of the more radio-friendly of the lot, but a high Q score isn’t the priority here. Whether venting about racial profiling or personal insecurities, Staples’ real-life perspectives demand attention.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
The sonic masterpiece that is Kendrick Lamar’s second studio effort To Pimp A Butterfly is not only a black fist pump in the air, it is an emotional journey to self-identity. The cover art shows shirtless black men and youth squading up in front of the White House, a striking image that foreshadows the deeply-rooted lyrical content. On Butterfly, Compton’s good kid shows he isn’t done growing when he waxes poetic on society’s ills with the bone-picking “King Kunta,” self-loving “i” and President Barack Obama favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” With several chefs in the studio (George Clinton, Bilal, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Pharrell), Lamar serves up a collection of hood tales mixed with soapbox raps, marking the year’s most powerful project. He even splices together an imaginary one-on-one with late rap icon Tupac Shakur.