As was well-documented on Twitter, especially in the latter part of the year, 2014 has been pretty quiet for full-length hip-hop releases, whether they be from major labels or indies. With that said, there were more than a few LPs that would stand out in any year, thanks to their lyrical content, soundscapes, and their effect on the culture. From Los Angeles to New Orleans, from Atlanta to Brooklyn, from Gary Indiana to one specific street in Fayetteville, artists put in some serious work making complete bodies of work.
Check out the Billboard’s picks for the top 10 rap albums of 2014:
10. Freddie Gibbs & MadLib, Piñata
What an amazing pairing: this cigarette filter of a voice mixed with Blaxploitation strings and rhythm sections. Freddie Gibbs, along with features by Raekwon, Danny Brown, Mac Miller, Domo Genesis, Earl Sweatshirt, Scarface and more, sound so at home, it’s amazing that more rappers don’t use MadLib’s production — and probably more amazing because they don’t. A trip through the 1970’s mood — even with the same tropes we find in modern day rap — is a welcome departure from the retreads that hit iTunes or inboxes on the regular in 2014. Here’s hoping Gibbs and MadLib decide that 17 tracks is just not enough.
9. Future, Honest
When Future’s first album, Pluto, came out, some people poo-poo’d him; Less people cared. A few people championed him and his efforts. No one could deny that he’d had success with niche singles like “Tony Montana,” but whether it was his personality, his half-singing rapping, or his content, Pluto, like the planet, was easily dismissed. Then, like the Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Pluto became a grower. Thanks to addictive singles and unabashed love songs (mixed in with some drug-dealing tracks), sung in a real and true manner, Future turned into a superstar seemingly overnight. By the time his second album, Honest, showed up in stores earlier this year, the cycle had started up again: a ton of people poo-poo’d him; Less people cared. A few people championed him and his efforts. And maybe it was his personality, or maybe it’s his half-singing rapping, or once again, his content, but here’s hoping listeners give songs like “Honest,” “I Won,” and “Blood, Sweat, Tears” as much of a chance as they gave “Move That Dope,” because down the road, everyone will look back and wish they saw Future.
8. Big K.R.I.T., Cadillactica
Shouts to K.R.I.T. for Cadillactica. Shouts to KRIT for not succumbing to the sophomore slump. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for not bowing to traditional label pressures. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for allowing outside producers into his circle. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for really repping for the South. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for having the guts to call himself the King of the South. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for always collaborating with Bun B (“Mo Better Cool”). Shouts to K.R.I.T. for giving E-40 and Wiz Khalifa the funkiest platform to stand on (“Mind Control”). Shouts to K.R.I.T. for keeping it super-lyrical (“Mt. Olympus”), when it may not be the “cool” thing to do. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for selling more albums on the second go-round. Shouts to K.R.I.T. for a long-lasting full body of work; shouts to K.R.I.T. for Cadillactica.
7. Kevin Gates, By Any Means
Kevin Gates comes straight out of the mud of Louisiana; he raps through half-lidded eyes and slow drawls, a frog permanently lodged in his windpipe. One wouldn’t expect it, but every one of his songs hit hard: the wrist-banging “Arm & Hammer” comes immediately after “Bet I’m On It,” co-starring 2 Chainz, a Konami code to punch in any night at any club. And even his quieter moments — like “Wit It” and “Stop Lyin” – have that knock to them. He constantly reminds people “I don’t get tired,” a refrain that applies to his work ethic and to his neck-driven music; a slogan so good DJ Khaled could’ve come up with it.
6. ScHoolboy Q, Oxymoron
Oh, sorry, this should’ve been introduced as the Grammy-nominated ScHoolboy Q’s Grammy-nominated album, Oxymoron. For the second leg of Kendrick & Co’s relay race, TDE’s resident bucket hat didn’t just stay the course: “Studio” is his version of Marvin, Teddy and Luther, as unexpected as unexpected gets coming from a broad-shouldered bully like ScHoolboy. In completely different realms are the quasi-Trap stylings of “Hell of a Night” and the crashes of “Collard Greens.” It’s not exactly a cohesive vision, but the director knows what he’s doing.
5. Jeezy, Seen It All: The Autobiography
Jeezy’s always seemed a little older than most rappers. Whether it’s his gravelly voice, his serious nature, or his considerable catalog of hit songs, Jeezy’s been seen as an OG, even if age wise he’s just a G. He’s been around for seven albums, long enough to drop “Young” from his moniker, or as he said to Complex, “(Seen It All) is probably my first album where I can explain and let ni–as know where I stand. In layman’s terms, the statute of limitations is over with.” And speak his mind he does, with clear vision, stellar beat choices, and subject matter he’s never broached before. “Holy Ghost” finds Jeezy reflecting on the dark deeds that helped him get to where he is, and the effect it’s had karmically. “Me OK” fantastically takes aim at all the young Jeezys out there who don’t give him his proper credit, as well as his own record label, who also doesn’t give him his due. And the best song on the album is the title track, featuring Jay Z‘s best lyrical verse in years; real shit.
4. Migos, No Label II
There’s just no argument against this being one of the best albums this year – “Fight Night,” “Handsome & Wealthy,” “Birds,” “YRH,” all in a row, in the plum middle of the tracklist — except it’s not really an album. Mixtape, free album for sale later, who cares: this was some of the best and most inventive music of the year. They are a three-headed Medusa, swirling and snarling, references almost always flying out of nowhere, even making the oldest clichés sound new: “I’m feeling like Scarface, Al Pacino coming off the banana boat,” raps Takeoff. Opponents may have taken a chain from the Migos, but Migos still hold the crown.
3. J. Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive
No features. No notice that it was dropping. No posturing. 2014 Forest Hills Drive — J. Cole’s third album, named after the childhood home that he recently bought — is stripped down, raw, honest, and that’s just how Cole and his huge and insanely-loyal fan base likes it. Whether he’s lamenting the low standards today’s women hold themselves to (“No Role Modelz”), or talking about where white people have taken hip-hop as a genre (“Fire Squad”), or reliving his first sexual experiences (“Wet Dreamz”), Cole speaks his truth with a superior flow. In a year with comparatively low numbers of commerical rap albums, here was one that leaped to the top of Twitter’s trending topics list, and to the top of even skeptical rap fans’ year-end best of lists, a full week before it was properly sold in stores on Dec. 9. For years, Jermaine has taken ribbings from critics about his message, his lack of dynamism, or his status on Jay Z’s roster, but Cole strikes back in this album’s last track, an animated audio version of what would be his liner notes, saying, “I finally figured it out, man. Don’t none of that shit matter yo.”
2. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
There’s good reason Twitter is filled with hyperbolic GIFs of offices burning and faces melting: “Put on RTJ2, need to explain this to my boss” is a common caption. El-P‘s beats sound from the future, and both his and Killer Mike‘s lyrics are designed to catch people up: “Where my thuggers and my cripples and my blooders and my brothers? / When you ni–as gon’ unite and kill the police, mothafuckas?” as Mike says on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck).” Released on Nas‘ Mass Appeal records, a project like this gives hope that hip-hop may once again become the thought-provoking, exciting voice it once was.
1. YG, My Krazy Life
For much of the industry, YG’s debut album came straight outta nowhere. But for anyone who’s been paying attention to DatPiff download numbers, it was no surprise that Def Jam’s YG — he with the sandpaper voice and high socks — owned the year with co-creator DJ Mustard. Obviously, there were singles, loads of them: “Left Right,” “Who Do You Love?” and “My Ni–a.” But what separates My Krazy Life was the construction of the album, how it was shaped like a movie. (Related: being considered a movie is the only defense for its Grammys snub.)
Logic, Under Pressure
Vince Staples, Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 2
Rich Gang, Rich Gang: The Tour Vol. 1
King Louie, Tony
Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo