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Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2015

By Cameron Lee

December 20, 2015

1.) To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar 

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I guess when President Barack Obama says his favorite song is on your latest album, you are no longer considered to be just another “rapper.” Kendrick Lamar’s days of being an indie rap artist are far gone, although it was only in late 2012 when he released his major label debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath/Interscope records.

To Pimp a Butterfly is a refreshingly original rap album that incorporates heavy elements of jazz, funk and spoken word poetry. So it’s not really your traditional rap album, it contains countless layers of clever instrumentation, samples and thought-provoking lyrics that make the album mercurial based upon your mood. In “Mortal Man” he has a simulated conversation with the late Tupac Shukar after reciting his own poetry to him. The album includes brilliant collaborations with esteemed industry greats like Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, Thundercat, George Clinton and also the NC-born rapper and 9th Wonder protege, Rapsody. 

Favorite tracks: “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “The Blacker The Berry,” “Mortal Man,” “Complexion”

2.) Tetsuo and Youth – Lupe Fiasco

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It’s been a volatile couple of years for Chicago rapper, Lupe Fiasco, whose unpredictable nature and constant disputes with his label (and an awkward twitter exchange with Kid Cudi in January) periodically keep him in music blog headlines, but he is no attention monger like his name would suggest. He had a humble upbringing and broad education growing up in the inner-city of Chicago, being raised by extremely conscious parents who exposed him to music from N.W.A to Ravi Shankar at an early age.

Dr. Cornel West, at a recent symposium I attended in Charlotte, said that Lupe Fiasco was one of the most important musical voices of our generation along with Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar. This album would be a good reference to such high praise. With contemporary urban interpretations of seasonal instrumentals like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and effortless and provocative lyrics, the album plays like a collage of his thoughts and moods. In “Mural” he exhibits his classic abstract barrage of words and thoughts that perfectly convey his artistry that encapsulates an unfocused diatribe of alluring confusion.

The album also includes several soulful additions from singer-songwriter and longtime collaborator, Nikki Jean who first gained major recognition on the Lupe single “Hip Hop Saved My Life” from the 2011 album, The Cool.

In “Deliver” he poetically details stories of drug violence and social injustice in the inner-cities and ghettos using the “pizza delivery man” as a symbol that separates the haves and have-nots.

Lupe also recently announced that he will be releasing 3 albums in 2016 via twitter.

Favorite tracks: “Deliver,” “Mural,” “Chopper” 

3.) Summertime ‘06 – Vince Staples

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Not since Snoop has there been a rapper from Long Beach, CA (a.k.a the LBC) who details relevant street stories. Known for running with the Odd Future camp, most notably Mike G and Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples’ debut full-length album is a refreshing saga. Haunting street tales and thought provoking lyrics with sometimes psychedelic noises and soundscapes lace the album effortlessly. “Senorita” will fulfill your trap music cravings while you bounce your head maniacally.

Vince Staples’ rhyme style and rap patterns are discreetly original. The album, mostly produced by acclaimed hip-hop producer and Def Jam executive No I.D, details Staples’ life as 13 year old growing up in Long Beach in 2006.

Favorite tracks: “Get Paid,” “Loca,” “Senorita,” “Street Punks,” “Norf Norf”

4.) Darkest Before Dawn – Pusha T

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In November, Pusha T announced that he would release the prelude to his 2016 album King Push, Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. There are very few rappers who have maintained credibility from both the streets, and the more youthful following on the internet over the last decade. On the track “Untouchable” which features a Notorious B.I.G sample with production by Timbaland, he says “I drops every blue moon/ To separate myself from you kings of the YouTube.” This is just the second solo studio album by Pusha T, a veteran of the game since he and his brother “No Malice” were discovered by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes in Virginia Beach in the late 90’s.

Pusha T hasn’t strayed far from the street hustlin’ rap days of the Clipse, although his raps offer an enlightening  juxtaposition to the music industry and personal relationships. There are very few rappers who can hold the weight of speaking so directly about the street life while being so far removed from the lifestyle.

Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude gives us more of Pusha T, more so than his debut major label debut, My Name Is My Name which was cluttered with so many collaborations, it almost felt like a compilation album. Darkest Before Dawn does offer some incredible collaborations with up-and-coming R&B singer Kehlani on “Retribution” and the hauntingly retrospective “M.P.A” with Kanye West and The Dream. He also brings back industry vet, Beanie Sigel in a reinvented soundscape and style in “Keep Dealing.” Jill Scott joins Pusha T in the spine-chilling dark message about police violence on inner-city youth in “Sunshine.”

Favorite tracks: “Untouchable,” “M.P.A,” “M.F.T.R,” “Sunshine”

5.) Mr. Wonderful – Action Bronson

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The chef/rapper and dab enthusiast, not the Cam Newton variety, has had a meteoric rise over the last couple of years after releasing a series of extremely successful mix-tapes. Making appearances on several national radio and TV shows, and being featured in a VICE video documentary series, the world can’t seem to get enough of Action Bronson. In July, rap god Ghostface Killah had enough, when comments on ESPN’s SportsNation went viral. When Bronson was asked about comparisons between him and Ghostface, he said “He ain’t rappin’ like this no more.” The internet ran wild and, for a brief moment, Action Bronson’s rap career came to a deafening standstill after Ghostface Killah’s classic, now legendary response.

On his second studio album and first major label release in March, Action Bronson gives you more focus on style rather than clever raps over Queens, New York-style beats. The album features Action Bronson’s usual suspects Meyhem Lauren, Big Body Bes, Party Supplies and a refreshingly smooth broadway show tunes style collaboration on “Baby Blue” with Chance the Rapper.

Often referencing his days in the kitchen, his popularity as a chef personality seems to be running parallel with his rap career, hosting an extremely popular VICE Munchies online series. His series “Fuck, That’s Delicious” has him hobnobbing with prominent chefs like Mario Batali, Michael Voltaggio, and Roy Choi among others.

“Actin’ Crazy” and “Easy Rider” are standouts on this instrumentally diverse album laced with a plethora of memorable soul, R&B and rock samples and sounds.

Favorite tracks: “Easy Rider,” “Baby Blue,” “Actin’ Crazy”

6.) B4.DA.$$ – Joey Bada$$

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As a product of the Golden Era of hip hop, Joey Bada$$’s debut full length album B4.DA.$$ brought some innate feelings of nostalgia. The 20 year old (yes, I said 20 year old) Bed-Stuy Brooklyn rapper has been making waves since being named to XXL Magazine‘s 2013 Freshman Class.

With his Caribbean roots and Brooklyn upbringing, Joey Bada$$ draws, or maybe borrows, lyrical styles and comparisons to Biggie, Big L, Das EFX, Smif n’ Wessun and several other New York rappers way before his time. With production help on the album by Statik Selektah and DJ Premier, it’s evident why this album can sound almost like an ode to the Golden Era of New York hip hop. “Paper Trail$” is the prototypical sample-driven New York hip hop track that is reminiscent of Nas in his Illmatic prime.

Favorite tracks: “On & On,” “Paper Trail$,” “Curry Chicken,” “Black Beetles”

7.) And After That, We Didn’t Talk – Goldlink

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I first caught wind of Goldlink listening to a Soulection radio show earlier in the year. The 22-year-old DC native has a lyrical style and voice that will immediately grab your attention. He is not loud or awkward in his style, but he has a natural and effervescent flow. His lyrics speak with the wisdom of a much older soul and he can sing, too.

The album includes production from lesser known producers like Demo Taped, Galimatias, Medasin, Tom Misch, and Louie Lastic, but there is no doubt that Goldlink knows how to select exceptional instrumental tracks.

Most of the album’s lyrical content speak of struggles with women and relationships that can be a little monotonous. Sonically, it’s one of the most original and easy listening  hip-hop albums of the year. “Spectrum,which includes a sample from Missy Elliot, and “Dance on Me” are standout tracks.

Favorite tracks: “Spectrum,” “Dance on Me,” “Polarized”

8.) Big Grams – Big Boi + Phantogram

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The anticipated debut collaboration between legendary Atlanta hip-hop rapper of Outkast fame, Big Boi, and the Greenwich, New York electronic hip-pop duo, Phantogram, has been teased since mid Summer. With pictures of Sarah Barthel (Phantogram) and Big Boi revealed, fans of both factions eagerly awaited this collaborative project.

Although our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities, Big Grams sounds exactly as it should. The smooth deep Southern but Harlem pimpish slang rhymes over the melodically bounceable tracks of producer Josh Carter, the instrumental half of Phantogram.

The album also includes an enjoyable ear-thumping dance track “Drum Machine” with Skrillex along with “Put It On Her,” a classic velvety smooth instrumental by North Carolina’s 9th Wonder of Little Brother fame. If that’s not enough, packed in this seven song album, Run The Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P bless this album with an evocative track called “Born to Shine.”

Favorite tracks: “Born to Shine,” “Drum Machine,” “Fell In The Sun”

9.) Compton – Dr. Dre

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It’s hard to believe that Compton is only the third studio album by super producer/ rapper, Dr. Dre. After complications with the album Detox and ultimate cancellation of the album, Compton brings an all-star cast of talent similar to the original Chronic album 23 years ago.

It’s very rare for a 50-year-old war-torn veteran to release a relevant album that is consumed by people mostly kids in their mid-20’s, especially in hip hop. Dr. Dre miraculously creates a refreshingly new modern day compilation similar to Chronic by showcasing some remarkable, mostly hometown, talent. Although tracks like “Talking To My Diary” follow a very stale model for a rap song and leave you uninspired, tracks like “Darkside Gone” featuring Raleigh native King Mez and “Deep Water” featuring Kendrick Lamar are astonishingly advanced in style and production.

Favorite tracks:“Darkside / Gone,” “Deep Water,” “Just Another Day”

10.) The Incredible True Story – Logic

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As a native of Germantown, MD, when I caught wind of Logic, I was rooting for the Gaithersburg, Maryland-born rapper who grew up in the Deer Park housing projects. He’s been gaining notoriety since releasing his official mixtape, Young, Broke, and Infamous in December of 2010, catching the ears of music industry talent seekers after opening for Redman and Method Man.

His debut album, Under Pressure, received mixed reviews and much fanfare from the internet. It detailed a chaotic environment growing up around drugs and alcoholism in Gaithersburg while trying to cope with the stresses that derive from this type of lifestyle.

The Incredible True Story shifts gears, setting the stage 100 years in the future with narration by two fictional characters, Thomas and Kai, who are searching for a planet called “Paradise” after Earth was obliterated. The album also features a virtual spaceship guide “Thalia,” reminiscent to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. His rapid-fire conversational flow and tongue twisting eruptions and periodic Kanye-esque singing are occasionally impressive. Although Logic is still trying to define his own unique style, while borrowing from legendary rappers before him, the album is entertaining and you can notice growth in his voice and acumen to create enjoyable music.

Favorite tracks: “Fade Away,” “Stainless,” “Lord Willin,” “Young Jesus,” “Never Been”

*11.) Cherry Bomb – Tyler, The Creator

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Co-founder of the rap collective Odd Future and now music industry veteran at the ripe age of 24, Tyler, The Creator released his third studio album on April 9, 2015. Having released an unimpressive mid-2000’s Timbaland-style Pharrell Williams collaborative dance track to tease the album, it fortunately got much better from there.

Often criticized for his homophobic slurs and contentious lyrics that most of his fans might not take too seriously due to his frolicsome demeanor and abrupt stage antics, Tyler creates a boisterous energy while on tour. Antagonizing Kylie Jenner at Coachella, inciting riots at shows, and being banned from countries for this type of tomfoolery, Tyler, The Creator does have good moments in his third studio album, Cherry Bomb. The title track has some noise-rock, punk elements reminiscent of a Death Grips track. The album includes uncredited collaborations with Kanye West, Schoolboy Q, Lil Wayne, and the aforementioned sonic disaster with Pharrell Williams. “THE BROWN STAINS OF DARKEESE LATIFAH PART 6-12 (Remix)” with Schoolboy Q is a bright spot on an album that, at times, can make you feel like an irritated adolescent Adderall-addicted art school student.

Favorite tracks: “SMUCKERS,” “BUFFALO,” “2SEATER,” “THE BROWN STAINS OF DARKEESE LATIFAH PART 6-12 (Remix)”

Hip-Hop albums in 2015 that just missed the list.

The Good Fight – Oddisee (Read our 2014 interview with Oddisee

Sum’na Say EP – Elevator Jay 

Wave[s] – Mick Jenkins

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt 

We made you a playlist of our favorite Hip-Hop songs from this list.

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