32. Wale, The Gifted
Wow. WOW. Did Wale get salty at Complex about being left off their end-of-year list, or what? He probably could’ve been a little less threatening; but also, he probably should be on their list. “Bad” is one of the best rap slow jams of the year. And Wale keeps it go-go for his base with bouncy tracks like “Sunshine” and “LoveHateThing.” —Mike Hayes
Pair Action Bronson’s lyrical antics with Harry Fraud’s dirty drum samples and you’ve got one of the best collaborative EPs this year. SAAAB Stories, while less narrative than Action’s previous works, is a vignette of an incredibly lewd and comedic caricature of a rapper he’s grown into. (Action spits with such conviction that we often forget to grimace at lines like “If I’m sick she’ll even clean me if I shit in my pants / So I’m taking her to France with me.”) At only seven tracks long, SAAAB is a quick snapshot of the Queens rapper, a punch line kidult with a maturing selection of beats. —Tanya Chen
30. Jay Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail
Let’s be real: This was not Hov’s best album, and he’s the first to admit it. He’s his own biggest competition, and competing against his past work’s gotta be a difficult feat. But the album still had some fun bangers on it, like the undeniable, anthemic “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” and the minimal, simplistic beat perfection of “Tom Ford.” —Aylin Zafar
29. ZMoney, Rich B4 Rap
2013 has seen a welcome uptick in weirdo rap warblers, and ZMoney’s Rich B4 Rap mixtape might be the rawest, most irresistible full-length realization of the form. It has the stuttering rhythms and clattering bass of an early Gucci Mane tape but the half-mumbled, half-crooned vocal delivery and borderline basement-level production quality gives it a crackling life. —Alex Naidus
28. Problem x Iamsu, Million Dollar Afro
There’s been something really interesting happening in the Cali hip-hop scene over the past couple years. Slowly, the Bay Area and Southern California scenes, which previously couldn’t have been more different from each other, have been merging closer and closer into one sound. And more and more artists are reaching across the aisle, like the Bay’s Iamsu! and L.A.’s Problem, with their excellent Million Dollar Afro mixtape — the perfect marriage of function and ratchet music. “100 Grand” is impossible not to dance to, while “Do It Big” is a banger featuring emerging talents like L.A.’s Bad Lucc and the Bay’s Sage The Gemini. The beats are minimal, the bass goes hard, the claps and snaps are catchy as hell — what’s not to love? —A.Z.
27. Cakes Da Killa, The Eulogy
Cakes da Killa distances himself from the queer/gay rapper label and media discussion and remains refreshingly honest, hilarious, and appropriately raw about his sex life on The Eulogy. He carries his vulgar and charismatic persona well, making his listeners laugh while they shake their asses to some incredibly danceable beats. “Goodie Goodies” in particular is a gem, the visually beautiful and gender-fluid video showcasing Cakes doing what he does best: entertaining. —Krutika Mallikarjuna
26. Starlito, Cold Turkey
‘Lito has one of the most inviting voices in rap. With his almost comically laid-back delivery and a lived-in, smoky baritone, it’s hard not to be completely intoxicated by his music even before you stop to pay attention to the lyrics. Cold Turkey is a lush and groove-y listen, an album-length head bob that you’ll want to be twice as long. —A.N.
25. Sage The Gemini, Gas Pedal EP
Sage The Gemini is one of the biggest and most exciting artists coming out of the Bay Area right now, a place where it’s notoriously difficult to break out from. The 21-year-old’s songs have been in heavy rotation on Cali radio for a while now, but 2013 was his breakout year, with songs like the minimal, creepy — but catchy — “Gas Pedal” and the infectious “Red Nose” making it to the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Gemini, who produces all the tracks on his debut EP, knows how to make people dance and is even responsible for the latest dance craze out of the Bay, called yiking. It’s not complicated music, but it’s fun as hell; he has an ear for pared-down, sophisticated beat choices, and he even get a little singing in with some help from Auto-Tune. Sage is one to watch in 2014. —A.Z.
24. Kevin Gates, The Luca Brasi Story
Kevin Gates shares a similar croak in his voice with fellow Louisiana rapper Lil Wayne and also likes to try his hand at singing, but the comparisons mostly stop there. Gates is a gifted lyricist and experimental with his voice, riding each beat and song differently. The Luca Brasi Story is filled with examples of his creativity, but “Paper Chasers” is a prime showcase of how well he can manipulate a trap beat into something more than your standard banger. —A.Z.
23. Snow Tha Product, Good Nights & Bad Mornings 2: The Hangover
If you’re a fan of spitfire flow and no-nonsense attitude delivered with a wink, look no further than the Snow Tha Product. The Mexican-American rapper has one of the most ferocious flows out in the new school of rappers (male or female), and she even raps in Spanish occasionally, to extra mind-bending effect. —A.Z.
22. DJ Mustard, Ketchup
It’s no question that L.A.’s DJ Mustard is the producer with the magic touch right now; the man behind Tyga’s inescapable “Rack City” has been responsible for a lot of the sound coming out of California right now. Mustard’s known for his minimal, snap-laden bangers with all the West Coast, laid-back ease, which he calls “ratchet” music. He’s clearly inspired by sounds that’ve been coming out of the Bay Area for years now, but rather than totally co-opting their style, he invites them onto his songs, with E-40 and Clyde Carson both joining him. Of course, L.A. talent features heavily, with the unstoppable YG and Ty Dolla $ign leading the way. If you want to know why people in Cali have more fun, this is a good example. —A.Z.
21. Rich Homie Quan, Still Goin’ In
Every song sounds like a summer afternoon spent riding around a park in a big body. From the fun “My N***a” to the grittier “Harder Den Me,” Quan’s singsongy rapping makes the album pretty infectious. —T.C.
20. 2 Chainz, B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time
B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time is 2 Chainz at his most fun, from the bangin’ “Where U Been?” featuring Cap 1 and “I Do It,” featuring Drake and Lil Wayne, to the Auto-Tuned, T-Pain-assisted “So We Can Live.” 2 Chainz can deliver bizarre, often funny one-liners, but he can also tell stories. That they’re wrapped up in a package produced by the likes of Mike WiLL Made It, Pharrell, and Diplo makes it all the more entertaining. —A.Z.
19. Mac Miller, Watching Movies with the Sound Off
So, Mac Miller grew up. To be fair, I think Mac was kind of unfortunately panned and pigeonholed into the territory of empty frat-rap after his debut, Blue Slide Park. But it did lack focus and polish, and his sophomore album shows clear progress from his previous effort — his rhymes more complex, genuinely witty, and his production kind of a joy to listen to. He produced much of it himself, under them moniker Larry Fisherman, while Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, The Alchemist, and Pharrell are among the other producers to take the wheel. They’re strong choices, helping shape the album into something introspective but not morose. He makes good choices with features, too, inviting Odd Future friends Earl and Tyler on two different songs, as well Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Electronica along. He challenges himself by surrounding himself with rappers known for their lyricism, and it pays off. —A.Z.
18. Migos, YRN
The tape that launched a thousand “VERSACE”s. While the Zaytoven-produced track is undoubtedly the fulcrum around with the rest of YRN orbits, there’s much more to love here from the Atlanta trio. Migos rap circles around rattling basslines and syncopated drum patterns with seemingly boundless energy. —A.N.
17. J. Cole, Born Sinner
J. Cole deliberately released his second album on the same day as Kanye West’s Yeezus, and while that seemed crazy at the time, the gamble paid off: It showed off his ambition, and gave fans of traditional hip-hop a comfortable alternative to West’s aggressive and ostentatiously arty record. No one is ever going to accuse Cole of being particularly clever or original, but he’s often great at building tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place on classics by A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and…well, early Kanye West. The problem with Born Sinner isn’t aesthetic conservatism — there’s definitely a place for that in rap — but rather Cole’s rampant inferiority complex and extreme reverence for his influences, which gets well out of hand when he devotes an entire track to feeling horrible for disappointing Nas. You just want to grab him and tell him, “Pull yourself together, man, you’re better than this!” —Matthew Perpetua
16. Big K.R.I.T., King Remembered in Time
KRIT’s moniker-stamped mixtape may be his most personal yet. Over the short span of his career, the Mississippi rapper has already gained a devoted fanbase (myself included) — partly from one-off bangers (“Country Shit,” “Money on the Floor”), but mostly for his honest, gritty, and sensitive bodies of work. King Remembered in Time is one of those. Although the tape is cut with bass-thumping hits, Krizzle offers incredibly introspective monologues and thought-provoking verses.” —T.C.
15. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Eminem’s eighth album certainly isn’t perfect: He continues to use homophobic slurs that he really doesn’t need to but relies on like a sick crutch, and plays up crude sex jokes like he’s still 23. But as far as technical skill goes, Em is still a wonder to listen to; he’s a master at internal rhyme schemes and has a flow that’s relentless and unmatched. And while he maybe could’ve taken a moment or two to catch his breath and change up, you get the feeling he’s been holding so much inside, it all just came out in one scattered burst. —A.Z.
Le1f is a mesmerizing, adaptable rapper who toggles between sultry, aggressive, and playful, sometimes in the same song. As fun a feature player as Le1f is, though, the shinning star of this record is probably the production — taking cues from heavy bass music and a spectrum of electronic sounds, Fly Zone sounds dark and clattering and refreshingly unique. —A.N.
13. Tyler, The Creator, Wolf
Tyler, The Creator’s third album, Wolf, may sound more mature on technical level — cinematic in scope and structure — but it doesn’t mean the rapper’s all grown up. It’s still very much an album made by a 21-year-old, about the awkwardness of dating and crushes (on, fittingly, a song called “Awkward”), and there’s a sweet innocence when he talks about girls he really likes (“Because holding your fingertips is golden”). He lets himself look dorky: “And making eye contact, I feel like the damn man / ‘Cause even though I am and get round of applauses / I’m insecure, then I start to think I don’t stand chance.” On “IFHY,” he expertly chronicles the roller coaster of emotions and jealousies of young love: “Crazy who makes me the happiest / Can make me the saddest.” This is territory where Eminem never really let himself go, and it’s precisely why Tyler might be able to retain accessibility and closeness with his listeners. He’s speaking about a universal experience. —A.Z.
Indigoisim is the stunning debut mixtape from The Underachievers, made up of Brooklynites Issa Dash and AK. The duo’s signed to Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeders label, and the association makes sense; the production on Indigoism is a little spacey, a little jazzy, with modern beats. If you like People Under the Stairs or Souls of Mischief, these guys aren’t far off; they share the same sophisticated lyricism and rapid-fire wordplay while ebbing and flowing with waves of the beat. —A.Z.
11. A$AP Ferg, Trap Lord
Anxiety fills every corner of A$AP Ferg’s major debut. In the haunting “Hood Pope,” he introduces his monotone verse with “And we sick, cause we hurting.” On the livelier “Fergicious” he drones on and on, “All I know is pain / Surviving on my own.” You can’t help but chant along with him. The album reaches its high point on the thumping “Shabba,” when Ferg reunites with his crew leader. A$AP Rocky’s feature is nothing short of thunderous, but Ferg is able to keep right up with him. This album is dark as hell, enjoy. —Myles Tanzer
10. Danny Brown, Old
For all his reputation as a happy-go-lucky molly-endorsing party rapper, Danny Brown is also a rapper to take seriously. Old is a concept album that sees the Detroit native diving deep into his upbringing, telling finely crafted stories that surprise and hit you right in the gut: tales of family abuse he’s seen, dope fiends and prostitutes, his days selling crack. His wordplay is intricate, his flow focused and pummeling, and every song adds another layer to the man. There’s still plenty of music to wild out to too, but that’s on “Side B.” —A.Z.
9. Ka, The Night’s Gambit
Don’t look to Ka if you’re looking for someone who’ll get you all riled up and impassioned — he’s maybe the most even-keeled and steady rapper around. He raps, almost whispering, so that you have to lean in to hear what he’s saying. The album is a story the 40-year-old is telling of the things he’s seen and learned living in Brooklyn’s Brownsville. “I play chess but my past is checkered,” he says on “Peace Akhi.” The song actually opens with a sample of dialogue from the classic chess scene in HBO’s The Wire, where D’Angelo teaches Bodie about the way of pawns. Night’s Gambit is a reflective piece, Ka’s production grisly and ominous, and worth really spending time with. Listen to this one alone. —A.Z.
8. A$AP Rocky, Long. Live. A$AP.
A$AP Rocky’s major label debut sounds like the result of an extravagant musical shopping spree, with the fashion-obsessed rapper taking advantage of his huge budget to work with the most stylish producers — Clams Casino, Hit-Boy, Danger Mouse, Skrillex — and the most talented rappers in his peer group, like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Danny Brown, Drake, Joey Bada$$, and Action Bronson. A lesser rapper could recede into the background while surrounded by this much talent, but Rocky’s highly expressive voice is always compelling, especially when he’s rapping over minimalist techno on “LVL” or unexpectedly crooning on the chorus of the slow, creepy “Long Live A$AP.” —M.P.
7. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels
Every so often, a record comes along that lifts hip-hop heads up out of the commercial cesspool that is Kanye-infused rap and reminds us why we love this music. Enter Run the Jewels, the instant classic collab between one of the underground game’s legends El-P and, arguably the best MC to emerge in a decade, Killer Mike.
El-P’s bangin’, deep bass beats create a rugged, no-nonsense foundation for the duo to rock some of the best rhymes of the year. El-P’s the only MC around that can turn Chernobyl into a searing diss on “Banana Clipper”: “The style is radiation leak at Mile Island / Also known as Chernobyl talk listen for the sirens.” Killer Mike, meanwhile, mows down other rappers en masse. On the brutal “Get It,” Mike warns his enemies over a booming beat, “Mike’ll fuck a rapper’s life up like Mo’Nique did to Precious … / And we are the new Avengers / We’re here to tell you all your false idols are just pretenders / They’re corporation slaves indentured to all the lenders / So even if you got seven figures, you still a n***a.” —John Stanton
6. M.I.A., Matangi
Matangi made me remember how much I missed M.I.A. The Sri Lankan Londoner’s new album is just the kind of electric, flamboyant sound that music needs right now. The album feels big, filled with earth-shaking, raucous bangers that ride through a variety of tempos and beats within each song. And there’s a bit of everything: bhangra influences, baile funk, dancehall, dub, reggae, electro, house. She spits rapid-fire on “Bring the Noize,” exemplifies laid-back, badass swagger on “Bad Girls,” and slows it down with the charming and breezy “Come Walk with Me.” “Only 1 U” is a glitchy, body roll–inducing banger. And while so many pop artists today are trying to cash in on Eastern culture, exoticizing dress and customs in a way that feels contrived, for M.I.A. — with her global citizen background — it comes across as more authentic. She uses the samples and influences she does, and talks about the issues she believes in, because it’s true to who she is, where’s she from, and what she aims to do — to bring attention to people and to causes that continue to go unheard. That she does all this in a way that’s also undeniable to dance to is what makes her special. —A.Z.
5. Pusha T, My Name Is My Name
In a year blessed by dozens of Kanye rants, my favorite was the one from the listening party for My Name Is My Name. The message was: Pusha T is the absolute shit. I know, Kanye, I know. Pusha T is the coolest guy in rap music. Video evidence: While Kanye does his Kanye thing, Pusha just stands there chilling with a smirk on his face like, “Yep, Kanye is a dork, but he’s my dork.”
Pusha does, like, three things well. One is acting like he doesn’t care all that much about rap (from “Grindin,” the song that made him: “Pharrell keep talkin’ this music shit” [ed: Bad. Ass.]). Another is obviously caring very much about rap, by writing unreal puns. Finally, he is very good at combining these two things to imply scary things about his lifestyle.
Kanye, who has unquestionably good taste in rappers, knows all this. This is why he loves Pusha, and why he pulled together this record, which is so good I could scream. It sounds like Yeezus but fun, and every song features Pusha saying at least three things that make you smirk and narrow your eyes like: tight. —Joe Bernstein
4. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap
Sure, Chance The Rapper makes fun weed songs like “Smoke Again” and “Pusha Man” and beautiful, climbing narratives like “Good Ass Intro” and “Everybody’s Something.” But Chance The Rapper is at his best when he’s being romantic. He’s just fucking good at making you feel like real romance is possible. And on “Lost” he promises to “fix you” and “fuck you,” and on “Interlude (That’s Love)” he says, “What’s better than rhymes, nickels, dimes, dollars, and dubs / Is dialing up your darling just for calling her up.” He expresses admiration in a way that’s not cloying, but still sugar sweet. It’s perfect. —M.T.
3. Drake, Nothing Was the Same
Drake talks about things everyone understands. When he says he can feel the distance of passive-aggressive texting, we nod along. He says that the most simple perfection is some head in a comfortable bed. It could all be so simple, but we want more like he does. He talks about reaching the highest highs and the crippling feeling of being unloved (by parents, by lovers, by the world), which is an abysmal low. Nothing Was the Same is about the human experience and its peaks and valleys. Drake is just narrating our lives. —M.T.
2. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
Three years ago, it seemed like Earl might never return from whatever mysterious place he was sent to by his mother. (A “therapeutic retreat for at-risk kids” in Samoa, as it later turned out.) It was hard to imagine we’d ever see anything from the young, gifted lyricist who stunned us with his harrowing, dark, impressive debut mixtape, Earl. And yet, here we are. Named after his grandmother, who passed away while he was making the album, Doris is a self-reflection and meditation on life and death, family, and expectations.
On “Chum,” he opens up about his relationship with his Nigerian poet father for the first time without a hint of irony: “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless / And I used to say I hate him in dishonest jest / And honestly I miss this n***a, like when I was 6 / And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it.” The accompanying video captures the general feel of the album: a feeling of suspension, as if all of Earl’s thoughts and anxieties have been emptied into a pool that we’re floating in. He produced much of the album himself, under the name Randomblackdude, and created a cohesive work that’s dark, and sometimes slightly menacing, but decidedly Odd Future in its use of synths and live instruments. Earl pummels through it all with the same precision that had so many in the rap community in awe of him in the first place, but now, after all that he’s been through, he has some real things to say. —A.Z.
1. Kanye West, Yeezus
Yeezus is Kanye’s most sonically ambitious record, and maybe his most important. The story of how quickly this album came together is well known now: Legendary hippie producer Rick Rubin came into the studio in the eleventh hour, paring down the album, stripping it of all excess, until all we’re left with is the core of a song and its deepest, most essential feeling. A chorus of voices on the glitchy, frantic album opener, “On Sight,” provide some context for what we’re about to hear: “He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want.” Later, on “I’m In It,” Kanye declares it’s “time to take it too far now.” He does just that.
While the production feels tight and minimal, Kanye exercises less restraint lyrically; it’s not hard to tell that he wrote many of the songs in just 30 minutes — the ideas just flow out of him. Not all of it is poetry. Yeezus is Kanye’s most sexually explicit record, and that angle is explored at depth, on the album, but it’s mostly about control, and the lack of it: by past lovers (“Hold My Liquor”), corporations, and capitalism (“New Slaves”), society (“Black Skinhead”), personal expectations (“I Am a God”). And in a nod to his hometown and its acid house scene, all of these anxieties and frustrations get packed into a dingy warehouse filled with fog and lasers and piercing air horns. There’s no resolution here, just emotion running wild in a brilliantly contained space devoid of unnecessary theatrics. Yeezus feels so radical in part because of how visceral of a listening experience it is, and how we’re made to listen to what he has to say. —A.Z.