So far, we’ve recapped the best pop, alternative, and heavy albums of the past year. But there are, of course, a few more major genres that resurged over this last year, and we really only have a couple more days of socially acceptable list-making time. With that, here are a look at five favorite hip-hop albums, from a field in which there were some clear winners early on.
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. City
Yes, the entire Official Music Blogging and Criticism Cabal anointed this debut record from about the second it hit the internet. But that’s because L.A. native Lamar came out on some Nas Illmatic-level of precociousness — a young dude with a fully formed world-within-an-album while his peers were just releasing mixtapes and throwaway singles. Ignore that weird robot-like voice he does on some of his hooks. Instead, focus on the album’s narrative arc, the earwormy qualities of singles like “Swimming Pools (Drank),” and that sweet Beach House sample on “Money Trees.”
El-P, Cancer 4 Cure
This year marked the return of New York mastermind El-P, after five years since his previous solo album and the total bummer shut-down of his record label, Definitive Jux. Those seemed to be an eventful five years for El-P, and unsurprisingly, this record is loud, at times chaotic, and mostly dark. The death of friend and former Def Jux signee Camu Tao still seems to weigh heavily here — two songs by Camu get sampled on single “The Full Retard.” At other times, El grapples with corrupt cops, corrupt governments, corrupt everything, Yet still seems to come out swinging, over walls of clanking, largely electronic beats that still get your neck snapping.
Big K.R.I.T., Live From the Underground
Chalk this up to another proper studio debut that plays like a mid-career opus. On this effort, the 26-year-old Mississippi native rekindles the flame of weird Southern rap. If you missed Outkast, you need only look to this record’s swampy, left-field beats and K.R.I.T.’s cadence for an update on that group’s legacy. The tracks here swap between unabashed party tracks, like “Money on the Floor,” and slices of social commentary. Happily, this even all adds up to a commercially viable effort. This record peaked at number one on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Rap Albums charts, and hit the top five of the Billboard 200.
Action Bronson, Rare Chandeliers
Alright, so one’s love of Action Bronson can be directly linked to one’s love of sassy, medium-pitched-voice MCs like Ghostface Killah. With a lot of hip-hop going off on experimental tangents, it was refreshing to hear someone do proper New York hip-hop while managing to not sound like a total anachronism. Action Bronson is alternately funny, gross, and witty while he slides over beats like butter. This past year actually gave us two unofficial albums by Bronson — this one and the earlier Blue Chips. But Rare Chandeliers wins out for its Alchemist production and carefully selected cameos (Meyhem Lauren, Roc Marciano, Schoolboy Q).
Rick Ross, God Forgives, I Don’t
The list wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Miami’s current most famous rapper (if we consider that Pitbull has long ago left the category of “rapper” proper). The whole corrections-officer thing has turned out to be a minor blip in the Bawse’s ascent, and with each new album, his rapped fantasies become even more fantastic. Throughout this hard-pounding album, Ross seems to leave reality further and further behind, to listeners’ benefit. You aren’t supposed to take any of this as a literal recounting of Ross’ life, any more, but rather a Scarface-style, quasi-fictional epic interspersed with the occasional, pseudo-love song. “Diced Pineapples,” anyone? He’s not referring to the actual fruit.