Under the Radar’s Top 15 Hip-Hop Albums of 2015

Dec 31, 2015
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Hip-hop heads will be talking about 2015 for a generation. It was a growth spurt year for the still somewhat young genre. Many of its long held views about race relations, social injustice, and poverty were deepened and nuanced as a response to a seemingly endless parade of police brutality. Meanwhile, the genre's styles and conventions were vaulted forward like never before. Leading the way were a half dozen youngsters who came into their own. But rap's elders also put forth thrillingly laudable efforts-from Ghostface Killah to Cannibal Ox and even the all-but-forgotten Dr. Dre, the latter of whom unfortunately didn't make the cut on this list. Numerous other LPs were also nearly included, from a shocking ante upping by the once irrelevant The Game, to a bitterly underrated turn by perpetual burgeoning MC Mac Miller. Hell, Ghostface alone released a trio of sterling LPs in the past 12 months. This all proves the richness of rap's current state, making it impossible to limit our favorites to a Top 10. Instead, esteemed critics Jim Scott, Marty Hill, Scott Dransfield, and myself present 2015's Top 15 hip-hop releases. Feel free to beef with us about those choices in the comments section below. By Kyle Mullin

1

Kendrick Lamar

To Pimp a Butterfly

Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

This is what hip-hop was always supposed to do: incite indignation, reveal the innermost id of the MC, and provide grooves for both riotous marches and sexy romps. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly does all this and more, over an equally impressive range of styles and palates. The throwback soulful grooves of "If These Walls Could Talk" make it the catchiest, and sexiest song of the year. Lamar raps over an equally upbeat instrumental on "Alright," though its lyrics are a far graver plea for this Black Lives Matter era. "King Kunta," meanwhile, stomps with the bravado of a man who knows he's lucky to be alive in a country that constantly puts him at odds with the authorities. Throughout it all, Lamar's flow remains even more eclectic than the LP's production, while his lyrics prove sturdy enough to withstand these tough times. He's intoxicatingly mellow on the aforementioned "Walls." He's manically abrasive on "u." He's tersely conversational on "How Much a Dollar Cost," a quality that, incidentally, compelled President Barack Obama to name the song his favorite of 2015. These reasons and more also make To Pimp a Butterfly this year's very best album, in rap or any other genre. By Kyle Mullin

2

Vince Staples

Summertime '06

Def Jam

Vince Staples' debut LP is dank, dark, and deeply introspective. It feels like he is taking you on a white knuckle tour of the rough streets that raised him. The production, handled mostly by veteran producer No I.D., is searingly electronic but also starkly minimalistic. That gives the music a hypnotic quality, as Staples' high-pitched, laidback voice unveils the ghetto's dual seductiveness and malice. Staples doesn't just refrain from glorification of those dire circumstances-such clich├ęs don't even seem to occur to him, sounding like a sheer impossibility amongst the adrenaline, fight-or-flight vibe of this indispensable, entirely unique LP. By Kyle Mullin

3

Earl Sweatshirt

I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside

Columbia/Tan Cressida

Avoiding the abyss of near self-parody that fellow Odd Future members seem to have fallen into as of late, Earl Sweatshirt completely outdoes himself on his second LP. He does it without ever really trying, too. Skeletal keyboards and fractured snares melt in to each other as Earl sounds more self-assured than ever. Doris, his debut, was a modest coup. IDLSIDGO is nothing short of a masterpiece. By Marty Hill

4

Drake

If You're Reading This It's Too Late

Cash Money

For better or worse, no rapper made as big an impression on the culture as Drake in 2015. On If You're Reading This It's Too Late he shifted his persona by sheer force of will, backed by catchy choruses. The ridiculous run of "Energy," "10 Bands," "Know Yourself," and "No Tellin'" makes this one of the best releases of the year. By Jim Scott

5

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

Surf

Self-Released

From the carnival exuberance of "Slip Slide" to the sentimental vibrato of the father-son ode "Windows," no other hip-hop album utilized a live band like Surf in 2015. Indeed, white hot MC Chance the Rapper went so far as to even hide his banner name amongst his fellow band members, and instead let horn player extraordinaire Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet) have the title role. But this is still very much a Chance the Rapper hip-hop album, despite the title that indicates otherwise, or the instrumentation that would fit on a progressive jazz or upbeat soul LP. Still, there's no boundary that Chance wasn't willing to push on this unconventional album, making it a thrilling listen. In fact the "nah nah nah" backing vocals and African tinged synths on centerpiece song "Wanna Be Cool," make the tune a modern day "Call Me Al." Indeed, it's tempting to dub Chance hip-hop's Paul Simon. But his declaration of "You should just be you" on "Wanna Be Cool," reminds us that his ambition, collaborative spirit and boundless creativity really do make him-and, in turn, Surf-beyond compare. By Kyle Mullin

6

Young Fathers

White Men Are Black Men Too

Big Dada

"I'm tired of being a good black" spits an evidently frustrated Alloysious Massaquo on "Old Rock n Roll." It's a statement that sustains itself throughout the album's entirety, Dead's infectious hooks may have earned the Edinburgh collective the prestigious Mercury Prize just last year, but the follow up places itself in a much more hostile area, and says much, much more. By Marty Hill

7

Pusha T

King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude

GOOD Music/Def Jam

If it wasn't 2015, this would have been universally hailed the year's best rap LP. Unfortunately for Pusha T, too many youngins' advanced the genre in more adventurous fashion throughout these past 12 months (see numbers 1-6 above). But this former Clipse member still puts forth a spectacular effort on his sophomore solo release. He's had plenty of help, with a host of legendary producers delivering their best beats in ages. On "Untouchable," Timbaland utilizes a sneering Notorious B.I.G. sample and percussion that rumbles like that late MC's gait. Biggie's famed cohort, Sean "Puffy" Combs, contributes astounding '90s flourishes on three tracks, the best being the mournfully horn laden "Crutches, Crosses, Caskets." Meanwhile, A Tribe Called Quest mastermind Q-Tip helms the bleacher-rattling drums of "F.I.F.A." Fantastic as those songs are, Pusha T impresses most with a veteran of soul instead of rap. Closing track "Sunshine," boasts a chilling Nina Simone homage from Jill Scott, as Push lays forth a fierce dedication to Freddie Gray and every other unjustly slain African American. This otherwise masterful LP is not without blemishes-the Kanye West assisted "M.P.A." hems too close to Yeezy's grating 2007 Graduation cut "Drunk and Hot Girls," for instance. But by partnering with hip-hop's turn-of-the-century greats, Push finds new depths in the genre's well-trodden themes of race, crime, and injustice. Unfortunately, that's what America needs to hear now more than ever, making Pusha T indispensable in the Black Lives Matter soundtrack. By Kyle Mullin

8

Lupe Fiasco

Tetsuo & Youth

Atlantic/1st and 15th

This is the most elaborate rap album of the year. No other MC wrote a line like: "Sanskrit dance on the page of the dead book," (on midway track "Body of Work"). No other hip-hop song used violins and beats to such chilling effect (on "Prisoner 1 & 2"), or employed a banjo riff as a heart-stopping intro (on "Dots and Lines"). No other rap album in 2015 boasted a single element so shockingly complex. Lupe Fiasco did so on Tetsuo & Youth's every song. This is a testament to the Windy City MC's uncompromising intellectualism. That has always been one of his most apparent traits. After all, he was the MC who dedicated a whole song to his refusal to "Dumb It Down," a decade ago. But Tetsuo, his fifth LP, takes that notion to unprecedented heights. Each of his verses feels like a novel on this album, and each instrumental is an unconventional orchestra. It would have been an overstuffed mess in anyone else's hands, and those very traits will alienate casual listeners. But Fiasco makes all that sprawling ambition work for patient diehards with catchy-albeit complex-lyrical and sonic hooks. Tetsuo is like a longtime angler's colorful flies, and if you take the bait Lupe will reel you in past the surface, and up to expansive fresh air. By Kyle Mullin

9

Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge

12 Reasons to Die II

Linear Labs

12 Reasons to Die II ties Ghostface Killah's stunning verbosity to Adrian Younge's cinematic production and lets them run. It's a concept album sequel that feels like a great graphic novel, all severe angles and shadows. Ghostface is in top form, as are guests Vince Staples, who drops a thrilling verse on "Get the Money" and, of course, Raekwon. By Jim Scott

10

L'Orange & Kool Keith

Time? Astonishing!

Mello Music Group

Hip-hop's most blatant weirdo has finally found a kindred spirit in all things bizarre. But the collaboration should've long been obvious. Indeed, few producers other than L'Orange could be a better fit for veteran esoteric wordsmith Kool Keith. That's because the fledging North Carolina studio smith constantly samples vintage cabaret jazz and snippets of the radio dramas that were popular during that era. This time around, he focuses on that aged period's sci-fi serials, giving Kool Keith a framework that is part throwback and part out-of-this-world. The MC obliges by providing stream of conscious rhymes that sound like they'd been plumbed from his psyche by a telepathic alien. The result: a wildly ambitious, perpetually unpredictable LP that's also catchy, because L'Orange never lets (literally) old fashioned harmonies and rhythms get lost amongst all the surrounding strangeness. By Kyle Mullin

11

Cannibal Ox

Blade of the Ronin

IGC/iHipHop

It seemed like it would never happen, but Vast Aire and Vordul Mega not only reunited in 2015, they dropped a razor-sharp and cohesive record. There's magic in how these two voices wind around one another. Though it's unlikely they'll ever top 2001's stone classic The Cold Vein and they miss El-P's finest pre-Run the Jewels production, the Bill Cosmiq-helmed Blade of the Ronin comes frighteningly close. By Jim Scott

12

Oddisee

The Good Fight

Mello Music Group

His samples are intricately layered, yet subtly digestible. His lyrics explore everyman themes with a scholar's eye for detail. Superstardom has eluded him, yet he's the most heralded artist in underground rap. Oddisee does indeed walk a fine line, and it turns out to be a lane that's his alone. Indeed, no other alt-hip-hopper is as catchy or accessible (employing warmly lo-fi soul and jazz samples) while also utilizing his distinct signifiers like literally offbeat drums, which feature time signatures from his native Sudan. Oddisee explores his paradoxical nature on The Good Fight highlight "Contradiction's Maze," which is complete with bossanova horns and slyly seductive, rattlesnake percussion. Centerpiece "First Choice," meanwhile, has buttery soulful baselines while also blending gloriously African conga taps. Such a disparate mix wouldn't even occur to other artists, much less prove to be such a recipe for success. By Kyle Mullin

13

Freddie Gibbs

Shadow of a Doubt

ESGN

Leave it to Freddie Gibbs to make crooning sound gangsta. The Gary, Indiana indie rapper is partially known for his gravelly, Tupac Shakur-esque voice. But Gibbs differentiated himself from 'Pac years ago by surpassing him-delivering mercilessly grim lyrics about ghetto life in a greater variety of cadences than Shakur ever mustered, without succumbing to the sentimental 'hood glorification that tainted much of the late MC's work. With Shadow of a Doubt Gibbs pushes his vocals even further-abruptly raising his pitch while he raps on "Narcos," or spitting double time on "Extradite," (which features an equally sterling turn from The Roots' Black Thought), and smoothly swaying through asymmetrical syllables on Mexico (which features a hook from rising Canadian rapper Tory Lanez). Most stunningly of all is Gibbs' singing on numerous tracks, including the synth laden "Careless." While he is by no means a technically gifted singer, his sincerely husky voice more than holds its own with that of other rappers (and autotune drenched pop stars, for that matter) who take a crack at carrying a tune. He may have called the LP Shadow of a Doubt, but it's doubtless that Freddie Gibbs is one of the most dynamic MCs in the game right now. By Kyle Mullin

14

Joey Bada$

B4.DA.$

Cinematic Music Group/Pro Era

Young Brooklyn rapper and Pro Era leader Joey Bada$ is barely old enough to remember the golden age of '90s hip-hop, yet he nails its vibe more perfectly than just about any other artist. Energetically spitting over jazzy boom-bap beats, Joey explores his place in today's turbulent world, exuding a surprising amount of real pathos and experience for his age. Whether examining his upbringing as the child of Caribbean immigrants or the death of his friend and label-mate Capital STEEZ, going hard on "Big Dusty" or introspective on "Like Me," Joey displays a range and authenticity rarely witnessed on debut albums. Hopefully he continues this upward growth, even after the money. By Scott Dransfield

15

Logic

The Incredible True Story

Def Jam

Logic can finally breathe easy. After naysayers dismissed Under Pressure, his 2014 debut, as hemming too close to the sound and themes heralded by Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, and his other peers, this Maryland MC decided his path to stardom lay in a galaxy far away. His sophomore set, The Incredible True Story, boasts sci-fi skits instead of the all-too-typical 'hood interludes that clutter countless rap albums. Logic supposedly wrote a screenplay for those Lost In Space-esque skits. However, he wisely makes no attempt to force such intergalactic flourishes to the lyrics of these songs, instead having the skit characters mention and listen to his tunes as "oldies" from before Earth's annihilation. The contrast between those interludes and the contemporary songs is jarring, but fascinating and unlike any mainstream rap LP. Logic's lyrics are equally enthralling, whether he's voicing concerns about social workers coming to take his son on "Fade Away," or prophets that are unconcerned with profit on "Lord Willin.'" Best of all is the solar system expanse of the production, which incorporating everything from dazzling '70s jazz instrumentals on "Like Whoa," gritty '80s boom bap on "Young Jesus," and supernova synths on "City of Stars." This new LP isn't a mere small step, but a giant leap for Logic. By Kyle Mullin

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JGBeats
November 8th 2016
4:00am

Joey Badass only on 14??? my opinion is that he need to be in top 5

Paco
April 7th 2017
9:44am

En planeta madera mientras trabajamos escuchamos hip hop.