To call 2015 hip-hop’s greatest year of the 2010s still manages to feel like an understatement. Hip-hop was so strong this year, so bursting with vital information and ideas and emotions, that it singlehandedly gave another genre a comeback — rappers’ newfound affinity for jazz got people listening to Kendrick Lamar-approved saxophonist Kamasi Washington and Chance the Rapper’s main man Donnie Trumpet after the music America was built on reached its all-time sales nadir.
But more importantly, rap became the “black CNN” again, through Vince Staples’ “I ain’t never run from nothing but the police” and Kendrick’s “The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot.” Hedonists like Future revealed the darkness behind their hard-partying. The growing profiles of Lizzo, Junglepussy, and DeJ Loaf will help end the practice of only one female rapper being heralded at a time. Even pop-rap received a newfound respect thanks to Fetty Wap, an inexhaustible fount of charisma and hooks. With Kendrick leading 2016’s Grammy nominees, and Chance performing (incredibly) on SNL — despite only releasing music you can acquire for $0 — rap impacted the world more than ever in 2015, as it deserved to. Here are 50 reasons why.
50. Drake and Future
What a Time to Be Alive
The mixtape that spawned a million memes, What a Time to Be Alive had you rooting for Drake and Future again even after their overflowing 2015 output made them insufferably omnipresent to plenty. The latter’s on his most mumbling grind here, gargling his way through cold stunners like “Jumpman” (in which Future shouts out popular sushi restaurant Nobu six times in a row). Drake makes some noise too, joining his compadre in the depths of Magic City, adapting his flow to Metro Boomin’s glittery beats, and slinging some deliverables of his own: “I might take Quentin to Follies / You hate your life, just be honest,” he sneers on “Digital Dash,” poking fun at his summer feud with the disgraced Meek Mill. If anyone disagrees with this collaboration’s title it’s probably that guy. — BRENNAN CARLEY
49. Tech N9ne
The greatest Juggalo rapper of all time is one of the fastest “technicians” in the world, as they call him — he raps along with 21 unloaded machine-gun rounds at every concert. At age 44, the only guy who can snag collaborations with both Lil Wayne and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor hit the top five on the Billboard Top 200 for hard-won reasons, and it’s time the gatekeepers noticed. Gearing his syllables to Worldmusicfests cleanly like helicopter blades — or guillotines — he name-checks soft-folkie Richie Havens (!) on the best-in-show whirlwind “Speedom (WWC2),” which also proudly features the most blinding Eminem verse since “Rap God.” Weezy holds his own on the more laid-back “Bass Ackwards,” while 2 Chainz helps the atypically patient “Hood Go Crazy” become a sparse banger. But the guests showcase Techanina’s wide-reaching charisma, and his sales numbers are proof that talent alone is sometimes enough. — DAN WEISS
48. Rap Monster
K-Pop has an ugly history of appropriating black culture, with performers appearing in blackface being a dishearteningly common practice. Even Rap Monster, the promising 20-year-old breakout star from seven-piece hip-hop group BTS demonstrated his “special talent” of “talking black” in one horrifying on-air appearance. After the whole group attended a TV-friendly “hip-hop boot camp” with lessons from Coolio and Warren G, maybe they matured some, but more importantly, Rap Monster’s debut solo mixtape, RM, takes his chosen genre seriously (even if its cover artwork is circumstantially unwise at best). With smartly snagged instrumentals from Run the Jewels and Big K.R.I.T., a cameo from Tech N9ne sidekick Krizz Kaliko, and surprisingly sturdy hooks on the piano-bar blues “Life” and the hammering standout single “Do You,” Kim Namjoon actually stands a chance of making a dent in the States. Provided he sticks to doing him. — D.W.
Yung Rich Nation
Legal trouble and one-hit-wonder naysayers be damned — in the midst of a trying year, this quick-lipped trio of ATLiens not only managed to finally release their studio debut following mixtapes, delays, and legal troubles (including the incarceration of member Offset), but it also turned out to be a triumphant, surprisingly strong album despite having a worse debut sales week than gimmicky YouTube rapper Lil Dicky. “Trap Funk” is a glossy celebration, and the stealthy, smoothed-out “Gangsta Rap” gives Migos a change of scenery for their clipped bursts of zonked choruses. “I know you been patiently waitin’,” they rap over the frenzied keys and fat-bellied synths of opening track “Memoirs.” It was worth it. — REBECCA HAITHCOAT
Houston 3 AM
BeatKing, a rapper-producer from Houston and the self-proclaimed Club Godzilla, often sounds like he’s recording live from the champagne room. Most of his songs meet at the intersection of comic wit and club debauchery (“Your girl all in my DM messages/ Your bitch, she give me neck like Exorcist”), and on his eighth mixtape, Houston 3 AM, he has a laugh at everyone’s expense, ignoring political correctness and going full-on #problematic for rambunctious party-starters like “That Ain’t My Thot,” “Deposit,” and “WTH.” What might get lost in all the blatant misogyny is that none of these songs are meant to be unpacked or engaged with; this heir apparent to 2 Live Crew and Lil Jon makes sub rattlers and twerk anthems designed for gyrating across the stages of his city’s world-renowned strip joints. — SHELDON PEARCE
To Pimp a Butterfly was praised for avoiding the heavy-handed trappings of political masterworks; meanwhile, Bay Area vet Paris’ double-CD Pistol Politics is like two gigantic hardcover texts being dropped on your head. Connected to firebrands like Public Enemy and dead prez, the 48-year-old rapper self-funded this post-Ferguson/post-Charleston saga of pointed criticism and wonderfully dated MIDI funk that sits comfy between the Coup and DJ Quik. But it’s more shameless than either, with louche interpolations of “Jungle Boogie” and “Land of a Thousand Dances” just because the Ice-T-cum-Method-Man-voiced stockbroker can afford them. The funereal “Buck, Buck, Pass” and the breathless, Dylann Roof-naming title track are just two of many moments that weigh the inconsistencies of American gun culture, and even an inert Obama gets censured on “Change We Can Believe In”: “They hate ‘cause he black / We hate ‘cause he wrong.” Anger, who can direct it? — D.W.
Time and Materials
Temporarily putting the brakes on his middle-aged, baseball-loving alter ego, Serengeti finally had room to get back to realms more pointed and abstract. With help from fellow Angeleno and longtime pal Open Mike Eagle, the L.A.-via-Chicago rapper launched Cavanaugh as an outlet for his more psychedelic and sociological impulses. Blunted beats storm aboard the astral plane as Mike and Geti inhabit the all-seething personas of maintenance men at a mixed-income apartment building in Florida. It’s high-concept as ever for the pair, but through the haze comes newly potent messages of class conflict and self-improvement — the benefit of slowing down to take stock of a moment rather than turning this project into another absurdist riff session. Turns out they just needed more Time and Materials. — COLIN JOYCE
Thirst Trap EP
This 20-year-old Brooklyn MC slinked onto the scene with “Pilates (Kendall, Kylie, Miley),” a sparse, boss-bitch anthem punctuated with finger snaps that fit neatly into the current futuristic-rap soundscape. However, with (literally) phoned-in skits, wintry beats, and a slick shout to Big Poppa, her debut EP, Thirst Trap, owes a little bit more to the past. She does her hood’s legacy proud, too, switching up her cadence and flows so the throwback vibe doesn’t get dull — as she raps on “UNTLD”: “Gotta stay fit, ‘cause I’m runnin’ the s**t / How you gonna try to spit if you illiterate?” After years of East Coast rappers of varying caliber screaming “New York is back,” maybe it finally is. — R.H.
42. Dr. Dre
As the box-office blockbuster Straight Outta Compton only solidifies even more, Dre has always been a studio rat, and he’s always had an exceptional gift for plucking out and priming newcomers. Compton — the guest-list heavy followup to 1999’s gangster-ed up 2001, whose wait was rivaled only by GN’R’s too-big-to-whoops Chinese Democracy — only confirms this. Obviously, Dre has spent the past 16 years holed up and honing his skills not only as a producer, but also as a talent scout. Upstart accomplice Anderson .Paak, who’s been popping up to play the funky drummer at shows around L.A. for years, finally gets a chance to shine, most notably on the soul-bared “Animals.” And the laid-back, hydraulic-equipped “Genocide,” produced by relative newcomer Dem Jointz, is one of the most gripping beats of the year. No, this isn’t the Chevy-raising, chronic-blazing album the world was expecting — it’s better. — R.H.
Dropping the word “faggot” more than Rajon Rondo, transfeminine Spokane rapper Michete is a case study in intersectionality that many won’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. Others will giggle because Michete would probably make excellent ten-foot pole jokes. The basic beats and old-school cypher-style flow on his debut are more Beasties than Eminem, and you can hear the influence of his buddy Shamir on lines like “You’re severely misguided, get a GPS.” He interrupts “#F**kboy” with an astounding blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Nicki Minaj impression, and even makes something relatively poignant out of the slur usage on the Kreayshawn-esque “Closet Case Fags,” about the dudes who blow up his phone all day despite having a girlfriend; a line like “If you’re a straight guy / I’m a paraplegic Asian chick” is spat with lived-in bitterness. Pitchfork dubbed this branch of elephant-in-the-room queer rap “qrap”; Call him Thomas Qrapper. Helpful reminder: “Can I be any more gay? Yaaaaaaaaas.” — D.W.
40. Death Grips
The Powers That B
“We had no plans on disappointing our fans again,” Death Grips’ foul-mouthedpiece Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett told Worldmusicfests in 2012, referencing their notorious tour full of no-shows; a year later, he and damage-inducing drummer Zach Hill “chose not to show up” at their Lollapalooza set in Chicago. They said double LP The Powers That B would be their final release; later that year, they announced (surprise?) the arrival of another album, Bottomless Pit. Whatever they say and then do, or don’t do, these sludge-punk corrosives remain impossible to ignore. Björk’s chopped-and-chewed vocals on Powers’ first disc, niggas on the moon, will never hit as hard as Burnett’s barks, but Jenny Death, the second one, affirms what we’d be missing in a world without Death Grips. With its slow-mo doom-metal guitar screeches and Burnett’s f**k-spattered lyrics ricocheting inside his own head, “Centuries of Damn” burns a hole through Generation Jobless futility, while “I Break Mirrors With My Face In the United States” burrows further inward with Hill’s hardcore tempo and Burnett breathlessly insisting, “I DON’T CARE ABOUT REAL LIFE!” Maybe he doesn’t, according to their track record of pissing people off, but The Powers That B bristles with the articulated rage of two people who DGAFOS. — HARLEY BROWN
39. K Camp
Only Way Is Up
Atlanta has hogged the national hip-hop stage for a few years now, and Kristopher Campbell’s string of singles — notably 2013’s mean-spirited snip-snip anthem “Cut Her Off” — are merely the city’s latest to bogart the spotlight. So while his long-simmering studio debut Only Way Is Up isn’t as codeine-crazy or deep-sea dark as Future or Young Thug, bouncing tracks like “Lil Bit” and island-breezy love songs like “Comfortable” carve out a fine little niche for uncomplicated, radio-ready hooks in a year when we even needed a breather from our own favorites. — R.H.
38. Public Enemy
Man Plans God Laughs
Chuck D is almost indie-rock at this point, taking inspiration from Run the Jewels and To Pimp a Butterfly without a single damn guest spot on his #BlackLivesMatter album. Declining to try and match Kendrick or El-P’s sonic density, he opts for an un-P.E.-like minimalism, with lone producer Gary G-Wiz delivering church organs on “Me to We,” jingling glockenspiel on “Give Peace a Damn,” and Keith Richards-style guitar moves on “Honky Tonk Rules.” At 55, Chuck’s still good for damning truth torpedos like “It’s cool to be black / Until it’s time to be black.” The most trusted name in rap; Chuck’s long since proven he’s the genre’s Walter Cronkite. — D.W.
So the Flies Don’t Come
This year, the former Hellfyre Club rapper milo traded Los Angeles for Milwaukee, and with it he swapped his trademark soul-searching spoken word for tightly wound art-rap exercises. The Chicago-bred upstart floats on his second (and best) album, So the Flies Don’t Come: lower stakes, sharper vocals, grimmer outlook. There are odes to his mentor, the tongue-twisting underground legend Busdriver; there are also thinly veiled shots for his contemporaries back in the L.A. scene. Flies declines to mull the twentysomething coming-of-age story that guided last year’s a toothpaste suburb, confining its existential battles to four-bar vignettes. “‘Yo, milo, why you front like you’re enlightened?’/ Because presently it’s advantageous / Now please tell me what the bad man’s name is / That’s the same box that my 404 came in / Do you think your soul will fit in there?” That’s what Flies is: an attempt to squeeze all that lingering dread inside packing material. — PAUL THOMPSON
Imani, Vol. 1
It’s no small feat making hip-hop’s most fastidiously melodic album in a year when Fetty Wap, Makonnen, and Ty Dolla $ign have all proven that you barely have to rap at all when you’re a human hook. But those Auto-Tune scholars have nothing on this cryogenically unfrozen Quannum project, whom after a decade absent (Rae Sremmurd out-of-nowhere sampling “Deception” aside) sound less like 2015 than Chuck D and Cannibal Ox combined. I mean, on the organ/guitar/clavinet vamp “Ashes to Ashes,” the duo of Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab boast about having “rhymes galore” for chrissakes. Anyone who mistakes this stuff for “conscious” needs to discover Vince Staples, stat. But Staples fans could use the cheery piano of “The Sun,” the brass P-funk orchestra of “Inspired By,” and the sampler-stretched guitar of “I Like the Way That You Talk” more than they know. — D.W.
35. Big Sean
Dark Sky Paradise
Detroit cornball Big Sean often exists solely as the conduit for proving other rappers’ skills — his flimsy “assquake” bars on the G.O.O.D. clique’s 2012-beating “Mercy,” his inessential presence on Nicki Minaj’s show-stealing “Dance (A$$)” — but the murky fortress of solitude that is Dark Sky Paradise boosts his cache considerably. For the first time in three solo records, Sean holds his own against his guests; he goes staccato shot-for-shot with Drake on the rattling confidence booster “Blessings” and turns verses into barbs on the Naya Rivera-slamming “I Don’t F**k With You,” as E-40 fades sheepishly aside. Though the quickly tiring DJ Mustard handles most of the production, Sean’s quick to cede to upstarts like Vinylz (“F**k With You”) and DJ Dahi (“Outro”) to show his gratitude for having made it this far. Dark Sky Paradise hints he may make one yet. — B.C.
34. Mick Jenkins
Don’t call him conscious, but Chicago’s other H20-fixated rapper put a little more choppiness in 2015 rap’s hardly placid waters with Wave[s], an EP whose political and social fixations plop like tablets of antacid into the soothingly aqueous production. He sings of displacement and dissociation both personal (“I don’t ever really feel myself” on “Alchemy”) and societal (“The audience all white / I thought we been blacks out” on “Get Up Get Down”). As the desolation builds, his ever-present water metaphors feel especially prescient. Each drop can create or destroy life, and Wave[s] recognizes the multiplicity: It’s both imposing tsunami and cooling spring rain. Future was wrong, there is no drought. — C.J.
33. Sicko Mobb
Super Saiyan Vol. 2
There are times when Lil Trav and Lil Ceno of Sicko Mobb, two singsong rapping brothers in their early 20s from Chicago’s West Side, sound like Alvin & the Chipmunks on a lean binge, springing around yet somehow slowed by the warping drawl of Auto-Tune on songs like “Kool Aid” and “Go Plug.” The sequel fleshes out Vol. 1 with warmer sounds so the duo’s tweaked voices bounce off the synth walls of their gleeful productions. Super Saiyan Vol. 2 is as charged up as the anime for which it is named, with the cartoon energy of an alternate universe that subverts the dark, 808-heavy soundscapes of traditional trap for something decidedly more playful. — S.P.
“Rap takes a lot of words and I don’t want to say anything embarrassing,” New York rapper Le1f said recently of the early material he made as a late teen. But with Riot Boi his explorations of queer desire and entrenched societal racism finally feel fearless. Romantic denials (become defiant tools for dismantling a culture of oppression, subjugation, and sexualization — casual subversions of societal norms as disorienting and dizzy as the candy-rush beats (c/o SOPHIE, Balam Acab, other A-list electro-weirdos) that upgrade his art-rap weaponry. He’s always wanted to riot, but without the worry of tripping over his words, he’s finally ready for a riot of his own. — C.J.
31. Cannibal Ox
Blade of the Ronin
Merely returning the voices of long-dormant New York duo Cannibal Ox — the stretched-out sneer of Vast Aire and metronomic monotone of Vordul Mega — to our lives for the first time since 2001’s singularly dystopian The Cold Vein would be reason enough to be grateful for Blade of the Ronin’s existence. But with the help of producer Black Cosmiq (filling the role left open by former musical director El-P) cloaking them in their trademark odd-future fog, Blade reminds us how CanOx were the missing link between Wu-Tang and Madvillain. The duo “kicking that digital audible” is even more refreshing in an era where their sci-fi soundscapes and smart-aleck rhymes have precious few RIYL comparisons. “We got higher heights to reach,” Vast Aire promises on “Iron Rose,” and we just hope it’s not another 14 years until he proves himself right. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Winter’s Diary 3
Tink’s Winter’s Diary series has always proven the Detroit MC’s emotional resonance; maybe it’s the sweeping openness the 20-year-old adopts on the third entry that turns the tape into something more profound. Treating her rhymes like lyrical Kleenex, the Timbaland protégé makes good on her mentor’s assertions that she’s the new Aaliyah. Her singing is pristine and beautiful, sprinkling tears all over these confessionals. “You are the bell to my door / Sweat to my pores / Summer in the box when I’m nailed to the floor,” she sings on the somberly funky “H2O.” Tink’s not all whispered sweet-nothings though; on the Timbo-produced “L.E.A.S.H.” she asserts herself as a self-made woman over a quietly piping flute. “He see me rollin’ round on my grown shit / I made it real clear that I owns it,” she proclaims. If this is her in mixtape mode, stand back for the album. — B.C.
29. Monster Rally & Jay Stone
The IPA-goosed rap of this dynamic duo had few parallels in 2015, with producer Monster Rally’s store of flutes, obscuro soul, and tropical resort-style samples underscoring Jay Stone’s vexing, Madvillainy-meets-Del the Funky Homosapien flow on tales like the trippy “Parthenogenesis” and the hypnotically long-intro’d “Permeate/No Cilantro.” Think Mos Def’s exotica-happy The Ecstatic if Action Bronson was helping curate behind the boards. Anachronistic types have to fight for their place in rap almost harder than anyone these days. — D.W.
28. Shy Glizzy & Zaytoven
For Trappers Only
Washington, D.C.’s exuberant Shy Glizzy appears to be on the precipice of stardom; he has the requisite grit to be a favorite with the Southern (and nearly-Southern) street-rap crowd. He’s also winking just enough to cross over: “Before I was a rapper I had 20 and a flow / This rap s**t ain’t too bad I get 20 [thousand] for a show.” So one might expect that a full-length collaboration with Zaytoven — the dirty-drummed Atlanta producer who helped map out Gucci Mane’s late-2000s mixtape run — would mark Glizzy’s entree to the A-list. Instead, For Trappers Only is delightfully anathematic: 42 minutes of ghoulish, sneering, hating-from-outside-the-club antipathy. — P.T.
27. Gangsta Boo
Candy, Diamonds & Pills
Memphis’ Queen Boo has been rapping for nearly two decades, but thanks to the recent appreciation for and appropriation of Three 6 Mafia’s early-‘90s sound, she’s finally getting national recognition. Her ninth tape (or 12th solo release overall), Candy, Diamonds & Pills, respects the murky, skulking sound of her past while smartly employing Houston sleaze-scientist Beatking to subtly update it — most successfully on the kush-dizzy “Weed World,” and the poorly-tipped stripper’s revenge tale “Can I Get Paid.” Boo’s standout appearance on Run the Jewels 2 was hopefully a springboard towards the forefront that’s always denied her, and Pills is a good reminder of why she deserves it. If A$AP Rocky can ride a new Triple Six-inspired wave, shouldn’t one of its original members? — R.H.
26. Lupe Fiasco
Tetsuo & Youth
There was a time when it seemed like a good snicker to deride Azealia Banks as the female Lupe Fiasco; once she started accosting gay flight attendants it seemed like Fiasco would be horrified if someone tagged him the male A.B. They’re both wondrously talented ne’er do-wells but Lupe cares deeply about everything he says and who it touches — even if it’s just a boast that he likes his pancakes cut in swirls. And challenge us he will, beginning with the nine-minute “Mural” that he knew was engaging enough to open his best album since the well-respected days of Food & Liquor and The Cool. Seventy-eight minutes is a long running time for any blowhard, but it helps that the stoutest tracks are the show-stoppers, like the terse, orchestral “Prisoner 1 & 2,” which folds in jackhammer sounds for an actual chain-gang middle eight. The rap game’s Relative Who Ruins Thanksgiving Dinner has doubled down on his Lasers regrets with his least commercial album ever, vividly imagined with stream-of-un-self-conscious raps and touches of Ani DiFranco-like cult jazz. Aren’t you at least curious? — D.W.