The year 2015 had a great deal of landmark moments in hip-hop. Dr. Dre came out of hibernation to release his third solo album Compton, The Game came full circle with The Documentary 2 and 2.5, and artists we thought would release classic material either fell a little short of expectations or didn’t show up to the party at all. Yet for all the ups and downs, the music resumed play and the show went on. Like 2014 in fact, 2015 was busting at the seams with excellent albums, around the good or fair projects, so whittling the choices down to the top ten LPs was no easy task at all. The competition was tight and the options were great, but here are the ten best hip-hop/rap albums of 2015, after a quick prologue of honorable mentions of course.
Though they didn’t make the top ten, the following albums deserve meritorious recognition: The Ecology by Fashawn, Eat Pray Thug by Heems, Rodeo by Travis Scott, F*ck The Money by Talib Kweli, Livin Foul by Wax, Special Effects by Tech N9ne, Strangeulation Vol. II by Strange Music and Breakfast at Banksy’s by Ras Kass and Jack Splash as Semi Hendrix.
10. Bad Neighbor – MED, Blu & Madlib
Fortuitously turning its three-man collaboration into a fresh new SoCal trio by the end, Bad Neighbor is more than just velvety rhymes, sample-beats and a spooky Halloween cover (though the artwork could mean to symbolize the creeping seldom-noticed have-nots in the shadows of society). The deft record-recycler/resuscitator known as Madlib and smooth, seasoned emcees MED (Medaphoar) and Blu bring together the modern hip-hop era’s best groovy funk music and the slickest rhymes of the year for this cool October-released album. The guests are stellar but so is everything else as the spirited threesome take their place amongst the stars here.
9. Free Weezy Album – Lil Wayne
FWA, Lil Wayne’s game-winning field goal after rebounding from missing his shot at Tha Carter V, didn’t just score him points, but it also proved his ability to pull away from the opposition and stand out with style. A turning point if ever there was one for the New Orleans emcee and Southern status symbol, the Free Weezy Album is Tunechi’s formal farewell to Cash Money Records, officially marking the end of an era for the company that ‘raised’ him since his hip-hop birth. It followed an arduous fight between him and the label, and all of Wayne’s resultant pent-up frustration and angst are let loose in technical flawlessness and his signature vocal hyperactivity. A major milestone in Wayne’s career (it also marked the beginning of his relationship with streaming service TIDAL), FWA is simply superb in all facets: beats, rhymes and guests.
8. Tetsuo & Youth – Lupe Fiasco
The contents of Tetsuo & Youth are like the image that adorns its album cover, a work of art. The fifth album by windup Windy City emcee Lupe Fiasco tops The Great American Rap Album (2012), which topped the lukewarm Lasers (2011), so Tetsuo & Youth is unquestionably his full return to the greatness seen in The Cool (2007) and Food & Liquor (2006). The album is divided into four sections which represent the four seasons, and Lupe is alternately warm and sizzling, happy and heartbroken but totally conscious socially and in the zone with his highly sinuous rhyme schemes. Luscious and gorgeous, Tetsuo & Youth is the ideal relaxation music for rap’s thinking fan.
7. Time Flys, Life Dies… Phoenix Rise – Canibus & Bronze Nazareth
Thirteen albums into his career, Jamaican American flamethrower Canibus is still fighting for respect and will not rest until he is recognized as one of the best to ever pick up a mic. Technically and especially recently a doomsayer but with importance and purpose in these decrepit times, Canibus in Time Flys, Life Dies… Phoenix Rise does more than say, ‘I told you so,’ in certain words, but in short, he staunchly represents and upholds all that is strong and decent, rapping rapaciously for the wellbeing of all mankind. Bronze Nazareth, his partner on the project, lays down eerie, suspenseful and exciting musics with a flair for the theatrical, and Canibus digs in and sinks his teeth into each and every beat. A very manly project with very manly contributions, Time Flys and the lessons it holds are nevertheless applicable to both sexes and all the laws of human nature that we hold so dearly.
6. Have A Nice Life – MURS
Positive, historic and chock full of socially progressive commentary, Have A Nice Life, underground veteran MURS’s solo debut for Strange Music Inc., has an immaculate sonic finish and an unshakeable lyrical constitution to boot. Jesse Shatkin, who produced much of the album, provides sounds that are less modest than what MURS is used to, but they are careful not to crossover into mainstream pop. MURS takes a risky approach here that pays off tremendously. Instead of defending the ghetto and attacking the rest of society, he criticizes the ghetto and champions the systems on the other side that are working well, making no excuses for black foul play whatsoever. Have A Nice Life succeeds simply because it refuses to play the blame game.
5. Persona – Mello Music Group
Like a phoenix rising out of Arizona, Mello Music Group (based in Tucson, AZ) is renewing the spirit of classic boom-bap and hardcore lyricism like few others in the game with bright new age music-producing and stockyards of awareness about society’s lesser features. Persona, the label’s latest group effort, is its most extensive and all-encompassing with the whole roster and others going above and beyond the call of duty. Race, politics, economics, the media and relationships are not beyond the scope of MMG’s writer/reciters, and within the LP, they handle their subject matter with wit, charm and concern over rich beats from producers who are just as talented.
4. The Incredible True Story – Logic
Stopping the idea of a sophomore curse dead in its tracks, Logic of Def Jam and Visionary Music Group has trumped his solid Under Pressure debut with the smart, commonsensical, space-placed Incredible True Story. If listeners had any doubts about the Maryland spitter after his first outing, then they have been spectacularly blown out of the water and into the cosmos this time around. Spending very little time embellishing on trivial details and more on his values and moral beliefs, Logic hands us something we can use and raps like he’s out of his mind, with no chastening continence of speech. With movie-like skits, moving music and great guests only when needed, The Incredible True Story is easily Logic’s best project to date.
3. The Growing Process – Dizzy Wright
Las Vegas, Nevada doesn’t automatically come to mind in the discussion of hot hip-hop cities, but Funk Volume’s Dizzy Wright is changing all that. Before 2015, Wright already had it all – mixtapes, EPs, one album and great potential. The Growing Process, his sophomore LP, proves he has been responsible with his privilege, crafting a positive, progressive masterpiece to help hip-hop grow out of its adolescent phase with style. Magnanimously mellow from start to finish, it begins bright, becomes smart and ends with a team/family-building exercise. Cuts like “No Time Is Better” and “Train Your Mind” will get you thinking on your happy feet while “Smoke You Out” and “I Can Tell You Needed It” will leave you puzzled about why marijuana was made illegal in the first place. Further on, Dizzy’s label-loyalty is expressed in “Explain Myself” with Hopsin, Jarren Benton and SwizZz as guests, and possibly nothing else on the whole disc rivals the misogyny-shattering, female character-building “Daddy Daughter Relationship” with its special guest-spot from Dizzy’s own little girl, Xhaiden. Like Logic, Dizzy also obliterates the sophomore curse by improving on his debut with a superior followup. It’s fun but also intelligent, infused with a high variety of features including Big K.R.I.T., Mod Sun and Njomza. The entertainment capital of the world just got a new entertainment captain in Dizzy Wright.
2. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar, the undisputed heavyweight champ of hip-hop poetry, had the most talked about rap album and the overall second best hip-hop album of 2015. People might forget that before To Pimp A Butterfly, there was scarcely such an unashamed, unabashed rap LP that focused almost solely on African American enterprise and misfortune as brilliantly and metaphorically as this one does. The most loaded songs on the album have meaning in unique circumstances (many times in the context of Black America) and for society at large to teach moral lessons. “For Free?” calls for proper compensation of black labor not to mention higher standards among blacks for what they deem appropriate and tolerable in their lives. It also substitutes as male mutiny in the face of female demands and cravings. “These Walls” has jubilant fun under the sheets and expresses the joy of being invited into a relationship or getting accepted by one’s heroes, and “How Much A Dollar Cost” weighs the pros and cons of charitable donations and also acts as a study of the relationship between God and man. To Pimp A Butterfly is a renegade affair that travels off the beaten path of traditional album/song structure and features some of the most inventive, state of the art jazz/funk productions ever heard in hip-hop. Executive produced by Dr. Dre and Anthony Tiffith but co-produced by many other talents, To Pimp A Butterfly is as good artistically as Kendrick’s debut, good kid m.A.A.d city, and is a sterling followup for Compton’s savior of new-age lyrical hip-hop.
1. Pound Syndrome – Hopsin
As long as Hopsin is active, the rap game as we know it will never be the same again. Extremely sensitive to the major problems of the world but with nerves of steel and a ferocious will to drive home his emergent messages, the Los Angeles emcee/producer from the San Fernando Valley attempted to make a career with Ruthless Records in the mid-2000s but found no support there, left and linked with Damien Ritter and SwizZz, Damien’s younger brother and friend of Hop, to form the Funk Volume label, a new modern day temple of hip-hop. Four albums into his career, Hop jokingly feigned retirement and soon after announced his next album, Pound Syndrome. Undoubtedly his best LP yet, Pound Syndrome, a one hundred percent Funk Volume-made project, features highly improved rock and synth beats by Hopsin, scratching and cutting from DJ Hoppa and A-plus guest spots from FV’s Jarren Benton, Dizzy Wright and SwizZz. Merciless and ingenious, the thematic groundwork hammered down by Hop on the album reads like the testament of a young adult who has just awoken from mental sedation and smelled the coffee of conversion, dead set on enlightening others. With his vicious surefire rhyme delivery that has some calling him “the black Eminem,” Hopsin draws blood by excoriating frenemies, leeches and people-users and shows love to his fans and his strong girlfriend, but his greatest achievements on Pound Syndrome occur in “Fly,” verbally killing greedy business owners and the evil status quo, and in “Ill Mind of Hopsin 7,” criticizing Christianity and organized religion in general. One of the best recent examples of hip-hop self sufficiency from a single source, Pound Syndrome projects Hopsin as an all in one package in his usual tip top form thinking outside the box, connecting the dots, and reaching out with his gifts and the truth in perfect eloquence.
Until next time, keep listening to the latest and greatest in hip-hop. 2016 should prove to be another promising year for rap. Those were the hottest most creative albums from 2015. Will these respectable artists return next year or will other ones come through to fill in the gaps? We shall certainly see.