Stereogum’s Top 40 Rap Albums Of 2012

By Tom Breihan / December 21, 2012

If I’d made a list like this last year, probably 80% of the albums listed would’ve been free-download mixtapes. There are still plenty of those in the list you’ll find below, but there are more actual commercially-available albums than anyone could’ve expected — four of the top five, as it happens. Somehow, some way, despite an ongoing music-business apocalypse and a core audience that can barely ever be assed to pay for music, a whole lot of great rappers figured out ways to put music into actual stores this year, and some of them even sold a bunch of copies. More importantly, many of them figured out ways to knock out cohesive, compelling full-lengths — albums that completely explored a brand-new aesthetic, or paired simpatico rappers and producers, or smartly explored their formative teenage years. Every one of the albums listed below is worth your time. Some of them are even worth your money — even the ones where nobody asked for it. (Also: Sorry in advance that I don’t like Death Grips as much as you guys.)

ST 2 Lettaz - R.E.B.E.L.40 ST 2 LettazR.E.B.E.L. (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Deniro Farrar & Shady Blaze - Kill Or Be Killed39 Deniro Farrar & Shady BlazeKill Or Be Killed (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Le1f - Dark York38 Le1fDark York (Greedhead)

[Download here.]
 
 

Waka Flocka Flame - Salute Me or Shoot Me 437 Waka Flocka FlameSalute Me Or Shoot Me 4 (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Gangrene - Vodka & Ayahuasca36 GangreneVodka & Ayahuasca (Decon)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Ty$ & Joe Moses - Whoop!35
 Ty$ & Joe MosesWhoop! (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Death Grips - The Money Store34 Death GripsThe Money Store (Epic)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Action Bronson - Rare Chandeliers33 Action BronsonRare Chandeliers (Vice/Warner)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Big K.R.I.T. - Live From The Underground32 Big K.R.I.T.Live From The Underground (Def Jam)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Big Boi - Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors31 Big BoiVicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Boldy James - Consignment30 Boldy JamesConsignment (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Nas - Life Is Good29 NasLife Is Good (Def Jam)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Odd Future - The O.F. Tape 228 Odd FutureThe O.F. Tape 2 (Odd Future/RED)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded27 Nicki MinajPink Friday: Roman Reloaded (Young Money/Universal)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Meyhem Lauren - Mandatory Brunch Meetings26 Meyhem LaurenMandatory Brunch Meetings (Mishka/Greedhead)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Lushlife - Plateau Vision25 LushlifePlateau Vision (Western Vinyl)

[Purchase here.]
 
 
 

Gucci Mane - Trap Back24 Gucci ManeTrap Back (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Killa Kyleon & Mouse - Welcome To The Fish Fry23 Killa Kyleon & MouseWelcome To The Fish Fry (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Death Grips - NO LOVE DEEP WEB22 Death GripsNO LOVE DEEP WEB (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Himanshu - Nehru Jackets21 HimanshuNehru Jackets (Greedhead/SEVA)

[Download here.]
 
 
 

Various Artists - The Man With The Iron Fists20 Various ArtistsThe Man With The Iron Fists Soundtrack (Soul Temple)

RZA’s directorial debut was a fun, sloppy mess, but its soundtrack album, which matched grainy Wu-Tang mythological calisthenics with psychedelic flare and expertly curated old-school soul groans, may have been RZA’s real achievement of the year. Best Wu-Tang-related album since Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. [Purchase here.]

Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death - Lord Of The Fly19 Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black DeathLord Of The Fly (Self-released)

More of the drugged-out horror-movie threats and icy synth textures that made last year’s For The Glory such a left-field blast. Nacho and BSBD have now recorded three full-lengths without varying their sound one iota, and it hasn’t lost its punch yet. [Download here.]

Iamsu - Kilt!18 Iamsu!Kilt! (Self-released)

The warm heart of the cold, controlled ratchet-movement sound, Iamsu! raps about sex and partying like someone who really enjoys sex and partying. Su and his cadre of producers also know how to do amazing things with synthetic handclaps. [Download here.]

100s - Ice Cold Perm17 100sIce Cold Perm (Self-released)

This Main Attrakionz affiliate does vicious pimp-rap as something prim and controlled, rapping with chilly force about hair activator and furiously porny sex acts, picking out sharp, minimal beats that mirror his ice-blooded style. In the Main Attrakionz cloud-rap tidal wave, his precision was a revelation. [Download here.]

Meek Mill - Dreams & Nightmares16 Meek MillDreams & Nightmares (Maybach Music/Atlantic)

For the past two years, Meek Mill, a Philly mixtape-scene veteran, has cut through his Maybach Music boss’s puffed-up regality with freaked-out angry-puppy urgency, veering all over tracks with a shouty and high-pitched flow that can be a marvel to behold. On his own official debut, he starts out sprinting and barely ever slows. [Purchase here.]

Ab-Soul - Control System15 Ab-SoulControl System (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)

Black Hippy’s most frantic and freaked member refuses to be overshadowed, diving full-on into super-scientifical existentialism and conspiracy-theorizing, while at the same time remaining shameless enough to swipe hooks from old Black Eyed Peas singles. [Purchase here.]

Gunplay - 601 & Snort14 Gunplay601 & Snort (Self-released)

Thug-rap so deranged and over-the-top that it becomes immediately apparent how much fun Gunplay had making it — Wu-Tang beat interpolations and all. But then, near the end, there’s “Bible On The Dash,” a stark reminder of what’s at stake in everything Gunplay’s rapping about. [Download here.]

Future - Astronaut Status13 FutureAstronaut Status (Self-released)

This street mixtape foreshadowed the brilliant gurgle of Pluto by showing exactly how Future could turn the time-honored Atlanta rap banger into something eerie, half-melted, barely holding itself together. Here, you’ll find some of rap’s catchiest mantras of the year. [Download here.]

Joey Bada$$ - 199912 Joey Bada$$1999 (Self-released)

Pure retro style-exhumation, done by a kid Chief Keef’s age who couldn’t possibly have experienced the genuine article first-hand. But Joey’s cerebral, emotive take on ’90s rap has real heart; it’s a past era as done with the zealousness of a young convert. [Download here.]

Chief Keef - Finally Rich11 Chief KeefFinally Rich (Interscope)

Muscular dead-eyed threat-music that strikes some as America’s life-hating chickens coming home to roost. But this is also a teenager cathartically yelling at the mirror, turning animosity into party music like every half-decent punk ever. And those Young Chop beats just annihilate. [Purchase here.]

Meyhem Lauren - Respect The Fly Shit10 Meyhem LaurenRespect The Fly Shit (Greedhead)

A hard-nosed Queens head-buster plays host to a party’s worth of internet-rap weirdos — recorded in what must’ve been something like an actual party, during a weekend-long SXSW rap bender. Tommy Mas and Harry Fraud’s beats keep the pretzel bowl full. [Download here.]

Mouse - Millionaire Dreamzzz09 MouseMillionaire Dreamzzz (Self-released)

Rapper/producer Mouse is effectively the last standing member of the once-dominant Louisiana crew Trill Ent. But with his sproingy, insanely fun blues-bounce yammer and his dizzy rubber-band beats, he’s more than OK on his own. [Download here.]

Schoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions08 Schoolboy QHabits & Contradictions (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)

I like to imagine that the Kendrick Lamar/Schoolboy Q relationship is something like the one in the movie My Bodyguard. But if Schoolboy is a bully, he’s an uncommonly smart and hedonistic one. His threats are cartoonish, fun, and his party songs have more than an undercurrent of menace. [Purchase here.]

Rick Ross - Rich Forever07 Rick RossRich Forever (Self-released)

Way more than his actual commercial LP God Forgives, I Don’t, this mixtape captured Ross’s mercenary-mogul panache in full flower. Grunting triumphantly over monolithic stomps like “Holy Ghost” and “Fuck ‘Em,” he was great, but he was even better on synth-streaked laments like “Stay Schemin’.” [Download here.]

Roc Marciano - Reloaded06 Roc MarcianoReloaded (Decon)

A veteran New York hard-rock learns that there are so, so many ways to talk about how tough he is, and his production — a spare and snare-free crackle — further pushes what could be rote boom-bap revivalism into something zonked and impressionist. [Purchase here.]

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music05 Killer MikeR.A.P. Music (Williams Street/Warner)

It took a New York skronk-rap producer to help this Atlanta titan cohesively bridge the divide between his firebrand side and his affable rap-dork side. The fact that T.I. has now rapped on an El-P beat is one of those little things that keeps me going. [Purchase here.]

El-P - Cancer 4 Cure04 El-PCancer For Cure (Fat Possum)

The reigning paranoiac ranter of the late-’90s backpack-rap underground hits new levels of ferocity, paradoxically enough, by giving his 808 attack a new direct simplicity and by remembering how to have fun on the mic. [Purchase here.]

Action Bronson & Party Supplies03 Action Bronson & Party SuppliesBlue Chips (Fool’s Gold)

Two weed-heads rebuilding the scarred wreckage of Champion-hoodie New York rap out of YouTubed pro-wrestling clips and perfectly seasoned lamb shanks. An absolute triumph of halfassery. [Download here.]

Future - Pluto02 FuturePluto (Epic)

In which an Auto-Tuned hook-singer becomes a ghost in the machine, a sad specter wandering through space. On Pluto, Future turned hypnotic robo-chants into the most emotive rap sound-effect we’ve heard in years, rendering his love songs desperate and his bangers exultant. [Purchase here.]

Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City01 Kendrick LamarGood Kid, m.A.A.d. City (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)

As a simple, straight-up rapper, Kendrick Lamar is exemplary — an energetic, tourettically precise hurricane of percussive consonants and damn-right-I’m-good grunts. But Good Kid is the moment he also became a fearless, sprawling youth-in-crisis memoirist, forcing the world to lap up his dizzy flashbacks of close calls and sad reveries. The secret: All these songs still work as rap songs, not just as pieces of a tapestry. [Purchase here.]

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Check out Stereogum’s Top 50 Albums Of 2012 here and Stereogum’s Top 40 Metal Albums Of 2012 here.