List

The 40 Best Rap Albums Of 2013

Tom Breihan | December 16, 2013 - 8:35 am

Last year, there was one album — Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City — that united virtually the entire rap-listening public in adoration. This year, no such luck. Many heard my #1 pick of the year (and you can probably already guess what it is) as the work of a sonic visionary, and plenty more heard it as a screechy, indulgent, redundant feat of image-manipulation and halfassed rapping. Further down the list, other albums were nearly as divisive. This was a weird year for rap: Big-name veterans either experimenting or boldly halfassing it, nearly as many great R&B mixtapes as great rap mixtapes, only a few real breakout stars. But there was still plenty of great music to be heard, and you can find some of it in every one of the albums below.

The top eight albums on this list are the rap albums that appeared on Stereogum’s 50 Best Albums Of 2013 countdown. Everything after this is my pick and my pick only. That means my proclivities are on bold display, and there’s plenty of stuff that I missed, or that I just straight-up didn’t like. And for the purposes of this exercise, we’re not considering Death Grips to be rap anymore, because come on. Hopefully, though, you’ll find something below that’s new to you, something that you’re glad you found.

Oddisee - The Beauty In All40 OddiseeThe Beauty In All (Mello Music Group)

[Listen here.]
 
 

Vic Mensa - Innanetape39 Vic MensaInnanetape (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Project Pat - Cheez N Dope 238 Project PatCheez N Dope 2 (Project Records/Hypnotize Minds)

[Download here.]
 
 

Future - F.B.G.: The Movie37 FutureF.B.G.: The Movie (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Roc Marciano - The Pimpire Strikes Back36 Roc MarcianoThe Pimpire Strikes Back (Man Bites Dog Records)

[Download here.]
 
 

Le1f - Tree House35 Le1fTree House (Camp & Street/Greedhead Music)

[Download here.]
 
 

Gucci Mane - Trap House III34 Gucci ManeTrap House III (1017 Brick Squad Records)

[Listen here.]
 
 

Big K.R.I.T. - King Remembered In Time33 Big K.R.I.T.King Remembered In Time (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Rich Kidz - A Westside Story32 Rich KidzA Westside Story (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Starlito & Don Trip - Step Brothers 231 Starlito & Don TripStep Brothers 2 (Self-released)

[Listen here.]
 
 

Ty Dolla $ign - Beach House 230 Ty Dolla $ignBeach House 2 (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Young Thug - 1017 Thug29 Young Thug1017 Thug (1017 Brick Squad)

[Download here.]
 
 

Juicy J - Stay Trippy28 Juicy JStay Trippy (Columbia Records)

[Listen here.]
 
 

Joe Moses - From Nothing To Something 227 Joe MosesFrom Nothing To Something 2 (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Problem & Iamsu! - Million Dollar Afro26 Problem & Iamsu!Million Dollar Afro (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

Tree - Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out25 TreeSunday School II: When Church Lets Out (Creative Control)

[Download here.]
 
 

Gucci Mane - Trap God 224 Gucci ManeTrap God 2 (1017 Brick Squad)

[Download here.]
 
 

Lil Durk - Signed 2 The Streets23 Lil DurkSigned 2 The Streets (Self-released)

[Download here.]
 
 

The Underachievers - Indigoism22 The UnderachieversIndigoism (Brainfeeder)

[Download here.]
 
 

Kevin Gates - Stranger Than Fiction21 Kevin GatesStranger Than Fiction (Atlantic)

[Listen here.]
 
 

Travi$ Scott - Owl Pharaoh20 Travi$ ScottOwl Pharaoh (Grand Hustle/Epic)

The youngest of the sonic architects behind Yeezus shows exactly where Kanye got that apocayptic-reggae sound from. The young Texan isn’t a particularly compelling rapper yet, but his sound, with its synthetic demon-wails and its ghostly choirs and its bountiful Auto-Tune, is a thing to behold. “Upper Echelon” pulls off the neat trick of making 2 Chainz sound like Godzilla. [Download here.]

Le1f - Fly Zone19 Le1fFly Zone (Camp & Street/Greedhead Music)

Le1f is such an arresting presence — four-four braid-extentions flying, sneer conquering half his face, madly voguing through some unforgettable music videos — that it’s easy to overlook how great of a straight-up rapper he is. Of his three solo mixtapes, this one, all thunderous claps and foghorns of bass, makes that case the most forcefully. [Download here.]

DJ Mustard - Ketchup18 DJ MustardKetchup (Self-released)

Mustard doesn’t rap, but his spacey, tingling, delicately assembled robo-funk (termed “ratchet music” by whoever names these things) has, over the past two years, become the de facto sound of California rap. And for his mixtape compilation, Mustard stays almost entirely within his own area code, giving us an album’s worth of slinky, infectious would-be hits from guys like Ty$ and YG — artists who should do everything in their power to attach themselves to Mustard forever. [Download here.]

Da Mafia 6ix - 6ix Commandments17 Da Mafia 6ix6ix Commandments (Scale-A-Ton)

DJ Paul, one of the co-founders of Three 6 Mafia, reassembles almost all the original members of his old Memphis horror-crunk collective and returns them to the dark, chaotic, physical crush-your-skull style of their collective past. The complaints that it’s not the same without Juicy J become moot when Juicy actually shows up and when the rest of the tape maintains a momentum that Juicy couldn’t conjure on his own very good major-label solo album Stay Trippy. [Download here.]

Master P - Al Capone16 Master PAl Capone (No Limit)

In certain geographical quadrants, Master P has been a rap punchline for nearly two decades; I’ve seen a club full of Roots fans boo the mere mention of his name. And he’s spent years in the pop-culture wilderness, his greatest contribution being to his son’s Nickelodeon sitcom. And yet here he comes again, recruiting two of the country’s finest street-rappers (DC’s Fat Trel and Atlanta’s Alley Boy) to help him assemble and hour’s worth of bulldozing goon anthems. Comebacks never come when you expect them. [Download here.]

2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time15 2 ChainzB.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time (Def Jam)

He bought a new crib just to fuck you in. Atlanta’s reigning middle-aged master of dad-joke ribaldry dials into what everyone liked about him in the first place, mostly staying away from his feelings so he can smack you with amazingly terrible puns and swollen, world-consuming beats. And when he does get thoughtful, it’s not for long; he is, after all, the man who rhymed “rest in peace to all the soldiers who died in the service” with “I died in her cervix.” [Listen here.]

Meek Mill - Dreamchasers 314 Meek MillDreamchasers 3 (Dream Chasers)

Meek Mill can rap, and on the third installment of his unflagging great Dreamchasers series, he veers from moody-superstar money-talk to gut-blasted despair to virtuosic classic-rap appropriation to desperate childhood-memory reverie without ever compromising his blistering urgency. [Download here.]

Kevin Gates - The Luca Brasi Story13 Kevin GatesThe Luca Brasi Story (Atlantic)

This Louisiana cult-hero bruiser makes his entrance onto the national stage through rain-slick synth-smears and exposed-nerve throat croaks, finding that post-Future sweet spot where wounded emotive koans become sticky hooks. And closing track “IHOP (True Story)” is the purest display of rap-narrative skill you’ll hear all year. [Download here.]

Earl Sweatshirt - Doris12 Earl SweatshirtDoris (Columbia)

Odd Future’s prodigal little brother transcends the ADD noise surrounding his crew and the PR gamesmanship of his return from reform school by folding deep inward, muttering dazzling writerly knots over subtle tick-tocks and sinister bass-rolls.. By all accounts, Earl is most comfortable when he’s inside his own head. Turns out he raps better from there, too. [Listen here.]

Pusha T - My Name Is My Name11 Pusha TMy Name Is My Name (Def Jam)

He’s long been a dependable guest-verse scene-stealer, but on his own solo mixtapes, Push Ton Key has lately felt like he was filling space before the guests showed up. On his proper solo debut, though, he brings that old steely-eyed fire, that Clipse-era hauteur, while Kanye’s stable of beatmakers treat his backing music like it’s graphic design. And on the low, “Nosetalgia” boasts the single best Kendrick Lamar guest-verse of the year, “Control” included. [Listen here.]

Ka - The Night's Gambit10 KaThe Night’s Gambit (Iron Works)

Dense, craggy word-drunk verses muttered over dark, minimal, flickering sample-scapes — the classic mid-’90s New York sound turned inward and contemplative, into meditation music. The guy who made this is a middle-aged firefighter who rapped, recorded, produced, and released this himself, then directed all the absorbing black-and-white videos, thus creating a better argument for the DIY ethic than anyone in indie rock managed this year. [Listen here.]

Action Bronson & Party Supplies - Blue Chips 209 Action Bronson & Party SuppliesBlue Chips 2 (Atlantic/Vice)

The one guy in rap who gets better when he’s not trying hard, when he just doesn’t give half a fuck, makes his most gloriously halfassed full-length since the first Blue Chips, rapping over Phil Collins and Tracey Chapman and “Tequila,” eloquently describing the taste and texture of every opulent meal he ate whatever week he made this. [Download here.]

A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP08 A$AP RockyLong. Live. A$AP (A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)

This guy built his name on creeped-out fashion-goon mood-rap. Then he made a debut album with big-budget set-pieces and abrupt mood-shifts and a goddam Skrillex track, and he still didn’t lose the mood he’d created. He had a first single where Drake and Kendrick Lamar both furiously outrapped him, and it worked as a starmaking moment anyway, simply because the song was so good. All the songs were so good. [Listen here.]

 A$AP Ferg - Trap Lord07 A$AP FergTrap Lord (Polo Ground/RCA)

One of rap’s great feel-good stories of 2013: A born second-banana type just manages to upstage the star of his crew through weirdness and vigor and apocalyptic beat-selection and expertly selected early-’90s imagery and one absolutely jawdropping Bone Thugs track. We got two cool popes this year. [Listen here.]

Drake - Nothing Was The Same06 DrakeNothing Was The Same (Cash Money Records/Universal Republic)

This wasn’t the reflective sea change that Take Care was, but it was still rap’s reigning miseribalist going tough and soft at the same damn time, finding a buttery chiffon new-wave variant we haven’t heard from him on “Hold On, We’re Going Home” a few tracks after he cooked up an unlikely hard-as-fuck underdog anthem with “Started From The Bottom.” And if his whole feelings-rap style turned noxious and dick-centric sometimes, then at least we knew it was real. [Listen here.]

Migos - YRN05 MigosYRN (Self-released)

The beats, from Zaytoven and his disciples, bounce around in your skull like ping-pong balls while three young Atlanta stutterers describe drug-dealing past lives like they’re little kids telling the story of a particularly sugar-addled trip to Chuck E. Cheese. The subject matter can be bleak, but nobody in rap had more fun rapping than these guys. When you are powerless to stop yelling a popular fashion brand’s name, even though you’ve never owned a stitch of that brand’s clothing in your life, the song that did that to you is something special. [Download here.]

Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap04 Chance The RapperAcid Rap (Self-released)

Chance shouted out Chief Keef on Acid Rap’s very first single, so we know he doesn’t consider himself to be an antidote to his Chicago hometown’s teenage rap nihilism. But on his second mixtape, Chance works in the opposite direction from his peers’ cold, dead, expressionless delivery and martial beats. He goes emotionally open-hearted, rapping with artful emotional intelligence in a spiraling-out-of-control adolescent-motormouth yammer and selecting an album’s worth of beautiful Sunday-afternoon gospel-soul tracks. He’s from the same neighborhoods, but he doesn’t think the same. [Download here.]

Killer Mike & El-P - Run The Jewels03 Run The JewelsRun The Jewels (Fool’s Gold)

Forgive me for a tangent into wrestling-dorkdom, but the best thing in the WWE right now is the three-man bad-guy team the Shield. They don’t project much in the way of image (beyond “paramilitary face-stompers,” anyway), but when they wrestle, they annihilate. And they annihilate with pinpoint precision: Pulling off complicated teamwork moves, covering for each other’s mistakes, setting bigger stars up for harder falls, and fucking knocking people out of their boots when necessary. They are great friends who will wreck you. All of which is to say that Killer Mike and El-P are the Shield of rap. [Download here.]

Danny Brown - Old02 Danny BrownOld (Fool’s Gold)

Party anthems about feeling numb and overcome, direct boom-bap about the horrors that haunt you, Purity Ring transformed into future-rap superstar producers. Brown has always been an acquired taste, but when you acclimate your ears to his livewire yammer, he is a punchline animal. Here, though, he turns that sensibility inward and comes up with the year’s most powerful and uncomfortable rap writing, then recruits a cast of visionary underground producers to push that voice in as many directions as they can imagine. [Listen here.]

Kanye West - Yeezus01 Kanye WestYeezus (Def Jam)

The clanking, spitting, seething, fulminating, hyperventilating, anxiety-wrecked black hole at the center of our year. You could argue, justifiably, that this has no place topping a rap list, since the rapping is maybe the fifth-most interesting thing going on most of the time. You could even argue that it’s not even a rap album. And yet the 808s-blazing aesthetic here is like minimal mid-’80s drum-machine thud, in all its majestic sparseness, fed through goth-industrial-reggae-house filters and blown out to blockbuster scope. [Listen here.]

Check out Stereogum’s Best Albums Of 2013 here and Best Metal Albums Of 2013 here.