The 40 Best Rap Albums Of 2014

The 40 Best Rap Albums Of 2014

In 2014, rap’s biggest names more or less sat the year out. Kanye West never got around to releasing that populist masterwork he’s been promising. Drake threw a bunch of great songs up on Soundcloud rather than compiling those songs into an LP. Jay Z went on tour with his wife but gave us no new songs. Lil Wayne’s label issues kept him from releasing his long-delayed Tha Carter V. Kendrick Lamar never finished his Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City follow-up. Rick Ross actually released two albums, but they were probably the two most bloated and boring things he’s ever done, and nobody would blame you for not noticing. Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint is finally about to come out, but as I’m writing this, I still haven’t heard it. (EDIT: I’ve now heard and written about The Pinkprint, and it’s good. The new Kevin Gates mixtape is great, too. But I’m not going to rework this whole damn list so that I can find room for them.)

Theoretically, this vacuum at the top should lead to some new voices emerging, and that did happen, after a fashion. Iggy Azalea actually became a straight-up mainstream pop star, despite much of the rap world averting its eyes. The Migos and Young Thug and YG and iLoveMakonnen all had breakout years, and released some great music along the way. But many of the year’s best rap albums came from relative veterans: Killer Mike and El-P reigniting their ferocious team-up, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib blowing smoke over the backpack-rap landscape, DJ Quik continuing to find room for weirdo play within G-funk tradition. And most of the year’s best rap albums came from one underground or another, as various smaller scenes seemed more hospitable to way-out visions than the genre’s ever-shrinking center.

The list below is simply this writer’s opinion, and nothing more. Hopefully, though, there’s some music in there that’s new to you. Even in a relatively weak year like 2014, rap is the best music, and there’s so much amazing stuff to be heard if you’re willing to explore.

Riff Raff - Neon Icon40. RiFF RAFFNEON iCON (Mad Decent)

[Listen here.]

Girl Talk & Freeway - Broken Ankles39. Girl Talk & FreewayBroken Ankles (Self-Released)

[Download here.]

Your Old Droog - Your Old Droog EP38. Your Old DroogYour Old Droog EP (Mass Appeal)

[Listen here.]

SD - Truly Blessed37. SDTruly Blessed (iHipHop Distribution)

[Listen here.]

Que - Can You Digg It36. QueCan You Digg It (Self-Released)

[Listen here.]

Father - Young Hot Ebony35. FatherYoung Hot Ebony (Awful Records)

[Listen here.]

Shy Glizzy - Law 334. Shy GlizzyLaw 3 (Self-Released)

[Download here.]

Mick Jenkins - The Water[s]33. Mick JenkinsThe Water[s] (Self-Released)

[Listen here.]

Mac Miller - Faces32. Mac MillerFaces (Self-Released)

[Listen here.]

Zuse - Bullet31. ZuseBullet (Self-Released)

[Download here.]

Kevin-Gates-By-Any-Means30. Kevin GatesBy Any Means (Bread Winner’s Association)

[Listen here.]

Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty29. Shabazz PalacesLese Majesty (Sub Pop)

[Listen here.]

A$AP Ferg - Ferg Forever28. A$AP FergFerg Forever (Self-Released)

[Listen here.]

Le1f - Hey27. Le1fHey (Terrible/XL)

[Listen here.]

Big K.R.I.T. - Cadillactica26. Big K.R.I.T.Cadillactica (Def Jam)

[Listen here.]

Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron25. Schoolboy QOxymoron (TDE/Interscope)

[Listen here.]

Archibald Slim - He’s Drunk!24. Archibald SlimHe’s Drunk! (Awful Records)

[Listen here.]

Cakes Da Killa - Hunger Pangs23. Cakes Da KillaHunger Pangs (Self-Released)

[Listen here.]

Azealia Banks - Broke With Expensive Taste22. Azealia BanksBroke With Expensive Taste (Self-Released)

[Listen here.]

clipping. - CLPPNG21. clippingCLPPNG (Sub Pop)

[Listen here.]

G-Side - Gz II Godz20. G-SideGz II Godz (Slow Motion Soundz)

This hard-striving Huntsville, Alabama everyman duo seemed poised to break beyond their tiny internet base a few years ago, but then they broke up and got back together and found whatever momentum they’d built up absolutely stalled. That’s too bad, since they still sound amazing, pointed and confident and emotionally open. And the Block Beattaz’ beats remain staggering: Spacey, tingly, bottom-heavy lurches that reach for stars. Gz II Godz may be the year’s single most underrated rap albums; you’d do well to give it a shot. [Listen here.]

PeeWee Longway - The Blue M&M19. PeeWee LongwayThe Blue M&M (Self-Released)

2014 was Young Thug’s year, of course, and The Blue M&M wasn’t enough to move his buddy Longway beyond “tiny fat guy who stands next to Young Thug in videos” status. But the tape is still a ridiculously enjoyable example of Atlanta street-rap in this truly weird moment, with its complicated rushing flows and gleamingly melodic synth-beats and weirdly memorable images, like the part where Longway calls his African diamonds “Akon boogers.” Atlanta is so rich in talent right now that a guy like Longway can actually fly under the radar; anywhere else, he’d be a star. [Listen here.]

Future - Honest18. FutureHonest (Epic)

After Future changed the sound of Southern rap with Pluto two years ago, the big follow-up could only feel like a slight disappointment, a mere rap album from a man who’s transcended space and time before. But Honest is still a very good rap album, full of dizzy bangers like “Move That Dope” and giddy workouts like “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola).” And Future’s sensitive robo-blues delivery still sings in a way that few of his contemporaries can approach. [Listen here.]

Lakutis - Three Seashells17. LakutisThree Seashells (Greedhead Music)

The former Das Racist associate gets over on explosive splenetic on-mic intensity and pure dirtbag charm. He’s got the sort of personality that leaps from speakers. Musically, Three Seashells has a lot going on. Some of the most gifted beatmakers on the New York Tumblr-rap underground handle the production, and it’s got its own holistic aesthetic, a clanking hazy slap. But it all feels secondary to the yammering wildman who seizes these tracks and won’t let them go. [Listen here.]

Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo16. Isiah RashadCilvia Demo (TDE)

Rashad doesn’t bring the same immediacy as his TDE labelmates, but he makes up for it with an understated, drawling Tennessee charm. Cilvia Rashad is the same sort of wordy, thoughtful, blunted country-rap that we used to get from Dungeon Family B-team guys like Backbone or Witchdoctor. It never grabs your attention, but it wafts beautifully through the background. [Listen here.]

100s - IVRY15. 100sIVRY (Fools Gold)

Rumor has it that this Berkeley rapper has already retired his stone-faced-but-silly permed-up pimp persona, but not before giving us this lush piece of G-funk snarl. 100s is a full-on character, but it’s a perfectly realized one. He kicks game at the gym, kicks out girls for stealing his conditioner, and turns the phrase “10 freaky hoes” into the sort of thing that refuses to leave your head all day. Meanwhile, the production turns the sparse chilliness of Mustard-wave into something cinematically funky. [Listen here.]

Dej Loaf - Sell Sole14. Dej LoafSell Sole (Self-Released)

“Try Me,” this Detroit rapper’s breakout hit, was a nagging and weirdly pretty singsong ballad about how this girl will fucking kill you if you give her a reason. It was plenty complex already. But on Sell Sole, Dej Loaf proved that there was more to her than that, showing that she could spit stone-faced rappity-rap fire and show some genuine heartbreak as well. She’s a complete rapper, and being a complete rapper is still the best way to avoid one-hit wonderdom.[Listen here.]

Lil Herb - Welcome To Fazoland13. Lil HerbWelcome To Fazoland (Self-Released)

Herb and his frequent collaborator Lil Bibby come from the same bleak Chicago streets that birthed the still-thriving drill music scene, and there’s plenty of the same dead-eyed brutality in their label. But Herb, in particular, is also a classically great rapper, hungry and incisive and full of feeling. Welcome To Fazoland, his breakout solo moment, is a purposeful sprint through burnt-out environs, but it’s also a testament to one kid’s strength. Herb sounds ready to take on the world here, especially on the staggering “4 Minutes Of Hell Part 3.” [Listen here.]

Vince Staples - Shyne Coldchain Vol. 212. Vince StaplesShyne Coldchain Vol. 2 (Blacksmith Records)

Hell Can Wait was everything you could hope from a major-label debut: Touch, catchy, purposeful. But if you were paying attention, you’d known that Staples was already well on his way to burying his old Odd Future associations and building a persona all his own. Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, with its soul-damaged beats and its deadpan political fury, was a major statement of intent, one of two Staples made this year. [Listen here.]

Migos - Rich Nigga Timeline11. MigosRich Nigga Timeline (Self-Released)

Is it possible that they’re somehow getting better? These Atlanta motormouths arrived on the national scene last year fully formed, but somehow their hooks have grown springier, their flows more madly cluttered and tourettic, their internal chemistry more fluid. “Fight Night,” from the messy and overlong No Label II mixtape, was the song that conquered the summer. But Rich Nigga Timeline was the hookfest that just wouldn’t stop — 18 tracks of feverish mind-traps, complete with cartoon sound-effects. [Listen here.]

Gangsta Boo & Beatking - Underground Cassette Tape Music10. Gangsta Boo & BeatkingUnderground Cassette Tape Music (Self-Released)

An unabashed love letter to the chaotic lo-fi rumble of late-’90s Memphis rap, from a lady who ripped through that sign as it was peaking and a Houston admirer who understands the power of that stuff but isn’t afraid to crack multiple stripper jokes per verse. In a way, the tape also works as a tribute to half-forgotten strains of street-level fuck-you-up rap, with faded heroes like Daz Dillinger and Lil Flip and OJ Da Juiceman reminding you that they exist and bass cranked high enough to annihilate your speaker tubes. [Listen here.]

DJ Quik - The Midnight Life9. DJ QuikThe Midnight Life (Mad Science Recordings)

For decades, the legendary Compton rapper/producer has displayed that rare Stevie Wonder streak, that idea that he can do anything he wants melodically and he’ll leave your head spinning wondering how he pulled it off. In the past few years, Quik has moved further away from chasing pop-music success, and more devoted to the idea of chasing his own weird-ass muse wherever it might happen to go. And that’s how you end up with something like The Midnight Life: Banjos and ’80s slickster R&B stars peacefully coexisting on the same song, all in the service of a conversational rapper with strong opinions about you not quitting your day job. [Listen here.]

Young Thug & Bloody Jay - Black Portland8. Young Thug & Bloody JayBlack Portland (Self-Released)

Young Thug was a fascinatingly strange rapper before teaming up with fellow headcase Bloody Jay for Black Portland. But the tape marked the moment that Thug really came into his own as a songwriter, channeling his charismatic tics into real resonant bangers. Everything that came after Black Portland — the increasing reach of “Danny Glover” and “Stoner,” “Lifestyle,” Rich Gang: Tha Tour — felt like a direct consequence of that growth. And yet an unstable gothic slap like “No Fucks” still stands tall next to everything else the man did. [Listen here.]

Lil Boosie - Life After Deathrow7. Lil BoosieLife After Deathrow (Self-Released)

Prison did not mellow Lil Boosie. Instead, the Louisiana rap hero came back, after eight years locked up, hardened and embittered, ready to direct his increasingly lethal sneer at anyone who demonstrated insufficient loyalty during his time away. The way Boosie attacked these rumbling, bass-heavy, old-school country rap beats, it was like someone let a wolverine out after shaking up the cage. And maybe that’s not that far from what happened.[Listen here.]

ILoveMakonnen - I Love Makonnen6. ILoveMakonnenI Love Makonnen (Self-Released)

Thanks to a pudgy Atlanta beautician with a manslaughter conviction, 2014 turned out to be the year rap discovered chillwave. Makonnen’s best songs — “I Don’t Sell Molly No More,” the career-making “Tuesday” — are blues koans about drug-dealing, about how it can be a shitty job just like any other shitty job. But the starry-eyed sense of melody he uses — nasally crooning over synth-streaked beats from Southern rap all-stars like Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital — are what make Makonnen feel like something entirely new, and potentially transformative. [Listen here.]

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Piñata5. Freddie Gibbs & MadlibPiñata (Madlib Invazion)

In some ways, this album served as a summit meeting of underground rap past and present, as Scarface and Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt and Raekwon lined up to tear through the zonked, jazz-damaged beats of West Coast weedhead backpack king Madlib. And yet the main event was still Gibbs, he of the authoritative liquid flow and the sneery lived-in street talk, declaring absolute primacy over the kind of beats that he never had access to those times when he was trapped in the major label system. Now that he’s free, may he make more like this. [Listen here.]

Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait4. Vince StaplesHell Can Wait (Def Jam)

What a cold motherfucker. Staples raps with such flat authority that it can be easy to miss the righteous wrath and the finely observed detail in his intricately worded bars. And given his first-ever major-label contract, he came with less than half an hour of sparse, earwormy rumbles. His tracks blurred boundaries between minimal Mustard-wave and noise-addled protest-rap, and his words stayed knife-edge tense without losing their otherworldly cool. [Listen here.]

Young Thug, Birdman & Rich Homie Quan - Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 13. Young Thug, Birdman & Rich Homie QuanRich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 (Self-Released)

The tour this mixtape was meant to promote turned out to be a weird misdirection: A handful of announced arena dates that never came to pass, at least in this reality. But you couldn’t listen to the tape and think that these guys had any real grasp on reality anyway. Rich Gang: Tha Tour is all blurry locker-room head-tripping from rap’s most gloriously unhinged superfriend duo in recent memory. Thug and Quan gibbered and howled and yammered their way beyond the bounds of space and time. [Listen here.]

YG - My Krazy Life2. YGMy Krazy Life (Def Jam)

Sometimes, it’s the everyman who shines brightest. YG is a tough, unshowy, conversational rapper, and his understated everythug persona turned out to be just the thing to make the Compton landscape of My Krazy Life look just as large and fully realized as what YG collaborator Kendrick Lamar came up with on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. Meanwhile, DJ Mustard’s beats glittered and thumped and zeitgeist-surfed. It’s not an easy thing to turn the sound of the moment into a symphony, but YG and Mustard pulled it off. [Listen here.]

Run the Jewels - RTJ21. Run The JewelsRTJ2 (Mass Appeal)

For the past few years, we’ve been watching one of the great real-life buddy stories play out, and it ended this year the only way it could: With the two of them strutting slowly away from an explosion. That explosion: 40 minutes of beautifully incendiary clanking and banging and fuming and cackling, with every punchline in place and every snare-crack calibrated for maximum impact. Mike and El can and do talk shit with the best of them, but they also bring vision and conscience and empathy and a suddenly motivated Zack De La Rocha. The best part: There’s a strong chance that RTJ3 could be even better. [Listen here.]

more from 2014 In Review

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