2015 In Review

The 40 Best Rap Albums Of 2015

Things got hot in 2015. After 2014, when most of rap’s biggest names took the year off, everyone was suddenly locked into a brutal competition to see who could claim rap’s top spot. Drake released two album-length projects in 2015, insisting that neither one was a proper album even though both of them cost actual money and sold boatloads, and then he cemented his status through a few non-album singles. Future may have done Drake one better, releasing four album-length joints (including one with Drake), all of which were staggering and all of which gave him even more momentum. Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar went left and released an expressionist, humanist, jazz-damaged masterpiece. It’s probably better that Kanye West stayed on the bench. How could he compete with all of that?

Meanwhile, we had plenty of young lions on the prowl this year. Chance The Rapper and Vince Staples, already established figures in the underground, released the best music of their lives and showed that they could compete with anyone in terms of artistry, if not starpower. Pop-rap upstarts punched outside their weightclass. Long-in-the-tooth veterans released better music than anyone was expecting. A few dependable figures even managed to surprise us. It was a good year.

The first six albums on this list all appeared, in the order they appear here, on Stereogum’s year-end top-50 list. (All of them would’ve been up at the top of this list, too, albeit in a slightly different order.) But the other picks on this list are mine and mine only. I’ve got my own rap-music preferences and prejudices, and this list reflects them. But great rap music came from every conceivable corner of the map this year, and I think the list also reflects that. Hopefully, you’ll find something great below that you haven’t heard before.

Please note: As I was putting this list together, I hadn’t yet heard the new albums from Rick Ross and Pusha T. If I had, they’d both be on here. Pusha would be top 10. You should be excited about that one.

Hamilton - Cast Recording40. HamiltonCast Recording (Atlantic)

[Listen here.]


Gunplay - Living Legend39. GunplayLiving Legend (Maybach Music Group/Def Jam)

[Listen here.]


E-40 - Poverty and Prosperity38. E-40Poverty and Prosperity (Heavy On the Grind)

[Listen here.]


Big Sean - Dark Sky Paradise37. Big SeanDark Sky Paradise (GOOD Music/Def Jam)

[Listen here.]


Le1f - Riot Boy36. Le1fRiot Boy (XL/Terrible)

[Listen here.]


Scarface - Deeply Rooted35. ScarfaceDeeply Rooted (Facemob)

[Listen here.]


Migos - Yung Rich Nation34. MigosYung Rich Nation (300 Entertainment)

[Read our review here.]


Puff Daddy - MMM33. Puff DaddyMMM (Bad Boy/Epic)

[Listen here.]


Beatking - Houston 3AM32. BeatkingHouston 3AM (Self-released)

[Listen here.]


Freddie Gibbs - Shadow Of A Doubt31. Freddie GibbsShadow Of A Doubt (ESGN)

[Read our review here.]


Mac Miller: GO:OD AM30. Mac MillerGO:OD AM (Warner Bros)

[Listen here.]


JME - Integrity29. JMEIntegrity> (Boy Better Know)

[Listen here.]


DVS - DVTV28. DVSDVTV (Self-released)

[Listen here.]


Young Thug - Slime Season 227. Young ThugSlime Season 2 (YSL)

[Read our review here.]


White Gzus - Stackin N’ Mackin Vol. 326. White GzusStackin N’ Mackin Vol. 3 (Self-released)

[Listen here.]


Fetty Wap - Fetty Wap25. Fetty WapFetty Wap (300 Entertainment/RGF Productions)

[Listen here.]


Action Bronson - Mr. Wonderful24. Action BronsonMr. Wonderful (Atlantic/Vice)

[Listen here.]


Kevin Gates - Murder For Hire23. Kevin GatesMurder For Hire (Self-released)

[Listen here.]


ILoveMakonnen - ILoveMakonnen 222. ILoveMakonnenILoveMakonnen 2 (Warner Bros/OVO Sound)

[Listen here.]


T.I. - Da' Nic21. T.I.Da’ Nic 2 (Grand Hustle)

[Listen here.]


The Game - The Documentary 220. The GameThe Documentary 2 (Entertainment One/Blood Money)

Game has an ear for beats that almost any other rapper would envy, and that’s how he’s gotten a 10-year career out of his rigid bark and his pedestrian writing skills. But even given how often he’s exceeded expectations over the years, he really came hard on this thing. On the sequel to his still-great debut, he rips into a series of tracks that give widescreen oomph to classic Cali G-funk and invites a stunning array of guests, all of whom rap hard but few of whom seem to rap as hard as Game himself. This guy is a renewable energy resource. His career should’ve ended five times by now, but on Documentary 2, he sounds as strong as ever. [Listen here.]


Dr. Yen Lo - Days With Dr. Yen Lo19. Dr. Yen LoDays With Dr. Yen Lo (Pavlov Institute)

Brooklyn’s Ka tends to sound less like a rapper and more like a long-lost poet incanting ancient wisdom, challenging you to sift through his riddles. He likes to do everything himself: Rapping, producing, directing his videos, releasing his music on his own, standing outside to hawk CDs. But in teaming up with producer Preservation, he’s found a way to disappear even further inward, muttering rain-soaked heaviness over drumless drones and twinkles. This is classic New York rap turned inside-out, boom-bap made monastic. Very few rap records have a sense of atmosphere as rich as what this album conjures. [Listen here.]


Meek Mill - Dreams Worth More Than Money18. Meek MillDreams Worth More Than Money (Maybach Music Group/Atlantic)

This year, and maybe for the rest of his career, Meek Mill is going to be remembered for absolutely shitting the bed in his Drake feud. And there’s no question that he bungled it spectacularly. But before he did that, he came out with an album of mean and forceful big-budget street-rap that recalled an era when albums like that weren’t so scarce. The Meek of DWMTM sounds grown-up and focused, but he still has the battle-seasoned hardness that made him such a sensation in the first place. And when he gets a beat like the one for “Classic,” he turns into an animal. [Listen here.]


Boosie Badazz - Touch Down 2 Cause Hell17. Boosie BadazzTouch Down 2 Cause Hell (Atlantic)

Even before his recent stomach-cancer diagnosis, Boosie was one of rap’s great tragic figures: A beloved regional star locked away in prison for years just as his star was beginning to peak. But when he left prison, he did it with a remarkable sense of purpose, and Touch Down has levels of purpose and urgency that you just don’t hear in major-label rap albums anymore. Boosie starts out the album proud and defiant, and he ends it begging his family and fans for forgiveness. And every moment, even the throwaway ones, feels shot through with fiery truth. [Read our review here.]


Drake & Future - What A Time To Be Alive16. Drake & FutureWhat A Time To Be Alive (Cash Money/Epic)

In a sense, rap-superstar collaborative albums are something like ’70s classic-rock supergroups: They never quite equal the combined power of their participants, and they rarely show the same chemistry that you’ll hear in groups that formed more organically. You can find yourself cynically analyzing the motives involved, speculating that Drake and Future wanted to ride each other’s waves as much as they wanted to make music together. But they can still pack a punch. And this one, recorded on an apparent whim in a few Atlanta days, has more spark than most. Drake tries to party hard enough to keep up. Future shows Drake the emotional abyss. And the diamonds keep dancing. [Read our review here.]


Heems - Eat Pray Thug15. HeemsEat Pray Thung (Megaforce)

How many of the people who once tittered over “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell” know that Heems has grown into one of his generation’s most incisive, resonant rap voices? If they’re sleeping, it’s their loss. Heems can be funny on Eat Pray Thug, his first solo release in a while, but being funny isn’t the point. He’s at his best when he’s sifting through the broken shards of a relationship, or when he’s speaking plainly and urgently about what it was like to be brown in New York in the weeks after he watched the Twin Towers fall. [Read our review here.]


Lil B & Chance The Rapper - Free14. Lil B & Chance the RapperFree (Self-released)

On a day that they were both in Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival and the surrounding celebrations, Chance and Lil B decided to spend a day in a room together, bashing out a freewheeling and entirely improvised collaboration. On Free, they both go off the dome, sometimes for 10 minutes at a time, egging each other on and letting fly with whatever shit comes into their head. And while there’s not a single fully-constructed song on the tape, there is so much joy in hearing these two kick lines back and forth. It’s a beautiful, life-affirming listen. [Read our review here.]


Young Dro - Da Reality Show13. Young DroDa Reality Show (Entertainment One)

Dro is one of the great unsung stylists in the history of Atlanta rap. He’s a man who got an entire city drunk on clothing descriptions, who once rapped that his Benz coupe was the same color as Ric Flair’s hair. He enjoyed a minor underground comeback this year with “We In Da City,” a fired-up syllable spray that’s endlessly chantable: “CAR AIN’T GOT NO ROOF!” Da Reality Show, the criminally underrated album that follows, maintains that same freewheeling energy throughout; it might be the year’s greatest scream-the-hook-in-a-stranger’s-face rap album. [Listen here.]


Earl Sweatshirt - I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside12. Earl SweatshirtI Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Tan Cressida/Columbia)

That title is not a misdirect. Earl’s second proper album is a bitter, depressed, insular affair. He’s so far removed from the antics of his old Odd Future crew that it’s like he was never a part of it, and he’s making crumbling, dessicated rap music that doesn’t even try to entertain. The album plays like the delayed reaction to the shock you must experience when you get out of a disciplinarian group home and find out you’re internet-famous. What makes it all work is the writing, vivid and allusive and so dense that you can spend months picking it apart. [Listen here.]


Young Thug - Barter 611. Young ThugBarter 6 (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)

In rap, Young Thug is an explosive and deeply stylized presence, like an anime character suddenly made flesh. So it’s a bit of a surprise that he made his first commercially available album — he calls it a mixtape, but we know it’s not — into such a low-key simmer of a thing. And it’s even more of a surprise that he turned out to be so good at it. On Barter 6, he dials his energy down, maintains his intensity and his loony sense of melody, and finds yet another direction to push his insane, malleable voice. [Read our review here.]


Future - Beast Mode10. FutureBeast Mode (Familiar Territory)

Future’s 2015 was just astonishing: Three solo full-lengths, three full-lengths that absolutely belong in the year-end rap top-10 list. If Beast Mode feels a bit minor compared to DS2 and 56 Nights, it says more about those tapes than it does about Beast Mode. Beast Mode is low-key but savage — Future teaming up with onetime Gucci Mane producer-of-choice Zaytoven to find all these mean and addictive little melodies, rapping about watersports and threesome and bottomless pain. To merely hear it was to fall completely into Future’s stumbling, half-blind, 3AM-and-you’re-so-high-you-can-barely-stand soundworld. [Read our review here.]


Dr. Dre - Compton9. Dr. DreCompton (Aftermath/Interscope)

Thank god Dre abandoned Detox. The rap elder and headphones billionaire had been tinkering with a single album for a decade and a half, and whenever we did hear music from him, it had no personality whatsoever. But then Dre scrapped all that and, in a relatively brief span of time, worked up this expansive, fractured, nostalgic opus, paying tribute to already-legendary protege Kendrick Lamar and to his own stories past along the way. The many, many guests all realize that they’re on a Dr. Dre album, and they step it up accordingly. And if Dre didn’t actually write any of his verses, that’s fine; he had the sonic vision to see this thing through. [Read our review here.]


A$AP Rocky - At.Long.Last.A$AP8. A$AP RockyAt.Long.Last.A$AP (Worldwide/RCA)

When you name the first single of your anticipated sophomore record “L$D,” you’re pretty much displaying your intentions in glowing 40-foot neon lights. And indeed, that’s the route Rocky went on ALLA, tapping into spaced-out psychedelic textures and time-honored traditions of rock-star hedonism. But who could’ve predicted that he would sound so smooth, so natural when making that conscious aesthetic transition? On a track like “Excuse Me,” Rocky finds space for churn and beauty, and he makes it look easy. ALLA is a warm and assured and purposeful record, another in a long series of signs that we should not underestimate this guy. [Listen here.]


Future - 56 Nights7. Future56 Nights (Free Bandz)

Last year, DJ Esco, Future’s DJ, was caught with marijuana in Dubai and ended up spending 56 days in a local prison. It could’ve been much, much longer if the warden hadn’t taken a liking to him. He didn’t speak the language, got almost no help from the U.S. Embassy, and had no idea when he’d get out. When he came home, he and Future channeled much of that anxiety and fear into 56 Nights, an all-time great bad-vibes mixtape. Of the three mixtapes that Future released heading into DS2, this was the last, and also the one that absolutely solidified Future’s gargling bad-faith sound. And it gave the world “March Madness,” one of the most feverish, damaged tracks ever to attain summer-jam status. [Listen here.]


Rae Sremmurd - SremmLife6. Rae SremmurdSremmLife (Ear Drummer/Interscope)

Imagine if every pop-rap debut was this good. The two brothers in this Tupelo, Mississippi duo don’t do anything new, and they don’t really do anything that special, either. There are a million groups throwing enthused swag-rap punchlines over bloopy, danceable beats. But Rae Sremmurd do it better than anyone else — more giddy charm, more inventive melodies, more stick-in-your-head moments, absolutely no moments of introspection. Something like half this album’s songs have been in rap-radio rotation this year, and honestly, all of them could’ve been. Nobody, in any genre of music, made music this genuinely fun all year. [Read our review here.]


Drake - If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late5. DrakeIf You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (Cash Money)

Drake insisted that it wasn’t an album, and then it went onto sell more copies than almost any 2015 album. He surprise-released it one night, never pushing a single to radio, and radio responded by throwing every last track into rotation. That’s If You’re Reading This in a nutshell: A statement of rap dominance masquerading as a tossed-off for-the-fans mixtape. Throughout, Drake sounds zoned-out and imperial, absolutely inhabiting words he may or may not have written. And while the album (because it is an album) bogs down a bit toward the end, the “Energy”/”10 Bands”/”Know Yourself” stretch is like one long statement on the power of rap confidence. [Read our review here.]


Future - DS24. FutureDS2 (Epic)

Honest, Future’s 2014 attempt at crossover stardom, was a pretty good album, but Future was so humiliated by its perceived failure that he disappeared into the woodshed, turning heel on his fiancee and spending three (great) mixtapes recapturing the mercenary scoundrel persona that he’d abandoned. The eventual result: DS2, an album of craggy self-hatred and sex-and-drugs self-medication and meditative minor-key Metro Boomin beats that annihilated car stereos all summer. It’s an album that explicitly and consciously rejects the crossover-star status that Future once chased, and it turned him into a crossover star. Sometimes, life is funny that way. [Read our review here.]


Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf3. Donnie Trumpet & The Social ExperimentSurf (Self-released)

Chance The Rapper is a revelation on Surf — warm and giddy and absolutely alive with happiness. In the album’s greatest moment, he offers a love song to his grandmother. Elsewhere, he’s all jumpy excitement and irrepressible melody. But this isn’t Chance’s album; he’s more of a party host than a star. Much of the rap landcape floats through, and otherwise negligible presences like B.o.B. and Big Sean have some of the best moments of their career. Meanwhile, Donnie Trumpet and his band provide an organic, sun-kissed live-band float that would be glorious with no voices at all. [Read our review here.]


Vince Staples - Summertime '062. Vince StaplesSummertime ’06 (Blacksmith/Artium/Def Jam)

If To Pimp A Butterfly addressed its moment with confused, heartbroken empathy, Vince Staples, Kendrick Lamar’s fellow California rap insurgent, went with something different: Cold, clinical, rigorous fury. Staples is a relentlessly clever rapper, his wordplay dense and intricate. But he never so much as flashes a smile. Instead, his voice is all icy, flat reserve. He’s laughing at you, but he’s not going to tip you off. Instead, he’s going to go for clinical precision and seething burn like nobody since Hell Hath No Fury-era Clips. Veteran Chicago producer No I.D. laces him with negative-space-heavy beats that sound hollowed of hope. The result: A debut album of rare focus and power. [Read our review here.]


Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly1. Kendrick LamarTo Pimp A Butterfly (TDE/Interscope)

This year, across the United States, people protesting police murders chanted the hook to “Alright” like it was a mantra. That, more than any conceivable chart metric — more, even, than the how-many-cars-did-you-hear-playing-it test — tells you what kind of chord Kendrick struck this year. It was a difficult tangle at first — the double-consciousness heartbreak of being black and American, dissected through heated slam poetry and astral funk. It remains a difficult tangle now. But in the months since its release, the big tunes here — “Alright,” “King Kunta” — bang even harder than they did at first, and the heaviest moments have taken on a sort of totemic power. And if Kendrick does occasionally veer into silliness — the Tupac interview, “How Much A Dollar Cost” — he only does so in his relentless drive to make something great. And ultimately, he succeeds. [Read our review here.]