The 10 Best Rap Albums Of 2023

The 10 Best Rap Albums Of 2023

As the old saying goes, you either die a youngin or live long enough to see yourself become an old head. Speaking to Rolling Stone last month, Lil Boat aged prematurely when he complained that they just don’t make rap like they used to. “The place that hip-hop is in right now is a terrible place,” he explained during a chat with Tierra Whack. “It’s a lot of imitation. It’s a lot of quick, low-quality music being put out. It’s a lot less originality.”

If you hadn’t read the attribution, you might have sworn it was a five-year-old Joe Budden quote. But alas, it was the former self-anointed King of Teens, who’d previously faced similar critiques when he emerged as a prototypical SoundCloud rapper eight years ago. At the time, he was called a “mumble rapper,” and rap elitists hadn’t caught onto the subtle melodic prowess and stylistic quirks that ensured the successful career he’s enjoyed to date. Now, as is the circle of art, Yachty himself has become the critic who doesn’t get it: Rap is as expansive and vibrant as ever. You can find evidence in year-end best album lists like this one.

Throughout 2023, rappers from the East, West, North, and South, and everywhere between have unloaded songs to satiate the palette of rap heads everywhere. Whether it’s free-associative jazz raps, frenetic drill, or exercises in crunk revivalism, there was something for you; you just had to know where to look. More importantly, you had to want to look in the first place. As the year comes to a close, we took some time to look back at the most impressive rap albums of the year. There were more albums we wanted to discuss — Michael, Burning Desire, and Call Me If You Get Lost: The Estate Sale were all dope — we decided to narrow it down to the 10 best.


JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown - Scaring The Hoes (PEGGY/AWAL)

JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown’s Scaring The Hoes is the very definition of “there’s a lot going on here,” but through technical precision and a mutual penchant for snarky humor and blunt confessionals, it’s a gripping endeavor. There’s warped experimentation around every corner. For “Steppa Pig,” Peggy throws NSYNC and Pointer Sisters samples in the blender for an explosion of colorful quips and raw feeling, while tracks like “Jack Harlow Combo Meal” combine sentimental piano with jittery crash cymbals and snappy jabs at rap capitalism. That sort of discordance, along with the stark contrasts in their vocal tones, only makes the experience more overwhelming. Scaring The Hoes is as abrasive as it is mesmerizing — the best kind of overstimulation.


Young Nudy - Gumbo (Young Nudy/RCA)

With a combination of trippy soundscapes and varied cadences, Young Nudy’s Gumbo is a hazy soundtrack to cruise to. Nudy is not a premier rap technician, nor is he particularly melodic, but he wields his low-pitched, elastic rasp to its fullest effect; he can emit lethargy, playful charisma or deadly menace all within just a few bars. Tracks like “Portabella” are entrancing, opiate theme songs for stoners, while the 21 Savage-featured “Peaches & Eggplants” was a late contender for Song Of The Summer. Sure, he doesn’t take many stylistic detours, but his murmured flows and inventive production create an engrossing fog that only makes you want to roll the windows up.


Ice Spice - Like..? (10k Projects/Capitol)

Fusing her muted, playful charisma with the kinetic energy of the new Big Apple, Ice Spice’s Like..? replaced drill’s typically scabrous aggression with irresistible baddie affirmations — bops designed for brunches and drunken Uber rides with the girls. Produced by RIOTUSA, tracks like “Princess Diana” and “In Ha Mood” are as symbolic as they are easy to repeat, with each bar being worthy of an Instagram caption and spurts of involuntary murmuring. The Lil Tjay-assisted “Gangsta Boo” is sexy and flirty with a trace of danger. Following the death of Pop Smoke, it felt like New York drill would be confined to the fringes of commercial success. But with Like..? Ice Spice supercharged — and expanded — the genre by reimagining it in her own image.


Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist - Voir Dire (TAN CRESSIDA/ALC/Warner)

If you were looking for a portrait of Rap Nerd Joy, it would look a lot like Voir Dire, a long-rumored Earl Sweatshirt-Alchemist joint album most people had given up on. Though Alchemist teased it years ago, Earl’s esoteric stylings and Alc’s steady stream of collab albums made it seem like the moment had passed. But it didn’t, and it’s even better than folks could have imagined. For the LP, Earl conducts his customary soul-searching, fusing deft wordplay with poignant moments of lucidity. Meanwhile, Alc’s production is as sleek as it is emotive, a perfect canvas for Earl’s fleeting thoughts and the slippery rhyme structures he uses to distill them. At 27 minutes, it’s a dense surge of emotion and pristine technique from two legends operating at peak efficiency.


Sexyy Red - Hood Hottest Princess (Open SHift/gamma.)

A fusion of Crime Mob, Three 6 Mafia, and 2000s Gucci Mane, Sexyy Red understands the virtue of being loud and proudly ratchet. She harnesses that authentic energy on Hood Hottest Princess, a project laced with propulsive bangers. With her absurdist, plainspoken vulgarity and Tay Keith’s pummeling 808s, “Pound Town” turns the quest for good sex into an eccentric, raunchy adventure. Meanwhile “SkeeYee,” features a similarly supercharged beat and a multi-layered hook designed for stadium status call and response. It’s all stitched together by her delivery; she stretches certain words so they provide micro-climaxes within the songs, making her obscenities all the easier to shout in the club — or if you really want to have fun, anywhere else, too. There’s a thrill in being a little unhinged.


Doja Cat - Scarlet (Kemosabe/RCA)

For Scarlet, Doja Cat graffitis genre archetypes and fan expectations with shapeshifting flows and sardonic humor, interspersing them with lithely gentle vocals and the stylistic tics of musical legends. It’s subgenre tourism with a map extracted from a fan’s familiarity. The eccentrically kinetic “Ouchies” is a Venn Diagram with vintage Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott, while the defiant “Paint The Town Red” might as well be “The Real Slim Shady 2.” Grafting a sultry, extraterrestrial falsetto onto a disembodied Soulquarian-esque soundbed, “Often” could have featured Erykah Badu. But it’s all Doja. She says she wants to paint the town red, but with its command of varied sounds, Scarlet is proof that she makes compelling art no matter what colors she uses.


Armand Hammer - We Buy Diabetic Test Strips (Fat Possum)

We Buy Diabetic Test Strips has a lot going for it, but its best quality is the way Armand Hammer interact with the shadowy soundscapes. Elucid and billy woods are at their best as they weave rambling, esoteric lyricism into dynamic soundbeds that only enhance the mania that comes with their troubling thoughts; distorted basslines underscore muddled reminiscences, forlorn flutes color disaffection, and lingering clock-ticks evoke late night catharsis. It’s a dense collage of scattered memories, belated realizations and surrealistic production. Billy and Elucid’s abstract raps are self-contained riddles that, like their philosophical quandaries, can feel impossible to solve. But there’s a reward in trying.


Noname - Sundial (Noname/AWAL)

Soft-spoken but cutting, Noname serves up hard truths with intimacy, grace, and wry humor. For Sundial, her first album in five years, she combines her precise prose for incisive critiques of society and herself. She’ll call out JAY-Z for partnering with the NFL, but she’s just as willing to point out that her non-conformist self agreed to perform at Coachella. As she explains it, trips to the beauty store are less a way to get prettier than a “lapse in judgment,” as faith in a racist power structure is like being asleep at the wheel. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s succinct, imagistic, and conversational, a tightrope act only possible for folks as talented as Noname. She swirls it all together with gospel and daydream jazz. The honesty of the raps gives the impression of a friend who will curse your ass out. The spurts of gentle melody feel like an arm around your shoulder once the argument’s all over.


Veeze - Ganger (Navy Wavy)

Veeze specializes in precise, colorful randomness. Powered by a kinetic creative streak, Ganger plays out like Robot Chicken for the trenches, with a thread of kaleidoscopic pop culture references becoming hidden-in-plain-sight punchlines. The individual bars are clever, but just as importantly, they’re delectably off-kilter. Why would his bullets send an opp to Chattanooga instead of somewhere closer to Detroit? And who knew Chattanooga rhymed with “get a new one”? The rhyme schemes only feel obvious after the fact, and each burst of wordplay is more unexpected than the last. They’re instantly gratifying riddles that leave you excited to solve the next one, and sifting through his mush-mouthed delivery and pixelated beats only adds layers to the puzzle. It’s a seamless blend of technique and aesthetic. In other words, this isn’t a drill; Veeze is the real thing.


billy woods & Kenny Segal - Maps (Backwoodz Studioz/Fat Possum)

No one writes quite like billy woods. Over the span of just a couple of bars, he can collapse the gap between hope and despair with sly humor and deeply profound humanity, as he does frequently on the immaculate, Kenny Segal-produced Maps. A musical travelog, the LP recounts billy’s post-pandemic touring adventures, experiences he paints in strokes of irony and the cynicism of a learned defeatist. “Every time things going good or having a laugh/ Have to remember God’s a hater,” he raps on “Kenwood Speakers.” It’s a grim sentiment, but woods makes it hilarious, and Segal’s spurts of dazed jazz embeds the whole affair with a cinematic atmosphere. Together, they render lonely flights and the politics of weed copping as hidden battles only visible through the eyes of a weary poet.

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