Published March 27, 2022
THE BEST HIP-HOP ALBUMS OF EACH YEAR (2010S)
Including honorable mentions.
2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
A good chunk of Kanye West‘s catalogue is critically acclaimed, but this is the music nerd’s favorite. It’s theatrical, larger-than-life, and a little on the conceptual side, so that’s no surprise.
I won’t gush over its qualities or treat it like an elite art form, but it’s definitely one of Kanye’s best and perhaps his last truly excellent solo effort. Twisted Fantasy is notorious for being a largely collaborative work, receiving input from other artists with the production, writing, and more. I don’t personally see that as a negative; it simply adds to the monumental nature of it all.
It goes for the “less tracks, more content” approach, and some may find that exhausting; I think that only makes it more unique. It’s less geared towards replay value and more towards being a whole artistic experience, much like a lot of music’s greatest albums.
Best Track – So Appalled
2010’s Honorable Mentions
Apollo Brown – The Reset
The Left – Gas Mask
Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager
Apollo Brown is a now highly respected producer in the underground scene, but he was only just finding his footing in the early-2010s. The previous year saw him release three quality projects (including two of the year’s best in The Reset and Gas Mask), so this was a quieter year for his catalogue – with the exception of this.
Clouds was probably not designed to be the cult classic it is, given its simplistic nature and a lot of the beats finding themselves scattered among other Brown records. But alongside instrumental experiences such as Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma and Madlib’s Beat Konducta series, Clouds set the groundwork for a lot of the past decade’s instrumental breakthroughs.
The beats are floaty and formulaic, but this is a perfect representation of Apollo Brown’s style. That self-generated atmosphere is what pushes it over a lot of the year’s top-tier releases.
Best Track – The 11th Hour
2011’s Honorable Mentions
Action Bronson & Statik Selektah – Well Done
The Roots – Undun
Elzhi – Elmatic
2012, Mic Tyson
2012 was a year for new names. Mixtapes from the likes of Joey Bada$$, Chance the Rapper, Logic and more implied that hip-hop was entirely ready to enter a new era, but the interesting thing is this year’s winner actually came from a veteran.
Sean Price had already grown a cult following for his solo music with Monkey Barz and Jesus Price Supastar, as well as a slew of mixtapes. Mic Tyson doesn’t seem like a career-defining project as a result; why would something released fifteen years after a rapper’s debut stand out so much? The answer is simple: P never lost his touch.
The album weaves through high-energy verses and dungeon-like instrumentals, wasting no more time than necessary on each cut. This gives it a naturally addictive nature that makes the listener want to return and catch the punchlines they missed from the legend. It’s all bangers, no direction; just as you’d expect from a record about battling on mics.
Best Track – Bar-Barian
2012’s Honorable Mentions
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Blu & Exile – Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them
Guilty Simpson & Apollo Brown – Dice Game
2013, Extended Play
Producers don’t get enough love for their solo efforts. Compiling a bunch of your beats, networking and establishing features, and then somehow still forcing cohesion throughout is a talent.
Statik Selektah‘s Extended Play is a shot at any old-head claiming “hip-hop is dead”; if lyricism is what people want, it’s at their disposal right here. Artists from all sectors of the genre’s history roam this album, ranging from Talib Kweli to Flatbush Zombies. Every one of these nineteen tracks is led by somebody different, and the record never tires itself out as a result.
That goes without mentioning Statik’s greatness on the boards, either. Hardcore boom bap at its best inhabits every moment and serves as a reminder who the genius behind this all is. Yet another veteran standout, although this one is their magnum opus.
Best Track – My Hoe
2013’s Honorable Mentions
Childish Gambino – Because the Internet
Awon & Phoniks – Return to the Golden Era
Run the Jewels – Self Titled
Ten years prior, Madlib was busy collaborating on what would end up being the most influential underground album of all-time. Return to the present and you see him active with the slowly rising Freddie Gibbs, who happened to help create a musical match made in heaven.
Piñata is a return to gangsta rap that had been missing for quite some time. It balances between cockiness and reflection, all the while rooting itself in a modernized west coast sound. Freddie wasted no time expanding his lyrical palette throughout, and Madlib toned down the experimentation to fit his new partner’s style.
All of this resulted in more evidence of how excellent rapper-producer duos are; they found a formula that worked, and ended up making a 2010’s hip-hop staple.
Best Track – Lakers
2014’s Honorable Mentions
Your Old Droog – Self Titled
Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
Logic – Under Pressure
2015, To Pimp a Butterfly
And here’s a return to the critic’s favorites; Kendrick Lamar‘s infamous record. To Pimp a Butterfly has grown a reputation of being not only one of the best hip-hop albums of its era, but also one of the best of all-time.
It’s with good reason, though. Kendrick truly utilizes the best of his abilities here, with a versatile display of lyricism over some of the most well-made beats of the 2010’s. The mix of classic funk, jazz, and neo-soul with the innovation of hip-hop is one-of-a-kind and could possibly never be replicated to this degree again.
Don’t even get me started on the genius concept, too; there’s only really things that went right with Kendrick’s third studio release.
Best Track – The Blacker the Berry
2015’s Honorable Mentions
Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth
Tyler, the Creator – Cherry Bomb
Jay Rock – 90059
When regarding the past several years of the underground, nothing has topped FLYGOD‘s influence. Westside Gunn brought a unique, irreplaceable rapping style to the table and matched it with golden production that feels reminiscent of classic mafioso rap.
FLYGOD’s sound is every corner of the modern underground packed into one. It’s hazy, elegant, and soulful all at once; and that isn’t even considering the absolutely stacked feature roster.
Many artists that have since spiked in popularity rapped in their earlier forms here, including fellow labelmates Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine. You also find veterans Skyzoo and Roc Marciano slinging bars, as well as modern New York emcees like Your Old Droog and Meyhem Lauren.
Even though Gunn is clearly in charge, the wide roster gives every song its own identity. It almost feels executive produced in a sense, which unsurprisingly became a trend with the rest of his discography.
Best Track – Mr. T
2016’s Honorable Mentions
Apollo Brown & Skyzoo – The Easy Truth
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
2017, 4eva is a Mighty Long Time
It was probably noticeable how much southern hip-hop was lacking on this list prior, but no worries; Big K.R.I.T.‘s best album is not only among the greatest for the region in the modern era, but also all-time.
Double discs rarely root themselves in concept over volume, but 4eva does. The first disc, which is self-titled, establishes itself as materialistic and dark, influenced by the likes of UGK, T.I., and other hardcore southern legends. K.R.I.T. almost bathes in his tunneled ideals before taking a sharp turn at the halfway mark.
The second disc, named Justin Scott, is personal and honest. It only aims to wash off the sin and ignorance glorified prior, and instead embraces purity and funkiness influenced by more conscious acts like the Dungeon Family or CunninLynguists. By the end of the record, you’ve experienced a lengthy display of artistic growth that not many have executed better.
Best Track – Mixed Messages
2017’s Honorable Mentions
Mach-Hommy – The G.A.T.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Your Old Droog – Packs
2018, Behold a Dark Horse
2018 had a lot of great records, but not many phenomenal ones. Roc Marciano couldn’t have cared less, though; this was his year to shine.
The drum-less hip-hop wave is risky, as it is such an extreme style. It can either be incredibly satisfying or painfully boring, but given that Roc is the sound’s pioneer, he’s never quite failed with it. Dark Horse showcases the technique and pushes it to its full potential, largely being self-produced with some quality bites chipped in from others.
The entire atmosphere isn’t a violent-type of dark, but instead a soothing, moody kind. The cover proves that alone, but the experience is even better. Hearing such vivid lyricism over these minimal beats is already a rarity, but it reaching this level of consistency is even less common. For that reason, this is something to appreciate.
Best Track – Fabio
2018’s Honorable Mentions
Westside Gunn – Supreme Blientele
Saba – CARE FOR ME
Lupe Fiasco – DROGAS WAVE
Your Old Droog is on the stranger side of rap, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the best artists of this era. Not many dedicate themselves to creativity or lyricism to this extent, but when you mix both together and add a ridiculous work ethic, he’s who you get.
Transportation is reminiscent of classic MF DOOM records, rooting itself in inaccessible dark humor and colorful stories. The entire thing is themed around the pace of life; it uses various forms of transport to describe different experiences, and it works ridiculously well.
The production, largely handled by the underrated Mono En Stereo, is also lovable. It derives from the funk and disco era to an extreme degree, and that creates a potent feeling of nostalgia. All of these qualities combined with a perfectly compact length make for what happens to be my favorite album of the decade, and one from an artist people should stop sleeping on.
Best Track – Train Love
2019’s Honorable Mentions
Skyzoo & Pete Rock – Retropolitan
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Your Old Droog – It Wasn’t Even Close