Top 25 Albums of 2022

Published January 11, 2023

Top 25 Albums of 2022

2022 was a dynamic year for music. It saw the long-awaited return of many household names (i.e. Kendrick Lamar), the sustained success of the underground, and a handful of unexpected collaborations. The end result was potentially the best stretch of records the twenties decade has seen yet – and here are twenty-five of its best products, aligned to my personal preference.

Disclaimer: As with any “album of the year” list, there are several projects I did not quite get around to – ultimately, this serves as a stamp of the top releases I did get to resonate with.

No. 25 – Killing Nothing

Boldy James
Real Bad Man
43 min.

One of Boldy James’ ten albums of the twenties, Killing Nothing is one of the biggest standouts of the year. His familiarity with multimedia collective Real Bad Man has been intact for ages now, so a specific standard was set for this record that was ultimately met – James practices consistency through supplying a batch of grimy, spacious tracks that complement his numbed delivery.

Griselda’s dominance throughout the past stretch of time is only made clearer by this output – it isn’t necessarily one of the collective’s top efforts, but instead serves as continued quality that solidifies them as the best hip-hop group in the game.

Favorite Track: Hundred Ninety Bands


Lupe Fiasco41 min.

Lupe Fiasco’s catalogue has gone through many, many phases. From being an upcoming hip-hop superstar to someone restrained by the industry, he ultimately settled with the best situation any artist could ask for – full artistic control. DRILL MUSIC IN ZION matches that sentiment, being reminiscent of previous records Tetsuo & Youth and DROGAS WAVE in that it embraces layered songwriting (i.e., the perspective-based storytelling on “KIOSK“), lush instrumentals, and a willingness to experiment.

DRILL MUSIC isn’t necessarily as ambitious as those aforementioned, but it is a firm reminder that Fiasco’s capabilities are infinite – to release something so concise nearly two decades after your commercial debut is phenomenal.

Favorite Track: On Faux Nem

No. 23 – King’s Disease III

Nas52 min.

Album number-fifteen for the all time great was, as expected at this point, a hit. King’s Disease III is a continuation of Nas and Hit-Boy’s unexpected streak of projects, which have secondarily served as a career revival for the Queens emcee. Through showcasing his steady pen game and Hit-Boy’s willingness to exit his comfort zone, the third entry of the King’s Disease series delivered.

The sheer variety in sound resulted in a hefty tracklist, but it was good to see variation from the duo. For example, “Recession Proof” has a bass-heavy basis that feels reminiscent of the golden age – on the contrary, “I’m on Fire” takes a grimy soul-sampling approach that feels tied to the underground. It all packs together nicely, serving as a benchmark for what veterans should accomplish decades into their careers.

Favorite Track: I’m on Fire

No. 22 – 2 P’z in a Pod

LNDN Drugs
Larry June
31 min.

2 P’z in a Pod is a feel-good moment from the likes of rapper-producer duo LNDN Drugs (comprised of Jay Worthy and Sean House), and frequent collaborator Larry June. 2 P’z falls under the branch of west coast influence that creates a summery, easygoing atmosphere for the emcees to lay bars over.

The combination of vocal sampling and vintage synthesizers unlocks a new facet of underground production that is rarely seen, which elevates the project to an unforeseen level of uniqueness. It therefore stands as one of the best-produced efforts of the year, with great rapping to boost it even further.

Favorite Track: Late Nights

No. 21 – TrillStatik 2

Bun B
Statik Selektah
30 min.

A sequel to the similarly-named debut of these two, TrillStatik 2 is further proof that some work ethics are beyond measure. Rapper Bun B (of UGK fame) and east coast legend Statik Selektah furthered their unlikely chemistry through yet another one-of-a-kind creative process – streaming the entirety of the album’s formation on a stream in twenty-four hours and releasing it to the public immediately after.

The charm of these two’s vision comes through the studio environment – featuring artists, media members, close contacts, and more found themselves in and out of the Manhattan studio hosting the process. It serves a reminder of what these artistic minds love doing at the root of it all – making music.

Favorite Track: Right Back At It

No. 20 – 2000

Joey Bada$$53 min.

Joey Bada$$’s first studio album in five years was heavily anticipated. The hype became even more immense when he designed it as a clever reference to his classic mixtape 1999 – the name 2000 resonated as his method of staying true to his roots while also embracing growth. The lyrical content reflects such no differently – it is ultimately vintage, but with open arms to newer collaborators (i.e., Westside Gunn and Larry June) and a more modernized approach sonically.

One thing that can be appreciated about Joey’s growth is his affinity for becoming increasingly personal with time – the idea of him dropping a song as emotionally dense as “Survivor’s Guilt” a decade ago is far from expected. Breakthroughs of this caliber are what helps 2000 stand out as one of many artist comebacks that were materialized as of late.

Favorite Track: Where I Belong

No. 19 – The Forever Story

JID1 hour

On the topic of comebacks, here’s another – JID’s The Forever Story was several years in the making, and the Dreamville prodigy’s first solo release since 2018’s DiCaprio 2. Callbacks to his studio debut – and prequel to this record – The Never Story are quickly implemented through the introductory “Galaxy“.

The bulk of The Forever Story is introspective and forward-thinking, combining diverse production and topics to exhibit the Atlanta rapper’s versatility. Whether it be through improbable bangers (“Can’t Punk Me“) or jazzy cognizance (“Money“), this project has one goal in mind – to bestow a long-lasting experience upon listeners.

Favorite Track: Just In Time

No. 18 – Faceless

evans.27 min.

Faceless is one of many fascinating beat tapes to grace the last calendar. For a bit of confidential context, evans. is one of many personal affiliates involved in the musical collective HOUSE. He stands as its youngest member as far as chronology goes, yet his musical knowledge was immediately noticeable.

The twenty-seven-minute creation throws listeners into an abyss of trip-hop and jazz influences, drawing similarities to old-school instrumental albums such as DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. or Prince Paul’s Psychoanalysis. These classics do not exist as the influences for the southern producer’s sound, but he has formed an early connection to the atmospheric, slow-paced techniques they birthed. A reasonable expectation is to consider evans. somebody to look out for moving forward – his ceiling is high.

Favorite Track: Restless (Interlude)

No. 17 – Melt My Eyez See Your Future

Denzel Curry45 min.

It seems as if Denzel Curry gets more comfortable with each release. Imperial and TA13OO felt hungrier, but not as raw and honest – ZUU was a step in the right direction through representing his hometown, but principally leaned on the side of pure hype. Melt My Eyez See Your Future, however, fuses Curry’s likeness for high energy with colorful beat selection and lyrics out of an open book.

While this approach renders the album as less concentrated than other gems in his catalogue, the change of pace is what his craftmanship needed. It created the opportunity for more exploration in this lane of alternative hip-hop, which Curry already traverses so naturally – as a result, it would not be shocking to see Melt My Eyez age gracefully with time.

Favorite Track: Ain’t No Way

No. 16 – Continuance

The Alchemist
38 min.

Combining two of the hardest workers in hip-hop history – for the fourth time – is bound to amount to anything but failure. Continuance is a fitting name, because it is the emblem for Curren$y and The Alchemist’s unwavering partnership that has stood strong since the early-2010s.

It falls under the same umbrella as most of The Alchemist’s recent works, employing a simple sampling style that somehow results in a larger-than-life outturn. The best example is deep cut “The Final Board“, which contains an effortless beat switch that Curren$y floats over with elegance. Multiple other refined cuts find themselves littered across the album, which characterizes the entirety of Continuance as an attempt to tread high-quality territory.

Favorite Track: Whale Watching

No. 15 – Few Good Things

Saba48 min.

It’s good to see Saba back in action. Considering the emotional turmoil that defined 2018’s CARE FOR ME, it was clear the Chicago native had been flooded with baggage. This is what makes Few Good Things so uplifting – the therapeutic nature of it is reflected in the confrontational lyrics and uplifting sound.

The mid-west lyricist’s pen sounds revitalized throughout, balancing aggression (“Survivor’s Guilt“), nostalgia (“Come My Way“), and vivid descriptions (“2012“) in a manner unseen on his first two projects. Although it lacks the compact nature of those, it serves as a proper stepping stone for Saba to embrace growth – both personally and artistically.

Favorite Track: Come My Way

No. 14 – Off the Strength

Lord Apex
Cookin Soul
29 min.

Rapper Lord Apex and production crew Cookin Soul’s March effort has already begun to age noticeably well. Perhaps that stems from Off the Strength‘s bite-size composure – it has a clear aesthetic in mind, and fails to deviate from it.

The comic book-inspired cover explains its quirky sound and near-cartoonish aura. Lord Apex’s adoration of that pocket of hip-hop culture – pioneered by the likes of Madlib and MF DOOM – made Cookin Soul the perfect partner, considering their exceptional approach to the underground ambience. Want proof? Visit lead single “The Bullshit” – not often are such touchingly eerie yet determined cuts found in the average record.

Favorite Track: The Bullshit

No. 13 – Cheat Codes

Black Thought
Danger Mouse
39 min.

Following the Streams of Thought series, it was clear The Roots’ lead emcee had found his stride in manufacturing independent content. 2022’s Cheat Codes was his greatest attempt yet, employing acclaimed producer Danger Mouse to illustrate a hazy, theatrical world that suited Black Thought a little too well.

Danger Mouse’s style of sound engineering frees up the voices of his partners, which causes the lyrics throughout to have a sense of command around them. It is difficult to not fixate on the layered writing from the Philadelphia legend, not to mention the various features – many of whom managed to go toe-to-toe with an all-time great. If the consensus wasn’t already that Black Thought had the greatest longevity of any rapper, it would now be difficult to argue otherwise.

Favorite Track: Belize

No. 12 – The Elephant Man’s Bones

Roc Marciano
The Alchemist
38 min.

The Alchemist’s presence on this list doesn’t end at Continuance The Elephant Man’s Bones, a collaboration with long-time peer Roc Marciano, also finds itself here. Unapologetically abstract, the duo openly embrace their preference for minimal instrumentals and groundbreaking creativity.

The Elephant Man’s Bones is a strong moment in Marciano’s career particularly – not only did it provide fans with a long-awaited joint effort with The Alchemist, but it further bolstered an already excellent catalogue. It represents the strides made in the underground more than any other 2022 release, confirming the decade as one represented by smaller-name geniuses.

Favorite Track: The Horns of Abraxas

No. 11 – Intros, Outros & Interludes

Domo Genesis26 min.

Despite the commercial breakthroughs Odd Future has made as a collective, some of its members remain underappreciated. Domo Genesis falls under that category, unfairly overshadowed despite being one of the best lyricists of the modern age. Intros, Outros, & Interludes, produced by L.A. icon Evidence, is a strict suggestion to tune in to his stream of great mixtapes.

The sound is soulful and west coast-proper, with loops of a warm tone that encourage comfortable flows. Tracks like “Stay One More Day” are simple in structure but work perfectly, while “Victories & Losses” – which is the lone instance of Evidence rapping – employs a sentimental piano that is far too addictive to let seep out of rotation. For an artist’s first full-length record in four years, Intros, Outros & Interludes sounds indicates that no momentum has been lost for Domo Genesis.

Favorite Track: Victories & Losses

No. 10 – Collection of Beats (2021)

JAYJAY!40 min.

JAYJAY!’s Collection of Beats (2021) barely makes this list – not because of placement, but rather because it was an early January release entirely comprised of 2021 instrumentals. This only makes its appearance all the more impressive, though – it was one of the earliest top albums and held its ground the entire way.

The beat tape draws strong inspiration from the likes of 21st century production legends, particularly the likes of J Dilla. The works are sample-heavy, elaborately chopped, and free-flowing. Even when JAYJAY! gets into a more abstract pocket (i.e., “Jumper 8“), the result is satisfactory – when such wide ground can be covered with effectiveness, it is inevitably going to remain a staple in one’s rotation.

And to no surprise, that’s exactly what occurred here.

Favorite Track: Merry Go Roooound

No. 9 – Cost of Living

Philmore Greene
Apollo Brown
50 min.

Apollo Brown’s fifth full-length project of the decade coincided with the uprising of Chicago lyricist Philmore Greene. Cross-connections between two mid-west states has never sounded more crisp, as Cost of Living balances the sights of Chi-town and sounds of Detroit immaculately.

Greene’s newer presence in the game explains his never-ending hungry delivery, as he makes the most of an alliance with one of the underground’s most celebrated names. Brown provides him with the perfect soundtrack, full of lofty sampling and lo-fi drums that have defined his sound over the past few years. Consequently, fans are provided with what some would describe as “pure hip-hop” – conventional, relatable lyrics that anybody could get lost in at command.

Favorite Track: Time Goes

No. 8 – Capri

Mad Sadiq
19 min.

If the word “radiant” was turned to sound, it would be Capri. A product of southern heritage, the nineteen-minute jam somehow sounds bound to no region – it combines the laidback essence of the south, production habits of the east coast, and warmth of the west coast in impressive fashion.

The two’s chemistry is devoid of bumps and rough patches, intentionally spanning itself over a short runtime to ensure nothing drags on. Mad Sadiq says everything necessary in the handful of tracks provided – especially on lead single “MO“, which has an optimistic attitude implying something significant is underway. While Capri doesn’t quite present itself as larger-than-life, it serves as the beginning to an exciting partnership between two striving creatives.

Favorite Track: Grown

No. 7 – Greetings From Tombstone

HUES43 min.

Following the release of two EPs, Michigan producer HUES honed in on the creation of a full-length “roster” album to accompany the seldom-self-titled Heavy Upon Every Soul in his discography. While the aforementioned work falls on the rustier, experimental side of things, Greetings From Tombstone has an emanating confidence that accurately depicts growth.

Everything from the instrumentation to guest appearances is an upgrade, and the outcome is a photographic, grimy experience of dungeon-like proportions. Confining to one style is dearly avoided throughout – you have high-energy posse cuts (“Paycheck“), somber reflections (“If I Go Missing“), and slow-paced cyphers (“Sun Gods“). By the time the conclusive three-track run at the end – including bonus track “Heal Break” – is complete, a strong feeling of progress from HUES can be embraced. It truly executes itself in a cinematic fashion.

Favorite Track: Manuscript, Pt. 2

No. 6 – Talk To Me Nice

Hype45 min.
1 hour, 9 min. (deluxe)

In the Internet age, tradition is dearly missed at time. Talk To Me Nice is a return to conventional hip-hop standards – hard-hitting production hosting straight bars, consciousness weaving through each verse, and an eventual deluxe version loading the adventure with plenty of extra content.

The lane Hype wants to be in is clear, and he navigates it honorably. Purists will admire this body of work – it absolutely sounds modernized, but consistently aims to pay homage to the craft of the all-time greats while showcasing a personality of its own. “Underdog“, which is arguably the best track, is the thesis of this claim. Don’t stop there, though – every cut on this record is worth embracing.

Favorite Track: Underdog

No. 5 – All-Star Beats, Vol. 1

iSight38 min.

This choice is a tough one to tackle. Is including your own work on a list considered bad manners? Unprofessional? Or is it just another thing to enjoy, at the end of the day? Not sure. But the truth is that I have love for All-Star Beats, Vol. 1. It’s something I’m proud of, in no different fashion than this website.

To avoid treading any narcissistic territory, I’ll briefly comment on my outlook of it months after it released – running it back as a “fan”, the maturity is what sticks out. The production technique used throughout shows steep improvement from the ambitious, but disorganized nature of obServe… – the sampling is equally eclectic, but confirms the solidification of a style. It’s one of many strides the HOUSE label made in recency, and I’d feel wrong not to include it on a collection of yearly favorites.

Favorite Track: The Stars See You

No. 4 – YOD Wave

Your Old Droog19 min.

YOD Wave carried on the momentum of a ridiculously slept-on run Brooklyn’s Your Old Droog assembled throughout the year. It was delivered at the perfect time, with an icy essence complementary of the cooler March days. Droog was a bit of a stranger to shorter-length projects at the time, only reaching under twenty-five minutes on EPs The Nicest and Looseys.

In seven tracks, he achieves a level of consistency that somehow surpasses other amazing works in his catalogue – collaborations with fellow Dump Gawd members Mach-Hommy and Tha God Fahim deliver as expected, and he uncovers personal demons of his own on the descriptive “.500“. Nicholas Craven spearheads the entire movement, helping Droog transition to a high-quality, high-quantity approach he adopted for the remainder of 2022.

Favorite Track: .500

No. 3 – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

Kendrick Lamar1 hour, 19 min.

After half a decade’s worth of time missing in action, Kendrick Lamar quietly returned to the light on Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue. Following a couple features, label announcement, and series of cryptic appearances, he finally presented what fans had been dying for – a rollout.

The Heart Part 5” led the way, and soon after came Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Kendrick’s music has always been intense and personal, but this was on a tier of its own – throughout, the California lyricist openly discusses his flaws, contemplates morality, and aims for growth. It results in the bulkiest and most experimental piece of his to date, but as usual, the content resonates. Nothing less can be expected from a genius of this caliber.

Favorite Track: Silent Hill

No. 2 – This Must Be the Place

Apollo Brown1 hour, 9 min.

Instrumental albums were never Apollo Brown’s safe space. He only has two widespread beat tapes under his name, that being 2011’s Clouds and 2014’s Thirty Eight – when news arrived of him developing a third, and the first in eight years, a strong wave of excitement enveloped his fanbase.

If Clouds is a young adolescent with big dreams, This Must Be the Place is him in a state of experience and freedom. It truly verifies that Brown is amidst a secondary prime of sorts, now a master of a floaty, crisp style that contrasts greatly from the rugged rhythms of his earlier stages. “Got It Good” is a hazy introduction, while “Jupiter Gold” adamantly tackles a bouncier tempo. Randomly placed cuts from former projects Lovesick and Blacklight can even be found throughout, making this a gold mine for not only a dedicated Brown fan, but a lover of production in general.

Favorite Track: Pipe Dreams

No. 1 – Somebody Up There Loves Me

Stalley35 min.

As it stands, Stalley is debatably the hardest worker of the twenties. After leaving Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group to partner with the new MMG – Mello Music Group – he has entered a career revitalization. Colorful production and an increased sense of consciousness define his artistry now, and Somebody Up There Loves Me summarizes that in thirty-five blissful minutes.

Everyday life is the theme – lead single “FRESH LINEN” gravitates towards such, affirming his status as a man dedicated to morals that goes through the same daily cycles as anybody. Such proclamations co-exist with his usual braggadocio and use of storytelling (“REPOSADO STORIES” is a unique example), giving life to luscious beats that contrast with – and as a matter of fact, exceed – his previous drops of the decade (sans Blacklight). An exhibit of such a hungry emcee dedicating himself to sharpening his sword is what powers Somebody Up There Loves Me, fueling it with the character to reasonably claim the “album of the year” title.

Favorite Track: BAKERY

Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 25

Published September 25, 2022

Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 25

This installment includes a guest write-up from friend and writer Evan B.

Write-up By Isiah C.

Karma – Pharoah Sanders

1969Spiritual Jazz37 min.

Karma is, at heart, a pulsing ball of energy. Everything about it finds its roots in spirituality, thought and existence. It intends to encourage reflection, immediately clear by its meditative cover.

The cause of this inclusion is unfortunately due to the passing of Pharoah Sanders this week. The legend enjoyed a long and successful life, and the intensity of Karma is even stronger with this news in mind.

The main piece, “The Creator Has a Master Plan“, is a thirty-two-minute long nebula of contrasting emotions. The forward-thinking hit begins with a grandiose atmosphere that immediately sends the listener into a state of contemplation and curiosity, eager to see what exotic sounds lie behind such an ambitiously-named song.

The progression of the track’s first half is subtle, smooth, and soulful. Much like the recordings of fellow African-American creators in these historic genres, Sanders’ content aimed to depict feelings of social strife and the means by which it can create a path of healing. His poetic, repetitive lyrics deliver a certain message:

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man”

Karma is unapologetically religious and wants to tie together the many factions of the world through a mutual connection to a higher power. Sanders’ belief is that tranquility can be achieved over time through the vision of his creator – as soon as these words resonate, it becomes clear that this experience will expand far beyond the boundaries of jazz, aiming to lift others to a higher plane of conscious thought.

The track eventually decompresses into a raw, experimental cacophony of aggressive saxophone techniques, yodeling, and sonic vigor. Sanders aims to showcase the intricacy of his abilities amidst the chaos, proving his worth as an instrumental creator while also delivering an ethereal lesson.

The brief, five-minute “Colors” feels like an afterthought after such a legendary and lengthy performance, but it may be the solution to truly understanding what Sanders intended to express. Vocalist and collaborator Leon Thomas – who was also heavily involved on the first track – uses the rainbow as a metaphor for the many facets of life one should appreciate. A reminder is issued that in nature, spirit, and faith, the key to happiness can be found.

Ending Karma on such an interpretive, free note after the intensity of “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is a genius approach. It’s emotional, warm and inspirational. The influence the record had on the development of jazz music subsequently becomes immediately apparent as it closes – managing to bring the realm of spiritual, avant-garde content to the mainstream was vital to development of funk, psychedelia, hip-hop, and more.

It’s an unbelievable body of work. Rest in peace, Pharoah Sanders.

Write-up By Isiah C.

Under Pressure – Logic

2014Boom Bap57 min.

One to multiple times a year – but most often when temperatures get low and school comes around – Under Pressure hits my rotation and holds its place.

Logic has been the topic of frequent critical controversy over the course of the past several years, but I’ve never been afraid to cite myself as a fan of some of his projects. His debut studio album in particular is one of the 2010’s best, encompassing all qualities a modern age hip-hop album should.

Its loose concept, themed around his means of relieving stress and managing worldly tension, is executed to a far better degree than often credited. He cites “Nikki” – which also happens to be a track – as his partner in crime and greatest relief. Seemingly a woman, it is eventually exposed as a metaphor for nicotine, adding another layer to the troubled upbringing detailed throughout the record.

Specific themes tackled include the process of rising to the top (“Soul Food“), gang culture’s effects on the youth (“Gang Related“), and the uncertainty associated with growing up in a negative environment (“Growing Pains III“). The album remains true to its inspired roots of boom bap through weaving these ideas into a cohesive effort, all the while maintaining a dusty, nearly nostalgic style of production.

The charm of Under Pressure is actually in its dedication to its influences, if anything. Logic’s plethora of mixtapes prior to 2014 were often directly taking after the pioneers of hip-hop – that did not hinder their quality, but it muddied the clarity of Logic’s character.

This album broke through that barrier, remaining dedicated to honoring the greats:

“Smoking blunts in Amsterdam
Oh my God, this is my jam
“May-December” by Mos Def
In my headphones, that’s the man”

…however, it never tried too hard to emulate somebody else. For that reason, the personal subject matter expressed throughout – especially on the title track – held a stronger impact on the listener that led to their prolonged interest.

Under Pressure falls under the category of lyrically-inclined albums from the modern era’s most exciting prospects, including good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It isn’t as ambitious as the former, nor aiming for mainstream appeal like the latter. Instead, authenticity ran through its veins – Logic didn’t try to make his music deeper than it was, using honesty as a foundation.

It’s what established the east coast emcee as one of the decade’s most promising names, eventually sparking a commercially significant career. Everybody starts somewhere.

Write-up By Evan B.

May the Lord Watch – Little Brother

2019Conscious Hip-Hop37 min.

The history of the legendary underground rap duo (formerly trio) known as Little Brother has been full of obstacles – from creative differences with labels to departures, disbandment, and an eight-year hiatus. MCs Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh met while enrolled at North Carolina Central University in the late 90’s, with twenty-plus years separating the beginning of their friendship and the release of this album.

From 2001-10, the duo operated as partners in rhyme, with their breakup being announced after the release of their fourth album, Leftback. For the next five years following, Pooh & Tay were not on speaking terms at all. It wasn’t until the unfortunate passing of hip hop phenom Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest (a group with similar group conflict and eventual hiatus & reunion) that the two rappers decided to put their differences aside and rekindle the spark that made them underground heroes.

The album May the Lord Watch serves as a reunion for Phonte and Big Pooh, acknowledging that they have grown up plenty in their time away from the limelight, yet not by any means missing the chemistry characteristic of their music during the Okayplayer/backpack era. Previously titled Homecoming, this release invites longtime fans to return home to the charismatic reconciliation of Durham’s heaviest hitters.

In terms of lyrical prowess, this may just be these two at their technical peak. From speaking on how there’s always a way to improve in life on “Black Magic (Make It Better)” to the disconnection from the youthful life of the party they once loved on “Sittin Alone”, there is no absence of thematic value here.

Although the pair isn’t afraid to tap into more serious topics on this project, that doesn’t mean that the humor of their previous work is left out of the equation – quite the opposite, actually. Five different skits appear on the tracklist, working as a continuation of the material from 2005’s The Minstrel Show – featured references include Phonte’s swooning R&B alter ego Percy Miracles, as well as words from Peter Rosenberg, Joe Scudda, and Roy Lee, all of whom appeared on earlier Little Brother albums. Tay & Pooh’s cultural references and witty wordplay are also on point as usual throughout the project.

My personal favorite cut from May the Lord Watch would have to be “Goodmorning Sunshine,” which is effectively a love song with effortless back-and-forth flow and an extremely uplifting instrumental. Every track on the fifth studio album is filled with great conscious rhymes and stellar production – a mark of true consistency from these rap vets. While the presence of original member 9th Wonder is sadly missed from this project, the weight is carried by his fellow Soul Council producers Khrysis and Nottz, common LB collaborators such as Focus…, Zo!, and one of Detroit’s finest in Black Milk.

To me, May the Lord Watch is ‘grown man rap’ at its best. The NC-based lyricists highlight the ups and downs of embracing adulthood head on, all the while putting on an absolute clinic with their rapping – both entered a second, matured prime completely separate from their earlier days in the 2000’s. The group name Little Brother originally came from seeing themselves as the torch-carriers of the movement led by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Public Enemy. Now, they have the ability to be the big brothers to the next generation of music, seeing how they have inspired modern-day leaders in rap such as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole. Phonte said it best in his 2019 interview with Vulture:

“I like to think of ourselves as giving young rappers a look around the corner… Hopefully we can give a blueprint to show that you can mature, you can grow older, and you can be true to yourself but not be crotchety. There’s a way you can settle into that moment and still be dope and be profitable and have things to say.”

Write-up By Isiah C.

I Am Not A Crip – HUES & Korban Baxter

2022Hardcore Hip-Hop18 min.

One resonating thought when listening to a number of recent releases is how they grew from the influences that shaped them. HUES & Korban Baxter’s I Am Not A Crip isn’t just your typical producer-rapper collaboration – it’s a revival of the moody, dungeon-like sounds of the golden age translated to the modern standard.

Before anything, let’s throw some love in Baxter’s direction. His commanding presence on the mic is reminiscent of an Earl Sweatshirt type – not particularly loud or energetic, but instead raw and descriptive. His words flow effortlessly into pools of poetry, forming verses that clearly highlight his everyday activities.

Not A Crip is akin to a storytelling experience, despite its short length. Immersive interludes carry on the energy, featured Baxter and a number of people in his life conversing over recognizable hip-hop songs. Before you have time to fully digest the content of the skits, you’re thrown into another hardcore cut – it’s a fantastic approach to pacing that makes the EP feel lengthier.

HUES deserves an abundance of credit for his leadership on this album’s sound as well. His hard-hitting drums and grim samples feel reminiscent of Diggin’ in the Crates, particularly Buckwild. If you claimed “Carroll Park” released in 1995, no eyebrows would be raised.

The ambience of these tracks is the key to Not a Crip’s identity, as Baxter’s verses float calmly over every backdrop. “Lost Values” is a specifically great example, featuring a downtempo soundscape from HUES that is tackled with a slowed, melodic approach to contrast with the high-energy tracks preceding it.

The genius of underground producers is highlighted even further by the lyricists they work in tandem with, and this is no exception. You may associate the streets of Detroit with soul – think J Dilla, Black Milk, and Apollo Brown – but when you fuse that with the ferocity of a Philadelphia emcee, you discover an exciting combination.

Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 10

Published September 10, 2022

Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 10

Doris – Earl Sweatshirt

2013Boom Bap44 min.

Sometimes the perception is that Doris‘ reputation has aged poorly, and that’s not fair. Earl Sweatshirt’s level of acclaim has skyrocketed so much that his older projects get lost in the mix – the reality is that his 2013 debut is on par with his recent efforts, and in my eyes still his best.

So much of Doris‘ charm comes from the era it was released in. During a time where a new generation of emcees had formed, Earl ensured his name wouldn’t get lost in the mix. That was a difficult conquest, as not only was he coming off of some time away in Samoa but also had to differentiate himself from the rest of his group, Odd Future. He exceeded in maintaining ties and representing them on the record, but wanted listeners to know this was about him.

In retrospect, the excessively gloomy sound of Doris is nothing special for Earl; nearly all of his albums have fallen under this darker atmosphere. If you were to tell a fan in 2013 that this would arguably be his “brightest”, though, they’d scoff in disbelief. But the dedication to west coast traits – including colorful synths and a handful of faster-paced cuts – secured the attention of previous Odd Future fans while establishing Earl’s own identity.

Consistency is the word of the day, and is by all means this album’s greatest characteristic. There isn’t quite any track that flat out ruins the flow or stands out too much – even experimental endeavors like the alter-ego-dominated “Guild” or expressive “Molasses” fit right in. This is something that put Earl ahead of the curve in comparison to his peers, who still had their fair share of questionable creations – most notably Tyler, the Creator, although Wolf from a few months prior was a sharp improvement.

The roster of feature artists is also an appreciated inclusion, as nearly every track has a personality off their guest appearances alone. “20 Wave Caps” feeds off of Domo’s infectious energy, and both Tyler collaborations are as Odd Future-faithful as it gets.

The first stretch of Doris possesses most of the fan favorite songs, especially the run of “Sunday“-“Hive“-“Chum“. However, I want to highlight the back end – this is chock-full of Earl’s finest work, most notably the three conclusive tracks. “Knight” in particular may be my favorite of all, finishing off one of 2013’s premier experiences with killer verses from both Domo and our host.

Take this as a reminder to revisit – I’m convinced this only gets better with age. The next step is getting affirmation from others on that belief.

Open – Blu

2009Instrumental Hip-Hop35 min.

This is just one of many Blu projects that will inevitably be covered on this blog. The difference is Open is pure instrumental goodness, and a lot of people don’t even know the west coast rapper worked behind the boards too.

Through a producer’s ear, beat tapes sound different. My perfectionism naturally predisposes me to being over-analytical, and I can reason with the idea that this is one of the best things in the sub-genre. Blu has directly cited his musical influences many times, many of which are producers – that shines through on here.

I also want to preface this with a heads-up that there are two versions of Open – the original instrumental one, and remix of sorts that features a handful of underground names throughout. Both are good listens, but this is primarily addressing the former.

If you put one of Blu’s beats side-by-side with his partner Exile, it would be somewhat difficult to tell the difference. This is because they come from the same era of soulful sentiment in boom bap, also exhibited by legends like 9th Wonder and Kanye West. These two unfortunately fall under the radar in comparison, and Blu even more so – keep in mind that this isn’t his only instrumental effort, as the critically acclaimed Her Favorite Colo(u)r was as well.

But what also must be acknowledged is that almost feels intentional. The entire soundscape of Open screams “low-key”, from the near-liminal album cover to shelled-in sample selection. Listeners were programmed to stay focused on the music at hand, devoid of distraction.

This is a quality in beat tapes that also reigns supreme through some other favorites of mine – refer to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. or Madlib’s Beat Konducta series. For something to be so immersive that it can be attached to certain feelings or memories is a blessing, and this has certainly cemented its place through unbreachable favoritism and nostalgia.

As soon as the introductory “NoWorries” comes in, the mental preparation for a half hour of hip-hop bliss is immediately complete. Exceptional standouts like “Raw!“, “TheRunAwaySlaveSong“, and “TalkingToMyselfTooOften” only reaffirm my decision to support Blu’s love for sound design, because delivering bars and beats is a feat worth appreciating.

The Elephant Man’s Bones – Roc Marciano & The Alchemist

2022Abstract Hip-Hop38 min.

The coolest thing about The Elephant Man’s Bones? It still sounds like Roc Marciano produced it. The chemistry is that seamless.

For how long the two have been intertwined as underground pioneers, it’s surprising Marci and The Alchemist have yet to release a full-length collaboration prior to this. Producer-rapper works aren’t Roc’s bread and butter – at least when he’s on the mic. Before this, it was only KAOS with DJ Muggs that explored this.

It’s unsurprising that the Long Island phenom traverses this challenge with ease, though. In fact, his lyricism sounds sharper than it’s ever been, truly dedicated to his persona and packed with witty punchlines that selfishly hold the audience’s attention.

It’s hard to characterize Elephant Man. Perhaps some crossover between “elegant” and “eccentric” is the right approach, even though that seems inconceivable. That’s ultimately its hidden jewel, though; it sticks out like a sore thumb in both catalogues, yet features them in prime creation.

I also want to praise Alchemist’s willingness to get unconventional throughout. He’s no stranger to bizarre chops and free-form instrumentals, but it’s not often you hear him apply those skills for an entire project. The reality is that someone as experimental as Roc requires that dedication, and that was the key to their eventual synergy.

As for must-hears, there are gems scattered throughout. “Daddy Kane” has a bit of a vintage flair to it, also calling up Action Bronson to provide yet another set of memorable bars. The title track is as poised as the record gets, and the subsequent “Bubble Bath” maintains the polish under a rapid-fire drum pattern. The second half is all about Marciano honing in, compiling some even greater performances until everything is wrapped up.

The Elephant Man’s Bones is by no means your typical hip-hop encounter, but to people in need of something fresh – do give it a shot. It’s absolutely one of the top releases of the year.

Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 2

Published September 2, 2022

Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 2

With a new month comes new content, and this brand new Weekly Album Spotlights series aims to provide write-up about a handful of albums every week, sometimes with another contributor.

This week, writer Jack R. and I are touching upon four albums that we wanted to discuss and have you consider adding to your rotation.

To keep things familiar, these articles will follow the same format as the “Favorite Hip-Hop Albums” countdown – if you haven’t checked that out, check either of the “Posts” tabs!

Write-up By Isiah C.

The Never Story – JID

2017Southern Hip-Hop40 min.

Realistically speaking, this slot could’ve been for the newly released The Forever Story. It almost was, but maybe we can touch upon that another time – great album, by the way.

It’s interesting how hearing a new record can immediately motivate you to revisit an older one, but that was the story of my past week. The Never Story is a very nostalgic experience for me, being one of my late-2010s favorites.

The hunger throughout is the deal-breaker. When an emcee is truly ready to put in work, they let it show with ferocity right away. The near-titular “NEVER” tells this story is simple words:

“Most of the niggas I came up with haven’t came up
And doin’ the same stuff, but I haven’t came up, this really ain’t none”

Now that JID has made it known that rapping was not his dream profession, this lyric holds more weight. Not only does he unfortunately have to see his hood continue to struggle with finding prosperity, but he doesn’t hold his way out to highly either – it wasn’t his number one option.

Regardless of those darker undertones, The Never Story isn’t remotely close to a morose experience. JID truly represents his Atlantan hometown with a collection of hard-hitting bangers amongst moodier selections; for every “All Bad“, there’s an “EdEddnEddy“. This isn’t to say he doesn’t remain introspective – because he absolutely does – but this was a successful debut because it stayed true to showcasing his bars.

The outro “LAUDER” is often cited as the best example of this – with a vicious southern flow reminiscent of early Outkast albums, JID drops three excellent verses on the J. Cole produced outro. Take this excerpt, for instance:

“So part of the reason I be so hard on my people
We never had it easy, never had a pot to pee in
I be on my knees praying till my onomatopoeia’s packing a coliseum
Ain’t no parking, I gotta see J.I.D
Gotta be there for my family, I gotta, can’t try to be
I could be out of my mind, thinking logically
No apologies for speaking how I feel, I silently swore solemnly
That I would be the guy to make my black people proud of me”

This may be the moment in The Never Story where listeners realize that JID can get intensely lyrical, which was a huge boost to his hype at the time.

Personally, it’s hard for me to point out a song I don’t enjoy on this record. It packs every vibe possible into forty minutes, creating an infinite source of enjoyment that can always be appreciated on a revisit. It’s important I integrate The Forever Story into my rotation, but my favorite in the catalogue is right here.

Write-up By Isiah C.

Reflection of Self: The Head Trip – Stalley

2019Conscious Hip-Hop33 min.

Now on the less popular side of things, Reflection of Self: The Head Trip is my number one priority of recommendation on this post. I cannot stress enough how underrated Stalley is.

What’s so cool about The Head Trip is that it truly feels like a shift in style. As one of his first self-released projects, Stalley felt no need to cater to anybody or even draw new supporters in. This release was for him, and hardcore fans could give a toast to that.

The production, which is solely handled by west coast producer Jansport J, sounds exactly like where it came from. Stalley’s unapologetically midwest cadence fits the soulful nature of these instrumentals a tad bit too well, making listeners wonder why the two hadn’t done this sooner. Jansport J also did an excellent job keeping the beats stripped down and minimal, which provides a properly hollow soundscape that fits the album’s themes.

A free-flowing structure defines The Head Trip, jam-packed with instrumental interludes reminiscent of what Pete Rock did alongside C.L. Smooth so many years ago. Sporadic soundbites inspire a sense of adventure, establishing a comfortability with so many raw verses. In tandem with Stalley’s distinct delivery, often accompanied by his signature pitched vocals, a mildly psychedelic sound is born and embraced. It is a sharp turn from the hard-hitting cuts of his mid-2010’s efforts, but that is simply a result of five years of development.

As a big fan of the Ohio rapper, this resonates with me heavily. It’s always pleasant to see musicians be honest about their mental state, personal growth, and backstory without fabrication. The second verse of “All So New” is immediate proof:

“Sat desperate for days trying to fill a page
My thoughts locked in a cage I started building rage
Marijuana and sage at my personal rave
Holistic psychedelics brought a mental change
Clear as the water my thoughts became pure
Anxiety and stress I had to endure
Was barely outside I kept it indoors
My sanity I had to fend for”

Lines like these set the stage for a transition to pure art, which has been further reinforced with every release of his since.

A lot of longtime fans said this was “that classic Stalley talking”, and they didn’t lie.

Write-up By Jack R.

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

2021Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 6 min.

In 2021, Little Simz released her fourth studio album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – what followed was a realization from the world that she has been one of the best rappers in the world for nearly a decade. Her sharp lyrical ability and outstanding delivery have allowed her to continuously craft some of the best works the 2010’s has to offer, yet S.I.M.B.I. is a completely different beast. Simz somehow managed to level up her songwriting ability, reflecting deeply on her femininity, familiar trauma and most of all, her introversion. What resulted is an album that would sit at the top of almost any artist’s discography.

The album opens with “Introvert,” and it immediately makes a statement before Simz even says a word. With that sort of title, it’s hard not to expect a lowkey beat to mirror the introversion. Yet, instead we are met with bombastic drums and horns, almost like a war cry then matched with her vocals, sounding as bold as ever.

It’s hard not to be in awe of the strength that radiates from a track that really showcases the impacts of her introversion, as she manages to also depict the comfort she’s found in it – and how she actually draws power from it. It’s rare to find an introduction better than this one, as few songs really seem to fully encapsulate the essence of an album like it does.

As S.I.M.B.I. carries on, it refuses to lose the momentum that began on “Introvert”. While the energy may not always be on that level, the songwriting refuses to fall below the impossibly high standard set. Tracks such as “I Love You, I Hate You” and “Little Q, Pt. 2” see Simz as introspective as ever as she looks inwards on her experiences growing up. However, the 10th track introduces us to the arguable apex of her career.

Listening to “I See You” reminds me of the greatest romantic poets to grace this Earth. However, the likes of Keats have you suspending your disbelief to capture the extraordinary emotions of love; Simz takes the polar opposite route. The song explores the mundane, realistic and day-to-day workings of true love, and portrays the way it works in the most honest way somebody can. She immediately asks the person to take her as she is and overlook all of her mistakes. She continues on with a flurry of gorgeous lines, asking her love to help her through her pain, to grow with her and to simply be with her.

In a passing line Simz raps:

“Know I like my time alone but still don’t wanna be lonely”

…and I can’t give her enough props for centering her introversion in the context of a relationship and how it can impact one in just a singular line. The entire song is a deep dive into love, yet the song never oversells it. “I See You” shows the struggles of a relationship and how everyone’s flaws can impact it; yet, it doesn’t hide from the fact that if two people can work through and accept the other’s imperfections, they will reap the benefits of beautiful companionship.

Just three tracks after “I See You”, we hear Simz really diving into the comfort she takes in isolation. Yet, instead of showing off the audacious energy of “Introvert”, she tries a vastly different sound. Inflo produces a beat that is an absolute blast. It’s funky and soothing, and she decides to bless the beat by testing out her singing voice. The variety of sounds on this record is a treat, and this song is the perfect example. Simz sounds heavenly, despite the darker topics she addresses on this track. She really delves into how she finds comfort in her loneliness and how she would rather be away from everyone. “Protect My Energy” seems generally renowned as an upbeat track, which is just to a testament the musical abilities of Inflo and Little Simz – they turned a near-depressing song into a bop.

The rest of the album maintains the mind-blowing quality that started from the very beginning. It’s absolutely brimming with originality, honesty and just pure talent. I don’t think I can ever oversell just how incredible of an album S.I.M.B.I. is. In an era where certain artists seem to lose their authenticity, Simz refuses to follow this trend.

Her music is a direct reflection of her reality, and very few people can make the reflection as beautiful and vivid as she can. If you have yet to hear this record, I can’t encourage you enough to sit down and listen to it front to back; it truly is brilliant.

Write-up By Isiah C.

Off the Strength – Cookin Soul & Lord Apex

2022Boom Bap29 min.

I can’t keep up with Cookin Soul anymore. Those guys right there are one of my favorite production minds out, but it feels like they have something new released every time I check their page – and I mean that in the best way possible.

It was inevitable that I caught up with their content from this year, and when Off the Strength was recommended to me, I knew I had to dive in.

U.K. rapper Lord Apex – who owns the mic on this record – is a special kind of emcee. He mixes the unorthodox nature of an MF DOOM or Quasimoto (the latter of which inspired his stage name) with the high-energy, hardcore style of his local origin. The result? A gritty yet left-field delivery that unsurprisingly melts into Cookin Soul’s colorful production with ease.

Lead single “The Bullshit” draws you in pretty immediately; it’s absolutely one of the best tracks all year. From the eerie hook to shadowy instrumental, you’d think it dropped on Halloween. Regardless of seasonal ties, though, this is the perfect soundtrack to any golden age hip-hop fan’s day.

It’s almost mesmerizing how smooth each track is, to the point where it took me a couple listens to pick out some differentiated favorites. But repetition can be your best friend in music, and it eventually occurred to me that not only are these all some of Cookin Soul’s best beats, but Apex failed to settle for a moment of dullness.

Whether it’s the hard-hitting “Wagwan Dog“, jazzy “Like You“, or trap-influenced “M.I.M.S.“, variation defines Off the Strength. This is a valuable asset for a short project, as it manages to avoid the lack of development or character that can naturally attach to that.

The U.K. hip-hop scene remains gravely underrated, and these sort of collaborations are the key to their expansion and appreciation from American audiences. Cookin Soul, despite their Spanish origin, have an enormous following in the U.S. – hopefully Lord Apex can slither his way into that territory too, because he has the enticement.

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 5

Published August 5, 2022

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 5

Disclaimer: This is a ranking of my top fifty favorite hip-hop albums. This isn’t aiming to assess greatness, popularity, or impact; it’s about my enjoyment and connection to these records. A lot of classics will make it, and many I still adore will be left out.

But with that considered…

No. 10 – A Piece of Strange – CunninLynguists

2006Southern Hip-Hop55 min.

Sometimes an album reaches for a concept, but doesn’t even need it to be outright enjoyable. A Piece of Strange has remained one of my favorites over a long time for that very reason.

In my eyes, this is the best the south has to offer – everything from the themes to production and creativity is crafted perfectly. The clear influence it takes from the Dungeon Family is more of a gift than problem, as it helped the CunninLynguists tap into a more conscious side of their artistry that their first two efforts seldomly embraced.

Without spoiling too much, A Piece of Strange is about a man from a life of crime that experiences things that both alter and reinforce his view of the south. The cultural stigmas in the region are different from a lot of the country, and that is a prominent highlight of the lyrics.

The means by which the story’s followed are impressive, never deviating from its goals. This makes for something immersive and consistent, which are two of the most important qualities of music.

I know the group has a silly name, but this is more than worth giving a chance. One of the 2000’s underground gems.

No. 9 – Grey Hairs – Reks

2008Boom Bap1 hour, 15 min.

The Massachusetts hip-hop scene craves recognition. This placement undoubtedly derives from personal ties and bias, but don’t let that dismiss reality – albums like Grey Hairs are still disregarded because of where they came from. The same applies for many local legends like Termanology, Edo G. and more.

With all of that considered, though, this is truly monumental. It’s the best example of hunger you could possibly hear, because the desire to make it in the game is strong.

As a result, the rapping itself is hard-hitting, clear as can be and insightful. It packs everything you could ask for in a pen game, which is one of Reks’ greatest assets. “All In One” is the best example, adopting the inflections of four hip-hop legends to deliver some clever verses.

The production is a mixed bag, but over half – especially in the second stretch – is Statik Selektah’s doing. This is where I point to when asked about Statik’s greatness, because these are some of the most addictive and infectious beats out. He also helps Grey Hairs decompress into a mellow sound by the finish, which prevents a one-dimensional outcome.

When the emcee is my father, it’s natural the music has a deep personal connection; that gives it a comfortable place in the upper stages of this list. But it goes far beyond that – Grey Hairs is a landmark in New England rap.

No. 8 – The Main Ingredient – Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

1994Jazz Rap1 hour, 17 min.

I’ll be the first to admit that being formulaic rarely equates to being special.

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth clearly proved otherwise on The Main Ingredient, though.

I think the key to its success is how quickly it finds its pocket. Quality samples, meaningful verses, and lots of content. That encompasses the essence of golden age hip-hop, and this was one of that era’s last products.

Mecca and the Soul Brother is their more popular effort, but this is the two at their highest powers. C.L. sounds even more refined and grown, still sporting one of the greatest flows hip-hop has ever seen – and don’t sleep on his subject matter either. He’s a lot more profound than many give him credit for.

This is arguably Pete Rock’s best array of beats, although that is heavily debatable. When I hear cuts like “All the Places“, though, I have a hard time deflecting that belief. “Take You There” is another option that I firmly believe is their best song – and one of the best hip-hop songs of all-time, at that.

If you need to just get lost in something good and genuine for a while, The Main Ingredient is the one. It silently becomes a cornerstone of your rotation beneath your very eyes, making you wish these two stuck together to deliver a few more classics.

No. 7 – All the Brilliant Things – Skyzoo

2021Jazz Rap56 min.

Wait? A 2021 album…in the top ten?

Absolutely. All the Brilliant Things made a significant impact on me nearly instantly. The moment I saw the cover, I knew Skyzoo fans were in for something special and he all but disappointed.

Brilliant Things is reliable. It focuses on being vintage and aware, like most of Sky’s catalogue. What sets it apart from the rest of the crowd though is how mature it sounds. This isn’t the younger, inspired rapper on The Salvation or the then-newly-appointed veteran on Music for My Friends. This is somebody that has seen it all and looks to offer advice the next generation should cherish.

Brilliant Things isn’t heavily conceptual, but clearly makes efforts to preach the protection and preservation of black culture. This in combination with the authentic jazziness (which has really been his style lately – The Bluest Note and Milestones are two other projects that execute this well) paints Sky in the same light of this genre’s pioneers.

Opinion prompts me to claim this stands as the best listen of the 20’s and one of the most well-crafted and complete in history. It’ll take some time to age properly, but it’s inevitable that it becomes a future underground classic. For now, I’m giving it my flowers ahead of schedule.

No. 6 – Moment of Truth – Gang Starr

1998Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 19 min.

DJ Premier and Guru – an all-time legendary pair. Gang Starr changed hip-hop for the better, as evident by several of their earlier projects. Moment of Truth arrived a bit later, after a four-year hiatus – and when you listen, it’s clear why.

The duo set out to hit their apex, with a stronger focuse on fuller songs and polish. 1994’s Hard to Earn was a murkier, hardcore feat that placed Gang Starr in firm underground territory. The shift to airy, modernized beats was the right move because it brought out Premier’s potential. A lot of his greatest beats live here, from the iconic “Above the Clouds” to “Make ‘Em Pay“.

Guru has always been forward-thinking and overtly conscious, which is turned up to the maximum. Just the second track “Robbin Hood Theory” forces the experience into this territory, preparing listeners for true gems that encourage deep thought. “Itz a Set Up” and “My Advice 2 You” operate in a similar fashion.

If cohesion is your thing, Moment of Truth will appeal to you. It takes the benefits of a traditional producer-rapper combo to the highest level, which makes its acclaim not one bit surprising.

No. 5 – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan

1993Hardcore Hip-Hop59 min.

If formatting wasn’t a concern, this top five would gets its own special post. I love each and every one of these choices, but there’s a gap that finds itself lodged in between 36 Chambers and the rest below.

Why? Well, the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut simply constructed an atmosphere I have never seen elsewhere. From the muddy mixes to posse cut song design, it’s a blatant lie to say there’s ever been a group album quite like – or of the same standard – as this one.

As soon as “Bring Da Ruckus” kicks in, there’s no turning back. You’re slowly introduced to nine unique voices that went on to resonate in the culture forever. Slowly learning what makes each of these guys stand out from the others is the best part of a 36 first listen, and it keeps getting better with age.

Massive respect to RZA for assembling this roster the way he did as well. He’s like a coach – had to manage personalities and maintain unity, and somehow did so despite some internal conflict (Raekwon and Ghostface wanting to kill each other for ages prior is a good example).

The way Wu portrayed New York differed from their peers, but that characteristic makes it irreplaceable – how can you replicate how dark and dusty 36 sounds? Nothing can recreate that magic.

No. 4 – Illmatic – Nas

1994Boom Bap40 min.

Is there much I can add to the conversation about Illmatic? In all honesty, not particularly. But I will say that by importance to hip-hop, it’s the greatest ever. I find it hard to think otherwise.

Nas was not being contested at his peak. In an era full of New York greats – think the Wu, C.L. Smooth, Biggie, Redman, the list goes on – he still stood above the rest. Illmatic is adored for that very reason, feeling like the first instance in which hip-hop was truly becoming unstoppable.

One intro, nine songs, no misses. Not a breath is wasted, because each line intricately aims to hold its own weight while contributing to the greater purpose of the record. The pictures Nas paints of New York are grim but honest, something that inspired later emcees to get graphic. That’s a long-lasting effect of his.

To summarize it all in one track, refer to “The World Is Yours“. That’s a beautiful centerpiece of a song and stands as my favorite track of all-time. It generates this feeling of optimism about where hip-hop was headed, and things did indeed continue to trend upward after Illmatic.

What more could everybody do but up their game after hearing that?

No. 3 – The Infamous – Mobb Deep

1995Hardcore Hip-Hop1 hour, 7 min.

This and #2 are practically interchangeable, but either way, we finally find ourselves deep into my Mt. Rushmore of favorites. The Infamous by all accounts deserves a placement there.

Mobb Deep aren’t properly appreciated. Everybody loves “Shook Ones” and “Survival of the Fittest“, but what about the slew of low-key cuts on here? Or the several other great projects they have? That’s a discussion for a different day, but keep those questions fresh in your mind.

What makes this succeed is not only Prodigy and Havoc finally discovering a healthy balance and chemistry, but also Q-Tip taking them under his wing. His contributions to the production and creative direction are part of why it sounds so masterful for only being their second effort.

It’s necessary we credit the guys of the hour, though – Prodigy is an all-time lyrical legend, and it’s on full display. Nearly every verse he drops is enough to leave somebody speechless, but a good example is “Temperature’s Rising“. The perspective he creates with his words is unbelievable.

Havoc also deserves a large chunk of credit. He holds his own on the mic, something I don’t see acknowledged nearly enough (“Trife Life” is proof of that) – and on top of that, consider that he produced nearly the entire thing. The darkness the soundscape creates complements the violent lyrics so well, you’d think you’re in the places they’re describing.

From start to finish, The Infamous just never falls short. All-time great track after all-time great track.

No. 2 – Monkey Barz – Sean Price

2005Hardcore Hip-Hop55 min.

When someone asks you what the best rapping performance ever is, what comes to mind?

There are infinite answers to that question, but I’ll stand strong by Monkey Barz. Such a legendary run on the mic shouldn’t go under anybody’s radar. Sean Price has always been unapologetically true to his capabilities as an emcee, with lyrical acrobatics that don’t exist elsewhere.

Similar to Wu-Tang’s solo albums, members of Boot Camp Clik are found throughout dropping guest verses, ad-libs, and whatever else they can. Barz feels like part of a movement for that reason, sparking an era of 90’s veterans adapting to the new flair of the 21st century.

That goes without mentioning how ridiculously high-energy it is, packing banger after banger. Even the more low-key cuts (ex. “Peep My Words“) are arranged in a manner meant to hold your attention, something P successfully does for nearly an hour of runtime with his delivery.

Jesus Price Supastar and Mic Tyson already got their mentions in, but Monkey Barz is my favorite rapper operating in his prime. That sort of status locks it into the very highest spots of the fifty, and I wouldn’t hesitate putting it first on some days – that’s just how much I love it.

No. 1 – Below the Heavens – Blu & Exile

2007Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 6 min.

Below the Heavens is more than just a personal grail for me, it’s an underground classic that deserves – and, thankfully – gets respected.

Not enough credit is given to Blu for being a leader of the new school west coast. Some forget he was an XXL Freshman being hit with high expectations commercially, and his choice to stay low-key panned out well in the long run. But without Blu, you don’t get the same build-up for Black Hippy, for example. Kendrick Lamar included.

You could wonder why Blu was hit with such anticipation, but Heavens is the clear cause. Not often do you find a debut album this good that appeals to any type of fan. Its hopeful nature was reminiscent of the golden age, down to the memorable stories and soulful instrumentals.

A lot of albums on this list are high-quality masterpieces, but Heavens fuses that with the ability to be outright relatable. Blu isn’t scared to detail some of his rougher experiences in life to put the listener in his shoes, and that’s the hallmark of a pure lyricist. “In Remembrace” is the best example, narrating a tale about personal growth that has resonated with me to this very day.

Exile hooked things up with the perfect vibe for this era too. In light of releases like The College Dropout, The Minstrel Show, and Be, the conscious scene wanted to embrace soul at every corner. This aimed to be no different, and is arguably the last of these titans before things changed at the end of the decade.

I personally find it unlikely something with impact me the way this did, which I’m content with. Everyone has their album, and Below the Heavens is my choice for number one. It’s simply amazing.

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 4

Published July 29, 2022

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 4

Disclaimer: This is a ranking of my top fifty favorite hip-hop albums. This isn’t aiming to assess greatness, popularity, or impact; it’s about my enjoyment and connection to these records. A lot of classics will make it, and many I still adore will be left out.

But with that considered…

No. 20 – Madvillainy – Madvillain

2004Abstract Hip-Hop47 min.

Madvillainy is an all-time adored project amongst the hip-hop community. Appreciation for it – alongside the rest of MF DOOM’s catalogue – amplified after his unfortunate passing, but real heads have been tapped in for a long time.

It’s hard to gauge the impact it had on music, but it’s clearly there – the one-of-a-kind format, which depended on shorter tracks and a distinct lack of hooks, has surely inspired several songs in the modern age. That style could initially come off as off-putting, but is realistically what makes it charming in the first place.

DOOM’s rapping is an evident standout, probably being the best of his career. It’s quirky and abnormal yet potent – it loves its pop culture references (“Meat Grinder“) while welcoming storytelling territory (“Fancy Clown“). Sometimes it’s just ridiculously dense lyrically, as the infamous “Figaro” showcases.

The production is some of Madlib’s stranger work, but naturally hits the mark. It feels jazzy, soulful, and robotic all at once, which is a mix that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Madvillainy isn’t the best first look at his style in my eyes – instead, it’s a great venture point after being accustomed to what he has to offer.

This isn’t quite the most consistently replay-able album for me, but it was something I found early in my music journey and have never gotten sick of. There will be stretches where it never leaves rotation, and rightfully so; the experience breezes right by, and cannot be replaced by anything else.

No. 19 – A Prince Among Thieves – Prince Paul

1999Gangsta Rap1 hour, 18 min.

Quick heads up – this is the coolest concept in hip-hop history.

A Prince Among Thieves is by no means your conventional listen, but it’s so special that it immediately deserves praise to this degree. It aims to resemble a movie, loaded with skits and interludes that provide nothing but context and ambience to its ongoing story.

Prince Paul (of De La Soul fame) collaborates with the largely obscure hip-hop group Horror City on Thieves, as well as rapper Breeze Brewin’ from the Juggaknots.

Breeze plays the role of the “main character” Tariq, an ambitious rapper looking for a way to collect demo tape money. His best friend True, played by Horror City emcee Big Sha, then introduces him to the world of hustling.

I won’t describe the story beyond a synopsis because it’s something that just has to be experienced, but the way Prince Paul fuses music with these narratives and sound bites is unbelievable. It manages to draw the listener in for over an hour while also providing memorable – and diverse – songs.

Guest appearances from legends like Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul and Biz Markie only makes everything more varied and unforgettable. The amount of work put into everything is nothing short of fantastic.

No. 18 – Piñata – Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

2014Gangsta Rap1 hour, 1 min.

Piñata is just a very high-quality album. No concepts, nothing to follow, just rapper-producer excellence for an hour.

Prior to the advent of Piñata, Freddie Gibbs’ music was closer to that of other street rappers of the early-2010’s; trappy, hardcore, and to a degree, aiming for hits. He had always been tapped into all sides of the underground though, evident by his collaboration album with Statik Selektah and instances working with the likes of Curren$y, SpaceGhostPurrp, and more. Being a face of the mixtape era simply grants you access to that company.

For this reason, the Madlib connection wasn’t that surprising. It was for the best as well, as Gibbs’ artistry took a large leap moving forward. Albums like You Only Live 2wice, Fetti, and Bandana outclass any of his pre-2014 projects, as underrated as some of them may be.

Piñata could arguably be credited with helping uplift and popularize gangsta rap amongst critics again, therefore elevating the status of the underground in the past several years. The influence isn’t there stylistically, but Gibbs and Madlib managed to receive mass acclaim for a sub-genre that had largely fallen out of favor.

The mix of easiness to listen to, the high standard and beautiful production render this as one of the 2010’s most timeless works. It’s something anyone should have heard by now, but if you haven’t…get on that.

No. 17 – The College Dropout – Kanye West

2004Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 17 min.

There’s a lot of discourse that goes on regarding Kanye’s catalogue. You’ll find somebody out there that has any of his works as their answer for his masterpiece, but I wouldn’t look any further than The College Dropout.

Dropout is an album that I always had love for, but was admittedly a grower to hit the number one mark. Best believe I haven’t looked back since, though; it’s just all-around his most complete, authentic, and enjoyable.

The chipmunk soul production was a true trendsetter, influencing a barrage of soulful hip-hop albums following it. Kanye was by no means the first person to tackle this style, but he surely perfected and popularized it.

The academic theme set the stage for an eventual trilogy, and it remained faithful to it start to finish. The combination of that with the homely gospel sound ensured it would not be an album to replace down the line. It stood out too much eighteen years ago, and still does now.

Kanye has frequently referred to the 90’s conscious scene as one of his biggest influences, and why is clear. He is headstrong and raw with meaningful songs (“Jesus Walks“), but isn’t afraid to goof around and create a laidback vibe (“Breathe In Breathe Out“). The dedication to consistency and long-lasting enjoyment are two qualities Dropout chases after, and it paid off – it’s still Kanye’s most unanimously loved work to this day.

No. 16 – 3 Feet High and Rising – De La Soul

1989Abstract Hip-Hop1 hour, 4 min.

My favorite group of all-time is De La Soul, and 3 Feet High and Rising is their masterpiece.

I can’t say much beyond the fact that it’s just such a fun listen. They were a much needed variation in style during their era, not afraid to get weird, psychedelic and overtly conscious with their content. It’s nearly understandable why they were labelled as “hippies” right off the bat – they played into a sound that nobody else even dared to try at the time.

3 Feet High is comparable to scrolling through TV channels; the main program you’re watching is the game show that pops up every once in a while throughout, and otherwise, you’re browsing through others during its commercials. De La have some new idea or story presented in nearly every track, which builds character.

Prince Paul, only previously known as a member of the influential Stetsasonic, took on a lead production role and made use of the opportunity. He can pretty much singlehandedly be credited with devising skits on 3 Feet High, as well as encouraging more layered and advanced sampling techniques.

It’s one of many classics to derive from the Native Tongues’ earliest days, and is in my eyes the best 80’s hip-hop album. Saying it set a standard is by no means an over-exaggeration.

No. 15 – The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest

1991Jazz Rap48 min.

The Low End Theory is the kind of album you’ll never find missing from lists like these. It very well may be the most accessible thing in hip-hop; it’s laidback, short, good vibes, and from one of the most well-known groups.

For those that know the context of Tribe’s career, it’s a sharp contrast from People’s Instinctive Travels. They go from funky and warm to cool and unapologetically jazzy, and it sent the golden age into a frenzy of uniqueness. Following Low End, plenty of jazz rap records followed from Mecca and the Soul Brother to Daily Operation.

The group also felt fully realized at this point, with everyone on board. Phife had fully committed to rapping, having his breakthrough; Ali Shaheed felt even more involved on the boards; and the behind-the-scenes contributor Jarobi White had not yet left to pursue a culinary career.

For this reason, the chemistry is at its best here. Every track sounds purposeful yet hungry, and the track concepts were even more creative. “Show Business” and ” Skypager” are two examples of that, tackling the state of the industry and consumerism respectively.

It isn’t hard for me to crown this as the face of the golden age, depending on what time period you want to classify that as. Regardless of all the technicalities, Low End’s impact is clear to this day.

No. 14 – 4eva is a Mighty Long Time – Big K.R.I.T.

2017Southern Hip-Hop1 hour, 25 min.

I’m not sure if there’s an album I’ve preached about as much as 4eva is a Mighty Long Time. Maybe it’s because it has the quality of something that should be a unanimous all-timer, but still somehow gets underrated.

K.R.I.T. is one of the 2010’s best emcees, with a southern flair and immaculate pen that has flowed through each and every one of his projects. He was originally known for his mixtapes, but 4eva proved he could construct a phenomenal studio album as well.

The intensity of the “two sides” concept is appreciated; Side A (“Big K.R.I.T.“) provides the bangers and more hardcore sounds of the south, whereas Side B (“Justin Scott“) is honest, vulnerable, and emotional. The craziest fact is that if you cut one half off you’re still left with a flawless experience – K.R.I.T. maintaining consistency over twenty-two tracks is simply unbelievable.

The combination of concepts, insightful verses, lovable production and consistent replay value cemented 4eva as a favorite of mine since the day I heard it, and I highly doubt that’ll ever change.

No. 13 – Jesus Price Supastar – Sean Price

2007Hardcore Hip-Hop45 min.

I really do wish we got more collaborations between Sean Price and the Soul Council. What they did on Jesus Price Supastar isn’t appreciated nearly enough.

As the middle child of P’s catalogue, it doesn’t surprise me that Supastar is his least discussed. It doesn’t have that nostalgic advantage like Monkey Barz or the modern underground finesse of Mic Tyson. But what it does have is some of – if not his – best bars, and undeniably his best-selected beats.

Two-thirds of the album are produced by some Soul Council member or affiliate, that primarily being 9th Wonder, Khrysis, or 10 for the Triad. This forms a naturally soulful yet hard-hitting sound that P makes the most of, providing vintage rap records that would satisfy any lyricism lover.

The collaborations are also something to indulge in. Heltah Skeltah member and longtime friend Rock drops quality hooks and verses all throughout, and other Boot Camp Cilk affiliates – namely Buckshot and Steele – contribute themselves, still managing to demonstrate true chemistry nearly fifteen years after the collective’s conception.

I wouldn’t mind saying that this is the best starting point for Sean Price’s discography. It has the same warm sound of other late-2000’s underground albums – think The Minstrel Show or Below the Heavens – but P also isn’t afraid to remind you that he’ll use those backdrops for some savage bars. Bump “Violent” for proof of that.

No. 12 – The Cold Vein – Cannibal Ox

2001Experimental Rap1 hour, 14 min.

I’m glad I finally get to talk about an El-P-related album, because so many of them narrowly missed the list. The Cold Vein – which is led by the underrated Cannibal Ox, first and foremost – is entirely produced by the Brooklyn artist.

Let’s start with the rappers of the hour, though. Duo members Vordul Mega and Vast Aire take control of the mic, creating one of the most unusual yet cool dynamics in hip-hop. Vordul’s style is remorseless and conservative, reminiscent of old school gangsta rappers. He is the more lyrically potent of the two, quietly delivering some of the densest rhyme schemes out there.

On the contrary, counterpart Vast Aire is all about charisma. His unique delivery – largely fueled by his accent – sets him apart from just about any emcee, but especially those of this era and scene. He doesn’t aim to get complex with his verses, but will capture your attention because he isn’t afraid to take charge.

These two spend over an hour maneuvering icy, retro beats provided by El-P of then-Company Flow fame. The entire album is video game-like with its ambience, but the theme of it all is much more real. The Cold Vein is hyper-focused on telling the tales of tough living in the rabid streets of New York, more specifically Harlem.

This is in my eyes what any experimental rapper should aim to deliver – something that’s unconventional, but not over-bearing. This is what allowed it to solidify itself in underground history; it tried something nobody had before while also appealing to the typical fan. It’s a shame Cannibal Ox couldn’t do more over time, because this is a debut album matched by very few.

No. 11 – Transportation – Your Old Droog

2019Boom Bap40 min.

A weird phenomenon I experience with music is that anything that sounds incredibly vintage immediately captures my ear. It’s hard for me not to fall in love with it; that’s why I enjoy vaporwave music so much.

Your Old Droog’s Transportation, part three of a legendary 2019 album run, reaches for just about any old-school funk sample it can find. The product is an album that has this intense nostalgic feel to it, which is incredibly rare for somebody of his style.

But aside from the sound, Transportation is a fun and clever concept record. It ties its tracks to forms of transit, using them as metaphors for Droog’s lifestyle and past experiences. “Train Love” tells a story of a girl he saw on the train and wanted to encounter again, while “SS YOD” is all about extravagant, ideal living for the New York rapper.

This also stood as his most personal work for a bit, prior to the release of 2021’s TIME. It doesn’t tie itself to heritage like Dump YOD: Krutoy Edition or Jewelry, but is surely insightful regarding his mental state and aspirations. This is what makes it that unorthodox favorite for me; it’s by no means popular or critically acclaimed, but what is executes is music to my ears (no pun intended).

For proof of how sharp and thoughtful the pen game here truly is, go no further than the intro track “Stillwell Baby“.

“Tried to leave this thing alone like it’s a wrap, B
But there was times writing rhymes was the only thing that made a Droog happy
Master of cutlets, Father YOD, YODFather don
Since we used to get ready for school with Arthur on”

Personal lines, pop culture references, and vivid memories all in one. It’s crazy how much he can pack into sixteen bars, and Transportation is full of those instances.

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 3

Published July 17, 2022

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 3

Disclaimer: This is a ranking of my top fifty favorite hip-hop albums. This isn’t aiming to assess greatness, popularity, or impact; it’s about my enjoyment and connection to these records. A lot of classics will make it, and many I still adore will be left out.

But with that considered…

No. 30 – Black on Both Sides – Mos Def

1999Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 12 min.

Yasiin Bey, the mighty Mos Def. One of the most intelligent pen games for over an hour straight.

That’s why Black on Both Sides is an undeniable classic.

Mos was already blessed with one of the most unique and versatile deliveries hip-hop has ever heard, and the world saw that on the collaborative Black Star. However, jumping into the gates with that, even as one half of a pair, sets ridiculous expectations for what you’re up to do next. And what will a good emcee do? Go above and beyond that standard.

And man, did he.

The coolest aspect of Both Sides is how effortlessly social and political topics are tackled without feeling forced or pretentious. I’ve known it for years, and it took me a long time to realize what a track like “New World Water” was truly about. Even the more straightforward stories and topics – see “Mr. Nigga” – have no intention of being generic. Not only will you get a groovy beat with an infectious Q-Tip hook over it, but you’ll savor the lyrics in between, too.

Mos Def’s desire to break boundaries is also on full display. If you want an extreme example, check “Rock N Roll” – absolutely one of the least accessible cuts, but tackles a necessary concept in an admirable way. The fact that everything about Both Sides is intricate, high-quality and distinctive is what makes it so masterful. I can’t imagine a true hip-hop fan not messing with it.

No. 29 – Aquemini – Outkast

1998Southern Hip-Hop1 hour, 15 min.

I don’t think it’s absurd to say that every single Outkast album – barring the Idlewild soundtrack – has had some sort of monumental impact on hip-hop. Southernplayalistic woke people up on the south, ATLiens solidified the duo as skilled conscious writers, Stankonia broke into the realm pf pop with ease, and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is their best selling.

Aquemini is the middle child of the catalogue – not quite as popular as some, and not quite as revolutionary as others. It doesn’t have the hits, but it is appreciated and recognized critically – the consensus is it being their most complete and realized, and that’s for several reasons.

Lyrically, it’s hard to deny it as their best. ATLiens pushed the duo forward as creative minds, incorporating eerie and cryptic verses into the already spaced-out soundscape. Aquemini borrows some of that atmosphere, but the rapping feels a lot more purposeful, direct, and focused. Big Boi remains consistent, but this is André 3000’s breakout; he was arguably the lesser of two greats prior, but he stole the show here without ever looking back.

His verses on “Return of the “G”“, “Aquemini“, and “Synthesizer” are all some of the most infectious of all-time, sporting a wicked flow and rhyme schemes not many can match. And that’s all concentrated in the first half – the second has even more elite showings.

That’s not to count out Big Boi either, though. André gets a notable chunk of the credit for the duo’s successes, but it’s a two-way effort. If you think otherwise, refer to “West Savannah” – a solo cut that also happens to be one of the best tracks.

The dense and lengthy build of Aquemini does make it an intimidating listen, but there’s not a moment wasted. From slick southern jams to nine-minute pools of neo-soul, every bit of Kast’s artistry up to this point finds itself materialized.

No. 28 – The Easy Truth – Apollo Brown & Skyzoo

2016Boom Bap52 min.

Every person has experienced a day where the world felt still. Cloudy, grim, and grey – it not necessarily depressing, but definitely numbing.

The Easy Truth is that feeling in music form, but flipped and manipulated to create a narrative of motivation. Skyzoo’s ability to weave through hood tales and origin stories is like no other, painting a perfect picture of what it feels like to be on the come up.

Something about his style of lyricism is easy to indulge. It’s conscious, but not like a lot of his peers – the words come out simpler, and perhaps more personal. It’s what makes something like The Easy Truth, which aims to be potent, so much more raw and unique.

But above anything, what may be the most impressive trait is how well Apollo Brown’s production complements Skyzoo. As two Mello Music Group natives, a full-scale collaboration was inevitable – but for them to jump out the gates with one of the decade’s best records is insane.

Apollo had long sped past the “developmental” phase of his production, now entering an era of polished beats following the ambitious Grandeur. Every instrumental sounds poised and mature, which only encourages cohesion.

2016 was a stacked year for hip-hop, and this is one of its many jewels. If you need a quality underground addition to your plate, The Easy Truth is the one. Forever one of my favorites.

No. 27 – Midnight Marauders – A Tribe Called Quest

1993Jazz Rap51 min.

Tribe’s initial three-album run is the stuff of legends. Instictive Travels and Low End Theory received unanimous acclaim, and they went into 1993 ready to deliver a third slice of greatness. Midnight Marauders, as we now know, did not disappoint.

If Low End Theory is a dark chilly night, Midnight Marauders is a summer day in Queens, hanging out with friends and finding something to do. Q-Tip completely flipped the script sonically, which kept things fresh while staying faithful to the group’s jazziness. Even where it’s laid-back, it remains warm and funky – for example, the all-time famous “Electric Relaxation” beat.

An underrated dynamic is Phife Dawg’s growth as a rapper. I believe he’s the superior lyricist to Tip – as valuable as the latter’s production is – and this is where the five-foot assassin fully started to reach his potential. “8 Million Stories” is pure proof, serving as a solo track where Phife delivers some surprisingly vivid storytelling.

Midnight Marauders proudly showcases consistency, devoid of a single track that isn’t excellent in some regard. It’s been a favorite of mine for ages, and that’s a testament to its longevity – the style is timeless, and it’s one of the easiest old-school hip-hop recommendations I could give.

No. 26 – Capital Punishment – Big Pun

1998Boom Bap1 hour, 12 min.

Big Pun is an easy candidate – and maybe my choice – for the greatest technical lyricist to ever do it. His flow and rhyming are mind-blowing and I struggle to find many that are better in that department, let alone close.

Capital Punishment is over an hour of that in action, and it’s phenomenal. My first time hearing this, I was on a plane and had this saved, ready to listen…and was in awe of what I heard.

Rarely prior had I seen someone so gifted on the mic – I had heard my fair share of the greatest, from Nas to Black Thought to Common. But Pun seemed hungrier, more assertive than all of them – and that’s a high bar. The first verse of “The Dream Shatterer” is a quick sample:

“Ayo, I shatter dreams like Jordan, assault and batter your team
Your squadron’ll be barred from rap
Like Adam and Eve from the garden
I’m carvin’ my initials on your forehead
So every night before bed, you see the BP shine off the boardhead”

I do want to give some credit to the production team too, though; over ten people were behind the boards, yet kept things steadily hard-hitting. So many of the greatest beats I’ve ever heard found a home on Capital Punishment, and somehow end up being the second-fiddle to several of hip-hop’s best rhymes.

Pun unfortunately falls under the category of legends gone too soon – it’s hard to believe that his catalogue would’ve been anything short of stellar with more projects, but this debut proved everything he had to. Twenty-four years and it’s still one of the culture’s most prized.

No. 25 – good kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar

2012Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 8 min.

I want to preface this with a particular take of mine – when combining quality, influence, and popularity, I think good kid, m.A.A.d city is a solid pick for the greatest hip-hop album of all-time. It has tackled music in a rare form, infatuating critics but managing to stay on top of the world as an iconic body of work. Can you believe it’s stayed on Billboard for five hundred weeks straight?

Outside of the commercial accomplishments, though, the technique here is simply genius. And I do say that wholeheartedly; it’s one thing to be an elite rhymer or punchline rapper, but it’s another thing to have such a crisp pen game that every line you write feels real. Immersive. That’s Kendrick Lamar, and he did this on only his second studio effort.

The concept is well-known and clear; listeners follow Kendrick’s growth from earlier ages to adolescence, all the while taking in the frequent atrocities that plague Compton’s citizens. Those that have lived in poor, tightly-knit communities can immediately identify with this content, and experiencing it from the inside looking out is the key to understanding good kid‘s purpose.

The production, while drawing influence from several places, is unapologetically west coast. It manages to bounce between a Ras Kass-like gloominess (“The Art of Peer Pressure“, “Swimming Pools“) to a grooviness reminiscent of Dr. Dre (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe“, “Poetic Justice“). My favorite beat of them all is the second half of “m.A.A.d city“, which was clearly suited for the legendary MC Eiht’s guest verse.

The sound and writing investing in an end goal is why good kid works so well. Twelve tracks hyper-focused on storytelling don’t tend to resonate as a lyrical masterpiece and radio favorite at once, but Kendrick managed to do it. It’s one of the many things adding to his status as an all-timer.

No. 24 – To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

2015Jazz Rap1 hour, 19 min.

Back-to-back Kendrick albums? Damn right.

Everyone knows the good kid, m.A.A.d city vs. To Pimp a Butterfly debate. It’s one that I’ve entertained mentally for a long time now – there will be stretches where I think one is decently better than the other, and times where they seem even to me. For now, I’ll stick with the latter narrative.

I’d be lying if I said there was much I could add to the conversation of how great Butterfly is – but to summarize, it’s hands down Kendrick’s most expansive yet concentrated. His dedication to projecting his thoughts as a black man in America – but above all, a human – is admirable, and part of why it instantly secured mass acclaim.

I think Butterfly shines its hardest musically. It feels so ready to try something new, so inspired – the jazz and funk influence work in the best way possible. While hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s drew inspiration from similar places, the difference in approach is the deal-breaker here. This doesn’t have the vintage nature of prototypical jazz rap, but what it does have is polish and atmosphere.

This is what helps Kendrick capture one’s attention. Bouncing between chaotic and fleeting to soothing, his voice remains a constant the entire way. Even without a grip of the topics he’s talking about, it’s easy to stay engaged – and that’s a gift he mastered on Butterfly and has utilized his whole career.

No. 23 – 4, 5, 6 – Kool G Rap

1995Gangsta Rap42 min.

Kool G Rap is the culture’s most under-appreciated pioneer. His name should be mentioned as highly and frequently as the likes of Rakim, Chuck D, and other legendary 80’s rappers.

My favorite thing to say about 4, 5, 6 is that it’s Kool G’s Illmatic. And that’s not just because Nas makes a guest appearance – it’s the fact that it’s a short and concise record with not a minute wasted, coming at the perfect moment in the emcee’s prime.

Kool G’s lyricism has never faltered, but it’s surely at its peak here. He fires his bars fast, but does so with precision and value, balancing his typical mafioso attitude with graphic stories. I like to point at “For Da Brothaz” as an example, being the first track off here I found myself attached to.

My absolute favorite part of the album is the production. The early-to-mid-90’s had a slew of heavily jazz-influenced joints, from Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb to Guru’s first two Jazzmatazz installments. 4, 5, 6 is never mentioned as part of that conversation – maybe because it didn’t intend to sound that way – but it truly does.

The samples are perfectly old-school and every drum sounds dusty and authentic. It knows how to remain faithfully grimy (“Executioner Style“), but isn’t afraid to get upbeat, too – “Fast Life” is evidence, and a big part of why the album was so popular.

Short albums teeter between being lukewarm and amazing experiences, depending on how much the listener falls in love with the tracklist. In my case, Kool G supplied the game with an all-time masterpiece – nine tracks (and a remix) to never forget.

No. 22 – Mic Tyson – Sean Price

2012Hardcore Hip-Hop41 min.

After decades of making music, a lot of artists lose steam. They begin to sound redundant, losing those hungry qualities that brought eyes their way to begin with. Those classics will always remain a part of their catalogue, but the praise will never divert from them.

Sean Price didn’t follow those rules, though. Mic Tyson is how a veteran should sound – experienced yet vicious. Not afraid to remind his peers who he is, even after sixteen years of releases.

Easily P’s grimiest, Mic Tyson nearly sounds like it came straight out of a video game. The beats are like a final boss’ dungeon – rustic and dark. It’s a sharp contrast from the soulful roots of his sophomore album Jesus Price Supastar, but works just as well.

The tracks fire at you at quick speeds, all being relatively short. That’s the appeal – an album that gives you forty minutes of pure bars, whether from P himself or the guests. It never gets stale either, given this is the best punchline rapper ever in charge – I crack up at a different joke every listen.

It was unfortunately his last showing to the world while with us, but that only makes it more impactful. Mic Tyson helped spark a new wave of quality in the underground alongside other timely records like Marcberg, and that influence has never worn off. It’s just about time we credit the godfather of it all.

No. 21 – FLYGOD – Westside Gunn

2016Gangsta Rap58 min.

And coincidentally enough, this next entry is one of those previously mentioned albums that were influenced.

FLYGOD resembles a lot of things – modern hardcore rap ala Marciano and Price, older mafioso records like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and above all, Westside Gunn’s own innovative style.

I’ve had a lot of people previously tell me they can’t get into his delivery, but that’s the best part of his music. The greatest always sound ready on their debuts, and Gunn is no different. He seems prepared to start a movement from the jump, and in retrospect, he really did.

A lot of the modern era’s underground titans find their way on this ridiculously stacked roster. Besides others in the Griselda family (Benny, Conway, and at the time Mach-Hommy), you have rising fan favorites in Action Bronson and Danny Brown. Also consider guests that were at the time new, but are now realizing their potential – think of Your Old Droog. And it’s only right a veteran drops some jewels of his own, which is what the Skyzoo feature is for.

All of these names work in tandem with Gunn effortlessly, giving each track its own identity. Doing this over the backdrops of production legends in Daringer, The Alchemist, Statik Selektah, Apollo Brown and more makes it even easier to appreciate, because there’s not a single song that falls short.

FLYGOD is the centerpiece of this new wave of hip-hop, and simultaneously the brightest gem in a wildly stacked discography.

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 2

Published July 4, 2022

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 2

Disclaimer: This is a ranking of my top fifty favorite hip-hop albums. This isn’t aiming to assess greatness, popularity, or impact; it’s about my enjoyment and connection to these records. A lot of classics will make it, and many I still adore will be left out.

But with that considered…

No. 40 – Liquid Swords – GZA

1995Boom Bap56 min.

We will never see a group like Wu-Tang Clan again. These guys were on a mission from the second 36 Chambers hit the streets, and Liquid Swords is one of the many products of that run.

GZA can already be argued as the Clan’s best pure lyricist, but he’s undeniably their sharpest. His way of rhyming, casually throwing in double entendres, and yet somehow expressing a deep and meaningful topic is hardly rivaled among the entirety of hip-hop, let alone his group.

Liquid Swords is the greatest demonstration of that gift, theming itself around martial arts cinema (as usual with the Wu) through twelve exceptional tracks. GZA taps into experimental storytelling (“Gold”), and warnings about the industry (“Labels”), all the while delivering a classic hit in “Shadowboxin'”. It’s a level of versatility you could argue only he was striving for among his group at the time.

That’s not to go without praising the legendary RZA’s production throughout either. It steered away from the muddy basis of Tical and the lifelike nature of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, instead embracing a lighter, cleaner sound that included polished samples and synth work. This led to it sounding the most fresh of its kind, which may further explain its acclaim.

I wouldn’t say it’s the most accessible body of work around, but it’s indisputably an essential for old-school hip-hop. It may be the best lyrical display of that era, and with that density comes a lot of gems to unpack.

No. 39 – Extended Play – Statik Selektah

2013Boom Bap1 hour, 3 min.

Producer-led albums are an under-appreciated art. On them you find some of hip-hop’s most glorious collaborations over a cohesive, focused sound. Statik Selektah took this to its limit on Extended Play, which somehow fuses the feeling of hunger with veteran experience to include more legends than fingers can count on one hand.

The idea that something can feature the likes of Bun B, De La Soul’s Posdnuos, Smif-N-Wessun, and Mac Miller throughout sounds absurd, but it – and magnificently, at that – somehow turns these contrasting styles into something that feels consistent. That alone is a gifted skill, and that’s without mentioning the actual beats.

Statik is firmly one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all-time, and this is where his beat-making is its most distinct; it has the griminess of his older work, but pushes to a more modernized flair that he continued to roll with from this point on in his career.

It’s easy to become immersed in the brilliance of these beats, but they’re a perfect backdrop for the exciting roster as well. The lead single “Bird’s Eye View” features Wu-Tang’s Raekwon, Black Thought of The Roots lineage, and then-upcoming phenomenon Joey Bada$$ – who has no trouble keeping up with two established legends to round everything out.

Other eye-catching standouts include “21 & Over“, featuring the late greats Mac Miller and Sean Price; “Pinky Ring“, a rare solo cut of the legendary Prodigy over a jazzier ambience; and “Bring Em Up Dead“, a Joell Ortiz track that happens to be my personal favorite.

The diversity is ultimately Extended Play‘s greatest asset – guaranteed there’s at least one track made for your rotation.

No. 38 – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… – Raekwon

1995Boom Bap1 hour, 14 min.

I know the focus was just on Liquid Swords not too long ago, but the Wu praise for today isn’t over.

Straight up, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is the best solo Wu-Tang album. It’s close, of course – it’s neck-and-neck with Swords, and only marginally better than Clientele – but what RZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface accomplished together was irreplaceable.

A pool of influence, Cuban Linx marked the revival of the mafioso rap wave. Kool G Rap had been the true pioneer of the style years prior, but this sparked a resurgence. The lyrics were more glamorous and detailed than anything on 36, and this inspired others to be upfront when talking about the hustler lifestyle.

Sound-wise, it’s not quite as creative as Tical or Return to the 36 Chambers, but it’s comfortably RZA’s best collection of beats among these solo works. They;re cinematic with the intention of turning this into a movie-like experience; the effort paid off, too, given the streets of New York are all that can be pictured while listening.

Raekwon is in the star role, exerting a delivery so confident that it’s hard to lose interest. It’s important to not forget Ghostface in this equation, too – he finds himself on nearly every song, often bouncing off Rae’s verses with a high-energy, eccentric approach of his own.

When you consider the quality level of the music, combined with its infectious impact on the game (JAY-Z can thank Raekwon for some of the appeal Reasonable Doubt had), it’s hard to deny Cuban Linx‘s greatness. It truly proved the Clan could reach critical success outside of a group setting, only amplifying their popularity for years to come.

No. 37 – 3 ‘n the MOrnin’, Pt. 2 – Dj Screw

1996Chopped & Screwed59 min.

3 ‘n the Mornin’, Pt. 2 is a southern hip-hop cornerstone. Houston’s rap scene is possibly the greatest in the south, and this is the apex of it all.

Here’s a fun fact about DJ Screw; his mixtapes – known as “screw tapes”, compilations featuring locals – became so popular and legendary in the area that he had lines of customers outside the house he sold them at. 3 ‘n the Mornin’ isn’t a work along the lines of those, but instead a commercial release that played a part in Screw becoming a widespread name.

The music itself is one-of-a-kind. Not only does it flow seamlessly, but the “screwed” sound creates an eerie murkiness alongside the pitched vocals. The samples, similarly to many of the southern scene around this time, are of a liminal and nostalgic tone that make the listening experience something special.

The assumption is that a compilation wouldn’t be on a list like this, but Screw accomplished the unimaginable. His work helped Screwed Up Click grow as a group, therefore influencing generations of southern rappers.

No. 36 – De La Soul Is Dead – De La Soul

1991Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 14 min.

Following the commercial success of 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul were exhausted. They were sick of being branded by the industry as “hip-hop’s hippies” – they promoted afro-centrism and positivity, but were not aiming to be shelled in creatively.

As a result, sophomore effort De La Soul Is Dead was a shift to maturity and darker territory. It subtly criticized the industry for the entire duration; the skits feature schoolyard bullies listening to a De La Soul mixtape they found in the trash, and all they respond to it with is close-minded criticism.

That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with not liking something – if those characters thought the joint was trash, it’s trash. But what De La Soul were alluding to were pretentious critics; those that nitpick to find what they don’t like in a record, so they can slander it to oblivion for whatever reason.

The irony of it all is that this is the exact kind of album that would get this reception – De La completely swerved away from the “peace and love” vibes of their debut, and set the tone for the fearless mentality they’d tackle the rest of their careers with. That only makes the charming storytelling, goofy production, and strange structure of Dead more remarkable.

No. 35 – The Preface – eLZhi

2008Boom Bap1 hour, 2 min.

Want to hear some lyrical exercises? Run The Preface.

This is surely in the running for the most creatively designed album out there. Nearly every track dedicates itself to some sort of mini-concept and follows through because of eLZhi’s elite pen game. The rhyming and detail are his two biggest strengths, and happen to perfectly boost the overall morale.

For example, take track three, “Guessing Game” – here, eLZhi creatively stops his lines mid-flow to continue them on the next, often throwing in a twist that alters the direction of the story he’s telling. The ability to maintain this consistency throughout multiple verses, all the while saying things that make sense is not commonplace.

That’s only the start of it, too; besides the occasional bar-for-bar song (“Motown 25“, “Fire (Remix)“), you won’t find a single cut that trails away from some central idea or story. Much credit to Black Milk for the instrumentals, too; they travel between a fine line of chaos and soulfulness, but the result is always complementary to eLZhi. It’s an overlooked aspect of chemistry that helps make The Preface even greater, but that isn’t any surprise – this record is already underrated in general.

That’s something that has to change.

No. 34 – Dah Shinin’ – Smif-N-Wessun

1995Boom Bap1 hour, 8 min.

Boot Camp Clik, without question, is the most underrated collective out there. Dah Shinin’ was practically the beginning of that foundation, being an underground sensation.

Tek and Steele are some of the 90’s most unique emcees, combining unorthodox flows with graphic lyricism and a dab of authentic Patois. The two don’t require differentiation, instead working in tandem to represent a duo with nearly unmatched chemistry.

If there’s one way to describe the sound, it’s “muddy”. The beats use some beautiful and dynamic samples, but are largely grounded by dusty drums, a dark undertone, and at times a minimal approach, which was a rarity at the time.

The production excellence can be largely attributed to Da Beatminerz, another great underground crew. Despite working with the likes of O.C., Black Star, and Nas, they remain under the radar – consider this a proposition to dive into their catalogue, this included.

Dah Shinin’ isn’t quite as influential as some of the records surrounding it on this list, but I value it far too much track-for-track to not have it here.

No. 33 – Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor – Lupe Fiasco

2006Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 12 min.

During this era of hip-hop, being uncool wasn’t…cool. Conscious rap had become a secondary art, only truly hyped if delivered by household names like Common or Kanye West.

Even then, nobody wanted to get on that train again. Pop and rap were never closer, trap music was on the rise, and the underground kept to themselves. That left the scene with some outliers, including Chicago’s Lupe Fiasco…who answered it all with Food & Liquor.

This album had that mainstream appeal because it catered to the generation of 90’s kids avoiding trends. They wanted to be nerds, and Lupe reminded them that it was fine to be – on the surface, at least. Deep down, he was focused on darker topics.

The entire concept of Food & Liquor is that there needs to be an understood balance between good and evil, righteousness and sin, confidence and pride. Lupe himself had made it clear that choosing between the two was a central focus of his life, and urged others to make the right decisions in doing so themselves.

It was a method that was a bit unfamiliar to hip-hop at the time. Older conscious records were a bit warmer and fun, but this sparked a revolution of more intense content. The success of artists like Kendrick Lamar was preceded by Lupe, and the modern Chicago scene (i.e., Saba, Chance the Rapper) have clearly drawn some inspiration from him.

The music itself is also far more accessible than how it is described here, too. “Kick, Push” is something any hip-hop fan would recognize; it’s a special kind of skill to balance commercial and critical appeal that way, but that’s Lupe’s genius in play.

No. 32 – donuts – J Dilla

2006Instrumental44 min.

Ten spots ago, the instrumental pioneer Endtroducing….. was covered. This time, we have what I consider the best of that sub-genre – J Dilla’s Donuts.

If any album is bittersweet, this one is. It’s such a beautiful body of work, but was created with the knowledge that Dilla would soon pass away – something that is reflected in the record, and can be a bit sobering amongst the funkiness.

I consider that to be what makes it special, though. The spirits of the fallen live on, and Jay Dee’s did through music, especially Donuts. Throughout the album are low-key – but recognizable – motifs of life and growth expressed musically. It manages to make beats more than just a backdrop, something that nearly every producer since has admired.

The construction of these instrumentals is the most impressive factor. Dilla’s lack of quantization – which is designed to force precision – makes his music feel imperfect, yet human. The unorthodox nature of Donuts is what makes it exciting, because something new is found at every corner.

I wouldn’t consider it the most accessible beat tape, but it is absolutely the greatest in my eyes. It quietly marked the end of the Soulquarians era in hip-hop, but paved the way for an entire new scene. That’s an influence that lives on forever, much like Dilla does.

No. 31 – Miles – Blu & Exile

2020Conscious Hip-Hop1 hour, 35 min.

For the record, this very narrowly missed the top thirty – it may have been the toughest placement by far. But regardless of that, Miles is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve heard.

After eight years of releasing no fresh material, west coast underground greats Blu & Exile banded together for another go. The result was their most packed and advanced effort to date, at a whopping twenty tracks.

Below the Heavens was optimistic and traditional, while Give Me My Flowers was more relaxed. Miles, on the other hand, is determined – from a technical standpoint, this is both artists’ best. Blu’s verses sound crisp and mature, which is a feat considering they’ve always been in the upper echelon of lyricism. Similarly, Exile’s production is the most lively and layered it has ever sounded.

The two aren’t strangers to the realm of concept records, so Miles was executed effectively. Fixated on the history of African-American art, Blu finds himself often connecting his personal experiences to that of historic black figures. The first and second halves are dedicated to those two things respectively.

It becomes increasingly compact as time goes on, as the second half is filled to the brim with ambition. “Roots of Blue“, for example, is a staggering nine minutes yet one of the most brilliantly written tracks in hip-hop. It recaps the true history of African-Americans and their origin, and that is a bold idea that Blu refused to stray away from.

Those sorts of things are what makes Miles so inventive. It doesn’t care to be approachable – it exists for those that aim to appreciate black art by knowing its past. Without that open-minded mentality, you won’t be able to fully love this record.

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 1

Published June 22, 2022

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 1

Disclaimer: This is a ranking of my top fifty favorite hip-hop albums. This isn’t aiming to assess greatness, popularity, or impact; it’s about my enjoyment and connection to these records. A lot of classics will make it, and many I still adore will be left out.

But with that considered…

No. 50 – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West

2010Pop Rap1 hour, 9 min.

Following the emotional baggage Kanye West had dealt with throughout the last couple years of the 2000’s, he went into an artistic state of mind that resembled nothing he had done prior. He became hyper-focused on music, forced himself and any collaborators to isolate in Hawaii, and spent immense amounts of money to create a maximal, larger-than-life work.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the result. This can generally be seen as the turning point for West’s career; 808s & Heartbreak was already a drastic change in style, but was only the beginning of his expansion as an artist. Following Twisted Fantasy, he grew increasingly experimental as he embellished himself in fame further, much to varied reception year-after-year.

The genius of this in particular, however, is its ability to truly come off as widely appealing. West aimed to create something that would improve his public image, and therefore combined many former styles of his career into one – chipmunk samples infested “Devil in a New Dress“, hardcore posse cuts characterized “Monster“, and “All of the Lights” was an instant radio hit.

Due to these factors, the consensus opinion implies that this is West’s best. While I don’t agree, I see the basis for it. It’s packed with variety, unique (for his standard at the time), and lyrically engaging. It’s something I’ve always been a fan of and took a long time to evaluate in the context of his career, but it’s undeniably one of the modern era’s essentials.

No. 49 – TIME – Your Old Droog

2021Boom Bap45 min.

Your Old Droog currently stands as one of the underground hip-hop’s community recent favorites. A quick-firing, hard-working emcee, Droog has released an average of three albums per year since 2019. TIME was the third of four projects revealed to the world last year, and is by far the best of the bunch.

A concept of sorts, TIME opens up with a story about a magic watch that transports the holder to a defining moment in their life. The twists in the track’s story are dark and somber, but that’s the lasting atmosphere – reflective yet desolate, reaching levels of honesty that Droog has never roamed close to prior.

Every track finds itself weaving through different stages of the rapper’s life, from a disturbed childhood (“A Hip Hop Lullaby“) to nostalgic adolescent stories (“So High“). He remains consistent in delivering trademark punchlines and intricate rhymes, but the storytelling is phenomenal for his standard.

If there’s one thing TIME perfected, it’s catering to a traditional hip-hop fan. The production is immersive, lyrics are one-of-a-kind, and the feature list is absolutely stacked with legends. It’s a young record, but likely to go down as a standout in an amazing underground run.

No. 48 – Supreme Clientele – Ghostface Killah

2000Hardcore Hip-Hop1 hour, 4 min.

While serving months in the pen and subsequently taking a trip to Africa for enlightenment, Wu-Tang’s own Ghostface was still writing lyrics to ready up his sophomore effort. Now seeking a new direction, Supreme Clientele was a sharp change from the fan-favorite debut Ironman; it was more creative, less violent, and according to Ghostface himself, a better representation of who he was as a rapper.

It all sounds glorious. It’s laced with theatrical samples (“Apollo Kids“, “We Made It“), soul-infused production (“One“, “Wu Banga 101“), and classic grimy cuts (“Saturday Nite“, “Malcolm“). RZA’s heavy involvement played a large part in its inspired sound; following a basement flood that wiped out an abundance of beats, his style felt revitalized. This worked well in tandem with the third-party beatmakers behind the boards throughout, who helped make Clientele cohesive, but not repetitive.

What may be the most impressive factor is that this stands as Ghostface’s most acclaimed record, yet came during the “second generation” of Wu albums. All his contemporaries had dropped classics off-the-bat – as did Ghost – but he never hit the brakes. The momentum continued well into the 21st century too, given the classic Fishscale came along years later.

Clientele is an easy example of why Ghostface is not only the greatest Wu-Tang member to me, but one of the greatest to ever touch a mic in general. Not many others can open a classic over a beat as off-kilter as “Nutmeg“.

No. 47 – The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem

2000Hardcore Hip-Hop1 hour, 12 min.

Eminem is the definition of controversy in hip-hop. Aside from the graphic, violent content, you had a white man establishing himself as a commercial face in the game; that alone made the culture feel all kinds of ways, and The Marshall Mathers LP is his response to it.

Is it an apologetic one? Absolutely not, it’s Eminem. What it is, however, is a crude – but clever – way of providing social commentary that can only be truly appreciated if you can tolerate it. It’s aged poorly and would probably get him cancelled today, but this was the year 2000 – the world was different.

I think the shock value is, if anything, the charm of Mathers LP. Violence in hip-hop isn’t remotely rare, but when it’s delivered in a way meant to cause offense it definitely manages to strike nerves. It’s why a lot of people – me included – aren’t fans of Eminem as a whole. But this is a part of his career that I’m very fond of.

The lyricism is unsurprisingly amazing, especially as far as rhyming goes. The subject matter is a lot more inventive than it seems at surface value; “Kill You” feels edgy for the sake of it, but properly sets up the first half of the LP that aims to address his critics. Meanwhile, songs like “The Way I Am” and “Drug Ballad” are just straight-up brilliantly written and a good example of why Eminem catches praise for his early writing. That doesn’t go without mentioning the great beats throughout, either; Dr. Dre can largely be thanked for that.

Mathers LP was definitely an acquired taste, but is also the centerpiece of a great three-album run. That’s absolutely something to appreciate.

No. 46 – The Reset – Apollo Brown

2010Boom Bap50 min.

If you didn’t know – Apollo Brown is my favorite producer.

Naturally, his debut is going to sneak its way onto the list. It’s more than deserved, though – The Reset is a great representation of what was going on with underground hip-hop heading into the new decade. It especially focused on giving several mid-western rappers exposure, including Detroit locals and those in surrounding states.

Every rapper delivers hungry verses laced with bars and punchlines, which are the perfect complement to Apollo’s unapologetically old-school beats. It’s a modern take on boom bap that perhaps caters to old-heads but can satisfy any listener looking for good content; every track is a banger in its own right.

Even though Apollo’s technique only continued to improve after this, it has the sentimental feeling that naturally comes with a studio debut. He was as inspired as every guest emcee here, and it shows. It’s almost as if fifteen picture-perfect instrumentals were carefully selected to make what would become a Detroit hip-hop classic.

No. 45 – Well Done – Action Bronson & Statik Selektah

2011Boom Bap48 min.

Gang Starr. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. All the names of legends that happened to collaborate and define the golden era.

I present to you: that same level of chemistry, only decades later.

Released in what can effectively be considered Action Bronson’s debut year, Well Done is a rapper-producer project made in heaven. As part of the early-2010’s internet wave that pushed the underground to greater heights, this remains an underrated gem to this day.

Why so? I’m not sure. Well Done has everything a hip-hop fan could ask for; phenomenal samples infused in every beat, hilarious punchlines from the emcee, and a consistent, short tracklist. It should be subject to the same high praise other N.Y. projects around this time received, such as 1999 or LIVE.LOVE.A$AP.

Regardless of popularity or appraisal, this is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the past decade, and an absolute essential when talking modern hip-hop. Both Bronson and Statik are notoriously consistent for the amount of work they’ve put out, but Well Done is a ridiculously good outlier in both catalogues – and in the former’s case, his overall best.

Bronson’s delivery and lyrics never get old, which is something that has won long-term fans over. Statik’s production is also arguably at its best here – or at the very least, its most flavorful. The variety in sound is a blueprint for success.

Well Done is a perfect example of my love for underground hip-hop, through and through.

No. 44 – The Chronic – Dr. Dre

1992G-Funk1 hour, 3 min.

Off pure influence, The Chronic reigns supreme on an all-time list. It’s hard to name ten – maybe even five – records in hip-hop that are as iconic as this.

If anyone asks for a west coast recommendation, you have to send this their way. Nothing else represents Cali hip-hop this well; not only was it the peak of its popularity, but it’s still impacting hip-hop to this day.

Dr. Dre is a pure genius for every idea executed here. He knew how to bring the right energy to every track, but the priority was always bringing Death Row together. This is where Snoop Dogg comes in, serving as the second part of a rapping one-two-punch that aimed for a Low End Theory-level chemistry.

The G-Funk sound hits home for me because of the P-Funk influence. Parliament-Funkadelic is one of my favorite all-time collectives, and The Chronic straight twisted those musical acid trips into laidback hip-hop about weed; the perfect formula for a classic at the time, and the fact it was so innovative made it even better.

From start to finish it remains strong, opening with classic cuts (“Let Me Ride“, “Nuthin’ But A G Thang“) and pushing some hardcore, overlooked tracks (“Stranded on Death Row” is one of the album’s best) towards the end. It’s a melting pot of synthetic, funky songs with hilarious skits in between, and there’s no better way to depict 90’s hip-hop.

No. 43 – Be – Common

2005Conscious Hip-Hop43 min.

Coming off his strangest – and up to that point, most divisive – effort in Electric Circus, Common felt a need to reconnect with his core fanbase through a return to form. Be was his attempt at a critical comeback.

It takes the Illmatic route, leaving little to no room for error through a short tracklist and consistency. In comparison, though, Be made an effort to keep the production team close-knit; only Kanye West and J Dilla find themselves contributing on the boards, but every instrumental is phenomenal.

Common is lyrically potent as always, clearly favoring an optimistic style of rap that remains conscious, yet less grim than some of his former works. It contrasts heavily to his 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate, which was overall a lot more down-to-earth and moody.

It’s undoubtedly a “feel good” record, concentrated on growth and learning from mistakes as its central themes. This is immediately noticeable through the titular track (“the present is a gift, and I just wanna be”). It twists through tunnels of vivid stories and soulful vibes before ending in a grand, optimistic manner – over one of the best beats Jay Dee has ever created, at that.

It was one of the earlier hip-hop albums I learned to appreciate, and it remains essential to my love with the culture.

No. 42 – Endtroducing….. – DJ Shadow

1996Instrumental1 hour, 3 min.

When you have an old-school sampler, what other equipment do you really need?

DJ Shadow proved the answer is “none”. In fact, Endtroducing….. is a work of art that prides itself on how vintage it truly is. The sampling is distinctive and ambient, and it’s no surprise that this served as an early pioneer in the “beat tape” world. It aimed for a rare goal in 90’s hip-hop – it wanted to create an atmosphere and character with its sound, completely disregarding lyrics.

My favorite thing about the album is how easy it is to become enamored with. It’ll fall out of rotation for long stretches of time, and a sporadic revisit will bring back every feeling and memory associated with it; that’s the appeal of instrumentals.

Midnight in a Perfect World” is a very specific standout; even though the album is seamless and prefers not to have a song-by-song identity, that song is special. It’s a strong contender for the greatest hip-hop beat of all-time, perfectly treading the thin line between the fundamentals and the mysterious qualities of psychedelic music.

That’s only a stepping stone to discovering the beauty behind Endtroducing….., however; it’s a must-hear by all means, inspiring the music world to take risks with their artistry.

No. 41 – Stress: The Extinction Agenda – Organized Konfusion

1994Jazz Rap46 min.

If I had to choose one unsung duo of the golden age, Organized Konfusion is immediately getting mentioned. It’s borderline offensive that their three records aren’t given nearly as much common praise, but Stress: The Extinction Agenda particularly sits up there with the titans of the 90’s.

It can be seen as a subtle concept album of sorts, bringing attention to the frustration and anxiety experienced by black people in the inner-city. This is immediately clear from the album cover; designed by local Queens artist Matt Reid (R.I.P.), the colorful caricature depicted an apocalyptic world in which Organized were the only beings left.

The album starts off on dark, wicked territory with the turbulent intro track and subsequently hardcore single “Stress”. This pattern is followed well into its halfway mark, resembling the dungeon-like sound the underground preferred from the mid-to-late-90’s.

Starting with my personal favorite track “Why”, the soundscape decompresses into a beautiful take on jazz rap that felt more advanced than almost anything up to that point in the game. With the exception of the lyrical juggernaut “Stray Bullet”, this energy is conserved until the conclusive outro, which leaves behind a taste of hope for any aspiring musicians and fans.

The production, largely handled by the duo themselves and D.I.T.C. legend Buckwild, is some of the best of its era. The lyrics are even more ridiculously top-tier, with Prince Po and especially Pharoahe Monch showing remarkable growth from their debut.

Just an all-around brilliant musical exercise.

Favorite Hip-Hop Albums of 2022, So Far

Published May 2, 2022

Favorite Hip-Hop albums of 2022, so far

In no specific order.

Few Good Things, Saba

At the time of Few Good Things‘ annonucement, CARE FOR ME was a long three years ago. As fans, it led us to wonder; could Saba live up to the hype? After all, his sophomore album was one of the most acclaimed hip-hop records of 2018.

It’s reasonable to claim Few Good Things hit all the marks it needed to. You see a continuation of the modernized “jazz rap” sound, ranging from spacey boom bap (“Still“) to some subtle trap influence (“Make Believe“). It remains powerful poetically too; If CARE FOR ME was a journey of healing, this record is the closure after. It’s much more soothing and warm-sounding.

His best? Not quite. But is it a solid second? I’d say so. It’s far more mature and complete than Bucket List Project, which was already great in its own right. Regardless of ranks and reputation, what it undeniably serves as is another fine addition to a quality catalogue.

Best Track – Come My Way

Capri, Mad Sadiq & Mudai

When you combine a producer from San Antonio and rapper from Charlotte, you don’t usually expect boom bap. Southern hip-hop is all about high energy – yet this record is the musical equivalent of a relaxing vacation, if the cover didn’t already prove that.

The art of producer-rapper duos is dying, and that’s not okay. Hearing the same style of sound and lyricism for an entire record creates a unique kind of cohesion, and Capri is no different. At only nineteen minutes, it doesn’t waste a moment; between funky cuts and lone instrumentals, everything is fulfilling.

I choose “Grown” as the best track below, but that’s a desperation pick between multiple options. This album is pure consistency, and it’s a quick listen; go give it a chance.

Best Track – Grown

Melt My Eyez See Your Future, Denzel Curry

Being raised in Florida, I always had an affinity for Denzel Curry’s music. It was something to turn up to, but still conscious. He wasn’t afraid to sound aggressive and dark, but made sure to say something meaningful along the way.

Unlike his past records, which were far more assertive, Melt My Eyez See Your Future seems calmer. The lead single Walkin should’ve exposed that direction instantly; it’s not often you hear Curry over heavenly soul samples like that.

Throughout, he maintains the vibe by delving into a plethora of sounds that collectively show the rapper at his most mature state to date. Some cuts can get lost in the clutter, but about everything is enjoyable. It’s a testament to his never-ending excellence.

Best Track – Ain’t No Way

Talk to Me Nice, Hype

Hype is an acquaintance I found through a DJ Premier shout-out some time ago, and I’ve followed his progress since. He hadn’t released since 2020, so this was a personally long-awaited project that didn’t disappoint whatsoever.

Talk to Me Nice sounds fresh, and the introductory track shows so immediately. The production sounds larger-than-life and golden (check the title track for proof), all-the-while drawing inspiration from some of the production greats. For example, “Underdog” and “Let It Breathe” (with Elzhi) could have easily been identified as a 9th Wonder cut; it’s that kind of quality.

Hype himself wastes no time explaining who he is, dropping confident verses with clever bars and tight rhyme schemes from start to finish. It’s one of those albums where you’ll recognize something new every listen, and this sort of lyrical potency in a debut album is rare. It’s fundamental hip-hop.

Best Track – Underdog

Cocodrillo Turbo, Action Bronson

Fun fact: Action Bronson has never missed in his career.

Cocodrillo Turbo is no different. Despite releasing on a near-yearly basis (2021 was actually his first musical gap in a while), Bronson is nothing but consistency. He knows his formula and sticks to it, and it perhaps always works because he keeps improving his project structure and sound.

The album’s production is the biggest standout. It’s by no means cohesive, ranging from western-like (“Tongpo”) to too-perfectly jazzy (“Subzero”), but this is what keeps operations refreshing. It goes beyond the typical confinements of the underground scene and takes risks, and it’s no surprise that Bronson himself flows effortlessly over every track. It’s almost unbelievable how well he does, but that’s how veterans do it.

Best Track – Jaguar

YOD Wave, Your Old Droog

Your Old Droog used to be a man of far-in-between releases and longer projects, but he’s moved on from that phase of his career. Now, it’s almost strange to see less than at least a few Droog albums drop a year, which is why he’s continuing to become a favorite in the underground community.

YOD Wave is anything but extensive, but that’s the charm. It’s seven tracks of producer-rapper quality (with Nicholas Craven here), and the replay value hits otherworldly levels as a result. Beyond the already gorgeous Craven beats, you hear an emcee that has reached a new level of maturity, sounding the most alert and natural he has in his career.

The bars are plentiful in every track, but “.500” is a particular standout. It’s a contender for song of the year, featuring storytelling and consciousness nearly unmatched across his entire discography. Shorter records need that one top-tier cut to improve the entire experience, and this meets the expectation. Go tap in.

Best Track – .500

Collection of Beats, JAYJAY!

Would it really be a good hip-hop yearly list without a beat tape? Not at all.

Therefore, here’s Collection of Beats; an instrumental facet of UK hip-hop, with some of the best sampling I’ve heard all year. JAYJAY! not only derives inspiration from the typical pocket of instrumental hip-hop giants (i.e. J Dilla and Madlib), but also the likes of funk, downtempo and vaporwave.

This is immediately noticeable in certain tracks (“Merry Go Roooound” takes it to a different level), and it’s probably the most enticing aspect overall. You aren’t just getting a generic compiling, you’re getting music that is colorful and reminiscent of older days; it’s truly beautiful.

Best Track – Trust Me