The 2010s already feel like a historic decade for both rap and R&B. The early 1990s managed to snag the title of rap’s “golden age,” but there’s a good argument to be made that this decade’s music was just as crucial to the ongoing development of the genre, and at the very least, it’s clear that both rap and R&B are still evolving at a rapid rate (which, as many thinkpieces in the 2010s pointed out, cannot be said for rock). This decade’s popularization of free internet mixtapes allowed a whole new crop of rappers to compete with the mostly-stagnant rap mainstream of the late 2000s and eventually overthrow it, and so many different types of rap emerged or had resurgences in the process. We also witnessed tons of genre cross pollination between rap, R&B, electronic music, jazz, indie rock, and beyond. We saw new faces like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, and Chance the Rapper go from the underground to the Grammys and arenas. We saw Kanye West hit his highest peak and fall hard. We saw Drake become the decade’s most omnipresent rap superstar. We saw veteran rappers like Pusha T, Killer Mike, Big Boi, and A Tribe Called Quest rejuvenate their careers in thrilling ways. We also saw more women in rap’s spotlight at once than ever before, with Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Noname, Little Simz, Megan Thee Stallion, DeJ Loaf, Kamaiyah, Rapsody, Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, and more all releasing much-loved records throughout the decade.
In R&B, we saw the drastic rise of “alt-R&B,” a genre name I put in scare quotes for most of this article because of all the deserving criticism the term has received, but also do use throughout this article because using the widely-used term just makes the conversation a little easier to have. The genre started out in the underground, but it quickly rose to the mainstream as megastars like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake started incorporating it into their own work (and often started collaborating with the smaller artists who helped pioneer it). Once the sound got too mainstream to accurately be called “alternative,” certain artists started taking R&B in even more experimental directions, resulting in late 2010s classics from Solange, Frank Ocean, SZA, and more that injected new life into the genre once again.
You’ll see all of these trends and more represented in this list of the 100 best rap and R&B albums of the 2010s. Throughout the list, there’s minimal electronic R&B, heavily arranged live-band soul, psychedelic soul, industrial rap, jazz-rap, abstract rap, trap, G-Funk, grime, tons of music I can’t neatly describe with a word or three, and lots of other stuff too. 100 may seem like a lot, but really it’s a pretty small number for an entire decade, especially given how fruitful rap and R&B has been for the past ten years. So your favorite artist might not be here, and since all lists are subjective, some of my personal bias of course factored in. But I aimed for this list to present a wide scope of music, from the poppy and popular to the underground and experimental, and plenty of the in-between. Hopefully you gain something from the list, and if not, feel free to leave glaring omissions and hate mail in the comments.
Read on for the full 100 (with blurbs starting at #50)…
100. Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap (RGF/300, 2015)
99. Big Sean – Dark Sky Paradise (Def Jam/G.O.O.D., 2015)
98. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (Universal Motown, 2010)
97. Aesop Rock – Skelethon (Rhymesayers, 2012)
96. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80 (TDE, 2011)
95. Dr. Dre – Compton (Aftermath/Interscope, 2015)
94. Run The Jewels – RTJ2 (Mass Appeal, 2014)
93. Leikeli47 – Acrylic (Hardcover/RCA, 2018)
92. A$AP Ferg – Still Striving (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA, 2017)
91. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know, 2016)
90. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs (EQT, 2019)
89. Solange – When I Get Home (Columbia, 2019)
88. Brockhampton – Saturation Trilogy (Question Everything/Empire, 2017)
87. The Carters – Everything Is Love (Parkwood/Sony/Roc Nation, 2018)
86. Denzel Curry – ZUU (PH/Loma Vista, 2019)
85. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom (Jamla/Roc Nation, 2017)
84. Vince Staples – FM! (Blacksmith/Def Jam, 2018)
83. Big K.R.I.T. – K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (self-released, 2010)
82. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show (RCA, 2015)
81. Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon (RCA Victor, 2013)
80. milo – so the flies don’t come (Ruby Yacht, 2015)
79. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group, 2017)
78. Anderson .Paak – Malibu (ArtClub/Empire/OME/Steel Wool, 2016)
77. Sampha – Process (Young Turks, 2017)
76. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp, 2017)
75. Syd – Fin (Columbia, 2017)
74. CupcakKe – Ephorize (self-released, 2018)
73. Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer (#Merky/Warner/ADA, 2017)
72. Migos – Culture (Quality Control/YRN/300, 2017)
71. Jay Rock – Redemption (TDE/Interscope, 2018)
70. Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions (TDE, 2012)
69. Saba – Care For Me (Saba Pivot, LLC, 2018)
68. The Internet – Ego Death (Columbia/Odd Future, 2015)
67. Meek Mill – Championships (Atlantic/Maybach, 2018)
66. Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap (All Money In No Money Out/Atlantic, 2018)
65. Drake – Nothing Was The Same (OVO/Republic/Young Money/Cash Money, 2013)
64. Mick Jenkins – Pieces of a Man (Free Nation/Cinematic, 2018)
63. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (self-released, 2013)
62. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ (Cinematic/Pro Era, 2017)
61. Tinashe – Aquarius (RCA, 2014)
60. Tierra Whack – Whack World (Interscope, 2018)
59. How To Dress Well – Love Remains (Lefse/Tri Angle, 2010)
58. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (XO, 2011)
57. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain (True Panther/Method, 2019)
56. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (RCA, 2013)
55. D’Angelo – Black Messiah (RCA, 2014)
54. Jeremih – Late Nights: The Album (Def Jam, 2015)
53. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA, 2012)
52. Danny Brown – Old (Fool’s Gold, 2013)
51. Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar, 2019)
50. Joey Purp – Quarterthing (self-released, 2018)
The Chicago rap scene thrived this decade, and one of the most delightfully weird albums to come out of the whole scene was Joey Purp’s Quarterthing. The beats dabble in classic ’90s rap, dance music, experimental music, and more, and Joey navigates the inventive production with deft rhymes that get stuck in your head and stay there.
49. Rico Nasty – Nasty (Sugar Trap/Atlantic, 2018)
From mosh-rap ragers to sing-songy hip-pop, Rico Nasty does it all, and on her 2018 breakthrough album Nasty she wrote the most memorable songs of her career thus far. Largely produced by Kenny Beats, the album is booming but with a raw, distorted edge, just like Rico’s own delivery. The album is jam-packed with hooks, and Rico’s in-your-face raps consistently prove she’s nothing to fuck with, earning Nasty its title over and over.
48. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana (ESGN/Keep Cool/Madlib Invazion/RCA, 2019)
Freddie Gibbs is kind of an unexpected success story. He signed to Interscope in ’06 but was dropped before he was ever able to release the debut album he recorded for the label. He ended up releasing a lot of the songs intended for that album on a free internet mixtape in ’09, and as the explosion of free internet mixtapes created a new rap underground, Gibbs was able to pick up some buzz in that community as a devotee of early 2000s gangsta rap. He seemed like he’d always be a niche guy, too out of step with trends to make much of a widespread impact. But then he teamed up with legendary underground producer Madlib for a few EPs and eventually the 2014 full-length Piñata, and it turned out the pair had a chemistry so strong that the album became a favorite even outside of niche, revivalist rap circles. Piñata remains a cult classic, but when MadGibbs came together again five years later for a followup, they were even stronger. This time around, they were more familiar with each other’s style and process, they knew what worked and what didn’t, and it enabled them to knock it out of the park. Bandana has some of the very best songs of Gibbs’ lengthy career, and it solidified MadGibbs not just as a successful experiment but as one of the most crucial rapper/producer duos of the decade.
47. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Sub Pop, 2011)
Digable Planets reunited for live shows this decade, but Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler’s creative resurgence was with a newer group, Shabazz Palaces. Digable Planets helped pioneer a type of jazz-rap that was considered “alternative” in the ’90s, but Shabazz Palaces made Digable sound downright normal. With Shabazz, Butler and his partner in crime Tendai Maraire make heady, psychedelic head-trips that sound like they’re floating in space yet always seem to have one foot planted on earth. They’ve been a consistently great group throughout the decade, but all their far-out ideas were laid out on their 2011 album debut album Black Up, and it remains their most remarkable album because of how fully-realized and out-of-nowhere it sounded upon arrival. And because of how well it holds up today. Sometimes music that’s meant to sound “futuristic” can get outdated quickly, but eight years later and Black Up still sounds like it’s lightyears ahead of most music today.
46. YG – Still Brazy (4Hunnid/CTE/Def Jam, 2016)
Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 single “Alright” became the definitive song of the decade by assuring us all that we’d get through this social/political hellhole no matter what. But sometimes you don’t want to think about your hope for the future, you just want to let out your anger about everything happening right now. For that, there’s YG and the late Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump.” With just those three words, YG and Nip came up with the now-iconic rallying cry of a hook to the decade’s most memorable protest song. That song is on YG’s second studio album Still Brazy, which remains the most fiery, intense album in his discography. “FDT” isn’t the only political protest song on the album; it’s part of an album-closing run with “Blacks & Browns” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” both of which are nearly as incisive. The album also helped kickstart a minor G-Funk revival thanks to timeless bangers like “Twist My Fingaz” and “Why You Always Hatin?” (featuring Drake and the then-rising G-Funk revivalist Kamaiyah) that sounded as good in 2016 as they would have in 1993. It’s YG’s most lyrically powerful and musically compelling album, and neither he nor anyone else this decade has really made anything else quite like it.
45. Rapsody – Eve (Jamla/Roc Nation, 2019)
On a pure skill level, Rapsody has been one of the best in the game for a while. But even as various factors prevent her from achieving the widespread recognition she deserves (“dressed too tomboy, rap too lyrical”), she keeps pushing herself to get better and better. Just about every project she’s released has been even more breathtaking than the last, which makes Eve her clear winner for the decade. Her delivery and lyrical content are as showstopping as they were on previous albums (like 2017’s Laila’s Wisdom, which appears slightly lower down on this list), but Ever has a clearer concept than any other Rapsody album. Each song is named after a different iconic, powerful woman, and the theme of black, female excellence runs throughout the consistently strong album. Even when Rapsody isn’t discussing powerful women directly, she’s proving herself as one of modern hip hop’s most powerful women as she cruises through her carefully penned lines and leaves the listener hanging on every word.
44. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto (self-released, 2016)
Kamaiyah arrived fully formed on her 2016 debut mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto. She had recently dropped the instant-classic single “How Does It Feel,” got a co-sign from YG (who is one of two guests on this mixtape), and otherwise seemingly came out of nowhere with this 16-song project, which remains some of the freshest G-Funk revival of the 2010s. Kamaiyah has a hell of an ear for beats, and she chose a whole bunch of them that are drenched in hazy nostalgia for the glory days of Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, but in a way that feels entirely in the now. And Kamaiyah came prepared with enough hooks to sustain an entire career. “How Does It Feel” was no fluke; A Good Night in the Ghetto is loaded with songs that are just as immediately addictive, and they’ve got lasting power too. Three years later, this tape still sounds like a summer BBQ even in the dead of winter.
43. DeJ Loaf – #AndSeeThatsTheThing EP (Columbia, 2015)
Who knows if Detroit rapper/singer DeJ Loaf’s much-talked-about debut album Liberated will ever actually see the light of day, but even if it doesn’t, the six-song #AndSeeThatsTheThing EP is enough to establish DeJ as one of the 2010s’ most promising stars. The EP boasts guest appearances from the already-huge Big Sean and Future, but the lesser known DeJ Loaf never let anyone steal her spotlight. These six songs proved she has enough hooks, bars, flow, and lyrical depth to go up against the best rappers or R&B singers, and she remains in a lane of her own. No one really sounds like her, and no one shares the unique perspective she brings to the table with every song on this EP.
42. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic, 2016)
Jazz-rap legends A Tribe Called Quest hadn’t released an album since the ’90s, but they got back together to reclaim their throne and make one last album with Phife Dawg before he sadly passed away. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service didn’t sound all that different than Tribe’s classics, but it still felt fresh upon arrival in 2016, especially thanks to guest appearances by Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak, two clear descendants of the music Tribe helped pioneer and two of the leading artists of the current decade. (The mutual love affair goes even further when Q-Tip calls Kendrick — along with Joey Badaa$$, Earl Sweatshirt, and J. Cole — “gatekeepers of flow” on “Dis Generation.”) Rap is often considered a young person’s game, but We Got It from Here was a rare hip hop comeback album that was genuinely worth making, and it’s made extra essential by the fact that it was the last time we ever got to hear Phife.
41. Wiki – No Mountains In Manhattan (XL, 2017)
Even though the 2010s saw the advent of rap groups forming over the internet by people who had never met each other in person, it still remains a genre where the regional aspect is important, and — from Illmatic to good kid, m.A.A.d city — fans and critics can’t help but fawn over an album that’s both a coming-of-age story and a picture-perfect snapshot of the city the rapper grew up in. Well, guilty as charged, because we’re huge fans of the one that NYC rapper Wiki made in 2017, No Mountains In Manhattan. From the production to the words Wiki is rapping, everything about NMIM sounds and feels like being dropped right in the middle of a busy Manhattan street. It’s one of the most vivid, imagery-inducing albums released by a New York rapper this decade, and it’s a real treat that it came from Wiki, a talented young rapper who perfectly embodies the spirit and history of New York rap. NMIM has hints of New York rap’s ’90s heyday, but Wiki isn’t just a revivalist. Like the great New York rappers before him, he sees the value in honoring your forebears but being weird and unique and different at the same time.
40. Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time (Multi Alumni, 2017)
When Big K.R.I.T. broke through with his 2010 mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and the addictive bounce of its single “Country Shit,” he seemed primed to be one of hip hop’s next breakout stars. He pledged his allegiance to Southern rap vets like UGK, OutKast, Goodie Mob, 8Ball & MJG, Devin the Dude, and more (all of whom he quickly became affiliated with), and he reinvented that sound in a way that felt fresh. Unfortunately, once he signed to Def Jam, the quality of his music took a hit, and as trap became the dominant sound of the South, K.R.I.T.’s ’90s / early ’00s revival didn’t sound so fresh anymore. I had been rooting for K.R.I.T., but it got to a point where I was feeling like I had to accept he’d just be a flash in the pan. But then, he split from Def Jam and released the double album 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time, which not only delivered on the promise of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here but blew it out of the water. Part one was a perfected version of the sound he was shaping on K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, and part two saw K.R.I.T. successfully exploring organic, vintage soul territory. 4eva sorta did for Southern soul what To Pimp A Butterfly did for jazz, resurrecting the very old style of music in a way that fit right in with modern-day rap. K.R.I.T. still never became a big star, but on 4eva, he sounds at peace with the fact that he’s best-suited for the fringes of mainstream rap music, and able to write his most creative music without major label execs breathing down his neck.
39. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever (300, 2019)
Megan Thee Stallion’s 2018 sleeper hit “Big Ole Freak” got her foot in the door, but her 2019 album Fever blew the house down. It’s only been about a year, but the time when Megan had just one signature song already feels like ancient history. She murdered just about every feature she did in 2019, and she released a whole slew of future classics on her own album, Fever. The album’s got a handful of beats and one guest verse by Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J, and two Three 6 samples, and it’s sort of a passing-of-the-torch moment for Megan, who’s obviously influenced by Three 6 Mafia and other ’90s/early ’00s rap but who couldn’t be more of the moment. She’s got the charisma, the bars, the hooks, and Fever so clearly defined the 2019 rap landscape. The only other 2019 rap newcomer on Megan’s level is the very likeminded DaBaby, and he has the only other guest verse on Fever. He’s on “Cash Shit,” which, in some ways, feels like THE rap song of 2019. It’s Megan and DaBaby in one place, doing what they do best, and it captures the essence of where rap is right now, just as the new decade approaches.
38. DaBaby – Baby On Baby (South Coast/Interscope, 2019)
“Straight off the rip, you know I don’t wait for the drop,” DaBaby raps on “Off The Rip” off his second album of 2019, KIRK, and right there, DaBaby pretty much defined the whole style he perfected just a few months earlier on his breakthrough album Baby On Baby. He takes a beat, usually something with bare but forceful drums, a booming, rubbery bassline, and not much else, and he starts rapping before the song even fully kicks in. (On paper, he’s kinda like a punk band.) The Charlotte, NC rapper fits in with current South giants Migos (Offset is on Baby On Baby, and all of Migos are on KIRK), but he’s got a fast-rapping style that’s more Trap Muzik than trap music, recalling brash, early 2000s rappers like T.I. and Ludacris in a way that works within current mainstream rap. Baby On Baby hasn’t even been out for a year, and it already feels like a greatest hits. It’s got his initial breakthrough song “Walker Texas Ranger,” the song that made him a star “Suge,” and a slew of other tracks (“Taking It Out,” “Goin Baby,” “Baby Sitter”) that hit just as heavily. It feels more like a quickly scrapped-together collection of songs than a Classic Album, but sometimes this much pure fun and sheer talent hitting you all at once is how classics are made.
37. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP (TDE/Interscope, 2016)
As Black Hippy’s second stringer behind Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q’s immense potential was clear from the start, but he was always better at a few good singles or show-stealing guest appearances than at making the kind of fleshed-out, full-length albums that his most famous groupmate would make. The closest he came, though, was 2016’s Blank Face LP. Following his promising 2012 breakthrough Habits & Contradictions and its uneven major label followup Oxymoron, Q finally focused on the thing he was best at — hard-hitting, cold, dark songs with his meanest, leanest rhymes in the forefront — and made a whole album in that vein. Even the album’s one pop-friendly song, the Kanye West-featuring “That Part,” is more menacing than his usual standout singles. It’s probably Q’s last album you’d reach for if you wanted to dance, but it’s his most focused, consistently rewarding work.
36. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Blacksmith/Def Jam, 2017)
Vince Staples is a little like Kurt Cobain, in that as soon as he made a near-perfect album that put him on the map as one of his generation’s greats, he seemed to immediately regret it. Vince has never tried to make an album as traditional as Summertime ’06 again, and the most he distanced himself from it was on its 2017 followup, Big Fish Theory. (Which, as far as the Nirvana comparison goes, would be his In Utero.) Instead of hip hop beats, Big Fish Theory often favors weird, innovative, post-EDM production that would sound more at home in a tent at Electric Daisy Carnival than on the main stage at Rolling Loud. On some songs, he doesn’t even rap at all. Big Fish Theory is more of an art piece than a rap album — and a very compelling art piece at that — but it’s also home to some of Vince’s best rap songs. “Big Fish” remains the song of choice when you want to get a whole room rocking to Vince, and the blazing “BagBak” remains one of the best political takedowns of the Trump era.
35. Drake and Future – What a Time to Be Alive (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic/Epic/A1/Freebandz, 2015)
If you would’ve been told at the beginning of 2015 that a Drake and Future album was coming, you might’ve thought it’d be a chance for Future boost his career by riding the wave of Drake’s superstardom. What really happened, was Future — who was at his creative peak at the time — was the one doing most of the heavy lifting on this album and Drake was often trying to keep up with him. Drake’s popularity has still not waned, but creativity-wise, he started to plateau after 2015, and this album sort of represents the moment that mainstream rap trends started to shift away from Drake’s lush pop rap and move more towards Future’s gurgling, codeine-coated trap. It’s also the moment where Drake began to sound like a superstar coasting on auto-pilot, while Future still sounded as hungry as he did on DS2, his magnum opus that had come out two months earlier. Especially because WATTBA was largely produced by Future’s frequent producers, it sounds less like the last great Drake album and more like the epilogue to DS2. And looking back now on Future’s massively creative 2015, most of the WATTBA songs remain just as essential as the songs on DS2.
34. Little Simz – GREY area (Age 101, 2019)
Over the course of her masterful third album GREY area, UK rapper Little Simz shows off a vast musical spectrum and a lyrical depth that leaves even many of the most popular rappers in the dust. Beginning with “Offence” and “Boss,” the album starts out as raw and urgent as Civil Rights era psychedelic soul and as cutthroat as ’90s New York rap. From there, Simz explores glossy neo-soul (“Selfish”), Eastern-tinged hip hop (“101 FM”), introspective rap balladry (“Sherbet Sunset”), and lush jazz rap (the Michael Kiwanuka-featuring “Flowers”), all without losing her focus or mincing her words. She still hasn’t caught on in the US as much as she has in her home country, but when I saw her playing a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg show in Brooklyn earlier this year, you could tell that everyone in the room knew they were witnessing something truly next level. If there’s any justice in the next decade, Simz will skyrocket to the top off the strength of her pure talent alone.
33. Brockhampton Iridescence (Question Everything/RCA, 2018)
Brockhampton took the hip hop world by storm in 2017 with their Saturation trilogy, a loud, rowdy, in-your-face series of records that probably needed a better editing job but it didn’t matter. Like Odd Future (who they were often compared to), they had that punk spirit that they might be here today, gone tomorrow, and you knew they’d leave a lasting impact even if they never made another record. And as it turned out, their momentum was quickly damaged. They parted ways with a core member due to sexual misconduct allegations and ended up scrapping what would have been their next album. Still, Brockhampton persevered, and the album they did make was massive leap from the Saturation trilogy. 2018’s Iridescence is a grand, genre-defying, art-prog-rap album with a gospel choir and a string section that seemed to take more notes from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than from Goblin. And Kanye didn’t make an album like that until he was well-established as a superstar; Brockhampton did it as young kids who were barely had a reputation a year and a half earlier. It remains as breathtaking as it was when Brockhampton first unveiled it to the world, and one of the decade’s truly unique gems.
32. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne (Def Jam/Roc Nation/Roc-A-Fella, 2011)
Two of the biggest rappers in the world rapping about being millionaires on some Alien vs Predator-style crossover blockbuster rap album? It’s relatable to pretty much no one except the two guys who made it, and it would’ve gone down in history as a flimsy, see-through cash grab… if it wasn’t so damn good. Superstar collaborative rap albums continued to be a thing throughout the 2010s, and they were almost always referred to by at least a handful of people as “the Watch the Throne of [whatever specific region or subgenre they were in].” It became a catch-all for two top-tier artists putting their heads together and creating something that was greater — or at least different — than the sum of its parts, and that’s exactly what Watch the Throne was and still is. Fresh off releasing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye was at the height of his career. Jay was not, but reuniting with the guy who produced some of The Blueprint‘s best songs must have fired him up, ’cause he delivered on this album. The then-rising Frank Ocean, the not-yet-fully-out-of-the-woods Bon Iver, and the fresh-off-releasing-4 Beyonce are here too, and Watch the Throne still feels as crucial for those artists as it does for Ye and Jay. Watch the Throne is home to some of the most iconic songs of peak-era Kanye (“N***** In Paris,” “Otis”), and deeper cuts like “Who Gon Stop Me,” “Murder to Excellence,” and the Justin Vernon-aided “That’s My Bitch” hold up well too. More so than on probably anything else they released this decade, Ye and Jay sound like they’re having fun on WTT, and it’s a thrill to hear such larger-than-life artists sounding so down to earth.
31. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (Def Jam, 2012)
Channel Orange contains an embarrassment of riches. This is lush, perfectly modulated R&B full of pellucid storytelling details. It’s an album of characters and musical styles which almost seem built around their stories, but there’s no detachment or distance in Frank’s cinematic songwriting. Instead we feel deeply immersed in the characters’ longing (“Thinkin Bout You”) or their languor (“Super Rich Kids”) or their anguish (“Bad Religion”). It’s a rich, enveloping listen; coming back to it years later, it’s almost shocking how many great songs are here. There’s “Sweet Life,” a Stevie Wonder impression par excellence filled with incredible turns of phrase (“my TV ain’t HD that’s too real). “Forrest Gump” is perfect, perhaps the purest pop song here, a singalong that’s impossible to dislodge from your head. And all these years later, it’s still impossible to shake “Bad Religion,” an ultimate testament to his songwriting and performing. It doesn’t make sense that a song with such an obvious writerly conceit could be so nakedly vulnerable, but somehow, like a magic trick, it works. The confluence of Frank’s suddenly straining voice and the sheer sadness and clever poetry of the lyrics on the chorus never fails to make me well up. The lyric-writing here (and elsewhere) is remarkable for how closely it skirts up against good old-fashioned cliche, gaining power as it does so. It makes me think of Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel in its unapologetic short-storyishness. Compared to the sparse, hushed, elliptical songwriting of Blonde, this is a full-throated opus, and one that continues to wow. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]
30. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (OVO/Republic/Young Money/Cash Money, 2015)
With his 2011 masterpiece Take Care and its similarly structured 2013 followup Nothing Was The Same, Drake made up for his limited rapping abilities with one of the strongest artistic visions that mainstream rap has seen this side of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But on his 2015 “mixtape” If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, he proved he could make a great album that got by almost entirely on just his rapping alone. The album didn’t have the grand ebb and flow of its two direct predecessors, the beats were barer, but the songs remain some of the best in Drake’s career. The onslaught of the first five songs is perhaps the greatest opening to any Drake album, and his rapping on those songs is at its best. Now, Drake coasts by on his star power, but on IYRTITL, he was still hungry to prove himself, and he’s at his best when he’s got something to prove. And even as Drake’s hardest album, IYRTITL closes with some of the finest soft Drake of the decade, including “You & the 6,” an ode to his mother that manages to tug at the heartstrings while still being as over-the-top boastful as Drake’s most chest-puffed songs.
29. Beyonce – 4 (Parkwood/Columbia, 2011)
At the time, the calmer, more soulful 4 seemed like the end of an era for Beyonce, who had dominated the previous decade with some of the biggest and loudest R&B hits, but as we now know, it was in fact a new beginning. Before her self-titled album and Lemonade established her as an album-oriented artist of epic proportions, 4 was a more low-key introduction to Beyonce the Album Artist. It’s sort of the Rubber Soul to Lemonade‘s Sgt. Pepper or the Hunky Dory to Lemonade‘s Ziggy Stardust, and like both of those albums, it aged just as well as the grander albums that followed. Besides “Countdown” — which remains one of the decade’s very best songs — and “Run the World (Girls),” nothing on 4 really sounded like it could’ve been a Beyonce hit in the previous decade, but these songs remained at a consistent high the way Beyonce albums never had in the past. Soul-crushing ballads like “I Was Here,” “1+1,” and “Best Thing I Never Had” remain as powerful as the songs that were omnipresent enough for Beyonce to play at the Super Bowl. Its two followups were pretty much received as classics upon arrival, but with its slow-burning success and its status as a pivotal album in hindsight, it feels like — even nearly a decade later — 4‘s legacy is still being written.
28. Pusha T – Daytona (G.O.O.D./Def Jam, 2018)
At this time, Pusha T is one of the greatest rappers on the planet, but it still feels like a minor miracle that he released an album as essential as Daytona this far into his career. As one half of Clipse, he released two of the best rap albums of the early/mid 2000s, but Clipse started to fall off by the end of that decade and eventually broke up. (Though they actually just reunited.) Kanye helped rectify Push’s career in 2010 when he signed him to G.O.O.D. Music and featured him on some of the most iconic Kanye songs of the decade, and their collaborative relationship lead to a very fine solo career for Push. His G.O.O.D. music releases all vary from good to great, but it wasn’t until Daytona — entirely produced by Kanye West — that Push’s solo career started to reach the heights he had previously reached with Clipse. It came out of Kanye’s Wyoming sessions, where Ye handled all of the production for a handful of albums, all limited to seven songs. The unusual approach ended up working best for Push, who used the brief album structure to hone in on what he’s best at: rapping his ass off. No frills, no filler, just some of Push’s hardest rhymes of the decade over some of the most Old Kanye production of the decade. (Though Kanye made a lot of terrible decisions during his Wyoming sessions — artistic and otherwise — his realization that Pusha T needed this kind of production is no small part of what makes Daytona great.) The whole thing often sounds more like a lost gem from 2004 than a top album of 2018, but it helped Pusha T rise back to the top regardless. When the songs hit like this, it’s timeless.
27. Denzel Curry – TA13OO (PH/Loma Vista, 2018)
Did Denzel Curry and Raider Klan invent SoundCloud rap? The jury is probably still out, but Denzel definitely released SoundCloud rap’s first great album with his third proper LP and Loma Vista debut TA13OO. Split into three acts, it has an ambitious album structure that’s not often seen in the loosie-oriented genre, and it defies the sonic barriers of the genre over and over again. It has songs that were always destined to be taken as Serious Art like the sexual assault-tackling title track, the good kid, m.A.A.d city-esque “Black Balloons,” and the diss-everyone battle-rap of “Percs.” But it also has things like the emo-rap of “Clout Cobain” and the sorta-rap-rock “Sumo” that Denzel delivers with such conviction that he makes you take them seriously. Denzel quickly followed TA13OO this year with ZUU, which seemed to get better reception than its predecessor upon arrival. ZUU is a great album, but I’d be willing to bet that it clicked more immediately because the sleeper brilliance of TA13OO had finally set in.
26. Tyler, the Creator – Bastard (self-released, 12/25/2009)
Ominous piano and synthetic strings play in the background, drums or a chorus never enter, and a young rap newcomer raps stream-of-consciousness in a mock therapy session about depression, growing up without a father, hollow sexual encounters, and other depths of his psyche, and also gives the mission statement for his collective Odd Future and explains why this weird new group is going to prove to be better than the rap establishment. This is how Tyler, the Creator opened his debut mixtape Bastard, which arrived for free on the internet on Christmas day in 2009 and had a lot of the music world talking by the end of 2010. Tyler and Odd Future were tired of the way rap’s mainstream looked at the end of the 2000s, and they were ready to change it on their own, no matter how lucrative they did or didn’t seem to major labels. (Though majors would eventually realize they wanted to get involved, and they did.) Odd Future’s rowdy live show became instantly legendary, but the collective’s first great album was Tyler’s solo debut Bastard, a dark, insular album that showed off a much different side of Tyler than the punk-inspired live shows and sounded like almost nothing else at the time. With every song produced or co-produced by Tyler himself, he presented himself as a musical visionary right off the bat. Both his rapping and his beats were as eerie as they were innovative, and he matched it with sometimes horrifically dark lyricism. (Some of Tyler’s early lyrics remain too offensive to re-print, but his artistic integrity almost always overcame his crassness.) As we now know, Tyler and his friends did change the face and sound of rap’s mainstream, and they continued to evolve in interesting and unexpected ways throughout the decade. At this point, I’d actually say Tyler’s best album is this year’s IGOR, a gorgeous, experimental, not-really-rap album that’s almost nothing like the music he was making in the early 2010s. But however good IGOR or the later Earl Sweatshirt or Frank Ocean or The Internet albums are, the story of 2010s hip hop is incomplete without the impact of early Odd Future, and early Odd Future is incomplete without the power of Bastard.
25. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam, 2010)
OutKast briefly reunited for mostly-festival dates in 2014, but otherwise, the 2010s was the first decade since they formed where they weren’t an active, dominant group. Andre 3000 became elusive, dropping guest verses here and there and hinting at a solo album that still hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, Big Boi took the opposite route, becoming a very active solo artist who frequently toured and released three full-length albums and a collaborative EP with Phantogram. Not everything he touched this decade turned to gold, but his debut solo album Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty remains on par with a lot of his work with OutKast. Sir Lucious Left Foot sounded like the future when it arrived in 2010, with its thick rubbery basslines that — from Big Boi to LCD Soundsystem to Gorillaz — were very in style at the time, and that was no small feat for a rapper whose first significant album came out in 1994. Popular Atlanta rap went in a very different direction a few years later, but Sir Lucious Left Foot still sounds fresh, and it’s still home to some of the most fun songs Big Boi’s written since Stankonia.
24. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music (Williams Street, 2012)
From the moment OutKast introduced the world to Killer Mike (first on a deep cut on Stankonia, then on the gigantic single “The Whole World”), it was obvious that a new Southern rap great was born. He popped up a couple other times during Southern rap’s early 2000s mainstream boom, scoring his own minor hit with “A.D.I.D.A.S.” and lending his voice to Bone Crusher’s massive “Never Scared,” but Mike quickly ran into issues with his major label, and his career took a hit that wasn’t easy to recover from, despite releasing plenty of great material in the years that followed. Mike was already settling into his role as an underground hero on 2011’s PL3DGE, when he met an unlikely collaborator who would help him reach the heights he was always destined for: New York alt-rap icon El-P. The pair were introduced by Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco, and they immediately struck up a friendly and artistic relationship that led to El-P producing all 12 songs on Killer Mike’s 2012 album R.A.P. Music, rapping on one of them, and inviting Mike to rap on a song on the El-P album Cancer 4 Cure that came out one week later. I don’t know who would’ve guessed that Killer Mike’s Atlanta drawl would’ve sounded so good over El-P’s futuristic, outsider production, but it resulted in Killer Mike’s best solo album by a landslide. From the trunk-rattling assault of “Big Beast” to the incisive political commentary of “Reagan,” R.A.P. Music saw Killer Mike perfecting everything he had been spending his entire career working towards, and El-P’s focused production tied it all together in a way that was more cohesive than any previous Killer Mike album. The pair connected so well that they decided to stop releasing solo albums and form a group together, Run The Jewels, who went on to dominate the 2010s musical landscape — within and outside of rap — and who became a bigger deal than either of these two veteran artists ever were in the past. It’s been a long time coming for both of these guys, and as a duo responsible for some of the decade’s best rap music, Run The Jewels deserve the fame. But with all due respect to the Run The Jewels name, Killer Mike and El-P’s best music together came out before RTJ was formed, on R.A.P. Music.
23. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs (Tan Cressida/Columbia, 2018)
Even from the early days of Odd Future, a lot of people had pegged Earl Sweatshirt as the group’s most skilled rapper, and Earl continued to make good on that promise, peaking with the steel-cutting bars of 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. What I don’t think anyone predicted, though, is that Earl would put traditional rapping on the back burner in order to become the most psychedelic, experimental artist to emerge out of the Odd Future collective. He first took the unexpected turn on 2018’s excellent Some Rap Songs, a swirling, sound-collage song cycle that furthered Earl’s ability as a producer and took his music to mind-bending new heights. He proved the new direction was no fluke on 2019’s Feet of Clay, which feels a little more immediate than its predecessor, if only because we’re now more used to the path Earl began paving on 2018’s monumental Some Rap Songs.
22. Future – DS2 (A1/Freebandz/Epic, 2015)
Atlanta trap became one of the most prevailing trends in 2010s hip hop, and though trap wasn’t always an album game — at least not in the traditional sense — there’s a good argument to be made that if there’s one definitive 2010s trap album, it’s Future’s DS2. Titled as a sequel to his buzzed-about 2011 mixtape Dirty Sprite, DS2 came after Future tried to go mainstream with two just-okay major label albums, and then reverted back to his mixtape roots and put out the unstoppable run of Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights that eventually led to him making this proper studio album in the same druggy, rough-around-the-edges style. It was a big hit, but it wasn’t Future trying to go pop; he made pop come to him. Various tracks from the three preceding mixtapes ended up on DS2‘s deluxe version (the deluxe version is really the one to get), and every other song on the proper album is just as good. One of the big shifts in rap in the 2010s was rapping about doing lots of drugs, rather than selling them, and DS2 sounds like a rap album that’s been doused in a bottle of Robitussin. It’s sexed up, drugged up, melancholic, angry, and all kinds of fucked up, and Future delivers every mood with conviction over gorgeous, innovative production from some of trap’s key producers (Metro Boomin, Southside, Zaytoven). Within what remains a very crowded subgenre — including countless subsequent releases by Future himself — DS2 still stands out as a masterpiece.
21. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic, 2014)
Nicki Minaj’s major label career did not get off to the smoothest start. After a promising mixtape run and a verse on Kanye’s “Monster” that would cement her legacy even if she never recorded another word, Nicki released two so-so albums (Pink Friday and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded) that seemed like ploys to make Nicki famous in the teen pop world and didn’t do a ton of favors for her career as a rapper. (It led to the whole Summer Jam thing, which, now in the age of poptimism, is almost crazy to think even happened.) But then, at the tail end of 2014, Nicki dropped The Pinkprint, the most crucial thing she released since “Monster” and the most masterful album of her career. In case you had forgotten during the era of “Starships,” The Pinkprint reminded you not just that Nicki could rap, but that she remained one of the greatest rappers of her generation. And The Pinkprint wasn’t just a return to rap. It proved Nicki could make a classic album that was rap, R&B, and pop. It shows off a deep, personal side, a fun lighthearted side, and a side where Nicki assures you she’s nothing to fuck with. It’s not perfect (the silly “Anaconda” and the flimsy radio-pop of “The Night Is Still Young” don’t do it many favors), but the highs far outweigh the lows, and the deluxe version makes up for the clunkers on the main album. (Bonus track “Shanghai” still stands as one of the decade’s hardest and most inventive songs by a rapper of Nicki’s popularity.) It’s a bold move naming your album after one of the most classic rap albums of the past 20 years, but Nicki earned the right and then some.
20. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid (Wondaland Arts Society/Atlantic/Bad Boy, 2010)
Before “alt-R&B,” before Rihanna covered Tame Impala and every indie artist covered Frank Ocean, there was The ArchAndroid, the momentous debut album from Janelle Monae. Janelle featured psych-pop lifers of Montreal on the album, and made her own psychedelic classic with “Mushrooms & Roses.” The Big Boi-featuring “Tightrope” was as groovy as anything on the Big Boi album from that same year, and Janelle made her own OutKast-y song with the great, “Bombs Over Baghdad”-esque “Cold War.” She also channelled Bowie, Prince, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, George Clinton, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and tons of others into this album that seamlessly hopped between R&B, soul, rap, funk, rock, psychedelia, art pop and more. In some ways, The ArchAndroid predicted the genre-crossing path that music as a whole would take throughout the 2010s, and it’s impossible to talk about this decade’s musical cross pollination without mentioning that this album did it first. Like Bowie, Janelle proudly wore her influences on her sleeves and paid direct homage to her heroes, and she still does so to this day. But also like Bowie, she managed to do all of that while cultivating a persona that was uniquely her own. And it’s all laid out on her first and still-best album The ArchAndroid.
19. Rihanna – ANTI (Westbury Road/Roc Nation, 2016)
Well before releasing her eighth album ANTI, Rihanna was well established as a generation-defining R&B star, but she’d never really released a great album. For most of her career, that was fine. R&B in the 21st century is pop, and pop is a singles game. But by 2016, some of the most instant-classic albums in the world were coming from stars like Kanye, Beyonce, and frequent Rihanna duetter Drake, so Ri knew she had to do it too. And with ANTI, she did. The atmospheric, downtempo “alt-R&B” craze had also fully risen from the underground to the mainstream at this point, and the EDM-pop direction Rihanna had taken on her last couple albums was already sounding outdated, so Rihanna proved that — like Beyonce had done on her 2013 self-titled album — she could do that sound just as well as (or better than) anyone. She nabbed a guest spot from rising indie-R&B singer SZA a year before SZA released her own masterpiece. Drake, who already started embracing atmosphere and minimalism on 2011’s Take Care, reprised his role as Rihanna duetter on one of the best duets they ever released, “Work.” Dark, moody songs like “Desperado,” “Needed Me,” and “Yeah, I Said It” truly beat the era’s underground R&B singers at their own game. ANTI was an anti-pop record in other ways too. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a cover of psych-pop band Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” and even Kevin Parker agrees her version is now the definitive version. And Rihanna added in her dose of psych with the trippy ode to weed “James Joint.” Then there’s “Love on the Brain” and “Higher,” which channel raw, vintage soul in a way that wasn’t trendy, and they remain two of the albums best and most emotionally bare tracks. It’s easy to peg ANTI as the album where Rihanna hopped on a hip bandwagon, but it’s much more than that, and it only sounds better as it ages.
18. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Fool’s Gold/Warp, 2016)
Part of Danny Brown’s appeal is that he’s always been a deeply weird rapper, and his weirdness was at its best on Atrocity Exhibition. The album was primarily produced by Danny’s frequent collaborator Paul White (plus some contributions from Evian Christ, Black Milk, Petite Noir, The Alchemist, and Playa Haze), and even if Danny didn’t rap a word on it, Atrocity Exhibition would be one of the decade’s best electronic albums. It’s his most musically innovative LP production-wise, and Danny rose to the occasion by matching these beats with some of his most out-there bars and most memorable hooks. Totally berserk songs like “Ain’t It Funny,” “Golddust,” and “Dance in the Water” barely sound like hip hop at all, but then in the midst of all that, Atrocity Exhibition includes one of Danny’s best traditional rap songs: “Really Doe.” As a posse cut with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, it’s almost like a spiritual sequel to A$P Rocky’s “1 Train,” and it reminds you that, while Danny loves to make abstract, experimental music, he loves (and is really good at) making real-deal rap too.
17. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA, 2013)
After emerging out of the hazy, short-lived subgenre of cloud rap (remember cloud rap?), A$AP Rocky inked a deal with a major and his official debut studio album Long. Live. ASAP became an instant classic. It remains a snapshot of its time, but also timeless. At the turn of the decade, super mainstream rap was getting stale and a new generation of hungry, game-changing rappers took to the internet to get their new sounds out there, whether or not major labels would care. Seven of them — Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T., and Rocky himself — teamed up for the moment-defining posse cut “1 Train,” which lives on Long. Live. ASAP. It might be weird to think now, but in early 2013, those rappers were all pretty much on the same level and all still relatively underground, and “1 Train” marked the moment they teamed up and said they’re ready to take over the world. Kendrick, who had just released good kid, m.A.A.d city only three months earlier, also appeared on “Fuckin’ Problems” alongside Drake, who was still proving himself at the time and didn’t fully have his head in the clouds yet. Together (plus a hook from 2 Chainz), they came up with another moment-defining song and Rocky’s biggest hit. Kendrick associate Schoolboy Q (who Rocky aided about a year earlier on his breakthrough single “Hands on the Wheel”) returned the favor on “PMW.” Skrillex, who was in the process of leaving brostep (remember brostep?) behind and proving himself as a Serious Artist, made some pretty serious art when he teamed with Rocky for the bass-wobbling rap of “Wild for the Night.” And indie-friendly artists like Santigold, Florence Welch, and Danger Mouse lent their talents to the album, which not only sounded good but helped position Rocky as an artist who wanted to stay loyal to indie even as he entered the mainstream. The guests were clearly a major part of Long. Live. ASAP, but Rocky carried a ton of the album’s weight himself too. As he has gotten increasingly psychedelic on later albums, Long. Live. ASAP remains Rocky’s best pure rap album and it contains some of the best rapping of his career.
16. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR (A Boy Is A Gun/Columbia, 2019)
When Tyler, the Creator started this decade off as a member of the rowdy skate-rap crew Odd Future and the brains behind the dark, shock-rap mixtape Bastard, who would’ve thought he’d end it with the gorgeous, lovelorn, experimental soul song cycle IGOR? It’s hard to pick a top Tyler album, especially when Bastard and Goblin are definitely his most influential, and maybe it’s recency bias to pick IGOR, but IGOR deserves it just because he took such a gigantic leap and stuck the landing. It’s full of huge guests like Solange, Kanye West, and Santigold, but no one — not even Tyler — really ever takes the spotlight. Everyone’s voices swirl into one big melting pot of sounds along with Tyler’s inventive production, and the whole thing almost acts more as a mood piece than a rap album. That said, further listens reveal storylines and lyrical depth and traces of the unique personality that Tyler won the world over with a decade ago. It sounds absolutely nothing like his breakthrough works, yet it’s unmistakably the work of no other artist, and that’s no small feat.
15. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Tan Cressida/Columbia, 2015)
Of all the hip hop groups and collectives that emerged this decade, there are perhaps none that have had more influence, cultural dominance, and growth than Odd Future. And within Odd Future, perhaps no (technically former) member had a more unique and thrilling rise than Earl. Once the teenager whose mother caused him to be absent for the group’s instant rise to fame, Earl is now the avant-rap wizard who intentionally works more with abstract underground artists than with the now-famous rappers he once called peers. And the major turning point was 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Less experimental than his two latest works but much more unconventional than everything before it, I Don’t Like Shit made it clear that Earl wasn’t interested in following the path to stardom and instead he opened the doors for a career where his fans would embrace his most unexpected creative decisions. It’s a dark, personal, introverted album, and it’s got some of the best bars and punchlines of his career. His two more recent albums saw Earl experimenting with the very idea of what a “bar” could even be, but I Don’t Like Shit is still rooted in some time-honored hip hop traditions. It occupies a middle ground between the Earl who wants to rap his ass off and the Earl who wants to make sonic achievements in music, and that remains a very appealing place for Earl to be.
14. Noname – Room 25 (self-released, 2018)
Noname combines rap, spoken word, and live-band jazz on one of the most creative hip hop albums of the decade. To Pimp A Butterfly may have opened the doors for jazz-rap’s comeback this decade, but Noname isn’t following in Kendrick or anyone else’s footsteps on Room 25. Her roots in poetry are obvious from listening to these songs, and her experience with slam poetry and spoken-word puts her in a different lane than most of her peers. But make no mistake, Noname is a rapper; Room 25‘s got the bars and the punchlines to go up against any of the more “traditional” rap albums released this decade. It’s also got the glistening keys and the dizzying basslines to go up against any of the best jazz albums. It’s hard not to mention that, as I write this, Noname is publicly talking about quitting rap. It’d be a bummer to see such a talented artist call it a day at a career peak like the one Noname has been on, but even if she does, Room 25 will live on as a true gem.
13. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope, 2017)
After releasing two of the decade’s most breathtaking, fleshed-out, intricately arranged hip hop masterpieces, Kendrick Lamar went back to the basics and made the stripped-back, hard-hitting DAMN., an album that largely sounded more like 1995 than 2017. For a lesser artist, this would be an obvious setback, a suggestion that they were out of ideas or unable to reach the ambitious heights of their previous work. For Kendrick Lamar, it’s still one of the very best albums of an entire decade. DAMN. isn’t a sign of Kendrick slowing down; it actually escalated him to new heights, thanks to some of the most immediate songs he ever wrote, including his first No. 1 single, “HUMBLE.” DAMN. could seem like an easy move for Kendrick, but it was actually a risky one. At the height of mumble rap, he proved he was talented enough to still dominate the rap world with the old school mentality of DAMN. And though the songs on DAMN. are his most simple songs since the pre-good kid, m.A.A.d city days, he approached them with the larger-than-life charisma he started to develop in GKMC‘s aftermath. And he snuck in stuff that the pre-GKMC Kendrick could have never pulled off, like the nearly-eight-minute, three-part suite “FEAR.” that would’ve fit on either of DAMN.‘s two direct predecessors, or the jaw-dropping album closer “DUCKWORTH.,” where Kendrick told the origin story of a lifetime.
12. SZA – Ctrl (TDE/RCA, 2017)
Kudos to SZA for sticking to EPs for a large chunk of her early career, because by the time she made her debut album, she was prepared to release a masterpiece. She was one of the early adopters of the “alt-R&B” sound that took off in the early 2010s, and she was good at it from the start, but with more and more new artists in this style emerging by the day, the stakes were higher if you wanted to stand out. And as many of SZA’s peers kept doing what they were doing, she made a gigantic leap with her debut album Ctrl. Some of the usual downtempo, atmospheric R&B of her EPs is on Ctrl, but there’s also raw, guitar-oriented singer/songwriter songs bookending the album (“Supermodel” and “20 Something”), upbeat indie pop (“Prom”), hazy neo-soul (“Drew Barrymore”), tasteful radio pop (the Travis Scott-featuring “Love Galore”), and more. And the musical diversity is matched by forefronted vocals and a lyrical depth that was mostly absent from the EPs. When a genre booms like R&B did in the 2010s, you need a real sense of personality to stand out. On Ctrl, SZA has more personality in her pinky than most of her peers have in their whole bodies.
11. Beyonce – Beyonce (Parkwood/Columbia, 2013)
Just around midnight on Friday, December 13, 2013, after many major year-end lists were already published, Beyonce changed the game with that digital drop. She released her self-titled album immediately to iTunes, without any warning, resulting in perhaps the most innovative major album release since Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows. It started the trend of surprise releases and the trend of visual albums, but most importantly, it brought the burgeoning “alt-R&B” genre to the mainstream and established Beyonce not as a waning star, but as a creative leader with her ear to the ground. Beyonce didn’t invent alt-R&B just like The Beatles didn’t invent psychedelic rock, but in both cases, a new bar was set for the genre once larger-than-life superstars got their hands on it. The cold, dark, atmospheric direction that R&B had been going in just sounded better when Beyonce did it. The album featured Frank Ocean (one of the pioneers of the sound) and Drake (an early adopter of the sound), but Beyonce’s best interpretations of this then-new form of R&B were done with no guests at all (“Haunted,” “Partition,” “Jealous”). Beyonce also rapped (“Flawless,” bonus track “7/11”), made sexed-up synthpop (“Blow”), continued to perfect the heart-wrenching balladry of 4 (“Heaven”), threw in a stadium-sized anthem for good measure (“XO”), and dabbled in a handful of other styles of music on what remains her most experimental album to date. She also sang of everything from unrealistic beauty standards to vivid depictions of her marriage with Jay-Z, to her miscarriage, to the birth of their first daughter Blue Ivy, and she sampled a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speech on feminism that quickly became a major milestone in the decade’s mainstreamization of feminism. Beyonce is lyrically powerful and musically adventurous, both of which made it a significant risk for an artist of her popularity. It could have gone down as the album where a pop star yearned for more creative freedom but failed to leave an impact. Instead, it cemented Beyonce as the kind of musical force we so rarely see, respected as a high-brow artist by critics and one of the single most significant pop stars of our time.
10. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic, 2018)
The world is littered with talentless stars and with uncharismatic virtuosos, but every once in a while we’re gifted with someone like Cardi B, who was born to be a star and who just so happens to be impeccable at her craft. Once “Bodak Yellow” swept the nation, it wasn’t a question if Cardi would achieve stardom but when. And even though her success was a given, we’ve still seen great potential tainted by botched album rollouts, so it’s no small feat that Cardi’s official debut album neared perfection. There are no songs where she sounds out of her comfort zone, no throwaway radio bait, no filler, no out-of-place favors from big-name guests (if anything, Cardi quickly eclipsed nearly every guest on the album); it’s just a consistently great album that proves Cardi has lyrical depth and a grasp on a wide variety of music. Of its 13 songs, at least ten of them feel like moment-defining singles. “Bodak Yellow” was the song of 2017, “I Like It” — which helped open up English-speaking audiences to the already-rich world of Latin trap — was the song of 2018, and even those two can’t overshadow the many other memorable songs. It was an album that felt like a classic upon arrival, and that feeling has only strengthened since.
9. Drake – Take Care (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic, 2011)
Drake was corny from the start — it was often part of his appeal — but if you were still clowning Drake by the time he released Take Care, you just weren’t paying enough attention. An enormous leap from anything he had had done before it and still better than anything he’s done since, Take Care remains one of the most purely gorgeous and massively influential albums of the decade in any genre. He was arguably the first major artist to realize that the dark, atmospheric, indie-friendly “alt-R&B” was about to break, and he recruited alt-R&B pioneer The Weeknd to help him achieve his own version of that sound on Take Care. Though his most crucial collaborator is not The Weeknd but frequent Drake producer 40, who helmed the majority of the songs on Take Care and helped Drake craft the sound that Drake copycats have gone after for years. Together (along with a few other producers and some very key guests), Drake and 40 made an album that has it all. “Over My Dead Body” is the kind of tell-all intro track that we’d see several other rappers channel this decade. “Headlines” is one of the finest string-laden epics this side of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. If you weren’t already on board with The Weeknd from his mixtapes, “Crew Love” proved how powerful his music was. “Take Care” took the already-cool Jamie xx remix of the already-cool Gil Scott-Heron song, added in Rihanna, and turned it into something accessible and danceable enough for anyone. “Marvins Room” remains Drake’s finest execution of atmospheric, post-James Blake R&B. “Buried Alive Interlude” helped introduce Kendrick Lamar to the mainstream a year before he released good kid, m.A.A.d city, and for that, you can thank Drake later. “Lord Knows” has one of the most triumphant Just Blaze beats of the decade. “The Real Her” has one of the best verses from the elusive Andre 3000 of the decade. At the risk of just listing all 18 songs, I’ll stop here, but Take Care has no filler. It just celebrated its eighth birthday last month, and it still reveals more of itself with every listen.
8. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (ARTium/Blacksmith/Def Jam, 2015)
For someone who’s been called an anti-rapper, it’s interesting that Vince Staples’ most monumental work thus far is stepped in hip hop tradition. Vince’s “anti-rapper” tendencies were more exposed later on, and he’s released some excellent music that defied traditional rap, but before all that, he proved he could master the type of rap album that rap fans have sought after since Illmatic. Summertime ’06 is one of those storytelling rap albums that drop you right into the artist’s own life and city, and paints a vivid picture of the people, places, and experiences that made them. Production-wise, it’s a bleak, minimal album (helmed almost entirely by veteran Chicago producer No I.D.), and the vision for the sonics on this album is as focused as the vision in Vince’s raps. For most artists, an album this carefully constructed is the kind of thing you might spend your entire career building towards. For Vince, it was a launching point.
7. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella, 2010)
It’s safe to say that Kanye had a pretty weird decade, and given where things have gone, MBDTF feels now like both an omen and a reminder of days gone. It’s a fascinating bridge between two parts of his career: the lush, cinematic orchestrations and aching melodicism that characterized his aughts output are merged with some of the darkness, ugliness, and sadness which would fully flower on Yeezus. And on top of being a particularly interesting benchmark in the career arc of perhaps our most interesting popular artist, oh yeah, it also has a very strong case as his flat-out best album. The opening five-song run, from “Dark Fantasy” through “Monster,” is completely staggering–his powers as a producer, his curation of collaborators, the sheer force of talent on these songs is completely exhilarating. The second half isn’t much of a comedown–songs like “Hell of a Life” and “Devil in a New Dress” have aged into stone cold classics, easier to take for granted than some of the bigger swings here but just as muscular and satisfying. And then there’s “Runaway,” which for my money is still The definitive Kanye song, his healthy bluster and self-pity leveraged against one another into something that captures his specific brilliance with incredible singularity, messy and big and funny and sad and glorious, almost too much for one song to contain. In light of recent events, the irony of the album closing with an extended Gil Scott-Heron passage is considerable. But Kanye has always been full of contradictions, which for a while it seemed like he was all too happy to lay bare. No album in his discography captures the thrill of those contradictions like this one. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]
6. Solange – A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia, 2016)
Once “Beyonce’s indie sister” who took Bey and Jay-Z to that fateful Grizzly Bear show, Solange finally lived up to the potential that she had since at least 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams on her elegant, meticulously crafted 2016 album A Seat At The Table. She was still interested in both indie and R&B (Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth contributes to the album about as much as R&B/soul vet Raphael Saadiq, and guests include fellow indie/R&B crossover acts Sampha and Kelela), but she wasn’t straddling the line between those genres so much as she was blurring it completely. A Seat At The Table is one of the decade’s best R&B albums, best soul albums, best indie/alternative albums, and probably best a few other things too. It’s got the classic, live-instrumentation feel of ’70s soul, but it never feels retro and it always feels forward-thinking. It’s an album that celebrates black culture and rages against the racism that still tries to attack the culture today. Solange calls it a “project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing,” and all of those themes and emotions are felt throughout A Seat At The Table, from the powerful spoken word interludes to the songs themselves.
5. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry, 2016)
Frank Ocean could’ve been a pop star if he wasn’t so disillusioned about how the whole system works, and as Blonde proved, the more he shied away from fame, the better his music got. Its 2012 predecessor Channel Orange remains a near-perfect classic, but Frank Ocean doesn’t want to be perfect, and that’s what makes this weirder, more flawed followup feel even more special. When Frank came to NYC in support of Blonde to headline Panorama, he put on one of the weirdest headlining festival sets I’ve seen this entire decade. He made the massive feel stage feel intimate, without ever feeling too small. That’s how Blonde feels too; the album sees Frank making pop music on his own terms, following his heart and ignoring what major labels and the Grammys and the radio are telling him to do. The result is a raw, bare-bones singer/songwriter album that’s almost more like Elliott Smith (who he interpolates on this album) than like the kind of modern R&B he helped define on his earlier projects.
4. Kanye West – Yeezus (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella, 2013)
Abrasive, experimental music can always be found in the underground, but it’s often even more exciting when a genuinely popular, pop-friendly artist risks everything at the height of their fame and releases an overtly experimental album, and that’s exactly what Kanye did with Yeezus. His previous album was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the album that proved Kanye was capable of pulling off a true pop music masterpiece. It remains one of the best-reviewed albums of the decade, and it’s home to some of his biggest songs. He kept the momentum going the following year with his Jay-Z collab Watch the Throne, and the year after that with his Cruel Summer compilation, and he came into 2013 with absurdly high anticipation for his next proper album. Instead of delivering anything at all like MBDTF, he put out this dark, abrasive, industrial-inspired album with no pre-release single and still no song (besides album closer “Bound 2,” the one Yeezus song that sounds like Old Kanye) you could picture hearing on pop radio. Where MBDTF was the kind of album that seemed like it was written to be critic proof, Yeezus is an album that Kanye knew would be divisive, and that could have ended up as a massive failure. But like many great pop masterminds before him, Kanye figured out how to interject these more difficult songs with hooks that became as memorable as the MBDTF songs. Next to all the loud, buzzing synths and thunderous drums, Yeezus has some of Kanye’s most incisive lyricism too. Before he he started making inconceivable statements about slavery in late 2010s, “New Slaves” compared slavery and segregation to present-day racism, and “Blood on the Leaves” married a pitched-up sample of Nina Simone’s recording of anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” to unrest in Kanye’s own life (and booming synths that solidified TNGHT as one of the decade’s most beloved beatmaking duos). In addition to TNGHT, Yeezus saw Kanye working with underground electronic musicians like Arca and Evian Christ, and other trailblazing singers/songwriters like Frank Ocean and Justin Vernon, and Yeezus helped position Kanye as a superstar with a mutual appreciation between him and the underground. Yeezus put a lot of smaller artists on the map, and it also earned Kanye more respect from the experimental music community than you usually see from someone as pop-friendly as him. The one thing it didn’t do, is change the direction that mainstream rap would head in. For better or for worse, Yeezus was the first Kanye album that didn’t spawn tons of imitators, and at least partially for that reason, there’s still nothing else in the world like it.
3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope, 2015)
If there was ever doubt Kendrick Lamar reached the head of the rap totem pole, his 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly all but confirmed it. A grand, ambitious leap from the already-masterful storylines and Compton-based cultural dissections on his sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d city three years prior, To Pimp a Butterfly showcased Kendrick diving headfirst into the modern black musical canon, experimenting with free jazz, funk, soul, and spoken word nostalgia — all the while creating a sonic palette unmatched by just about any other rapper in the current era. Throughout the album’s 79-minute runtime, Kendrick brings along black musical legends of generations past (such as George Clinton, Ronald Isley, Snoop Dogg) to craft an almost post-nostalgic sound. Moments like the frantic, avant-jazz instrumentals on “For Free (interlude),” or the bouncy funk elements on “These Walls” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” pay homage to the past while pushing forward something new altogether. Kendrick also proved himself to be one of the most inimitable lyricists in modern rap, through his instantly-recognizable flow to his stellar wordplay and memorable storytelling. From weaving together unforgettable stories of selfishness and greed (“How Much A Dollar Cost”) to internalized racism (“The Blacker The Berry”) and journeys from self-hatred to self-acceptance (“u” and “i”), Kendrick balances many relevant topics within society at large, in a way that feels both urgent and timeless. And then there’s “Alright,” which — after Trump got elected — became the uplifting and hopeful anthem of a generation. Above all else, the album is representative of Kendrick’s own personal growth, as the sequence of the album, with the help of a recited poem interspersed throughout the record, documents his journey from a young man on the streets of Compton, to a famous rapper seeking to free many young men from the struggles he also faced. [Jeremy Nifras]
2. Beyonce – Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia, 2016)
It’s tempting to compare Beyonce’s transition from girl group member and singles-oriented artist to Album Artist to previous similar examples like Sgt. Pepper’s or Thriller, but the evolution that Beyonce underwent in the 2010s is nearly unprecedented. When she released 2011’s 4, you could have mistaken the album’s classic soul vibes as an admission that Beyonce was retiring from world domination and settling into a more relaxed phase of her career, but in hindsight it was the turning point that opened the doors for the Queen Bey to make whatever music she wanted. Her 2013 self-titled album was a daring, adventurous album that took the burgeoning “alt-R&B” movement from the underground to the mainstream and single-handedly changed the way major pop stars release their records. It breathed new life into her career and secured her legacy as one of the all-time greats, and then it all culminated in Lemonade. As a highly ambitious but lean, accessible, no-filler album that incorporates just about every relevant genre of music in the 21st century, Lemonade can almost seem too perfect, like it was designed in a lab to win Album of the Year at the Grammys (despite being robbed by Adele, who agreed Beyonce should have won). And it’s easy to get cynical about that kind of thing, but Beyonce is far from the only person who attempted to make a potential masterpiece like this. She’s just one of the few who pulled it off.
1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope, 2012)
The onset of free internet rap mixtapes in the late 2000s and early 2010s threatened to overtake the stagnant rap mainstream of the time, and transformation was complete with the release of Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city. It was an obvious classic upon arrival — every hook weaved seamlessly into the song and drilled instantly into your brain, every musical arrangement was finessed to the point of perfection, every bar was delivered with exceptional skill, and every lyric left you hanging on Kendrick’s every word as he told you his story of growing up in Compton. It had the narrative arc of Illmatic, the attention to musical detail of Aquemini, and the widespread impact and accessibility of The Eminem Show (which it very recently topped as longest-charting hip-hop studio album on the Billboard 200), and looking at it now, it’s very obviously on the same level as all three of those albums. good kid, m.A.A.d city almost immediately changed the game for both rising and already-popular rappers. After it came out, it felt like almost everyone tried to up their game to compete with it. It united old school and new school, underground and mainstream, indie fans and rap fans. (Throughout the course of one cohesive album, good kid, m.A.A.d city worked in rising superstar Drake, ever-powerful producer/tastemaker Dr. Dre, underrated Compton vet MC Eiht, and a Beach House sample.) It remains stunning that Kendrick pulled this all off, but what’s even more impressive is how effortless it is to listen to. Sometimes the “best” albums are high-brow to the point of difficulty, but good kid, m.A.A.d city is one of those rare all-time classic albums that’s as musically innovative as it is culturally impactful as it is fun to listen to. good kid, m.A.A.d city wins this decade because it satisfies on every level. It defied almost every major musical trend and impacted almost all of them too. The only other rapper that could’ve taken this top spot would’ve been Kendrick himself with To Pimp A Butterfly, an album that’s as near-perfect as good kid, m.A.A.d city in an entirely different way. You can — and people will — spend a lifetime debating these two albums. For us right now, nothing captured the complete essence of the decade like good kid, m.A.A.d city did.