With approximately 200 albums reviewed on HipHopDX in 2014, we present our annual list of the 25 best Hip Hop albums of the last 12 months, as voted by a collection of 31 Hip Hop journalists. With two dozen (plus one) impressive retail releases from the mainstream and underground, respected veterans and long-awaited solo debuts, these are our best (or “favorite”) albums of 2014.

Editor’s Note: This list is presented chronologically, in the order the albums were released. This is not a ranked list.

 

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Lord Steppington by Step Brothers

Released: January 21, 2014
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Highest Chart Position: #60
Producers: The Alchemist and Evidence
Guests: Domo Genesis, The Whooliganz, Styles P, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Fashawn, Rakaa, Blu, and Oh No

When listening to Lord Steppington, it’s kind of hard to believe Step Brothers—Evidence and The Alchemist—aren’t really step brothers or even real brothers. The synergy with which they collaborate is uncanny, a byproduct of a decades old friendship and individual commitments to the same brand of consistency. The two have a knack for subtle jest that bleeds through their deadpan deliveries and they play off of one another perfectly, as if they’ve been working together forever. Joined by a who’s who of underground Rap talents from various niche markets — Odd Future’s Domo Genesis, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Blu, Fashawn, and Styles P—Step Brothers managed to make an album that’s almost all fun and games built on a foundation of determination and hard work.

What We Said Then:

“Despite its buttoned-up title, you won’t find any heavy-handed commentary on Lord Steppington. The cut and pasted nature lends itself to members of the current ADD generation and fans of Alchemist’s more recent work, but the project still adheres to the principles of superior Hip Hop. Evidence plays the straight man in this double act. He seamlessly shifts between brief musings on the Rap world, his place in it and pretty much nothing at all.”

 

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Cilvia Demo by Isaiah Rashad

Released: January 30, 2014
Label: TDE
Highest Charting Position: #9
Production: Ross Vega, Mr. Carmack, Joseph The Stranger, Black Metaphor, The Antydote, Farhot, Sounwave, Chris Calor, D. Sanders, Danny Dee
Guests: ScHoolboy Q, SZA, Jay Rock, Michael DaVinci

Before 2014 came and went, nobody really expected Isaiah Rashad to release the strongest album of the TDE camp for the year, but there were hardly any doubters in the aftermath of Cilvia Demo. The Tennessee native hardly let the ink dry on his contract with Top Dawg before he had the internet buzzing. On the album, hardly a detail of Rashad’s life is left on the cutting board. He freely goes into his troubled past, such as a propensity toward suicide and his conflicted views toward his father.

What We Said Then:

“As has become tradition from Top Dawg Entertainment, EP closer “I Shot You Down” is all about people talking loud and saying everything. It’s in Isaiah Rashad, a young man who on the opening track “Hereditary” recounts how “[his] daddy taught [him] how to drink [his] pain away,” and how “[his] daddy taught [him] how to leave somebody,” finding himself in an ideal situation with a crew of guys with similar paths is the heart-warming realization that allows this EP to succeed.”

 

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Oxymoron by ScHoolboy Q

Released: February 25, 2014
Label: TDE
Highest Charting Position: #1
Production: Nez & Rio, Sounwave, Pharrell, THC, Gwen Bunn, Mike Will Made-It, Marz, Swiff D, Willie B, Tyler The Creator, LordQuest, DJ Dahi, The Alchemist
Guests: Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz, BJ The Chicago Kid, Kurupt, Tyler The Creator, Raekwon

While not quite the deeply personal punch to the gut that Habits and Contradictions was, Oxymoron is an expert study in bounce. The self-proclaimed “Man of the Year” spends the majority of the album lacing fans with tracks that one could actually tolerate at the club with songs like “Collard Greens” and “Hell of a Night,” but he adds to his musical autobiography with tracks like “Break The Bank” and “Hoover Street.” If all artists made not-so-subtle bids for radio play with the same attention to quality as Oxymoron exudes, the phrase “Hip Hop is dead” would ultimately meet its own death.

What We Said Then:

“Ultimately the good moments are on par with what will be considered 2014’s high-water marks, and if held they weren’t held to the high standards of Setbacks and Habits & Contradictions, Q’s low points would be acceptable from another rapper. Given TDE’s ever-increasing appeal, Oxymoron isn’t quite an elite offering, but it meets the difficult task of attracting casual fans without straying too far from the formula that attracted ScHoolboy Q’s core audience.”

 

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Piñata by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Released: March 18, 2014
Label: Madlib Invasion
Highest Charting Position: #39
Producers: Madlib
Guests: Danny Brown, Raekwon, Domo Genesis, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Polyester, Bj the Chicago Kid, Casey Veggies, Domo Genesis, G-Wiz, Mac Miller, Meechy Darko, Sulaiman

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Piñata had been years-in-the-making and their first collaborative EP —what would have been rightly called a 12” single in years past — was released all the way back in 2011. The two other singles that led up to and helped make up Piñata over the next two years built anticipation, but didn’t detract from the final album in the end. One of the most alluring and enduring things about Piñata is exactly that oddball matchmaking. Gibbs admitted in an interview with HipHopDX earlier this year that he would have likely turned down a full-album collab with Madlib if asked five years ago, and we likely don’t have to wonder what Madlib thought of Gibbs back then either. Madlib’s best production in years—quirky as ever, funky, barebones—only amplifies Gibbs’ constantly nimble flow on the whole record, and the music seems to have turned over a new leaf for the Indiana emcee. From the Jeezy diss to the fried-chicken anthem “Harolds,” Gibbs peaked on Piñata, and whether or not he can grow from here is the question we’re waiting to see answered in 2015 and beyond.

What We Said Then:

“As Gangster Rap, Piñata is free of conceptual pretense; it’s a slice more than a thesis. It’s also a new benchmark for Gibbs and may end up as a career calling card. If nothing else, it quickly sounds like one of the year’s best.”

 

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My Krazy Life by YG

Released: March 18, 2014
Label: Def Jam Recordings, Pu$haz Ink, CTE World,
Highest Charting Position: #2
Producers: Young Jeezy (exec.), YG (exec.), Sickamore (exec.), B Wheezy, C-Ballin, Chordz, DJ Mustard (also exec.), Metro Boomin’, Mikely Adam, Terrace Martin, Ty Dolla Sign
Guests: ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, DJ Mustard, Tee Cee, Jeezy, Rich Homie Quan, TeeFlii, Tory Lanez, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Ty Dolla Sign, Big TC, RJ

Along with a handful of other records this year, YG’s My Krazy Life flies in the face of those who say that regional Hip Hop has been on the decline. The album, a polished progression of a working relationship between its rapper and DJ Mustard, centers the West Coast to the point that it’s hard to imagine you’re anywhere else while listening. YG isn’t confused about his place, and he’s got a way of bringing listeners along on a ride that doesn’t seem contrived but natural. Mustard builds up simple, bottom-end obsessed numbers that do justice to YG’s own free-flowing attack on the mic. It’s been a good year for Gangsta Rap, and YG reps Compton like its biggest stars did around the time of his birth in 1990. Somehow, that’s refreshing.

What We Said Then:

“Mindful of his audience caught up in the cheap thrills of carefree nightlife, YG aims for My Krazy Life to achieve universal appeal by reaching clubs. The crass “Left, Right” is sure to please his flesh chasing peer group entering early adulthood, and the bravado laced “Who Do You Love?” should thrive among the Top 40 crowd, thanks to a solid guest appearance from Drake. Where these moments fall in line with the presently dominant movement DJ Mustard built from scratch, “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)” takes a sudden turn to stray from the script. Venting about stresses including paranoia and the pressures of fame, YG puts his machismo to the side to hold his own alongside a barrage from Rap’s leading firecracker Kendrick Lamar. This welcome glimpse into reality is uncharacteristic for an emcee most known for bragging on his hard earned criminal reputation and prowess with a variety of women.”

 

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The Infamous Mobb Deep by Mobb Deep

Released: April 1, 2014
Label: Infamous Records, RED
Highest Charting Position: #49
Producers: Havoc, Illmind, Michael Uzowuru, Boi-1da, The Maven Boys, The Alchemist, Kaytranada, Salaam Remi, Seven Thomas, Gabriel Lambirth, Karon Graham, Om’Mas Keith, and Beat Butcha
Guests: Snoop Dogg, The Lox, Mack Wilds, Bun B, Juicy J, Busta Rhymes, French Montana, Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Infamous Mobb, Big Noyd, Crystal Johnson, Killer Black, Karate Joe, and Twin Gambino

Following a tumultuous few years that saw an indefinite hiatus, a Twitter feud fueled hack allegation, and an internal diss record, Mobb Deep was able to reconcile their differences in a reunion at last year’s Paid Dues festival, and during the sessions for Havoc’s solo album, 13, they were able to produce The Infamous Mobb Deep, an album that harkens back to their gritty debut sophomore breakout. The project includes deluxe bonus extras from those same 1994 sessions including alternate versions of “Eye For An Eye,” “Temperature’s Rising,” and “Survival of the Fittest.” Outside of the nostalgic flashback, The Infamous Mobb Deep is also chocked-full of new music that tests the fresh takes of interesting emerging producers like Boi-1da (“Legendary,” “Low”) and Kaytranada (“My Block”) and adds fresh faces you wouldn’t expect (Mack Wilds, French Montana, and Juicy J).

What We Said:

“A two-disc album, the second act of The Infamous Mobb Deep is a collection of tracks left off of The Infamous. Their hit single “Eye For An Eye” is included with a different beat—sampling Al Green’s “I Wish You Were Here”—as well as a verse from Ghostface Killah. The second disc provides a lot in the way of nostalgia, but also works well juxtaposed with the first. When Raekwon and Eminem released overdue sequels to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and The Marshall Mathers LP respectively, they spoke about having to return to the headspace that enabled for these original classics.”

 

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P.T.S.D by Pharoahe Monch

Released: April 15, 2014
Highest Charting Position: #19
Production: Pharoahe Monch, Marco Polo, Jesse West, Lee Stone, Quelle Chris, The Lion Share Music Group, DJ Boogie Blind, B.A.M., The Stepkids
Guests: Black Thought, Talib Kweli, The Step Kids, Dr. Pete, Ashley Grier, dEnAuN

Pharoahe Monch has never been one to rush studio releases, so when P.T.S.D hit three years after his last critically acclaimed album W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) was released, music connoisseurs took notice. Even the most reserved Hip Hop fans were extremely quick to rank the album right up there with both Internal Affairs and Desire—and with good reason. Like the other albums in his catalog, P.T.S.D is mainly grounded in one central theme—post traumatic stress disorder that a veteran suffers from on his return home from war. Monch may never get his proper due as one of the strongest social provocateurs of Hip Hop, but he is perfectly fine releasing tracks likes of “Bad MF,” “Time2,” and “Broken Again,” containing some of the strongest bars of his career.

What We Said Then:

“Monch “purists” who expect to hear an album full of the sinister rhymes in the vein of Internal Affairs are now officially living in the past. Much like with W.A.R. and Desire, P.T.S.D. seeks to accomplish more than just keep Pharoahe’s spot on the criminally-underrated lists warm; instead, it makes a case for placing him among the Chuck Ds and Ice Cubes as one of Hip Hop’s sharpest social voices.”

 

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… And Then You Shoot Your Cousin by The Roots

Released: May 19, 2014
Label: Def Jam
Highest Charting Position: #11
Production: Mike Jerz, Trapzillas, Richard Nichols, Black Thought, Questlove, Damion Ward, Karl Jenkins, The Wurxs, D.D. Jackson, Joseph Simmons, Ray Angry
Guests: Patty Crash, Greg Porn, Modesty Lycan, Dice Raw, Mercedes Martinez, Raheem Devaughn

The Roots …A diligent follower of The Roots’ albums during their Jimmy Fallon days may be convinced that they are suddenly very depressed Philly natives. However, Questlove fwent on record stating that the group wanted to tell tales of suffering characters while making an anti-Hip Hop album. From the funereal aura of “Never” to the juxtaposition of comedy and despair in “When They People Cheer” and “Black Rock,” to the bleak nature of the appropriately titled “Dark Trinity,” The Roots added an impressive addition to an already legendary catalog with …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.

What We Said Then:

“This latest installation of The Roots’ concept album may be their most efficiently dour. When Black Thought expertly plays the role of the self-loathing guy at the strip club who stays there long enough to enjoy the hot wings, things reach a new emotional low. Somewhere around the time Dice Raw’s character ingests a cheeseburger and a 40 ounce for breakfast, things get lower. As always, the guests are melded to fit within the ensemble.”

 

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Thoughtful King by Damani NKosi

Released: June 02, 2014
Label: Self-Released
Highest Charting Position: N/A
Production: Warryn Campbell, Ric Rude, Jarius Mosey
Guests: BJ The Chicago Kid, Musiq Soulchild, Robert Glasper, Bad Lucc, Sid Sririam, Jess Delgado, Ill Camille, Oh No, Problem, S-Mak, Thurz

Given the fact that we are currently witnessing a resurgence of the West Coast Hip Hop scene, it makes perfect sense that Damani Nkosi would lace fans with one of the most impressive albums of the year with Thoughtful King. Not only are the songs themselves standalone moments of sonic quality, but Nkosi goes deep into his African roots and relays a gripping narrative. While he will probably not be featured on any DJ Mustard radio smashes, one can only hope that Nkosi keeps releasing similar material.

What We Said Then:

“Damani’s last notable release, 2010’s free album, Vacation From Vacation came and went with little fanfare. And in a frustratingly crowded marketplace, Thoughtful King could share a similar fate. That would be a shame, as the Inglewood, California product has crafted a uniquely excellent album steeped in the principles of Hip Hop. It’s accessible to practically any audience yet compromises nothing. When conversations arise about 2014’s best albums, listeners may very well join Mr. Washington in bringing up his son’s name.”

 

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These Days… by Ab-Soul

Released: June 28, 2014
Label: TDE
Highest Charting Position: #11
Production: Purity Ring, Curtiss King, DJ Dahi, Kenny Beats, Dave Free, Tommy Black, Tae Beast, The Kathy, DNYC3, Like, Blended Babies, Terrace Martin, Sounwave, J. Cole, Rahki, Skhye Hutch, Larry Fisherman
Guests: SZA, Lupe Fiasco, Nikki Jean, Rick Ross, Short Dawg, Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Asaad, RaVaughn, Jay Rock, Danny Brown, Delusional Thomas, JMSN, Daylyt

A quick skimming of These Days… would most likely convince the most faithful Soulo fans that the self-proclaimed Black-Lipped Bastard had sold his soul to the mainstream. But in actuality the Carson native released one of the most poignant albums of 2014. Like Masta Ace in the 90s lampooning mainstream trends while making incredible music within the very same guidelines, Ab-Soul crafted much of the album’s material with his 3rd eye. On “Closure,” Ab trades harmonizing for rhyming while at the same time swapping the standard stripper-love-song for a personal reflection of a past relationship gone sour. With “Nevermind,” he showcased his intelligence through sharpened bars that are drowned out by a club-like chorus. With “Just Have Fun,” we get a joyous, party-anthem feel, immediately followed by a depressing rant that is reminiscent of slave songs. These Days… is arguably Ab’s most “intelligent” album to date.

What We Said Then:

“These Days… feels complete by the end as another properly dosed project. Somewhere on the album, Soul projects his own self-worth: “enlightenment from a low life that’s more than likely high.” He’s let the high filter out more of the revelation, and it sounds like a more accessible piece of entertainment than his last. It’s not the call to arms some expected, but Ab-Soul is as convincingly conspicuous as he’s ever been.”

 

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Nobody’s Smiling by Common

Released: July 22, 2014
Label: ARTium, Def Jam
Highest Charting Position: #6
Producers: No I.D.
Guests: Vince Staples, Jhene Aiko, Lil Herb, Cocaine 80s, Big Sean, Snoh Aalegra, Dreezy, Malik Yusef, Elijah Blake

Common’s last album was uplifting, full of song titles like “Celebrate,” “The Believer,” and “Blue Sky.” The 2011 release was a rekindling of his illustrious working relationship with longtime collaborator No I.D. and in that way was a validation that he was best where he started. With a nearly three year gap in between albums there was a rational and collective sigh of relief in the news that the two would pick back up where they left off with The Dreamer / The Believer and forge an album called Nobody’s Smiling. The whole album is in direct contrast to the sentiment of his last release: Dark, grounded in the streets, and bleak from the onset. In that way, Common has leveraged his increasingly powerful voice as never before—both shedding light on the grim circumstance of his hometown as much as shining it on a crop of young emcees that exemplify its desperation.

What We Said Then:

“Nobody’s Smiling is defiant, as full of commanding musicality as it is of Common’s own provocation. Of his recent output, it deserves to be the most touted since that 2005 darling. It’s one of his best since he started, and like the album itself does about Chicago’s current crisis, that says plenty.”

 

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Mega Philosophy by Cormgea

Released: July 22, 2014
Label: Slimstyle Records
Highest Charting Position: N/A
Producers: Large Professor
Guests: AZ, Redman, Styles P, Nature, Raekwon, Black Rob, Chantelle Nandi, and Maya Azucena

Cormega, who has traversed the Rap underground to which he was forever exiled following his very controversial split with The Firm, remains one of the great rappers gaining wisdom with age. There is still a lot to be learned from the street-smart emcee, and he continues to lecture, even now. His sixth studio album, Mega Philosophy, which was produced entirely by the legendary NYC beat architect Large Professor, is a lesson in how to evolve without completely separating from one’s roots and avoiding stagnation while remaining steady. The album truly shines when Large Professor forces Mega to step outside of his comfort zone, on songs like “Industry,” “More,” and “Rise.” But it’s nice to see him alongside old friends (AZ, Nature), too.

What We Said Then:

“Mega Philosophy is a collaborative effort fully produced by Golden Age favorite Large Professor, giving good cause to explain his and Cormega’s continued longevity. Though most of the project is an intentional departure from boom bap, “Honorable” knocks hard enough to please old school beat junkies. Here Raekwon glorifies street life while Cormega takes the opposite approach, speaking to the positive impact his Muslim faith has had on his life”

 

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Directors Of Photography by Dilated Peoples

Released: August 12, 2014
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Highest Charting Position: #41
Producers: Evidence, DJ Babu, The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Jake One, Diamond D, Oh No, 9th Wonder, Bravo, and Twiz The Beat Pro
Guests: Vince Staples, Aloe Blacc, Catero, Gangrene, Sick Jacken, and Krondon

After an eight year hiatus, Dilated Peoples returned to Rap with Directors of Photography, a sleek look at old tropes through a new lens wound tightly together by a loose, free-flowing concept. It ignores contemporary Rap’s blurred margins in favor of fringe Rap minimalism that disregards changing tides. Evidence, Rakaa, and DJ Babu have done a lot of growing as individuals since 20/20, but that growth hasn’t damaged the chemistry (consult tracks like “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away,” “Good As Gone,” and “Cut My Teeth” for proof), and together they blossom into the best version of Dilated Peoples yet creating a well-rounded reinvisioning of past works in the process.

What We Said Then:

“Lyrically, the content is refreshing. Evidence and Rakaa frequent the introspective and first person narratives. From the get-go on each track, they pull the listener in by the ears and seize hold. When defining a lyrically dense Hip Hop album, there are many facets involved— be it message, use of big words, flow, and so forth. Dilated touches on all of them. For instance, Evidence and Rakaa use run-on, interconnecting verses on several occasions (“Let Your Thoughts Fly Away,” “Trouble”). Technicalities aside, thought provocation isn’t hindered on the listener in the slightest. On “Good As Gone,” Evidence raps, “Devise a plan then I execute it ‘til I’m undisputed / If the record never stated, I’ve been showing most improvement / At a time when my peers declined I used it as a booster / Used the dedication as a plus, I ain’t used to losers.”

 

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The Waters(s) by Mick Jenkins

Released: August 12, 2014
Label: Free Nation, Cinematic Music Group
Highest Charting Position: N/A
Producers: THEMpeople, THC, Da P, High Klassified, Dream Koala, OnGaud, Cam, Static Selectah, Spacetime, TJ Osinulu, DJ Dahi, Kirk Knight
Guests: The Mind, Jean Deaux, No Name Gypsy, Ebony, J Money, The Mind, Joey Bada$$

The Waters is Mick Jenkins version of Native Tongues moral realism incarnate, and the Chicago emcee has made a name for himself by deeply penetrating social ills through metaphor. Cinematic Music Group—the high-powered indie that also features projects by K.R.I.T and Joey Bada$$—scooped the young, budding performer as a continuation of their own aural landscape. And he represents just one part of the rich tapestry that is the Chicago Hip Hop scene at the moment. His raison d’atre may be purer than others, as he draws from the core of what it means to have something to say: The foundation upon which Hip Hop as an art form is built. As for the future, we’ll all have to wait and see. Will he choose the route of concrete brethren Common, and not become overcome by the malignancies he sees, or will he go the route of the babbling redeemer, wandering off into the moralist desert alone.

What We Said Then:

“The project’s zenith comes on “Martyrs,” which flips Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” into a lament on senseless killing. Jenkins hangs himself in the visual, but comes back brazenly snarling with Cinematic labelmate Joey Bada$$ on the finale, “Jerome.” It’s liberating but not exactly celebratory; Jenkins raps chest out and demands to see hands in the air—more threat than formality—while Bada$$’s stellar finish adopts a dingy growl reminiscent of Osirus in ‘95.”

 

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Hell Can Wait by Vince Staples

Released: October 7, 2014
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Highest Charting Position: N/A
Producers: Anthony Kilhoffer, JGramm Beats, Infamous, No I.D., Hagler
Guests: Teyana Taylor

When Def Jam announced that No I.D. had been appointed Executive Vice President of A&R in 2011, it was a breath of fresh air and a small bit of confirmation that sometimes industry bureaucracy can still churn the cream to the top of the barrel. Vince Staples’ official debut on No I.D.’s ARTium Records was one of the Chicago producer’s pet projects released in 2014, and the short Hell Can Wait EP quickly gained steam courtesy of the cosign. No I.D. only has one production credit on the record but the polished, jarring effect that the EP showed off was no doubt a testament to his mentorship.

Staples may not be an obvious choice for Hip Hop’s proverbial obsession with “who’s next,” and that suits him. His stories of gang life and broke-down family dynamics are grounded in the streets and his youth exacerbates the grittiness. He’s got an obvious knack for coolness where it doesn’t belong, but the tales of murder plots and in-the-house drug-dealing are underscored by a “I wish this wasn’t the case” sentiment. Hell Can Wait is full of life as Staples knows it, and he can thank No I.D. for helping him build such a carefully growing platform.

What We Said Then:

“The EP’s best moment, and what might be the rapper’s standout verse to date, comes in the second half of “65 Hunnid.” “You alone / Car full of niggas but you alone / It’s time to show how much you love your homies,” he raps, segueing into a chilling pre-murder contemplation. Staples’ alienation is compelling, and there’s a careful, tragic complicity in his retelling. “This nigga’s gotta die for this shit to survive,” he raps third-person, a cello in the background, before concluding himself later, “ain’t shit wrong with the truth.” There’s a deadpan matter-of-factness to Staples’ delivery that replaces the glorification of violence with the grimness of the circumstance that he justifies it with.”

 

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Beauty And The Beast by Rapsody

Released: October 17, 2014
Label: Jamla
Highest Charting Position: N/A
Production: Nottz, Eric G, 9th Wonder, Khrysis
Guests: N/A

One may remember Hip Hop in 2014 for a multitude of different reasons, but one thing that is for certain is that a lot of the male market share was stolen by talented female emcees. Widely regarded as one of the best lyricists in the game, underground veteran Rapsody definitely garnered some Twitter followers after she released her Beauty & Beast EP—her most solid project to date. Coupling the influence of Lauryn Hill with punchlines that would make Jadakiss jealous, Rapsody released an album with arguably no skippable tracks.

What We Said Then:

“What’s best about Beauty and the Beast is that it works flawlessly most times, showcasing a synergy that explodes throughout as the gifted emcee’s vocals tuck neatly within productions hand crafted to accentuate her strengths. Add in that, here, she’s so visibly annoyed, saddened, and morally outraged by the current state of affairs in her world, that she flows with a distinct purpose, allowing her own prodigious lyrical ability to shine through.”

 

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Under Pressure by Logic

Released: October 21, 2014
Label: Def Jam Recordings, Visionary Music Group
Highest Charting Position: #4
Producers: 6ix, Alkebulan, DJ Khalil, Dun Deal, Logic, S1, M-Phazes, DJ Dahi, Rob Knox
Guests: N/A

Logic has been an emcee in-between for a handful of years, an underground darling while still quietly signed to Def Jam. Under Pressure is a fair title for his major label debut in that way, an obvious but particularly fitting description of his circumstance. The album itself finds the Maryland native in concentrated form and he’s smart and vulnerable as ever. For his next release, he deserves to open up a bit more, and he won’t have to worry about that pesky first impression again.

What We Said Then:

“There are a great many moments that make Under Pressure feel like a feature film about Logic’s life, and when at its best, it is creating that sort of imagery. The Dun Deal-produced “Buried Alive” ponders whether the Rap rat race is all really worth it. “Do you really wanna be famous? Do you really wanna be a superstar?” he asks himself. The ominous “Gang Related” digs deep into street life, and he recounts his brother selling crack to their own absentee father in triple time. On the title track he raps sentiments sent from his sister and aforementioned father before responding in kind. The track closes with real voicemails that frame his success with perspective. Instances like these make Under Pressure, the self-aware debut from a young hopeful chasing greatness, a true early success.”

 

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Cozz & Effect by Cozz

Released: October 23, 2014
Label: Dreamville Records
Highest Charting Position: N/A
Producers: J. Morgan, D. Joseph, Mike Adam
Guests: Bas, J Cole, Free Ackrite, Enimal

The L.A. native has been catapulted into the spotlight this year after signing to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records, and he’s making the most of the opportunity. An elongated flow with a voice that deeply resonates, Cozz only started taking music making seriously fairly recently, but he’s already on the cusp of stardom. Cozz & Effect was an album filled with stumbling, kick-starter flows over ominous West Coast production, showing off his penchant for wandering as he wonders. His upside is immense, and if J. Cole mentors the young emcee correctly, we might have the makings of a budding label to watch for in the future.

What We Said Then:

“The irony is that large swaths of Cozz & Effect kick more clichés than Air Jordans at a sneaker convention. “I’m Tha Man,” for example, starts off with Cozz rapping about a relationship then quickly devolves into more lifestyle rhymes. To paraphrase: I got bitches and I’m sippin’ and I rap dope and “I’m the muthafuckin’ man! You should ask around!” “Dkbu” is essentially built the same. “Murda,” which comes complete with obligatory faux-Reggae musings, runs along that vein as well, minus the womanizing couplets.”

 

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Run The Jewels 2 by Run The Jewels

Released: October 24, 2014
Label: Mass Appeal, Sony RED
Highest Charting Position: #50
Producers: El-P, Little Shalimar, Wilder Zoby, Boots
Guests: Zack de la Rocha, Boots, Travis Barker, Gangsta Boo, Dianne Coffee

A few years ago, El-P and Killer Mike might have seemed like an arbitrary pairing, but the success of the entirely Producto produced R.A.P. Music from Mike in 2012 (which won Runner-up Album Of The Year in 2012), released just days after El’s own solo record, was proof that they’d found something worth mining together. The first Run The Jewels release was noisily futuristic and smart at once, intimidating all the way through (which won DX’s 2013 Album Of The Year award). This second album is more pressing politically, and both artists have doubled down on their commitment to galvanize a movement in reaction to a string of Black men being killed by White police. Run The Jewels is anti-bullshit, angry, and ready to pop off. No other album in 2014 has captured those sentiments as starkly when we’ve needed them most, and a pair of 39-year olds have quickly emerged as righteous political role-models as a result.

What We Said Then:

“RTJ is here for the masses, despite the fact the duo will most likely never see the lights of Top 40 radio. Regardless of the terrible decisions of disc jockeys worldwide, one can comfortably expect the group to continue to probe societal issues most rappers shy away from all the while abstaining from the mundane sonic approaches of their contemporaries — but most importantly, make scintillating music in the process.”

 

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Midnight Life by DJ Quik

Released: October, 26 2014
Label: Mad Science
Highest Charting Position: #63
Production: DJ Quik
Guests: El Debarge, TayF3rd, David Blake II, Bishop Lamont, Keisha Smith, Dom Kennedy, Suga Free, Eboni Foster, Mack 10, Robert “Fonksta” Bacon, Tweed Cadillac, Joi

There aren’t many rappers/producers that can incorporate a banjo into a track (“That Nigga’z Crazy”) and make it sound Hip Hop, but DJ Quik is an anomaly in more ways than one. With The Midnight Life, Quik followed in The Book of David’s footsteps by mixing contemporary sounds with the funky G-Funk sound he perfected in the 90s. No one that has followed the artist’s legendary career is under the impression the Compton legend is only in it for the money, but Quik clarifies as much on tracks like “Puffin’ The Dragon” and “Trapped On The Tracks.” He links up with long-time collaborator Suga Free on “Broken Down” and “Life Jacket,” unsurprisingly two of the strongest cuts on the album. In less than 60 minutes, Quik reminds us once again why when all is said and done, he will go down as one of the most groundbreaking artists ever.

What We Said Then:

“Midnight Life again refocuses Quik’s gaze inward; well into the third decade of his career, he’s still turning over new sounds, breaking little bits of ground in the process. It’s also a reminder that if Quik sticks to his word and quits after his next and tenth album, we’ll all miss moments like these. He’ll likely slip back into the shadows either way, but it’s always been a different type of fun partying with him instead of mysteriously because of him.”

 

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If There’s A Hell Below by Black Milk

Released: October 28
Label: Computer Ugly, Fat Beats
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Black Milk
Guests: Mel, Blu, Ab, Pete Rock, Gene Obey, Random Axe, and Bun B

For the better part of the last decade, Detroit producer Black Milk has been a springboard for technicians of the highest caliber. He has produced entire projects for Elzhi, Sean Price and Guilty Simpson (as Random Axe), Bishop Lamont, and Danny Brown, and sprinkled in offerings for a host of other emcees. He also remains an underrated lyricist himself, crafting, most notably, promising releases like last year’s No Poison No Paradise. He continues his string of successes with If There’s A Hell Below, an album that dabbles in sounds as dark as its title suggests. The production is even more vast and intricate than past releases, expanding on old ideas through both reinvention and reinterpretation, and he is constantly improving as a rapper, learning when too much rapping is overkill, canceling out the effectiveness of a great soundscape. Through the entire course of If There’s A Hell Below, Black Milk scours the sonic landscape to create fascinating soundbeds upon which to flex his improving lyrical chops.

What We Said Then: 

“The production is both rousing and superb. Each beat is specifically catered for the listener, and no two tracks sound the same. In most every instance, the drums dictate the tempo and the instruments are layered in accordingly. “Detroit’s New Dance Show” is an instant club banger that fuses elements of ‘80s Pop and Drum & Bass, while “Hell Below” is instrumental only, stylistically reminiscent of Madlib’s Shades of Blue. On the latter, thanks to his extensive knowledge of live instrumentation and engineering prowess, the beat is a demonstration of Black Milk’s ability to make a complex instrumental track that transcends traditional notions of Hip Hop.”

 

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Cadillactica by Big K.R.I.T.

Released: November 10, 2014
Label: Def Jam, Cinematic Music Group
Highest Charting Position: #5
Producers: Alex da Kid, Big K.R.I.T., DJ Dahi,DJ Khalil, Finatik & Zac, Jim Jonsin, Raphael Saadiq, Rico Love, Terrace Martin
Guests: Raphael Saadiq, Rico Love, E-40, Wiz Khalifa, Mara Hruby, Big Sant, Bun B, Devin The Dude, Jamie N Commons, Lupe Fiasco, A$AP Ferg

Big K.R.I.T. has been a fan favorite for years. His following indebted first and foremost to the album-like mixtapes he released leading up to his major label signing in 2010. With his Mississippi drawl and a penchant for nostalgically framed bass as a career calling card, K.R.I.T. offered fans a more sophisticated, nuanced version of 21st century Southern Hip Hop on his most recent album Cadillactica. The album’s concept is a comfortably loose fit and K.R.I.T. isn’t bogged down as a result. Handing off the production to a team of qualified pros was the most obvious artistic departure on Cadillactica for the self-proclaimed “King Of The South,” and he’s never sounded so capable on the mic as a result.

What We Said Then:

“Without leaning back he’s smartly pushing against himself by enlisting Dahi and Raphael Saadiq and Terrace Martin. There’s a conscious move into original music and instrumentation here that hints at where K.R.I.T. is heading, as well. With Cadillactica he’s found his stride by taking new steps. K.R.I.T. isn’t slept on, but he’s proven again that he should have a bigger bandwagon by now. Once he does he’ll throw some fifteens in the back and keep it moving.”

 

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PRhyme by PRhyme

Released: December 9, 2014
Label: PRhyme Records
Highest Charting Position: #59
Producers: DJ Premier
Guests: Ab-Soul, Mac Miller, Dwele, Common, Jay Electronica, ScHoolboy Q, Killer Mike, Slaughterhouse

PRhyme was meant to happen. DJ Premier has helped Royce Da 5’9 craft some of his career’s biggest and best tracks, from “Boom” to “Shake This,” and hints of a full-out collaboration have been dropped along the way. Royce is in an entirely different place than he was five years ago: Part of a group, sober, calm. PRhyme places Primo firmly out of his own comfort zone as a producer, forced— or privileged —to sample exclusively from Adrian Younge’s own original music. And yet, in a year full of experimental expansion for Hip Hop, PRhyme pleasantly fits inside of a box. It’s not overly predictable, but PRhyme is exactly what we’ve wanted from these two greats.

What We Said Then:

“When most in sync, PRhyme is a hive mind conjuring up projections of the past, a well oiled machine producing a brand of ‘90s Rap revivalism that never sounds dated. When Royce Da 5’9” raps alongside ScHoolboy Q and Killer Mike (who stands on all the same Rap principles as Royce, but with a more inclusive attitude) on the brilliant “Underground Kings” he is comfortably right at home.”

 

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2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole

Released: December 9
Label: Dreamville, Roc Nation, Columbia
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: J. Cole, Vinylz, Illmind, Willie B, Cardiak, Pop Wansel, Nick Paradise, Dre Charles, Team Titans, Phoenix Beats, and JProof
Guests: None

There are few feats more impressive in Rap in 2014 than J. Cole moving roughly 350,000 first week with his third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, after no radio singles and no promo. In fact, the quick turnaround speaks to the importance of building a base with relatability and the strength of rallying fans around someone they believe in. But at the core of the formidable numbers is a resurgence toward the music-making that made him a fan-favorite in the first place. When he takes shots at the other prominent rappers of his generation—Drake and Kendrick Lamar—on “January 28th,” a date of birth he shares with the God emcee Rakim, it feels far less ridiculous backed by this grand statement album. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is perhaps the best J. Cole has ever been, both producing (“G.O.M.D.”) and rapping (“A Tale of 2 Citiez,” “Fire Squad”), and it’s all a homecoming of sorts.

What We Said Then:

“There are many things that can be said bout J. Coles’ 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It is ambitious and hokey and simplistic. It tries its hand at twists and comes up short (“Wet Dreamz”), and it sticks to Cole’s strategy instead of changing it drastically. It is less artistic than it means to be, but it is truer than anything he’s ever made. Its narrative, the tropes, and the strategies are completely overcome by the albums terrifying integrity. It is immensely relatable because it is not afraid to be corny and cliche´. It does not shirk the average experience; it embraces it and, somehow, makes you feel like we’re all in this together. And in this age of false irony, and the squashing of experience down into preconceived individual events where we all believe ourselves to be so different and so special, it’s fascinating to see an artist delve so fearlessly into the completely familiar.”

 

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36 Seasons by Ghostface Killah

Released: December 9, 2014
Label: Tommy Boy Records
Highest Charting Position: #94
Producers: Fizzy Womack, The Revelations, Malik-Abdul Rahmaan, and The 45 King
Guests: Kool G Rap, AZ, Tre Williams, Kandance Springs, Rell, Nem, Shawn Wigs, Pharoahe Monch, and The Revelations

There isn’t much ground left for Ghostface to cover after Ironman and Supreme Clientele and Fishscale and even last year’s magnificent, Adrian Younge-accompanied Twelve Reasons to Die, but he is constantly trudging forward as if there’s still more left to prove. His latest, 36 Seasons, is a concept album that carries on the legacy of past releases: Tony Stark (his alter ego) returns to his home, Staten Island, seeking retirement, but finds leaving the game difficult. Colorful storytelling has always been the Wu-Tang great’s biggest strength and when stuffed in confined spaces with other multisyllabic observationalists like AZ (“Double Cross,” “Pieces To The Puzzle”), Kool G Rap (“Loyalty”), and Pharaohe Monch (“Emergency Procedure”) he is pushed to his limits creating a vivid narrative that unravels masterfully with twists, turns, and excellent imagery.

What We Said Then:

“Expectedly, the album is ridiculously lyrical. Hip Hop fans of all walks will be pleased by the presence of veterans like AZ (who raps circles around most of his Rap peers) on five tracks, Kool G Rap (the OG and lyrical dynamo) on three, and Pharoahe Monch. Each of the aforementioned artists, Ghostface included, vocally sound like themselves 20 years ago. Alongside AZ and Kool G Rap on “The Battlefield,” Ghostface spits: “And my name’s faded out like some old damn socks / I want respect, these streets was my playground once / I was the Mack across 110th on these stunts / Not once would a nigga test me or get zesty / I would walk down the street and sneeze, they all blessed me.” These words are specific to the story being told, but also work in the context of the Rap game today.”