The album is the still the magnum opus of anyone’s career. It’s a stop in time, a signpost along a dirt road of art or the paper chase or whatever reason you’re in the game. It is your moment in the Hip Hop sun; the moment you finally get to have the floor in the rumbling, jubilant mess hall of your genre. Create something great, and the people will love you for it, usually. Make something not so great and you may get skewered to high heaven, especially if your art is considered derivative or nonsensical.
The ‘10s have been an amazing time in Hip Hop and rap music. The youth culture has gotten both more commercial and more private as virtual communities fill in the gaps between Internet culture and real life ones, and the music has followed suit, becoming both more personal and more sprawling and more referential.
So whether it’s Beyonce dropping an album completely out of the blue or Jay Z selling a million records before his album officially spilled out into the streets, the music business has changed almost as dramatically as the artists making the tunes. And while some albums are culturally important, others are artistically and entrepreneurially so. Still, others changed the shape of the genre’s entire sound.
*This list is in no particular order.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Release Date: March 15, 2015 | DX Rating: 5.0
There was lots of anticipation and questions for Kendrick Lamar’s follow-up to his groundbreaking sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d city. Was the TDE star going to go commercial or be affected by his controversial Grammy loss? Then there was the polarizing single “i,” released at the end of 2014. Even artists as big as Pharrell with knowledge of K. Dot’s future release called bits and pieces “unapologetically black.” Of course, the lead up to what would be called To Pimp A Butterfly would only add to the hype starting with the extremely aggressive “The Blacker The Berry,” reveal of the now iconic cover art of his homies in front of the White House and tracklist. By the time the release date was surprisingly moved up to a Sunday night in late March, all Hip Hop could do was stand and watch. The end result was an album that mixed Black Nationalist themes with production damn near scoping the entire history of urban music. Like DX Editor-in-Chief Justin Hunte said, “To Pimp A Butterfly” is ambitious in its attempt to inspire a generation to change the world for the better and poignant enough to actually do so.”
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Release Date: November 22, 2010 | DX Rating: 4.5
The Taylor Swift incident stained the mercurial Mr. West in a wet suit of shame as artists and pundits decreed him the worst human in the history of humans for his interruption of Swift at the MTV Music Awards. In his defense, the Henny (and maybe Amber Rose) made him do it. Well, that and the idea that he actually takes awards seriously, which in itself is bizarre. After a few forced non-apologies and months of laying low the emcee
emerged with an album that was an artistic achievement. So much went into the making of this record (the famous Hawaiian studio sessions, the flying out of classic and up-and-coming artists and producers to the island etc.) but it was the mythos he created around himself that pushes this album into the rap canon. Once again he switched his entire aesthetic, crafting a back handed apology in “Runaway” and skewering SNL for poking fun at the artist on “Power” during his time away. Every other song was a careful exposition of pop/rap sensibilities (the dominant form of rap during the 2000s) and it culminated in an overly serious rehash of “Who Will Survive In America.” The answer was Mr. West.
Drake – Take Care
Release Date: November 15, 2011 | DX Rating: 3.5
2010 saw the release of Drake’s YMCMB debut Thank Me Later. For many, the project was seen as a total disappointment considering the hype built around it. Regardless, the Toronto native managed to go platinum his first go-around. For his follow-up release a year later, Drizzy devised an album in Take Care that proved exactly why he’s one of Hip Hop’s greatest. Alongside huge radio hits like “Headlines” and “HYFR,” the 19-track album was an artistic statement full of pure emotion. Doing something that would later become a late-career trademark, there are some early star turning guest appearances from Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. It was Drake cohesively embracing his status, demons and aspirations while then spitting (or singing) some of the best bars of his career. Take Care was his most personal, honest.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
Release Date: October 9, 2012 | DX Rating: 4.0
One of the most controversial rap albums of the decade, The Heist turned Macklemore & Ryan Lewis from niche independent Hip Hop mainstays to pop superstars. For better or worse, the album bucked trends most didn’t like about mainstream rap anyway. The “poppin tags” montra felt played out after “Thrift Shop” and blatant homophobia came off as honestly lame after “Same Love.” Then there was the anthemic “Can’t Hold Us” that became the theme song to every rom-com and commercial of the past few years. Yes, The Heist swiping the 2014 Grammys away from Kendrick Lamar’s superior Good Kid Maad City was an atrocity but, taking away from how good The Heist isn’t exactly fair either.
Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica
Release Date: November 10, 2014 | DX Rating: 4.5
For some, Big K.R.I.T.’s Live From The Underground lacked the country bounce that made his mixtapes ranging from K.R.I.T. Wuz Here to 4eva Na Day some of the best mixtapes of the modern era. The biggest issue came in the form of sample clearances that nearly crippled his Def Jam debut. For his follow-up Cadillactica, Krizzle made two important moves: allowed outside producers to help mold several tracks and doubled down on the southern introspection. The soulfulness is more evident on the Raphael Saadiq assisted “Soul Food” and “Angle.” That doesn’t mean that Cadillactica lacked any trunk rattling bangers however thanks to like tracks “My Sub Pt.3 (Big Bang)” and “Mo Better Cool” featuring Devin The Dude, Big Sant and Bun B. There was a time where many started to doubt K.R.I.T.’s proclamation of “King of The South.” Cadillactica was just the album needed to further his claim.
Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Release Date: July 4, 2013 | DX Rating: 4.0
Regardless of how Hip Hop fans felt about the actual body of work itself, Magna Carta…Holy Grail was Jay Z pulling the most daring business move of his career. Well, that was before Tidal but that’s not the point here ladies and gentlemen. Magna Carta…Holy Grail started Hov’s #newrules plan of changing the industry by making a lucrative deal with Samsung which ended with the project going platinum before the album’s physical release. Not only did King Roc Nation manage to convince the RIAA to change their rules in album sales calculation but, influenced a new way of distributing music in a time where music listeners weren’t buying much music anymore. On its own merit, Magna Carta…Holy Grail isn’t Hov’s best album but thankfully never reaches the lows of Kingdom Come.
Ab-Soul – Control System
Release Dates: May 11, 2012 | DX Rating: 4.5
Control System was a voice from the underground. Ab played Ellison’s Invisible Man surrounded by shame, light and the terrors of living. Arguably TDE’s most talented emcee, Control System was Soulo striking out on his own, cutting ties with any previously contrived sound. As such, he created a third-eyed template for those too alone and too hyper-aware. Making a lane for a sound no one even realized was there. Then there was “Book Of Soul,” which is arguably the best rap love song of all time: “Stick to the plan / I’ll meet you at our spot / If reincarnation is true and we don’t get too lost / Even if you forget me and everything you left behind I never lied / I love you in a place where there’s no space and time.”
The Roots – Undun
Release Date: December 2, 2011 | DX Rating: 5.0
Many were skeptical when The Roots signed over to Def Jam during The Carter Administration. Those fears were put to bed by the time Game Theory, Rising Down and How I Got Over made it to shelves. For the most daring album of the group’s nearly two decade long career, Undun was a conceptual album centered on fictional character Redford Stevens, a man whose tragic story is told vividly in under 40 minutes. There are moments of sheer brilliance from the hopeless thump of “The OtherSide” featuring Bilal and associate of The Roots Greg Porn along with musical drum vs. piano epic “Will To Power (3rd Movement).” Undun was further proof that major label acceptance didn’t mean artistic compromise, even for veterans.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Release Date: June 26, 2013 | DX Rating: 4.0
Before Run The Jewels, both Killer Mike and El-P collaborated for something that would become a breakout moment for two artists at crossroads within their careers, R.A.P. Music. The a-ha moment the following year came in fashioning themselves an actual group in the form of Run The Jewels. El-P’s production grew even more evolved while Killer Mike’s rhyming became even more chaotic and accurate. There’s a reason why the album received 2013’s Album Of The Year. Most importantly, the album set the stage for their eventual move to Nas headed Mass Appeal brand and the Run The Jewels 2. Managing to eclipse the greatness of its predecessor, the album became the moment where El-P and Killer Mike became important figures within Hip Hop past their minor backgrounds. El P’s production was chaotic as ever. Meanwhile, Killer Mike transitioned from street preacher to civil rights spokesperson.
Watch The Throne – Watch The Throne
Release Date: August 8, 2011 | DX Rating: 4.0
There wasn’t a collaborative album more hyped than Watch The Throne in 2011. By that time, Kanye West created his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the previous year and Jay Z was comfortable being the corporate statesman of Hip Hop. Together, both created a luxury rap album with pro-black undertones. Yes, two of the most powerful figures within the culture linked together Voltron style to provide the world with modern classics such as “Otis” and “Niggas In Paris.” Watch The Throne was a nuclear bomb of an event and all everyone could do is marvel at the spectacle.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Release Date: October 22, 2012 | DX Rating: 4.5
If To Pimp A Butterfly was Kendrick Lamar at his current artistic peek, then good kid, m.A.A.d city played an important role in establishing the Compton native as Hip Hop’s perceived savior. So much so, in fact, that many compared it to one particular debut from a young Nas. A narrative relating to a day in the life of Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city articulated the ideologies of a man growing up around chaos while attempting to maintain sanity and morality. That means dealing with peer pressure (“Art Of Peer Pressure”), alcohol abuse (“Swimming Pools”), gang violence (“Sing About Me/ Dying Of Thirst) and good old aspirational spitting (“Backseat Freestyle”). Providing a phenomenal backing soundtrack included producers ranging from Hit-Boi to Pharrell; each setting the perfect mood for whatever was in the TDE emcee’s head. In an era where radio singles and southern bounce ruled rap’s commercial viability, Lamar (with some assistance from Dr. Dre) helps formulate a major label release that touched mainstream and core Hip Hop heads alike. Most importantly, he did it without alienating either side.
Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday
Release Date: November 19, 2010 | DX Rating: 3.5
Lil Wayne took a large gamble with signing Nicki Minaj to YMCMB, and that risk paid off in spades. Yes, “Massive Attack” featuring Sean Garrett was a total flop, but the lucky leak of “Your Love” saved the Queens’ native and spearheaded one of the biggest debuts for a female MC in over a decade. Pink Friday couldn’t have come at a better time in Hip Hop as mainstream representation of women were more than lacking. Then her first crossover hit, “Superbass,” solidified her as the reigning Queen of Hip Hop; something that has yet to be topped despite a few threats. The 8x platinum single would set a tone for even more pop leaning moments on her follow-up Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.
YG – My Krazy Life
Release Date: March 18, 2014 | DX Rating: 3.0
good kid, m.A.A.d city was Kendrick Lamar’s album based on the hard choices that comes with living in the impoverished community of Compton. YG managed to provide a suitable alternative through My Krazy Life or, trails of a bad kid in an even worse city. Socio-economic context be damned, well, on the surface. Mainly backed by DJ Mustard’s production, the album felt like a throwback to old West Coast gangster rap tropes with unique contemporary twists. Then there are the numerous amounts of catchy club hits from “My Nigga” to “Who Do You Love” featuring Drake. In the era of “ratchet,” My Krazy Life stood above the rest by having heart.
Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – Twelve Reasons To Die
Release Date: April 16, 2013 | DX Rating: 4.0
The idea for future albums wrapped in this premise was unveiled here. Adrian Younge would compose some magical score, and then an emcee of Ghostface’ caliber would wrap his mind around it. The thing has gone on to create sultry collabo’s a few times now. Killah’s done it two more times since, and then there was last years PRhyme, which took to the nectar and poured itself a DJ Premiere and Royce Da 5’9 sized glass.
Nipsey Hussle – Crenshaw
Release Date: October 8, 2013 | DX Rating: N/A
The mixtape game has evolved enough for independent artists to depend on them tremendously at this point. Between that and streaming, music consumption has turned into delivering free music. Taking a different route, West Coast emcee Nipsey Hussle made a bold move by making his mixtape/album Crenshaw a purchasable product at the staggering price of $100 bucks. Sure, it was available for free. However, it inspired Jay Z enough to buy 100 copies of the project that also came with concert tickets among other things. On its own merit, it delivered exactly what Nipsey fans expect from the Fatburger franchise owner.
Joey Bada$$ – B4 Da A$$
Release Date: January 20, 2015 | DX Rating: 4.0
Barely 20 years old, Joey Bada$$ is the voice of post new New York. He harkens back without looking backward, and in an era where Tupac Shakur is clearly the thought whisperer of this rap generation, Joey channels B.I.G enough to balance out the rap scales. B4 Da $$ was also just very good, and Joey’s proven that surrounding himself with a (some would say) now defunct old NY sound may not be such a bad thing after all.
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Release Date: July 10, 2012 | DX Rating: 4.0
Forget the fever dream of a single in “Pyramids” wherein he compares strip clubs to the quenching of our capitalistic lust by takeover, wanton labor and death. Forget “Thinkin Bout You,” which is saccharine sweet and delicious. Forget the peaches and the mangos that you can sell for him. Channel Orange was a dreary walk through income inequality, misogyny, and survivors malaise all on one alt-R&B album. It defines the genre for good or ill in a way that cannot be undone.
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
Release Date: December 15, 2014 | DX Rating: 4.5
There were those who thought Black Messiah had been made already by Bilal, maybe, or by some other veteran of the Soulquarian movement? They were terribly mistaken. When D’Angelo let loose on the world this masterpiece damn near 15 years on from his previous dive into R&B dark water Voodoo, no one quite knew what to make of it. What was this voice barely brought above a whisper? What was this album, so unapologetically black you could hear the flour pop and the grease sizzle? Let’s not call it an album; let’s call it a solar return after the full eclipse that R&B had been as of late.
Kanye West – Yeezus
Release Date: June 18, 2013 | DX Rating: 4.5
Love it or hate it, Ye´ dropped an electro-rap album that lived in negative space. It was freakazoid and unnecessary in almost every way and it will never be done again. Some say thankfully. Others say that Death Grips do it all the time, but none of that matters. This was the greatest star of our time deciding to do something he himself described as “not musical.” Say what you want about Kanye West, but courage is not something he lacks, and in the process he created a one off that will never be duplicated.
7 Days Of Funk (Snoopzilla & Dam Funk) – 7 Days Of Funk
Release Date: December 10, 2013 | DX Rating: 4.5
The union of Dam Funk and Snoop Dogg couldn’t have come at a better time. Gemini Twin himself essentially created a lane for vintage G-funk since joining the Stones Throw family. Snoop, on the other hand, was still feeling the effects of that horrible Reincarnated reggae album with Diplo. Together, both created some good old throwback West Coast Hip Hop. Good enough to have tracks like “Faden Away” and “Do My Thang” almost feel like they would fit perfectly around the early-mid 90s. And is it any coincidence that after this album’s warm reception funk found its way back into the West Coast Hip Hop lexicon?
Tyler, The Creator – Goblin
Release Date: August 15, 2011 | DX Rating: 4.0
OFWGKTA took the world by storm at the beginning of the decade. We thought what would occur is this panacea of hyper self-aware kids making art in any which way they chose. We should have known better. Still, Goblin was a stab at making the Hip Hop version of Kids, and while it didn’t quite do that, the look into the teen mind was raw, incandescent and unfiltered. It’s affects also lingered over into the rest of the decade. See OVO, the Weeknd, Travi$ Scott and many, many more.
Beyonce – Beyonce
Release Date: December 9, 2014 | DX Rating: 4.0
Beyonce changed the game. Not only for pop, which it did with a sledgehammer to the face of every other so-called star out there, but for its pure IDGAF. It dropped out of nowhere. The first to do it on that scale and it has changed everything since. It proved release dates were essentially obsolete. It made albums get moved from being released on Tuesdays to Fridays. It proved Bey had cajones. She could have called up all the superstar songwriters and producers and crafted something shiny but plastic-y, and instead she recruited on the periphery, living and improving upon the tunes of music geeks like Boots. Bold isn’t the word.
J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive
Release Date: December 9, 2014 | DX Rating: 4.0
Cole’s been a long time coming. So has 2014 Forest Hills Drive. After two albums that didn’t do much to live up to his enormous potential, he released his third and most recent project at the tail end of what A$AP Yams called one of the disappointing years in rap history. We do not agree with that notion, and Cole may have saved that day. His personal foray into the trials and tribulations of growing up talented and black and then actually making it has wafts of “ To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” And he took that responsibility seriously. The response was also enormous, proving J. Cole may be the centerpiece of one of rap’s most talented generations.
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Release Date: May 3, 2010 | DX Rating: 4.0
In an interview last year, Flylo dropped some knowledge on where some of the most soothing sounds on Cosmogramma came from. Apparently, it came from the gentle breathing machines at his mother’s hospital bed. And as macabre as that is, it’s also a testament to his genius. Cosmogramma is Fly Lo’s most ambitious undertaking, and it took him from underground impresario to mainstream sensation. It also proved that the effects of L.A.’s Low End Theory soundscapes would be long felt. More of a test case than anything else at the time, Hip Hop has finally caught up. And just why wasn’t he included in the making of Yeezus? The world may never know.
Eminem – Recovery
Release Date: June 18, 2010 | DX Rating: 4.0
Eminem said it himself on Recovery track “Talkin 2 Myself” that Encore was the Detroit emcee on drugs and Relapse meant flushing them out. Past years of drugs and personal turmoil, it was safe to say that Recovery was the true comeback album many wanted. The hyperlyrical asswhole was more than present in “Won’t Back Down” featuring Pink and Rihanna’s assistance on “Love The Way You Lie” was pure pop gold. Recovery even had moments of maturity thanks to “Going Through Changes.” Simply put, Slim Shady proved why he remains one of Hip Hop’s reigning kings to this day. It’s rare artists within Hip Hop can impact popular culture during their later years but Em’ easily disproved the notion.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.
Ural Garrett is an Los Angeles-based journalist and HipHopDX’s Senior Features Writer. When not covering music, video games, films and the community at large, he’s in the kitchen baking like Anita. Follow him on Twitter @Uralg.