Halfway through 2015 and it’s clearly a better year than last year. Matter of fact, the first three months alone of the year have delivered some of the greatest moments in Hip Hopin quite some time. The level of diversity this year has only furthered the culture’s reach, giving fans of all kinds of Hip Hop a variety of unique flows, rhymes and beats from which to choose. Most importantly, releases this year represent Hip Hop’s reflection of new societal changes and attitudes.
The balances between high profile, major label and independent releases have normalized more than ever. Whether an album from Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug or even Action Bronson, compromise feels like a thing of the past. Total freedom (for better or worse) is the name of the game this year. Add some ear catching R&B into the mix and whatever the rest of the year has to offer sounds more exciting.
Without further adieu, HipHopDX presents the best 25 albums that 2015 has to offer so far. In an already extremely competitive year, these stood above the rest and are sure to last beyond something that pops up on your Twitter feed and disappears into the night.
*This list is in no particular order*
Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood – Sour Soul
Ghostface Killah hit a new creative zenith with the Adrian Younge assisted Twelve Reasons To Die. It was classic Pretty Tony with a vintage soundtrack and it all worked well in harmony. However, those wanting to know the results of Ghostface trading in lush big band sounds for smooth experimental jazz can look toward his BadBadNotGood collaboration Sour Soul. More compact and intimate than any album he’s put out thus far, the short 33-minute playtime is full enough to journey through a world filled with that trademark attention to non-sequitur lyrical detail.
Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth
Having had past label troubles with Atlantic, Lupe Fiasco managed to create a body of work that matched the heights of both Food & Liquor and The Cool through Tetsuo & Youth. His hyper lyrical ambitions never overtake him on insane opener “Mural” and his vivid imagery is just as poignant as ever if “Delivery” has anything to say about it. Throughout it all, his voice and vision become clearer and a whole lot more understandable. There are artists whose unsuccessful bouts with unforgiving label politics end up lifeless. Lupe manages to walk away with “No Scratches” and reminds Hip Hop why he’s so critical to the culture.
Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
For someone with as much vocal range as Jazmine Sullivan, her debut Fearless and follow-up Love Me Back felt somewhat muted. Both projects were nearly empty with beauty regardless of how solid they were. Taking a five year hiatus, Sullivan returned with an album that added more than enough personality to those golden pipes. Through Reality Show, the Philly native manages to find humanity in themes ranging from being the down-ass-chick similar to a female angled “Trap Queen” and woman dealing with a rapper on the rise to a robbery gone bad. While Sullivan’s singing remains as dynamic as ever, the album is made much more effective through strong songwriting.
Phony Ppl – Yesterday’s Tomorrow
Call them Centennials or Gen Z, but the group of folks after Gen Y are known for being nifty and not so much concerned with possessions and it showed on the group’s sophomore record. Yesterday’s Tomorrow is all about experiences. Gentle sunrises flush out into flirty nights like Slum Village with the edge off. The focus on instrumentation is real, as well. A genuine Hip Hop band, they are, with a bassist, saxophonist and guitarist as part of the six member flourish. They all work in harmony, too. And the result is a gentle nudge into the modern hippie’s starry night.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Dot unleashed two full years of introspective musing, a trip to Africa, and the anxiety that comes with success on us all at once in TPAB. It rollicked, filled to the brim with zooming quarter notes of jazz, and was replete with funkdafied tension. Not only did the thing end up being an emotional rollercoaster running through the history of African American music in America, Kendrick delivered a poem within a narrative structure one could only call novel-like. God, Lucy, homeless angels, sour friends, Tupac, fear and triumph all make an appearance, and at the eye of the storm was Kendrick Lamar sitting monk like as all his former and current selves made amends. Clearing the way for a future palette cleared of life’s debris.
Young Thug – Barter 6
Originally slated to be the sixth entry in Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter series, Young Thug almost felt like a willing pawn in his idol’s issues with label Cash Money as the Barter 6 neared release. By the time that moment came, the Atlanta rapper surprisingly managed to edge out into a lane of his own. Those expecting unfiltered Thugger found a more condensed and focused rapper who made even his guest features sound purposeful, including the two greatest verses of Birdman’s career so far. With production handled primarily by London on da Track and Wheezy, Thug managed to talk his best shit, and speak his mind exactly how he wanted while sounding the most articulate he’s ever sounded.
Ibeyi – Ibeyi
Ibeyi’s eponymous debut is witchcraft masquerading as an album. The sounds are tribal out-of-context and give off the scent of bush, sun, sea and love. The sisters are twins. Lisa Kainde´ Diaz and Naomi Diaz, and Ibeyi speak in a secret tongue (beyond Yoruba, something all their own) spread lush over minimalist production. It is the opposite of modern, and it calls out to you like a howl in the mitochondria of your cells. They beckon you, to some other life, to some other world.
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
How future soul outlet Hiatus Kaiyote managed to formulate an album even more musically complex and accessible than their challenging debut Tawk Tomahawk is beyond mind boggling. Regardless, the Melbourne, Australia natives pull it off with flying colors with sophomore follow-up Choose Your Weapon. Lead singer/guitarist Nai Palm sings with new levels of emotive attitudes while Perrin Moss delivers the band’s trademark polyrhythmic drums, basses Paul Bender thumps funk at various angles and Simon Mavin becomes even more dynamic as a keyboardist. It’s painfully obvious at this point why Salaam Remi signed them to his Flying Buddah label years ago. They’re bionic soul that’s rooted in strict traditions.
Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful
It was a smorgasbord. A feast overflowing with piano, Queens, Harleys in the desert and a musicality previously unseen in Bronson’s work. There was a Billy Joel musical dab smack in the middle of the old thing, and it only added to the narrative arc of Bronson’s foray into the diverse recipes and sounds of his native Flushing, Queens. He’d done some travelling, too, and with bleeding drums and strong baselines provided by Party Supplies, he managed to craft all those influences into a cohesive whole. Fuck, that’s delicious.
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
If you thought Doris was dark, then you were rudely awakened when things became even more so on Earl’s follow-up I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. As the story goes, the young OFWGKTA member on sabbatical was having label trouble just before the release of the project. No wonder, with not one radio single to be found or one upbeat jam to vibe to. Still, the brilliant Sweatshirt turned up a packed out House Of Blues with kids moshing and shouting every world of his multi-syllabic anthems to saddened, hyper-aware youth.
Oddisee – The Good Fight
There’s a preference for youth culture in America and so the world, which renders those of marginal middle age almost unworthy of attention. Their art is belittled if it hasn’t yet struck the generation of denizens that grew up with them, and forgotten if it hasn’t leaned backward into the realm of teenaged or 20-something concerns. Oddisee’s The Good Fight was a smack in the face of that sentiment, and it was the once a season grown up rap album filled with more contentment than braggadocio. With more choices made than choices left to make. The whole album was done with him behind the boards, and other than a few guest contributions he accomplishes on his own what most need a team of 20 to create.
Drake – If You’re Reading This Its Too Late
A day before Drake surprised the world with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Rap-A-Lot founder/CEO J. Prince had some harsh words for Diddy, Lil Wayne, Cash Money and Suge Knight. The following Tuesday night, Hip Hop slowed down for another incredible entry in Drizzy’s storied catalogue. Is anyone sure if it’s a mixtape or an album? That’ll involve years of discussion. One thing is for sure however, managed to make the biggest genre spectacle of the year so far. Not only did IYRTITL manage to go gold its first week without a physical release, each track from the album charted individually on Billboard’s Hip Hop/R&B charts. No surprising why it’s the best selling rap album of the year so far.
Ratking – 700 Fill
700 Fill was a doubling down on the machinations of NYC rap trio Ratking. It was a go hard 18 track bundle you could download off Bittorrent that ran like a long metaphor surrounding the concept of bubble jackets. The bubble jacket is classic cold-weather rap aficionado wear, probably only surpassed by its less practical and far flashier swaggy cousins in the 8 ball and Avirex jackets. Dense lyrically, Wiki and Rak traded barbs over slow beat breaks seen through the eyes of a crumbling NYC. Experimentalist, it managed to sound older without recalling old New York, a distinction that’s become more and more important over the years.
Big Sean – Dark Sky Paradise
Big Sean dropped the ball hard with his Finally Famous follow-up Hall of Fame, especially after his spectacular 2012 mixtape Detroit. Making the gossip rounds due to one particular relationship that went sour, a clear fire was lit under his back for the quintessential album of his career to date. Dark Sky Paradise is Big Sean’s official entry into the league of extraordinary emcees. Whether it was DJ Mustard’s signature production on “I Don’t Fuck With You” featuring E-40 or the extended version “Paradise,” the Detroit player has reached a new creative layer.
Heems – Eat Pray Thug
If someone told you, “Yo, former Das Racist emcee Heems is going to drop a super serious, political, love story album in which he exposes the middle eastern side of the 9/11 disaster” years ago when you were jamming to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” you wouldn’t have believed a word of it. Strangely, that’s what happened, and on an album whose soundscape changed dramatically between each cut, Heems poured his heart out with real tenderness and aplomb.
Da Mafia 6ix – Watch What U Wish
2013’s relaunch of Three 6 Mafia as Da Mafia 6ix was met with skepticism considering Juicy J’s obvious uninvolvement. Then 6iX Commandments was let loose and saw them returning to their horrorcore roots. Not a lick of their post- Most Known Unknown material was present, thankfully. All seemed right with the world. That was until the untimely death of Lord Infamous and Gangsta Boo’s departure. This is what makes Watch What U Wish such a triumph. Though Da Mafia 6ix seem handicapped on the surface, some wise moves make the project a lot more streamlined. That includes giving more screen time to La Chat along with several appearances from former No Limit emcee Fiend.
Joey Bada$$ – B4 Da $$
Could Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era serve their potential as saviors of New York traditionalism? Who cares? Malia Obama think the whole movement is cool and Jo-Vaughn Scott proved his worth on one of the best debuts of 2015 with B4 Da $$. Joey spit with urgency, playfulness, flash and emotion throughout the album’s 15 tracks. Most importantly, he stayed in line with a classic Joey Bada$$ sound that felt just contemporary enough to stand on its own. That structured soundtrack worked thanks to producers with as much pedigree as DJ Premier, Statik Selektah and Hit-Boi. Anyone with doubts about New York Hip Hop can be promptly escorted to this gem.
Rae Sremmurd – Sremm Life
Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown and Aaquil “Slim Jimmi” Brown literally came out of the blue last year with “No Flex Zone.” Having Mike WiLL Made-It as their creative pulse didn’t hurt much either. While many shrugged the two Tupelo, Mississippi off as potential “one-hit-wonders,” the Ear Drummers backwards boys managed to deliver hit after hit. “No Type” ended up being used in a slick way by IHOP’s Twitter while “Throw Sum Mo” became a new strip club anthem. For what it’s worth, their Interscope debut Scremm Life has yet to be topped this year for sheer unadulterated turn-up. The 45 minute affair is literally non-stop fun from beginning to end.
Vic Spencer – The Cost Of Victory
Vic Spencer is the elder statesman of a Chicago scene of young upstarts shouting (no, literally shouting) or dancing furiously (check that footwork stuff) and so his stuff seems sober in comparison. It isn’t. Rather, The Cost Of Victory, is a chanting on good music suffused with Vic’s signature realism and lamentation.
Curren$y – Pilot Talk 3
J.E.T. Life is a series of things. It’s a culture. Not just the dankiest of weed or the slickest ride, th member of Curren$y’s inner circle is betrothed to a kind of peaceful co-existence with the rap world around them. And Pilot Talk 3 is an extension of that mindstate. Each song rolls and dips through as though you were driving down some highway along a coast, sticky in hand with a pretty someone beside you. But Curren$y’s true worth is more subtle. His refusal to move in any way away from his core sound is his most fascinating feature, and it leads to a good ride every single time.
Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb
Tyler made an album and then went back and scrapped it, opting instead to create something that sounded more like his heroes than anything else. He succeeded. The syncopated sounds of the Neptunes are there as well as traces of punk, along with Tyler’s signaturely menacing synths divebombing onto records. He’s a master of sounds, and Cherry Bomb has something for just about everybody.
Open Mike Eagle – A Special Episode Of (EP)
This dude is high-key hilarious because he points out the abstract ways that we keep ourselves blind to the funny nonsense of cities and modernity and the Internet. He’s good because he slathers blips and bloops with real intellectuality, real emotion. A Special Episode Of (EP) satisfies in complicated ways Mike’s most basic need: “That my thoughts, that my life is important.” Indeed.
Tech N9ne – Special Effects
The rise of Strange Music throughout the past decade-and-a-half has helped inspire a new generation of independent Hip Hop. At this point in the career of company co-founder/ topdog Tech N9ne, there’s not left to prove yet manages to evolve yet again with album number fifteen. Special Effects features the most straightforward rap he’s done to date if mainstream is concerned thanks to tracks like “Hood Go Crazy” with 2 Chainz and “Bass Ackwards” featuring Lil Wayne, Yo Gotti and Big Scoob. One never to forget his core base, the Hopsin assisted “Psycho Bitch III” plus the highly anticipated “Speedom (WWC2)” exchange between Tech, Eminem and Krizz Kaliko is more than enough fan service.
Kehlani – You Should Be Here
Kehlani’s got next, for sure. And her brand of honest, street-wise R&B reminds of Aaliya or even Lauryn Hill. She’s no one’s something else, though, and the wise- beyond-her-years crooner has managed to create back-to-back projects that illuminate parts of the R&B landscape yet to be mined. You Should Be Here, though, separates her from her previous works because her sound is starting to show a shape of something. Call it Jhene Aiko but hood or Ciara with better songwriting, the young Kehlani hasn’t had to use her sexuality outwardly to get your attention. Now that she has it, let’s see how she evolves into her very bright future.
Fashawn – Ecology
Fashawn’s been through it. From wondering if his mother would succumb to her addictions to his own troubled childhood partially caused by that exact circumstance. But on a soaring album six years in the making, Fashawn makes the case for why Mass Appeal put so much faith into him. Faith is also a huge part of the album, and interwoven with the Exile led production, Fashawn shines brighter than he ever has. Perseverance and courage (enough to face your past as well as your future) propelled him, then, into one of the best albums of the year so far.
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.