What’s in an album these days? Mixtapes and EP’s are full-on events now — if you can still call a mixtape a mixtape, — and they often present a purer aural vision for what an artist is trying to do. Contrast that with major label albums where the artist can be stifled by having to put forth a radio single (or four) or by sample clearances and a myriad of other obstacles. Often, the low-slung project without these issues becomes, unwittingly, the star. That said, 2015 has been a watershed year for music of all packages. So many albums were experiments gone right, lifting the genre into unknown spaces.

A few caveats, projects may have been excluded because of our cut-off date. We also opened up our voting process to freelancers (as we always do) and to trusted partners of the organization. So, as we do every year, we present our list of the 25 albums we loved the most in 2015.

Editor’s Note: This list is not ranked.

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To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

Released: March 16, 2015
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath Entertainment
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Ronald Colson, Sounwave, Rahki, 1500 Or Nothin, Taz Arnold, Whoarei, Pharrell Williams, Knowledge, Tae Beast, Thundercat, Love Dragon, Boi-1da, Stephen Kozmeniuk
Guests: George Clinton, Thundercat, Anna Wise, Bilal, Snoop Dogg, Rapsody, Assassin and Lalah Hathaway

If there was any talk about Kendrick Lamar inevitably hitting the sophomore slump it was quickly silenced with the release of To Pimp A Butterfly. Shifting gears from good kid, mAAd city, Kendrick decided to make a sonic snapshot of modern America from the lens of a young black man at a crossroads. The result? A perfectly put together album that touches on issues of race, identity and the inner struggles we all face. Some criticized its overall listenability from track to track, but as a whole To Pimp A Butterfly is nothing short of a masterpiece.

What We Said Then:

Thematically, TPAB finds Kendrick Lamar struggling with the trappings of mega-stardom. The Good Kid is now immersed in a mad industry and desperately gripping onto saneness. He’s in a dark place, surrounded by temptation. Everyone expects everything from him, expectedly. Everyone’s in his ear. The sublime “Institutionalized,” (featuringSnoop Dogg) finds Lamar lamenting a homie who got “charged” after a trek to the BET Awards. “Somebody told me you thinkin’ about snatchin’ jewelry,” he raps in the first verse, before retorting: “Remember steal from the rich and givin’ it back to the poor? / Well that’s me at these awards.”

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Dark Sky Paradise by Big Sean

Released: February 24, 2015
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: Mikely Adam, Rob Got Beats, Boi-1da, Da Internz, DJ Dahi, Jay John Henry, Amaire Johnson, L&F, DJ Mustard, Mike WILL Made It, Allen Ritter, T-Minus, Vinylz, Key Wane, Kanye West
Guests: Drake, Kanye West, E-40, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhene Aiko, Lil Wayne and John Legend, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Ariana Grande

It took Big Sean nearly a decade to do it, but on his 2015-released third studio album Dark Sky Paradise, the emcee successfully created a well-rounded release. Between the success of the E-40 collaboration “I Don’t Fuck With You,” the Drake and Kanye tete-a-tete “Blessings,” and the solid soul/pop single “Play No Games,” the singles all bear both Sean’s best bar-for-bar rapping and a level of lyrical insight not yet before seen by the rapper. While not yet eclipsing gold, for an emcee like Sean, who is oftentimes critically lambasted, to put out a release that’s actually the sum of its parts and sometimes more is noteworthy. Maybe the best thing about Dark Sky Paradise is that it offers tremendous hope for what’s to come in Sean’s still ascendant career.

What We Said Then:

There’s a key moment in “Deep” that describes Big Sean’s current mood. It’s from Lil Wayne, who contemplates why Sean doesn’t get enough shine because of his clean-cut image. “And it ain’t about if they remember you, they remember rap,” Wayne advises. “So just spit it back and hope somebody diggin’ that.” Whereas advice like this and the Kanye endorsement were enough reasons to pay attention to him, here Sean stepped it up lyrically to recreate the same energy that surrounded his release of Detroit. With Dark Sky Paradise, Big Sean is prepared to leave his mark.”

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The Documentary 2/2.5 by The Game

Released: October 9, 2015
Label: Ca$h Machine Records, eOne, Fifth Amendment Entertainment, Blood Money Entertainment
Highest Chart Position: #2
Producers: Mikely Adam, Rob Got Beats, Boi-1da, Da Internz, DJ Dahi, Jay John Henry, Amaire Johnson, L&F, DJ Mustard, Mike WILL Made It, Allen Ritter, T-Minus, Vinylz, Key Wane, Kanye West
Guests: Drake, Kanye West, E-40, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhene Aiko, Lil Wayne and John Legend, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Ariana Grande

Quietly, when not posting thirst trap pics on Instagram, Game‘s developed into one of rap’s most consistently excellent emcees still remaining relevant from the early 2000s “golden era.” The Documentary 2 wasn’t pushed back enough times to make us believe that it was Detox, but fans of one of the best coast’s hardest spitters were concerned. Not only did we get The Documentary 2, we even got The Documentary 2.5, and nearly 40 Game tracks later, if standout trap-funk boomers “100,” “El Chapo” and “Standing On Ferraris” don’t inspire you to commit 10 felonies upon hearing them, you’re not listening closely enough. An album featuring Game, Skrillex, Diddy, Drake, most of Top Dawg Entertainment, N.W.A. and many more was released in 2015. That, by itself, is amazing.

What We Said Then:

Speaking of flows, he’s more versatile with his cadences and flavor but doesn’t attempt to overtly imitate any one of his featured guests like on album’s past. And while there are many, many features – 18 different guests, to be exact – Game never loses the driver’s seat, even while Kendrick and Ab-Soul shine on “On Me,” and “Dollar and a Dream,” respectively.

“Game is once again able to capitalize on what has perhaps been his strongest skill to date, beat selection. Tracks like “The Ghetto” and “From Adam” lay down high-quality easels for both Jayceon and his guests to paint upon. Where this project sets itself apart is the instrumental combinations and sonic elements it employs.Unlike the bass heavy West Coast calling cards upon which Game has built his stellar discography and list of strong release including Documentary 2, this offering is more jazz and gospel than 808s and boom bap. Soulful percussion meets a lot of soprano and alto singing and even a capella, snapping and pianos when it really goes out on a limb.”

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Sremm Life by Rae Sremmurd

Released: January 6, 2015
Label: Eardrummers Entertainment, Interscope Records
Highest Chart Position: #5
Producers: Mike WILL Made It, Soundz, Sonny Digital, Young Chop, Da Honorable C.N.O.T.E, Swae Lee
Guests: Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, Jace, Big Sean

Most casual Hip Hop fans actually may not even have realized Rae Sremmurd dropped a full project this year due to the amount of singular smash singles they had. However, the Tupelo duo did, in fact, drop one of 2015’s best projects. Jam packed with only 11 tracks, the album doesn’t let up for one second. Each individual song is a hit in its own regard. And while its cohesiveness may be a bit lax, by taking the album for what it’s worth, SremmLife proves to be the post-crunk soundtrack to 2015’s party.

What We Said Then:

Defining New Atlanta right now, Mike WiLL is behind the majority of SremmLife’s uptempo sound. As the pool of beatmakers from The A keeps expanding, Mike WiLL is the established veteran of his class despite earlier known work with Miley Cyrus and Future. For SremmLife, he digs deeper into Hotlanta’s underground aesthetic to service eleven tracks of boundless energy. The results are entertaining more times than not. Opener “Lit Like Bic” features Lee giving listeners a glimpse of his current life of opulence: “Lit, lit, lit/Lit like Bic/Sremm Life shit/Been in by 6.” Over guitar strums and booming 808s, the intro sets a tone for young rap stars attempting to top whatever epic night held previously.

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If Youre Reading This Its Too Late by Drake

Released: February 13, 2015
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath Entertainment
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: PARTYNEXTDOOR, Ob O’Brien, Boi-1da, Sevn Thomas, Syk Sense, Vinylz, Frank Dukes, Noah “40” Shebib, Amir Obe, Most High, Wondagurl, Daxz, Eric Dingus, Jimmy Prime, Travis Scott
Guests: PARTYNEXTDOOR, Lil Wayne, Travi$ Scott

There was much leading up to Drake’s surprise release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Everything from the inner turmoil with the label he’d called home for nearly five years to some NBA player mentioning a mixtape had many thinking the world would finally get Views From The 6.  Well, it wasn’t exactly that, but IYRTITL could have been 2015’s first big moment in Hip Hop. His most aggressive release yet, having every track permeate Billboard’s Top 200 chart which could be considered a first within the genre. Helps that cuts including “Energy” and “Know Yourself” officially set the trend for Drizzy’s 2015 takeover.

What We Said Then

As a primer for his next album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late serves its purpose of showing his longevity in the game. On “6 PM in New York,” he goes off for nearly four minutes about his career successes and several rappers (Tyga, maybe Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and The Throne) who name-checked him that’s very characteristic of the 6 God. “Your content is so aggressive lately, what’s irking you? / Shit is getting so personal on your verses, too / I want to prove that I am Number one overall these niggas / Being number two is just being the first to lose.” It seems holding the title of Best Rapper Alive means a lot more to him now than airing out personal confessionals. At 28, he’s very much hitting his stride in Rap, using every transitional moment to add one more compelling chapter to his narrative.”

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Summertime ’06 by Vince Staples

Released: June 30, 2015
Label: ARTium / Def Jam
Highest Chart Position: #39
Producers: No I.D., DJ Dahi, Clams Casino, Brian Kidd, Christian Rich
Guests: Gareth Daley, Jhené Aiko, Joey Fatts, Kilo Kish, Snoh Aalegra, Haneef Talib, Desi Mo, A$ton Matthews

There wasn’t a major label debut released this year with such a radically nuanced coming-of-age tale steeped in Long Beach’s gang violence than Vince Staples. Summertime ’06 featured some incredibly vivid and poignant moments throughout its 59:04-minute timespan divided into two separate discs. Probably one of the year’s darkest releases, No I.D. along with several other top tier producers creates a bleak soundscape for the Ramona Park legend to spit his most thematically articulate rhymes to date. This more than Crip speak, it’s a young man in hell transitioning between coping with his reality and desperately trying to escape.

What We Said Then

The news that Summertime ‘06 would come packaged as a double-disc signaled vaguely lofty ambitions and sparked worries of filler. Instead, a drawn-out runtime wasn’t the cause for the extra disc as much as an attempt at intentional pacing. (At 57 minutes the album is less than ten longer than YG’s Def Jam debut last year). In an hour, Staples accomplishes plenty, roaming freely back through his formative crises and come-ups and grappling with how to present them to the world. No I.D. and company have helped him make music that’s both uncomfortable and lived-in, and Staples sounds more himself inside of it than ever before.”

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Dirty Sprite 2 by Future

Released: July 17th, 2015
Label: Epic Records
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: Metro Boomin, Tre Pounds, Southside, Ritter, Sonny Digital, Zaytoven, Frank Dukes, Cassius Jay, DJ Spinz and TM88
Guests: Drake

Out of all the highly anticipated and critically acclaimed projects to drop this year, nothing really comes close to Future’s DS2. As soon as he tweeted about dropping it, the Hip Hop world went into a Freebandz frenzy. The 13 track album, 18 if you count the bonus tracks, was filled top to bottom with everything we love about Future. The crooning vocals, the distinct production handled primarily by Metro Boomin and of course the predictably unconventional flows. There is no doubt that every track from “Thought It Was a Drought” to “F**k Up Some Commas” will be immortalized as trap anthems for years to come.

What We Said Then:

“Future continues to refine the druggy, codeine-varnished universe he created on 56 Nights, burrowing deep inside slurry productions with slashing flows, seemingly deepening the chasm in his tortured soul and numbing the pain with pharmaceuticals. Constantly conflicted, he lunges full thrust into a double cup.”

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Compton: A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre by Dr.Dre

Released: August 7, 2015
Label: Aftermath Entertainment, Interscope
Highest Chart Position: #45
Producers: Best Kept Secret, Bink, BMB SpaceKid, Cardiak, Choc, Curt Chambers, Cold 187um, DJ Dahi, Dem Jointz, Dontae Winslow, D.R.U.G.S Beats, Focus…, Free School, DJ Khalil, DJ Silk, DJ Premier, Theron Feemster, Trevor Lawrence, Jr.
Guests: Kendrick Lamar, King Mez, Justus, Marsha Ambrosius, Candice Pillay, BJ the Chicago Kid, Anderson. Paak, Xzibit, Cold 187um, Sly Pyper, Ice Cube, Jon Connor, Snoop Dogg, The Game, Asia Bryant, Jill Scott, Eminem

Hip Hop waited nearly 15 years for Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated third album Detox before making the announcement that he would scrap the project and move forward with Compton: A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre. Like previous full-length projects including his groundbreaking debut The Chronic and fairly solid follow-up 2001, it’s more of a compilation than a solo body of work. Thankfully, becoming Hip Hop’s first almost billionaire or having his former crew cinematically immortalized served as the right amount of inspiration he needed. Feeling more like a director than beatmaker with a slew of talent ready to spit rhymes at will, Compton features some of the best individual set-pieces of his over 30-year career. Even his ear for talent as remained as sharpened as ever due to appearances from Anderson .Paak, Justus and King Mez.

What We Said Then

Despite watching music change so rapidly over the decades, Dre still has an acute ear for sound; reflecting heavily in Compton’s production more influence by Maggot Brain era Funkadelic than Mothership Connection P-Funk sonics. The traces of G-Funk fit snugly with live instrumentation, digital wizardry, nostalgic nods and modern Hip Hop. Emotions run the gambit currently without feeling jarring. That’s because real human feelings aren’t always easy to grab ahold of. Dre’s attitude goes between wisdom and ignorance easily. Somewhere in the middle, moments like “It’s All On Me” delivers the most introspective lyrics of Mr. Young’s career. Like any great filmmaker, it’s all in the small details and Compton is full of them; ready to explore after each listen. “I must be doing something right word to my nigga Eazy,” The Doctor says almost like an incantation before the Ruthless Records founder’s voice appears on track four. Compton is Dre’s eye-witness proclamation of his past, present, and future wrapped in a slick post-Obama package. Consumed before or after viewing Straight Outta Compton only adds an extra layer of context. Then again, on its own merit, Dr. Dre’s third and final album will become the official beginning for West Coast Hip Hop’s renaissance.”

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B4 Da $$ by Joey Bada$$

Released: January 20, 2015
Label: Pro Era, Cinematic Music Group
Highest Chart Position: #5
Producers: Statik Selektah, Lee Bannon, DJ Premier, Freddie Joachim, Kirk Knight, J Dilla, Hit-Boy, Basquiat, Chuck Strangers, Sam I Am, ASTR
Guests: Action Bronson, Elle Varner, Kiesza, Raury, Dyemond Lewis, Maverick Sabre, Chronixx, BJ The Chicago Kid

Joey Bada$$ has been cornered by pundits for sticking to the proverbial New York script. You see, all the flavor seems to have escaped up through the steel grates and into the great city’s night. Now, it seems, more than ever, that there is no “other” New York. That everything is up-charging and rent increases. That everything is sleazy landlords kicking out brown’s and replacing them with pink. That the New York that created Nas and Hov and Big is a goose who can lay no more eggs. Standing in direct contradiction to that is Joey and his task is fraught with the inconsistencies of urban blight made right. What is the “New York” sound, anymore? Who’s to know. But if there is one out there, still, then Joey’s close. B4 Da A$$ wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t necessarily an update, even. But it was proof that there exists more gold in that cobblestone than we imagined. It proved that New York was relevant, still.  

What We Said Then

Joey Bada$$ has aligned the release of his debut album with his 20th birthday and the title, B4.Da.$$, seems like an attempt to neatly encapsulate the teenage years that led up to this moment. In the two-and-a-half years since the release of Joey’s breakout mixtape,1999, the Hip Hop collective he helped jumpstart as a high-schooler has thinned out. Beginning with the heartbreaking suicide of Pro Era rapper Capital STEEZ in 2012, even more sorrow came last month when Bada$$’s cousin and manager passed last month.”

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Tetsuo & Youth by Lupe Fiasco

Released: January 20, 2015
Label: Atlantic Records
Highest Chart Position: #14
Producers: DJ Dahi, S1, Blood Diamonds, MoeZ’art, M-Phazes, Vohn Beatz, DJ Simonsayz, Marcus Stephens, and The Buchanans
Guests: Ab-Soul, Billy Blue, Trae Da Truth, Glasses Malone, Buk of Psychodrama, Trouble, Fam-Lay, Terrace Martin, Nikki Jean, Guy Sebastian, Ayesha Jaco, and Crystal Torres

Here’s a fun game to play: put Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth into a separate playlist and order the album in reverse. It’s likely the only album in 2015 that sticks to the same pace, energy, message, meaning even when inverted. “Mural” is incredible as an album opener or closer, for example. That’s largely because of seasonal interludes “Spring,” “Fall,” “Winter,” and “Summer” acting as palate cleansers, but it’s also due to the effectiveness of each track separately and collectively. T&Y is Lupe Fiasco with The Force on full. He’s returned to the narratives, returned to nuance and in some ways, returned to the reasons his audience fell in love with his art in the first place. The Chicago-emcee is one of the best to ever do it. Out of the five records he’s released since his 2006 bumrush, three are revered at worst, and classic at best. Whether played backward or forwards, from the mic to plug, Tetsuo & Youth is a staunch confirmation of Lu’s legacy.

What We Said Then:

“Tetsuo & Youth glistens with maturity and imagination. Where the Judo Master Of Juxtaposition has grown more challenging lyrically, he’s also grown more naturally emotive. In place of frustration and petulance lives a warmth present for the first time in Fiasco full-length history; as if he’s reached a new checkpoint in the development of his patented simple-complexity; as if making music is again fun for him. Nostalgia is a beast no artist can evade so comparing this album to his previous work is an exercise in ineptness. Whether it’s better than The Cool or worse than Food & Liquor is a distraction. Tetsuo & Youth deserves its own exalted podium.”

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At. Long. Last. A$AP by A$AP Rocky

Released: May 26, 2015
Label: Polo Grounds Music, RCA Records, A$AP Worldwide
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: Danger Mouse, DJ Khalil, Delgado, Royal G, Klimeks, Merrick, S.I.K, THC, Jim Jonsin, Finatik N Zac, Vulkan the Krusader, Lord Flacko, Plu2o Nash, Nez & Rio, Walton, Kanye West, Che Pope, Juicy J, Da Honorable C N.O.T.E., Mernick, Mark Ronson, Hudson Mohawke, Thelonious Martin, and D Dot Omen
Guests: Kanye West, Joe Fox, Bones, Future, M.I.A, Schoolboy Q, Juicy J, James Fauntelroy, Lil Wayne, Mark Ronson, Miguel, Rod Stewart, A$AP Yams, Mos Def, Acyde

A$AP Rocky lost his best friend and consigliere in A$AP Yams on January 18, 2015. He drifted inward, not talking about the incident for months as media sought to draw out his grief and blot it into headlines. He and the rest of the A$AP crew generally refused, protecting the image of Yams until the New York Times reported that he died of some mix drugs and sleep apnea. He himself has used his own hazy metropolitanism to craft a carefully flaunted persona. Awash in psychedelics, parties and Europeans he created the big budget studio album At. Long. Last. A$AP but with a twist. He found new collaborator Joe Fox on the street in Paris. It felt like a revelation. That Rocky would welcome in a hobo like musician living the bohemian existence he once crafted with the A$AP crew. It seemed to allow him a modicum of rest, that he could rely on someone whose musical vision wasn’t swirling from one model to another. From one long night into breaking day to another. The result was one of the best albums of the year and the best work of Rocky’s career.

What We Said Then

“Culture can often be a summation of things or, said another way, a kind of movement through the sludge of too many thoughts. At times, A$AP’s sophomore effort feels like this, but this is not a knock against it. Such is the world we live in, where a word like “curation” has seemingly gone viral and is now an indigestible gum slathered to the side of our collective rib cages. But, its focus on breadth is also part of its charm, and although the project is 18 songs deep it does not feel rushed through, but rather lived through. And, as such, it becomes a gallery exhibition of a breadth of experiences not seen on walls all too white, but out in the streets, in the clubs, and in your dreams.”

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The Beauty Behind The Madness by The Weeknd

Released: August 28, 2015
Label: Republic
Highest Chart Position: #1
Producers: Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville, Illangelo, Max Martin, Danny Boy Styles, Stephan Moccio, Ben “Billions” Diehl, Million $ Mano, Ali Payami, Mike Dean, Kanye West, Labrinth, Che Pope, Peter Svensson and Omar Riad
Guests: Labrinth, Ed Sheeran, and Lana Del Rey

On Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd — the crown prince of rhythm and drugs — dove deep into his growing bag of tricks and by surprisingly unearthing the essence of Michael Jackson, created a potent mix that made him a superstar. “I Can’t Feel My Face” was ubiquitous because everything about the track feels like MJ’s “Off The Wall.” Amazingly enough, if you ask everyone from teenage trappers to suburban soccer moms who hummed the single if they knew it was an ode to cocaine abuse, they’d probably be surprised. The Weeknd’s album is a great study in how in encasing a brutal truth — Weekend’s a druggy lothario full of bad intentions — in a down comforter of lies (aka, The Weeknd is not Michael Jackson…but he sounds just like him), we prove that people always value comfort over common sense.

What We Said Then:

“The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness opens with ‘Real Life,’ a ballad set over haunting synths in which The Weeknd sings that ‘every woman he loves, he pushes away.’ It closes with ‘Angel,’ a lovelorn yarn that’s the closest thing to a lyrical and stylistic attempt at recreating Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ that soul music’s ever heard. In and of itself, that’s impressive. In the middle, pop superstars like producer Max Martin and Grammy beloved artists like Lana Del Ray and Ed Sheeran create terrific songs within The Weeknd’s bizarre drug, sex-addicted universe. This isn’t an album as much as it is a burgeoning pop epic that’s likely to develop into something more ostentatious. Beauty Behind The Madness is The Weeknd’s superstar coming out party.”

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Rodeo by Travi$ Scott

Released: September 4, 2015
Label: Epic Records
Highest Chart Position: #3
Producers: Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, Ritter, Frank Dukes, Dean, Zaytoven, Million $ Mano, WondaGurl, DJ Dahi, Ben Billions, Illangelo, The Weeknd, TM88, Southside, Kanye West, Eestbound, Noah Goldstein, Darren Charles King, Charlie Heat, Pharrell, FKi, 1500 or Nothin and Terrace Martin
Guests: ScHoolboy Q, Toro y Moi, Justin Beiber, Young Thug, Kanye West, Swae Lee, Chief Keef, The Weeknd, Kacy Hill, Juicy J, Future, 2 Chainz and Quavo.

Perhaps one of the most explosive 2015 runs was from the notoriously erratic Travis Scott. Having arguably the two biggest songs of the summer, Scott was able to raise his stock through the roof  leading up to the release of his official debut album. Both “Antidote” and “3500” have made a serious impact on the latter half of 2015 and most definitely into 2016. The album as a whole was able to capture Scott’s fiery creativity while maintaining a solid listenability that left you wanting more. Rodeo will, without a doubt, be a big influence for new artists dropping music in the new year.  

What We Said Then:

Rodeo‘s back end after “Antidote” begins to mesh together and gets repetitive. Of course, this is a familiar symptom of debut albums and of the trap style sound Scott is purveying. Nonetheless, the originality of Scott’s sound within this new movement provides for a strong rookie effort leaving the listener excited for a career that is just getting started”

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The Good Fight by Oddisee

Released: May 5, 2015
Label: Mello Music Group
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Oddisee
Guests: Maimouna Yousef, Nick Hakim, Gary Clark Jr. and Tranqill

Mello Music Group’s flagship emcee/producer fought The Good Fight and easily won the hearts of Hip Hop. One good listen to Oddisee’s opus is a clear indicator of not only the Washington D.C. native’s internal and external creative battle but spoke to many in his position who attempt to make credible additions to the culture without economical compromise. There isn’t a better example than highlights including “Contradictions Maze” where he battles the urge to play Xbox or eat Steak Shake for the sake of furthering himself. Even his minor gains as an artist lend him trouble with other artists on “Meant It When I Said It.”

What We Said Then

For the making of The Good Fight, Oddisee shut out all musical interference. This is a difficult thing, but like an actor going on an extreme diet to unnaturally slim down for a role, dedication is the womb of great art. So it goes, then, that the lava pit of anger lurking a fortnight under Amir Mohamed el Khalifa has been replaced by a certain contentment — calm that lingers over his new work. On “Want Something Done” he illustrates the trap of success endlessly repeated in different works of black art. If it’s not Kendrick having a debilitating case of success anxiety, it’s Bamboozles take on the absurdity of becoming part of a system that seems to despise you. He also reveals the calm spoken about earlier, letting the anger of having to do it all himself wash over him without chasing it to the detriment of his music. He starts the very next song featuring Maimouna Youseff with “I wanna make non-stop profit. l wanna make a non-profit” as he dives into the complicated miasma of modern choice. The concept of choice is also one of this album’s strong suits. It asks you a question over-and-over: Are you willing to sacrifice for your dreams?”

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It’s Better This Way by Big K.R.I.T.

Released: October 14, 2015
Label: N/A
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Big K.R.I.T., Kenneth Whalum, Wolfe De Mçhls
Guests: Warren G, DJ Drama, K Camp, Ludacris, Young Dolph, Wolfe De Mçhls, Big Sant, DeLorean, Scar, BJ the Chicago Kid

Big K.R.I.T. mixtapes always sound as if he’s at his most free creatively. Coming from arguably last year’s best album Cadillactica, It’s Better This Way sounds directly for those day-ones fans turned off by his current sonic advancements. However, that doesn’t mean Krizzle is stepping backward. He uses the same forward funk progression from his sophomore album and refines it for those yearning for something more along the lines of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here or Return Of 4eva. There isn’t any evidence of that notion then trunk rattles of “86” or “How Bout That Money.” Those classic introspective Krizzle moments are also available through “In The Darkness” and “Vanilla Sky.”  He also gives room for production from Kenneth Whalum and Wolfe De Mchis; a first for any K.R.I.T. mixtape.

What We Said Then

Mark Twain also said: “Loyalty to country, always.” Many otherwise talented artists completely succumb to radio tastemakers in an effort to steer their careers towards mainstream spotlight, but Big K.R.I.T. continues to remain loyal to his country roots and sole pilot of his creativity– continuously wrecking and flexing for those who respect his efforts. On the finale and title track, the artist finally puts perplexed fans’ frustrations to rest by explaining how his outcast, underground celebrity is “better this way.” Despite the fact that K.R.I.T. is undoubtedly on par with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake, etc., his nonexistence from the radio cannot possibly be theorized in any realm outside of fiction. But as his new mixtape simultaneously proves and explains, it’s better this way.”

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Mr. Wonderful by Action Bronson

Released: March 23, 2015
Label: Vice Records
Highest Chart Position: #7
Producers: The Alchemist, Mark Ronson, Noah “40” Shebib, Omen, Party Supplies, Statik Selektah, 88-Keys, Oh No
Guests: Big Body Bes, Meyhem Lauren, Chauncy Sherod, Chance the Rapper and Party Supplies

New York-based chef-turned-stream of consciousness lyricist supreme Action Bronson‘s Mr. Wonderful — like 80s WWF performer Paul Orndorff’s whose nickname the album’s title is eponymous — is an album that is based in classic swagger, true school braggadocio and enough lyrical potency to not make you want to believe for a second that his words aren’t on steroids, too. Everybody gets in on the act here even including Drake’s right-hand man Boi-1da who keeps a left-field swirl in the top end, while letting the bottom end thump in a most classically “New York” manner on “Actin’ Crazy.” However, leave it to fellow Big Apple resident Meyhem Lauren to sum up Mr. Wonderful the best on “Falconry” when he says, “I’m New York before it turned into a bike lane.” Perfect.

What We Said Then:

“The Queens rapper’s new album, his first as a major label artist, keeps pace with his recent developments but extends some of the experimentation. Bronson is singing more, rapping a little less, and allowing lengthy stretches of instrumental space. It’s a combination that might alienate some of his rap-hungry-fans, but the transition is neither a surprise or a major label bait-and-switch. Tellingly and thankfully, the most out-of-pocket moves on Mr. Wonderful aren’t uncharacteristic appeals to radio but cases of its artist leaning further into the territory he’s been hinting at.”

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Yung Rich Nation by Migos

Released: July 31, 2015
Label: 300 Entertainment, Quality Control
Highest Chart Position: #17
Producers: Honorable C.N.O.T.E, Zaytoven, Murda Beatz, OG Parker, Deko, DJ Durel
Guests: Chris Brown, Young Thug

The Migos would like everyone to remember that “Pipe It Up,” the song that invented the “dab” dance that’s literally sweeping the nation began with Yung Rich Nation. Their debut was nothing anyone thought it would be. Features were sparse, almost discordant affairs and they were also reeling from having to turn in an album without their rap ombudsman Offset, who languished in prison on trumped up weapons charges. They persevered, doubling down on trying to create a body of work that went beyond typical Migos fair. In that way, they succeeded, with their weirdest joints being some of their best ones. Take “Highway 85” for example, which had everyone scratching their heads as Migos went N.W.A. and “Gangsta Rap,” which is something Ice Cube could easily have rapped on. Though, despite their straying from their lane, the thing with lasting appeal has been uber-catchy singles like “One Time,” the aforementioned “Pipe It Up” and the birth of a craze that’s seen the second half of the year become a lot more fun.

What We Said Then

“The best moments are always the most unexpected and features two fantastic takes on early 90s West Coast gangsta rap fused with contemporary Atlanta. “Highway 85” starts with Quavo proclaiming “We go N.W.A. nigga” before finding inspiration by Eazy E’s simplified yet aggression flow. One listen, it’s fairly obvious producer Honorable C.N.O.T.E.(who handles a little under half of YRN’s production) has been finding some wise inspiration. The second vintage West Coast/Atlanta hybrid comes in “Gangsta Rap” which is codeine slowed with a Bay Area groove.”

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Indie 500 by Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder

Released: November 6, 2015
Label: Jamla / Javotti
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: 9th Wonder, Nottz, Hi-Tek, Eric G, Khrysis, E.Jones
Guests: Tef Poe, Rapsody, Problem, Bad Lucc, Niko Is, Pharoahe Monch, Slug, Add, K Valentine, Chris Rob, Jessica Core, MK Asante, Halo, Brother Ali, Planet Asia

Both Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder have worked with each other before as one could look toward tracks like “To The Music” featuring Maino for an example. However, a fully complete project between the two had to make its way into the world eventually. The Jamla and Javotti collaborative project could be considered this year’s celebratory album for every fan of contemporary underground rap. This just isn’t some emcee/producer album either as the guest list is full from top to bottom with spectacular featured verses including Rapsody, Problem, Bad Lucc, Pharoahe Monch and Planet Asia among other.

What We Said Then

Ultimately, Indie 500’s message is a muddy mix of wealth, poverty, fame, and inequality that caters to those favoring Hip Hop’s underground sect. The beats, much like the rhymes overtop them, take inspiration from various influences, and while some may point to a lack of continuity, others will find that Indy 500’s variation serves to keep it interesting and enjoyable.”

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Raging Waters by Curtiss King

Released: September 29, 2015
Label: Magnate Music
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Curtiss King
Guests: Bee Tarver, Brooke Taylor, Tone P, walterFRENCH, Daylyt, Stevie Crooks, Miss Chief, Kassy

When a producer bearing the level of top-tier craftsmanship and professional experience of Curtiss King is allowed to sit in a studio and rap, produce and curate his own album, excellence results. Three years after his debut, King returns with credits from Murs and Ab-Soul to his name and a deep desire to create with an expanded sonic palette. Fellow producers like Tone P end up here, as well as battle rapper Daylyt, too. If wanting to hear a release that best showcases what happens when independent-minded creatives are allowed to execute without the demands and expectations of major labels, you get this mellifluous and entertaining album.

What We Said Then:

“It was a long three-year process aside from just music it was a life transition for me and things are really in a great space right now and when I created it, I just had the ultimate freedom just to do what I wanted to do creatively. Imagine you waking up in your comfortable bed and you wake up the next day and you’re in the middle of the ocean and you can’t see land for miles on either side and that’s what life felt like for the last three years.”

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Deeply Rooted by Scarface

Released: September 4, 2015
Label: Facemob Music
Highest Chart Position: #11
Producers: Mike Dean, Puf Don, Chuck Heat, Luke Walker, Nottz, Ervin Pope, J-Baum, M.Mac, Kardiak, Amir Epstein, DJ Buddha, Arthur MacArthur, N.O. Joe, Key
Guests: Papa Rue, Z-Ro, Rush Davis, Nas, Rick Ross, John Legend, Avant, Ceelo Green, Akon, Alex Isley

Scarface made a noteworthy comeback in 2015. The now svelte legend went independent releasing Deeply Rooted on the sheer strength of his magnanimous reputation. He then proceeded to create a deeply resonant body of work, full to the brim of his dexterous wordplay. It also features a bevy of guests most independent artists couldn’t hope to get in the likes of Nas and Rozay. But what is most important about the album is its deep connection to Houston, a city whose musical legacy has grown divided in the past few years.

What We Said Then

“Musically, Deeply Rooted is low-key, superbly playing to Scarface’s strengths. Piano loops and thick drums draw in the listener while allowing Scarface to take center stage on several tracks, providing the album with a cohesive feel without sounding repetitive. Occasionally, as on “God,” there’s a soulful, epic feel, but most tracks have the back-to-basics feel that befits the record. Like the production, the collaborations complement Scarface without upstaging him. Nas and Rick Ross are strong on “Do What I Do,” while Papa Reu, Z-Ro, Rush Davis, CeeLo Green and Avant all provide smooth vocals throughout the album. On each and every track, though, it’s clear this is Scarface’s show.”

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Free TC by Ty Dolla $ign

Released: November 13, 2015
Label: Taylor Gang, Pu$haz Ink, Atlantic
Highest Chart Position: #14
Producers: Ty Dolla $ign, Wiz Khalifa, Cardo, DJ Mustard, Chordz, Mike Free, DJ Spinz
Guests: Kendrick Lamar, Brandy, James Fauntleroy, E-40, Jagged Edge, Babyface, Trey Songz, Sevyn Streeter, Big TC, D-Loc, Kanye West, Diddy, Wiz Khalifa, Fetty Wap, Future, Rae Sremmurd, YG, Joe Mosses, TeeCee4800, R. Kelly, Sa-Ra, PJ

One would be pressed to find R&B that reaches back into its storied past through collaborations with Babyface and R Kelly to more contemporary vibes of Sevyn Streeter and Fetty Wap on Ty Dolla $ign’s ratchet epic Free TC. While Ty Dolla $ign’s debut is full of club bangers that stretch into full Hip Hop, the more traditional genre moments compliment, surprisingly, the more progressive ends. The deeper meaning behind Free TC is made clearer as we witness one of this generation’s rising hitmakers always place his currently incarcerated brother on this mind even when managing his “Horses In The Staples” or pouring up with Future and Rae Sremmurd on “Blase.”  

What We Said Then

And, while the public ear has gotten accustomed to explicit sexuality in lyrics, Ty plays with both sides of the spectrum here. He doesn’t go as far as R. Kelly’s late year new millennia masterpiece TP-2.com, but he’s explicit when he needs to be. Here’s the thing, though, Ty is often drowned out by his many co-conspirators. Sometimes, in a Scottie Pippen sort of way, he allows his features to dictate the direction of the music. This happens most prominently when the bigger guns come out. Kanye West and Diddy’s “Guard Down” comes to mind here. But, and let us say this, the song will be a campfire hit in the vein of Rihanna’s “Four Five Seconds.”

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GO:OD AM by Mac Miller

Released: September 18, 2015
Label: Warner Bros.
Highest Chart Position: #4
Producers: Tyler The Creator, I.D. Labs, Thundercat, THC, Sounwave, Sha Money XL, Foley, Christian Rich, Chammas, Charlie Handsome, FKi, Frank Dukes, Sevn Thomas, Drew Byrd, Sledgren, DJ Dahi, Vinylz, Little Dragon, Badboxes
Guests: Ab-Soul, Chief Keef, Lil B, Miguel and Little Dragon

Taking a break from the drugged out, promethazine driven edge we have recently been accustom to, Mac Miller’s third studio album is as refreshing as it is good. GO:OD AM does a great job of highlighting what Mac is best at; rapping. It actually might low-key be the most technically good rap album of these past 12 months. The rhymes are incredibly on point and there is a nice balance in the musicality. Whether you are listening for a little turn-up, introspective, catchy or even spacey, Mac delivered a project that has a something for everyone.

What We Said Then

“If Miller’s sophomore album was a stepping stone that allowed him to climb above his partying past, GO:OD AM serves as a wake-up call for those that think his music is still best suited for frat parties. With a bright future ahead of him, Miller has positioned himself for career longevity, so long as he can keep his demons behind him.”

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Late Knight Special by Kirk Knight

Released: October 30, 2015
Label: Cinematic Music Group
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Kirk Knight, Them People
Guests: Joey Bada$$, The Mind, Mick Jenkins, NoNameGypsy, Thundercat

It’s fascinating how one group of people can produce projects that are so similar to each other and yet so different. Such is the case with Kirk Knight and Joey Bada$$ (who said in an interview with us that Kirk would be the upcoming focus). Kirk’s project Late Knight Special defies all expectation. It’s thoroughly New York, rough around the edges and tough, but it’s also layered with beats and rhymes that are not as straightforward as Pro Era’s de facto leader. His ability to weave into and out of his own beats feel seductive, and though he can be more serious than this Pro Era teammate, he hold his own just fine.

What We Said Then

Late Knight Special is a sonic oeuvre of contemporary East Coast Hip Hop rooted in tradition, yet stunningly present. After years of being second to Joey in the Pro Era pecking order, Kirk steps out in grandiose fashion, asserting himself and his art with the utmost confidence. The Golden Era inspiration on his sound is apparent, though hardly definitive of his music as a whole; rather, Kirk is expounding upon a foundation already in place. RZA and Kanye are still doing their thing, while Kirk has made a strong case for being the new transformative producer to grab the baton, sprinting into a new decade of Hip Hop.”

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Home Sweet Home by Rapper Big Pooh & Nottz

Released: November 13, 2015
Label: Mello Music Group
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Nottz
Guests: Novej, Jared Evan, Kenneth Whalum III, Eric “Blakk Soul” Keith

Rapper Big Pooh is now, officially, out of the shadow of Little Brother. This project set his trajectory on a path that is completely his own. The slick, headbangers Nottz (one of the most underrated beatsmiths in Hip Hop history) cooked up marry well to the hardbody flows of Pooh. He’s always been a rapper’s rapper, edging on the linear, dealing with issues that some considered too down-to-earth. On Home Sweet Home, he turns those critiques into strengths Steph Curry style, forcing his peers and listeners to acknowledge the superiority of his latest work.

What We Said Then

Pooh’s lyrics resonates with the listener for a number of reasons, though Nottz’s production absolutely plays a role. As the album ebbs and flows, the beats only get stronger. For some producers, the Golden Era scratch-and-cut beats still prevail, while others are opting for the Metro Boomin mode of sound. Nottz strikes a nice balance between the two, with beats that are still predominantly drum-driven, but not entirely what we’re used to. “Fries” is laid back smoke out music, while the catchy saxophone solo that rides out “Prom Season” is a rare instance of live instrumentalization. One of the more prevailing themes of his production is the layering of multiple tracks (“Home Sweet Home”), which offers a glimpse into the complexity of Nottz’s musical ear, and also provides a sufficient vibe for Pooh’s club night-gone-wrong story-rap.”

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Twelve Reasons To Die II by Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge

Released: July 10, 2015
Label: Linear Labs
Highest Chart Position: N/A
Producers: Adrian Younge
Guests: RZA, Raekwon, Scarub, Vince Staples, Chino XL, Lyrics Born, Bilal

The all-analog singularly produced Twelve Reasons To Die II is close to its predecessor in spirit but is even more beautifully produced. The second installment sees Face get back with musical genius Adrian Younge and the instrumental polymath has once again created a soundscape for Ghostface’s non-sequitur flow. Add in some Wu elements, most notably RZA and Raekwon, and the noir tale takes on the feel of a supernatural spaghetti-western version of Ironman. That’s more than enough for us.

What We Said Then

“Though never a household name, Ghostface Killah has spared no opportunity to extend his brand as the unspoken savior of the Wu-Tang Clan’s legacy. Amongst his tireless run of projects there’s been his well-regarded solo discography (including Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, a foray into R&B), an audio book with MTV, the Wu-Block group project with The Lox’s Sheek Louch and an awkward appearance on television’s “Couples Therapy”, proof positive that his ambition is truly limitless. An elder who has survived multiple generations and outlasted former peers (not to mention flash in the pan sensations), Ghost can do little to no wrong in the eyes of his devoted cult following.”