Don't believe everything your earlobe catches: 2014 was chock-full of good rap music. It was a year where dynamic duos like Killer Mike and El-P, Royce Da 5'9" and DJ Premier, YG and DJ Mustard, and Freddie Gibbs and Madlib made spectacular albums. The last 12 months also saw some newcomers like Travi$ Scott and Schoolboy Q pop up and prove themselves more than worthy, while others, like J. Cole and Common, continued to extend their already solid discographies. The hype isn't real. Rap had a strong year. You just need the right ear to catch all of the good stuff. We've been spinning these projects nonstop, so without any further ado, here are the 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2014.
Wiz Khalifa rode the wave of his hit single 'We Dem Boyz' into the release of his 'Blacc Hollywood' album, the third major label LP he's done for Atlantic. Though that smash hit had a one-dimensional aspect to it, you have to know what to expect from the rhymer: weed smoke, arm candy and a whole lot of turn up. If you can't interact with the music on its own terms, the album might not be for you.
'Blacc Hollywood' is Wiz's "I made it" album. 'We Dem Boyz' is as celebratory of a song as they come, while 'Promises' sounds like a luxurious comedown. Songs like 'KK' and 'House in the Hills' allow the Pittsburgh, Penn. native to party with friends like Project Pat, Curren$y and Juicy J on wax, while later tracks like 'So High' (where Wiz jacks Juvenile's 'Ha' flow) and 'No Gain' allow for a little mellow reflection. Don't come to 'Blacc Hollywood' looking for history lessons and metaphysical philosophy. Wiz made an album about a young rapper partying his way to the top. Take it or leave it.
"Christian hip-hop" has never been very popular, but in 2014, Lecrae put the sub-genre on his back. 'Anomaly' is a beautiful project, crafted with more nuance than most rap albums from the past year. The LP opens with 'Outsiders,' a sweeping, string-driven song about what it's like to find out you're not alone. 'Welcome to America' finds Lecrae vulnerable over an invigorating S1 production, and 'Say I Won't' is risky territory for a guy who people like to put in the Christian rap box.
In fact, 'Anomaly' succeeds precisely because Lecrae refuses to be pigeonholed as one type of artist. A rapper closely tied to Christianity has never before enjoyed this kind of national success ('Anomaly' was the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 back in September), but on 'Anomaly,' the Houston native is more preoccupied with expanding and building his own unique sound than he is on proselytizing and moralizing. That's the true gift of 'Anomaly' -- knowing that artists with a message aren't always stiff and boring. Lecrae surprised a lot of people in 2014, but it's no shock he got a lot of buzz after you hear this album.
Schoolboy Q's official debut album is a platter of styles for fans new and old. 'Studio' with BJ the Chicago Kid has proven to be a breakout song for the TDE rapper, but it's the darker material on 'Oxymoron,' like 'Prescription/Oxymoron' and 'Break the Bank,' that really give the album its strength. Schoolboy's drug problem is a reoccurring theme throughout the LP, and how he chooses to examine himself is an integral part of what makes 'Oxymoron' such a fascinating listen.
Chicago isn't quite as dark as the media portrays it to be. Midwest hip-hop artists continue to explore the boundaries of rap music in fun ways, but kids like Chief Keef, Chance the Rapper and Tink are still incredibly young. Veteran guidance from a guy like Common could prove useful.
'Nobody's Smiling' works for two reasons: Common sounds comfortable and No I.D. sounds revitalized. Listening to this album on headphones will reveal a hidden wrinkle in the production on every new spin. The attention to detail is unparalleled in a lot of rap today, where tons of songs mush together and end up sounding the same. Together, the duo that's been money since 'Resurrection' brings a fresh new turn to Common's multifaceted career, and the help of young up-and-comers like Lil Herb, Dreezy and Vince Staples gives the project an electric feel.
Common doesn't sound self-absorbed and he's certainly not reaching for the dance floors. He simply comes home on 'Nobody's Smiling' with a refreshing sound. The album is melancholy and somewhat muddy, but there are flashes of hope as Com searches for answers in everyday encounters.
'Days Before Rodeo'
The most surprising project of the year by was Travi$ Scott's ''Days Before Rodeo.' People always knew the rapper was cutting edge behind the boards, but he had yet to translate that into a fully-formed piece of work. 'Days Before Rodeo' changes that.
The LP is being hailed by many as one of the best of 2014, although some say Travis is more of a biter than an innovator, as many songs rely on foundations laid by Atlanta artists of the moment like Young Thug, Migos and Rich Homie Quan. He also scooped some of the best rising producers in the game like Metro Boomin' and FKi to give the LP a cohesive feel. The project is essentially an encapsulation of the best music New Atlanta has to offer.
How much that has to do with Travis is up for debate, but seeing how he released the album, he at least deserves credit for putting all these little pieces together. Front to back, 'Days Before Rodeo' can soothe you, make you want to jump out of an airplane or both simultaneously. It's an album that perfectly samples popular rap du jour, and one that will be a symbol of rap music in 2014, as we head towards the future.
'My Krazy Life'
If a song comes on and you can't help but dance, that's good music. 'My Krazy Life' will make you dance, crip walk and throw up gang signs, thanks in large part to DJ Mustard's beats and YG's hooks.
'My Krazy Life' is, as many have said, 'good kid m.A.A.d. city' turned inside out. The album has a loose narrative arch that ends with YG in jail, singing the painfully piano-laden 'Sorry Momma' with Ty Dolla Sign. The album's slew of singles have given it life, but MKL's deep cuts are what make it a fully-formed album: Metro Boomin' switches up his sound on '1 AM' while 'Meet the Flockers' is a slick robbery tale.
This effort proves that YG and Mustard are perfect for one another. It allowed the West Coast rhymer access to a mainstream audience while the producer dictated the direction of the album. Sequencing by Def Jam's Sickamore also helps the LP flow, but it's really the chemistry between rapper and producer that made this hyper-West Coast album so excellent.
'2014 Forest Hills Drive'
The end of 2014 was a perfect storm for J. Cole. After visiting Ferguson and joining protests in New York, the Dreamville MC returned to his roots by making an album without any standout singles. His truly grassroots campaign of visiting fans who used Twitter to tweet him was a splash on social media, and he ended up with one of the biggest first-week sales rap has seen all year.
Before fans heard a single drop of '2014 Forest Hills Drive,' they trusted J. Cole to deliver, and he didn't disappoint. The entire LP plays smoothly without distractions or sore thumbs: 'January 28th' might be the apex of Cole's style -- both lyrically and on the boards -- '03' Adolescence' gets at the heart of growing up and 'Fire Squad' is an inflammatory but necessary State of the Union address for hip-hop.
'2014 Forest Hills Drive' is J. Cole's best album because it doesn't compromise. He gave the fans what they wanted and it never sounds dull or played out. Cole is a prime example of how to build a fan base, maintain it and then reward it.
Royce Da 5'9" & DJ Premier
For years, we've heard of dream collaborations that never came to fruition. 'PRhyme' is a fantasy fully realized, as Royce Da 5'9" is in top form over dusty, knocking DJ Premier beats. The Detroit MC is a rare specimen -- one that gets better with age -- and his focus on both technique and personal content doesn't waver across the nine-song album. He can spill into different rhyme schemes to tell a story or use a few short darts to get his point across. He's become elastic, never leaving a spot on the beat untouched. He's almost fastidious with his rhymes at this point, but the product is as clean as ever.
Premier's choice to sample Adrian Younge works like a charm, as it gives Primo the flexibility to chop vintage-sounding soul without the weight of clearance. He does just enough to lay the groundwork for Royce's dizzying performance, and with the help of Jay Electronica, Mac Miller, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and others, 'PRhyme' is easily one of the best rap records of 2014.
'Run the Jewels 2'
Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P are smashmouth hip-hop. They've both gone through many different phases of their career to end up here, and 'Run the Jewels 2' sounds like two artists hitting their sweet spot. Killer Mike is angry, emotional, hesitant, militant and much more. El-P's beats have taken on an added touch of subtlety that mellows out his more explosive side. Some of his lyrics on 'Oh My Darling (Don't Cry)' is a prime example of that. "You can all run naked backwards through a field of d---s / F--- the world, don't ask me for s---, that's word to B.I.G / I dreamt we owned the world, but I've woken up and it don't exist," he raps. Collaborators like Gangsta Boo, Zach de la Rocha and Boots also add some distinct new styles to the brew, making for what might be the best album of both Killer Mike and El-P's careers.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
2014 was the year of the duo, and no two artists made a better rap album than Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. The unforgiving Gibbs is hard as nails across all of 'Piñata' over Madlib's syrupy, spaced-out soul production. Whether Freddie's drunk on 'Robes,' ferocious on 'Real' or sentimental on 'Deeper,' he's always on point. Madlib's beats are some of his finest in years, and the fact that this album took so long to percolate is proof that sometimes, the best things just take time.