10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013
One word instantly comes to mind when you think of hip-hop in 2013: busy.
From the budding superstars eager to earn their stripes to the aging icons looking to prove they can still rhyme with the best of ‘em — and every category of artist in between — this year felt like we were cheerfully seated at the end of an assembly line as rap album after rap album dropped into our lap.
When was the last time Jay Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Drake and Lil Wayne all released a record within the same year? Didn’t fancy the mainstream moguls? There was Mac Miller, Kid Cudi, Tyler the Creator or Danny Brown to turn to. Or if, like Biggie, you wanted that old thing back, Ghostface Killah, N.O.R.E. and El-P and Killer Mike had you covered.
The only thing missing this year was an album from Jay Electronica, but you know how that goes.
After gladly revisiting this big ol’ stack of albums that were released this year, we highlight the 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013. – Andy Bustard
‘Yeezus’ is not exactly Kanye West’s best album, but that was never his intention. “‘Dark Fantasy’ can be considered to be perfect,” he told BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe during their unforgettable interview in September. “I know how to make perfect, but that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to crack the pavement and break new grounds sonically and in society, culturally.” And, boy, was he right.
With the late-arriving guidance of legendary producer Rick Rubin, Yeezy’s sixth solo album was a merciless sonic experimentation; a catastrophic collision of genres and influences from which a concise and thoroughly compelling 10-track package walked out alive. ‘Yeezus’ may have scared some listeners away with the project’s grueling beats and brash attitude (we can thank the “classist” fashion industry for that), but Mr. West didn’t send us on our way without a dose of that vintage, pre-‘Graduation’ soul with ‘Bound 2.’
The debates over where ‘Yeezus’ ranks on the 2013 leaderboard will probably still be unsettled in the new year, but here’s one thing we can all agree on: it’s the most polarizing album of the year. – A.B.
Danny Brown’s last two albums before ‘Old’ sounded like they could have been made by two entirely different rappers. 2010’s ‘The Hybrid’ was a gritty and blunted product of the Detroit underground, while 2011’s follow-up, ‘XXX,’ experimented with zanier beats, feral vocal pitches and heavier drugs. Even Danny’s hairstyle and wardrobe changed.
‘Old,’ his first album as a legitimate rap star, bridged these styles into two complex, contrasting and entirely entertaining chapters. ‘Side A’ was a stirring narrative of his ghetto upbringing and tortured soul to appease his earlier fans (there’s even a virtual remake of OutKast’s ‘Return of the G’ with Freddie Gibbs). ‘Side B,’ meanwhile supplied the party animals with those typically frenzied, drug-fueled bangers.
At times, this lead to contradictions (“‘Cause now I got habits that ain’t gettin’ no better,” he admitted on ‘Clean Up’ before boasting, “Molly looking like sugar, so you know that I’m dipping it” on ‘Smokin & Drinkin’), but that’s what makes Danny Brown so damn fascinating. – A.B.
‘Nothing Was the Same’
‘Nothing Was the Same’ was the most anticipated rap album of the year. Since topping the Billboard 200 with the highest sales week in hip-hop since Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Carter V’ in 2011, the record has been unavoidable and undeniable. Literally half of the album charted on the Billboard Hot 100 at one point or another.
Commercial success aside (because that’s a given), ‘Nothing Was the Same’ is Drake’s most solid body of work to date. Your boy rapped his ass off (see: ‘Started From the Bottom,’ ‘Tuscan Leather,’ ‘The Language’) while singing it off, too (‘Hold On, We’re Going Home,’ ‘Connect,’ ‘Come Thru’). With Noah “40” Shebib steering the ship once again, this is probably the best collection of beats we’ve heard all year.
Aside from the super personal standout ‘Too Much,’ Drake’s lyrical themes haven’t evolved since ‘Take Care.’ He’s still the hypersensitive, wannabe tough guy who paints pictures of romance, regret and faux bravado that are way-too-real for Generation Y (evidently). But that lane — one he’s brave enough to bring to hip-hop — he absolutely, 100 percent owns. – A.B.
Aside from being the most hilariously-titled album of, well, ever, ‘Doris’ was Earl Sweatshirt’s official homecoming party. The album arrived 18 months after he returned from Samoa, where he was stationed at a retreat school for at-risk boys on mom’s orders. Thanks to the huge, cult-like following Tyler and co. had generated in his absence, it was one of the most eagerly awaited LPs of the last two years.
Fans waiting on a sequel to his first project, ‘Earl,’ would be left disappointed, though. While the overall aesthetic was unchanged — dingy boom bap beats, effortless lyrical acrobatics and determinedly underground — Earl had grown up on this album. The slut-uppercutting schtick had been dropped for genuine, personal themes including his father leaving home (‘Chum’), relationship troubles (‘Sunday’) and apologies to his family. “Grandma’s passing / But I’m too busy tryna get this f—in’ album cracking’ to see her,” he opens on the triumphant ‘Burgundy.’
‘Doris’ turned out to be one of the most mature projects of the year from one of the game’s youngest talents. With luminaries like Pharrell, RZA and the Alchemist adding their Midas touch, it has all the ingredients to become a future underground classic. – A.B.
‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’
‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ was more about new rules than a new album for Jay Z. Scrapping the existing industry blueprint (no pun intended), the Marcy Projects mogul released his album within three weeks of announcing it, and secured a unique deal with Samsung to distribute one million pre-paid copies, lining his pockets with a cool $5 million. It was also the first album in history to be certified platinum upon its release.
Yeah, we get it. He’s even richer. But what about the actual music, though? Great, if you ask some. And underwhelming, according to others. Despite being criticized for his routine delivery and one-too-many fillers, Jay expanded his lyrical scope, flirting with high fashion and expensive art (‘Tom Ford’), opening up about fatherhood (‘Jay Z Blue’) and reflecting on black history (‘Oceans’). There was also flashes of vintage Hov as he went in over ‘Vol. 3′-esque production on ‘Picasso Baby’ and ‘F.U.T.W.’
‘Magna Carta’ didn’t quite earn the privilege to join ‘Reasonable Doubt,’ ‘The Blueprint’ and ‘The Black Album’ on Jay’s Mount Rushmore, but the fruits of its labor should be analyzed in terms of rap’s leverage in the music industry rather than its sonic quality. Like Biggie Smalls said, you never thought that hip-hop would take it this far. – A.B.
‘My Name Is My Name’
If you’re not placing a handful of songs on the charts or in the clubs, rap’s evermore fickle fans don’t really care about you. With no “hit single” and Drake’s ‘Nothing Was the Same’ still fresh on shelves, Pusha T’s ‘My Name Is My Name’ kinda got lost in the shuffle. But Terrence Thornton’s debut effort delivered on its promise of lyrical, quality street music.
Like the title suggested, G.O.O.D. Music’s braided one upheld his reputation as one of the game’s truest spitters on the project. He drowned listeners in double entendres on ‘Numbers on the Boards,’ dealt grade-A audio dope on ‘Nosetalgia’ and duly crowned himself royalty on ‘King Push.’ Ziplock P also added a whole new layer of personality and perspective to his pen game, opening up about his parent’s divorce on ’40 Acres’ and talking openly and honestly to a friend-turned-informant on ‘S.N.I.T.C.H.’
Backed by top-tier beatsmiths like Pharrell, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz and Nottz, Pusha T fulfilled the prophecy he made two years ago and successfully restored the feeling. – A.B.
‘Watching Movies with the Sound Off’
Here’s what the radio won’t tell you: Mac Miller secretly released one of the best albums of 2013. ‘Watching Movies with the Sound Off’ was the type of rap Malcolm McCormick was always trying to make. After his debut effort, ‘Blue Slide Park,’ pinned him as the latest white rapper to poke fun at (in spite of and perhaps fueled by its incredible commercial success for an independent album), the kid from Pittsburgh finally settled into his indie rapper pocket on his sophomore LP.
Some accredit that to the influence of West Coast camps like Odd Future and TDE. Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q’s impact was about more than just guest appearances; since setting up shop out West, Mac has sounded positively more inspired and at-ease in the company of Cali’s finest. He bullied boom bap beats (‘Red Dot Music’), got loose and silly (‘O.K.’), and even poured his heart out to a deceased friend (‘REMember’). Oh yeah, he lured Jay Electronica out of his cave, too. And didn’t wake up in a body bag.
‘Watching Movies with the Sound Off’ may not have outsold its predecessor (although it still posted a more-than-respectable 101,795 in its opening week), but what Mac lost in SoundScan figures he made up for in newfound underground respect and a legion of convinced fans. – A.B.
‘Run the Jewels’
If you’re one of those rap fans who enjoys banging beats and dope rhymes (a rare breed these days), then ‘Run the Jewels’ was gold standard. After linking up on 2012’s ‘R.A.P. Music,’ underground kingpin El-P and seasoned Atlanta wordsworth Killer Miker returned in official capacity for this 10-track album, and not an ounce of chemistry was lost between the pair.
Jaime provided the gut-punching, 808s-driven production while sharing the rapping duties with his bigger, blacker counterpart. It was no-nonsense, grown man music at its finest, but with a healthy dose of delightfully dark humor to keep things fresh. “I put the pistol on that poodle and I shot that bitch,” Mike rapped on the opening title track.
Although it risked sounding one-dimensional, ‘Run the Jewels’ was a formula deadly enough to keep you gripped for a whole hour, let alone 33 minutes. And El-P and Killer Mike’s little setup proved that the producer and MC duo isn’t a thing of the past — for as long as these two stay shacked up in the studio, anyway. – A.B.
A$AP Ferg’s ‘Trap Lord’ is a darker side to fellow A$AP Rocky’s upbeat debut album ‘Long.Live.A$AP.’ On Ferg’s debut effort, the 25-year-old rapper is a spiritual adviser as he offers his ministry through the mean streets of Harlem. With ‘Hood Pope,’ he preaches redemption to his congregation still caught up in the drug game. ‘Cocaine Castle’ finds Fergenstein relaying a cautionary tale about people who succumb to the addiction of drugs. Then there’s the captivating ‘Fergivicious,’ which pulls listeners in with its gothic production.
It goes without saying that ‘Trap Lord’ features a bona fide banger in the form of the ‘Work’ remix — a song that will probably serve as a long-standing New York anthem (although it features current N.Y. rap public enemy No. 1 Trinidad James). Plus, there’s ‘Shabba.’ With a beat so unusual yet effective, Ferg proved he could craft a catchy follow-up single while sticking to his lyrical roots.
The album is a winner mainly for its production. The beats vary from the standard trap sound to eerie soundscapes that complement Ferg’s rugged lyrics. Thank producers like Frankie P, Snugsworth, P on the Boards and Versa Beatz for that. – Trent Fitzgerald
‘Excuse My French’
French Montana delivered a solid debut with ‘Excuse My French,’ one that gave everyone from street corner connoisseurs to the club-loving set a soundtrack to indulge in. From his oddly infectious adlibs (“Haaan”) to his nasal voice, the Bronx, N.Y., native’s quirks worked over mostly trap music-inspired beats.
Songs like ‘Ain’t Worried About Nothin” and the Nicki Minaj-assisted ‘Freaks’ became instant summertime anthems that carried well through the year. Although the album lacked variety in its subject matter there were a few other standout tracks. The posse song ‘F— What Happens Tonight, featuring DJ Khaled, Mavado, Ace Hood, Snoop Dogg and Scarface, boasts killer verses from ‘Face and the Doggfather. ‘We Go Where Ever We Want’ is a boisterous Wu-Tang Clan-inspired track and ‘Throw It in the Bag’ serves as a club-driven banger tailor-made for getting turnt-up in the club.
French might be considered a one-note rapper but on ‘If I Die,’ he displays great storytelling — a skill of his that’s often overlooked. ‘Excuse My French’ didn’t put New York back on the rap map, but it did prove French Montana had a hand in boosting hip-hop morale. – T.F.