The music landscape has changed tremendously since the dawn of our current decade as the internet and streaming have altered the way we consume music and given rise to the almighty playlist, casting doubts over the future of the album as an entity.
The album isn't dead yet, though. If the last seven-plus years have proven anything, it's that artists are still crafting complete album experiences that can't be missed, full of incredible music that must be heard as a cohesive unit.
Below you will find the 30 best hip-hop and R&B albums from January 1, 2010, to today, ranked. The order is based on a weighted voting system that combined the individual rankings of our core writing team, and include our three standout selections for each LP.
Once again, we both expect and anticipate dissension among our readers and we look forward to you voicing your complaints in the comment section below!
30. Westside Gunn — Flygod
Release Date: March 11, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "Dunks," "Gustavo," "55 & a Half"
There's an aesthetic to Westside Gunn’s full-length debut that feels both familiar and completely unique in and of itself. Flygod is our modern-day Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., and Westside Gunn, alongside his brother Conway and lead producer Daringer, created one of the most visually stunning and world-building mafioso rap albums of the decade. Flygod isn't just a project demanding your attention at every single sample flip. It's a tour de force that puts a gun in your face and tells you to empty your pockets while bible scriptures, luxury street raps, and boom-bap drums play lookout from behind. Westside Gunn ropes you in from minute one and then locks the door behind you. Except the joke is on him—you never planned on leaving. —Matt Wilhite
29. YG — My Krazy Life
Label: Def Jam
Release Date: March 18, 2014
3 Standout Selections: "BPT," "Bicken Back Being Bool," "Sorry Momma"
YG’s debut effort is proof that the West Coast sound is immortal. Produced almost entirely by DJ Mustard, My Krazy Life is as much an ode to G-funk as it is a farewell letter. Laced with classic singles (“My N***a,” "Who Do You Love?"), YG took the zeal of regionalism and elevated it with his unique voice and punchy songwriting. Street rap and commercial tropes were more than subverted, they were given body (“Sorry Momma”). My Krazy Life turns every tree into a palm tree and every city into Los Angeles. He’s more than a genre-specialist, he might as well be a cinematographer. —Donna-Claire Chesman
28. Isaiah Rashad — Cilvia Demo
Label: Top Dawg
Release Date: January 28, 2014
3 Standout Selections: "Cilvia Demo," "R.I.P. Kevin Miller," "Heavenly Father"
When TDE unveiled Isaiah Rashad as their newest member in late 2013, the Chattanooga, TN native had yet to build up a much of a catalog, let alone a buzz. Cilvia Demo, released just months later, was Isaiah’s first official project, but it was obvious Top Dawg Entertainment—a label known for carefully nurturing under-the-radar talent into long-term success stories—had found themselves another diamond in the rough. Over crunchy Southern-fried soul, Zaywop delivered smooth flows and introspective rhymes that wrestled with issues like suicide (“Heavenly Father”), addiction (“Cilvia Demo”) and falling in and out of love (“West Savannah”)—most, if not all, of which can be traced back to his father’s alcohol-fueled absence. Cilvia Demo is a deeply personal and perfectly crumpled self-portrait of a 20-something rapper recognizing his father’s flaws in his own behavior while striving to be a better man for his own son. Somewhere in the nexus, Isaiah Rashad scored the soundtrack for anyone who’s been stressing for a blessing. —Andy James
27. Ab-Soul — Control System
Label: Top Dawg
Release Date: May 11, 2012
3 Standout Selections: "Illuminate," "Showin' Love," "The Book of Soul"
Widely regarded as Ab-Soul's best release, Control System was forged by a set of circumstances many wouldn't be able to handle, let alone transcend through the creation of one the decade's best hip-hop records. The loss of longtime girlfriend Alori Joh sent Soul down a path of introspection and experimentation with both drugs and thought that formed a creative pressure cooker, exercising the parts of Soul's pain and confusion that he wasn't able to deal with outright. "Terrorist Threats" and "SOPA" find Soulo at his most ferocious, while tracks like "Empathy" and "The Book of Soul" showcase a level of intimacy that few emcees allow themselves to access. Give Control System another run-through and see if you escape with dry eyes. —Brent Bradley
26. ScHoolboy Q — Habits & Contradictions
Label: Top Dawg
Release Date: January 14, 2012
3 Standout Selections: "My Hatin' Joint," "My Homie," "Blessed"
Blank Face LP may have solidified ScHoolboy Q as a top-tier star capable of crafting fantastic major label albums, but Q's capability for crafting enthralling, varied projects was solidified with his second album, Habits & Contradictions. Throughout H&C's entirety, ScHoolboy oozes with an efficacious combination of charisma and insight, weaving hardened gangster-isms ("Oxy Music," "Nightmare On Figg St.") with detailed inspections of his rights and wrongs and the effects they'd had on his life thus far (“Sacrilegious,” “My Homie”). One of ScHoolboy's most intriguing characteristics as a storyteller is his ability to authentically represent his past as though he still lives there without succumbing to the limited mentality it's been known to breed. On H&C, that quality is measured out to perfection. —Brent Bradley
25. Earl Sweatshirt — I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt
Label: Tan Cressida / Columbia
Release Date: March 23, 2015
3 Standout Selections: "Faucet," "Grief," "Wool"
There's an argument to be made that only certain, mentally afflicted individuals would be able to understand the full scope of Earl Sweatshirt’s weary, and intense, second album. I Don't Like Shit... isn't as much an album as it is a personal therapy session, in which Odd Future’s former and most introverted member only finds anguish, anger, and obsessive compulsiveness in the midst of his most depressed moments. From the syrupy circle of personal hell that is “Faucet” to lines from “Off The Top” like “I'm only happy when there's static in the air, 'cause the fair weather’s fake to me,” Earl’s genius lies in the inclusivity his depression blankets over the listener, and how he manages to make the paranoia of anxiety feel as relatable as ever before. —Matt Wilhite
24. Killer Mike — R.A.P. Music
Label: Williams Street
Release Date: May 15, 2012
3 Standout Selections: "Big Beast," "Reagan," "Ghetto Gospel"
The intro to the title track of R.A.P. Music grabs listeners with five simple words: "Rap music is my religion." The kind of religion where communion is goblets full of Hennessey; a true player’s Pentecostal. Killer Mike may have first started his grind in 2000 and officially pledged his allegiance in 2006, but his years of hard work paid off in 2012 when he and fellow rap underdog and jewel runner El-P bottled righteous lightning in Atlanta. Following in the footsteps of his Atlanta brothers OutKast, both politics and pleasure have always shared space on Killer Mike records. Rarely were they as potent as the paranoid history lesson of "Reagan" or the Wu-Tang-fueled day-in-the-life-of "Jojo's Chillin," where Mike's commanding baritone hit the perfect note between pusher and pastor. The dark pulses and breakbeats El-P brought to the table proved that they were a greater match than anyone could've realized. R.A.P. Music wasn't just one of modern rap's most lethal duos drawing first blood, it was holy matrimony. —Cinemasai
23. NxWorries (Anderson .Paak x Knxwledge) — Yes Lawd!
Label: Stones Throw
Release Date: October 21, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "Wngs," "Get Bigger / Do U Luv," "Suede"
Our neo-soul saviors, NxWorries, took the question “Is there such thing as too much of a good thing?” to task with their collaborative debut. Knxwledge’s production work, his continuing innovating upon sample-based beats, allowed Anderson .Paak to further unwind and explore his voice. Yes Lawd! exists in a perfect state of harmony. Neither artist outshines the other—Kxwledge delivers a pack of his most explorative and freewheeling beats, while .Paak brings to life the lipstick-stained pages of his lover-boy journal. You fall in love with the ease of the album, then melt into the layers of intricate instrumentation. Soothing like the clink of ice cubes in a glass of whiskey, Yes Lawd! reveals itself to the listener in carefully-timed phases, until the work as a whole sticks and feels like a full-bodied classic. —Donna-Claire Chesman
22. The Weeknd — House of Balloons
Release Date: March 21, 2011
3 Standout Selections: "High For This," "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls," "The Morning"
It’s 2017, Donald Trump is president, and The Weeknd is a pop star. I rest my case for the universe’s absurdity. Looking at the raw content of his music on House of Balloons, it doesn’t make sense that Abel Tesfaye would eventually fill the role of “starboy.” How that persona is delivered on this mixtape, though, suggests he would one day build his empire on a foundation of pill bottles and condom boxes (or lack thereof). Songs such as the title track and “The Morning” have the veneer of pop with a dark underbelly. That darkness would actually contribute to his rise. Some music is meant to slam us into the mirror and shatter illusions, but tapes showing life at the bottom of a pit are captivating, too. Music can give us the party, the indulgence, and the afterparty, the reflection. Abel’s music is more concerned with the party, but through that, he’s been able to tap into a vein of hedonistic darkness that’s thrilling to watch, authentic or not. We always want it when we’re coming down. —Miguelito
21. Rihanna — Anti
Label: Westbury Road / Roc Nation
Release Date: January 28, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "Kiss It Better," "Work," "Needed Me"
As if the name Anti wasn't evidence enough, Rihanna’s eighth studio album is a break in the chain, swapping out club-aimed dance smashes and names like Calvin Harris and David Guetta for a wide-sweeping affair of bedroom pop and woozy alternative R&B, peppered with sultry dancehall, throwback synth rock, psychedelic covers, soulful ballads and whatever else she could stuff into her sonic spliff. Infectious and impactful as “Work” was, it was just a taste of the most audacious album of Rihanna’s career, a creative step bold enough to match a personality so assuredly confident it often outweighed the attitude of her music. Despite any intention to distance herself from the Top 40 stylings she’d become synonymous with, Anti still landed three top 10 singles; Rihanna breaking away from the cookie-cutter pop star mold to effectively mold pop to her own vision, effectively for the first time. It’s not perfect (“Woo”), but it’s an intimate affair from one of the biggest stars on the planet, one that revels in experimentation and the freedom of Rihanna to do whatever the fuck she wants, which she’s great at. —Brendan Varan
20. Danny Brown - XXX
Label: Fool's Gold
Release Date: August 15, 2011
3 Standout Selections: "XXX," "Die Like a Rockstar," "Blunt After Blunt"
In 2010, 50 Cent passed on signing Danny Brown, who had just released a joint mixtape with Tony Yayo, to G-Unit because he “didn’t like the way [he] looked.” A lesser rapper may have sold his soul for the price of a pair of G-Unit jeans, but it was that same commitment to individuality that cemented Danny Brown as hip-hop’s most inimitable voice the following year. Spitting like Kipling with a tooth missing over beats that could double up as the on-flight playlist for a spaceship journey from Detroit to London, XXX was Danny Brown’s coming-out party—emphasis on party. From “XXX” to “Adderall Admiral,” side A captured a 30-something rockstar popping pills, blowing blunt after blunt and eating pussy like death was around the corner. From “DNA” onwards, side B uncovered the human behind the hedonism: “The thought of no success got a n*gga chasing death,” Danny cries on “30.” XXX saved Danny Brown from the failure he so deeply feared; subsequently, it also saved his life. —Andy James
19. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2
Label: Mass Appeal
Release Date: October 24, 2014
3 Standout Selections: "Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1," "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)," "Love Again (Akinyele Back)"
Killer Mike opens Run the Jewels 2 by telling his rapper-producer cohort El-P to “put a mirror on the goddamn screen.” After hearing the rest of the album, that imperative may extend to the listener as well. Buddhist scholar Alan Watts said that wrestling concepts like “good” or “pleasure” away from ideas of “bad” or “pain” is impossible, their existence is dependent upon the other. RTJ2 forces us to see ourselves this way, as balances of cranial and crass, militant and mindful, and intelligent and ignorant. It’s a message that even seeps into El-P’s blend of whimsical and maniacal production. On “Early,” Mike says he “respects a badge and a gun,” three songs after he encourages opposing gang members to unite and “kill the police.” Contradictions should bother us in our leaders and cultural voices. These aren’t contradictions, however, but expressions of the way we exist. Killer Mike and El-P are concerned with living both sides to the fullest and having too much fun doing it. —Miguelito
18. Future — DS2
Label: Freebandz / Epic
Release Date: July 17, 2015
3 Standout Selections: “Thought It Was a Drought,” “Stick Talk,” “The Percocet & Stripper Joint”
The culmination of an epic mixtape run that saw Future abandon his pop sensibilities in an effort to double down on hedonistic, drug-addled fixes for his trap sect, DS2 no less ushered Future into his brightest spotlight yet; evolving #FutureHive from internet cult to mainstream fixture. It was a true second star turn for an artist thought finished just one year prior in the wake of a public break-up, one earned through an hour-long collection of booming trap bangers that somehow sounds as triumphant as it does distressed. From “Thought It Was a Drought”’s initial descent into the abyss of numb, detached sex by way of dirty Sprite glistening overtop ice, through the apocalyptical mania of “Groupies,” to the late-night confessional “Kno The Meaning,” DS2 distills the best of Future’s acclaimed work with Metro Boomin and Southside (and Zaytoven) into his most consistent project to date. —Brendan Varan
17. A$AP Rocky — LIVE.LOVE.A$AP
Release Date: October 31, 2011
3 Standout Selections: “Palace,” “Peso,” “Brand New Guy”
No one quite defines the mold of today’s internet-raised, fashion-obsessed rap spectrum like A$AP Rocky. LIVE.LOVE.A$AP was his grand arrival, an amalgamation of influences, sounds, and contributors that could only happen in a digitally connected landscape. Blending blunt-fried Southern hip-hop and hypnotic, ethereal cloud rap with influences and contributors from Houston, Atlanta, South Florida, the Bay, LA, Detroit, France—to name just a few—tied together with a hubris, swag and New York spirit that could only be birthed from Harlem, Rocky’s debut was hip-hop globalization, and it sounded like an album beamed in from the future yet deeply rooted in tradition. His technical yet effortless flow may set him apart from some of the artists he’s since fathered, but his region-defying sound, a penchant for threads by Raf Simmons and Rick Owens, and art/music/clothing aesthetic opened the door for thousands of rap careers. LLA not only instantly catapulted Rocky to star status, but it also marked the beginning of a new era in rap. —Brendan Varan
16. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Piñata
Label: Madlib Invazion
Release Date: March 18, 2014
3 Standout Selections: "Deeper," "Real," "Robes"
Madlib sliding him eight beat CDs—possibly in a ziplock bag—is the best thing to ever happen to Freddie Gibbs’ career. Building on collaborative EPs like 2011’s Thuggin and 2012’s Shame, Gangsta Gibbs and The Beat Konducta joined forces for a cinematic masterpiece rife with pimping and pistol whipping, ’77 Cutlasses and .40 calibers, smoking Backwoods and hitting licks. The combination of Madlib’s ’70s-sampling beats and Gibbs’ gravelly street tales felt like a velvet tracksuit over a bulletproof vest—only it’s wannabe gangstas, corny A&Rs and rappers named Young Jeezy who should be seriously considering protection (“Real” is the hardest diss song of the decade). As tough as he is on both the block and in the booth, however, Freddie Gibbs wasn’t afraid to show the “chinks in his armor”: “I hope you feel the pain I’m feeling when you hear this song,” he raps to his girl who left him for a sucker on “Deeper.” After all, piñatas can only withstand so many blows before they begin to crack—pardon the pun. —Andy James
15. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
Label: Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
Release Date: April 14, 2017
3 Standout Selections: "DNA.," "HUMBLE.," "FEAR."
Very rarely do we see artists of Kendrick’s caliber manage to take the best components of their previous albums and merge them into something just as iconic and boundary-pushing. DAMN. isn't just the latest instant classic from one of rap's biggest and most daring stars, it's a narrative about personal faith, hopelessness and hopefulness, and the chaotic existence of man that flips from explosive to heartfelt at a moment's notice. Kendrick fine-tunes the extroverted scope of GKMC and the insecurities of TPAB, and trims DAMN. to something completely unique and devoid of fat. DAMN. is rap album full of perfect rap songs about the very real and relatable imperfections of the best rapper in the world. Through a study of his own faith in both God and man, we as fans can finally view Kendrick Lamar as the prophet that was promised. —Matt Wilhite
14. JAY-Z & Kanye West — Watch the Throne
Label: Roc-A-Fella / Roc Nation / Def Jam
Release Date: August 8, 2011
3 Standout Selections: "Ni**as in Paris," "Otis," "New Day"
Since their creation, the idea of superheroes has always been a fascination of mankind. However, that idea of superheroes and music have rarely crossed; that is until Kanye and JAY-Z brought us Watch the Throne. At its core, Watch the Throne is an album about black excellence. From the way that excellence is broadcasted from the high heavens on “Ni**as in Paris” to the contrast it has to the murderous existence many black Americans suffer through on the aptly named “Murder to Excellence,” it’s a celebratory album of two black superheroes at their absolute peaks of notoriety. Watch the Throne, as well, is an album about the past, present and future of both Ye and Jay’s existence in rap, and an engraving of their legacies. It may not have been the best album of the decade, but you’d be damned to find a more timely and exhilarating experience in the last 10 years. It’s literally the stuff heroes are made of. —Matt Wilhite
13. Drake — Take Care
Label: Young Money / Cash Money / Republic
Release Date: November 15, 2011
3 Standout Selections: "Over My Dead Body," "Marvin's Room," "Cameras / Good Ones Go Interlude"
Despite being the biggest music superstar on the planet, Drake has yet to earn the coveted “classic” certification on any of his albums, save for the ongoing debate around his sophomore album. Take Care’s influence is undeniable, and its 2013 GRAMMY win for Best Rap Album was not a gaffe; apart from its spiritual predecessor, Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, no rap artist had ever bled their broken heart onto wax so effortlessly, and none have since, Drake included. Six years after its release, Drake has diluted Take Care’s legacy with more popular and more confused albums, eschewing his relatability in favor of radio play. But for those of us whose heartbreaks were mended—er, reopened—by his 2011 masterpiece, his artistic climax shall not be forgotten. —Kareem Sheikh
12. Vince Staples — Summertime '06
Label: ARTium / Blacksmith / Def Jam
Release Date: June 30, 2015
3 Standout Selections: "Lift Me Up," "Norf Norf," "Señorita"
Recently, I wrote that Vince Staples was our modern-day Alfred Hitchcock, and his debut album, Summertime '06, is his version of Psycho. It’s a taut, menacing journey that’s genius lies in Vince’s ability to make you restless in your seat. What Vince Staples has always excelled at, beyond just an ability to rap extremely well, is the techniques he uses to envelop us within his narrative. Whether it’s through the distorted street anthems of “Norf Norf” and “Lift Me Up” or the melodic abyss of “Summertime,” Vince and executive producer No I.D. create an unrelenting experience through the inferno of Long Beach with Vince as our Virgil. On “Summertime,” Vince raps without confidence that “this could be forever baby,” knowing full well this album serves to prove that the end of time is the only thing saving he and everyone else. —Matt Wilhite
11. Solange — A Seat at the Table
Label: Saint / Columbia
Release Date: September 30, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "Cranes in the Sky," "Don't You Wait," "Don't Touch My Hair"
Music is subjective. What some will consider the best, others will vehemently disagree with, labeling a masterpiece a piece of garbage. Whether or not you consider A Seat at the Table Solange's best album, it is by far her most important. This is an album that one can only write once finding a sense of inner-self and coming to terms with a sense of place in the world. What A Seat at the Table captures with brilliance is a black woman’s identity and experience, giving a voice to everything from racial prejudice to beautiful self-acceptance in the purest artistic form. There’s no fear in her approach, no tip-toeing to make everyone feel inclusive. This is soul music that bears her soul, a portrait of Solange that no camera could ever capture, and in doing so, it is a reflection of so many women. Music this pure, honest, and candid exists far beyond the release date. —Yoh
10. D'Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah
Release Date: December 15, 2014
3 Standout Selections: "Ain't That Easy," "The Charade," "Another Life"
D’Angelo makes potent music. It hits you all at once but the residue reveals new layers every time. I’ve been unpacking the meanings and music of Black Messiah since it first fell out of the sky at the tail end of 2014. It’s hard to imagine any album hitting the musical thresholds that neo-soul landmarks Brown Sugar and Voodoo did, so D, with assistance from Q-Tip, ?uestlove and Kendra Foster, reached back musically to aim even higher. After being away for fourteen years, he used his redemption to inspire the first steps out of the tunnel. The hardened resilience of “The Charade,” the feet-shuffling rhythms of “Sugah Daddy” and the fleeting joy of “Back To the Future” shined bright in the midst of the height of Black Lives Matter and a rejuvenated soul movement. Never betraying your heart and being whatever leader you can be can carry us into 2018 or 2035. Black Messiah is living proof that you can’t rush greatness. —Cinemasai
9. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Label: Steel Wool / OBE / Art Club / Empire
Release Date: January 15, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "The Waters," "The Season / Carry Me," "Am I Wrong"
Anderson .Paak’s second studio album began his ascent to hip-hop and R&B’s man of the year in 2016. Malibu is the sun on your face delivered by an old soul with a light heart. Every reach .Paak makes to the past, whether in sonic theme or in narrative, is matched by a leap towards music’s expansive future. .Paak invites us into his deepest tragedies while insulating us in West Coast grooves, establishing himself as the master of catching the vibe and letting it unfurl to the farthest corners of sound. .Paak’s vocals are of the earth—his rapping finds the intersection of swagger and poise, and he does all of this while playing the drums. At its core, Malibu is here to “bring you greetings from the first church of Boom Baptists United Fellowship of Free Nationals.” How can any hip-hop head keep from getting giddy over that lyric? We can’t. Listening to Malibu, it’s clear .Paak was aware his moment was just over the horizon, and he transformed that awareness into something glimmering and timeless. —Donna-Claire Chesman
8. Beyoncé — LEMONADE
Label: Parkwood / Columbia
Release Date: April 23, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "SORRY," "FREEDOM," "FORMATION"
In December 2013, when Beyoncé released her self-titled fifth studio album to uproarious critical acclaim—complete with a music video for each song—it was unimaginable that she’d be able to unseat that victory with a new magnum opus less than three years later. By letting listeners in on the juicy specifics of a marriage previously kept guarded under a veil of perfection—and apparently marred by infidelity—Beyoncé vaulted herself even higher in the hearts of fans and echelons of stardom. At a time when pop music is criticized for its formulaic, uninventive state, LEMONADE proved the power of personal pop, ushering in a mainstream appreciation for intersectional feminism alongside its memorable and emotional hit singles. Upping the ante from a music video album to a full-length film, Queen Bey once again shrugged off the competition seeking her throne, making it clear that her reign is far from over. —Kareem Sheikh
7. Kanye West — Yeezus
Label: Def Jam
Release Date: June 18, 2013
3 Standout Selections: "Black Skinhead," "New Slaves," "Bound 2"
Given his well-documented appreciation of his own work, Kanye West probably views his career as a narrative. It makes sense then that he would co-opt the name of Western civilization’s most impactful messianic figure for this album. College Dropout is his Christmas feast, while Yeezus is his trip through Gethsemane’s garden. It was a turning point, where the tools he used to express himself became just as important as the expression. Say what you will about the way Kanye assaults your eardrums over the course of Yeezus, your favorite artists owe their sound to the mixing on this album. During one of his Pensado’s Place appearances, engineer Mike Dean explains how he and the creative team elevated “loudness” beyond its Dr. Dre 2001 levels. All you need to do is play a mixtape from the mid-2000s immediately after the music of today to verify the Dirty South apostle’s words. On Yeezus, Kanye’s songs were raw streams of consciousness that asked more questions than they answered, yet they were captivating and you wanted to hear him rant. It changed the way we hear music and forced artists to pay even more attention to the sounds they put in records and how high they’re cranked up. —Miguelito
6. Frank Ocean — channel ORANGE
Label: Def Jam
Release Date: July 10, 2012
3 Standout Selections: "Thinkin Bout You," "Super Rich Kids," "Pyramids"
Frank Ocean’s debut album is made up of a collection of eloquent short stories. He has a gift for curating universes with nameless characters who only live for the sake of conveying a thought or exploring an emotion. These moments are sculpted with careful precision and graphic detail. His voice is strong, pleasant, but it is the mighty pen that gives Frank his radiant charm. Being able to sing of the very rich and the crack addicts, of Egyptian queens and ambitious pilots, gives him a range that few contemporary R&B artists are able to reach. Love and longing for love are subjects men have explored since learning to sing, but Ocean uses a movie director's eye and a poet’s pen to make clichés and traditional tropes shine with needed sheen. channel ORANGE was a fresh coat of paint for R&B during a period of stagnancy; a ray of hope from a new, promising voice who believed in the art of storytelling. —Yoh
5. Chance The Rapper — Acid Rap
Release Date: April 30, 2013
3 Standout Selections: "Good Ass Intro," "Pusha Man / Paranoia," "Cocoa Butter Kisses"
Acid Rap is the best introduction to Chance The Rapper, a mixtape that showcases all sides of what makes him special. The quirky flows, the mixture of gospel and live instrumentation, but mostly, a rapper who wanted to prove his talents before the world. Chance's best rapping is present, with heartfelt lyrical acrobatics present on every single song. You don’t just hear Chance, you feel him in your bones—the kind of music that cuts you with the sharpness of a scalpel. He didn’t just set the bar that all his future projects will be judged under, but for all future rappers—Acid Rap is the benchmark of greatness from a genius not yet recognized. Coloring Book may have made Chance a star, but Acid Rap is the project that made him an underground king. —Yoh
4. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly
Label: Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
Release Date: March 15, 2015
3 Standout Selections: "u," "Alright," "How Much a Dollar Cost"
Kendrick walked listeners through Compton with a penmanship worthy of a New York Times bestseller on his debut album. It was an instant classic in an era of few timeless debuts, but he couldn’t repeat what was already deemed a masterpiece. So he dug deeper, expanded his perspective, and broadened his artistic palette. He sought out jazz, funk, soul and more for the sound of his journey through the hell of temptation, fought against Lucy’s promises, met Jesus—who appeared as a panhandling drunk—and spoke to Tupac in search of answers he couldn’t find among the living. To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick’s most daring work, an album that examines his soul while walking through the world that surrounds him. A black man in the throes of success while in the mouth of a dragon―the entire album plays like an odyssey of understanding what Kendrick Lamar wants: a little pleasure and a lot of peace. Another masterpiece from the good kid. —Yoh
3. Frank Ocean — Blonde
Label: Boys Don't Cry
Release Date: August 20, 2016
3 Standout Selections: "Self Control," "Nights," "Seigfried"
Meeting expectations for a follow-up to the universal acclaim of channel ORANGE after a suspense-building hiatus of four years would have been impossible. The fact that he exploded through those expectations was just Frank Ocean being Frank Ocean. In a grand return befitting of his unpredictable nature, Frank gave Def Jam two middle fingers in a bait-and-switch that left them with a very good visual album on the way to independently releasing the best album of his career. With Blonde, R&B's great storytelling hope embraced his own story, one afflicted with existential questions of sexuality, race, acceptance, and identity on the road to self-discovery. In a Blonde world, genre lines are blurred, percussion is dispensable, and conventional song structure cedes to ideas and textures that combust and regenerate into new worlds. Every new listen reveals new layers and bleeds new emotions. "I ain't on no schedule," Frank reminds on "Futura Free." As long as his returns are this grand, we don't mind waiting. —Brendan Varan
2. Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d city
Label: Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
Release Date: October 22, 2012
3 Standout Selections: "Money Trees," "m.A.A.d city," "Sing About Me / I'm Dying of Thirst"
Revisiting good kid, m.A.A.d. city in light of Kendrick’s later work puts it in a more nuanced context. Compton’s emcee is sharp at noting the way he relates to things around him, whether people, institutions, or the competing parts of his psyche. GKMC, in retrospect, is his story about the complexities of relating to the objects and people directly in front of him. As a good kid he wants to earn praise from his audience post-mortem (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”), express admiration for his hometown (“Compton”), and eliminate the negativity swirling around him (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”). Knowing what we know about his later albums, the hopeful tone of GKMC is muted since the future brings more complex struggles. It’s necessary, though, to relate properly to others in peer pressure, sexual indulgence (“Sherane”), or irrational hate (“m.A.A.D city”). There’s no path outlined, no recipe like the one for proper action in Southern California, just solidarity with someone further in life. —Miguelito
1. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Label: Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam
Release Date: November 22, 2010
3 Standout Selections: "POWER," "Devil in a New Dress," "Runaway"
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the greatest album from the greatest artist of this generation—in what plain, sane reality is it not number one? A sweeping masterpiece full of manic highs (“POWER”), heartbreaking lows (“Blame Game”) and self-reflection that fractured even the biggest of egos (“Runaway”), MBTDF was Kanye West reaching the top of the mountain (literally) of his brilliant artistry and boundless ambition. The juxtaposition of red-blooded raps and resplendent production felt like swigging Hennessy and fucking a porn star in the Sacré-Cœur.
MBDTF is more than just an album, though—it’s music, theater and stage rolled into a tale of self-inflicted tragedy-turned-self-powered triumph. After becoming the abomination of Obama’s nation at the 2009 MTV VMAs (we all know he was right, but he was kind of a “jackass” about it), Mr. West holed up in Hawaii with his musical heroes and peers alike—JAY-Z and Justin Vernon, Pete Rock and Pusha T, RZA and Rick Ross—“had time alone with [his] own thoughts” and rose from the ashes of public hatred and personal heartbreak like the Phoenix in his Runaway film.
From the Rosewood movement and G.O.O.D. Fridays releases to a table-top concert at Twitter HQ and his stunning performance at the 2010 MTV VMAs—a setting so perfect for his comeback you swear the whole thing was part of his master plan—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a defining moment not only for Kanye West but for this decade in pop culture. Only one man should have all that power. —Andy James