Hip-hop is a young artist’s game. Most athletes peak in their mid-twenties to their early thirties, and rappers follow a similar trajectory. There are exceptions, of course—boxer Bernard Hopkins won a world championship at age 49, and Pusha-T defeated Drake at age 41. Fame, money, drugs, love, and labels can influence an artist’s peak, but every album has a puncher’s chance at being an artist’s best.
Has Kendrick already released his best album? Has Drake? J. Cole? Young Thug? Nicki Minaj?
I decided to speculate. In selecting a list of 21 notable artists, I didn’t include previous era’s legends like Kanye, JAY-Z, or Lil Wayne (it’s fair to assume their musical peaks are behind them), or rappers who arrived to the mainstream this year like DaBaby or Megan Thee Stallion (whose best days are likely in front of them).
Let’s have fun, shall we?
Drake released one of the best mixtapes of all time in 2009 (So Far Gone), and peaked with a trilogy of classic albums—2011’s Take Care, 2013’s Nothing Was The Same, and 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. In recent years, his pen has grown more vivid—tracks like “Two Birds, One Stone” and “Omertà” evince that—but it’s hard to imagine Drake ever finding the same inspiration. There’s a reason his two releases this year gazed backward. Almost as if to remind us—and him—that once he was hungry, the champagne flowed less freely, and there were other things to speak of than the bittersweet aftertaste of success.
Verdict: Drake HAS released his best album.
Future has cemented his place in the pantheon of rap superstars. But his quest to get there was far more compelling. Future’s peak was undeniably his 2014-2015 run—Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights, DS2, and the Drake collaboration project What a Time to be Alive. ’Twas an exhilarating ride through the underworld. These days, the man is content sitting on a sinking throne and issuing codeine-stained edicts twice a year.
Verdict: Future HAS released his best album.
Young Thug hasn’t released his best album yet. I believe he can stitch together the relentless focus of 2015’s Barter 6, the jubilant experimentation of 2016’s JEFFERY, the wounded crooning of 2017’s Beautiful Thugger Girls, and the mainstream appeal of 2019’s So Much Fun into the true Thugger magnum opus. We forget that So Much Fun was Thug’s first proper album. Besides, he has an ascendant roster behind him—Gunna, Lil Keed, and so forth—and a winning crew is often a superstar’s heat gauge.
Verdict: Young Thug has NOT released his best album.
This may seem unrealistic because Travis Scott seemed to invest everything he had into 2018’s ASTROWORLD. But one thing the young man has proven throughout the years is that he has an indomitable will-to-power—going from scrappy nobody to Kardashian prince and commercial powerhouse in just five years. Travis’ GRAMMY disappointment will fuel his next project. Like it or not, Travis Scott is one of this generation’s biggest stars, and he likely hasn’t even peaked yet.
Verdict: Travis Scott has NOT released his best album.
Migos have sounded uninspired since the release of 2017’s Culture. The irony is that the order of the group’s talent—Quavo, Offset, Takeoff—has since flipped. Quavo is now content with melodic sighs over a beat. Offset is a little more interesting, but the only one who raps with any verve is Takeoff. They may be one of the best rap groups of all time, but it looks like their best days are yesterdays.
Verdict: Migos HAVE released their best album.
This is the one prediction I will regret. Kendrick could surprise us and make his next album the best one. But his previous three albums are all insanely iconic—the street-rap focus of 2012 release good kid, m.A.A.d city, the political overtones of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the spiritual exhortations of 2017’s DAMN.. In expanding their aperture from neighborhood to country to world, these albums captured the spirit of our troubled decade and compelled us to think and do better. It will be hard to beat them, but the most skilled rapper alive just might.
Verdict: Kendrick Lamar HAS released his best album.
Nicki Minaj gets a lot of unwarranted hate. Like the boxer Canelo Álvarez, she has the curious effect of being both overrated and underrated. Yes, her flow is a holdover from the early 2010s, but she should also be in everybody’s Top-50 lists. Unfortunately, her albums have always whipsawed between pop aspirations and rap millet. I can’t tell you which of her projects is the best one, but it’s probably not her next one. Unless, it’s called Mrs. Petty and expands the “Barbie Dreams” concept and the tenor of Queen Radio into a vindictive, messy, and glorious masterpiece. That album could be an album of the year.
Verdict: Nicki Minaj HAS released her best album.
Pusha-T must be drinking some dungeon captive’s blood—the way he stays young in both looks, voice, and enthusiasm is remarkable. I’m always excited about a new Push project. Still, the lore around 2018’s DAYTONA—best experienced when “Duppy Freestyle” and “The Story of Adidon” are immediately played after—will never be topped. Those kinds of sparks fly once in a generation.
Verdict: Pusha-T HAS released his best album.
Lil Uzi Vert
It’s heartbreaking to see whatever’s happening with Lil Uzi Vert’s label situation. If he’s able to escape Generation Now, the colossal hype around Eternal Atake may prove worth it. There seem to be many riches buried in Uzi’s melancholic soul, and he’s only begun to plumb its depths. “XO Tour Llif3” was a surface skim, and it changed hip-hop forever. Imagine Eternal Atake.
Verdict: Lil Uzi Vert has NOT released his best album.
Chance the Rapper
For better or worse, it seems the best and most influential project of Chance’s career will always be 2013’s Acid Rap. I’m a fan of The Big Day—I was genuinely confused, then disturbed, about the mockery he received for rapping about being happy. Luckily, it looks like Chance has an even brighter future in politics. One day, he will be the mayor of Chicago.
Polo Perks Is Building a Future From Pieces of the Past
We talk to the Surf Gang artist about microdosing alternative music in his raps.
Verdict: Chance The Rapper HAS released his best album.
In great contrast to some of my colleagues in hip-hop journalism, and the man himself, I like Nav. So do a lot of high school kids. This makes sense—his hypnotic flows and curated earworms of beats seem played best through headphones in the back of a school bus. Anyway, his music keeps getting better, and one day—like y’all did with Travis Scott—you will all respect his artistry.
Verdict: Nav has NOT released his best album.
Juice WRLD is one artist many rap fans hated at first because he seemed to come out of nowhere and then loved because his talent was so undeniable. For a few weeks, I listened to “Robbery” from 2019’s Death Race for Love at least three times a day. With a developing voice and pen, the 20-year-old’s ceiling is high. He reminds me of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his rookie season.
Verdict: Juice WRLD has NOT released his best album.
Tyler, the Creator
Every Tyler, the Creator album has come with a few more tricks, which means he stays focused on developing with each album. His 2019 release Igor, which employed a pitched-up voice and less earthly sound, represented another evolution for the 28-year-old. There’s no reason to doubt that Tyler’s vision and execution will only strengthen with his next few albums.
Verdict: Tyler, the Creator has NOT released his best album.
You know I love me some Jay Elect Chop. Jay Electronica hasn’t released his best album because he’s never released an album. He has, however, released projects like War With the Dragon, Style Wars, and Act I. According to his engineer Mike Chav, Jay will likely release a more extended project one day. In the meantime, his voice has grown more magisterial. Weighted with age, he no longer writes with the whimsy of a potion maker’s inventory, but the authority of a book of spells from late antiquity. Maybe the wait will be worth it, after all.
Verdict: Jay Electronica, obviously, has NOT released his best album.
Kid Cudi’s next project, EnterGalactic, will be good. He’s found a real second wind in his career—after dabbling in underrated styles, his last two projects have been amazing. But that’s precisely the problem. Cudi has given his fans so many great projects—2008’s A Kid Named Cudi, 2009/10’s Man on the Moon I & II, as well as the recent Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, released in 2016, and 2018’s KIDS SEE GHOSTS. It’s hard to envision him topping them. But I guess that’s the power of imagination.
Verdict: Kid Cudi HAS released his best album.
I say this with one qualification. So far, in this article, I’ve been using “album” and “mixtape” interchangeably, as I did for Chance and Young Thug. However, Rocky has yet to release his best formal album. His best project was Live.Love.A$AP, released in 2013. His subsequent three albums have all been good, but each has lacked the focus and heart of his first project. Rocky is counted out these days, but I still think he has it in him to deliver a classic, genre-bending, psychedelic album. But few could ever reach the historicity of Live.Love.A$AP.
Verdict: A$AP Rocky HAS released his best album.
This selection was a hard one. Piñata, released in 2014, immediately comes to mind as Gibbs’ best. However, 2019’s Bandana had Gibbs’ most reflective lyrics to date—he wrote them in a jail cell in Europe—and furthered the relationship between Gibbs and producer Madlib. Piñata is a classic, but I think Montana—the final chapter of the MadGibbs trilogy—can be the absolute best thing Gibbs has ever done.
Verdict: Freddie Gibbs has NOT released his best album.
Rapsody is the best. She’s been around for a decade, but the energy around her feels brand new. Her recent album, Eve, released in August 2019, represented an artist reaching their peak—confident, visionary, and focused. As the first woman rapper since 1997 to be nominated for “Album of the Year” (Cardi B won the following year), who put out an even better project two years later, Rapsody will continue to evolve as a trailblazer.
Verdict: Rapsody has NOT released her best album.
Somewhere along the way, 21 Savage changed his trajectory from a perc-popping street rapper to a mature artist who wears no jewelry and symbolizes the American immigrant success story. i am > i was was one of the wisest albums released last year in music, and it’s exciting to think about what comes next.
Verdict: 21 Savage has NOT released his best album.
This pick may be jarring to say because Cardi only has one album out, but it’s true. Invasion of Privacy, released in 2018, was a superhuman effort lasered into place by an artist desperate to prove herself. She succeeded wildly on that front. But more concerning is the fact that Cardi B doesn’t write most of her songs. You can get away with that as a singer, not as a hip-hop artist. In this game, talent is longevity. One day, the ghostwriters might move onto the next crossover act, and Cardi B will make a good, but not classic album.
Verdict: Cardi B HAS released her best album.
J. Cole has rinsed his name of any corny connotations. He just concluded one of the best feature runs of all time and gave his crew a No. 1 album. Like Young Thug, leading a successful crew is often a sign of an artist in peak form. J. Cole doesn’t have an indisputable classic—although I think 2014 Forest Hills Drive is—and because of that gap in his legacy, everything is in place for album number six (The Fall Off) to be his best one, and possibly the album of the year.
Verdict: J. Cole has NOT released his best album.