It’s the middle of the Year so it’s time to do the mid year review of hip hop. This is the list of our Top 5 hip hop albums this year. Let’s us know who shocked you or who should have been on the list. The list is not in a particular order.
Victory LAP is more of a remembrance than a celebration. From digging up $100,000 his brother buried in his mother’s backyard for safekeeping only to discover half the money had molded to fighting off surprise challengers trying to steal jewelry from his entourage in Vegas, the album painstakingly documents the life of a reformed bruiser turned hood economist. Self-taught and self-funded, Nipsey fought to escape the cycle of an existence measured only in summers—time spent as “the man” on the block or serving sentences in the pen. He has been chasing sustainability since he was a teenager, and now that he has it, he’s appreciative, relieved even. He doesn’t just bask in his moment, though, he challenges others to pursue the same goals, as on “Million While You Young,” which equates money with salvation (“I can tell you niggas how I came up/Similar to climbin’ out the grave, huh”).
His flow is effortless, letting off stream-of-consciousness musings on death and loss that carry anxiety and paranoia within: “All my partners steady passin’, tryna wiggle through this madness/Tryna fight this gravity at times and I swear I could feel it pull me backwards/Puttin’ thousands on they caskets, tryna pick the right reactions/I appreciate the process, but I’m so conflicted about the status,” he raps on “Status Symbol 3.” Ghosts of lost friends and loved ones haunt his raps, the echoes of shots fired long ago still ring in his ears, and his verses are full of close calls. There are subtle tensions within even his most gaudy tales, as no win has come without consequence or sacrifice. But his raps aren’t just a mark of persistence, they are a push to improve—both his state of mind and quality of life.
Nipsey’s rhymes are designed to string out little observations until they form a big idea. They aren’t instantly quotable, but they slowly unspool to reveal kernels of fortune-cookie wisdom. “This ain’t entertainment, it’s for niggas on the slave ship/These songs just the spirituals I swam against them waves with,” he raps on “Dedication.” The remarks don’t always connect or make sense in sequence but they can create powerful impressions. He stays on-message almost the entire record, promoting the expansion of black wealth. On “Last Time That I Checc’d,” which is in part an homage to Jeezy, he salutes hustlers in the streets trying to feed their kids and single moms struggling to make ends meet. But he calls for more “black owners” and presents himself as the template.
Debuts are usually albums of firsts, but Victory Lap is full of sequels and standards. When it isn’t heavily indebted to his West Coast forebears Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, and Dj Quik, or literally adding a follow-up in a song series—“Blue Laces 2,” “Keyz 2 the City 2”—it is returning to Nipsey’s well for hard-nosed bully rap. The hour-long album honors all the work he’s put in and looks back at all he’s achieved, but it also looks forward to all he has yet to build and all those he can still inspire. His tactics can be tone-deaf and without nuance, but he knows exactly who he’s speaking to and for.
Even though Streams of Thought Vol. 1 is 5 songs. Black Thought was just giving us game and strictly bars. Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 carries that freestyle’s impressionistic spirit with that knowing audience in mind. Though this is Black Thought’s first solo project (previous would-be debuts Masterpiece Theatre and Danger Mouse collab Dangerous Thoughtswere shelved), the EP avoids any Herculean this-is-my-time statements in favor of weaponizing the quiet self-assuredness he’s earned in his decades as the Roots’ vocalist. Co-headliner and producer 9th Wonder mainly strings together a collection of soul loops and falls back, allowing Black Thought to throw down technically wrought, hookless verses. Rigorous but rarely hermetic, the album is a small testament to his sustained excellence.
At 17 minutes—including the two-year-old “Making a Murderer” with the Lox’s Styles P—Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 is a SparkNotes distillation of Black Thought’s abilities. His verses don’t give up easy mantras in the way some of his Philadelphian peers do; he thrills with internal rhymes and flow swaps that manage to fold years of experience and culture references into crisp narratives. You could argue that Things Fall Apart’s creative breakthrough was thanks to how the Roots finally matched the spontaneity of Black Thought’s prose.
No matter, Streams of Thought’s opener “Twofifteen” features this marginless narration in full force. The way he moves through flipping an idiom off his late grandfather’s wisdom when “burning man was blacks in Birmingham,” and a reference to Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls… carries a one-shot fluidity, like Alejandro Iñárritu remaking Do the Right Thing. Black Thought’s taste for classic literature reappears on “Dostoyevsky,” which takes his wanderlust to another extreme. He declares himself “Dostoyevsky meets Joe Pesci” before connecting the line to that “machete from the Serengeti, already,” then bending together the other syllables throughout the verse.
Perhaps Streams of Thought would’ve been better if it was just Black Thought rapping; although they acquit themselves well, Styles P and Rapsody feel like intermissions. Still, there’s an elder statesman ease trailing his voice that feels familial, and the two fellow rhymers indulge the low-stakes exercise. Black Thought leaves Rapsody enough breathing room on “Dostoyevsky” to throw in an adroit verse and the line “I ain’t turn star boy in a weekend,” while on “Making a Murderer,” Styles P works himself out of the “We all got fucked but no pornos” clunker with a verse that carries the verve of someone willing to write until the pen runs dry. They both come across as game as an NBA player in a blacktop pickup match.
Streams of Thought’s closer “Thank You” suggests that all of Black Thought’s rhyming clinics are not just works of hunger, but also acts of gratitude. His continued relevance in a fickle industry, not to mention Tariq Trotter’s escape from the physical dangers of Philadelphia, is both a testament to his work ethic and divine favor. Over a sample of D’Angelo’s “The Charade,” he soulfully gives praise for his wife’s mercy, links lynched bodies to fleeing from cops (“Images of strange fruits hangin’ from the trees/Laces on my gym shoes, skatin’ from police”), and memorializes the “barbershop that used to be at 6th and Emily.” After Black Thought utters his last thank you, the project abruptly ends.
Pusha T’s seven track DAYTONA marked his first release in three years, which justifies why he has so much to say. With album art showcasing Whitney Houston’s drug-stricken bathroom counter, the rights to the photo allegedly paid by Kanye West, Pusha T still knows how to demand attention. West also produced DAYTONA with help from Mike Dean and Andrew Dawson.
“If You Know You Know” rings in like an anthem as Pusha speaks with no hesitation ‘the company I keep is not corporate enough/ child rebel soldier, you ain’t orphan enough/ a rapper turned trapper can’t morph into us.’ T doesn’t hold back in referencing his crack/cocaine dealing history, he rather brags about his untouchable status at the top of the game. This track samples ‘Twelve O’Clock Satanial’ by 70’s Michigan-based rock band Air.
Moving to ‘The Games We Play’ T continues to reflect on his process as a drug dealer. Kanye used Booker T Averheart’s ‘Heart N’ Soul’ as the sample for the classic piano driven hip hop beat on this track. ‘This ain’t for the conscious, this for the mud-made monsters who grew up on legends from outer Yonkers, influenced by n***** Straight Outta Compton,’ raps Pusha T. This track references a few T’s inspirations that paved the foundational course of trapping and rapping.
One out of two features on DAYTONAcomes from Maybach Music’s Rick Ross on ‘Hard Piano’. Flowing rhymes on the ups and downs of being recognized, T and Ross tag team the beat with high impact. ‘You scared to see my face in a fancy place/ so I debate my case vs. a Nancy Grace/ it’s flesh and blood ‘til I’m fresh as fuck/ still hands on, sucker, press your luck,’ raps Ross, undoubtedly referencing his hustle through selling drugs. The hook is sung by Tony Williams- Kanye West’s cousin.
Opening with a sample from The Mighty Hannibal’s ‘The Truth Shall Make You Free’, ‘Come Back Baby’ picks up the pace with a quicker flow over a dark, groovy bass line. Track five ‘Santeria’ features a darker narrative with T reminiscing on the murder of former road manager De’Von Pickett. ‘You listening, De’Von?/ As I’m talking to your spirit, for God’s sakes/ I’m dealing with heartbreak/ checking my ego, I’m livin’ with lost faith.’
Feature number two boasts Kanye West on ‘What Would Meek Do?’ where T and West respond to gossip. “It won’t feel right ‘til I feel like Phil Knight/ goin’ for six rings like what Phil told Mike/ seven pill nights, you know what that feel like?/ No more hidin’ the scars, I show ‘em like Seal, right?” raps the ever controversial West.
At this point the fearless Pusha closes out DAYTONA taking shots at Birdman, Drake and company on ‘Infrared’. Speaking on the rumors that Drake uses ghostwriters in his writing process, T doesn’t hold back. ‘How could you ever right these wrongs/ when you don’t even write your songs?’ It’s evident that Pusha T is at his most confident on DAYTONA; his rhymes carry confidence and clarity paired with a high head and a release that was well worth the three-year waiting period.
Jay Rock starts the album with true perseverance, kicking it off with one of the pre-leaks titled “The Bloodiest”. Rock sinks back reminiscing on his hustling days, not wanting to be judged based on rash decisions for money. This thought process is quite relatable to much of his audience, but serves as a deeper meaning. Rock details his battle scars and tribulations, but never forgetting where those scars came from. The gritty bars unite fully for one of his greatest masterpieces.
As Kendrick does, Rock takes a step back seemingly effortlessly to convey his messages, stringing together intermediate clauses which all combine for the big picture. “For What It’s Worth” grabs a major sense in Jay’s mind, contacting the issue of lust, love, and the power of it. “That pretty flower’ll spoil you, then it’ll poison you. You get amnesia to everything you was loyal to”. The numbness Rock feels is conveyed very nicely, lying out his regrets and love scars. The love cycle is broken down by Jay, pulling it apart to its deepest roots. A perfect love scenario is denied at all costs, and Rock takes his experiences as he speaks truth into his lyrics.
“Knock It Off” was already an instant classic on my first spin of the project, and Rock takes his pride to the next level. His true victory lap doesn’t lie in TDE’s Championship Tour, rather can be found entirely in this song. As he cleans the plate for his haters, the ultimate tribulation resides in his lyrical content discretely flexing on everyone that’s trying to be like him.
Moving down the tracklist, “Rotation 112th” takes the cake for best on the album. Rock takes the listener back to his street days, bringing in hoppy trap production as he spits his story. The TDE player clarifies his biggest regrets, but pays homage to his once home. The fact that Jay Rock can still bring out his inner gangster on his third studio album means a lot, and serves as a marking point in gangster rap, which has been on the downfall. Rock keeps his radars sensitive, always with his “head on a swivel” for the sake of his protection.
Jeremih comes in on “Tap Out” for a true aim at a mainstream bop, which they succeed heavily in some aspects. The offbeat tune has Jay Rock keeping it simple on the lyricism, but Jeremih comes in to provide one of his best hooks I’ve heard from him. Shockingly enough, the two share a certain level of chemistry. Somehow one of the biggest R&B singers really made it work with a bloody, gritty, sweat packing Jay Rock.
Next we get to “OSOM” feat. J. Cole & SiR, both of which continue the stride and direction of Jay Rock’s album. Being “out of sight out of mind”, Rock explains his current state of paranoia. As he tries his best to find his true self, Jay notably always is on edge now that he is popping in the industry. He acknowledges that he’s running out of time, and wants to do his best to make the best out of his life, despite being out of his mind.
On “Broke +-“, Rock goes into the mind of his younger self, being a broke kid. He says that his vision is pugilistic, being his only reason to fight on with his life. His dark track conveys a deep message, but hidden inside actually serves as inspiration. He speaks to those at their lowest, speaking truth on how he and many cope during these times. “B is for the blood, R is for the ropes, O is for oppression, K is for the kush, needed just to cope
E is for the evolution, it’s for this resolution.” He then asks the listener if they’re tired of losing, tired of being broke, and speaks his tribulations. His mindset serves key, detailing his actions and thought processes on his road to fame.
Kendrick hops on the “Wow” freestyle, which surprisingly didn’t play a big role in the album’s overall success. Though both provide some hefty bars as they spit swap verses, the overall delivery and chemistry was at lack. The single at its core is somewhat impressive, but the direction taken is clearly for the mainstream.
Overall, Jay Rock stays on his tip toes as he shoots for the sky for his third project. The lyricism stays in tact for the entire album, and his touchy subjects of poverty, gang, depression, and lust all tie in to the larger picture. Rock’s tribulations and wins took a toll on himself as a creator, and still effects his mind even into the depths of his success. Jay Rock is becoming one of today’s top tier rappers, and solidifies why he will be labeled as one of the greatest lyricists of this generation of rappers.
Royce turns darkness into light on his album. He discusses family, addiction, and his childhood in a semi-concept album format. The main premise of the concept centers around Royce’s son James asking his dad questions about his life for a school assignment “to go in depth about a figure in our lives that you find inspiring.” However, that idea doesn’t come into play until track seven of the lengthy 20 songs on Book of Ryan. What’s found in the tracks prior to this storyline though is an excellent display of East Coast energy. After the intro, Royce dives in on “Woke” over booming 808s and a sample of The Sopranos theme song which set the tone for the hard-hitting, bare production heard throughout the album.
“Caterpillar” is the highlight of these opening tracks. Featuring Eminem, the Bad Meets Evil duo trade verses demanding respect from the young generation of rappers, as Royce condescends, “All you niggas my little rapper babies / Y’all my children, y’all bit my shit and contracted rabies.” Eminem continues the young vs. old beef, declaring, “The boom bap is back with an axe to mumble rap.” Whatever you think of the debate between rap generations, there’s no denying the lyrical power of a Royce or an Eminem.
For Royce, that lyrical power most often comes in the form of vivid storytelling, which here is truly film-like. His voice quivers as he questions, “How did I inherit so much pain / I drink a lot of alcohol, problems with the law / Would I have done better or the same / If Daddy never tried cocaine?” Royce is unconditionally thankful to his father despite the drug abuse since he went to rehab and cleaned up “because he didn’t want to lose us / Whew, strong man.” Royce continues the discussion of his relationship with his father on the outro of “Power” when his son asks if his father was a good father to him.
In hindsight, he answers, “Absolutely. All my friend’s daddies was walking out on them left and right. Y’know he never left us…I understand and appreciate him so much more now as a man ’cause he taught me respect and discipline and consequences for your acts.” It takes a lot to look at someone who has a drug history and is prone to domestic violence as is laid out honestly on “Power” and pull out the good, respectable lessons learned from that person in our lives. But here, Royce shows the maturity to acknowledge the good impact people can have in our lives despite the wrong. The wrongs aren’t excused by any means, but there must always be room for forgiveness and reconciliation.
This type of wisdom is why the older generation of rappers must still have a place in the game. While the tracklist drags on a bit on Book of Ryan, the discussions of dysfunctional family life (“Power”) and mental illness (“Strong Friend”) are heavy and worthwhile topics. Royce doesn’t sacrifice energy for message either. “Summer on Lock”, “Caterpillar”, “Legendary”, and others are fiery bursts of boom bap and trap which show that at nearly 41, Royce is not slowing down.
Tell us if you agree or disagree with the list. If you disagree comment below who we left off.