Label: Cash Money/Republic/UniversalRepublic /Maybach Music Group/Def Jam

One of the most pleasant surprises of 2013 came in the form of a never-before-released album from 2008. One that most of us never even knew existed. Sure, we have vague memories of Birdman talking about a full joint album he'd made with Rick Ross; a secret stash of gold locked in the vaults. But like most "supergroup" projects born in rumor and speculation, it never came to fruition—and many assumed that the talk was just a way to grab a headline for a week in '08, to keep Birdman in the news.

But no: This project was real. And it's pretty great. It captures a very specific timeframe; right before Rick Ross took flight, just prior to the release of Deeper Than Rap. His second album, Trilla had been a modest success, but didn't meaningfully build on Ross' reputation as a one-dimensional kingpin with modest rapping skills. In some ways, The H is a stronger release. It helps that he's mixing it up with Birdman, who, alongside his work in the Big Tymers and Like Father Like Son, has solidified his reputation as hip-hop's quintessential sparring partner, bringing out the best in his collaborators. Some of his verses here sound suspiciously Curren$y-esque, from the period just before his career took off as well. From the low-key swamp-funk of "Money to Make," to the breezy summertime melodicism of "Sun Come Up," to "Why," which swipes the same sample as Cormega's classic "They Forced My Hand" (yes... Birdman raps over the classic Queensbridge beat), the music is a reminder of how we often don't appreciate what we've got til it's gone. While other rappers try to imitate older eras, here is a minor classic literally plucked from the past. —David Drake