The 10 Best New York City Rap Albums of the Past 10 Years

Each record guaranteed packed with Big Apple anthems.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

This week’s release of French Montana’s major-label debut, Excuse My French, would be an event for New York hip-hop no matter what. But French raised the stakes in January, when he declared it “the best album to come out in a decade.”

Between the lines, it was clear why he picked that span of time. 50 Cent’s landmark Get Rich Or Die Tryin' rocked the rap world in early 2003, and few albums have had remotely the same impact since—and certainly none from the Empire State. Once upon a time, New York rappers fretted about going soft after Snoop came through and crushed the buildings, but the city’s real identity crisis came about post-9/11, after Osama knocked over the towers. 

So does French actually have the best album in a decade? Here the 10 Best New York City Rap Albums of the Past 10 Years he’ll have to top to back up that claim.

Written by Al Shipley (@alshipley)

RELATED: The 25 Best Dirty South/New York Rap Collaborations of All Time
RELATED: New York Back: Hip-Hop's Return to Power in the Mecca
RELATED: 10 Underrated Albums by Great Rappers

RELATED: Pigeons & Planes - The Best New Artists of 2013

10. Nas, Life is Good (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: Def Jam

Jay-Z famously took Nas to task for his spotty first 10 years in the game, but in the last decade it was Mr. Jones that had the higher quality control while Hov's albums were hit or miss. Street's Disciple bore the gift and the curse of double-LP largesse, while Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled were solid efforts overshadowed by album title controversies.

But it was Life Is Good that really affirmed that Nas, even divorced and pushing 40,  still had something to say and a brilliant way of saying it. And after years of Nas' production getting knocked just for not being by DJ Premier, by the time Life Is Good came around, heads were finally ready to admit that Salaam Remi is an asset to Nas albums, not a liability. Nasty Nas was wise beyond his years at 19, but the hard-won lessons of his 30s give his new music a depth all its own.

9. A$AP Rocky, Long. Live. A$AP (2013)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: ASAP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA

New York rappers have long struggled to honor the lyrical legacy of hometown icons like Rakim. Ironically, it was a kid born Rakim Mayers who broke out of the nostalgic rut that often holds back New York MCs from reaching a national fanbase, incorporating influences from all over the map to emerge as a new kind of mainstream star.

Instead of "bringing New York back," A$AP Rocky simply brought it forward, and topped the Billboard 200 with his debut album in January, becoming the first new NYC rapper to join the No. 1 club since Nicki Minaj (who herself ended the long drought since Lloyd Banks' debut in 2004). With a diverse palette of sounds courtesy of everyone from Hit-Boy to Skrillex to Clams Casino to Danger Mouse, LONG.LIVE.A$AP depicts a Harlem world that acknowledges the world outside Harlem.

8. Roc Marciano, Marcberg (2010)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: Fat Beats

Many of New York rap's 21st-century resurrections have been unexpected, but perhaps none more than Roc Marciano, a second-tier member of the second-tier Busta Rhymes posse Flipmode Squad. Shit, we could barely have been more surprised if Spliff Star dropped a masterpiece. Just as Roc Marci was the only guest on Ka's similarly acclaimed Grief Pedigree, here Ka has one cameo in what's otherwise a one-man show from the gifted rapper/producer. Most of Roc Marciano's production work is in the crate-digging—once he finds a killer Smoked Sugar or Mighty Doug Haynes loop, he doesn't do much to get in its way, leaving plenty of space for dense, writerly rhymes.

7. Action Bronson, Blue Chips (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

6. Ka, Grief Pedigree (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: Iron Works

Nearly two decades after he first appeared in the original lineup of Natural Elements and four years after 2008's Iron Works began his unlikely comeback, Ka finally made the album of his career. Brownsville's most famous MCs are shouters, but Ka raps only as loudly as he needs to for the mic to pick up his voice, laying plain-spoken, unflinchingly honest rhymes over his own skeletal productions. Grief Pedigree is an album that often mourns old friends, but just as often seems to mourn a New York that no longer exists.

5. Sean Price, Jesus Price Supastar (2007)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: Duck Down

At this point, forgotten New York rappers from the ’90s crawling out of the woodwork with strong independent projects are a regular occurrence. But at the time of 2005's Monkey Barz, it was a genuine surprise to hear Ruck from Heltah Skeltah on the comeback trail, rapping under his government name and revealing more of his personality and sense of humor than ever. The 2007 follow-up cemented Price as a perennial underground hero—albeit one humble enough to mix self-deprecation with self-aggrandizement on lines like "Sometimes I feel like I'm the best I'm field/But I'm not and I'm broke, so I go invest in some krillz."

4. G-Unit, Beg for Mercy (2003)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: G-Unit, Interscope

In addition to upping the stakes on the mixtape game and the hook game, 50 Cent leveraged his stardom to put his crew on more quickly and more effectively than any rapper in history. Instead of riding out Get Rich Or Die Tryin' or going for an immediate solo follow-up, he brought out Beg For Mercy just 10 months later, setting up his top lieutenants for platinum solo debuts the next summer. Sure, one-third of the group at this point was from Tennessee, but G-Unit simply was the sound of New York at that moment: gleaming and polished but unapologetically menacing, the last gasp of gangsta rap as a blockbuster industry.

3. Prodigy, Return of the Mac (2007)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: E1 Music

Many New York ’90s icons fell on hard times in the 21st century, but perhaps nobody had it rougher than Mobb Deep. From being slandered on the Summer Jam screen to a commercial decline that not even signing to G-Unit could reverse to Havoc and Prodigy beefing on Twitter, the Infamous duo couldn't catch a break. But before Bandana P went upstate for three years, he went on a tear of solo releases that included Return Of The Mac, perhaps the greatest rap album ever released by the much-maligned indie giant Koch Records. As terse as ever but also enlivened by Alchemist's creative production, Prodigy is in rare form on Return Of The Mac, giving the Queens legend a win during an era rife with losses.

2. Cam'ron, Purple Haze (2004)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: Roc-A-Fella, Diplomat, Def Jam

In the lead-up to Purple Haze, Cam'ron was becoming a rap kingpin the likes of which New York had never really seen before, from his sartorial decisions to his rhyme style. Come Home With Me had been a mainstream smash, The Diplomats were running the streets, and anticipation was through the roof. But after the ill-fated Cyndi Lauper interpolation "Girls" flopped and Cam left the acrimonious situation at Roc-A-Fella on the eve of the album's release, Purple Haze's sales were soft. Regardless, Cam's status as a cult hero was cemented. In the following years, Juelz Santana and Jim Jones had an easier time making hits, but they never made songs as effortlessly perfect as "Killa Cam" or "Down and Out." 

1. Jay Z, The Black Album (2003)

Not Available Interstitial

Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Remembering the significance attached to The Black Album when Jay-Z first dropped his supposed last LP in 2003 is kind of like getting emotional about the funeral of a friend who you later found out faked his death. Hov's been back now longer than he was ever away, but his recent triumphs still haven't topped his premature farewell statement. It's not his best album, but "99 Problems" has slowly become perhaps his most famous song, "P.S.A." continues to destroy stadiums every damn time, and at this point we'll even let missteps like "Change Clothes" and "Justify My Thug" ride out more often than not.

Latest in Music