The Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)

At the midway point of 2014, we choose our favorite songs by Drake, Iggy Azalea, Wiz Khalifa, and more.

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Complex Original

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The first half of the year is often a bit slow in the music world, as artists and record companies gear up to let loose their biggest releases during the lucrative holiday shopping season. While this year is certainly no exception, we've already heard some classic songs, both by established artists and newcomers, that won't be going anywhere for the rest of the year. The only rule so far has been to expect the unexpected.

Some of the biggest stories of 2014 have been a return to form for big names, from G-Unit to Lil Wayne to Nicki Minaj. On the other hand, new artists like Iggy Azalea and Ty Dolla $ign have made huge strides and scored hits, showing that the next big thing could always be coming from where you least expect it. Outside of the rap world, everybody has been busy buzzing about Lana Del Rey or falling in love with Sam Smith.

This year has also been notable for the fact that some of the biggest songs weren't released this year. Take Chris Brown's ubiquitous banger "Loyal." You won't find it on this list because Breezy dropped the track in 2013. Same goes for Drake's New Years Eve anthem "We Made It." But no matter, there's still more than enough heat to talk about. 

These are The Best Songs of 2014 (So Far).

Listen to Complex's Best Songs of 2014 (So Far) playlists here: YouTube/Spotify/Rdio

RELATED: The Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)

RELATED: The Best Rappers In Their 20's (Right Now)

50. Lupe Fiasco f/ Ty Dolla $ign "$nitches"

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Album: Tetsuo & Youth
Label: 1st & 15th/Atlantic
Producer: Ty Dolla $ign

Lupe Fiasco's got two songs with Ty Dolla $ign out right now. While "Next to It" is a squeaky concept hit with summer playlist potential, "$nitches" has the smoother hook, the more charismatic flow, and, perhaps, the more obvious hint of a Lupe comeback: "Don't misinterpret what you're hearing/I ain't tryna get out, I'm tryna put some years in." —Justin Charity

49. Stitches "Brick In Yo Face"

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Album: No Snitching Is My Statement
Label: N/A
Producer: N/A

This song has no business being this good. In fact, we're not even sure it is good—we're so far past the point of trolling we've stopped pretending to like it ironically because it sucks and we just straight up like it because we suck. Regardless of how offensively this song assaults your senses, there are a few things you can't deny. One, it recalls the era when rappers aggressively screamed phrases in your face trying to coerce you into nodding along—like Lil Jon in the mid-2000s—which has the result of making you want to run 10 miles on the treadmill. Two, the song is legitimately, coercively memorable. Listen to it one time and there's no way you won't come down with a case of rap tourettes later that day and scream, "I PUT THAT BRICK IN YO FACE!" And finally, the video is batshit crazy and responsible for more than half the appeal of the song. Trust, there's nothing more satisfying than playing it for one of your friends for the first time and watching his/her brain melt. —Insanul Ahmed

48. Spooky Black "Without You"

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Album: Black Silk
Label: N/A
Producer: Greaf

The video for Spooky Black's out-of-nowhere Internet sensation "Without You" makes the song even better. The syrupy beat takes a while to get down to business with the 808s but when Spooky lays his vocals down it feels like heaven. He floats down from the clouds using his durag cape as angel wings with the voice as mysterious as his persona. We tried to get in contact with this legend in the making; however, he prefers to remain a mystery and replied back with: "No." Maybe he thought we were mocking him with this post—we weren't, though. Wear a fresh du-du before you hit play and get sucked into Spooky Black's ocean of wavyness. —Angel Diaz

47. Tyga, Nicki Minaj & Lil Wayne "Senile"

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Album: Young Money: Rise of an Empire
Label: Young Money/Cash Money
Producer: D.A. Doman

“Senile” is Young Money's attempt to give you a look into the weird, wacky world they ascended from. Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Tyga sound like they’re from the depths of hell, with ominous production from D.A. Doman. It’s the second single off the YMCMB compilation album, Rise of an Empire, and while the video is like overdosing on mushrooms, "Senile" is just another reiteration of how YMCMB has the game on lock this year. Can you see now? —Lauren Nostro

46. PARTYNEXTDOOR "Persian Rugs"

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Album: N/A
Label: OVO

Like his brother in sad sex and lean, PARTYNEXTDOOR has the Weeknd's utter disinterest in typical song structures. "Persian Rugs," an early 2014 release, has no chorus; no real sense of forward motion, in fact. If you transcribed the lyrics, you might produce a compact brick of text as opposed to clean lines. Which is funny, because the song does sound like snorting crushed painkillers in a hotel room after all of your friends have gone home or fallen asleep. Lots of empty space around the cold chording of an electric piano. The drums, when they arrive, produce more impact than any single word or phrase—most of the lyrics go unnoticed, save for the exotic living room accessory talk; his voice is another sound. House of Balloons came out over three years ago, and we're still hooked on this dope. —Ross Scarano

45. FKA twigs "Two Weeks"

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Album: LP1
Label: Young Turks
Producer: FKA twigs

For all the avant garde dancing and Cindy Sherman-esque portrait manipulation in her album and EP artwork, British singer FKA twigs isn't too left field to reference thirst, motherfucker. On "Two Weeks," the first release from her upcoming debut album, LP1, she sings, "I can fuck you better than her" in a breathless whisper. It's a song calling for a cold shower: "Gimme two weeks, you won't recognize her." This is sex from a woman exercising absolute control over her sound and image. She's awesome. Here, just watch this. —Ross Scarano

44. Jay Electronica "Better in Tune With the Infinite"

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Album: N/A
Label: Roc Nation
Producer: Ryuichi Sakamoto

It's unclear whether or not we're ever going to hear Jay Electronica's fabled major label debut. But at least now we know the track listing he shared over a year ago wasn't a complete hoax. After a fan urged the Roc Nation artist to release something while he was at SXSW, Jay Elect decided to let this little gem loose. It sounds more like an interlude than a song, but "Better in Tune" stands strong on its own, kicking off with audio from Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed and the The Wizard of Oz, before easing into a verse where Jay laments detractors, earthly and celestial:

My feet might fail me, my heart my ail me
The synagogues of Satan might accuse and jail me
Strip, crown, nail me, brimstone hail me
They might defeat the flesh, but could never ever kill me
They might could feel the music but could never ever feel me

It's a great talent to spit heady, righteous (and sometimes cosmic) shit without sounding corny, but Electronica nearly always pulls it off. Only he could say lines like: "My grandma told me every bed a nigga make he lay in it, a church you go to pray in it, the work is on the outside, staring out the windows is for love songs and house flies" and make it sound genuinely contemplative. —Damien Scott 

43. Sinkane "Hold Tight"

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Album: Mean Love
Label: DFA
Producer: Ahmed Gallab

Sade never got this noisy. Ahmed Gallab, of Yeasayer and of Montreal, records on NYC's DFA Records as Sinkane, and his androgynous vocals and Sunday afternoon FM radio instrumentation conjure Love Deluxe-era Adu. But the singer responsible for smooth jams like "No Ordinary Love" never washed any of her records in the near-dissonant organ swell that opens "Hold Tight." This is the dirty version of yacht rock, more Wolf of Wall Street-style boat rocking, less Christopher Cross. Gallab sings, "You want me/Come get me," but his voice is going places on the scale we can't reach. He's too high. —Ross Scarano

42. Prince "The Breakdown"

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Album: N/A
Label: Warner Bros.
Producer: Prince

While the ink dried on a new agreement between Prince and his old label-nemesis Warner Bros., the Purple One released "The Breakdown." Bloggers sat stunned, typing and then deleting and then retyping the phrase "don't call it a comeback." Prince, like oxygen, is always here and always necessary, even if words often elude those writing about him. "The Breakdown," a ballad with, guess what, a big, rollicking guitar-driven breakdown, is just the latest demonstration of his musical immortality. As ever, the subject is love and its ability to pick you up and turn walls into doors. That last image is one of the most potent in the song, a refashioning of a familiar experience into something new. Which is what Prince, at the age of 56, is so good at. —Ross Scarano

41. K Camp f/ 2 Chainz "Cut Her Off"

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Album: In Due Time
Label: Interscope
Producer: Will-A-Fool

K Camp has started the year with a number of hits, but "Cut Her Off" is undoubtedly his catchiest. The song's subject matter is simple enough—Camp is fed up with the stress from clingy women—but his melodies grab the listener to repeat his rebellious verses verbatim. It's literally the rap version of Beyonce's "Irreplaceable." Add in a equally wacky 2 Chainz verse and "Cut Her Off" is easily the breakup anthem of the year. —Justin Davis

40. Usher "Good Kisser"

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Album: N/A
Label: RCA
Producer: Pop Wansel, Flippa, Jproof, Tru

Funny enough, Usher dropped a new track called "I Don't Mind" last week, featuring Juicy J and a Migos clone, making for the sort of strip club ode that Atlanta does best. Still, none of Usher's recent work compare to the sexual confidence and bad boy bump of "Good Kisser," which dropped in May. It's the lead single from Usher's eighth solo album, for which he's clearly setting a high bar: "The devil is a lie/Them other girls can't compete with mine." —Justin Charity

39. Jimmy Johnson "Northside"

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Album: N/A
Label: PRIME
Producer: Eric Dingus

OVO isn't the only crew making noise in Toronto. Nor is it the only one with a close relationship to Houston. Prime, a T-Dot-based collective, also has a deep appreciation for music made in the Texas city 1,500 miles away. It shows on Prime member Jimmy Johnson's latest project, In God We Trust. The entire album is produced by budding beat maker Eric Dingus, who also crafted "Northside." Here, Dingus creates for him a hazy palette for to put on for his city. Its skittering drums and hopscotching keys give it a region-less sound that's grounded in Johnson's shout outs to the 416. —Damien Scott

38. Snootie Wild f/ Fabolous, Jadakiss, French Montana & YG "Yayo (Remix)"

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Album: Chapter One
Label: Collective Music Group/Epic
Producer: K. Figz

Memphis rapper Snootie Wild had a big year with his debut single "Yayo." The song hit No. 19 on the Billboard Rap Songs chart back in April, and spawned an unofficial remix by T.I. that helped further popularize the song. Eventually, it caught the ear of Yo Gotti, who laid a new verse on the track and signed Snootie to his CMG label, distributed through Epic. Through his newfound industry connections, he assembled an all-star crew for the official remix. The diversity of voices means there's a little something for everyone. Fabolous and Jadakiss both drop solid verses on their affinity for the women and cocaine, but it's YG that comes away with the best showing. "Like ooh that's that Scarface/Ooh this shit look salty/Ooh we moving work like Hova moved the Nets to Barclays" he raps. The crew does some serious work on the track, taking an already catchy club hit to the next level. —Chris Mench

37. Tree "Probably Nu It"

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Album: The @MCTree EP
Label: N/A
Producer: Tree

Tree's been putting on for Chicago for a few years now, straddling street rap, boom bap, and old Motown influences that have led him to the point of his latest hit, "Probably Nu It," in which he applies his signature rasp to reggae chanting. It's catchy: "She was creeping on the low/Had another that I know bout/It didn't matter no how." If only sneaking around were as easy on all involved as the song's simplicity suggests. —Justin Charity

36. Rae Sremmurd "No Flex Zone"

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Album: #SremmLife EP
Label: EarDrummers
Producer: Mike WiLL Made It

Rae Sremmurd was the first group signed to Mike WiLL Made It's Ear Drumas imprint. The two brothers from Tupelo, Mississippi have a summertime smash with their second song, "No Flex Zone." It starts with the war chant that is the chorus—mandatory to yell in the club. As one brother raps, the other one drops a constant stream of ad libs, which keeps the energy high throughout. With rappers such as Pusha T expressing interest in getting on the remix, "No Flex Zone" will continue to gain momentum as the temperature climbs. —Dharmic X

35. G-Unit "Nah I'm Talking Bout"

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Album: N/A
Label: G-Unit
Producer: Hit-Boy

"Million dollar schemes on my mind," Banks raps. And so the band is back together. More aggressive and compelling than any of the tracks from 50's latest solo album, "Nah I'm Talking Bout" is the surprise collabo track that sold fans on both the likelihood and appeal of a G-Unit reunion, even with Game excluded. Young Buck's just happy to be here. —Justin Charity

34. Popcaan "Waiting So Long"

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Album: Where We Come From
Label: Mixpak
Producer: Adde Instrumentals

So the singer hails from St. Thomas, Jamaica; the album's executive producer from Brooklyn by way of suburban Massachusetts; and the song's producer from Sweden. "Waiting So Long," from Popcaan's excellent debut album Where We Come From, is dancehall pop assembled on a global scale. It's also the vibrant heart of the album, a jubilant love song about rewarding patience that comes after the very gangster collaboration with Pusha T, "Hustle." The production from Adde Instrumentals has a fashionable EDM mini-break for a bridge, and curlicues of synth that push Popcaan's voice to the peak of his register. "No gal in the world no do it like you," he sings in a near-desperate falsetto. You have to hear him. —Ross Scarano

33. Nicki Minaj f/ Soulja Boy "Yasss Bish"

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Album: N/A
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic
Producer: Soulja Boy

Imagine if all the best Vines turned into hit records. "Yasss Bish" was introduced by Soulja Boys weeks before its release, and when we heard Nicki jumped on the track, we knew it'd be a viral sensation. Nicki's exasperated verse paired with Soulja's lackadaisical chorus resulted in a ladies anthem heard across the Internet. Not only does the Queen Barb tease her following single, "Pills N Potions," she basically throws every one of her achievements in your face, and questions any of the new ladies not giving her credit for paving the path. It was the last of Nicki's street singles to drop before her official The Pink Print roll-out started. Yas, bish. —Lauren Nostro

32. Vampire Weekend f/ Danny Brown, Heems & Despot "Step (Remix)"

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Album: N/A
Label: XL
Producer: Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij

Every thug needs love, and every thug needs a hug. When Danny Brown, Heems, and Despot hopped on Vampire Weekend's "Step," Ezra Koenig's vocals were replaced by three verses of love, with each MC spilling a tale of a girlfriend lost. If you thought Danny Brown sounded romantic rapping about going down on girls, what he does here will melt your knees. And Heems' verse about a college love will have you creeping on Facebook. —Lauren Nostro

31. Lil Wayne "D'usse"

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Album: Tha Carter V
Label: Young Money/Cash Money
Producer: Lee Majors

The celebratory nature of "D'usse" is irresistible. From Lee Majors' radiant production to Lil Wayne's bouncing-off-the-walls flow, the record unfolds like an unforgettable night that you want to relive—bottle in hand. Wayne doesn't hold back, tossing out clever quips like "Picture me broke but forgot to take the top off the lens" and even bigging up Lil Twist, which almost makes us respect his young lackey a little bit. It's interesting that Wayne decided to make a song about "D'usse" when it would be more appropriate for him to rap about GTV, Birdman's vodka line. But the fact remains: Jay Z made it a hot liquor; Weezy made it a hot song. If we do say so ourselves. —Edwin Ortiz

30. Shy Glizzy "Awwsome"

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Album: Young Jefe
Label: N/A
Producer: EA Glizzy

D.C. born Shy Glizzy has been on the cusp of breaking beyond his string of mostly regional hits, and "Awwesome" is the song that may finally put him over the top. The horror movie-esque production is complemented by the frantic, bipolar rapping style. It's instantly memorable from the chorus ("I'm so fuckin awesome") to the anthemic verses that elicit a call-and-response from the listener. There's no better introduction to Glizzy. —Justin Davis

29. Fabolous f/ 50 Cent "Cuffin' Season (Remix)"

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Album: N/A
Label: Street Family/Def Jam
Producer: Sonaro

"Cuffin' Season" is the quintessential Fabolous song. It's relentlessly of-the-moment, built around a modern slang term that proliferated on Twitter. Its hook features mentions of La Marina in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. The verses touch on Instagram conventions ("Nigga, fuck your Women Crush Wednesdays/I just fucked your woman crush Wednesday"), and—on the original—VH1's Love & Hip Hop. It's an all around fun summer track.

But it's a bit too cheerful and playful for 50, who adds a verse for the official remix. 50's verse sticks to the script but is more menacing than Loso's. He delivers his lines with more of a sneer than smirk. While Fab warns of the perils relationships face when the weather warms, 50 warns of darker outcomes: "Quick cuffin, you love her, she wants the limelight/She 'bout to get you in some shit, boy, get your mind right." That's not to say 50's a party pooper; he's still 50, which means he can't help but be snarky: "She got a nice pair of tits, glad you bought her some." This is what 50 used to be known for. In that way, it's the quintessential vintage 50 remix. —Damien Scott

28. G-Unit "They Talked About Jesus"

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Album: N/A
Label: G-Unit
Producer: George Getson

One of the biggest stories in music this year so far has been the reunification of G-Unit. To say it was unexpected would be a massive understatement. Most thought Allen Iverson would play another NBA game before 50, who had been bad mouthing his former crew to anyone who would listen, linked back up with Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and Young Buck. But there they were on the Summer Jam stage performing hits from their time in the sun. To prove that it wasn't just a publicity stunt for 50's new album, the Unit released a couple tracks to high praise, including a remix to Drake's "0 to 100" and "Nah I'm Talkin' Bout," a remix to HS87's "Grindin My Whole Life." Despite that, doubt remained as to whether this was a real reunion; if this would last past a couple remixes. We're still not sure, but we know one person who is: Young Buck.

"This one here is for all non-believers," he belts on the chorus to "They Talked About Jesus." 50 doesn't appear on the songs, and he doesn't have to. Banks and Yayo hold it down in usual fashion, with Banks letting off a litany of internal rhymes and Tony delivering funny quotables ("I'm still at that Micky Ds off Atlantic/ my BK niggas, man, I feed 'em hammers). But it's Buck who steals the show. Over a murky, snaking beat that samples Wendy René's "After Laughter," Buck rifles through a verse that's better than anything we've heard from the Cashville rapper in years. He sounds hungry and excited and assured all at once.

I can care less about a rapper, and his entourage
I don't give a fuck 'bout a Phantom, if it's not in our garage
Quick to take a project bitch to a Travelodge
Fuck her to some Mary J. Blige, get out of Dodge

"Somebody called and said the rap game needs us," he says on the hook. Does rap need G-Unit? Not sure. But we do think it needs Young Buck. —Damien Scott

27. ScHoolboy Q "Break The Bank"

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Album: Oxymoron
Label: TDE/Interscope
Producer: The Alchemist

This beat is monstrous. Goddamn, when are people going to give Alchemist some fucking respect? He's up there with Premier, Dilla, RZA, Pete Rock, Madlib, Doom—the greats, in other words. Those drums and the piano in the faint distance are just filthy. And ScHoolboy goes the fuck off on this track, making it hard to play this song only once. It's also very hard not to break your neck when this joint comes on. There's a reason why Jason Goldwatch's video has 6.4 million views. Some might've felt lukewarm about Oxymoron but they can't front on Q's talent for making a banger. —Angel Diaz

26. Michael Jackson "Love Never Felt So Good"

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Album: Xscape
Label: Epic
Producer: Timbaland, J-Roc

When it was announced that Michael Jackson's estate approved a posthumous album to be released featuring never-before-heard vocals paired with music from today's best pop producers, we shook our heads and turned on "Remember the Time." Then we heard the first single. Phew. Produced by John McClain and Giorgio Tuinfort, "Love Never Felt So Good" was originally recorded in 1983 with the help of Paul Anka (the guy who wrote Sinatra's "My Way"). The upbeat, sunny composition wasn't as grand as pervious Jackson singles, but that's perhaps what makes it so good. It sounds like an Off the Wall outtake, a track that, if released in '83, would get major play at BBQs, much like all other MJ songs. That's the highest praise we could give a posthumously produced Michael Jackson song. —Damien Scott

25. Future f/ Andre 3000 "Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)"

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Album: Honest
Label: A1/Freebandz/Epic
Producer: Mr. DJ

While Future is a rapper, he is primarily known for his catchy, combustible hooks. Who would have predicted the Freebandz founder successfully going bar for bar with André 3000, one of the most accomplished hip-hop artists of all time? And yet, Future impressively holds his own against Mr. Benjamin as the pair trade rhymes over the bouncy, Mr. DJ production. They even share hook duty, making the song feel like a true collaborative effort from two unique artists. The track ends up being a standout cut from Future's sophomore album Honest. —Chris Mench

24. Tinashe f/ ScHoolboy Q "2 On"

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Album: Aquarius
Label: RCA
Producer: DJ Mustard

Tinashe plus Q plus a dark-keyed DJ Mustard equals a trifecta of chill, courtesy of Los Angeles. A breakout single that bangs legit as Rihanna, complete with weed camaraderie and rebellious spirit. Tinashe's faded; she's in love. For the night. A hell of a night. —Justin Charity

23. Sam Smith "Stay With Me"

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Album: In The Lonely Hour
Label: Capitol
Producer: Jimmy Napes

Sam Smith's emotional unrest is on full display on "Stay With Me," a record that beautifully captures why everyone is starting to fall in love with the 22-year-old singer. Figuratively speaking. The song centers around Smith's innocent plea for comfort as he sings, "Guess it's true, I'm not good at a one-night stand/But I still need love cause I'm just a man." Smith flexes his incredible vocal range with fervor, owning up to the title critics have recently bestowed upon him: The male Adele. Listening to his debut album In the Lonely Hour, it becomes clear that the title of this record is merely a pipe dream for Smith, who details a personal account of unrequited love throughout his album. In this case though, heartbreak has its reward. —Edwin Ortiz

22. Iggy Azalea f/ Charli XCX "Fancy"

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Album: The New Classic
Label: Island
Producer: The Invisible Men

Let's be clear. "Fancy" isn't Iggy Azalea's breakout as an emcee heavyweight so much as it's her and Charli XCX's shared credit as emerging pop darlings. The title's deserved. "Fancy," Iggy's fourth single for The New Classic and her first chart-topper, forecasts the very accolades and fame that the song's won her among pop critics. "Remember my name: 'bout to blow-oh-oh-oh." Hate it or love it, the Australian blonde's on top. —Justin Charity

21. Low Pros f/ Travi$ Scott "100 Bottles"

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Album: A-Trak & Lex Luger Present: Low Pros
Label: Fool's Gold
Producer: A-Trak, Lex Luger

If your playlist was devoid of proper turnup anthems, "100 Bottles" is what you need to get right. A-Trak and Lex Luger linked up with Brillz on the production, crafting a serious club-shattering anthem. Travi$ Scott doesn't go in on the verses, but plays more of a host/emcee for the proceedings, but truthfully, that's all you need. This is for those of you who love the build-ups and drops that are prevalent in the EDM scene, without having to pick up a glowstick. Massive tune.–khal

20. Migos "Fight Night"

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Album: No Label 2
Label: Quality Control Music
Producer: Stack Boy Twan

Anyone still doubting Migos' influence outside of "Versace" can take a seat and press fast-forward on "Fight Night." The No Label 2 track starts with a line about Feng Shui: "If you know me know this ain't my feng shui/Certified everywhere, ain't gotta print my resume" is just a look into Migos' success over the past year, ever since Drake hopped on the "Versace" remix. Sure, they're rapping about having such intense sex that they're comparing it to a Fight Night, and that's weird. But this song is also about standing in the club with their crew, showing off their money. Either way, "Fight Night" is a banger. —Lauren Nostro

19. Nicki Minaj f/ Lil Herb "Chiraq"

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Album: N/A
Label: Young Money/Cash Money
Producer: Vinylz

The legacy of "Chiraq" might be its Vinylz, Boi-1da, and Allen Ritter produced beat—which like so much of this year's best music, makes the most of minimalism—because everyone from Tyga to the Knick's Iman Shumpert has rapped over it. Although the prodding beat deserves some credit, it's overshadowed the song's top notch rapping. Nicki Minaj opens the track with a verse that perfectly encapsulates her effort to rebrand as a hood diva. She talks about owning a tennis court, but she's still ordering "Four wings and some french fries/Hot sauce and ketchup." She still declares herself a "pop star, icon" but only in the context of having killers on call.

And for a show-stealing verse, she calls on Lil Herb. Like Nicki on "Monster," Herb realized his opportunity and went all out delivering one of the best bar-for-bar outings of any rapper all year. He recycles lines from his breakout song with Lil Bibby, "Kill Shit," but it sets the tone for the verse. His situation is the opposite of Nicki's, he's bemused to be in Hollywood with a blue Bentley but invigorated to "die shooting praying God forgive me." Chicago's vibrant rap scene has produced plenty of stars and songs these past few years, but none of them had both the street credibility and lyrical agility of Herb. —Insanul Ahmed

18. YG f/ Kendrick Lamar "Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)"

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Album: My Krazy Life
Label: Pu$haz Ink/CTE World/Def Jam
Producer: Ty Dolla $ign, Chordz

The Compton connection between YG and Kendrick Lamar exceeded expectations on "Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)," a street-laced record that delivers a vivid portrait of what it's like to live in Southern L.A. While Kendrick has been relatively quiet this year as he works on his sophomore album, the 27-year-old rapper unleashes the persona that was present on "m.A.A.d city," tearing through Ty Dolla $ign and Chordz's lurking production with unbridled ferocity.

Surprisingly, that makes YG the reserved one here, who questions his faith as he struggles to survive in the urban jungle. "I'm pressed when I'm stressed, my granny tell me I'm blessed/Well, why the fuck do Jesus Christ got me goin' through this shit?" With My Krazy Life full of boastful tales from YG, "Really Be" is one of the few moments where we get to see him in a more vulnerable state. —Edwin Ortiz

17. Future f/ Pharrell, Pusha T & Casino "Move That Dope"

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Album: Honest
Label: Free Bandz/Epic
Producer: Mike Will Made It

As Future continues to churn out club bangers, "Move That Dope" might be his best one yet. Credit goes to Mike WiLL Made It, who structured the beat perfectly. From the vocals underneath the chorus ("From ashy to classy") to Pusha T's haunting laugh, every sound effect enhances the experience. Mike WiLL also offers subtle tweaks to the beat as it progresses, stripping away the heavy bassline for Pusha and Pharrell's verses. The return of "the old Skateboard P" is the highlight of the song, however. With his double-time flow, Pharrell proved that despite his success on the pop charts with "Happy," he could return to his rap roots and still be himself on a song that primarily talks about drug dealing. And to think that "Move That Dope" was almost a Casino mixtape cut. —Dharmic X

16. Kid Cudi f/ Raphael Saadiq "Balmain Jeans"

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Album: Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon
Label: Wicked Awesome/Republic
Producer: Kid Cudi

Far and away the highlight of Kid Cudi's surprise album Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon, "Balmain Jeans" strikes an effective balance between Cudder's storied roots and his experimental tendencies. The track finds Cudi and collaborator Raphael Saadiq getting asking a lover to "Help me take off my Balmain jeans/I'll undo yours." For the average listener, it's a lust-filled love song with an atmospheric vibe, and while that's true, it also serves as a return to form for longtime Cudi fans. From the moody Dot Da Genius co-production to Scott's spaced-out delivery, the song feels like a grown-up version of a Man on the Moon. —Chris Mench

15. Vic Mensa "Down on My Luck"

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Album: N/A
Label: Virgin EMI
Producer: Vic Mensa, Stefan Ponce

Vic Mensa got on people's radars last year with sophomore mixtape INNANETAPE, but he's poised to really breakout in 2014 and "Down on My Luck" is just the song to do it. Bolstered by it's Groundhog's Day-style music video, the song might feel like a blatant attempt by a rappity rapper to make a dance song to get on the charts. But when you consider Vic's Chicago roots, the house beat makes a lot more sense. Plus, as fans of Vic's INNANETAPE know, he's all about mixing and merging sounds and styles. So even if "Down on My Luck" doesn't feature much rapping, it still somehow plays into Vic's strengths. —Insanul Ahmed

14. Lana Del Rey "Shades of Cool"

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Album: Ultraviolence
Label: Polydor/Interscope
Producer: Dan Auerbach

Last month, "Shades of Cool" was the second single we heard from Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence and, ultimately, the album's definitive track. "He lives for love; he loves his drugs;/He loves his baby, too." With all the twang and pluck of a sadder Bond theme, "Shades of Cool" is a heartbreak lament and testament to the power of booze. Her vocals boozy, indeed. She'll have whiskey, not wine; and see how she skips "dine" all together. The nerve.—Justin Charity

13. Young Thug f/ Nicki Minaj "Danny Glover (Remix)"

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Album: N/A
Label: 1017 Bricksquad/Asylum/Atlantic
Producer: 808 Mafia

As if Young Thug didn't have enough organic buzz over the past year. His new label-mate decided to offer a verse to his smash, further bolstering the furor over the in demand MC. Nicki's verse on "Danny Glover" informed fans that she's working on an album (and a mixtape?) at the same damn time. 808s Mafia gave Thugger and Nicki the perfect hypnotic beat for the ATL up and comer to flourish with multiple flows, all while Nicki sang and rapped over the production. Not only did she ape Thugger's flow, she nailed it. It shows the two artists' ability to sound versatile on any and all production, and marked a crucial pinpoint in Nicki's comeback. —Lauren Nostro

12. Tink f/ Jeremih "Don't Tell Nobody"

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Album: N/A
Label: Lyrical Eyes Management
Producer: Da Internz

Chicago MC and singer Tink low-key has the song of the summer with "Don't Tell Nobody," her battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth with Jeremih. "I just text your phone like thirtysome times in a row," she spits in controlled bursts of syllables, the kind of thing you can time the shaking of wrists and flexing of elbows to. "You ain't gotta lie/'Cause it's going on 5/And if you ain't in my bed/Then you laying with a ho/So fuck that love shit"—her flow is so water the way she lets her voice dip down and elongate love, briefly singing the word. And these are just the opening bars.

Everyone who's memorized this song knows that the best part is when she lists her other fuck-buddy options for this dude: "Yeah, baby, let's think/I'ma text Bryan, Facetime Ryan/Call up Keenan, tell 'em I need him/Niggas ain't loyal." The inimitable Grace Gordon unpacked the Chris Brown response nested within these gems over at the Hairpin—read it and take notes. Then get back to this song. Because Tink is gonna be a star. —Ross Scarano

11. Ariana Grande f/ Iggy Azalea "Problem"

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Album: N/A
Label: Republic
Producer: Max Martin, Shellback & Ilya

Ariana Grande's "Problem" is pure pop. There's a certain feeling a summer pop anthem can give you at it's best; it's a mix of innocence, familiarity, and pure bliss, like when you're a kid going further and faster on the swings than you thought possible and feeling it in your stomach but loving every minute. From the first time we heard "Problem" it gave us that feeling. Add up a distinct saxophone, skittering drums, a Big Sean whisper, and at the center, put Ariana Grande's Mariah Carey-esque vocals and you get a song that can get played on the radio, the cookout, and the club without getting played out.

Though she takes nothing off the table, Iggy Azalea's contributions to the song are nil but this song has done wonders for her career. While "Problem" sat at No. 2 on the Hot 100, Iggy's "Fancy" took the No. 1 spot ensuring this would be the Summer of Iggy. But it's Ariana, the longtime superstar in training, who is ready to take the training wheels off with the first classic of her career. —Insanul Ahmed

10. Cam'ron & A-Trak f/ Juelz Santana "Dipshits"

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Album: Federal Reserve EP
Label: Fool's Gold/Poppington/Dipset
Producer: A-Trak, Oliver, and Just Blaze

While everyone was arguing about who was going to “bring New York back,” Cam’ron was actually just… you know, doing it. So, when Complex premiered the song and video for “Dipshits,” produced by A-Trak, Oliver, and Just Blaze, it was one of the most refreshing moments of the year. It’s triumphant, with a special guest rant from Federal Reserve executive producer Damon Dash. Who's world is this? Fooooooool's Gold. This is guaranteed to be a summer banger whether you're uptown, downtown, or cruising around Brooklyn. —Lauren Nostro

9. Ty Dolla $ign f/ Wiz Khalifa & DJ Mustard "Or Nah"/"Or Nah (Remix)"

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Album: Beach House EP
Label: Taylor Gang/Atlantic
Producer: DJ Mustard

Ty Dolla $ign is a master of vice and he's not ashamed to let the world know on "Or Nah," a salacious record that finds the Los Angeles crooner detailing the many ways he gets down in the bedroom. Well, so long as his partner's response isn't "nah." The slinky production from DJ Mustard sets the tone, with Ty Dolla and fellow Taylor Gang member Wiz Khalifa licking their lips in anticipation of the raunchy activities about to take place. It gets even better, with the Weeknd's contributions on the remix taking the sexual bravado to pornographic levels: "Do you like the way I flick my tongue or nah?/You can ride my face until you're drippin' cum." This is what flourishing looks like in 2014. —Edwin Ortiz

8. Puff Daddy f/ Rick Ross & French Montana "Big Homie"

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Album: N/A
Label: Bad Boy
Producer: Ben Billions, Lu Diaz & Lunch Money

"Don't be afraid to get old, man," says Puffy on the intro to "Big Homie." "You may learn some shit, you may know some shit, you may see some shit. Bitch told me I was old, I had to tell her..." He then goes into the song's booming chorus: "You can go to any hood, bet they know me/Rose gold pinky ring, match the Rollie/Boy, you a little nigga, Gary Coleman/I be callin' all the shots, Big Homie."

Puffy has certainly learned and seen a lot since he got into this game. This is the man who started Bad Boy Records 20 years ago. The same guy who owns Sean Jean clothing, a television station (Revolt), a water company (AquaHydrate), and recently gave the commencement speech at Howard University. While his peers are figuring out ways to stay musically relevant, tiptoeing around, trying not to look like the old man in the club, Puffy does whatever the hell he wants. Jay Z and Dr. Dre, the closet guys to his tax bracket in rap, wouldn't appear in a video wearing pounds of gold and hulking thousand-dollar furs. Neither would they start a song with "I just bought a new bitch." It's all so audacious.

But it's that audacity Puffy has used to rise above the ranks and become one of the industry's biggest power players. "Big Homie" is a testament to all of that. It's a celebration of years of hard work paying off. It's a shot across the bow of a culture that values youth above all. It makes us all want to be Big Homies. —Damien Scott

7. Lana Del Rey "Fucked My Way Up to the Top"

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Album: Ultraviolence
Label: Polydor/Interscope
Producer: Dan Auerbach

"Shades of Cool" may be Ultraviolence's essential cut but "Fucked My Way Up to the Top" is Lana's orgiastic pronouncement of herself, forever and ever, amen: "Life is awesome, I confess/What I do, I do best." And though she's kidding, somewhat, maybe, it's clear enough that Lana Del Rey's fed up with the condescension around her identity, the condescension that comes at the expense of acknowledging her talent. "I'm a dragon," she sings. "You're a whore." Pop singers spit subliminals, too. —Justin Charity

6. Nicki Minaj "Lookin Ass"

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Album: Young Money: Rise of An Empire
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Republic
Producer: Detail

You can't please all people all of the time. Just ask Nicki Minaj. After notching platinum plaques with albums and singles thought too poppy and too commercial by many in the rap community, Nicki pledged to, at least for a period of time, make music for the fans who boosted her profile when he she was just a mixtape maven from Southside Queens. In other words, she promised to get back on her rappity rap shit. She graced a few hits—YG's "My Nigga" remix and Young Thug's "Danny Glover"—delivering verses reminiscent of her shining moment on Kanye West's "Monster." Those were great, but fans still wished for a song of her own that showed she was serious about "returning to her roots." "Lookin' Ass" was that song.

The Detail-produced beat for the Young Money Rise of an Empire compilation was sparse and foreboding. It was perfect for Nicki to rep for the women who are constantly on the receiving end of verbal thrashings; the ones who are always reminded that they're easy to cut off, that they're not loyal, and, also, not shit. This was Nicki's response. Many took issue with the liberal use of the word "nigga," but, hey, you have to fight fire with fire. We can't applaud the use of flagrant language in others and fault Nicki for doing the same because, as some claim, young white girls are now her audience. As if nothing but black kids are bumping Young Thug. Others heard this and still hoped for a return of the "mixtape Nicki," as if she was ever rapping better than this:

Bitch, I'm me
Hundred on the wrist, I ski
Art on the wall, Basquiat
Fuck who see
Look at you fake dope dealers,
I know real niggas who really be moving weight in them villas
Talkin' about kis, say its kis in the van
But he really move grams and he split it with his man

She spit those bars as if the beat was tied to her tongue. People will say Nicki can't be considered one of the greatest rappers because her rap catalog isn't yet large enough. I call bullshit. When Nicki does rap, you can count on one hand the rappers who can best her, and you'd still have two fingers left. Consider us pleased. —Damien Scott 

5. T.I. f/ Young Thug "About the Money"

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Album: Paperwork
Label: Columbia
Producer: London On Da Track

Floating in the wake of his previous hits with some new music to his name, Young Thug needed something strong to throw into the pool of summer anthems. He got it—by bogarting T.I.'s latest, a London On Da Track produced banger that Thug steals the show on. Don't get it twisted—T.I. is in good form. He gives fans just what they've come to expect, over a beat that that feels like it should be bumped loudly at any and every rooftop function.

And per usual, Thugger's rhymes still straddle the fence between the heavily coded and nonsensical, yet "About the Money" is the most focused and realized we've ever heard him: "Bustin' out the bando/A nigga jewelry real metal like a can opener/I went from rags to riches to a feature with Tip/I went from Smart Car to a bitch with some smart lips."

It's that seemingly effortless, charismatic flexing that draws people to Young Thug's musical realm, and keeps them hooked on his self-sustaining rap experiment. From the way his verse makes you want to flail your arms around, to the chorus that digests like a verse in itself, to the bed of one-of-a-kind ad-libs, everything works in Thugger Thugger's favor. For a lot of other rappers, it just wouldn't. But as far as we're concerned, this is Young Thug's song. And it won't be the last time he ganks someone's track either. —Brandon Jenkins

4. Drake "0 To 100/The Catch Up"

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Album: N/A
Label: OVO Sound/Young Money/Cash Money
Producer: Boi-1da, 40, and Nineteen85

Drake wasn't at Summer Jam this year until he was. At 8 p.m. on June 1, just after the Roots brought the Lox on stage at Hot 97's annual concert, Drake released "0 to 100" and anyone with a smartphone heard the impact. He'd already prepared us for the title and chorus with some subliminal advertising during an ESPN interview about his friend Johnny Manziel. (He used the phrase "the motion[s]" in the interview as well, more evidence that it's possible to go about a day's work speaking entirely in Drake lyrics.) During the First Take debate, he used the phrase "0 to 100" to describe Manziel's sudden entrance into the limelight. On the song, produced by Boi-1da with help from Noah "40" Shebib and Nineteen85, the sudden acceleration becomes a personal mantra for him and his crew (and you and yours on Twitter and Facebook).

His flow moves between the staccato phrasing of "Worst Behavior" to fully unfurled bars like:

All up on TV, I thought it'd make me richer
Wasn't paying me enough, I needed something quicker
So now I'm all in Niko's basement putting work in on the phones
Either that or drive to Money Mart to make the pickups
Man, it's 2008, I'm tryna paint the picture

This kind of autobiography feels akin to verses on Nothing Was the Same, but the song's two-part structure recalls early stuff like Thank Me Later's "Fancy." Letting his chest deflate for "The Catch Up," he takes off some of the braggadocio like they were the chains he boasted about wearing around the house in "Started From the Bottom." This is doubting Drake, doing the kind of late-night wondering that makes his success feel more well-rounded. The tycoon doesn't sleep easy these days, bed of money or otherwise. A pretty James Blake sample brings the song to a finish. Drake's not content these days with anything less than an emotional journey. 2015 feels a long way off. —Ross Scarano 

3. Wiz Khalifa "We Dem Boyz"

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Album: Blacc Hollywood
Label: Rostrum/Atlantic
Producer: Detail

Wiz Khalifa needed a song like "We Dem Boyz." He lost the momentum he'd built over the years with his lackluster 2012 album, O.N.I.F.C., and then spent last year taking a step back from the spotlight to start a family. He needed a comeback song, but the Detail-produced "We Dem Boyz" didn't jump-start his return at first. It debuted back in February and took months to reach No. 53 on the Hot 100.

Driven by a distinctly trap sound and Wiz's Auto-tuned vocals, the song isn't a total overhaul of his style but it is a creative departure for Wiz. It owes more to songs like Lil Reese's "Us," Drake's "Started From the Bottom," and any number of Atlanta's warblers than the stoner raps and pop anthems that have made up much of Wiz's output. Despite the soft start, the song is a club staple now and the biggest street-oriented song Wiz has gotten to pop in years. It sounds derivative, yes, but who cares when you're having this much fun? —Insanul Ahmed

2. Rick Ross f/ Kanye West & Big Sean "Sanctified"

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Album: Mastermind
Label: MMG/Def Jam
Producer: Kanye West, Mike Dean, and DJ Mustard

From a Rick Ross album that's otherwise understated and, just a few months after its release, unremarkable, "Sanctified" is unlikely, immense, and the most effective deployment of Big Sean since Meek Mill's "Burn" in 2012. The sixty-second gospel intro alone got veteran soul singer Betty Wright a 2,300-word salute from the New Yorker. In yet another year of sweaty turn-up anthems and hella faded odes, "Santified" is a cool, sobering sip: "That's that holy water! Sanctified refreshments!"

While hardly their strongest verses of even the past couple years, Ross, Kanye, and Sean all come correct with the quotables here, from Sean's opening mantra to Kanye's aggressive confessional to post-sex grilled cheese. The song's weary gospel build-up makes way for the minimal, rarefied ecstasy of that spaceship hangover melody. An arena confession I need to be shouting at the livest of live shows by year's end: "All I wanted was a hundred million dollars and a bad bitch!" Verdict: We need another Yeezus.Justin Charity

1. Lil Wayne f/ Drake "Believe Me"

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Album: Tha Carter V
Label: Young Money/Cash Money
Producer: Vinylz, Boi-1da

It's been four years since Lil Wayne, on Birdman's "Money to Blow," told listeners not to worry about Cash Money's future because the label would be all right as long as they "put Drake on every hook." It was a little hyperbolic, but the formula has worked wonders. Tracks like "Right Above It," "With You," "I'm on One," "She Will," and others, all benefited from Drake's earworm penmanship. The Toronto kid couldn't miss. As he ascended the ranks, his mentor's career gradually slid downhill. Weezy dropped albums and mixtapes showcasing a complacent rapper unable to maintain the bleeding edge consistency displayed from Tha Carter to No Ceilings. Fans feared the guy who leapfrogged a number of legendary rappers to sit firmly in the top-five-dead-or-alive conversation had lost it.

"Believe Me" assuaged those fears. The first single from what is rumored to be Wayne's final solo album plays like a comeback. Drake assumes the role of host to the welcome-back party, rolling out the red carpet for his Big Homie. Over a haunting production by Boi-1da and Vinylz, Drake pledges allegiance to the Young Money leader before making it know that it's now their time to run the table ("It's our time, nigga/He left Rikers in a Phantom, that's my nigga"). Then the chorus hits, the beat falls away, you hear someone inhaling a blunt, and Lil Wayne appears. We're reminded that the 31-year-old Cash Money millionaire is still one of the best technicians in the game. One who is perhaps tired of running laps around the competition. He even says as much on the song: "Waitin' for someone to test me like a Harvard nigga." Even as Drake delivers two perfectly measured verses, it's Wayne who captivates. He rattles off line after line, each one a bit more clever than the last, culminating with this gem:

One finger, sliding cross my neck
Niggas know what that means like they deaf
Nigga, I'll fire this nina like it's her first day on the job and the bitch overslept

If Tha Carter V is indeed Wayne's last album, "Believe Me" is a great beginning to the end. —Damien Scott

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