The 10 Best Rap Albums of The Last 5 Years

The cream of the crop.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Albums are what matter. As much as we love all those great verses, awesome beats, and memorable singles, its albums that define genres and eras. Albums provide solid foundations for legacies to lie. It seems simple enough, it’s just a collection of dope songs loosely held together by a concept, theme, or sound. But even then, there aren't any hard and fast rules about how to create a great album.

Sometimes, they just seem to happen; an artist just cracks some unseen code in the Matrix and breaks through with a monumental piece of work. Sometimes, we see it coming all along as an artist finally lives up to their previously untapped potential, other times it comes out of nowhere as a new artist establishes him or herself seemingly overnight. It’s hard to make a great album, but when you do make one best believe we'll cherish it and hold it close to our hearts.

In the last half decade, thousands (if not millions) of rap albums and mixtapes that have been released. We no longer really see the difference between mixtapes and albums; if it's all original music, then it's an album to us. So we narrowed them all down to pick the best of the best. These are The 10 Best Rap Albums of The Last 5 Years...

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10. A$AP Rocky, Live. Love. A$AP (2011)

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The first time you saw Rocky bust out of the bodega in "Peso," feeling prettier than that West Side Story girl, you knew he was a star. But could he deliver? There's something to be said for a project that survived the ephemeral nature of Tumblr rap—and Live. Love. A$AP was one of the few that did. It was equal parts Clams Casinoed-out shameless fashion raps, new new Harlem exposition, and Houston worship. 

Despite its eclecticism, the mixtape had a very particular sound that carried throughout. You could tell it was a calculated aesthetic vision that Rocky had, he wanted to make sure you knew about everything he was fucking with. It was easy to listen to all the way through, not just as background party music, but also as persona-driven headphones-in music.

Most likely, this tape will stand as sort of a time capsule for the era, albeit a short-lived one, that surrounded it. As much as people want to dismiss Rocky as a fad, subject to the same transitory aspects as fashion, Live. Love. A$AP was more than just some jiggy shit.

The production roster wasn't superstar-stacked yet, allowing Ty Beats to contribute some of the year's tight-looped earworms ("Purple Swag" and "Peso"), that pretty much catapulted Rocky in the first place. It may have been a combination of luck, circumstance, hunger, and all-at-once release of potential, but this mixtape hit the mark of its time. Rocky took the buzz that his first two songs had gave him and came through with what everyone had wanted from him—a bunch of good songs that made sense together. — Alexander Gleckman

9. ScHoolboy Q, Habits & Contradictions (2012)

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It's so great having L.A. rap back to being a big deal again. Obviously, Kendrick Lamar is the man most responsible for that. (Well, unless its Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith. I tend to favor artists over executives.) But I remember the moment when I felt like, "Hey, wow! There's really something going on here. Something really good. Something 'important.'" It was early 2012, my first time listening to ScHoolboy Q's Habits & Contradictions.

A 52 Hoover Crip who used to make his money selling oxycontin, ScHoolboy has a great, distinctly Californian voice. Gravelly and stoned, equal parts smack-you-the-mouth menace and wise-ass humor, it's a voice that can carry a rap album pretty far on its own. Put it over a remarkably coherent collection of beats—from dark, Portishead sampling industrialism to dusty, vinyl-era funk grooves—and talk greasy about sex, drugs, and the nastier side of South Central street life, and, well, you're going to win at least one fan from around where I live in New York.

(There's one song in the middle of the album, just an interlude, actually, that has been one of those always-walk-around-hearing-it-in-the-back-of-your-head, day-to-day soundtracks for my last year-and-a-half. "Tookie Knows" it's called. One minute-26-seconds worth of grimey, psychedelic hip-hop and Q going "na-na-na-nat" and "yawk yawk yawk" and I wish it lasted for six hours.)

Before Kendrick's good kid came along, Habits & Contradictions was the best L.A. rap album since...Dr. Dre's 2001? Could it be?! Hold on a second. Let me check my records. Yup. That's what it says here. — Dave Bry

8. Danny Brown, XXX (2011)

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How can you measure the success of a free project? Is it the number of downloads or is it the ability to crash DatPiff? Well consider this: In August of 2011, Danny Brown released XXX, his first project since signing to Fool's Gold Records. Brown then waited over two full years before releasing a follow-up solo album, Old. Sure, there were a few singles, guest appearances, and a brief EP with his group the Bruiser Brigade, that he dropped along the way, but Danny's buzz grew for over a year off the strength of this release.

XXX holds weight for a reason. The project is a journey through the zany universe that the Detroit native resides in. There are plenty of tales of debauchery, told with Danny's outlandish wit and signature shrill voice, but there's still songs like "30" that take an angry and introspective turn.

The production on XXX was a pivotal part of the puzzle. It is the perfect blend of the hard-hitting boom-bap sound that Detroit is known for mixed with an electro influence that has trickled into hip-hop's landscape these past few years. With production from SKYWLKR, Paul White, and brandUn DeShay, among others, Brown found a sound that was neither stuck in the past or desperately trying to follow a trend.

Everything about Danny Brown has been distinctive, and XXX is no exception. — Dharmic X

7. Rick Ross, Rich Forever (2012)

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Rick Ross’s career has been about perpetually outperforming the expectations. And Rich Forever was the last time he did at a really grandiose level. It’s also the recorded peak of his career.

When he first hit the scene with "Hustlin" in 2006, he had a hit and the image, but none of the meat that makes a rap career. His rap style was fairly elementary, and while his gruff persona helped deliver the song home, it still relied heavily on The Runners’ thunderstorm of roiling keyboards. Commercially, though, he was just at the beginning; he dodged the sophomore slump with another smash single (the T-Pain assisted "The Boss") and another successful album (2008's Trilla). When everyone was ready to count him out after photos surfaced of his previous career as a corrections officer, he upped the lyrical ante. On his third album, 2009’s Deeper Than Rap, he transformed his delivery into a fluid, multi-syllabic, and artfully effective tool, crafting incomparable widescreen narratives of wealth and largesse. And he began to earn the respect of hip-hop heads as a result.

The comebacks would continue; Deeper Than Rap sold the least of all his major albums; all he had to do was release another hit. Which he did, with "B.M.F.," a song that not only helped Teflon Don sell in the same range as his debut, but significantly changed the sound of hip-hop as a genre. When Ross was stricken by seizures in the build-up to his next album, God Forgives, I Don’t, he tossed out Rich Forever for free.

And it was, by all definitions except the technical one, an album. Thrown out to an eager audience for nothing, it was full of high-profile features (John Legend!) and potential hits that were never even pushed as singles (I will maintain that "MMG The World Is Ours" would have been a bigger hit, given the right opportunity). No doubt Rich Forever will go down in history as one of his label’s biggest regrets, since the DatPiff zip files weren’t manufactured and slapped with a barcode. But a free album was more a show of Rick Ross’s ridiculous levels of confidence. Every time he seemed beaten down, there was another level of success he could attain.

Rich Forever was all about ratcheting up the maximalism of “B.M.F.” to insanely high levels. From "High Definition" to "Fuck ‘Em" to "King of Diamonds," each surge of aggro-bombast was a new formulation of a musical adrenaline rush. But in between each anthemic triumph, the “filler” created a surprising diversity of musical approaches. The DJ Spinz-produced "Ring Ring," with its gurgling Future hook led into an unforgettably pop Pharrell hook on "MMG the World Is Ours." "Keys to the Crib" was a lush, momentous masterpiece. "Triple Dream Beams" found Nas revisiting his early failed dope boy dreams, an unexpected standout verse. And "Party Heart" was a strange art-pop-rap confection from Cool Kid Chuck Inglish.

But it was the Drake and French Montana feature “Stay Schemin’” that took off, an atmospheric and iconic song that crystallized the sound of Rich Forever. In turn, that album captured the sheer breadth and scope of Ross’s climactic career peak. — David Drake

6. Kanye West, Yeezus (2013)

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What can we say that will convince you that this is one of the greatest albums of the last five years? Nothing, really, because it's simply the album so many people love to hate, and so many other people love to love (in part, because of that hate). But the power of Yeezus to save, heal, and deliver rap—let alone, all of pop music—from the monotonous routine of radio-ready singles and club-bangers and predictable guest features is patently undeniable.

After Kanye West delivered two crowd-pleasing albums, both of which containing the kinds of lush-production singles and summer-owning hits people have come to expect of him, he brought along something so, so different. Something with techno and house-driven sounds. Something that, lyrically, borders on the hysterical, the categorically insane, and the intentionally blasphemous. Something that has guest features by relatively obscure Chicago rappers and dancehall artists, whose big R&B hooks come not by a Top 40 songstress, but by go-to Kanye collaborator Justin Vernon (like Kanye, someone who's won Grammy's and hated on them, too).

This is an album where Kanye has a conversation with Jesus, screams about being a God, and laughs about crashing someone's Corolla. It's manic. It's chaotic. It sounds like an album that was run up against its label deadline, because it was an album that ran up against the label deadline, to the point where Rick Rubin had to come in and minimize the madness, mitigate the chaos into something that could actually be packaged into an album. It's musical collaborators run all over the map: Hudson Mohawke, Daft Punk, Travis Scott. The samples, for Kanye, have never been more eclectic. The ideas, never more off-the-farm.

But that's why we love it. We love it because it's daring, because it's different, because it defies every typical idea about record-making in rap, let alone pop music. Despite (or maybe because of) all this chaos, it succeeded. And even if you don't love it—in fact, especially if you hate it—you have to admit the album's indisputably controversial nature. Yeezus is, in every sense of the word, a piece of disruptive art. And if we aren't allowed to objectively love it for its greatness, or for its musicality, its sonic genius, then we absolutely must love it for that. Objectively so.

Sidney Lumet once said that, for any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come by accident. The individual pieces of Yeezus barely make sense alone, let alone from conception as an album. But as an album and an end result? We remain convinced it is an album that will represent more of a breakthrough moment for rap than it ever will from Kanye West, who we have known—all along, this entire time—to expect things like this from. — Foster Kamer

5. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009)

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2009 was a curious time in rap. For the most part, the genre was hitting the reset button. A new paradigm of rappers emerged, soon to be major stars—Nicki Minaj, Drake, J. Cole, and Wale all made their marks. Among them was Kid Cudi with his A Kid Named Cudi mixtape and his Billboard hit/anthem for kids smoking clips everywhere, "Day 'n' Nite." Everyone in the new breed had a uniqueness and a built-in diversity, yet Cudi was still an outlier. He didn't really rap like that, but he wasn't really a singer either. It was a new kind of rap where he morphed the swagger of a rapper, the catchy hooks of a pop star, and an indie rock aesthetic.

In 2009, Cudi told Black Book Magazine, "All the hooks are stadium-worthy, crowd sing-along, powerful joints that I can't wait for people to hear in stadium magnitude. My album definitely needs to be heard loudly, but it's also a great album if you're smoking and you need to go to sleep." Reading that now it sounds like a vintage Kanye quote from the Graduation era, but that's what Cudi was—a wild man's Kanye.

The album is set in Cudi's dreams. "Everything here turns out dope," he says on "In My Dreams [Cudder Anthem]." But Cudi's lyrics brought a dark honesty that often only rappers like Scarface could muster. "When my soul was happy on my Ramen diet/Followed by a loosey was the meal of grinders," he says on "My World." Later on the same song he offers, "Niggas thought I was crazy/My mama know I stay high." It could have easily turned into a "slit-your-wrists album"—which, according to Cudi himself, it originally was meant to be, before more energetic songs were added—but the Cleveland rapper proved surprisingly adept at creating happy sounding anthems (even if, the irony was, that the lyrics were totally sad). Tracks like "Cudi Zone," "Enter Galactic," and "Up Up Away" all had an beat tempo that gave them a dreamy haze. But there was an underlying sadness and longing to it all. Much like dreams themselves, the album went every which way. —Insanul Ahmed

4. Drake, Take Care (2011)

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The greatness of Drake's second album didn't start at a single, or with a long, slow tease out, but really, with the moment Thank Me Later officially dropped. Drake's major label debut album was a high-fidelity, high-production affair, filled with a murderer's row of A-List producers (Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beats) and guest stars (Alicia Keys, Jay Z, Young Jeezy), and songs that were glossy, radio-ready hits. In other words: It delivered on the promise of Drake's universally loved mixtape, So Far Gone, but maybe moreso for the music industry than Drake's fans.

While it felt like a lot of things changed the moment Take Care dropped, nothing changed more than that dynamic between Drake and his fans. Take Care was the album that they—and anyone who knew what Drake was capable of—had truly been waiting for. Even the way Drake responded to the album's leak was hugely telling: By acknowledging the leak with a Tweet telling fans to enjoy the album, and to "take care." Even the cover—of Drake, sitting at a table with a golden chalice, looking down—felt like it added up to an Important and Intimate Moment with Drake as An Artist.

It was early November. The seasons were beginning to turn. Things were getting colder. So when you turned on Take Care, and heard in two seconds something that's essentially exactly the same sound that Thank Me Later started with—piano chords—and yet, heard something entirely different from the sound that Thank Me Later started with, you knew everything had changed.

Gone was the lush sheen of individual key drops, here was the warmth of deep, bassy chords. Gone was the studio-manufactured sound of fireworks, here was the trademark production that is hearing Drake collaborator Noah "40" Shebib in full control of the sound, that ever-so-slight and smokey sense of reverb, something like a fireplace-lit foyer, or a jazz club. Gone was the smoothed-over notes of global superstar Alicia Keys, here was the fuzzy, static-strewn sound of Canadian pop vocalist (and brief '90s hit singer) Chantal Kreviazuk. Gone was the any pretense of modesty ("Money just changed everything") and in its place, a blunt honesty, the kind that makes you realize someone respects you all the more for it, even if the message ("I think I killed everybody in the game last year/Man, fuck it, I was on though") is one of ego.

All of this takes place in the first 68 seconds of Take Care. And that's to say nothing of what follows: The sad-sack R&B slow jam kiss-off to an ex that is "Shot For Me." The manically fun bragadoccio of "Headlines." The Weeknd and Drake reverberating notes, perfectly sympatico in "Crew Love." The hypermodern soul of "Take Care," replete with Gil Scott-Heron vocals and white hot romantic tension between Drake and Rihanna. The peak-Drakeness of "Marvin's Room," the most triumphant song about being a drunk asshole to the women who want to love you that may ever be recorded. — Foster Kamer

3. Jay Z and Kanye West, Watch The Throne (2011)

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Watch The Throne is the only album that captures the paradox of living in the land of Obama, in the time of Trayvon. It's often criticized for being an album for and by the one percent during the time of economic protests about inequality, but be that as it may, there's no other album that's so distinctly about the experience of being rich and famous beyond your wildest dreams in a country where you were once considered three fifths of a man.

That's why it's filled with so much tension. There's a tension between Jay and Kanye for sure, almost as if they guilted each other into making an album of social value, except their egos made them internalize their ideas. But there's an overarching tension too, and an understated anger; the festering legacies of generations past, a history that refuses to be forgotten, a history that rears its ugly head when you realize that the American dream wasn't meant for everyone.

Jay's all black everything mantra gains a new sense of fervor in this context, one that borders on CB4 level parody but is dead serious whether he's listing off his blackest items on "Who Gone Stop Me?" ("Black cards, black cars/Black on black, black broads/Whole lotta money in a black bag/Black strap, you know what that's for") or uttering the album's mission statement on "Murder To Excellence" ("Black excellence, opulence, decadence"). Is this a rich guy album? Yeah, it's rich in context and rich in content. But how many rich guys make albums this good? — Insanul Ahmed

2. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

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Almost a full year after the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, it's amusing to recall the pre-release naysayers who expressed doubts about whether "Swimming Pools" could ever be a hit single, whether Kendrick would ever be more than an "internet star" or a "mixtape rapper," and who questioned the wisdom of Dr. Dre signing TDE to a label deal.

Long before gkmc, Kendrick Lamar had distinguished himself as a master of innovative flows and uncommonly rigorous lyrics. His debut album Section.80 contained enough powerful compositions—think "A.D.H.D" and "Keisha's Song"—to make it clear that he was a talent to be reckoned with, someone capable of blazing an indelible trail across the hip-hop stratosphere. But nothing on his five preceding mixtapes or that remarkable debut prepared listeners for what was to come.

More than a collection of great songs (and there isn't a single weak link among the 12 songs on the original release) gkmc was a fully formed hip-hop Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age-narrative. The form dates back to the 12th century Arabic author Ibn Tufail, but more recent examples, like James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, J.D. Salinger's A Catcher In The Rye, and (the possible precursor to the album's title) Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City all concern the moral development of the young protagonist facing all manner of trials and tribulations on their way to enlightenment.

The closest parallels in hip-hop would be Nas's Illmatic and Biggie's Ready to Die, both of which have cover artwork featuring a—you guessed it—portrait of the artist as a young man (although the baby with the fro pictured on the cover of RTD was just a stand-in for young Christopher Wallace). Kendrick's album art—a time-faded Polaroid of the artist as a baby surrounded by family members with their eyes blacked out—signals the level of art to which this album aspires.

The album eschews chronology in favor of a fractured narrative structure—in much the same way real memories come cascading back in whatever order they please. But the storyline can roughly be summarized as the journey of a kid with musical aspirations growing up amidst L.A. gang culture (as well as strong family structure) who becomes a grown man destined to rewrite Compton's chapter in hip-hop history.

Along the way we hear about his burning desire for Sherane, his dad's desire for Domino's, and his friends from around the way who lure him to hop in the car with them because they've got a "packet of blacks and a beat CD," which leads to the epic "Backseat Freestyle" as well as other dead serious adventures. When Kendrick raps about "respect my mind or die from lead shower" the threat of said showers is very real, as we are reminded at the 2:00 mark of "Sing About Me / I'm Dying of Thirst." It's hard to say what's more heart-rending, the mid-song assassination or the fact that Kendrick just keeps rapping with barely a pause. (And of course the aforementioned thirst is a thirst for the baptismal holy water of redemption.)

More than the debates about how soon it's appropriate to confer "classic" status on this monumental work of art, the best measure of the greatness of gkmc is the immediate influence. Big Sean's Hall of Fame and Danny Brown's Old both show the influence of Kendrick's audacious artistic ambition—they are not the first, nor will they be the last. That "Control" verse was cool, but the truth is that nothing was the same since Kendrick dropped that good kid, m.A.A.d city. — Rob Kenner

1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

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We always knew Kanye was a genius. He didn't just make great songs, he pushed hip-hop's boundaries with every new release. He is a perfectionist dedicated to making the exact product he intends to make. But, in the years since the release of Graduation, he hadn't fared too well publicly or privately in matters outside of music. In 2007 his mother died, soon after his long-time girlfriend Alexis Phifer broke up with him, yielding 808s and Heartbreak, an album that alienated many of his fans. He'd become best known not for any piece of music but rather for storming the stage during the VMAs and interrupting Taylor Swift. He became a pariah, was skewered on South Park, and even President Obama called him a "jackass."

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his chance to remind everyone he was so good that he couldn't be ignored. From the beginning it was clearly a big deal, with collaborators speaking of its borderline mythical Hawaii recording sessions in reverent tones. The buildup was tantalizing, with its series of G.O.O.D. Friday releases (has New York Fashion Week ever seemed as important as the time it matched up with Kanye putting out a song about it?), the emergence of Kanye's Twitter, the Runaway short film, and the controversy surrounding the album artwork from artist George Condo.

The result was a blockbuster album that involved countless collaborators and still retained a laser sharp focus. It angrily shoves race, sex, money, heartbreak, and resentment into one jumbled product, showing more of Kanye's edges than ever. Yet it was also his most polished and consistent release. He managed to coax the best out of each of his guests (who saw that Fergie verse coming?!), making the album as much an expert work of curation as the product of a single person's thoughts.

There are dazzling, straightforward rap tracks like "Gorgeous," "Devil in a New Dress" and "Monster." There's the grandiose pop genius of "All of the Lights," which combined the talents of some of the world's most famous pop singers into an unrecognizable blend.

But the album's greatest success is in the way it ultimately channels its greatest frustration inward, showing Kanye at his most vulnerable and fragile. "Runaway" and "Blame Game" perfectly accomplish what 808s and Heartbreak set out to do, pushing Kanye to his ugliest extremes. Those songs find Kanye melting down, their fragile piano notes and angry bravado betraying an underlying self-loathing and fear.

It's bravely delivered and fully accomplished work—true, honest, exactingly assembled art that doesn't flinch at the idea of a negative self-portrayal, giving it the heft it needs to overcome negative perceptions of Kanye. By making himself his own worst enemy, Kanye gave himself the redemption story he needed, and the result was a perfect album. — Kyle Kramer

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