As the calendar prepares to turn to 2016, so closes another chapter in the complex diary of rap music.
Alarmingly, that means it’s been a solid 365 days since we collaborated on the 2014 edition of the year’s best rap albums.
A lot has happened since then.
Poppy R&B dominated airwaves, as did the comeback of mixtape rap — though the production on works like Future’s 56 Nights and Drake’s smash hit If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late undoubtedly mirrored that of full-length albums, unlike in the past.
And perhaps the year’s most defining moments in music came from rap. Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged opus To Pimp A Butterfly made lasting cultural impacts; while the final days of 2014 brought D’Angelo back from a 14-year hiatus to fight for social justice on a national landscape with Black Messiah.
Judging as a whole, 2015 was a muddled year for rap music. There were a lot of good albums, but not a lot of great ones.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a good year for rap. As you’ll see below, there were plenty of works that deserve all or more of their notoriety.
But very few records from 2015 transcended the ear into the lexicon of popular culture – and that’s really the only way for one year of hip-hop to stick out above others.
Speaking of sticking out, here are the five best rap albums of 2015.
GO:OD AM — Mac Miller
Prior to its October decommissioning, one of my favorite reads from Bill Simmons’ Grantland was a piece by Rembert Browne back in August about embattled Pittsburgh MC, Mac Miller.
It was a phenomenally written and intimate look into the rise and eventual fall – at the indefatigable clutches of addiction – of one our generation’s most successful independent rappers.
I didn’t even have Miller’s upcoming third studio album GO:OD AM on my radar until I read it. I essentially assumed it was going to turn out aesthetically like every other project he’d released since 2010’s K.I.D.S. mixtape. That’s to say we may talk about a track or two for a couple weeks and then it would fade off into the abyss.
Boy, was I wrong.
If your viewpoint of Mac Miller is that he’s forever this pot-loving frat boy up partying until 5 am making music about it, this album isn’t for you.
If the last thing you remember about Mac Miller is him spelling out his drug-infused life over a beat that sounds like it’s dipped in paraffin wax, then this album isn’t for you.
On GO:OD AM, we get a serious version of Mac Miller — one who is claiming his sobriety while also struggling to find his footing in an uncharted world.
It’s a sobering medium between his early work and the kid we last heard from in the depths of a personal hell.
GO:OD AM is a comeback story. And a fucking good one to boot.
Rodeo — Travi$ Scott
“Welcome to the big league’s, rook.”
That’s an appropriate introduction to give to a 23-year-old protege of the polarizing Kanye West, no? A talented youngster, making the leap into major-label album work, getting groomed for greatness by some of the greatest to do it.
That’s Travi$ Scott: A lot of anticipation. A lot of good. A lot of work to do.
I’ve been on the Travi$ Scott train since his feature on the West label’s collaboration album Cruel Summer back in 2012, long awaiting his first real major production to come. So, when Rodeo finally released in September I was through it three times before I even knew what happened.
But it didn’t initially resonate and felt like Scott was conscious of rapping in Kanye’s shadow. Like he was doing too much, up there just swinging for the fences. Perhaps that’s a direct product of who his mentor is – but his mentor translated from producer to performer a bit more smoothly.
Rodeo is a phenomenal album.
But I respect it from a production standpoint more than a lyrical one—at least from Travi$ Scott’s perspective. The features range from Kanye West to Toro y Moi and pretty much every single one of them finds a home on this album.
However, there are times where Scott does not. He’s slurring more than he’s rapping, and maybe he’s telling us something in the most recognizable line off hit single ‘Anecdote’: “poppin’ pills is all we know…”
Rodeo wasn’t my favorite album of the year, but Scott deserves a place in the year’s top five rap albums simply because of the exquisite production display.
Darkest Before Dawn — Pusha T
Organized Chaos. That’s how I’ve always seen Pusha T and nothing changes on King Push: Darkest Before Dawn – The Prelude.
Pusha T isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He’s aggressive, socially and self-aware, and menacing. That’s prohibiting to a younger generation who in large part doesn’t give a fuck about anything but radio rap.
For those who don’t know, Pusha T is pushing 40 years old, yet most would attest the complexity of his lyrics are amongst the best in rap music today. Very few rappers can evoke his type of channeled aggression.
If you like it, and understand it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.
Push’s King Push: Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude dropped less than a week ago. I don’t need more time to realize this is a top five work of 2015 even if there is a relative bias involved.
With production work from Kanye West, Timbaland, and Diddy on only 10 tracks, you get the sense that Push wanted this one to make a splash rather than just wet a few whistles—for better or worse.
it's impossible to listen to a Pusha T album just once — he's too smart — he hides too much slick shit in the creases and folds
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) December 20, 2015
new pusha album is v dope ~ i gotta convince my sons to be cocaine dealers now ~ FOH doctors and lawyers i'm tryna raise cocaine superheroes
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) December 18, 2015
Sour Soul — BadBadNotGood and Ghostface Killah
Ghostface Killah and BadBadNotGood collaborated on March’s Sour Soul, and it gives me hope the world can be entirely comprised of collaboration albums one day.
While most of Wu-Tang’s publicity in 2015 centered around the jaw-dropping $2 million sale of never-before-heard Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, Wu member Ghostface Killah quietly delivered another heady composition of lyrical angst and melodic production. And he somehow revitalized that philosophical overlord, criminal mastermind mindset he’s been synonymous with for years.
The album features appearances from Danny Brown and is produced primarily by BBNG and Frank Dukes—who co-wrote Drake’s “0-100.”
This album was my first exposure to BadBadNotGood’s unique jazzy jam band sound and it accompanies Ghostface perfectly, though Ghostface isn’t the only person who could have made this album great.
A lot of the time you feel like Ghost is rapping this album with his foot hovering over a brake pedal. BBNG shines, while Ghost is there for the ride. That, coupled with some nasty guest verses, is enough to have Sour Soul high on the top five.
To Pimp A Butterfly — Kendrick Lamar
Rap music is so commercially contrived at this point, no one knows who or what is real. Except for Kendrick Lamar, and that’s why To Pimp A Butterfly was the best rap album of 2015.
Meet your King. Not since Tupac Shakur walked the sands of this Earth have we found an MC so sure he was the best of his time than we have with Kendrick Lamar. And it’s that “me against the world” mentality that allows the Compton rapper to produce what he did with To Pimp A Butterfly.
How do you quite measure the cultural impact Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly had on not only the music world but the world in general in 2015?
Listening to it is a start.
Take the hour and 20 minutes of unapologetic rage and digest it. Wash it down with those densely arranged jazzy harmonics and understand what Kendrick means not only to the hip-hop community, but those of all creeds searching for a voice.
My words alone can’t do the work justice, so I refer to fellow scribe Blake Schwarz and his TPAB review from March:
To Pimp a Butterfly wasn’t created for radio plays or Billboard lists, but to start a conversation. To sublimate his own self-doubt and depression, tying these themes to the endless loop of inequality and suppression we witness in America on a daily basis. Musically, the album is gorgeous. Thematically, it’s profound.
You can read the rest of Blake’s review, here. But just know, this one wasn’t close.