Pushing the known boundaries of music, hip hop artists made something new in the 2010s. To appreciate what they did, Gavin Tucker has ranked the 10 best albums of the decade.
The last decade saw hip hop explode in popularity and become the most popular genre of music in the world. Artists like Drake, Post Malone, and Travis Scott headline festivals and sell out arenas, which has caused some of the most brilliant albums of the decade to be overshadowed. While pop-rap has dominated the charts, alternative rap has experienced a golden age with innovative artists that blend hip hop into other genres and create daring narratives. Here, then, are the 10 best hip hop albums of the last decade.
10. Some Rap Songs- Earl Sweatshirt
Top tracks: Shattered Dreams, Nowhere2go, December 24
Released in 2018 shortly after the death of his father, Some Rap Songs is a deeply personal reflection of Earl’s depression and trauma. With a length of just 25 minutes, Earl raps in a hoarse and murky voice often sounding like spoken word poetry buried beneath abstract lo-fi instrumentals. Most tracks are less than two minutes, allowing Earl to quickly jump from one train of thought to another with loosely connected lyrics and looping soul samples. Listening to this album is like a therapy session exploring Earl’s psyche.
9. The Life of Pablo- Kanye West
Top tracks: Ultralight Beam, Waves, No More Parties in LA, Real Friends
If there was one word to describe Kanye West it would be “controversial,” and The Life of Pablo, Kanye’s 7th solo album, is no exception. Described by Kanye as “a gospel album with a lot of cussing,” Pablo is just as bipolar as Kanye, swinging from manic highs to vulnerable lows. The production is all over the place, with an obscurely sampled beat crafted by the reclusive hip hop legend Madlib contrasting with the soulful trap sound made by superstar producer Metro Boomin. There’s a very fine line between genius and lunatic, and on this album Kanye manages to tiptoe that line with the elegance of a ballerina.
8. XXX- Danny Brown
Top Tracks: XXX, Die Like a Rockstar, Outer Space, EWNESW
With his infamous high-pitched voice and shockingly vulgar lyrics, it’s not surprising Danny Brown’s debut album turned a lot of heads. Half of the songs on this album are a proud celebration of Danny’s hedonistic lifestyle, packed with enough drug references to make Hunter S. Thompson’s head spin. The other half of the songs reveal Danny’s struggle with sobriety, poverty, and the anxiety of being a 30-year old rapper that hasn’t made it yet.
7. Kids See Ghosts- Kid Cudi & Kanye West
Top tracks: Fire, Freeee, Reborn, Cudi Montage
Released as a part of GOOD Music’s Surgical Summer, Five Kanye produced albums in five weeks, Kids See Ghosts is short but powerful. In just seven songs, Kanye and Kid Cudi harmonize perfectly, with each artist describing their struggle with mental illness. The production is some of the best in Kanye’s career, with bizarre samples from a 1930’s Christmas song and an unreleased Kurt Cobain demo. The excellent features from Pusha T, Ty Dolla Sign, and Mos Def blend with Cudi’s powerful humming to create a psychedelic experience unlike anything we’ve come to expect from the duo.
6. 1999- Joey Bada$$
Top tracks: Waves, Survival Tactics, Snakes, Righteous Minds
In 2012 nobody could have expected the revival of classic East Coast boom bap to be started by a 17-year-old from Flatbush, but that’s exactly what Joey Bada$$ did. Rapping over beats from golden era hip hop legends like MF DOOM, J Dilla, and Lord Finesse, Joey resurrects the lyricism of artists like Nas and Jay Z. Joey’s raw talent and ambition can be heard on every single verse, effortlessly flowing like he’s the reincarnation of Notorious B.I.G.
5. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City- Kendrick Lamar
Top tracks: The Art of Peer Pressure, Money Trees, Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst
Capitalizing on the momentum he gathered with his debut album Section.80, Kendrick created Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a conceptual album building a narrative song by song about the struggles of a young man growing up and attempting to survive in Compton. The relentless bars delivered in his signature nasally voice paint a vivid picture of Kendrick’s adolescent life. On this album Kendrick proves that he’s worthy of the title “King of the West Coast” bestowed on him by Dr. Dre.
4. Piñata- Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Top tracks: Deeper, Thuggin’, Robes, Broken
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib have almost nothing in common other than being top tier musicians. Madlib, the enigmatic producer known for being a master of crafting beats with beautiful jazz samples, spends his days digging through crates of records and is nearly impossible to track down. On the other hand, Freddie Gibbs is a former dealer from the brutal streets of Gary, Indiana. Their individual styles and personalities complement each other perfectly on Piñata. Freddie’s deep voice tells tales of poverty and violence over the unique and layered production of Madlib.
3. Atrocity Exhibition- Danny Brown
Top tracks: Downward Spiral, Tell Me What I Don’t Know, Lost, Ain’t It Funny
The theme of this album is revealed by the title of the opening track, “Downward Spiral.” Atrocity Exhibition shows Danny falling deeper into depression, addiction, and self loathing. Each song is a nightmarish reveal of Danny’s darkest thoughts and inner trauma. The wildly experimental production with a blend of post-punk, techno, and hip hop allows his squawking voice to spit cynical punchlines at the top of his lungs while also delivering an introspective look into his state of mind.
2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy- Kanye West
Top tracks: all
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an extravagant album with Kanye at the top of his game lyrically. The maximalist production and luxurious instrumentals help Kanye depict how the negative aspects of excessive wealth, celebrity, and consumerism turned him into a “monster.” The perfectionism that drove Kanye to delay this album several times paid off, as each and every sound throughout the album is meticulously crafted and extraordinarily beautiful. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy cemented Kanye’s status as a musician of the highest caliber and the defining artist of a generation.
1. To Pimp a Butterfly- Kendrick Lamar
Top tracks: all
To Pimp a Butterfly is a complex expression of black culture, institutional racism, and politics. Kendrick uses avant-garde jazzy instrumentals to reflect on his success and the weight on his shoulders of being a black celebrity trying to stay true to his roots. The clever wordplay and dense rhyme-schemes are apparent on every song, and the different tones and styles of the instrumentals show off Kendrick’s versatility. Throughout the album Kendrick creates a poem line by line, revealing his inner transformation from the caterpillar, a violent young man angry at the world, to the butterfly, who overcame adversity and broke the vicious cycle, living up to his full potential.