It’s tough being a hip-hop fan in your mid-30s.
Your formative years took place entirely during the genre’s “renaissance”–roughly 1992 to 2000—when classics dropped weekly and before ringtone rap, singles-driven albums and J-Kwon came in and stunk up the whole joint. You know what quality and effort sound like.
Some hip-hop heads—the portly dudes rocking the graying dreads with the bald spot in the middle who haven’t let go of military fatigues and actually wear backpacks to shows—don’t wanna hear s—t about s—t when it comes to rappers born during the Clinton presidency. But I can’t play The Infamous Mobb Deep on repeat forever, which is why I’m glad I can adapt to the genre’s changing landscape.
There will always be s—tty mainstream rap (Nicki Minaj and her girlfriend Meek Mill still have careers, after all). But things have gotten better; a decade ago, there were no Kendrick Lamar types in contention for Album of the Year. Skilled rappers who routinely crack the top 40 these days openly genuflect to their predecessors: J. Cole made a whole track knob-polishing Nas; Drake (whose “singing,” which sounds like a sack of kittens being passed through an industrial-grade wood chipper, belies a decent flow) admitted there’d be no him without Phonte.
The genre’s improvements have made my annual tradition of shoehorning the best tracks of the year onto an 80-minute CD-R a little harder. Digital players have obviated the need for discs, but I still use 80 minutes as a guide so no trash sneaks in. Since I bumped 243 rap tracks from 2015 as of press time, whittling them down to 17 (plus a bonus track) of my favorites was hard.
Some years, I struggle to fill the playlist; this year, I could actually create two equally good ones. Pusha T’s Dec. 18 album could make me rethink everything, but I doubt it.
1. “Mural,” Lupe Fiasco
Considering the amount of energy Wasalu has sunk into online bitchery, it’s astounding that dropping his best album in eight years is the quietest thing he’s done. Tetsuo & Youth is criminally underrated, and “Mural” is an eight-minute-plus, hook-free tour de force that might be the best album-opening salvo since “Triumph.” Logic also flipped this sample of Cortex’s “Chanson D’Un Jour D’hiver” a while back, but Lupe rendered it obsolete.
2. “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick Lamar
K-Dot’s third album was easily the year’s most disappointing; the dopest flow and most resonant lyrics in the multiverse can’t make up for Ambien-esque production. The only reason this edges out “How Much a Dollar Cost” is that it’s one of two beats this year (with “Lift Me Up”) that made me wanna curb-stomp someone’s grandmother like dude in American History X.
3. “Come and See Me,” Ludacris (featuring Big K.R.I.T.)
When I dropped about $2,500 on an after-market stereo system for my new SUV, I used the dope bass lines on this Mike Will Made It track to tweak everything just how I like it. As far as popcorn rap is concerned, Luda’s comeback album Ludaversal could’ve been a lot worse.
4. “Canal St.,” A$AP Rocky (featuring Bones)
The guiltiest inclusion on this list. Rocky’s the most basic rapper in his basic crew, and I’ll likely never check for his flow. Bones’ (another basic rapper) “Dirt” sample is the reason this was in rotation for so long—neither rapper really deserved Klimeks’ moody, piano-driven production.
5. “Suicide Doors,” Skyzoo
I’ve been stanning for Skyzoo since his 2006 debut with 9th Wonder, Cloud 9: The Three-Day High. He’s one of the most consistent proletariat emcees in the game, and I purchase a hard copy of everything he puts out. Definitely peep all of Music for My Friends. (I enjoyed Rick Ross’ “Crocodile Pythons” better when Sky did it the first time.)
6. “On Me,” the Game (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
As is the case with most double albums, The Documentary 2.5 would’ve been much better if the fat were trimmed and the best tracks from both discs were placed onto one. “On Me” gets high marks mainly for that sample of Erykah Badu’s “On & On.”
7. “Latino Pt. 2,” Joell Ortiz (featuring Bodega Bamz, Chris Rivers and Emilio Rojas)
Great posse cuts are few and far between these days (“Banned From TV” was a long time ago), so it’s refreshing to hear a bunch of underground Boricuan spitters bodying an !llmind beat. Also, !llmind is the dopest Filipino since Pacquiao in his prime, before the homophobic bulls—t.
8. “Chicken,” Mark Battles
Indie Indy (see what I did there?) rapper Battles released his first proper album Numb after a prolific mixtape output starting in 2011. Dude has bars, but “Chicken” has a warm place in my heart for the looping sample of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds.” I’ve rocked with Phil since the 1980s, and I’ll accept no slander for it.
9. “Cars,” Curren$y
I ignored Curren$y’s lazy New Orleans rap for the longest, but “Pot Jar” from Pilot Talk III made me dig into his considerable oeuvre, which consists of 214 albums, 580 EPs and about 34,594,273 DatPiff mixtapes. The inky-dark melody on “Cars” was like audio crack, making it my most played track in 2015.
10. “Lift Me Up,” Vince Staples
Staples made some distressing comments about 1990s hip-hop that I forgave because a) he’s been of legal drinking age for about 17 seconds and b) he’s a pretty talented young scrub. I didn’t like his debut album, Summertime ’06, as much as critics did, but “Lift Me Up” is solid stab-a-n—ga music. It’s been a minute since I caught myself singing a repetitive hook to myself. “Liftmeupliftmeupliftmeupliftmeuuuup.”
11. “Tuxedos,” Benjamin Starr (featuring Mile)
Another great 2015 discovery, the South Kakalak rapper is more beastly on the mic than most of his peers, and his debut album Free Lunch is a more palatable version of To Pimp a Butterfly.
12. “Paper Trail$,” Joey Bada$$
Joey gets a lot of props for having a throwback New York City sound without being a complete anachronism, and DJ Premier is my personal GOAT producer. They do great work together (see: “Unorthodox”), and “Paper Trail$” has a fantastic beat that builds.
13. “Deep Water,” Dr. Dre (featuring Kendrick Lamar, Justus and Anderson .Paak)
If you told me last spring that I’d be nodding to a 2015 Dr. Dre album, I would’ve busted you in the head with a sack of bottle caps, à la Homey the Clown. But Compton was one of my favorite LPs this year, despite useless weed holders like Justus & King Mez. K-Dot snapped on “Deep Water” and every other track on the album he’s featured.
14. “Rearview,” Freddie Gibbs
Gibbs (Ho!) gets eternal props for growing up in Gary—the dingleberry hanging off the taint that is Indiana—and crafting a respectable underground career. Dude flows like he’s connected to an IV full of lean, but he does it over Madlib and other hot producers. Also, check out “Diamonds.”
15. “The Future,” Kirk Knight (featuring the Mind)
Knight is part of Joey Bada$$’s Pro Era crew, so his debut album, Late Knight Special—which Knight produced in its entirety—features that old-new-school New York sound. “The Future” sounds like something from Blue Sky Black Death, and I dig it.
16. “Neighborhood Dope Dealers,” Durag Dynasty
Just Blaze is a top-five GOAT producer (the Nag Champa-burning set hates it when I say he’s better than J. Dilla), and Planet Asia’s been extraordinarily underappreciated for a decade and a half. Justin is one of the few producers who can body a beat-free track.
17. “Do What I Do,” Scarface (featuring Nas, Rick Ross and Z-Ro)
’Face is better at dropping individual gems than he is at full albums. The first half of Deeply Rooted is full of heat rocks, but it falls hard in the second. It just beat out “Steer” because Nas swooped through and murdered everyone else on the track, as he’s wont to do.
Sixth Man: “All Good, Pt. 2,” Illa J (featuring Moka Only and Ivan Ave)
We’ve absolutely hit critical mass with folks rapping over ancient Dilla beats. (Blame Nas for jumping on “Gobstopper” to create his most unnecessary track ever.) But I don’t mind Dilla’s little brother rapping over a Dilla-esque beat in 2015. This is a better Slum Village track than anything on Slum Village’s incredibly weak album from June.
Dustin J. Seibert lifts heavyweights and plays all his video games on hard mode to find peace. He has a better ear for hip-hop than anyone else you know. You can find more of his work at VerySmartBrothas.com.