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Top 10 Hip Hop Albums of 2014

December 30, 2014
It’s 2014, does anyone even blog about hip hop anymore? Is there anything worth saying about a genre desperately attempting to revisit its bright beginning with debatable success that can’t be covered in 140 characters or voiced within a frantic 6 second looped Vine? Better yet, will anyone pay attention when there’s much more digestible short-form gif-lists or better yet half-nude bikini models to scroll through on Instagram?
Not only is there proof in validating the list of dope albums below (and hopefully peeping y’all on some knowledge), but also analyzing the year’s best in the context of how we got here, and where is we are going. Since 2012, I have – somewhat pugnaciously – claimed that hip hop was “back”, and that the crowning of Kendrick Lamar signified the completion of this transition. But, as I noted, this would not have happened without the influence of stalwarts Kanye, Jay-Z, Lupe, and others who also blessed hip hop heads with acclaimed music in 2012 and 2013 that helped lift Kendrick, and more broadly – rap, to a new throne. 2014 was different, outside of Rick Ross – there was a noticeable lack of so-called heavy hitters releasing albums this year. But that’s ok; the sign of a genre coming into its own again is its ability to be sustained without the legends carrying the weight. And I don’t know about you, but I am definitely still listening.

Onto the most fire albums of the year:


STN MTN/Kauai - Childish Gambino

10). Childish Gambino – STN MTN/Kauai

I’m convinced that Childish Gambino knows something that we don’t. After conquering the mixtape game, and releasing two fire albums, Bino was up to it again in ’14 by releasing a two-part album dropped strategically in unison as half mixtape, half official release. STN MTN, one half of the project, is most easily found on DatPiff and was – for lack of any better definition – a tribute to mid-2000’s southern mixtape game. Covers of ‘Southern Hospitality’, ‘U Don’t Have to Call’, and ‘Go DJ’ bring the listener back to 2004 while simultaneously showcasing Childish’s grade A lyrical prowess. In his typically meticulous style, down to the DJ Drama shout outs and faux-Atlanta club radio promotion spot, the project feels wholly authentic and stands as one of the strongest southern hip hop revival efforts in memory. The other half – available on Spotify – is Kauai, which, like its name predicates, is a free-spirited, island-themed effort which effectively counters the clubby sounds of STN MTN with melodic, open ended tracks like ‘Retro [Rough]’ that sound like nothing else in hip hop today. It even features Jaden Smith throughout the album as “the boy” (???). While Gambino has proven he is certainly capable of a more focused and powerful hip hop album that might have claimed a higher spot on this list, the creativity and originality of STN MTN/Kauai feels more like a blueprint for up-and-coming artists than a fluke release.
Mastermind - Rick Ross

9). Rick Ross – Mastermind

The Teflon Don had a huge year in 2014, releasing two banger albums consistent if not surpassing of his resume to date and flooding the streets with anthems like ‘Devil is a Lie’, ‘Sanctified’, ‘Hood Billionaire’, and ‘Elvis Presley Boulevard’ throughout the year. In fact, the similarities between Mastermind and Hood Billionaire – strength of trap-based production, top class features, and the simple but catchy lyrics – make parsing out the two nearly impossible. Ultimately, and I am getting picky here, the former edges out the latter as it remains truer to Ross’s mafioso persona, while the latter feels more fantastical and even cartoonish. Maybe that’s simply that Mastermind dropped first, and it might take years to criticize both impartially, but one thing that cannot be disputed is that 2014 was Rick Ross’s year.


2014 brought on a slew of monster singles that begged you to grab the closest Aux cord and play on repeat – most of which were the product of out-of-nowhere artists trying to cash in with the next club banger. Bobby Shmurda, OT Genasis, and Rae Sremmud all blessed us with standalone hits, however it was ‘Tuesday’ – a track that Drake found, liked, remixed with his own verse, and subsequently put the world on – that lifted the peculiarly named I LOVE MAKKONEN as the breakout artist of the year. Choosing to listen to the entire self titled album by the Atlanta based producer/rapper was one of the more ambitious decisions of the year for this backpacker, but it turned out to pay off in spades. Tracks like ‘Don’t Sell Molly No More’ and ‘Swerve’ mesh progressive beats sure to shape mainstream rap in coming years, with lazy, careless lyrics that accomplish nothing but emphasize the turn up. However, what really pushes this album into my top 10, as well as boost anticipation for MAKKONEN’s upcoming projects, is the alternative, innovative songs like ‘Doubted’ and ‘Rumor – Acoustic’ that showcase his real music IQ both as a lyricist and producer.
 Run the Jewels - RTJ2

7). Run the Jewels – RTJ2

45 minutes of straight pulse pounding energy, smirk-eliciting lyrics, and incessant head bopping; these are just a few of the symptoms I felt the first (and 10th) time listening to El-P and Killer Mike’s unique concept project Run The Jewels. Full transparency, I totally slept on the first iteration of this dynamic duo in 2012, but the Twittersphere buzz around the follow up effort was – thankfully – too loud to miss. El-P’s production is reminiscent of a perpetual bank robbery (hence the name of the project) and Killer Mike and P’s lyrics balance between devastating and politically charged. As has been already been said a million times – including by that small unimportant site Pitchfork which garnered RTJ2 with the coveted Album of the Year award – both of these artists are cruelly underrated in the game, mainly due to the fact their most brilliant moments have come on relatively underground efforts. Thus, in a way, RTJ2 is the feel good story of 2014 hip hop – a dope concept album that proves not only that hip hop doesn’t  have to be boxed in to expectations, but also that every dope artist deserves their day.
Ab-Soul - These Days...

6). Ab-Soul – These Days…

Those familiar with WB4HH know that Ab-Soul is one of my favorite contemporary rappers (who stands only behind Kendrick in the Top Dawg dynasty – sorry Schoolboy Q) whose previous release Control System earned my top spot as 2012’s best hip hop album. Needless to say, his follow up effort was not only arguably my most anticipated album of this year, but also Soul’s first time in the limelight. As is so common in the hip hop – as a matter of a fact in music in general – fame can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. And while Ab remains true to his unique lyrical pacing and left-brained, conspiracy based content on memorable tracks such as ‘Hunnid Stacks’, ‘Stigmata’, and ‘Ride Slow’ – he struggles to straddle pleasing his day one fan base with the pressure of reaching new ones on the sing-songy ‘Dub Sac’ as well as the trap-sounding ‘Nevermind That’. To be clear, there are no “misses” on These Days…, instead the effort unfortunately falls flat in the wake of one of the most inventive works of recent memory (reminiscent of It Was Written by Nas) and thus pales more in comparison than it probably should. In Ab Soul’s defense, ultimately doesn’t success make us innately more positive/upbeat anyway? As Diddy cameos on the project “What? Soulho eating now! Nothing more to it”. True.
J Cole - 2014 Forest Hills Drive

5). J Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive

Despite all of the hype around J Cole’s “opus” album – that it’s a track by track story of his life, that he produced all the beats and raps himself, that it was released out of the blue without any promotion or label attached, that it’s fire enough to to cook ramen without a stove(!) – I still had my doubts that Forest Hills was an instant classic. Why? Well for starters, Cole has always delivered good, not great, albums – and that distinction is everything when we are talking about a genre where thousands of artists are vying for the throne every year. J Cole’s supporters lean on his mixtape resume when claiming his all time status, but frankly that’s similar to saying a player is great because they win in the preseason. However, it turns out that the hype was well backed, as Cole masters each and every track with a rare talent that he is apparently perfecting. Yes, some tracks get a little too granular in their content and slow in delivery, however these arguably unimportant miscues are overshadowed by the surplus of quotable, catchy, and yet highly thoughtful and relevant anthems like ‘Wet Dreamz’, ‘GOMD’, and ‘No Role Modelz’. One aspect of Cole’s game that has never been in question is his lyrical ability, which may have reached a new peak in ‘Fire Squad’. In all, the album likely won’t grace any GOAT lists, but it definitely lifts J Cole out of the murky ‘meh’ ground he was stuck in for the majority of his career to date.
Mac Miller - Faces

4). Mac Miller – Faces

A year ago, I called Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off the comeback album of the year for its maturity of both content and composition, it’s diabolically clever lyrics, and a brand of production style that was becoming uniquely his own. 2014 saw this maturation of identity continue to peak for Mac in the form of Faces, a lengthy and varied collection of tracks occupying that grey space between a mixtape and a full album. Faces sort of came out of the blue for Mac, whose fans are by now used to him releasing tracks through obscure means, beginning with a SoundCloud link to ‘Diablo’ – a brilliant sampled track that effectively serves as a banner for Mac’s newly defined artistic direction. This single, along with other peculiar yet captivating songs ‘Angel Dust’, ‘San Francisco’, and ‘Grand Finale’ are produced by Mac himself under the pseudonym Larry Fisherman and feature Mac delivering seemingly endless drug references, thoughts of death, and on the brighter side your usual rap references to money, girls, and “Polo Jeans”. Almost to complement these darker themes, Mac includes a stretch of tracks (‘Insomniak’ and ‘Uber’) later in the album that feature Rick Ross and Mike Jones (WHO?!?) and could easily fit in rotation on Hot 97 alongside Drake, Kanye, etc. Throughout, the album is difficult to digest and convoluted in its meaning, but that’s clearly a reflection of Mac’s current view on life and we are all better off for it. Transparently, this (like Acid Rap in 2013) was the album I couldn’t stop listening too this year, and sans a few filler tracks and a non-cohesive theme it may have snagged the top spot on this list.
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron

3). Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron

2014’s first major release came from one of the most fascinating (and talented) artists in the entire game – however coming off the heels of back to back dope releases including the instant classic Habits and Contradictions, expectations were soaring. Where his fellow TDE mate Ab Soul, who if you remember was under similar pressures, did not quite deliver – Schoolboy shined, delivering hit (‘Collard Greens’) on hit (‘Break the Bank’) on hit (‘Man of the Year’) before the album even dropped! Filling in the spaces in between are playful and intelligent but gangster themed tracks that are undoubtedly Schoolboy’s unique style he self proclaims as “Biggie and Nas put they ass in a blender, sprinkle some 50 [Cent] and came out this nigga”. ‘Hoover Street’ is a dark dive into drug dealing (Biggie), and ‘Blind Threats’ is a cerebral look at his struggle to out of it (Nas). It’s all rounded out by ‘Studio’ a bonafide club hit (50 Cent) that has put Q on a short list when it comes to both mainstream and underground rappers.
 Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo

2). Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

The undisputed rookie of the year in 2014 was Isaiah Rashad, hailing from Chattanooga, TN but signed to…. You guessed it – West Coast-based TDE. His debut is brilliant from beginning to end, a slew of tracks meshed together so the whole album feels like a homogenous mix of laid back vibes and smooth confidence (Isaiah and his crew reportedly smoked blunts and drank champagne throughout the recording of the album to achieve this). The result is an album which, not surprisingly, works whether you’re rolling a blunt or turning up, or just lamping at the crib. Standout tracks, and trust me it is difficult to highlight anything among this consistent release, include ‘RIP Kevin Miller’, ‘Menthol’, and especially ‘Heavenly Father’ which could go toe-to-toe with any for song of the year. Time will tell whether Isaiah struck gold with his “demo” or if he is onto something bigger, but I’ll let you know that I just pressed play on ‘Hereditary’ on Spotify so I need an hour to lay back and enjoy life.
 Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Piñata

1). Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata

At its purest, hip hop music requires an emcee spitting rhymes with his producer laying a dope mix in a brief performance whittled from days of memorization and years of experience and knowledge. And as simple as it sounds, the spark between these two entities as well as the wax to keep it burning through an album (much less career) is an extremely intricate and difficult thing to do. So when gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs collaborated with corrosively independent, sample whiz producer Madlib – most heads (including myself) were equally confused by their Jekyll and Hyde relationship. Looking back, meshing Madlib’s credibility in the game, which belongs in the upper-echelon, owed to his unique production ability that runs alongside J Dilla’s and MF DOOM’s in its modern influence on the game, with Gibbs similarly West Coast independent mindset on a project which took over 3 years to complete, the expectations should have never been in question. However, to actually listen to the unexpectedly intimate song material and faithfulness to a 70’s Blaxploitation sound is to understand the real potential of pure hip hop. Let’s be clear, the album thrives from Madlib’s phenomenally consistent production – best displayed on ‘Thuggin’ and ‘Robes’ (another candidate for track of the year) – but Gibbs’ also holds his own lyrically across the album, especially on ‘High’ and ‘Knicks’, adding his name to a short list of rappers set to make power moves in the industry. While it is unclear whether this dynamic duo will work together again, Piñata (like Run the Jewels 2) will stand as a testament to the power in connecting outlets across coasts, styles, and ages.

Honorable Mentions:

Logic – Under Pressure

PRhyme – Self Titled

NehruvianDOOM – Self Titled

Without any big-hitters delivering this year, hip hop was lifted by a motley cast of up-and-comers, underground stars, and underrated veterans to deliver a dope, varied collection of albums. And with Joey Bada$$, Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Kanye West, A$ap Rocky, Drake, and countless other stars planning on dropping projects early in 2015, hip hop’s new ceiling keeps getting higher and higher.



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