Juicy J- Stay Trippy
Juicy J's rise to prominence as a solo artist has been ongoing for the last few years. His mixtapes with Lex Luger gained him a following of fans that was mostly independent from that of Three 6 Mafia's, and suddenly anticipation began to increase for a new proper solo album from Juicy-- something that did not exist for his previous solo efforts.
As effective as his formula was at the time, his teaming with Taylor Gang, and news that he'd be working with Dr. Luke gave fans mixed expectations for the album. Would it be a pop-crossover in the way Wiz's Rolling Papers was before it?
Turns out, Stay Trippy is a completely uncompromising new-school Memphis rap album. Utilizing the producers that have contributed to his resurgence (Mike WiLL, Lex Luger, his own work with Crazy Mike), as well as getting some slightly poppier (but never overboard) instrumentals from hitmaker Dr. Luke, Juicy creates an atmosphere that is completely his own.
Nodding to his past with features from literal bro Project Pat, and southern legend Pimp C, as well as working with new talent like Yelawolf, Lil Wayne, and 2 Chainz, Stay Trippy manages to sound both fresh and classic at the same time.
ASAP Rocky- Long.Live.A$AP
ASAP Rocky's January release already would have given him a handicap in terms of year-end recognition, but he also suffered an extremely early leak of his album, which almost makes it feel like Long.Live.A$AP came out in 2012.
It's too bad, because Rocky's album is a solid offering from the rapper, further developing his post-cloud rap brand, co-created with experimental producer Clams Casino. Let's not forget the hits on this one either-- "Goldie," "One Train," and "Fuckin' Problems" were all huge sensations in their own right, and helped Rocky climb to the position he's at today.
Once again, LLA is generally an exercise in good taste. Rocky is a curator of sounds more than anything, and his debut album is a pastiche of new and interesting styles, something that continues to define A$AP Mob as tastemakers.
Eminem- The Marshall Mather LP 2
Eminem couldn't really lose with anything he put out this year. No matter what, it was going to sell... a lot. The safest decision would've been to make another Recovery, something many expected him to do, but instead he actually took a chance, and recruited Rick Rubin to give him a very basic hip hop sound.
Em went back farther than most when doing this, rather than pull from 90s nostalgia in the vein of A$AP Mob or Joey Bada$, Mathers decided to take it back to the 80s, a far less fashionable route.
Unsurprisingly, MMLPII still sold a shit-ton, but it was possibly even more divisive than Recovery before it. Em rapped his ass off as usual, and he did so in a lane untainted by crossover aspirations. It made for a much more interesting listen, and one with a clear vision intact. For someone who is undeniably one of the greatest technical rappers of all time, it was a challenge for both Em and his fans, and one that ultimately paid off in the end.
Jay Z- Magna Carta Holy Grail
As many "New Rules" as Jay Z intended to make with the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail, the music itself was decidedly safe. Jay is one of the first rappers to really reach the sort of "Classic Rock" status in rap, where he'll be a high profile, stadium-selling artist until he dies. Much like the bands that have reached this point, Jay knows that his best bet is not to change the game, but to work comfortably within what he does best.
And so we get an album full of solid Timbaland beats, that doesn't take many risks, but hits every mark it sets for itself. More than anything, it's got hits. "Picasso Baby," "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt," "Tom Ford," "Oceans" and "Holy Grail" all did big things this year, and really, what more do you want from a legacy act like Jay at this point?
2013 was the year that everyone wanted to make an event record, and while Yeezus raised more eyebrows, MCHG had the upperhand in terms of accessibility. This one was for the fans, and for the most part, the fans loved it.
J. Cole- Born Sinner
J. Cole surprised many when he unofficially challenged Kanye by matching the release date of Yeezus. Though what was really surprising was when he surpassed 'Ye's sales a few weeks in and never looked back.
Cole is a rapper who has always expressed frustration with not receiving the proper recognition, and Born Sinner may have finally been the moment he was striving for. Not only did his album sell like crazy, he scored his biggest single yet with "Power Trip," and he was given props by one of his heroes, Nas, who he felt he had disappointed with the single his last album.
Born Sinner showcases Cole's story-telling ability, as well as his ever-improving production skills, and has officially established Cole as a rapper who should not be overlooked.
Drake- Nothing Was The Same
Drake's Take Care was an 18-track, 80 minute opus. While some (this guy) would argue that it was a grand-scale offering comparable to classic double albums like Songs In The Key Of Life, others (40, Drake's go-to producer) were left praying for an editor.
Thus, with NWTS 40 presented Drake with a challenge to keep the album concise. The 13-track presentation changed the dynamic of the songs entirely. The distinct lines between rap and R&B songs present on Take Care were now blurred, with each song taking on characteristics of both, and giving the project a consistent rhythm that lets each song break into the next.
The technique allows Drake and 40 to create a more insular world than they ever had before, only breaking the atmosphere for one breath of fresh air in the pure pop moment of "Just Hold On, We're Going Home," before diving back into the murky depths of the album.
What's most impressive is that Drizzy is still able to rule the radio-waves while very much being an album artist. Where he could've easily crafted 13 hits and called it a day, he is still entirely dedicated to the sound that he and 40 began creating circa So Far Gone. Drake himself says it best on the very first track, "This one ain't for the radio, but they'll still pay it though".
Danny Brown- OLD
While XXX found the many sides of Danny Brown curled into one equally celebratory and bleak mess, OLD is neatly organized into two sonically determined sides. The party and the darkness are still seldom mutually exclusive however, and Danny himself is more visible than ever.
While the first side of OLD harkens back to the classic Detroit production Brown was once known, it also provides more of his backstory than we've heard thus far. The rapper shares personal and sometimes horrifying stories from his upbringing on tracks like "Wonderbread" and "Torture".
As a music nerd at heart, Brown recruits plenty of unconventional guests, including UK electronic artists like Rustie and Darq E Freaker, and Toronto post-bop trio BADBADNOTGOOD. Danny has really perfected the electro-banger aesthetic of the second half, which would work perfectly well as its own EP, but becomes more interesting with the dark shadow of side 1 cast over it.
OLD is ultimately the best representative, and most complete offering from Danny brown, who continues to be one of the most intriguing characters in rap today.
Mac Miller- Watching Movies With The Sound Off
Mac Miller's transformation from fratboy icon to left-field stoner-rapper was more gradual than it may have appeared to those who jumped from Blue Slide Park to WMWTSO. His work as Larry Fisherman was a good tip-off of what was to come for Mac's sophomore effort, which kind of sounds like a Stones Throw fanboy making a record for the Adult Swim generation.
And Mac pulls it off magnificently. Pulling from an array of talented producers including Clams Casino, Pharrell, The Alchemist, Flying Lotus, and Earl Sweatshirt's alter-ego, randomblackdude, Miller's own production sits comfortably between the big names.
His rapping also continues to improve, taking notes equally from Odd Future and Quasimoto in his vocal manipulation, and rhyming with a dazzled, stream of consciousness that would make DOOM proud.
Along with Earl Sweatshirt's DORIS (which unfortunately did not make the final cut of this list, but deserves a mention), Mac has succeeded in satisfying his own fandom of left-field rap, while displaying enough skill and personality to sit at the table with his heroes.
Kanye West- Yeezus
Kanye's new effort took many by surprise. Following the perfectionist maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye delivered an album that wore its flaws on its sleeve-- a 40 minute journey of stripped down, sonic abrasiveness, of which the seams were still visible.
Much like 808s & Heartbreak did in 2008, Yeezus seems like an isolated instance at first glance. But throughout the year, its become more apparent that the album is not the first or the last of its kind, but simply the loudest statement of a larger scale movement in music.
While Kanye is always in mission control, one glance through the liner notes will show you just how much manpower went into this, and many of the contributors are making their own music of a similar style (see: Gesaffelstein, arca, Evian Christ, even Travi$ Scott).
Outside of its inevitable influence, the album stands up. From the slap-in-the-face psych-out of "On Sight," to the almost apologetic throwback of "Bound 2," there is never a dull moment on Yeezus. It's alright if you haven't caught up yet, he is poppin' wheelies on the zeitgeist, after all.
Pusha T- My Name Is My Name
Pusha T's work with Clipse has become canonical in the last few years, and the pressure for Pusha to live up to his past triumphs has only tightened. Pusha was far from silent during the gap between Clipse's underwhelming Till The Casket Drops and his proper solo debut, releasing solid efforts like Fear Of God II, and Wrath Of Caine along the way. Still, the judgement of whether he had truly succeeded as a solo artist seemed to all come down to My Name Is My Name.
The album was made alongside Yeezus, and Kanye's influence is evident throughout the record, but unlike Yeezy, Pusha's goal is always to make the purest rap possible, 'Ye just helps him go about it in interesting ways. Thus MNIMN is varied, but very concise, each idea nailed perfectly in place. Unlike Yeezus there are no seams visible here.
With "Numbers On The Boards" and "Nosetalgia," Push works with sparse guitar samples, taking on a similar palette to Em's MMLPII, but doing so in a more composed, and ultimately more successful vein. Elsewhere, we get wordless Kanye croons ("Hold On"), anthemic bangers ("No Regrets"), rap-ballads ("40 Acres"), soulful narratives ("SNITCH"), and despite rumors that the word could not be spoken in the studio, even a couple of "singles" ("Let Me Love You").
MNIMN has aspects of the old-head traditionalism present in MMLPII and Born Sinner, but can also veer into more experimental realms like Yeezus, making it a great representation of where hip hop is in 2013, and a solid debut for King Push.