Isaiah Rashad- Cilvia Demo
Most were introduced to Isaiah Rashad through his affiliation with TDE, and the collective's finger prints are all over Cilvia Demo, mainly in the form of production and engineering tricks. The label's unique use of doubled vocals puts the Kendrick stamp on Rashad, but otherwise the album stands as an uncompromising southern rap record.
From song title tributes to Webbie ("Webbie Flow") and Scarface ("Brad Jordan"), the South is well-represented in Rashad's music, but they appear as milestones in his life, as he recalls his past with anecdotes like "back when Juvie was the great". The songs glide by with a breezy nonchalance, but they're filled with confessions, adding color to the sepia-toned feel of the production.
Jeezy - Seen It All
Jeezy has generally been something a rap auteur. Even with the over saturation of trap of the past few years, Jeezy's impossibly big, impossibly hoarse double tracked ad-lib heavy approach has never been matched. It was only with his last album that the rapper's formula found its first faults. TM103 saw Jeezy's slightly awkward transition from field reporter to elder statesman, but on Seen It All that transformation is now complete.
Jeezy sticks within his element on the album's fist half, handling things solo, but giving his street anthems a glossy sheen, and a bigger sense of perspective. On the second half, he spreads his style out, enforcing once again that he's always had more range than he's been given credit for. Whether or not he's recognized for it, Jeezy has always been an "album artist", and "Seen It All" is another solid offering from a dedicated craftsman.
8. Logic- Under Pressure
Logic came full circle this past year, with the release of his long-awaited debut album, Under Pressure. The album title was a marked departure from what drove Logic’s fanbase all the years leading up to it, his extremely well-likedYoung Sinatra mixtape series. Young Sinatra deserves a shout out here for not only shaping Logic’s sound but for shaping his sizeable fanbase. Logic truly took the reins of his career, with help from Visionary Music Group, and catapulted into internet rap fame before being able to translate that into real-life major-label fame.
Although Under Pressure wasn’t under the same Sinatra umbrella that helped Logic blow up, it was a continuation of the story Logic was telling on those mixtapes—basically his life story. Under Pressure once again delved into his living situation growing up with a drug-addicted mother, and a drug-dealing brother, something detailed on the album’s fan-favorite “Gang Related.” The backing production was also a continuation and improvement from his mixtape days, with Logic sticking to the dudes he came up with like VMG’s in-house producer 6ix. It was a mix of old school samples that were modernized, to give every song the potential to become a mainstream hit, while not being obvious about it. Songs like “Nikki” turned Logic’s cigarette addiction into a female he can’t stay away from, and “Growing Pains III” is another peak into Logic’s childhood home and the problems that came with it. Once you’re done with Under Pressure, you’ll know a whole lot of #facts about the self-proclaimed Young Sinatra, and you’ll probably discover a dope sample or too.
7. Nicki Minaj- The Pinkprint
No one was sure what to expect from The Pinkprint leading up to its release. The early pre-release records and official singles seemed to tell two different stories, on one hand you had the aggressive rap tracks that the "Starships"-denouncers had been calling for, while the other showcased Nicki's crossover tendencies.
Roman Reloaded divided these two sides of Nicki with a dizzying mid-album transition, and it looked like The Pinkprint would be similarly two-faced. As it turns out, many more dimensions of Minaj are at play on the album, including a brand new character -- Onika Maraj herself. An opening three song suite marks the first time the rapper has opened up about her impressively secret relationship with Safaree Samuels, and introduces the project as a break-up album. That theme is present throughout, but so is plenty of boss bitch boasting (not that they have to be mutually exclusive), maniacal flows, and measured songwriting.
ScHoolboy Q- Oxymoron
West Coast gangsta rap had a major resurgence in 2014, most notably with YG's My Krazy Life, but also with ScHoolboy Q's Oxymoron. Weirdly, it's MKL that bears more of a resemblance to Kendrick's good kid, m.A.A.d city, while Q favors standalone statements above cohesive narrative.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of story-telling here. Q's greatest strength is his voice, which he uses to sound threatening, defeated, or like the guy at the club who had a little too much to drink, sometimes all at once. His narrative skill is supported by this emotive vocal ability, as are the expertly crafted singles. Q is the Ferg to Kendrick's Rocky, the guy who gets the party started, but also the most likely to snap at any moment. That tension is what makes his debut so engaging.
5. Future- Honest
Honest arrived at a transitional phase in Future's career. Since breaking through with a strikingly unique approach to vocal manipulation on Pluto, the rapper had lost some ground as an innovator in rap. With the imitation turnaround in hip hop moving at a blinding speed, and the sheer number of artists emerging everyday, Future's sound had become something of a standard by the time he got around to releasing his sophomore album.
Future then had two choices, either push his songwriting to meet the crossover potential he'd hinted at with "Turn On The Lights", or meet his imitators by trumping them with a widescreen take on his aggressive street anthems. Apparently, Fewtch was indecisive, as he took both routes on Honest, making his focus a little less clear, but ultimately hitting every mark het set for himself.
4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib- Pinata
DOOM and Madlib's Madvillainy is a moment that can never be replicated, not even by the duo themselves. As hope for a sequel dwindled over the years, a new, exciting prospect emerged -- Pinata, a Madlib-produced record that subbed Freddie Gibbs' hardened street tales for DOOM's stream-of-conscious wordplay. While it looked great on paper, when the album finally arrived, the match-up was less a substitution than a beautiful new creative partnership, owing little to what came before it.
The top four albums on this list are more-or-less one-producer albums, and Pinata may be the best example of the cohesive sonic vision that comes with that formula. Madlib's twisted soul samples not only encourage Gibbs to open up, but also give his tough talk a dose of paranoia and vulnerability. Like Madvillainy, this perfect a match can't be recreated.
Run The Jewels- RTJ2
Killer Mike and El-P are a perfect team for many reasons. Both nearing 40, each has a substantial back catalog, but has never really been given the credit they deserve as solo artists. It was only with Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that it became apparent the two could break through as a team. Mike's radical politics matched with El's Bomb Squad futurism provided a slap in the face that could not be ignored any longer. Their friendship continued to grow, and soon Run The Jewels was born.
RTJ2, released this summer is an improvement over their debut in every way. Often described as having a buddy comedy-like relationship, Mike and El have stepped up their on-record chemistry, ever-so-gleefully setting each other up for punchlines. They've also dug deeper into the political realm, tastefully but aggressively addressing issues of race and class in a year that needed it more than ever. RTJ2 proves the duo is far from a one-off, but rather a new beginning for two artists who deserve to be recognized.
2. J. Cole- 2014 Forest Hills Drive
J. Cole has always been pretty open about his obsession with being a part of the hip hop canon. He's studied the classics enough to know the formula, but hasn't always nailed the execution. 2014 Forest Hills Drive once again models itself after some of rap's undisputed classics (replacing Ss with Zs like All Eyez On Me, an extended spoken outro like The College Dropout), but it also feels like the most personal and engaging thing Cole has done, and tells his story better than the records that came before it.
In this way it almost feels like a debut, a mulligan for the more scattershot Cole World. The high-concept presentation also plays to Cole's strengths, allowing him to go all in on creating a cohesive album experience. The production plays a large role in this as well, and happens to be the rapper's strongest to date. Cole filters samples until they sound like a distant memory, creating a reflective atmosphere that transcends the nostalgia his earlier material was built on. Cole has found his footing with Forest Hills Drive, and all it took was confidence in his own vision.
1. YG- My Krazy Life
It was DJ Mustard's year, and despite a string of huge radio singles with various A-list artists, he found no better collaborator than YG. My Krazy Life paired the two longtime friends for nearly the entirety of the project, and each of them stepped up their game for the occasion. Fusing Mustard's Bay Area-indebted snap sound with the more menacing G-Funk that defined many classics from the L.A. region, the duo created something that sounds very of-the-moment, while instantly sliding into the canon of West Coast rap.
YG has revealed himself as a surprisingly effective narrator, always relatable and charismatic, while being the driving force of the story. The first half of the album introduces the rapper's early gang life through party records, but each has a tinge of paranoia attached to it, most notably on "I Just Wanna Party", where YG fears running into rival gang members will kill his buzz.
From there, things only get more reflective, and Mustard's production follows suit, forcing both artists out of their comfort zones, and making for some of the best music of the year. It may be an easy comparison, but MKL is truly YG and Mustard's The Chronic. It's the definitive statement of the "Ratchet" sound, and finds both artists pushing each other to the brink of their creative ability. Let's hope there's plenty more to come from these two.