After a muted 2014, this year we’ve already seen the release of roughly a dozen major hip-hop albums in less than six months. During the past month alone, highly anticipated full-lengths from Chance the Rapper’s collaboration with Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment and A$AP Rocky have arrived, and Vince Staples‘s debut full-length is streamable. And with new albums from Meek Mill and Kanye West on the horizon, the rush isn’t letting up anytime soon. Perhaps this makes it all the more important to identify the smaller-profile gems, many of which were released to minimal fanfare on mixtape sites. This is by no means a definitive list or in any particular order.1 If you’re still poring over Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise or — I hope for your sake — Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, then file these away for another time. But don’t forget about them.
1. Denzel Curry, 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms
There are excellent projects from Ka, Kevin Gates, Vic Spencer, Don Trip, and Lucki Eck$ — to name just a few — not covered here.
Carol City wunderkind Denzel Curry rose from the ashes of the Miami-based, SpaceGhostPurrp–helmed Raider Klan with his 2013 solo debut Nostalgia 64 — quietly the best full-length to emerge from that dysfunctional circle. Curry’s music infuses the Raiders’ aesthetic — discursive writing and hazy, aerated production informed by trap, horrorcore, and Clams Casino — with an unforced but fiercely individual perspective.
On his latest “double EP,” Curry comes out swinging with an explosive pugilism that recalls Meek Mill more than Project Pat, filling barn burners like “Ultimate” and “Planet Shrooms” with snapshots of his hometown’s violence amid his druggy spiritualism and nods to late-night Cartoon Network programming. The album is haunted by the specter of friends who “went the wrong way.” Curry recalls these tragedies off-handedly. On “Void”: “Young breeds caught up in the fucking gunplay / No MMG, just a RIP / And the Channel 7 news / Bumping on the Twitter feed.”
2. White Gzus, Stackin’ and Mackin’ Vol. 2
Last year, White Gzus — an unassuming Chicago-based duo made up of MCs Blanco Caine and Gzus Piece — distinguished themselves from the ranks of Treated Crew (an unwieldy, nationwide group of rappers, producers, and DJs) with their debut mixtape Stackin’ and Mackin’ Vol. 1. Both this release and this year’s follow-up consist mostly of soulful gangsta rap records, recalling early Chicago hip-hop (think Do or Die) and intermittent hits of modern street rap. Though White Gzus’s music is soaked in references to their heroes, it’s never waterlogged — even in verbatim stylistic experiments like “Scarecrow Flow,” a fairly rote tribute to the late Lord Infamous, they manage to sidestep kitsch.
As rappers, Gzus and Blanco tread lightly but can get a few steps ahead of the listener when they launch casually into a rapid-fire pattern; their approaches (loosened up here in comparison to their more serious, dead-eyed solo work) recall, at turns, Devin the Dude or Kurupt. The group’s strength is its ability to make simple lyrical gambits sound both stylish and quotable: “Wintertime, n—a, I be looking like a bear / Black mink coat, smell the dope in the air.”
3. Starlito, Introversion
To most who know his music, Nashville’s Starlito is revered; with an astonishing track record of independent albums — usually, two or three per year — he is one of the South’s most iconoclastic hip-hop personalities. For nearly a decade, he has been cultivating a loose, disarmingly intimate delivery that finds little precedent among his contemporaries. Only a small circle of rappers operates in his stylistic radius, and he works with them. His close friend Kevin Gates has frequently named him his favorite rapper. Almost in tandem, Don Trip and Lito have made tremendous strides artistically since respectively falling out of their major-label deals, collaborating on their celebrated joint Stepbrothers mixtapes and elsewhere.
Some of Lito’s newest tape is runoff from the sessions that produced last year’s retail album Black Sheep Don’t Grin. But Introversion features even more knotty, emotionally digressive rapping than that album, focusing less on corralling tight song structures together and instead pursuing unmitigated, even painful trains of thought, examining his career, failed relationships, former street exploits, and drug use. These are the reasons, he claims, that he can never sleep. Introversion strikes a balance between his particularly unhinged, freestyle-heavy mixtapes (see Insomnia Addict or Post-Traumatic Stress) and the restraint of his proper albums. Muted tracks like “10,000 Hours”2 and “I Get Tired” are the kind of self-reflexive and hookless litanies that make every Starlito release an event.
“It’s not about what you earn, it’s not about what you got / But how long you can stay out and try not to get shot / Real rap is a drought, I’m Pimp C mixed with Pac / My ears ring and I stop from emptying my glock.”
4a. & 4b. Chief Keef, Sorry for the Weight / Almighty DP
To both professional and amateur rap pundits, Chief Keef has been a subject of increasing disinterest since 2013. When the still-teenage rapper failed to sustain the pop promise of his underselling but (singles-wise) ubiquitous major-label debut of the previous year, he had to regroup. To those paying attention to Keef’s extended YouTube and SoundCloud network, however, his increasingly psychedelic direction became professional self-sabotage worth tuning in for.
Today, Keef is an artist who conducts experiments on the fringes. Since being dropped from his Interscope contract last year, his releases have cropped up unexpectedly. Back From the Dead 2 was a genuine surprise to those still paying attention: an almost entirely self-produced tour de force that found the 19-year-old rapper abandoning Auto-Tune entirely, growling terse threats over dense walls of guttural ad libs. It wasn’t your grandmother’s drill music. However, it still produced a pretty serious viral hit — one of the most unlikely in recent memory — reflecting the extent to which Keef maintains a devoted fan base across the country, commanding attention even with his more unkempt material.
February’s Sorry 4 the Weight was the first, though certainly not the most high-profile, street rap release of the year to bait Lil Wayne with its title. It mixes the deconstructive innovation of BftD2 with forthright and inspired Auto-Tune-soup ballads. There is also production courtesy of Keef’s formative collaborator Young Chop’s Choppsquaddj. It’s a kind of sampler of the various directions Keef’s music has been heading since 2013. The tape also distinguishes itself by boasting Keef’s most disciplined and quotable lyrics of the past couple of years. “Sosa Chamberlain,” in particular, is one of Keef’s all-time best “I’m the man” anthems: “I remember buying quarters, now I’m at a P / When it come to your bitch, I gotta add a Keef / Come out the cut like Snell, I gotta add a 3 / Don’t give a fuck how you feel, I gotta add a T.”
In April, Almighty DP, a collection of collaborations with Keef’s live-in producer D.P. surprisingly appeared on iTunes. A lighter, more atmospheric listen than Sorry for the Weight, Keef’s symbiotic relationship with the producer is on the surface of this music; their respective approaches complement each other, and the result is the best melodic work Keef has done since ‘13. The building blocks of the music are short, endlessly cycling phrases. They ping off each other. Keef and D.P. are not battling for dominance but carefully filling up space, building an immersion chamber of their own.
5. Rich Homie Quan, If You Ever Think I Will Stop Goin’ In, Ask RR
There’s a lot working against Rich Homie Quan right now. Quan’s April solo tape — which boasts perhaps the most ill-advised sequel name since Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction — is nowhere near as consistent and resourceful as his former Rich Gang associate Young Thug’s highly anticipated Barter 6 album, which arrived a week earlier. If You Ever Think… takes 20 minutes to pick up momentum and sports a handful of dryly melodic ballads that sometimes sound saccharine or simply phoned-in. And any chance for this ill-timed tape to gain accolades was rendered significantly less likely after some “UOENO”-style, unambiguous rape remarks cropped up on a leaked track last month. While Thug was becoming his city’s most talked-about star, Quan, with good reason, became a leper to the media — definitively the second-best steampunk-and-John Lennon-shades-wearing rapper in Atlanta, with a stomach-turning controversy to boot.
Nonetheless, this tape has plenty of songs that deserve attention and rank among his best. The certifiably infectious Cali-flavored single “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh),” released months in advance of the tape, has been touted. But the next best tracks here sport even more inspired and whacked-out production than Barter 6, and, in its second act, perhaps the most unabashed and resourceful use of acoustic guitar in hip-hop since the days of Ja Rule duets.
These days, Thugger — the Andre 3000 to Quan’s Big Boi — often bores right down the center of a beat, filling in every crack and crevasse; Future, on his recent mixtapes, particularly 56 Nights, takes the same tack. But Quan plays only the important notes, laying back before jumping into a resonant rhythmic idea in the beat. On “Sorry,” he slows down with the lagging snare, crooning coyly as the groove falls together in the chorus; on both “Beside Yourself” and “Rappin’,” his flow is in a similarly involved conversation with the breakbeat. Though he does not uniformly hold your attention — he’s best as Thug’s foil — Quan clarifies what distinguishes him on this release, retaining his tenuous status as one of the most significant voices in Atlanta hip-hop.
6. Ty Money, Cinco de Money
Ty Money is the most unfairly ignored Chicago rapper of the moment, and more proof that the city’s hip-hop scene is as vital as ever, even three years after it has faded from the national spotlight. It would be easy to group him in with the more technically minded drill MCs — see Lils Herb, Bibby, and Durk. But with a dangerously anonymous moniker, Ty has a style all his own, one that he’s been developing since before “I Don’t Like” broke in 2012. Today, on his most celebrated project to date, he flips and stretches thin, Migos-esque fast flow patterns into playful configurations. Ty’s extroverted battle-rap sensibility allows him to go toe-to-toe with his city’s most notorious motormouth, Twista, on one of the tape’s best tracks, “Come Again.” If more people were moved to pay attention — and he made some records with bigger hooks and more state-of-the-art beats — Ty might just be able to hack it as a national star.
7. Beatking, Houston 3 AM
Houston hero Beatking conducts his business — stadium-size, strip-club-friendly anthems — with a specific, rarely politically correct sense of humor. And he’s got a sense of humor about that sense of humor. After all, his career was built on humor about humor: the 30-year-old rapper and producer rose to fame on the back of a series of braggadocios freestyle responses to viral videos, which in turn went viral themselves. Despite these strangely market-savvy beginnings and his propensity for calling himself by self-given nicknames like “Club Godzilla” and “Beatking Kong,” Beatking manages to avoid the self-parody to which another Internet-grown, larger-than-life Texas drawler quickly fell victim. His music is anchored by his warm, basso profundo delivery and barbs (many of which are unprintable here) that come on like a combination of the Farrelly brothers and Eazy-E. Each of his punch-line-driven verses feels as lovingly practiced and well-paced as a stand-up routine.
Beatking is also a polished producer. Though most of the tape sticks to industrial-grade trap beats, there are also unusual bits of other Southern hip-hop idioms, including his hometown chopped-and-slopped music (the chipmunk-soul-studded “Houston 3 Am Freestyle”) and stuttering New Orleans 808 cadences (the bongo-augmented tribute to never paying for it “That Ain’t My Thot”). All of this is in line with the time-tested aesthetic value system of his city’s gangsta rap music: lethargic tempos and measured, almost mechanistic flows in the UGK mold. Houston 3 AM isn’t revolutionary, but it complicates a familiar template, like a lean, well-paced slasher film.
8. Oddisee, The Good Fight
For veteran D.C. rapper and producer Oddisee, “conscious” lyricism is not the subject and predicate — though his music indisputably fits into this tradition, right down to the couched lamentations about the state of his art form. (“If you got a message in your records / You collecting dust upon the shelf … So I’ma build a bunker now, in the underground / Surviving with that other sound.”) But as an accomplished producer in his own right, Oddisee manages to keep his eyes on the bigger picture. There’s nothing haphazard about his execution. His autobiographical, picturesque verses seem like takeoffs on his baroque backdrops rather than scattered thoughts applied after the fact. And in applying Southern (particularly the style of Andre 3000 and Big K.R.I.T.) and alt-hip-hop sensibilities from both coasts (see: Rawkus and Anticon Records), Oddisee triangulates D.C.’s geography and diverse, often contradictory hip-hop legacy.
9. Bricc Baby Shitro, Nasty Dealer
Bricc Baby Shitro — formerly MPA Shitro — is a cipher. Like a genetically engineered combination of Atlanta trap functionary, lewd Auto-Tune crooner, and professional Juicy J impersonator, he can be considered Los Angeles-via-Atlanta answer to A$AP Ferg. In his raps, he shirks any notion that he should put a new spin on the trap buzzwords and catchphrases he daisy-chains at every turn. Yet he’s crafted an excellent project with Nasty Dealer, the work of both resourceful French electronic producers as well as stateside heavyweights like Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital. It’s a vehicle for consistently sharp songwriting and regionally neutral stylistic bromides.
The tape is anchored by a few colossal singles, most notably the restless “Choppa Music,” which Shitty3 sings over a military drum line attempting a reggaeton cadence. Shitro is rarely the focal point of his own songs, so they seem to gain mass and inimitability; every gesture is funneled toward the greater good. Sometimes, when records get this big, politicking and parsing are rendered irrelevant.4
Yes, this is his favored nickname.
As a side note, I’m happy to say one of the high-profile features on this tape is California’s most misunderstood treasure, Lil Debbie.
10. Chippass, Chippass Jones 2
The Bay Area has one of the most fertile regional hip-hop traditions, yet decades into its tenure, its rising acts remain notoriously undersung. Rap devotees in other parts of the country recall only a few token names: Too $hort, E-40, Mac Dre, the recently departed Jacka. The plugged-in may know the work of Sage the Gemini, Iamsu!, and the HBK Gang. However, the production template that many Bay stars have zeroed in on since the mid-’00s hyphy craze — one muddy bass lick, handclap snares, and distant “hey” calls — has proved to be as adaptable a template as the blues, and one of the most effective in contemporary rap. DJ Mustard’s beats repurpose elements of the style; last year, he established a malleable, go-to architecture ripe for pop-rap dominance on Top 40 singles like Tinashe’s “2 On” and Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” With the proliferation of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” a canny imitation, the whole sound became bigger than even him.
But though those crossover singles have irresistible appeal, there’s nothing quite like listening to an Oakland rapper ride this type of beat. With Chippass (pronounced “Chipaaas,” mind you) — a member of one of the Bay’s most beloved and idiomatic gangsta-rap groups of the past five years, the NHT Boyz — it’s clear that these post-hyphy cadences define his approach. Sonic experimentation is not a concern as much as consistency and plenty of shout-outs. Chippass Jones 2 is not an innovative release. It’s not even necessarily the best Bay rap music you will hear this year.5 It is simply efficient house party music. This unassuming tape is an immaculate example of an important category. Just because it’s not flashy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay locked in with the tradition.
Try, for starters, Roach Gigz’s The Float.
Winston Cook-Wilson (@ratsonly) is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His writing has also appeared at Pitchfork and Wondering Sound and in the Village Voice.