In a landscape where hip-hop has been under the shadow of Drake, Kendrick, Migos, and Kanye, it is very easy to forget the hundreds of talented acts that left a mark on the genre and culture.
Many of the artists on this list also run around the lines of sex, guns, and drugs but it's in the way they deliver it that set them apart from the mumble rappers of the 2010s. Likewise, some of the albums also include artists who fit that "woke" label that feel more genuine than their mainstream contemporaries. Let's start spinning the vinyls.
Danny Brown – XXX
In an era of rap where artists left and right have radically shifted from the standard norms of the genre, it takes a real weirdo to stand out. One of these iconoclasts is Detroit native with a distinctive squawk and wordplay as tight as his designer jeans. But it is on XXX where his years of mixtape blast into something muscular.
Danny Brown’s style of rapping is gallows humor turned up to the spirit of Nas and Mobb Deep. He’s equally ugly and clever on ‘Monopoly” and “Outer Space”. On “Die Like A Rockstar” he takes his skill to overdrive as he goes through the laundry list of overdosed celebrities of the past to incredible effect.
The production quality was minimalist to keep your attention on Danny’s voice (as if that would be an issue). According to interviews he listened to a lot of Joy Division creating this album, and the work of Skywlkr, Frank Dukes, Quelle and others keep up disciplined sound that keeps Brown’s bars at the center.
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Alternative rap albums found a home in many playlists during the 2010s (Death Grips, Odd Future, etc.) but none so out-there as the debut from the Seattle duo. It is envelope-pushing and chaotic throughout the drum loops and puzzling beats.
Black Up is cosmic rap at its purest. Ishmael Butler, under his Palaceer Lazaro moniker, took his chilled-out flow evolved into something not quite mainstream, yet something not quite underground. “yeah you” has Butler relentlessly spit over an acid jazz beat.
It’s easy to place the album in an afro-futurist vibe with songs like “free press and curl” and “Recollections of the wraith” but the production of Black Up doesn’t overlook stark urban emotions. “Youlogy” is abrupt and fantastic, while other songs are lean and haunting.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Before El-P and Killer Mike broke the doors down with “Blockbuster Night Pt. 2” from Run the Jewels 2, or Black Panther blasted “Legend Has It” in the trailer, the duo joined forces and revitalized the career of the Atlanta rapper. His I Pledge series of albums made his strong discography, but the dystopian beats from the underground ex-Def Jux producer morphed him into something different.
The album opener “Big Beast” is an uppercut lead to rapid-fire combo of guests thanks to Bun B and T.I. But with each gangster story in “JoJo’s Chillin’” and “Southern Fried”, the political side roars on “Reagan”, “Don’t Die” and others. What makes this album important is that it’s simultaneously the best of his career while serving as an introduction to people who know him other than his time with OutKast. All this rides on El-P’s grimy sci-fi-meets-Bomb Squad style until the wheels fall off.
Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth
Lupe has had a bumpy road in his career for most of the decade. Whether it be from the fallout that’s come from some of his records or from his social media beefs, he has been on an uphill battle that has taken a toll on him. But pressure makes diamonds, and this is what Tetsuo & Youth amounted to after a few years of delays and threats to his label.
Unlike the previous two albums, Tetsuo is sharp and brings back the energy missed from the past. “No Scratches” combines his feelings on relationships of all kinds with maturity. This well-crafted album is a return to form just like in The Cool.
The lyrical virtuoso in Lupe is still apparent on the album, especially on “Mural”. It is a nine-minute epic of no hooks, rhetorical questions, and play on words that stretch images into other worlds. This is an album with quality that is well worth a few replays.
Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica
K.R.I.T. stepped outside the boundaries of his mixtape sounds on Cadillactica and finally received acclaim from publications and that outside hip-hop. What it took was using the soul and funk from Southern rap but with a radical departure than his previous albums. There’s barely any samples on this one and has songs filled with piano progressions and comfortable saxophone breaks (“Saturdays = Celebration” and “Standby (Interlude)”).
He defends the much-maligned reputation of the South with fury on this album. “Mt. Olympus” proves that there is nothing more powerful, or downright scarier, than a pissed off Southern rapper. The flow scorches his competition, creating a confident piece of work that has served as a bedrock for the albums that has been released since.
Noname - Telefone
Just after she had recently dropped the “Gypsy” part of her stage name, the Chicago rapper released her four-years-in-the-making mixtape. Fans loved her collaboration on the work of other people, but her debut showed that there was more amazing talent out of Chi-Town than Vic Mensa or Chance The Rapper.
Her words on “Sunny Duet” are intensely personal, with Noname speaking of her name, blunts, a haiku in a way that pulls you into her life. There is no other way to describe Telefone but intimate, and a black woman’s way to address pain. She addresses her self-esteem in “Reality Check” and abortion in “Bye Bye Baby”, both with bravery and compassion.
Anti-Lilly & Phoniks – Stories From The Brass Section
Riding on the jazz rap wave that’s grown in the mid to later part of this decade has been positive for many rappers. It’s also been an affirming way to regain ownership to a black genre that was exploited by major record labels and watered down Caucasian artists in general, but let’s not stray too far. The jazz and hip-hop connection made in Stories From The Brass Section is more important than a music history lesson right now.
Beyond Anti-Lilly’s aphorisms is his worries as an artist trying to become great. At the same time, he is imparting words of introspection meant to make his listeners better people. This is all wrapped inside the dynamic flow of songs like “14 Til” and “Everyman” or chilled deliveries in “Rothko” and “Descension”.
Phoniks is a producer with clear respect to those who came before. Many of the cuts on Stories From sound like they could have come from the mid-90s. It can admittedly get repetitive at times, but there are modern flourishes from 808s beats and keyboards that add to the persistent saxophone throughout the album.
Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too
Before the standout success of Cocoa Sugar in 2018, The Scottish trio dropped an album three years earlier that refined the eccentric style that barely keeps them on the edge of the genre. “Shame” almost plays like something you would find off a TV On The Radio album. Their blend of electronic music, rock, R&B, and more make it incredibly hard to place them in the same spot.
And that’s the beauty of White Men, in how Young Fathers uses crunchy synthesizers and howls into an off-kilter pop record, which shouldn’t throw you off. After all, many hip-hop artists have gone pop this decade,
That doesn’t mean they still can’t go hard, which can be heard in the ironically titled “Old Rock n Roll” or “Dare Me”. The political and emotional messages Young Fathers shout out ring true to their disjointed fusion.
L’Orange & Jeremiah Jae – The Night Took Us In Like Family
It is very difficult to separate it to a comparison to the classic emcee/producer duo of MF DOOM and Madlib for Madvilliainy because of the similarity in the combinations. Both DOOM and Jae are unconventional rappers in the game, while the arsenal L’Orange uses is close to what Madlib uses. But that is about where you can leave the connection because they are two different monsters.
Jeremiah Jae took a large step outside of his comfort zone on this one. As a regular producer, his raw energy is subdued into a relaxed delivery on The Night, while spitting out words on the unflinchingly true visions of crime in songs like “Taken by the Night” and “The Lineup”.
A certain noir atmosphere is laid across the album with the help of L’Orange’s instrumental breaks. His blend of soul samples is laced with 40s radio recordings that break his jazz with images of gangster life of bygone eras. The album’s division into five “parts” give it a theatrical feel you rarely see in hip-hop albums and that is anything but undeniable.
Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs, and The Alchemist – Fetti
A well-crafted rap duo is hard to pull away from (see Watch The Throne and Run The Jewels for this decade’s examples), but for your under-the-radar choice, look no further than Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs. As two emcees with different styles — Gibbs’ low gangster growl, Curren$y’s Southern stoner bars — they carved their separate paths in the underground scene after leaving major label deals.
They had crossed paths twice before, each time with The Alchemist on producing duties. It was on that second time when they dropped the song “Fetti” on the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack, and from there grew the lyrics and slippery Alchemist beats.
The album is EP length at 23 minutes but is packed with a street-level flow detailed with the weed smoke you’d expect of any Curren$y record. “Now & Later Gators” brings back the west coast vibe while “The Blow” takes us to late night hustles. Their voices are true to Alchemist's beats and breathe life into the worlds they came up from.