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Top 20 Hip-Hop Albums of 2014

Top 20 Hip-Hop Albums of 2014

About this playlist

To hear your run-of-the-mill, comment section-posting, Tweeting rap fan tell it, 2014 was the worst year for rap music ever. As someone who has spent too many decades immersed in the genre, I beg to differ. The year 1995 would have been pretty boring if not for the year of the Wu; 1999, the height of the "jiggy rap" era, mostly sounded awful, but at least we got classics from MF Doom and The Roots out of it. And 2002 and its assembly line of backpackers and club thugs was obnoxious, as were 2009's trap rap retreads, though Lil B's rise to viral infamy during the latter year proved a saving grace.

The point is that rap music has weathered valleys before, and if this one appears more barren than others, it's because we're too sun-dazed by our futile search for a defining narrative. The year 2013 had Kanye West's Yeezus and Earl Sweatshirt's Doris; 2012 had Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city. But this year, we're lost.

Some have argued for Y.G.'s My Krazy Life, and DJ Mustard's patented ratchet sound, as the purest representation of the current era. But it feels shallow -- save for "Sorry Momma," Y.G. barely pauses to reflect on his lust for gangbanging and "thug fun and games," as pointed out in my review. Y.G. doesn't seem interested in much beyond his amorality. There's a vicarious pleasure in that for us, the armchair listeners. Modern rap gangsterism is as much about getting our kicks as it is meant to reflect a certain strata of societal neglect.

Recent weeks have also generated a campaign for Run the Jewels' Run the Jewels 2 as this year's Great Rap Album. Killer Mike's cogent thoughts on race and politics are certainly relevant. Sonically, however, Run the Jewels 2 sounds like a sequel that's just as good as -- but not necessarily better than -- the original.

Future's Honest represented the danger of stasis. It found him reclimbing the peaks of Pluto, but without the fearless pop ambition of that 2012 debut. Perhaps he was chastened by the criticism over his "Real and True" duet with Miley Cyrus, because not only did Honest omit that failed single, but it also didn't include any major pop collaborations. With no crossover potential, it sagged in the marketplace, halting his career trajectory just as Young Thug emerged to overtake him as ATL's top trap crooner.

Rap culture can be quixotic and conflicted. Its artists talk about authenticity, yet openly hunger for mainstream success. Unlike, say, indie rockers, they can't subsist on critical acclaim and a cult following. Metacritic ratings don't fund the kind of Miami bliss portrayed in Rich Gang's "Lifestyle" video. So rappers want to sell millions of records, but on their terms and without selling out to pop conventions -- an admirable goal. When they fail, the effect can be similar to crabs in a barrel fighting for air. Hip-hop eats itself.

Just as last year with Macklemore, this year's most consistent box office attractions were white folks: Eminem and Iggy Azalea. As a certified GOAT candidate, Eminem is above reproach (though that didn't stop J Cole from needling him on "Fire Squad"). The same can't be said for Azalea. Her "Fancy" was a dumb and catchy pop-rap hit, part of a tradition that extends back to the catalogs of Flo Rida, Nelly, Coolio and too many others to mention. She wasn't worth the vitriol, but the belly-full-and-hungry dilemma coursing through 2014 rap made her an easy target.

Sometimes it's best to refract from a forest view to wander among the trees. Listen closely, and you'll find dozens of interesting rap moments. There is Lil Boosie's heartening comeback, the continuing greatness of Kevin Gates, the exhilarating weirdness that was Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty, and the rise of experimental rap crew Hellfyre Club and members Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, Nocando and Milo. There is Ghostface Killah's ongoing run of Blaxploitation concepts, with the thrilling 36 Seasons as his latest, and the continuing ferment of N.Y.C.'s throwback renaissance, as evinced by the Underachievers' metaphysical treatise, Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium, and MF Doom and Bishop Nehru's Nehruviandoom. There is an emerging crop of young, earnest West Coast spitters like Cozz and Vince Staples, and fearless explorers of gender identity like Azealia Banks and Le1f.

Serengeti's Kenny Dennis series may be the first example of a fully rendered, literary, fictional hip-hop character (unlike Daniel Dumile's semi-autobiographical conceit, MF Doom). It spans several albums, with Kenny Dennis III being a tragi-comedy full of lyrical whimsy. Too bad that the rap commentariat virtually ignored it while blindly focusing on the maximalist ambitions of big-budget pop rap à la Drake's SoundCloud emissions, Lil Wayne's would-be comeback, and the umpteenth iteration of the iconic Southern trapper. Young Jeezy's Seen It All, Rick Ross' Mastermind, and T.I.'s Paperwork signified the latter's creative exhaustion; perhaps Young Thug, Migos and Rich Homie Quan marks its revival. I won't deny that Young Thug has talent, despite the fact that his Black Portland may be one of the most unjustly overrated mixtapes of the year. But why can't the audience embrace all forms of rap music, whether major or indie, instead of anxiously waiting for Kendrick Lamar's new statement album while floundering in a regional rap cul de sac?

A final note: The continuing protests against police brutality across the country, which were sparked by the killing of unarmed black men by cops in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., and the judicial system's resulting inability to hold those officers accountable, gives the hip-hop community a chance for redemption in spite of its waning economic power. The protests inspired a political consciousness that hummed through dozens of songs, whether explicitly in Vince Staples' "Hands Up," The Game's "Don't Shoot," Dizzy Wright's "I Need Answers" and Uncle Murda's "Hands Up," or subtly in Lil Boosie's "Crazy" and Rick Ross' "Burn." It's the most promising trend of 2014.

1) Y.G., My Krazy Life
2) Flying Lotus, You're Dead!
3) Azealia Banks, Broke with Expensive Taste
4) Run the Jewels, [Run the Jewels 2]
5) Future, Honest
6) Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Piñata
7) Big K.R.I.T., [Cadillactica]
8) Serengeti, Kenny Dennis III
9) Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty
10) NehruvianDOOM
11) Lecrae, Anomaly
12) Ghostface Killah, [36 Seasons]
13) Kevin Gates, By Any Means
14) Common, Nobody's Smiling
15) Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy
16) Ratking, So It Goes
17) The Underachievers, Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium
18) Busdriver, [Perfect Hair]
19) Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo
20) Logic, Under Pressure

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