Top albums of the 2010s
good kid, M.A.A.D. city – Kendrick Lamar
Take Care – Drake
2014 Forest Hills Drive – J. Cole
Watch the Throne – Jay-Z and Kanye West
channel ORANGE – Frank Ocean
Doris – Earl Sweatshirt
Long. Live. ASAP. – A$AP Rocky
Rodeo – Travis Scott
Oxymoron – ScHoolboy Q
FM! – Vince Staples
9/11 had a greater impact on music than we seemed to realize. Everyone wanted to portray an image that things were ok; that the party was still on. But the drugs wore off, and we had one hell of a sonic hangover going into the twenty teens.
The 2000s comprised an era of hip hop that never seemed to find its footing. While the genre increased in popularity, its quality seemed to lag behind. The hits were there, but they lacked substance. The lyricism was at an all-time low, and tired themes were recycled beyond reckoning. For every Andre 3000 there was a Petey Pablo to mirror the disarray that was hip hop in the 2000s.
…then came Kendrick.
Admittedly, I was never a big fan of hip hop until a good friend of mine showed me good kid, M.A.A.D. city (thanks Dalton). So of course, that album is at the top of my list for the decade. GKMC is a raw, unapologetic portrayal of life in Compton, CA. The inclusion of Dr. Dre in its production encapsulated the communal effort to emerge from “the hood”; not unscathed, but above the materialism of drug dealing and gang banging. While To Pimp a Butterfly was a more targeted political piece, and section.80 was similarly effective in conveying the turmoil that was life in Compton, GKMC marked the beginning of Kendrick’s commercial success, and catapulted him onto the world stage.
Standout Tracks: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “m.A.A.d. city”, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
The lasting influence of Drake’s Take Care deserves its own blog post, and you can find one by K-UTE’s Kyle Atkinson here. GKMC and Take Care paved the way for the sound of this decade. They provided a blueprint for a successful modern hip hop album, and their influence should never go unnoticed. This blueprint included a reverence for the emcees of old, but a passionate push towards a new sound as well. Say what you will of Drake and his concern with appealing to the masses, but Take Care was groundbreaking.
Standout Tracks: “Marvin’s Room”, “Under Ground Kings”, “Look What You’ve Done”
Next up is 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole’s featureless album that earned him a spot in conversations regarding the greats of the time. The imagery created a cohesive whole that told the story of the current state of Cole. Its production was unmatched, experimental and futuristic, yet grounded and soulful. Born Sinner was full of hits, but 2014 Forest Hills Drive was the first rap album sans features to go platinum, and is now certified triple platinum, having sold over 3 million units, therefore is my choice for this list.
Standout Tracks: “G.O.M.D.”, “No Role Modelz”, “January 28th”
Watch the Throne is an amalgamation of talent from two of the greatest hip hop artists of our time, Jay-Z and Kanye West. If I could place My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 4:44 in this list without removing some other choices then I would, so I chose this collaborative album as a nod to these two legends. It’s also damn good.
Standout Tracks: “Ni**as in Paris”, “Otis”, “The Joy” (available on streaming services)
Frank Ocean created an addictive new genre of experimental, R&B infused hip hop with channel ORANGE. It was relatively off-putting at first, but upon subsequent listens this was what characterized its charm. Frank’s use of double and even triple entendres blew me away and is a reason I return to his music so often.
Standout Tracks: “Thinkin Bout You”, “Pilot Jones”, “Pyramids”
Earl Sweatshirt’s arrival was a hard pill to swallow. He opened a portal to the darkest side of rap. At first, I didn’t know what to think of Earl’s idiosyncratic choice of beats, and raspy, yet melodic flow, but his lyricism and word play reeled me in hard and fast. Although I recently criticized his most recent project, I’ve found that, like Doris, I’ve grown to appreciate it more over time.
Standout Tracks: “Pre”, “20 Wave Caps”, “Molasses”
A$AP Rocky jumped onto the scene with Long. Live. ASAP. in 2013. A true party anthem, it was impossible to escape, and I was perfectly fine with that. This was another album that changed my stance on hip hop and showed me how fun the genre could be.
Standout Tracks: “Goldie”, “F**ckin Problems”, “1Train”
Rodeo was a game changer. Travis Scott’s confidence was infectious and still is to this day. His fusion of rap and rock has blended into a sort of punk infused “rager” rap. His otherworldly levels of energy are apparent in his recent Netflix documentary “Look Mom I Can Fly”. If you haven’t seen that film, or don’t consider yourself a Travis fan, I urge you to check it out, as well as Rodeo.
Standout Tracks: “Oh My Dis Side”, “90210”, “Maria I’m Drunk”
ScHoolboy Q’s emergence from gang banging and drug dealing is a crude iteration of the American dream. His addition to Top Dawg Entertainment, as well as the collective Black Hippy, felt like the perfect fit of a puzzle piece. His breakout album Oxymoron elegantly told the story of his rise to fame.
Standout Tracks: “Collard Greens”, “Man of the Year”, “Blind Threats”
Rounding out the list is Vince Staples’ FM!. An intense practice in conciseness, and an ingenious commentary upon the fleeting nature of pop. It’s shaped as an excerpt from a radio show. The paradox here is that while it mocks the short attention span of radio listeners, FM! itself has aged well.
Standout Tracks: “FUN!”, “Relay”, “Tweakin”
When sifting through the releases of the twenty-teens, I found it difficult to come up with a list of only ten albums. In my opinion, the teens eclipsed the 2000s in terms of quality of music, and there are plenty of releases that could be argued as replacements in this list.
Within this past decade, we witnessed a return to form while also a changing of the guard. 50 Cent went into retirement, perpetually more concerned with selling Vitamin Water than making good music; while Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole emerged as the de facto leaders of the genre.
With more artists emerging and albums being produced that rival even those on this list, I’m excited to see where the next ten years of hip hop takes us.
2010s honorable mentions:
Care for Me – Saba
Dicaprio 2 – JID
Oxnard – Anderson .Paak
Piñata – Freddie Gibbs
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus – Kanye West
4:44 – Jay-Z
Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino
IGOR – Tyler, the Creator
Milky Way – Bas
Swimming – Mac Miller
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