The last decade has been phenomenal for hip-hop. With artists like Drake and Kanye West stringing together hit after hit and artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar proving that mainstream artists can also say something “real,” hip-hop has become a global, cultural force that is matched be few artistic styles less than a half-century old. As the genre has taken over popular culture, the underground has also continued pushing traditional sonic and stylistic boundaries by fusing styles and sounds and broadening its audience in ways that would seem nigh impossible as in the previous decade. Can you imagine 2005-era New York MC going in over a hyphy beat? That would be crazy talk.
What if I told that same 2005-era MC that in 2015, a MC from Queens of South Asian heritage who made his name with a song about two fast food restaurants in the same building would go HAM over a hyphy beat, and, that the music video featuring two black comedians—one of whom is basically responsible for Bill Cosby ending up in jail—has over 500,000 views on the internet? Frankly, the 2005-era MC would probably have other questions for me since I know the future, but my points is that hip-hop can change a lot in a decade
Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve been deep into hip-hop since about 2005, with all the traditional steps a white dude takes getting into the genre. I remember in high school thinking that it was only people saying the N-word calling women bitches. After I got over my genre elitism and figured out that I liked some rappers (thank you Wu-Tang Clan), I quickly entered the “hip-hop died with Biggie” phase. Next, I strapped on my Jansport with the rest of the white kids, repeating “the only real hip-hop is conscious hip-hop,” just ignoring the vital part party-music played in the early formations of the genre. For about six months, I knew that Aesop Rock was the only person keeping the hip-hop alive. Then, about a decade ago, I started to listen to contemporary hip-hop, and a lot of it. Looking back, I can see that quality albums came out between the late 1990s and the latter half of the 2000s, but I wasn’t hearing them at the time. I mean, I didn’t even hear MF DOOM’s incredible seven album streak from 1999-2005 until 2010, and it still took me, like, five more years to finally enjoy Madvillain.
Starting around 2007, I was actually listening to popular and underground artists as they released music. I tracked MCs and producers, anticipated album releases, and debated other heads in online forums about the GOATs (shout out r/hiphopheads). I also wanted to test my boundaries. By this point I knew that my earlier assumptions about the genre were wrong, so what else didn’t I know? Maybe everybody telling me that the Insane Clown Posse is terrible was wrong? In the end, those people were right (not to hate on Juggalos, but … ಠ_ಠ), but I also had to figure out what I liked and why. As I have learned, it takes more than thoughtful lyrics to make a good rap song, but it also takes more than some 808s and hi-hat.
Now, a decade on, I want to take a rather lengthy look back at these albums, picking out my favorite from each year. Even though I’m not sure that anybody really cares enough about my taste in hip-hop to read this whole thing, I’m going to take a stab at it.
I mean, what else is the occasional blogger to do—write something that’s not a listicle?
Kanye West – Graduation (September 11, 2007)
It seems only fitting to start the list with my favorite Kanye album, which was also the first album by Kanye that I listened to as a whole. The top selling hip hop album of the year, and the 12th biggest album in the US in 2007, Graduation marked the completion of Kanye’s initial trilogy of school-themed albums and his ascension to the top of the rap game, and pop music across the globe. Drawing on a wider array of samples than his previous albums (including the uber-successful “Stronger” from Daft Punk), this album is celebratory and melancholy, opulent and reflective. There are a couple track on here that don’t do much for me (“Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Barry Bonds”), but the songs that I love more than make up for the bummers. “Homecoming,” “I Wonder,” and “Everything I Am” are some of my favorite hip-hop songs across the board, and “Good Morning” is, possibly, the greatest album opener of all time.
I think this album often gets overlooked in favor of the initial, surprise success of College Dropout or the grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark and Twisted Fantasy. I feel like, recently, even 808s & Heartbreak has been getting more attention than Graduation because of its undeniable influence on the auto-tuned styles that dominate the current generation rappers and producers. I’ll never deny the import of these other albums, but I re-listen to Graduation the any other Kanye album. It was the album that got me into Kanye, and no matter how dumb and outrageous he wants to be (which it turns out is INCREDIBLY DUMB AND OUTRAGEOUS), nothing he does can make this music video less amazing.
- Runners up: Lupe Fiasco – The Cool (December 18, 2007); Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens (July 17, 2017)
Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III (June 10, 2008)
I know some people see this as the first step in the decline of Lil Wayne, but for me, this is his peak. Released to nearly universal acclaim, Tha Carter III erased any doubt about who was the best rapper alive in 2008. Lil Wayne gracefully rides the beats with astonishing wordplay and fresh take on the southern sound. His nasally, slurred flow elevates every beat he touches, which is saying a lot given the all-star lineup that includes Bangladesh, Just Blaze, and Kanye. Wayne’s flow is so natural, it just sounds like what he was born to do. Nothing is forced—every word floats effortlessly across the beat. Even though Tha Carter III is not a concept album per se, many of the tracks are conceptual (e.g. “Dr. Carter,” “Mrs. Officer,” “Phone Home”) and still catchy enough to keep us entertained through all the poop jokes.
Live stream of Lil Wayne writing Tha Carter III
I think the album’s real master stroke is the combination of these conceptual songs with some incredibly thoughtful, tragic songs like “Tie My Hands” and “Shoot Me Down,” AND still have them on the same album as the inane “Lala” and “Lolipop,” and making it work. Making this eclectic group of track stick together is a real accomplishment for Lil Wayne, as is his continued influence on hip-hop at large. While Kanye it can be debated that Kanye was the most influential producer over the last decade, I think it’s safe to say Wayne has been the most influential lyricist.
- Runners Up: Kid Cudi – A Kid Named Cudi (July 17, 2008); The Cool Kids – Bake Sale (June 10, 2008)
Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon: The End of Day (September 15, 2009)
In 2014, Complex Magazine listed 2009 as the best year for mixtapes, literally, EVER! I mean they have really only been a thing for 20 years, but still—it was a good year for mixtapes. The singles from Drake’s So Far Gone were pulling him into the stratosphere, and several underground artists were releasing their first projects to great acclaim (J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, Tyler the Creator), and Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings is often considered his best project. However, albums topping the charts could not be more generic. Eminem’s Relapse topped the hip hop charts with 608,000 first week sales, followed by Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Rick Ross and Young Money’s group album. With the exception of The Blueprint 3, I personally find all of the albums incredibly boring. By 2009 50 Cent and Eminem were super played out; I’m still super-confused about who actually likes Rick Ross; and posse cuts, especially from Young Money, start to all run together in my mind.
However, amidst these rather bland releases, Kid Cudi dropped one of the most influential studio albums of the last decade. While I don’t like it quite as much as his mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, from the year before, Man on the Moon: The End of Day was a game-changing album. In addition to having some global hits (“Day N’ Night,” “Pursuit of Happiness”), Cudi’s real innovation was bringing topics like anxiety and mental illness to the foreground of hip-hop. Sonically, Cudi riffed on a lot of what Kanye had started with Graduation and 808’s and Heartbreak, but added his own flare for staccato lyrics and indie rock—Ratatat and MGMT are featured. Even though Cudi has gone off on his own … let’s say, unique, tangent in the years since this album (and its 2010 sequel), his work on this album opened the door for artists like Travi$ Scott, Kevin Abstract and Raury.
- Runners up: Wale – Attention Deficit (November 7, 2009); MF DOOM – Born Like This (March 24, 2009); Mos Def – The Ecstatic (June 9, 2009); BlakRoc – BlackRoc (November 27, 2009)
Earl Sweatshirt – EARL (March 31, 2010)
The previous three albums I’ve mentioned so far have been relatively poppy, and relatively family-friendly. They reached he charts. They had radio singles. EARL is not that. EARL is vile. EARL is disturbing. EARL. Is. Evil.
EARL is also, AMAZING!
Adopting the persona of a teenage serial killer, Earl Sweatshirt takes us through the dark underworld of murder, rape and torture over Tyler the Creator’s and LeftBrain’s dark synths and simple drums. Now, I have a soft-spot in my heart for horrorcore (basically, horror movies for hip-hop) and this tape lies right in that sweet spot. Fewer albums are more depraved than this album, but Earl’s lyrical dexterity makes up for everything. At 16, Earl dropped tongue-twister after tongue-twister, echoing the content and style of two of the best lyricists of all time: Eminem and MF DOOM.
To be fair, the content of the 25 minutes is objectively terrible. Misogyny, homophobia, rape, murder: it’s all there. For me though, no matter how disturbing the lyrics on EARL are, Earl’s intricate wordplay still astounds me. Since its release, Earl and Odd Future at large has attracted a fandom that really bugs me, and even as Earl and the rest of the squad have also evolved, their fandom seems to be perpetually stuck at 16. However, no matter how irritating the OF fandom is, I can’t help but love this tape. Plus, I always got some some sort of weird, ironic satisfaction taking graduate classes and teaching students, and then chanting “KILL PEOPLE—BURN SHIT—FUCK SCHOOL” to myself as I walked around on campus.
- Runners up: Odd Future – Radical (May 7, 2010); Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude (March 2010); Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark and Twisted Fantasy (November 19, 2010); Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (November 9, 2010)
A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.A$AP (October 31, 2011)
From the moment I heard that two-second rolling bass that opens Live.Love.A$AP, I knew I was in for a treat. Mashing up typical NYC hip hop sounds with the chopped and screwed sound from Houston, A$AP Rocky shot into the mainstream with this heady, hazy masterpiece. Rocky’s unique blend of UGK and 50 Cent was an early step into blurring of geographic styles that traditionally bounded rappers. NYC hip-hop was boom-bap beats and intricate lyricism; LA rappers were g-funk gangstas; Southern rappers liked to party. This album showed that in the digital age, hip-hop didn’t need to follow these rules anymore. A Harlem-based MC could take the Houston sound, blend it with some New York swagger, and come up with something new, and amazing. Live.Love.A$AP also represents an early foray into “cloud rap” thanks to the clouds of weed smoke that clearly came pouring out of the the production office inhabited by Clams Casino, SpaceGhostPurrp and A$AP Ty Beats. Matched with Rocky’s peerless ability to just ride a beat by pitching his voice down for hooks and ad-libs, these cloudy beats chopped-and-screwed their way into a new subgenre.
When I first listened to Live.Love.A$AP, I was convinced that Rocky had the potential to be a GOAT. Since then though, his albums have really felt just like extensions of this original idea. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great idea, and Long.Live.A$AP and At.Long.Last.A$AP both have some great tracks and are solid efforts. But, unlike Kendrick who evolves and changes his sound on different projects, Rocky seems a little stuck in this same format. While consistency isn’t always a bad thing, for Rocky it seems like consistency has come at the cost of innovation. But let’s cut the man some slack, because when your first album is this innovative, you can afford to take a decade to follow up on the process.
- Runners Up: Danny Brown – XXX (August 15, 2011); Kendrick Lamar – Section .80 (July 2, 2011); Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (June 28, 2011)
Hey, you read all the way down here!
You either really like my writing, or you really like hip-hop.
I’m assuming it’s hip-hop.
You can read more the second half of the decade here.