As everyone and their cat analyzes the best rap albums of the decade, the same choices seem to be cropping up over and over again.
Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is given holy reverence despite the fact all its best moments come from its guests, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is rightfully merited for its social and cultural importance though treated like it’s more than just K. Dot freestyling over Kamasi Washington scraps, and critics try to insist Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap doesn’t now sound totally dated and the byproduct of a nerd doing psychedelics for the first time.
Rather than write yet more blurbs about records that have been fawned over so much that they’re starting to lose all meaning, we’ve decided to look at 25 of the most underrated rap albums since 2010.
Each of our choices have either had a colossal impact on hip-hop culture that hasn’t yet been properly acknowledged, criminally flew under the radar, or somehow didn’t connect with audiences in the way the music deserved to. Some of these artists are household names, others emerging voices from the underground, but each of their albums share that sense of being somewhat underrated. At the very least, we’d like to shift the conversation away from yet another think piece examining the brilliance of Kanye West’s discography. Yawn.
Here are our picks for the 25 most underrated rap projects of the decade:
It might be tempting to dismiss this 2011 Lil B album as a provocative piece of trolling, but you shouldn’t, as it’s one of the best conscious rap albums of the decade. The Berkeley, California rapper explores what it means to be human over 11 soulful tracks, with his stream of consciousness approach to lyricism (it legitimately sounds like he’s freestyling every word) never less than captivating. Although the anti-capitalist message can be simple (“People dying every day just to buy a T-shirt” he raps on “The Wilderness”) at times, there’s something endearing about listening to an internet kid clumsily try to work out his philosophical standing in the world.
Key track: “Unchain Me”
The husband and wife team of Quelle Chris and Jean Grae bounce off one another with sardonic bars over experimental production that’s etched in agitated jazz samples. One of the best satirical rap albums of the 2010s, the pair’s music bottles the emotional dissonance of being black in the age of Trump, and how just waking up in the morning to go on Twitter can lead to a panic attack. More of a manual than a rap record, this will guide you through your social media-driven identity crisis.
Key track: “Gold Purple Orange”
Maxo Kream, who already feels like one of the best storytelling rappers around, goes from expressing vulnerability to unshakable confidence on Brandon Banks. While he’s highly skilled at doing both, this record is at its best when Kream shows a chink in his armor. On the gripping “Bisonnet,” he talks about the pain of young black males being raised without a steady father, rapping: “I have my pops inside my life, but right now that shit don’t matter / He’d locked up most of my life, so I just feel like a bastard.” This is the kind of record where an artist throws all their cards on the table and allows the listener to feel like they have a personal stake in their story; Max is definitely going places.
Key track: “8 Figures”
This gloriously trippy album places Aesop Rock’s trademark so-intricate-it-starts-to-feel-hallucinatory wordplay over synth-heavy, accessible production that, for once, fills a room rather than clears it. On the bold “Dorks,” Aesop barks: “We’re all a bunch of weirdos in a quest to belong,” as the menacing track creates a safe space for rap outliers to thrive together. Not many rappers could spit so fluidly over production that shifts in tone so frequently, transitioning from stoner rap to stuttering 16-bit-era SEGA video game, but then, Aesop Rock isn’t just any rapper.
Key track: “Molecules”
Every song on Reservation feels like self-therapy for Angel Haze, who bleeds out her pain on songs like “This Is Me” in a way that’s truly cathartic. Back in 2012, the music industry tended to only really turbo charge the careers of female rappers who were hyper-sexualized, which could explain why Haze’s career quickly derailed. This makes listening back to the intensely personal Reservation in 2019 feel even more powerful, especially tracks like “Wicked Moon” and “New York” (the latter capturing the dizzy energy of a street corner freestyle cypher). Angel Haze doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Key track: “Castle on a Cloud”
The detached way Drakeo the Ruler attacks the beat on Cold Devil is unlike anyone else — his conversational flow is jittery and eccentric, giving you a slice of Los Angeles rap that’s impossible to label. Maybe there’s similarities with the soft spoken yet threatening raps of 21 Savage, but Drakeo sounds far more surrealistically weird than 21 ever has been. Drakeo colors these smooth, bass-heavy bops with bars that shouldn’t work, but somehow still do. On “Red Tape, Yellow Tape,” he boasts “Dick hanging out in public, I’m a pedophile,” making him surely the only rapper in history to turn such a damaging word into something empowering. Drakeo makes his own rules, and at just 25-years-old, he already feels like an innovator.
Key track: “Roll Bounce”
This nostalgia-driven diary entry sees Isaiah Rashad reflect on the experiences that made him the man he is today. The spaced out production of tracks like “Webbie Flow (U Like)” and “West Savannah” allow Rashad to float calmly over the beat with sharp lyrics that swing between hope and bitterness, like on Ronnie Drake, where he raps: “Came a long way from a boat and an auction / Now we got names and a vote, then coffin / Ain’t shit change but the coast we adopted.” This record is a beautiful piece of introspection that anyone in their 20s, who might be trying to work out their purpose in life, will feel seen by.
Key track: “Menthol” feat. Jean Deaux
The conventional wisdom is that Snoop Dogg hasn’t put out a classic album since Doggystyle. However, 7 Days of Funk, a record that sounds like a post-modern Blaxploitation film thanks to Dâm-Funk’s slick, George Clinton-honoring, production, deserved to be the moment that debate officially ended. It feels like Kendrick listened to this and said “I want more of the same” when making To Pimp a Butterfly, with the druggy swirl of tracks like “Hit Da Pavement” and the dank “1Question?” so clearly cut from the same cloth. If you’re ever at a party with a lot of weed then put this on loudly.
Key track: “1Question?”
Being underrated is par for the course for Phonte Coleman, with the North Carolina rapper’s group Little Brother still not given the legendary reverence they deserve. The reason his debut solo album works so well is due to its commitment to elevating the ordinariness of every day life, with Phonte making paying your taxes on time sound like the coolest thing in the world. This is pure grown man rap from an artist who can sing and rhyme as good as just about anybody. The fact Phonte can speak at the same level as his audience (“everybody has to do a job that they hate”, he spits on “The Good Fight”) without ever sounding patronizing is a rare gift.
Key track: “The Good Fight”
JPEGMAFIA’s ferocious punk rap energy is rightly starting to crossover to a much bigger audience, but it’s unlikely he’ll drop anything quite as raw as this mixtape (with fellow Baltimore artist Freaky) ever again. Wave upon wave of distorted synths encircle your ears like a pissed off bird of prey, as the two artists mirror the chaos of an American society that’s happy to turn a blind eye to a monster. There’s a moment on “Let’s Hit a Lick on The White House” where the beat sounds like someone is hitting a steel chain with a hammer while Peggy raps: “When I crack the code / Watch you get embedded” — this is music grounded in the sheer noise of the internet, with the pair’s wry raps bringing a much-needed dose of colour to a toxic digital battlefield.
Key track: “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump”
There aren’t many rap artists with the commitment to experimentation of Detroit’s Black Milk, with 2018’s Fever seeing the artist combine bouncy druggy P-funk (“Could It Be”) with urgent, dark Bitches Brew-esque jazz (“Drown”). Yet just when you’re rocking back and forth too vibrantly, the Detroit artist hits you with a melancholic bar like “Was born into a hell, where you already fail” (“True Lies”), and it becomes abundantly clear this is music designed to make you flip between heaven and hell, something accentuated by song titles like “Laugh Now Cry Later.” With Fever, the 36-year-old pushed the envelope forward artistically, proving there wasn’t a limit to his capabilities.
Key track: “Will Remain”
Impressively towing the line between vintage boom bap and new age east coast rap, Roc Marciano’s Reloaded is a vivid, cinematic look at a gangster lifestyle that’s reminiscent of Biggie’s dour Life After Death or Prodigy at his most snappy. The lo-fi beats allow Marciano’s bold existential lyrics to take center stage, with some of his twisted imagery, particularly the horrorcore inspired “Carve a nigga head, you a meat ball, get squeezed on / Your physical being turned to cream corn” bars on “76,” impossible to stop thinking about. If people say lyrical rap died in the 2010s then force them to listen to this.
Key track: “To a Mack”
One of the most visceral political rap albums of the decade, the thick, grimy production inspires Woods to black out lyrically like GZA in his prime, as he provocatively makes you confront the idea of white oppression from both a historical and modern viewpoint, and consider whether history will be kinder to black leaders. Other rappers might mock the competition with playground insults, but Woods raps complex bars like: “I’ll Delonte West your old earth and still keep it discreet / Dude, your whole style is wash, rinse, repeat” — yeah, he isn’t cut from the same cloth. This is the Cannibal Ox – Cold Vein of the 2010s, people just haven’t realized it yet.
Key track: “Human Resources”
TDE’s unsung hero, Ab-Soul’s poetic, stop-start approach to rapping never worked better than it did on Control System. This is a powerful rap record where the self-confessed, “half-genius, half-idiot” writes the soundtrack for a black uprising while still taking regular breaks to be a clown. On “Terrorist Threats,” he sounds like the natural successor to Dead Prez, rapping about turning the White House lights out, while Mixed Emotions’ dusty drums and ticking hi-hats combine to create a boisterous tribute to lean and “getting screwed up like the neck on Frankenstein.” This is a top 3 TDE release, don’t @ me.
Key track: “Terrorist Threats” feat. Jhené Aiko & Danny Brown
Krit’s sticky southern drawl sounds instantly iconic on this free-to-download mixtape, with the Missisippi rapper, who can rap effectively about materialism as well as rebellion, not dressing up his Southern eccentricities and wearing his contradictions like a badge of honor. “Dreaming” is a fantastic late night piece of introspection, the stillness of the music allowing Krit pour his heart out and the beat warm like a shot of whiskey, while “My Sub” feels like the resurrection of Pimp C at his most boisterous. Big Krit might not have gone onto achieve the mainstream success some had predicted, but with records this perfect, he’ll always have a cult fan base.
Key track: “Dreaming”
Death Grips pretty much wrote the manifesto for the punk rap sound that’s currently dominating underground rap with this abrasive shot of hostility. This music is for people who think Charles Manson’s rejection of the status quo should be celebrated as well as feared, with MC Ride, who sounds like Chuck D’s natural heir, exploring the duality of man over stabbing drums and gnarled guitars that will inspire even the most out-of-shape person to feel like a beast in the gym. The glitchy music often gets tangled up in itself, but when it manically unravels, like it does on “Thru the Walls,” it’s hard not to lose control of your arms.
Key track: “Lord of the Game”
There hasn’t been a rap artist who can sing the blues this powerfully since Future, with 03 Greedo’s throaty, tortured vocals embedding you firmly in his imperfect world. Even when Greedo is stunting, he sounds like he’s in the grips of a depression, with this music capturing the thuggish paranoia of Tupac’s The 7 Day Theory (it isn’t a coincidence it’s referenced so heavily in the artwork) perfectly. Greedo is seductive on “In My Feelings,” while “Pray To God” sounds like he’s on his knees, reaching out in pure desperation; he’s capable of making music that can fit any mood, and hip hop suffers every single day he spends sitting in that prison cell.
Key track: “Fortnight (Remix)” feat. Rich the Kid
Maybe the peak of emo rap, HELLBOY is Lil Peep at his most vulnerable, with the artist perfectly capturing the fragility of young people lost in a world of Xans and IG clout. Listening to lyrics grounded in hopelessness – like when Peep croons: “I don’t listen to what my friends say / I can’t lie, I might die babe” on “Gucci Mane” – after Peep’s passing isn’t easy, but the way this music captures how mental isolation can bleed into recklessness is strangely addictive. This is the perfect music for a generation who love Future just as much as Nirvana.
Key track: “Worlds Away”
The conversation around André 3000 being leagues ahead of Big Boi is so trite and, well, incorrect that one can only pray that it doesn’t bleed into the next decade. Anyone who peddles this myth also clearly hasn’t listened to this record, which is one of the funkiest left turns mainstream rap has ever seen. Throughout, Big Boi’s raps are deceptively elegant and complex, with the ATL rapper sounding like he’s making the kind of grown up, kooky, Sly and the Family Stone-inflected rap music he’s always dreamed of making. Big Boi’s enthusiasm here is infectious.
Key track: “Shutterbug” feat. Cutty
Thanks to all the Twitter spats, it’s easy to forget just how fucking talented Azealia Banks is. Fantasea remains her most alluring project because it sounds like she’s having so much fun without curbing her pop sensibilities, with its mix of house and rap never anything less than exhilarating. Hearing Banks rap over Prodigy’s nutty “Out of Space” is a real thrill, while deliriously funky tracks like “Neptune” and “Fuck Up the Fun” really make you feel like you’re at a rave under the sea taking pills with mermaids. Name me a bass line from the 2010s sexier than “Chips” – I’ll wait.
Key track: “Runnin’”
In the 2010s, gentrification ate up historic working class communities and spat out endless rows of pretentious white-owned coffee houses, and Open Mike Eagle was one of the few artists brave enough to call out this kind of cultural bleaching. A concept album based around Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing projects, the rapper deftly humanizes a community so often treated like statistics by the media. He correctly diagnoses the return of Reagan-era yuppieism via smart use of double entendre in bars like “Our homes overcome by roaches” on the stirring, introspective “Legendary Iron Hood.” This is a classic, and deserves to be treated as such.
Key track: “(How Could Anybody) Feel At Home”
SpaceGhostPurrp is one of the most influential rap artists of the decade, writing the chaotic psychedelic rap blueprint for everybody from A$AP Rocky to JPEGMAFIA, but you probably know him more for his bizarre rants on Instagram than releasing any actual music. This is arguably his most accomplished record, with SGP taking you into the depths of his mind and seeing how much you can take before feeling uncomfortable. There’s an atmosphere of dread here comparable to a David Lynch film, as SGP uses songs like “Elevate” and “The Black God” to weave between hanging out with angels and demons. It’s sad he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but hopefully new generations will discover his music and see it for what it truly is; masterful.
Key track: “Elevate”
This sprawling gangster rap album is ScHoolboy Q’s magnum opus, with its smoked out atmosphere making you feel like you’re riding shotgun through Los Angeles at night as the threat of gunfire ominously lurks in the air. The smooth sonic transitions on tracks like “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane” and “Know Ya Wrong” are breathtaking and mirror a very modern West Coast rap scene where genre (and state) lines have completely blurred. This is an album that will arguably have influenced new LA rappers like Drakeo the Ruler, 03 Greedo, and G Perico far more than any Kendrick Lamar album, with its ambitious music grounded less in fantasy and more in day-to-day hood politics. It’s definitive proof that Q isn’t in any one’s shadow and, just maybe, deserves to be ranked among the greats of this era.
Key track: “THat Part” feat. Kanye West
Rocky was taking a lot of psychedelics when making A.L.L.A and boy does it show, with this sometimes hazy, sometimes euphoric, deep dive into the Harlem rapper’s subconscious reminiscent of the peaks and dips of a glorious LSD trip. It isn’t easy to make a modern rap album with the same sort of ambitious transmutations as classic art rock from Love or The Doors, but it’s something Rocky consistently manages, especially with the existential proggy “Pharsyde” and the cheeky carnality of “L$D.” Perhaps Rocky becoming so linked to fashion has confused critics, who find it hard to take him seriously as a musician, but A.L.L.A deserves to be looked at as the rap equivalent of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, with its music taking the overarching canvas of black music into a similarly bold, new psychedelic direction, empowering Rocky’s rap peers to experiment with chemicals in order to explore what lurks behind the Id. It’s a near perfect record, which will surely be picked up by future generations as a forgotten classic.
Key track: “L$D”
Danny Brown almost went broke financing Atrocity Exhibition, an ambitious thrill ride into darkness which acts as the rap equivalent of a Björk or Talking Heads album. At times, Danny raps like an unhinged lunatic (“Ain’t It Funny”), but there’s a humanity underpinning all of this and it feels like this is music made by an artist acutely aware that maintaining this kind of energy will only lead to one place: the grave. This is brilliantly unorthodox rap music, with Danny rapping over beats that sound like futuristic heart palpitations. Atrocity Exhibition was critically acclaimed, sure, but that’s not really enough; this should be spoken about as the definitive rap release of the 2010s. Its fidgety firecracker energy honestly makes everything else look completely ordinary.
Key track: “Pneumonia”