2013: KENDRICK LAMAR

CREDENTIALS: 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, guest verses for A$AP Rocky, Emeli Sandé, Young Jeezy, Jay Z got on the remix for “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”

Kendrick Lamar spent most of 2012 crafting his masterful debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, before dropping it toward the end of the year. The release of good kid cemented Kendrick’s status as the Best Rapper Alive and earned comparisons to other legends who jump-started their careers with unforgettable major-label debuts. It wasn’t just a great album, it was a great conceptual album with a storyline throughout—a Herculean hip-hop feat.

As the critical praise poured in and K-Dot fans supported their artist—a music-biz mantra that’s more often said than followed—a mainstream audience slowly started to appreciate this West Coast rapper with left-field sensibilities to the point where hip-hop as a whole started looking at him differently. Nowadays, any 16 Kendrick spits—whether it be on an A$AP Rocky record or a random Dido feature—is worth everybody’s attention. Kendrick’s breakthrough comes at a time when rap fans are inundated with new rappers who overpopulate the blog posts; the few who are worth the time rarely (if ever) fulfill the promise of their initial offerings. But Kendrick lives up to all the hype.

His current statue isn’t best explained in his raps but by an image: The cover art to the Jay Z-assisted “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)” featured a young Kobe standing next to an aging Jordan. No one thought the analogy was far off. Time for everybody to bow down to King Kendrick Lamar (ya bish)!

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Drake, Danny Brown, 2 Chainz
The year is still young. Will K-Dot’s reign on top be shorter than leprechauns? For Drake, once again the throne is for the taking. His third album is on the way and songs like “Started From the Bottom” and “5 AM in Toronto” show that he can still turn it on like a light switch whenever he fancies.

At the other end of the spectrum is Danny Brown, who has little mainstream recognition but has slowly built himself into a premier underground rapper. Fans continue to catch on to his 2011 album, XXX, and he keeps slaughtering guest spots. 2 Chainz is still riding high off the success of his debut album and newfound fame—the question remains if he can maintain his momentum. —Insanul Ahmed

2014: NICKI MINAJ

 

CREDENTIALS: The Pinkprint, a stream of remixes and loosies, first female rapper in 56 years to have four No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart

“Now it’s me in my time, it’s just me in my prime.” That was the lie Nicki Minaj sold listeners on “I’m the Best,” the opening song on her 2010 debut album, Pink Friday. She was unmistakably good at the time, dropping one of the year’s best, if not the best, verses on Kanye West’s “Monster.” But Pink Friday was not a “mixtape Nicki” album, some one-note exercise in rappity-rap that could silence those who questioned her right to exist alongside her Cash Money brethren. Pink Friday … Roman Reloaded wasn’t that either, nor was The Re-Up, and even The Pinkprint refused to stay in a rap-only lane. Yet if by the end of 2014 you were still dissatisfied with Minaj’s rap output, still caught up waiting for the return of the mixtape messiah, then you just weren’t listening.

The Nicki Minaj who showed up to 2014 was battle-ready. Early on she took Young Thug’s “Danny Glover,” added bars as insulting as they were clever—“Hell of a livin’, you bitches on chitlins/When I come out of my mansion I sprinkle some bread to the pigeons”—and gave a second wind to a song from 2013. The vitriolic “Lookin’ Ass” was like duct tape over the mouths of anyone still crying for “mixtape Nicki,” and she hit with a closed fist on “Chiraq,” her flow low and measured. Even her sweetness was merely a means to hide something cantankerous as she nearly baby-talked the line “Wonder when they bite me/Do these bitches’ teeth hurt?” on the remix to Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone.” And of course, lest her lines were not enough to convince you that her value as a rapper had gone up, she had numbers for you, as she upped her “50K for a verse” on “Monster” to “$250,000 for a verse” on the remix to YG’s “My N***a.”

Minaj had already released an album’s worth of material by the time The Pinkprint came out in December, yet she still had more to say. On her third album, she balanced her talent boasts and sex metaphors with details of her broken relationship and family concerns. Yes, the majority of the hooks on these songs were sung, as most hooks are, and she was joined by pop artists like Beyoncé and Ariana Grande, but Minaj used her verses to flaunt her versatility as a rapper. And instead of accomplishing that with fake voices and other gimmicks, she did it with varied flows, ranging from sing-song to pummeling, and lines as personal as they were provocative. She could go as pop as she wants, but for Minaj, it all returns to rap. Who knows what’s next, but let 2014 be remembered as the year Roman retired, the wigs stayed in the box, and everyone learned that “mixtape Nicki” wasn’t back—she had never left. —Christine Werthman

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Drake, Young Thug, Killer Mike
While Nicki controlled the year with the buildup to her album The Pinkprint, her Young Money counterpart Drake did the same with nothing more than the OVO SoundCloud. Throughout the year Drake would swoop in, drop a new song (or several), and basically nothing else in hip-hop would matter for the next few days. Drake confidently enjoyed another year of his prime by effortlessly communicating success (and its perils) with candor and wit.

In 2014, Young Thug went from a rapper to watch out for, to the guy who might have his career derailed before it could even begin, to a full-blown star. As soon as 2013 songs “Danny Glover” and “Stoner” cemented themselves as early 2014 anthems, complicated label issues threatened Thug’s ascent. Thankfully, Birdman stepped in, Rich Gang was formed, and Thugger ruled the summer with his first Top 40 hit, “Lifestyle.” Although Rich Gang’s Tha Tour Part 1 is the full-length project to go along with all the buzz, it doesn’t capture Thug in all his glory (“Lifestyle” isn’t even on it). To understand Thugger’s appeal look no further than his verse on T.I.’s “About the Money.” The verse is much like Thug himself—wildly original and bursting with offbeat energy—and culminates with the typical Thuggerism: “I’m going fishing with these little bitty shrimp dips.”

He didn’t have the radio hits, club anthems, or nearly as much output as the aforementioned artists, yet Killer Mike was one of the most important voices in hip-hop. It’s not that Mike was that much better a rapper this year than in years past—he’s always been good. However, the stars finally aligned for critical darlings like Run the Jewels thanks to lackluster major label rap releases. With the #BlackLivesMatter movement taking off with nationwide protests against an unjust justice system, Mike’s furious delivery and intricate rhyme schemes became the soundtrack for a revolutionary mindstate. —Insanul Ahmed

2015: DRAKE

CREDENTIALS: Two No. 1 debuts (If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, What a Time to Be Alive with Future), first-ever Grammy-nominated diss track in “Back to Back,” “Hotline Bling” highest-charting solo single (tied with “Best I Ever Had”), launched OVO Sound Radio on Beats 1, guest verses on “Blessings,” “Where Ya At,” “R.I.C.O.,” “100”

“I need acknowledgment. If I got it, then tell me I got it, then.” Well, Drake, as far as 2015 is concerned, you had it. Those bars come from a song on What a Time to Be Alive, the second surprise “mixtape” he dropped this year via Apple, with whom he closed a deal that netted him a reported $19 million haul and a bi-weekly radio show streamed to dozens of countries. It’s been a blockbuster year for the Boy for sure. And that’s without mentioning the rap beef that completely dominated the culture for a week and a half last summer and served as the centerpiece for quite possibly the biggest year of his career.

Months prior to Meek Mill’s attack on his credibility, Drake would release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a mix-album that overall contains a marked increase in aggressive content. In retrospect, “Worst Behavior” was the backdoor pilot to this sneering 6ix God among men. What’s irking him? We may never know, but listening to songs like “No Tellin” post Meek beef, his attitude is eerily prophetic. “I gotta keep watching for oppos, ’cause anything’s possible/There’s no code of ethics out here, anyone will take shots at you.” It’s like he knew a guy he’d just graced with a big feature verse for the second time would do a complete 180 and call him out for violating the one thing that matters in hip-hop: his authenticity. The accusation was shocking but more so was the imminent validity. The ghostwriter in question does exist; he is credited all over IYRTITL.

Instead of copping pleas, Drake more or less copped to the accusations, dropped a laser-sharp diss track, and absorbed the whole incident as validating energy. If Drake was phased, we never saw it. The biggest rap star in the world shrugged a potentially damaging scandal off and added a new layer of invincibility to his armor. “You all looked in my face and hoped you could be the replacement.” Well, not so fast. “Back to Back” is the diss track that many weren’t sure he was capable of, biting in its “Takeover”-esque factual derisions yet crafted so precisely to be an undeniable club banger. And then quite casually, in the midst of an alpha male chest-thumping and questions of his viability, Drake dropped “Hotline Bling,” a song that was so undeniably Drake, and took it all the way to No. 2 on the charts.

But let’s get back to the bars. We may never know the specifics of Drake’s writing process, but if one thing out of the summer’s controversy was crystal clear, it was confirmation that Drake’s final touch is intangible. He’s become the arbiter of his era—a new Drake release brings with it an onslaught of new lexicon, inescapable across social media and even in regular conversation. Squads turned to woes. Cellphones don’t ring, they bling. His feature verses dominate even when others match his technical skill (see “Blessings”). And he’s approaching Jay Z levels of being able to ride any sonic wave and make it his own, word to the mutually beneficial aforementioned WATTBA, which was almost a 100 percent case of Drake adopting Future’s aesthetic. Future had a stellar year—but Drake gave him a plaque, on cruise control, no less. It’s quite clear who the Big Homie is. As artists push hip-hop to new soundscapes, Drizzy is displaying an efficiency at adapting, co-opting, and refining them for maximum appeal, all while he continues to push his own.

Maybe that explains why, much like Kanye once said of Shawn, with Drake, you only saw the wins this year more than any other. “Back to Back” muted the ghostwriter talk all the way to the Grammys. Old foes bowed to him. Potential new ones are thinking twice. And he still hasn’t even dropped the project he’s comfortable with officially designating an album yet. Drake didn’t just hit an undeniable if not surprising peak in 2015—he became borderline infallible. The 6ix God ascended to Mount Olympus. How far away he is from the sun is anyone’s guess. —Frazier Tharpe

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Future, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole

On Nov. 12, Future took the stage on Jimmy Kimmel Live and performed “Blow a Bag” and “Where Ya At.” It was odd timing as the album the songs are featured on came out in July. The performance with a live band proved muddier than expected, but the audience surprisingly didn’t mind or care and rapped every word back to him. The message couldn’t have been any clearer: Future is once again a star. All it took was a run that stretched back into 2014, featured three exemplary mixtapes with his closest and best collaborators, a No. 1 album that bested all of them, and another one-off project with Drake that all but hushed any lingering doubts about his prolificacy. Future had become a monster just as he predicted. He didn’t release, nor was he attached to, any pop-leaning, love-tinged singles. Instead all he released was therapeutic id. One of his best songs, “March Madness,” has him belting about having sex with women he really didn’t want to bed all because he was high as a giraffe’s ass. Other songs had him detailing that the reason he buys jewelry that mimics constellations and makes it rain when he’s in a club is to simply “hide the pain.” It’s all deep shit that, in the hands of any other MC, would make for super downer music. However, Future made us turn up all year long.

The only rapper talked about as much as Drake or Future in 2015 was Kendrick Lamar. He followed up his critically acclaimed major-label debut with, well, another critically acclaimed major-label album. Much has been written about To Pimp a Butterfly and the response the album garnered from fans, critics, DJs, and other musicians. If TPAB wasn’t the best rap album of the year, it’s tough to argue that it wasn’t the most important. It’s perhaps the most ambitious rap album of the past half decade. No other album this year made us look into ourselves as deeply or as far outwardly. It questioned nearly everything (blackness, whiteness, religion, social responsibility), which in turn made us question everything: the role of rappers, the role of rap music, respectability politics, the role of music press, the idea that art can be at once great and distasteful. The album cast a shadow over the entire year, out of which came one of 2015’s brightest gems: “Alright.”

Unlike the aforementioned three, J. Cole was rarely talked about this year. His third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, dropped in December of last year, and despite failing to birth any singles as big as Born Sinner’s “Power Trip,” it managed to sell 371,000 in its first week, notching Cole his third No. 1 album. Going into the new year, J. Cole embarked on a three-pronged global tour as headliner with Big Sean, Jeremih, and YG in tow. Elsewhere in 2015, Cole hopped on the official remix to Janet Jackson’s long-awaited comeback single, was asked by A Tribe Called Quest to remix “Can I Kick It?”, finally previewed what an album with Kendrick might sound like by dropping twin freestyles on Black Friday, signed two new artists to his Dreamville imprint, and released the label’s second compilation album. To top it all off, he signed a deal with HBO to air a documentary about his momentous tour. Without dropping a solo project in 2015, Cole managed to make more moves than nearly everyone save for Drake. Not bad company to be in. —Damien Scott

 

via: complex