By Nick Sligh
The 2010s saw the rise of hip-hop/rap to levels of popularity that it has never seen before with its evolution into the wide array of sounds that are present today. The variety of sounds in today’s hip-hop and rap music scene are due to a multitude of factors, including the increased popularity, the internet and simply the evolution of the genre as it has had more time to develop. The album/LP form of releasing music has also undergone its transitions, with the era of streaming leading to artists becoming more creative in their decisions on album creation and release. The traditional meaning and composition of an album has been continuously expanded as conventional releases are accompanied by extended plays, mixtapes, and even audiovisual forms. Rap music has simply continued its wave of success from previous decades, and shows no signs of slowing down. In a time period so filled with prominent releases, it is worth looking back at some of the best projects.
Hip-Hop/Rap music has consumed so much of my time and has meant so much to me that I needed to reflect on some of my favorite albums. Ever since I was eight years old, upon hearing “Homecoming” by Kanye West, I fell in love with the genre. Obviously, this was a much younger introduction to the genre than most people have because of content that ranges anywhere from mature to inappropriate for somebody that age. My initial love for hip-hop came simply from the sonics, energy and creativity. As I grew older, I never lost the love of the sounds in the genre, and I also grew a much deeper appreciation for the content. Hip-hop/rap has served as a platform for highlighting Black struggles since its inception. The uniquely Black background of hip-hop/rap has always helped to give a powerful voice to communities that are typically under-privileged and not given the social platform that they are deserving of. Though I, and essentially all other racial identities, could never truly relate to the uniquely Black racial struggles and narratives often presented in the genre, there are still many universal messages that can be appreciated. Within the genre, there have always been constant messages for hope, power, and resiliency in the face of struggle.
As I grew older, I gained a deeper understanding for how certain issues in American society were being elaborated and were used as the most consistent themes. Such a variety of issues are addressed throughout the genre that there is truly something for nearly everybody to draw from when listening. Comprehension of the unique struggle of Blacks in American society, a relation to universal concepts of struggle and hope, and simply an enjoyment of a great genre of art are just a few of the many things that make listening to hip-hop music so valuable. For something so important to me, sitting down and sorting through the massive collection of music that I have been exposed to was something that I saw as necessary. Especially in the streaming age of music, there is such a massive quantity that it can become easy to have an oversaturated listening experience and to forget the importance of albums or specific pieces of music. Sitting down and ranking all of my favorite albums was a way for me to reflect on my evolution as a listener, and to make sure that I fully appreciated all of the music that has had such a positive influence on my life as a person.
Over the next six weeks, I will reveal my personal ranking of the Top 100 hip-hop/rap albums (and mixtapes) of the 2010s. This is far from a trivial list that was thrown together for the sake of making a list. I have been an avid fan of rap music for the past decade and beyond, and have closely watched the genre as it progressed throughout the decade. I don’t have an exact number for the amount of time that I spent working on making this list as accurate as possible. In essence there were 10 years of casual listening and then hundreds (maybe thousands, according to Spotify Wrapped) of hours of very attentive listening over the past year. Obviously, it is not possible for anybody to listen to every single rap album that has been released in the past decade. That being said, I tried my best to give any potential album to be considered an attentive listen and analysis.
Informally, you could say that I have been working on this ranking since the decade began. All throughout the 2010s, I was deeply invested in the genre, and every second that I spent listening to content from the 2010s technically contributed to my rankings. Early last year I knew that I wanted to do a formal ranking of all of my favorite projects with the decade coming to an end. I began to compile a list of all of the rap albums and mixtapes from throughout the decade that I felt had the potential quality to be in my top 100 list. A variety of factors went into determining what I personally deemed as a quality album. Obviously, I valued my subjective experience while listening to the album. However, I tried to also consider a wide array of values that I saw as more objective for an album’s quality. In terms of an album’s overall artistry, I gave significant thought to cohesiveness, originality, consistency, themes, message and the effectiveness of achieving an artist’s aims with a project. With anything in hip-hop/rap, production/beat selection is something that is very important to the quality of a project and something that mattered a lot. I heavily considered the ability of an artist to rap or vocalize effectively. Delivery, flow, energy and sound were all very important. Wordplay, writing and lyricism were all valued as well. From an artistic standpoint, I tried to consider any relevant factor, and one of the most important things in summation was how well the artist being evaluated was able to achieve their aim of the project. Not every project is a deep and thoughtful conceptual album that is meant to be listened in a contemplative state. Not every project is a quick and disorganized random collection of party bangers. Nothing inherently makes an album more or less significant to me, and I wanted to consider my subjective evaluation of how well an artist was able to achieve the purpose of their album.
My initial composition of albums personally deemed to be quality enough to be considered was more than 450 full projects. I listened to all of these projects front to back, giving albums a subjective score based on their quality by analyzing relevant factors such as concept, themes, coherency, consistency, originality, etc. Once I finished the first round of full listens on all of these projects that I was revisiting, I cut the list down to roughly the top 200 projects that I would then go back with a further and deeper analysis later. With these top 200, I gave every album another full front-to-back listen, this time with individual track analysis. I gave every song on every project a subjective score out of 10 for quality. Then, I would average out these scores and adjust my composite average for the album for various factors relating to the album’s quality as a whole. After these final 200 full length listens, I precisely adjusted these albums into an initial top 100 ranking and honorable mentions section. For the sake of confirmation, I went back through my final top 100 and made slight adjustments in the ranking in spots where I felt that certain albums deserved to be slightly higher or lower in the grand scheme of the ranking. After these final steps, my full ranking was finally completed. It took around 1,000 hours total for my entire project between listening, analysis and writing.
Compiling my own top 100 hip-hop/rap albums of the decade is the most time-consuming project I have ever worked on, and I hope that everybody enjoys reading it. At the end of the day, people will come to their own conclusions about what albums they thought were the best and what belongs in their top 100. The following list is of ‘honorable mention’ rap and hip-hop albums that didn’t quite make the Top 100 of the decade for me, but were all great and impactful albums in their own right:
Vince Staples: Prima Donna (2016)
Brockhampton: Saturation (2017)
Action Bronson: Blue Chips (2012)
MIKE: May God Bless Your Hustle (2017)
Mac Miller: Swimming (2018)
Travis Scott: Astroworld (2018)
Wale: More About Nothing (2010)
Joey Bada$$: ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ (2017)
Kendrick Lamar: Untitled Unmastered (2016)
YG: Still Brazy (2016)
Bas: Too High To Riot (2016)
Goldlink: At What Cost (2017)
Rapsody: Crown (2016)
Buddy: Harlan & Alondra (2018)
Meek Mill: Championships (2018)
Big K.R.I.T: K.R.I.T Wuz Here (2010)
Saba: ComfortZone (2014)
Dave: Psychodrama (2019)
The Roots: How I Got Over (2010)
Jerreau: Never How You Plan (2016)
Jay Rock: Redemption (2018)
Vic Mensa: There’s Alot Going On (2016)
Kids See Ghosts: Kids See Ghosts (2018)
Little Brother: May the Lord Watch (2019)
Flatbush Zombies: Vacation in Hell (2018)
JPEGMafia: All My Heroes Are Cornballs (2019)
Run The Jewels: Run The Jewels 2 (2014)
Mavi: Let The Sun Talk (2019)
Ghostface Killer: Apollo Kids (2010)
Mac Miller: GO:OD AM (2015)
Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait (2014)
Goldlink: Diaspora (2019)
Apollo Brown: Sincerely Detroit (2019)
Drake: Thank Me Later (2010)
Rapsody: The Idea of Beautiful (2012)
After every segment of my Top 100 rankings are published (including the honorable mentions above), I will be creating a Spotify playlist with my favorite songs from the albums that are in each section of the rankings. Just go to my Spotify Profile (@nicholassligh) where I will be posting the playlists in descending order of rank. Go to this link (spoti.fi/2s8VWFW) to view this week’s honorable mentions playlist. I hope that my list gives credit to deserving artists and helps people that enjoy hip-hop/rap (and even those less familiar with the genre) find new music that connects with them and that they simply enjoy.
Contact Nick Sligh at nick1019 ‘at’ stanford.edu