Paul Thompson’s forgot better shit than you ever thought of.
1. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
You’d be forgiven for guessing that Kendrick Lamar didn’t have any cutting-room floor gems. After all, there are interviews on Youtube where the Compton rapper talks about the concept and narrative for his 2012 debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city–in 2008. Everything he’s done since he shot to fame two years later has seemed calculated and methodical, down to the faux-leak of his blockbuster sophomore effort, To Pimp a Butterfly. But with that album celebrating its one-year anniversary (and with LeBron James pestering him for loosies on Twitter), Kendrick decided to give fans eight tracks that were supposedly cast-offs from the Butterfly sessions.
As it turns out, untitled unmastered is remarkable on two levels: for one, these songs genuinely do seem like sketches, both vocally and in their writing; and two, they’re his best work since good kid. Admittedly, most discarded work doesn’t come with Thundercat solos and Cee-Lo guest turns (and production from Swizz Beatz’s magic five-year-old). But Kendrick sounds revitalized: Butterfly suffered at points under the weight of its subject matter, with Lamar sacrificing fluidity or precision in order to deliver information or circle an idea. But here, nearly every detour and aside strikes the right note.
2. Young Thug – Slime Season 3
As I write this, Desiigner’s “Panda” has finally reached the top of Billboard’s rap charts. (May we all have that many broads in Atlanta.) While few artists can mine the kind of emotional intensity that Future taps into on a regular basis, the hit-by-way-of-Pablo is proof that 18-year-olds from Brooklyn can ape the superstar’s sound, at least superficially. The same can’t be said about Young Thug. As much as the nautical biters of the world might try, you can’t recreate “Danny Glover” or “Givenchy” or “Udiggwhatimsayin” in your bedroom; if you got good enough at rapping to be within shouting distance, you’d realize you should strike out on your own. Slight and relentlessly focused, Slime Season 3 is the clearest argument yet for Thug as the genre’s most inventive solo artist. A handful of the eight songs (notably “With Them,” “Digits”) could be radio hits, and all are more or less inimitable.
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
In the final game of his 20-year NBA career, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points, a near-incomprehensible total for a body run ragged the way his has been this decade. Of course, he also took 50 shots. That’s more or less The Life of Pablo. Aside from “Real Friends,” Kanye doesn’t have any tours-de-force like “Runaway,” “New Slaves,” or “Through the Wire.” His rapping is frequently clumsy, the themes (religious redemption and laptop thievery) go into hiding for extended periods. The sequencing finds Pablo’s momentum stalling more than any Kanye record since Late Registration. There aren’t six great songs, but there might be 20 perfect moments: Chance’s “Ultralight Beam” verse; the beat drop (and the hook) on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”; the “Bam Bam” breakdown on “Famous”; the last half of “No More Parties in L.A.”; Frank on “Wolves”; Max on the phone; Kanye acapella. It’s not perfect, but it fits.
4. Kevin Gates – Islah
Islah is the major-label debut as genre experiment. On his best mixtapes—Stranger than Fiction and the first Luca Brasi—Kevin Gates underscored his superb writing and remarkable technical ability with a feeling that Puff would probably call “cinematic.” Rival dealers were out to get him; stakes was, generally speaking, high. (From our 2013 song of the year, “4:30 a.m.”: “Aimed the tool, started shooting/I didn’t die—my life a movie.”) But Islah, which has already moved more than 365,000 units, seems self-conscious of its role in introducing the street star to mass audiences. That’s been disastrous for plenty of debuts, but here it works to Gates’ advantage, distilling his best qualities and moving his pop instincts to the forefront.
5. Boosie Badazz – Thug Talk
Even if you have a race car jacket with about 80 fucking patches, there are stretches of Boosie’s catalog that seem impenetrable. But since he was released from Angola just over two years ago, he’s been remarkably productive in a remarkably organized way: a comeback mixtape, a retail album, a record about his cancer diagnosis and its sequel. Thug Talk is reminiscent of the Baton Rouge legend’s scattershot mixtape dumps of the mid-2000s, and it ranks among his best. It’s also some of his most unrelentingly hard material. “Regret It” is the best of the post-jail collaborations with Webbie.
6. Vic Spencer & Chris Crack – Who the Fuck is Chris Spencer??
Vic Spencer and Chris Crack were born to rap together. Not every group can be the Clipse—vocal registers and bloodlines running together until the clique is one amorphous blob of $20s. Instead, the Chicago MCs are perfect counterpoints for one another, with Spencer’s steady hand making Crack seem even more zany and unforgettable than he did, while the veteran comes off as cool and all-knowing. Who the Fuck is Chris Spencer?? mostly shrugs off the everything-is-political bent that the press rushes to give to post-Keef Windy City hip-hop, content to sneer at Instagram models and anyone who doesn’t fuck with Sade.
7. J-Zone – Fish-n-Grits
With his second post-retirement album, J-Zone continues the toughest high-wire act in hip-hop: critiquing the culture without becoming the stodgy professor. Fish-N-Grits opens with an encouragement for purists and “swagbois” to kill one another, and at first glance, the complaints spiral out from there, to Twitter and sample clearance lawsuits and the corporate hell that SXSW has become. But at its core, Fish-N-Grits is wildly funny, and frequently insightful. “Go Back to Selling Weed” isn’t just a rebuke of wack rappers; the implicit question is why anybody would try to carve out a career as a musician in this day and age. The previously released “Time For a Crime Wave” is still the most irresistible argument against gentrification.
8. Open Mike Eagle & Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
Pieced together from a series of sessions in London and in various hotels and broom closets around America, Hella Personal Film Festival is a study of the fractured connections between ourselves and the outside world. “Check to Check” is the best song in any genre about our digital obsessions: thorough, inescapable, and occasionally depressing—but funny and non-judgmental. “Smiling” is a shrugging, but incisive look at rap venue race relations; opener “Admitting the Endorphin Addiction” ends, “Rap music has ruined me, I always want to loop my favorite part.” Film Festival isn’t the masterwork that Dark Comedy was, but it flits back and forth between introspection and annoyance the way most of us do.
9. Curren$y & Alchemist – The Carrollton Heist
Both Curren$y and Alchemist are prisoners of expectation: their steady output has made their frequent creative success seem unremarkable. Carrollton Heist is the pair’s first collaborative mixtape since 2011’s Covert Coup, and in some ways is more hypnotizing. The Action Bronson-featuring “Inspiration” plays like a psychedelic take on Houston-born slab raps. The tape also boasts one of the best verses in recent memory from Spitta’s old collaborator, Lil Wayne—a weird bit of karmic payback when you remember their ill-fated duet from Carter 2. Alchemist continues his recent argument for lifetime membership at the most lavish yacht clubs.
10. Future – Purple Reign
When I die, I’ll gather my kids and grandkids and doctors and lawyers around my hospital bed and remind them, with my last breath: “Honest was actually pretty good.” But whichever side of that debate you land on, since his sophomore album opened to tepid reviews Future has single-mindedly clawed his way to the top of rap. Since the climax—last July’s Dirty Sprite 2—he’s more or less been on autopilot, circling the dead-eyed fatalism over rolling hi-hats that he perfected on 56 Nights. Purple Reign is not a definitive project, but it’s spare and occasionally thrilling: see “Inside the Mattress” and the self-titled closer.