5. AT.LONG.LA$T.A$AP – A$AP Rocky
“Swagger” is a term which had a short lived stent in the modern vocabulary, before it was beaten to death by white thirteen year olds, but it is simply the only way to describe this record. Rocky’s lyricism, while witty and impressive, focuses mainly on himself, but through the self-centered style of writing, he’s able to address topics of institutional racism, corruption in organized religion, and distaste for common gender roles. The record is particularly interesting to beginners in the rap game for a few reasons. The first of these is that the album conforms to what a listener would expect from a rap album as Rocky chooses not to challenge the form, so much as use it to present his themes. Another is the instrumentation on the record, which is fantastically organic and really develops the atmosphere of the album. The final is that A$AP Rocky is well known for putting together a package, and AT.LONG.LA$T.A$AP is no exception! From the lyrics, to the instrumentals, to the music videos and album cover, the entire album presents a well package look at, and celebration of hip hop culture and all that it represents. The project is easy to digest, and makes a powerful introduction to the best parts of modern hip hop.
4. 2014 Forrest Hills Drive – J Cole
J Cole is traditionally recognized as one of the best political voices in hip hop today, and for that reason, most of his fans would direct you to his more contemplative 2016 project, 4 Your Eyes Only, but it’s his previous and first double platinum effort which lands on this list. 2014 does just about everything right. Catchy hooks, powerful verses, and a strong appreciation for the predecessors of the genre which made the albums existence possible in the first place. One important piece of this album which I believe is often overlooked is the tremendously diverse subject matter. At times, especially on early tracks like “Wet Dreamz” and “January 28th,” the album is almost completely commercial, focusing on topics like sex, love, and identity, but as the piece goes along, it devolves into impressive contemplations of class struggle, modern culture, and especially on “No Role Modelz,” the modern black man and his place in the world. 2014 is perfect for fans who have little to no experience with the genre because it provides, simultaneously, a look backward and forward, and the topical versatility that only hip hop represents.
3. College Dropout – Kanye West
Kanye is one of the most polarizing figures in pop culture today. The argument continues to rage as to whether the man is a genius, or simply mentally ill, but there was a time when almost everyone fell on the side of the former, and that time was 2004, after the massively successful release of his debut album College Dropout. By far the oldest album on our list, it falls here because it is, in many ways, the birth of modern rap. If a person went into a coma directly after hearing The Marshal Mathers EP and then woke up and asked what they’d missed in rap music, you’d start here. Kanye changed the game putting together a project which featured creative vocal-based tracks, entertaining skits which served the albums interesting narrative, and lyrical verses which could stand up to most anything coming out of the old school. The album connected heavily with young people by featuring lyrics which touched on topics of student loan debt and the importance of a college degree in modern society. The album is dated, and sounds less ahead of its time now than it was upon its release, but if anything that should show just how ahead of the curve Kanye was.
2. Good Kid. M.A.A.D. City – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick is inarguably the best rapper in the game today. His 2015 concept album, To Pimp A Butterfly should be required listening for any fan of music, let alone rap, but for this list, we find ourselves looking at his major label debut, Good Kid. M.A.A.D. City. This too is a concept album, but is much smaller in scale and listeners can probably follow the story on the first listen. Essentially, a teen boy, presumed to be Kendrick, growing up in Compton finds himself thrust into a night of gang violence, drug use, and a climactic run from the police and on the albums best track, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” finds God through grandmother. The entire story paints a portrait of Compton not as a dangerous wasteland, but from through the eyes of one of its residents living his everyday life. The production is simply excellent as Kendrick brings back frequent collaborator, Derek Ali who is, in my opinion, the best audio engineer working today, to deliver the his first mainstream effort. Everything about this album is awesome, and its perfect for beginners as an introduction to the storytelling capacities that only exist in rap music.
1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
The logical heir to Kanye’s thrown, Chance the Rapper gained massive popularity while in high school with his underground mixtape, 10 Days which he recorded himself after being suspended from school for drug possession. The tape was such a massive hit that it was eventually brought to the attention of fellow Chicago native, Kanye West, who worked with Chance to produce what is possibly the best piece of free music on the internet, Acid Rap. So why choose Coloring Book for this list? Coloring Book is the first time that we see Chance on his own, with full control over his creative process, and with as much money as he needs to get the job done, and God does he come through. The album is innovative, exciting, and most importantly, lighthearted! In a year marked by one depressing event after another, and in a city like Chicago, known for constant gun violence and gang activity, Chance brings black and inner city culture to life in a delightful way. With tracks that utilize excellent Gospel choirs, powerful female vocalists, and a virtual who’s who of modern hip hop artists featuring, Chance really steps out of the way on this album and lets the culture shine. Tracks like “How Great” for example begins with an entire song by a local Chicago Gospel Choir before any rapping can be heard. This project represents everything that is changing about the landscape of modern music. It, along with all of Chance’s albums is given away for free online. Chance also refuses to sign to a label and doesn’t work outside writers, but instead relies on a general sense of community between he and his friends to put together his albums. Chance is ahead of the curve, and Coloring book is an excellent way to wrap up your adventure into modern hip hop, because, above all, this album is a look into the future of a rapidly evolving genre.