Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

The Best Hip-Hop Albums of the 2010s

On Oct. 8, Pitchfork published its list of the top 200 albums of the 2010s. Pitchfork presents their list as a collection of records that have shaped the past decade in music. The list includes a balance between commercial success and critical acclaim, which results in a solid compilation. Throughout the rest of the semester, The Gavel contributors will be ranking the top five albums from each major genre of music. For the first week, we will begin with hip-hop.

My Criteria: Throughout my rankings, I am looking for creativity, cohesiveness, and sonic quality. Creativity involves pushing cultural boundaries, creating unconventional song/story structures, and presenting a distinct sound. These albums must be cohesive in terms of their written content and sonic architecture. Finally, the records must be enjoyable to play and have longevity going forward. Guest features should also ideally contribute to the advancement of the narrative.

1. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

What else could the #1 album of the decade be? Kanye’s return from self-imposed exile was as triumphant and successful as anyone could have imagined. MBDTF serves as a compilation of the artistic tools Kanye acquired throughout his career and outstanding feature contributions from Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bon Iver, Elton John, and many more. Kanye’s maximalist masterpiece represents a moment in history, not only for his own career, but for everyone involved.

MBDTF’s narrative begins with a level-headed (if that ever exists with Kanye) portrayal of his thoughts and ambitions. “All of the Lights” transports listeners into the next portion of the album: West’s celebrity. Filled with braggadocio, critiques of race relations and American consumerism, his relationship with the public, and his inner loneliness, West’s magnum opus brings his audience along for the wild ride. “Runaway” proclaims the message that we already know: Kanye is hostile; however, the record does not stop there. Kanye’s public perception has constantly been ridiculed and controlled by the media, leaving Kanye with only his music to express himself. In the outro of “Runaway,” we can hear Kanye’s voice trying to break through the wall of synths, yet we cannot hear him. Much of Kanye’s frustration arises from the limitations placed upon him for being an outspoken Black celebrity in America. The outro is the muzzled message the public hears from Kanye, one of the era’s most misunderstood figures.

Favorite Tracks: “Runaway,” “Devil In A New Dress,” “Lost In The World”

2. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

Kendrick Lamar’s second major-label album, To Pimp A Butterfly, has a solidified place in the history of American literature. In Lamar’s most intricate and unique work yet, the Compton MC takes his audience along throughout his struggles with American consumerism, institutional racism, temptations of the devil, and self-love. The masterpiece is separated into five distinct acts. First, Lamar is confronted with the project’s antagonist, Uncle Sam, a portrayal of the American Dream and its dangerous tendencies. Uncle Sam attempts to pimp Kendrick financially on “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free.” Although Kendrick has worked his whole life to achieve wealth and fame, he quickly realizes the cutthroat temptations that await successful Black musicians in the industry. The following four acts tackle depression and mental imprisonment, good versus evil, self-empowerment, and loyalty. Kendrick’s lyricism and selection of samples include deep historical implications as listeners pick up nuances with every listen. The sheer complexity of the writing makes the project worthy of a spot, but its cohesiveness and historical context place it in the top two. “Alright” was championed as a theme song for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. Throughout the jazz and funk-inspired LP, a poem arises as the tracks progress. At the end of “Mortal Man,” we discover that Kendrick recites the poem to the late Tupac Shakur, who responds through clips from a German interview from the 1990s. Kendrick’s metamorphosis into a butterfly occurs throughout the project, yet he remains institutionalized with the pressures experienced as a caterpillar in Compton, CA. The transformation is even included in the title, with ties to Tupac: To Pimp A Butterfly (2PAB) coming from To Pimp A Caterpillar (2PAC).

Favorite Tracks: “How Much A Dollar Cost,” “u,” “Mortal Man”

3. Kanye West: Yeezus (2013)

Kanye West’s Yeezus presents a cinematic rollercoaster of music’s most polarizing anti-hero. The record’s industrial and minimalist soundscape was a complete U-turn from the rest of mainstream music. Yeezus is a reality check to his listeners, reminding them of the racial and economic injustices in America, the chaos of celebrity life, and the value of public perception. Although it may not be evident after the first listen, Kanye separates the record into three acts: the madness, the downfall, and the recovery. Each track operates like a scene in a film, all bearing different moods and messages that contribute to the narrative. Yeezus, Kanye’s fictional protagonist, fortifies his narcissistic persona to combat his inner suffering and guilt expressed in “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It”, for example. To many listeners, West’s use of irony may go unnoticed. Despite the track name: “I Am a God”, Yeezus is hiding behind his arrogance while crying out for a massage and croissant, two things a God could easily acquire independently. The track ends with frantic screaming and running as Yeezus desperately tries to escape his reality. While other albums throughout the decade have told listeners their story, Kanye shows us his tragic tale of the celebrity superficial lifestyle.

Favorite Tracks: “Hold My Liquor,” “New Slaves,” “Blood on the Leaves”

4. The Roots: undun (2011)

The Roots, the Philadelphia hip-hip octet, struck gold with their tenth studio album undun. The concept album recounts the tragic demise of semi-fictional 25-year-old, Redford Stephens. The band’s chronicle of Stephens’ story begins with his suicide and then backtracks to contextualize his choices. Throughout the reverse narrative, the group details the poverty and crime-driven challenges facing Stephens that makes death seem reasonable. Undun strikes an exceptional balance between creative song structures, intricate writing, and accessible vocals. The record concludes with four neo-classical tracks, solidifying the group’s dedication to producing skillful music and finishing the narrative. 

Favorite Tracks: “Make My,” “The OtherSide,” “Lighthouse”

5. Tyler, The Creator: IGOR (2019)

IGOR is not the average hip-hop album; it’s the road not taken. Tyler, The Creator distances himself from his contemporaries as he wears his 1970’s and 80’s influences on his sleeve. In an increasingly stream-reliant music era, Tyler disregards the status quo of basic hip-hop “banger” records in favor of vintage samples, high-pitched vocals, and emotionally honest writing. In Tyler’s take on a late 20th century pop album, IGOR follows a cohesive plot-line, detailing his crumbling romantic relationship. IGOR’s sonic textures match Tyler’s desperate and earnest persona, excellently presenting his emotions to listeners. Contributions from Solange, Kanye West, CeeLo Green, Playboi Carti, and others blend into IGOR’s aesthetic seamlessly while progressing the narrative. To top it all off, Tyler made history being the first rapper to ever reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for an entirely self-produced and arranged album with IGOR. Tyler’s most recent LP will stand as a trailblazer of modern music as time goes on.

Favorite Tracks: “A BOY IS A GUN*,” “PUPPET,” “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?”

Honorable Mentions:

Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. City (2012)

Tierra Whack: Whack World (2018)

Travis Scott: Rodeo (2015)

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata (2014)

Pusha T: Daytona (2018)

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