Hip-hop has been on the upswing in the last two years, artistically expanding in both a lyrical and sonic sense.
But though there are a number of gifted teenagers making excellent work, the old guard reigned supreme in 2013. This list, the top ten rap albums of 2013 — from anywhere, not just L.A. — is populated heavily by both late bloomers and vets soaring on their second wind.
See also: The 10 Best L.A. Albums of 2013
10. Hellfyre Club
Dorner vs. Tookie
Dorner vs. Tookie serves as a sampler of local underground hip-hop label Hellfyre Club's heavyweight roster. A group of MCs who nonetheless possess an anti-crew mentality, Nocando, Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, and others deliver rhymes featuring both brains and brawn, over eccentric and electronic-leaning beats. Political, self-aware and comedic.
Rap Album One
Jonwayne's Rap Album One is not easily approachable. It's challenging, dark and theatrical; Wayne mainly plays the brooding protagonist, though he occasionally dons the jovial jester costume. With his booming voice at the center of each beat, the work is an excellent platform for his highly literate and carefully crafted poetry.
8. Freddie Gibbs
Freddie Gibbs remains committed to casting himself as a modern-day Tupac. Though ESGN may not display his versatility as well as 2012's Baby Face Killa, it's still a testament to his ability to lyrically paint in gunmetal grey and bloody grey matter. Over menacing beats, he delivers fatal and felonious gangster raps more vivid and visceral than nearly anyone else in the game. Respect (and fear) the technique.
7. Action Bronson
Blue Chips 2
Blue Chips 2 takes the template of Bronson's original — catchy loops, Youtube samples — and gets wilder, more out there. Bronson's trademark food references are in effect, as well as more fine linens, more lavish portraits of leisure, and enough lascivious one-liners to make your girlfriend blush. He makes multisyllabic bars of epicurean excess sound effortless. And delicious.
6. Juicy J
Juicy J is rap's ratchet ruler, the hedonist herald from Memphis to Santa Monica. His album Stay Trippy is an anti-anti-drug campaign; the beats are built to rattle strip club walls, and Juicy rhymes quotable with ease. Whether or not you pop molly like Mentos, Stay Trippy is 2013's most fun rap album.
5. Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels
On Run the Jewels New York's proclaimer of dystopian doom El-P (though he's headed to L.A.!) and Atlanta's political pastor Killer Mike wage intergalactic war on all sucker MCs. El-P turns the Millennium Falcon motherboard into an MPC and Killer Mike continues to prove an irreplaceable rhyming co-pilot — Dr. Gonzo to El's Raoul Duke. Together they engage in drug-fueled shit-talking with raucous abandon. Your mother and your jewels are not safe.
The Night's Gambit
Ka is an uncompromising auteur, directing Brownsville warriors against a backdrop of cracked pavement, weathered brownstone bricks, and rusted project park chain-link. The Night's Gambit is N.Y. rap traditionalism turned art-house cinema. Scored by minimal and gritty loops, the album is novelistic in scope and poetic in approach. Murderous metaphors and similes for street stratagems are rarely this coded. They're also rarely as rewarding.
3. Kevin Gates
The Luca Brasi Story
Until Lil Boosie is finally free, Kevin Gates is Baton Rouge's best rapper. Of his two fantastic 2013 offerings, The Luca Brasi Story may be marginally better than Stranger than Fiction. The beats have a bit more backwater bounce, and Gates' vulnerability is on full display. Ideally, it will only be a matter of time before Gates is on national radio, his croaking raps and croons shocking, sobering, and soothing anyone who's ready for it.
2. Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap contains both hallucinogenic revelry and comedown reflection. Words are wielded recklessly, syllables twisted and contorted. On the non-linear work, Chance addresses contemporary ills and hopes for a brighter tomorrow, while also waxing nostalgic for days gone. Backed by production more diverse than the drill sound so common in Chicago — Acid Rap has elements of soul, footwork, gospel, and more — the colors of the windy city are warmer through Chance's eyes.
See also: Top 5 Hip-Hop Singles of 2013
1. Danny Brown
Old is Danny Brown's best album to date. With the album's “two-sided” structure, he both captures the despair of Detroit denizens and crafts paeans to twerking and pill popping.
It's a controlled storm — cold fronts of raised-on-the-block bars meet heat waves from packed clubs. Tales of his harrowing past are delivered straight-faced, and the gaiety of his drug-addled, Lothario escapism comes through in his helium squawk. Above all, an insatiable hunger courses through Old. The love of hipster groupies and the escape offered by moon rocks in Barcelona won't satiate Brown. He wants praise for his merit as an MC, one who has been sharpening his skills in the rap game for nearly a decade. On Old he's in his zone and deserves all commendation and decoration.
See also: The 10 Best L.A. Albums of 2013