While last year’s crop of rap albums was widely derided as one of the weakest in recent memory, 2015’s album slate has been hailed as one of the best.
Much of the turnaround can be credited to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a musical equivalent of an encyclopedic novel that continues to draw rapturous praise and bitter debate nine months after its somewhat-surprise release. And after years of what often seemed to be an unofficial apartheid, pop radio finally began to add rap songs to its playlists, and not just EDM-strengthened dance pop by the likes of Pitbull and Flo Rida, but songs that urban fans actually listen to, like Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
Still, Lamar’s masterwork stoked an enthusiasm for new rap music that lasted. With Butterfly, Vince Staples’ Summertime ‘06 and Dr. Dre’s Compton, the West Coast is in the midst of a renaissance not seen since the early 2000s. Meanwhile, Future authored a series of acclaimed mixtapes, and then issued the druggy and hallucinatory Dirty Sprite 2. A subsequent jaunt with Drake, What a Time to Be Alive, was less impressive, but fans heard it for the harmlessly fun romp it is.
Beyond the mainstream world, there were other encouraging trends. Mello Music Group became an indie powerhouse as it released over 15 full-length projects. Joey Bada$$ shocked the industry when B4.Da.$$ debuted at No. 2 on the charts, and signaled the widening popularity of classicist sounds inspired by ‘90s New York boom-bap. L.A.’s experimental rap crew Hellfyre Club continued to intrigue, thanks to Open Mike Eagle’s Comedy Central forays with comedian Hannibal Buress, and Milo’s under-heard gem So the Flies Don’t Come. There were heartening career comebacks by Lil Boosie, Blackalicious and Scarface, and artistic renewals by Lupe Fiasco and The Game. The rise of Dej Loaf, Tink and Rapsody, and the continued dominance of Nicki Minaj fueled hope that women may soon earn equal and overdue respect in the rap octagon.
Finally, there were surprises. Who expected Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife to be the most fun rap album of the year? Who would have thought that Fetty Wap, a one-eyed unknown from New Jersey, would rule the pop charts? Better yet, who expected that dance fads would return with a vengeance, thanks to Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” and iLoveMemphis’ “Hit the Quan”? You know it’s a good year when unexpectedly good things happen.