As we near its midway point, the rap year remains slightly out of focus. However, a few trends have begun to emerge. Once an occasional stunt, the “surprise album” has become the new normal, and has become a pretext for rappers such as Kanye West and Drake to startle us with new twists on their personas that,as one New York Times writer put it, also serve as brand extensions.
Meanwhile, indie rap seems to be making a comeback. OK, maybe you shouldn’t retrieve your backpack from the closet just yet. But new releases from Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and Death Grips prove there is life beyond rap at its most mainstream and maximalist stage.
With dozens of projects dropping every month, there are so many new and interesting titles that we couldn’t include them all. For now, here are 10 albums you need to hear.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
West’s latest Zeitgeist-tilting experiment includes a delirious freestyle roundelay with Kendrick Lamar, an ornery dis track toward former corporate client Nike in “Facts,” and a would-be gospel number with a standout Chance the Rapper verse on “Ultralight Beam.” It’s purposely unpredictable, and it’s never boring.
Drake’s fourth album swings sharply between dense and introspective tracks and dips into the global pop scene of his native Toronto. It’s the latter qualities, found on his No. 1 hit “Pop Style” and the slow Caribbean grind of “Controlla,” that are most appealing.
J Dilla, The Diary
A new Dilla album is always welcome, even if it’s a shelved 2002 project for MCA Records that was bootlegged for more than a decade before finally getting an official release. Some of the press reviews declaring shock at how hard he raps seem perplexing. The late Detroit icon has always been a street dude — that was the beautiful contradiction behind the lush neo-soul of his groundbreaking Slum Village work. And Dilla’s affinity for the synth funk sound of Gary Numan’s “Cars” and Vanity 6’s “Drive Me Wild” means he’ll never be mistaken for a clueless thug.
Death Grips, Bottomless Pit
Over two years after appearing to break up — only to renege on their statement — Death Grips’ punkish rants, electronic stabs, and rap braggadocio still sound like nothing else. This is more of a straightforward album than last year’s The Powers That B, which delved into Black Flag-styled sludgecore. It’s highlighted by tracks like “Eh,” which sounds like a nonplussed shoulder shrug.
A$AP Ferg, *Always Strive and Prosper*
Unlike A$AP Rocky, who seems to think he’s the next great New York rapper, A$AP Ferg doesn’t take himself too seriously. His lack of artifice makes his sometimes-ridiculous genre shifts marvelously entertaining. His rapping has improved since his 2013 debut Trap Lord, too.
Aesop Rock, The Impossible Kid
Remember when rappers stuffed their songs with verses spoken through a thick regional accent? Aesop Rock relies on this and while it could be viewed as old-fashioned, the fact that he doesn’t sound like everyone else makes his latest album worth our attention.
Royce Da 5’9”, Layers
Royce is one of the great battlers from the turn of the century, so it’s no surprise the best moments on his first solo album since 2011’s Success is Certain find him blacking out on verses. “Shine,” “Hard” and “Layers” are all strong additions to his street rap canon.
Homeboy Sandman, Kindness for Weakness
This ends a surprising two-year hiatus for a rapper who used to release a new project every fortnight. He’s got quite a few cameos here, including a chorus on “It’s Cold” from ‘80s funk hero Steve Arrington, and a New York underground cipher with Kurious, Aesop Rock and Breeze Brewin of the Juggaknots on “Speak Truth.” However, highlights like “God” and “Heart Sings” feature just him and a cadence that sounds as if he’s thinking out loud.
Mr. Lif , Don’t Look Down
A typically brutal lyrical odyssey from the Boston veteran, except this time he’s not imagining nuclear holocaust (2002’s I Phantom) or picking apart President Obama’s presidential campaign (2009’s underrated I Heard It Today). He proves to be as critical of his own failings as he is of others, and honeyed choruses from singers like Erica Dee (“A Better Day”) and Selina Carrera (“Let Go”) make the tough-love medicine sound less abrasive.
Yoni & Geti, Testarossa
Much like the aforementioned Homeboy Sandman circa 2010-2012, Serengeti releases so many albums that it’s difficult to keep up. Testarossa reunites him with an early influence, Yoni Wolf of Anticon (the two first collaborated on Serengeti’s Family&Friends), and is a twee delight that wouldn’t sound out of place on college radio in the mid ‘00s.