By Corey Libow
Rap is inherently competitive. When so many MC’s brag about being the best to ever pick up a mic, there’s going to be some argument about who’s actually right. So here I present the 2015 All-Star team -- five rappers who deserve recognition for their cultural, commercial, and critical achievements this past year.
Future was hands down the MVP of the year. After a commercially lackluster sophomore album and the public disintegration of his relationship with pop star Ciara, it seemed like Future was on the downturn of his career. Instead of flailing around in radio purgatory, however, he went straight for the gutter. He reached back into the recesses of his soul, mined his heartbreak and ensuing drug addiction for inspiration, armed himself with the best young producers Atlanta had to offer, and made the most beautiful, striking music the genre has seen in some time. His mixtape trilogy, Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights, was an existential journey through the abyss, searching for any kind of solace. He played with his voice, his flows, his words, improving each time, until he reached that rarified air where every time he rapped there was spontaneity and excitement; you never knew where a verse would turn. It all culminated in DS2, his studio album that his grassroots followers took to the top of the charts. The rest of the year was one long victory lap: a tossed off #1 album with Drake, a placement on the soundtrack of the movie Creed, and guesting on hit after hit after hit. Future didn’t just have the best year of 2015. He had one of the best years in rap history.
Young Thug could have had an awful year. Already stuck in label limbo, Thug became wrapped in legal tape after he was accused of being involved with a murder attempt on Lil Wayne. His debut studio album for new label 300 Entertainment, Hy!£UN35, was pushed back into oblivion and still hasn’t come out. To finish it off, over 1000 songs leaked from his vault, rendering years of work useless. All of that didn’t stop Thug from being one of the most exciting rappers of the year. The eccentric MC has been rewriting the rules for a while now, but instead of staying in the radio polished lane he had carved out for himself last year he blew it all up and pushed himself into further unknown territories. His first retail album Barter 6 was chillingly meditative. It played with textures rather than hooks, melodies that snuck up your spine rather than knock you in the head. Plus, he started to salvage his great leak by putting together the Slime Season mixtape series. Slime Season was thrillingly inconsistent, a hodgepodge of songs that had the best bar for bar rapping the game saw this year. Slime Season 2 was even better, featuring stronger editing and revealing a new romantic side. All that music and Thug still had time to make one of the best songs of the year with Jamie XX. It may not have been the year Thug wanted, but we’re still lucky we got it.
There isn’t a more important rapper than Kendrick Lamar right now. The Compton rapper catapulted into America’s consciousness thanks to an instant classic of a debut. Even your mom knows who the good kid from the mad city is now. But Kendrick is all grown up, and his latest album To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most ambitious, weighty works we’ve seen from the genre this decade. A jazzy, frenetic, epic poem, TPAB dives into racism, fame, politics, and self identity in such a way that they are inextricably linked to each other. It held the attention of the country for the entire year. Lauded as one of the best albums of the year, it featured not only Barack Obama’s favorite song but also the new 21st century civil rights anthem. Add that to his work on Dr. Dre’s monumental comeback album Compton, the remixes to Jidenna’s “Classic Man” and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” and Kendrick had a year for the ages.
The Lebron James of hip hop has officially become untouchable. Drake has built his throne so high that he was above reproach. His studio album Views From The 6 that he promised this year doesn’t come out? His surprise “mixtape” If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late goes platinum and is the best selling rap album of the year. His headlining set at Coachella goes poorly? His annual OVO Fest solidifies as one of the most important music festivals on the continent. Future threatens his standing as best rapper around? He flies down to Atlanta to do a quick tape with him which subsequently goes to the top of the charts. His trait of collaborating with young talent is revealed to be more nefarious than originally thought? His latest single “Hotline Bling” jacks another song entirely and becomes his most popular single ever. There are real, credible claims that Drake, the most popular rapper on the planet, doesn’t even write his own rhymes!? He turns it into the most lopsided, most recognized rap beef of the decade and gets a Grammy nomination out of it. The rap game Walter White has officially broke bad, and it doesn’t look there’s anyone who can stop him.
Chance The Rapper
There are several worthy candidates for this prestigious fifth spot, but Chance narrowly squeezes in for the unconventional nature of his career. After the Chicago rapper released his incredible album Acid Rap in 2013 for free, Chance ran the opposite way from traditional success. He has stayed independent instead of cashing out on a major label. He started a band, The Social Experiment, with his collaborators and friends rather than race to solo fame and fortune. Chance ceded the spotlight to his trumpet player Nico Segal, who goes by Donnie Trumpet, playing the lead singer to his creative vision, and the resulting album Surf is one of the most heartwarming, beautiful releases of the year. Playing well with others is something Chance does better than any other artist. His collaborative freestyle mixtape with Lil B Free Based Freestyles was lightning in a bottle. All of his features showcased his signature style. But it’s his incredible late night performances on Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live that were the jewel of his year, mainly because it showed everyone what he’s got in store for 2016.