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The 50 Best Underrated Rap Projects of 2015

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50. G Herbo – Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkUWqFK7Aaw

I used to hate on Lil’ Herb. His gravelly voice, along with Lil Bibby’s, didn’t make them stand out too far above other Chicago rappers making similar music circa 2012. But Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe is something different entirely. Here he goes beyond mere documentation to a more anatomical dissection of the effects of poverty and persecution on Chicago youth. “Now the judge hang us with 100 years, used to hang us by a tree” is by far one of the most haunting lines on the entire tape, and bolstered by some of the best beats DJ L and C-Sick have ever made, G Herbo steps out as the leading voice of those looking for guidance. – Max Weinstein

49. Jay Rock – 90059

The long-delayed and highly anticipated album from Top Dawg Entertainment’s first signee finally dropped this year. With 90059, Jay Rock put his no-nonsense style to hard-hitting (“Easy Bake,” “Vice City”) and introspective (“Gumbo,” “Fly On The Wall”) use. Even if holding the album hostage until it hit enough iTunes pre-orders didn’t ensure the kind of success TDE wanted, 90059 is as solid and reliable as a concrete fist to the temple. – Dylan Green

48. Hus Kingpin & SmooVth – Splash Brothers 

Hus Kingpin has been hustling his dick off this year, and his jam-packed Soundcloud is a testament to his work ethic. But unlike other MCs who can burn themselves out trying to stay relevant, he’s remained steadfast in his commitment to quality, and Splash Brothers, alongside fellow Hempstead spitter SmooVth, is a sureshot of witty rhymes and knocking beats. Take these lines from the above “Let’s Get It” – “The mission is to change my position in permanent / And look up at the deep black firmament / and Parliament, with my pimpin’ starter kit, started it / Blowing tree in the barber chair, Pops was hardly there, and moms ain’t really care / The turtle beat the rabbit, all for the blank stare.” – MW

47. Yung Gleesh – B.C. 

Back in March, a sexual assault charge hit Yung Gleesh like a MAC truck, derailing his career in the public eye. But after being released and not going to trial, Gleesh dropped B.C., a reaffirmation of his status as one of the most experimental young rappers out right now. His style is highly unconventional, reveling in his lines longer than most rappers would like to, but if you’re not entertained by the time he says, “Moses say free my people, free my people,” then that’s on you. There’s a nagging energy behind songs like “Krazy” and “She Left Right” that gives each new flow a manic urgency. The slurring of his words only serves to draw you in as Gucci Mane’s perennial influence continues. – MW

46. GoldLink – And After That, We Didn’t Talk

GoldLink’s patented future bounce sound (think Missy Elliott by way of Jamiroquai) came into its own on his debut mixtape The God Complex last year. Rather than fixing what isn’t broke on And After That, We Didn’t Talk, he grounds the project in an ever-present but loose theme of love lost. He transitions between contemplative (“After You Left”), hopeful (“Zipporah”), and downright hedonistic (“Dance On Me”) throughout, but Link’s passion and cutting edge sense of groove shines through all of it. – DG

45. Fashawn – The Ecology

Taken under Nas’ wing over at Mass Appeal Records last year, Fashawn’s hotly anticipated sophomore record The Ecology is environmental study masquerading as rap music. Fashawn’s had heart and soul on the mic charting back to his Higher Learning days, but he put his entire being simply into being himself on this latest record. It may not be the flashiest album you’ve heard this year, but Shawn’s heartfelt lyricism backed by equally vivid production explains all those MMA endorsements. – DG

44. 2 Chainz – TrapAvelli Tre

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35rZp8yv45o

2 Chainz had what I’d call a comeback this year, seeing how B.O.A.T.S. II didn’t move me much. He had the best verse on Travis Scott’s album (“backstroke to my children room” gets me every time), a regional hit in “Watch Out” (“U Guessed It” comparisons aside), and a thorough mixtape with TrapAvelli Tre. At one point he seemed too in on the joke, too much a caricature of himself, but on this tape he seems more relaxed, not as hyper-aware of what people laugh at him for and more attuned to his strengths: clever quips, unexpectedly simple imagery, arbitrary changes of vocal tone. All of that, combined with consistent hooks and top-notch production from the likes of Nard & B, Mike Dean, and B Wheezy, makes this a triumph for Dos Cadenas. – MW

43. Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1

Has it really been 10 years since the last Blackalicious album? The duo spent the first five years of the new millennium living in the corner where hip-hop, soul, and funk collide before taking some time to explore other projects. Gab’s fight with type 1 diabetes didn’t stop work on Imani Vol. 1, which turned out to be the Blackalicious reunion we’ve all been waiting for; a soulful, intelligent, and hard-as-nails proclamation that they’re not going anywhere. This is supposedly the first part of a planned trilogy, but Vol. 1 already leaves an astronomical level of promise for the road ahead.  – DG

42. Nolan The Ninja – Fuck The Hype EP

Detroit’s own Nolan The Ninja is a producer/MC who’s reaching into the same sewer drain  that Onyx and DJ Premier were back in the 90s, and is now creating some of the grimiest hip-hop this side of Joey Bada$$. His Fuck The Hype EP is a 10-track marathon through some of the hardest hip-hop created from Gil-Scott Heron samples you’ll hear all year – and that’s without his punchy delivery on the track. – DG  

41. Nickelus F & Shawn Kemp – Trick Dice

Lil Ugly Mane has always been better serving up beats instead of rhymes, and it feels like Nickelus F was always just out of reach of the right production. So it’s weird that these two Virginia acts only just connected this year for Trick Dice, a 43-minute mixtape formatted into two sides, A and B. Free of any conceptual restraint, Nick sounds at ease, while Lil Ugly Mane’s beats (as Shawn Kemp) sound like if DJ Paul and Juicy J smoked PCP and tried their hand at jazz. – MW

40. Busdriver – Thumbs

One of California’s weirdest and most exciting rhymesmiths has been driving in his own lane for close to 15 years. Fear Of A Black Tangent and last year’s Perfect Hair still get a lot of burn around these parts, and Driver’s latest mixtape Thumbs moves in the same varied and zany direction that Hair did. With plenty of heady lyrics and help from some other California greats (Anderson .Paak, Del The Funky Homosapien, Daveed Diggs), Driver’s still moving on course. Try to catch up if you can. – DG

39. Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder – Indie 500

Considering the marketing push this received, I’m surprised that Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder’s curatorial project Indie 500 didn’t get as much love as it seemed to have coming. A compilation celebrating the best that It’s A Wonderful World Music Group, Jamla Records, and more have to offer is as diverse as compilations came this year, and it’s a shame that more people aren’t still bumping “Every Ghetto” like it’s gonna rot. – DG

38. Bleubird – Lauderdale  

One of the most delightful discoveries of the year for me was Bleubird, an off-the-wall Fort Lauderdale rapper who stands out from an already-impressive bunch of young Florida rappers like Kodak Black and Woop. His airtight flow is fucking lethal and his worldview (“Youtube is the Empire, World Star is the Death Star”) is a startling change of pace. He could be described as bleak if he wasn’t so wound up throughout the entire album. Lauderdale is one of the most unique local entries on our list. Give it a try. – MW

37. Your Old Droog – Kinison

This year, Your Old Droog proved that he was far more than just a guy who sounded like an uncanny mashing of Nas and The Game. Kinison, the first of two EPs he released, is a rap album covered with rock n roll wrapping paper, the songs referencing rock/punk in either song name (“Rage Against The Machine,” “Sonic Youth”) or instrumental choices (Captain Beefheart on “Blood”), but the rapper’s bold and brash punchlines mixed with a rock sensibility was the touch that helped push Droog further and further into indie rap stardom.  – DG

36. milo – so the flies don’t come

Lyricists like Milo don’t come around very often. He’s always occupied the same space between straight hip-hop and stream-of-consciousness spoken word that Kool Keith and Suga Free found themselves in, but with an even more literary sensibility. Milo’s latest project so the flies don’t come finds the Minnesota rapper navigating some of the deepest production of his career by zig-zagging through it like no other. Few people are making music quite like Milo is, and if you’re willing to work your way through a maze of wordplay, he’s willing to bring you on an enlightening ride. – DG

35. Polyester The Saint – Can’t Be Faded, Vol. 1

Ever since the heyday of G-Funk, hip-hop has thirsted for a better amalgamation of instruments. Polyester the Saint has quietly been serving the unquenched ever since his 2012 tape Real Deal P, and this year’s Can’t Be Faded, Vol. 1 has gone criminally slept on since it dropped back in September. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare him to the last great NYC rapper Max B, but his music gives me that top down, breezy feel that endures through any season. – MW

34. Little Simz – A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons

A rising talent out of the United Kingdom, Little Simz has been proving she can rap circles around the competition for the last few years, dropping a handful of mixtapes and EPs that left fire and acid in their wake. A Curious Tale is her debut album that dropped back in September, and it’s as dark, vivid, and deeply personal as anything else that came out in rap music this year; she even dropped a new project tomorrow, so hopefully the world will wake up and look at her as more than just that girl with co-signs from Kendrick Lamar and BadBadNotGood. – DG

33. (Tie) Payroll – Stack Season / Big Quis & Payroll – Billboard Brothers

By all indications, Doughboyz Cashout have nothing to do with Jeezy’s CTE anymore, and if there was any doubt, Big Quis seems to set the story straight on the first line of Billboard Brothers – “I got ten round my neck, twenty on my wrist / Fuck the record label, they ain’t help us out with shit.” Yet still the crew rises from the ashes of Detroit with not one but two fire projects this year. First it was Payroll’s vicious Stack Season, which hit #5 on the Hot Seekers chart back in February, and then it was his collab album with Big Quis, Billboard Brothers. Both projects complement each other, with Payroll’s solo feeding your motivation to hustle and the duo’s LP taking more time to lounge in success. – MW

32. Skyzoo – Music For My Friends

Whether by himself, as a Barrel Brother, or as a sports writer, Brooklyn’s own Skyzoo is constantly on the grind. Sky puts himself back in his 13-year-old shoes for his third solo effort Songs For My Friends, a record equal parts warm and reflective in its nostalgia for the 1990s. Sky’s bars are given extra punch thanks to stellar production from Thelonious Martin, Apollo Brown, Illmind, Antman Wonder, and even Sky himself. Music For My Friends is destined to go down as homies-at-the-barbecue music for years to come.  – DG

31. Erk Tha Jerk – The Layover

If there’s one rapper I’m happy I found this year, it’s the Bay Area’s Erk Tha Jerk, a true diamond in the rough. His album Airplane Mode is a solid intro to the man, but the prelude to that was the flawless four-song Layover EP. With counter-intuitive turns of phrases (“Got a list of bitches I don’t give a fuck about”) and stupid clean beats, Erk is swag personified, Curren$y on steroids, radiating cool without ever letting it eclipse his complexities. He’s also one of the funniest casual observers of everyday behavior – “Hate burning with niggas ‘cuz they always steal your lighters / Oh you put that in your pocket? You’se a bold faced liar.” – MW

30. Add-2 – Prey For The Poor

Presenting yourself as nothing more than a 90s revivalist won’t get you far in the music world anymore, so it’s good to know that people like Add-2 exist. While his sensibilities may be decidedly old school, his message is as contemporary as can be on Prey For The Poor. He manages to convey the very negative state of his hometown of Chicago with as many positive vibes as he can muster over the course, with bouncy production from the likes of 9th Wonder, Khrysis, Nottz, and more. That, plus one of the coolest and most under-watched music videos of the year, gives Prey For The Poor some serious burn. – DG

29. Czarface – Every Hero Needs A Villain

With names like Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric attached to the group Czarface, you’re getting exactly what you pay for: kooky bars and vintage production all coupled with the most playful sense of villainy this side of MF DOOM. The trio’s second studio album, Every Hero Needs A Villain, confirms the chemistry that was bubbling underneath the surface of their eponymous 2013 debut. The same formula is in effect here, but now that all three members are snugly in their costumes, they came ready to break them in with even more menacing music. With a little help from artists like DOOM, Method Man, Meyhem Lauren, and R.A. The Rugged Man, Czarface continually prove that they’re the villains all rap heroes should fear.  – DG

28. Le1f – Riot Boi

The queer rap scene is always just out of the spotlight’s reach unless people are ready to appropriate its slang and fashion. Like Cakes Da Killa and Big Freedia before him, Le1f is tired of waiting to be noticed. His official debut album Riot Boi is both a battlecry and a reflective look back now that the door’s been blasted open that will surely stand out as some of his best work to date. – DG

27. Kevin Gates – Murder For Hire

Kevin Gates is either a mentally unstable miscreant or a flat out genius. Judging by his catalog, I’d go with the latter, though the public at large might be quicker to go with the former, judging by the publicity he’s received this year. But even Murder For Hire, which sounds a lot like a collection of leftovers from last years Luca Brasi 2 album, will make you think twice about casting him off as a nutcase, because he’s probably the closest thing we have to peak Lil’ Wayne today.

I can’t think of anyone as versatile with their flows as the Baton Rouge rapper, who managed to drop this menacing array of cuts in the same year as the poppy, radio-ready single “Kno One.” On “Mexico,” the tape’s standout, he gets right to the gritty details of a recent robbery attempt: “So and so broke my jaw with the flashlight, all because I ain’t wanna make my pockets look like bunny ears / Killed a nigga, broke and ran, piss runnin’ down my leg, went and hid the gun behind Ms. Connie house.” That he makes “bunny ears” and “Connie house” rhyme is but another echo of Wayne’s syllable-stretching style.

His official debut album Islah is scheduled to drop on Atlantic at the top of 2016, and with the singles sounding good so far, it looks like Gates is about to be widely recognized for his intelligence, not his antics. – MW

26. Jimi Tents – 5 O’Clock Shadow

The latest of Brooklyn’s constantly rising talent, Jimi Tents’ 5 O’Clock Shadow is our first fully fleshed out peek into his mind at a crossroads where he’s both “depressed and faded,” but eager to prove himself. He pleads his case over these 13 tracks while otherwise proving that there’s more under this tent than meets the eye. – DG

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