[Editor's Note: XXL's Best of 2011 countdown, features songs and albums that were officially released between December 1, 2010 and December 1, 2011.]



Top 10 Albums of 2011


For the first time in ages, most of the year’s best albums were delivered by new blood. A new crop of MCs—not looking for handouts from hip-hop’s torchbearers—came into their own in 2011. Big Sean and J. Cole dropped successful projects after years of what many perceived as label limbo, while Wale and Drake returned to deliver career-defining sophomore projects. Meanwhile, Wiz Khalifa followed up a smash hit single with a successful album. Rick Ross knows this. Though he played facilitator for most of the year, the release of Maybach Music Group’s Self Made, Vol. 1—powered by young guns Wale and Meek Mill—contributed to Rozay’s ascension as one of the game’s heavyweights.

But, make no mistake about it. Rap’s juggernauts are still in place. Jay-Z and Kanye West collectively made an event out of an album, while Lil Wayne once again sold an obscene amount of records. But whose album reigned supreme this year? XXL ranks the Top 10 Best Albums of 2011.—XXL Staff


10. Yelawolf, Radioactive (2011)

10. Yelawolf, Radioactive

Leave it to Yelawolf to release an album featuring Kid Rock, Mystikal, Fefe Dobson and Gangsta Boo. The LP sounds a bit disjointed at times, but the highlights—“Let’s Roll” with Rock and “Throw It Up” with Boo and Eminem—make up for the LP's inconsistencies. Like his label boss, Em, before him, Yela’s raps speak to an untapped audience, but touch on topics relatable across the board. He paints a portrait of working class America on “Made in the U.S.A.,” salutes women for bettering themselves on “Good Girl” and revisits an old adage on “Everything I Love the Most.” Though the LP is feature-heavy, Wolf stands out throughout.

9. Wale, Ambition (2011)


Wale told you so. Well, despite Young Folarin’s pleas, the D.C. MC’s Ambition will likely never be discussed in the same breathe as Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt, but it’ll undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best albums of 2011. Wale seized the momentum from “That Way” on Self Made, Vol. 1 and “Bait off of The Eleven One Eleven Theory—both records also appear on Ambition—and put it into his own project. No duds this time; the LP debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling 164,000 copies in its first week. Singles aside, Wale continued to brand himself as a substance-first MC on songs like “Don’t Hold Your Applause” and the album's title track.

8. Wiz Khalifa, Rolling Papers (2011)


Young Khalifa followed up his breakthrough triple platinum hit, “Black and Yellow” with two platinum (“Roll Up,” “No Sleep”) and one gold (“On My Level”) singles—pushing Rolling Papers to a gold certification. Wiz’s lovable persona is front and center throughout, and the Pittsburgh MC also excels at sing-songy hooks over production by I.D. Labs, along with sonic contributions by Stargate, Jim Jonsin and Benny Blanco, to name a few. Mood music.

7. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter IV (2011)


He’s done it again. Well, not quite, but after cracking sales of 1 million copies of Tha Carter III in its first week in 2008, Weezy sold 964,000 units of Tha Carter IV this past summer. Though the LP begged for more introspection—Drake raps about Wayne’s Rikers Island bid, but Weezy doesn’t—Lil Tunechi makes up for it with funny, out-of-the-box punchlines. “Time sure changed, fuck it get a new watch,” he rhymes on “Blunt Blowin’.” Powered by a trio of Top 10 singles, “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “How to Love” and “She Will” featuring Drake, as well as the streets-approved, “John” with Rick Ross—which still managed to peak at No.22 on the Billboard Hot 100—the LP stands as the year’s highest-selling rap album.

6. Big Sean, Finally Famous (2011)


With No I.D. at the helm, Big Sean finally escaped label purgatory when the Chris Brown-assisted "My Last" started bubbling. Sean was vindicated when the perpetually pushed back, Finally Famous debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200—selling 87,000 units in its first week. No fluke, here. Sean kept slugging away, following up with two monster hits, "Marvin and Chardonnay" featuring Roscoe Dash and "Ass (Dance)." The hypnotic "I Do It" also made a dent on the charts. Sure, aside from the relatable "Don't Tell Me You Love Me," the G.O.O.D. Music rapper's topical pallette could us some expansion, but only a select few rappers can boast of scoring three of the year's biggest hits, and Big's on the short list. Deed it!

5. Kendrick Lamar, Section.80 (2011)


On the heels of his appearance on this year’s XXL Freshman cover, K. Dot released this Digital LP—a cohesive collection of soulful and jazz backdrops rich in lyricism. Clearly, being straight out of Compton has a new meaning in 2011. More every man than gangsta, Lamar discloses a duality hardly seen in a rapper from his neck of the woods—at times, seemingly rhyming about “money, hoes, clothes, God and history in the same sentence,” as evidenced on the lead single, “HiiiPower.”

The album didn’t make much of a dent on the charts—peaking at No. 113 on the Billboard 200 Album chart—but Kendrick’s dense verses earned him respect as a lyricist and opened the gateways for the Top Dawg MC to become a sought after guest MC. Game, Birdman, Mack Maine and Drake all came knocking—often at the host's peril. Forget Detox. Look out for Kendrick!

4. J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)


J. Cole's having the last laugh. Though he's amassed a solid fan base and earned praise for his critically-acclaimed mixtapes and key guest spots, the first artist signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation has also attracted his share of skeptics. Chatter about the Fayetteville, NC MC included whispers that he'd never come out and that he'd brick if he did. Lo and behold, Cole World: The Sideline Story debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200—selling 218,000 copies in its first week.

The LP was also well received by critics. The Sideline Story paints the picture of a conflicted everyman—a nice guy with a mean streak. Cole dreams big on "Dollar and a Dream III," let's loose on "Can't Get Enough," reveals regret on "Lost One," goes for the jugular on "Rise and Shine" and even pulls Missy out of obscurity for the chick-friendly," Nobody's Perfect." The LP went gold in only a month. Safe to say J. Cole’s on the sideline no longer.

3. Maybach Music Group, Self Made, Vol. 1 (2011)


Barely three months after inking his Maybach Music Group imprint to Warner Bros., Rick Ross capitalized off his signing spree with this compilation. In addition to keeping Rozay hot in between projects, the LP served as a platform for his new recruits to build off the Bawse’s deafening buzz. Meek Mill made Self Made his coming out party—taking the lead on the record’s two biggest hits, the Rick Ross-assisted bangers “Tupac Back” and “I’ma Boss.”

Wale, whose affiliation with the crew was initially questioned, rebooted his career with a strong showing. He also scored a hit of his own in “That Way,” featuring Jeremih and Ross, which set the tone for the success of his sophomore LP, Ambition. Pill struggled to keep up and is now rumored to be off the label. Though the disc was powered by new blood, Ross now has the distinction of having arguably the hottest crew album in recent memory. His Bawse nickname is well deserved.

2. Drake, Take Care (2011)

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Drake’s clearly on a mission. Despite that his debut Thank Me Later easily went platinum and produced several hits, the scrutiny it received sparked the Toronto rapper’s current crusade against his critics. Drake wears many hats throughout his follow up. The Weeknd handles singing duties on “Crew Love,” as Aubrey closes the song out with a verse, but he sings on “The Real Her”—a song that features Lil Wayne and Andre 3000 rapping. Meanwhile, he spazzes for 48 bars of straight spitting on the Just Blaze-produced, “Lord Knows,” which also features Rick Ross. No hook. “Underground Kings” is all rapping. “Doing It Wrong,” which features a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder is all singing. Though it’s barely been out a month, the LP’s already produced four Top 20 singles (“Headlines,” “Make Me Proud,” “The Motto,” “Take Care”).

This time, Drizzy managed to incorporate smash singles into a cohesive body of work. The Young Money MC once again balances rapping and singing throughout and the sonics bring forth memories of his 2009 breakthrough mixtape, So Far Gone, though, Take Care has an identity all its own.

1. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne (2011)


No one saw Watch the Throne coming. After the heavily panned “H.A.M.” came and went, fans lost faith that LP would actually materialize. For months, rumors surfaced that the LP was finally underway, but release dates never stuck. “Otis” abruptly leaked in late July. Nearly three weeks later, Watch the Throne was in store. The LP debuted at No.1 and is now certified platinum. Taking a page from EPMD’s rhyme book, Yeezy and Hov took turns trading luxury raps—expertly tucking social commentary and progressive theories in between affluent boasts. But Jay and ‘Ye have never been one-trick ponies. They offer cerebral takes on religion on “No Church in the Wild,” pen letters to their unborn on “New Day” and forgives their frenemies’ betrayal on “Why I Love You.”

As is often the case on their respective projects, the Throne set precedents and sparked trends. The ubiquitous “Niggas in Paris” birthed the year’s most unavoidable slang. People likely will be saying, “That shit cray” well into 2012. In the wake of the project’s success, a wave of MCs announced that they had joint LPs in the works. But, perhaps most impressive, the buzzed about LP was the first widely-anticipated rap album not to leak in the digital age—quite an impressive feat considering that most records become available once they hit the pressing plant. More importantly, the music was dope. The throne isn’t for the taking after all.