This time last year, albums from Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, J Cole, Mac Miller and Wale—with a Jay Z album right around the corner—had already dropped, providing hip-hop heads with plenty to talk about at the halfway mark of the year. In 2014, the focus has been less on established acts bolstering their resumes—though Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, The Roots and Tech N9ne have all submitted solid efforts—and more on a new crop of talent staking their claims for the throne. ScHoolboy Q, YG, Sage The Gemini, Iggy Azalea, August Alsina and Kid Ink all dropped their major label debuts, lending a distinctly West Coast flavor to the offerings, while Ab-Soul, RiFF RAFF, Iamsu! and G-Eazy all released the biggest projects of their careers so far. We've even seen some veterans make strong returns, with Mobb Deep, Onyx and Pharoahe Monch all commanding attention.

With so much fresh material coming out of the speakers this year so far, it's time to take a measure of what we've heard at the halfway mark. Here is XXL's top 25 albums of the first half of 2014.—Dan Rys, Eric Diep, Emmanuel C.M., Miranda Johnson, Jeffrey Whaley And Rachel Chesbrough


50 Cent, Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win

Don’t worry about 50 Cent. Animal Ambition, which is Fif’s first proper LP since Before I Self Destruct five years ago, finds him tapping into the part of his former self that fans have been waiting for. Tracks like “Hold On” and “Pilot” are vintage 50 that recall his glory days, while “Animal Ambition” is a fitting step outside his comfort zone. Regardless of the album’s low sales, 50 is a figure in hip-hop that can’t be ignored. Even if he says this album only builds anticipation for Street King Immortal, it serves as a proper comeback and paves the way for him to possibly dominate the game again.—ED


Ab-Soul, These Days...

The road to the release of Ab-Soul’s These Days... was fraught with release date drama and public frustration, reflective of his notoriously arduous personal narrative (Alori Joh’s shocking death, his early illness and his determined individualism, among other contributing factors). The build up to this, his third independent album, was full of standard anticipation from fans, but there was something like hope there, too; hope that he would be vindicated by critical acclaim. The MC did not disappoint.

A truly cerebral lyricist, Soulo has a wide range of content and ability, and it’s on full display throughout These Days... A sizeable portion of the project requires multiple listens in order to grasp the full expanse of metaphors, wordplay, and highbrow references. He drifts comfortably in and out of various cadences, even tossing in some Migos flow, just for fun (appropriately, on the track “Just Have Fun”). The production is varied enough to justify the lengthy 90 minute run-time. There’s something for every niche hip-hop fan, not just in diverse sounds but also in the range of featured artists (Lupe Fiasco, Rick Ross, Action Bronson, Danny Brown and the TDE crew, among others). It’s a rich album that sees Ab-Soul stepping out from the shadows of his TDE family and proving himself as an top-tier contender.—RC


Step Brothers (Alchemist And Evidence), Lord Steppington

While Step Brothers have been around since 2008, the Alchemist/Evidence duo just released their first full album together this year. With anticipation high, the 2014 release of Lord Steppington lives up to the hype while simultaneously evading expectations. The production displays an eclectic range of samples with cinematic undertones, as the rhymes walk the line between gritty and comedic. Sonically, the album is dark boom bap tinged with psychedelia, but thematically it’s jazzy; you can never predict where it’s headed next, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any consistent melodies. Each track is varied to the point of incoherence, but they’re strung together using a myriad of obscure YouTube audio clips that demand attention from beginning to end.

The monotone style of both MCs grounds the erratic instrumentals, and animated features from the likes of Action Bronson, Styles P, Blu, and Fashawn add a bite of variety. Evidence delivers his trademark relaxed flow, deftly wrapping singular sentences around multiple bars, while Alchemist tends to put a little more force behind his raps, though the duo don’t actually take themselves too seriously. With Lord Steppington you’re along for the ride as these two kick lighthearted wordplay about abstract rap life over dynamic beats.—RC


Atmosphere, Southsiders

This year, Atmosphere released their eighth studio album, Southsiders, consisting of 15 tracks without a single featured verse. The project serves as an alternative sound for the hip-hop fan opposed to modern day trap or gangsta rap. Slug’s ability to be fun and clever with his rhymes without having to be super lyrical with every verse keeps his wordplay fresh, while complementing Slug’s style of rapping is the diverse production of Ant as he provides a combination of mellow instrumentals fused with jazz samples throughout the album. Tracks like “Flicker,” “January On Lake Street” and “Kanye West” helped make Southsiders a project to remember. —JW


August Alsina, Testimony

August Alsina represents a new breed of R&B singer, and his Def Jam debut Testimony is the perfect introduction. Weaving together tales of his past, present, and future, August held nothing back when it came to telling his story on his first studio project. Serving up thought-provoking ballads like "Mama"—which recalls the many tribulations he's endured, detailing a life found more commonly within rap lyrics—to songs like "Kissin' On My Tattoos," which is certainly an R&B cut, the variety on the LP is seamless. With the album, August succeeded in blurring the lines between hip-hop and R&B more than ever. He went against the grain with this one, and it worked.—MJ


Bas, Last Winter

J. Cole's longtime friend and the first signee to Cole's brand new Dreamville Records, Bas dropped a surprise gem with Last Winter. The best thing about the album is that it isn't a Born Sinner 2; Bas has a style of his own. For the most part, fans got a sense of who Bas is as an artist on this project, making it a proper introduction without much prior material. There are a lot of potential hits on Last Winter—"New World Order," "Mook In New Mexico," "Last Winter" and the J. Cole-featuring "My Nigga Just Made Bail"—that will help build out the newcomer's catalog. Whenever you're the number two behind someone who's already established, it's always an uphill battle to win fans and differentiate yourself as an artist. Bas does it very well for his first swing of the bat, and if you listen closely, you'll hear he can play in the game.—ECM

Gibbs pinata

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Piñata

The pairing of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib on their joint album Piñata is the equivalent of the pairing of the Utah Jazz's NBA Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone; it's a symmetry of beauty. Two artists on two different ends of the hip-hop spectrum unite to put together a 17-track masterpiece that all hardcore hip-hop fans can appreciate. Gibbs' rough street edge blends well with Madlib's crisp and soulful beats, turning the street narratives into full-on feature-length films. What's also distinct about this album is how on-point the guest verses are; Scarface, Danny Brown, Raekwon, Earl Sweatshirt, Domo Genesis, Ab-Soul and Mac Miller don't mess around. Piñata is an album that Gibbs fans may look back to as a career moment.—ECM


Future, Honest

With his sophomore album, Future held nothing back, linking up with top producers like Pharrell and Mike Will Made It to serve up some of the hottest records currently reigning in the clubs. There's no denying that Honest is one of the best LP's released in 2014. "Move That Dope" is certainly responsible for a chunk of the LP's success, with one of the catchiest hooks of the year, and his insistence on getting back in with the Dungeon Family made the album a true return to his Southern roots. With other songs like "Shit" and the Kanye-assisted "I Won," Future was victorious when it comes to holding an LP that lives up to the standards he set on Pluto.—MJ


Iamsu!, Sincerely Yours

Iamsu! is one of the fresh faces putting the Bay Area back on the map. Alongside his HBK Gang that includes Sage The Gemini and P-Lo, Su has breathed new life into the region that was once known for its hyphy movement. His debut album Sincerely Yours is an accumulation of the minimalist sound that he’s made widely popular again.

Throughout his career, the Richmond, Calif. rapper/producer has delivered solid mixtapes ($uzy 6 $peed, his Kilt series), so to see his official LP open more doors for him is one of the more exciting outcomes from the project. At only 24-years-old, he'll have a long, fruitful career if he continues on this pace. Standouts like “The Weather,” “T.W.D.Y.” (featuring OGs E-40 and Too $hort) and “What You ‘Bout” only means he can go up from here.—ED


Iggy Azalea, The New Classic

2014 was a year of prosperity and growth for Iggy Azalea, and her debut LP, The New Classic, was the launching pad that got her there. The album proved to a gang of skepts who doubted Iggy's controversial style from the start that she was more than capable of making hip-hop tracks with a pop appeal. As the album's hit single "Fancy" (featuring Charli XCX) is currently at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the fifth week, the LP proved that the Australian rapstress was making her mark in the game. She's here to stay, fellas.—MJ


Kid Cudi, Satellite Flight: The Journey To Mother Moon

Kid Cudi's powers were restored on Satellite Flight: The Journey To Mother Moon, as he took listeners on a journey back to the territory he'd explored previously. Satellite Flight stretches the boundaries of hip-hop; for 41 minutes, fans entered into Cudi's version of a deep space odyssey. The album is one half Cudi going back and forth with his signature crooning and rapping, and the second half a collection of impressive instrumental tracks, but the magic lies in the album's sequencing. Nothing feels out of place and the order of each song makes sense, serving as a destination point in the Cudi narrative. Satellite Flight is a densely short album exhibiting all of Cudi's strengths and creates a wonderfully dreamy atmosphere that only he can manage to capture. —ECM

Kid Ink - My Own Lane

Kid Ink, My Own Lane

Kid Ink was one of the first hip-hop artists to release an album in 2014. After building up his name with the independent release Up & Away and his EP Almost Home, the Los Angeles rapper blazed through the path he’s created with My Own Lane.

The project, Ink’s sophomore album, showcases him as a dominant hip-hop/pop star. Backed by production from DJ Mustard and DZL, the proven hitmaker delivers a variety of songs for any occasion. “Show Me,” featuring Chris Brown, is already a big summer anthem and joints like “Murda” show he’s a lyrical threat on the mic. If you’d been sleeping on Ink before, it’s time for you to wake up.—ED


¡Mayday! & Murs, ¡MursDay!

In a strategy that highlights Strange Music’s group mentality, latest signee Murs' first release on the label came in the form of a collaboration with ¡Mayday! Aptly titled ¡MursDay!, the album sees Murs trade rhymes with ¡Mayday! MCs Wrekonize and Bernz, in an old school freewheeling manner that’s indicative of their shared charisma. Murs retains his comedic stylings, Bernz shows his strength in delivery, and Wrekonize comes across as extremely relatable. They’re all likeable personalities on the mic, and each knows how to inject wordplay in frequent intervals.

The ¡Mayday! band emerged as the real star of the project, creating a sonic landscape that plays almost like a live show. There are impressive horns and atypical drums, flamenco hand claps and insanely catchy hooks. The Latin flavor is coupled with some hints of rock and West Coast swag. It’s all a welcome departure from the norm, while utilizing scratch techniques and reliable rhymes to retain a level of accessibility for hip-hop purists. A “summer album” that’s inhabited by quality MC skills and old school thematics is hard to come by. ¡MursDay! delivers exactly that.—RC


Mobb Deep, The Infamous Mobb Deep

Mobb Deep refused to fade away from hip-hop even after a public and rather embarrassing fallout on Twitter in 2012. Despite their mini-feud, Prodigy and Havoc resolved their problems for the fans, reuniting for The Infamous Mobb Deep. The double-disc LP pays homage to their formidable years by giving a wealth of songs that deserve to be in your collection. With production by Havoc and New York staples like !llmind, they crafted a quality project that makes us believe this won't be the last time we'll be hearing from the Queensbridge veterans.—ED


Onyx, #WakeDaFucUp

Classic New York hip-hop has been on the come up again with recent reunions of groups like Dipset, The LOX and G-Unit, but it was Queens crew Onyx who delivered a full LP first. The group's sixth studio project, #WakeDaFucUp, is a hard-hitting album that takes the listener on a wild adventure through the harsh realities of living in Southside, Queens. Produced entirely by the Snowgoons, the album's 14 tracks include features from New York staples Sean Price, Papoose, A$AP Ferg and more. Songs like "Hammers On Deck," “We Don't F**kin' Care” and "The Tunnel" prove that no matter how much time has gone by, Onyx still has something to bring to the table. —JW


Pharrell, G I R L

With the wild success that Pharrell experienced in 2013, fans were caught up in the anticipation of Skateboard P's first studio album in eight years. G I R L not only got Pharrell nominated for an Oscar, he's cleaned up at a series of award shows since. There's a reason Pharrell waited a while to release an LP. The massive success of the single "Happy" has certainly played a huge part when it comes to the accolades of the LP, proving not only a hit in the US but across the globe. The refreshing sound also attributes to the excellence of the project, as Pharrell meshed 1970's disco sounds with the hard-hitting beats of today, setting the album apart from much of the pop-hop that's come through in the past decade.—MJ


Rick Ross, Mastermind

Rick Ross' sixth studio album Mastermind is much stronger than its predecessor, God Forgives, I Don't, both sonically and lyrically. Mastermind gives fans a better understanding of what it means to have a target on your back 24/7. We get what we love about Ross—mafioso raps that makes you feel like you're Pablo Escobar ("War Ready, "Devil Is A Lie," "What A Shame")—but there's also a great influx of The Bawse sharing tales of morality, survival and vulnerability ("Blessing In Disguise," "Paradise Lost"). The outstanding guest features (Lil Wayne on "Thug Cry," The Weeknd on "In Vein," and Kanye West and Big Sean on "Sanctified") and Ross' penchant for picking plush beats mixed with his Kingpin lyrics makes Mastermind an enjoyable album that stands alongside the rest of his catalog. —ECM

Riff Raff , Neon Icon

Riff Raff, Neon Icon

Riff Raff is one of hip-hop’s most polarizing figures, but his debut album Neon Icon clarifies his oft-debated place in the game—the man is here to have fun, period. Riff Raff is aware of himself, as evidenced by his clever intro that parodies the Bro you take him and his fans for. He winks at your disapproval and then proceeds to throw a 49-minute audio party that you’ll desperately want to join.

The album is executive produced by Diplo, so it's unsurprisingly carried by an electronic current, but generous blends of old school nostalgia, trendy trap, poppy melodies, and even country provide a level of diversity that stands defiantly in the face preconceived predictions. You can practically hear the fluttering of a stack of cash being thumbed through as Neon Icon plays; the album is curated with the singular goal of making a hit stick with a large audience, and the amount of money invested to do so is obvious. The lead single “How To Be The Man” is a prime example of that intention, as DJ Mustard produced a less-is-more beat with Riff Raff spitting his trademark more-is-more content. He stays in a self-created lane of hyperbole, painting vivid and cartoonish pictures of technicolored opulence.—RC


ScHoolboy Q, Oxymoron

TDE has been one of hip-hop’s fastest growing movements since the success of Kendrick Lamar’s debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city. Following that up was ScHoolboy Q's own major label debut, Oxymoron, which dropped in February and landed the label its first No. 1 album. Thanks to production from Digi+Phonics, Pharrell, Swiff D, The Alchemist and more, Oxymoron stands on its own two feet all while displaying a mean, gritty style of gangsta rap on songs like “What They Want," "The Purge" and “Break The Bank." It also sets the pace of the album with chill vibes on songs like “Collard Greens," “Studio," and “Man Of The Year.” Q's no longer up next, he's already here.—JW


Skyzoo & Torae, Barrel Brothers

Barrel Brothers is made for running around in Brooklyn. Inspired by a fan who accidentally wrote that Skyzoo and Torae were putting out a collaborative album on Wikipedia, the two thought it was actually a pretty good idea and went right to work. Capturing the essence and sounds of New York hip-hop, the duo put their lyrical skills to the forefront over stellar production. It’s an interesting take on the city’s origins; whether the prideful “Blue Yankee Fitted” or “The Aura” restores “the feeling” for you, the LP as a whole has quickly become a fan favorite.—ED


Smoke DZA, Dream.ZONE.Achieve

In April, Harlem native Smoke DZA released his third studio album, Dream.ZONE.Achieve, and divided the project into three main acts all representing a different theme: dreaming, hustling and fulfillment. Carrying an aggressive tone within the first act, DZA paid homage to one of hip-hop’s greatest groups, The Diplomats, with “Ghost of Dipset” featuring a verse from Cam’ron, and to Jay Z on “Jigga Flow.” DZA’s ability to switch the mood of the album from aggressive to mellow at will meant that the concept paid off well.

Dream.ZONE.Achieve features guest spots from Ab-Soul, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y and Ty Dolla $ign and production from 6th Sense, DJ Dahi, Harry Fraud, Cardo and V-Don, and wraps up with a third act representing his coming of age within hip-hop. It's a strong statement from the Uptown spitter. —JW


Tech N9ne, Strangeulation

It seems like the further Tech N9ne goes in his career, the better he becomes. It’s no doubt he’s one of the most successful independent artists in the genre, and this fourth installment in his Collabos series—his fourteenth studio album overall—follows up his previous effort, last summer's Something Else. The album delivers a very aggressive tone throughout, but what makes this project different from other releases in 2014 is Tech's ability to deliver diverse lyrics over heavy instrumentals with songs like "Make Waves," while sustaining a mainstream presence with songs such as “Great Night." Aside from his solo tracks, Tech brings together his Strange Music family (including newcomer Murs) to show off their talent to newcomers unfamiliar with the label. Tech knows how to showcase Strange in the best possible way, and he achieves that again on Strangeulation.—JW


The Roots, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

Eleven albums deep and The Roots are still delivering, innovating, and inspiring. ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is their second straight concept album and the group is proud of putting that on display. The passing years have only served to embolden their unconventional approach, and this latest effort is seething with dark content and layered sounds.

The band itself is musically on point, drawing heavily from soul, funk, and jazz influences while creating moments of dramatic dissonance to heighten the tension of the storyline. The entire project is haunted by an array of vocals (Nina Simone’s “Theme From The Middle Of The Night” and Mary Lou Williams’ “The Devil” are unsurprising standouts), and features by Dice Raw and Greg Porn add some lyrical diversity, not that that's needed when Black Thought holding down the main storyline. Thought proves yet again why he’s everyone’s nomination for the game's most underrated rapper. His rhyme patterns are acrobatic and his storytelling is heart-wrenchingly vivid as he details the trials of the underprivileged. The album is a rare mix of conceptual and listenable, proving there’s a reason they’re called The Legendary Roots Crew.—RC


YG, My Krazy Life

Delivering his debut LP after nearly five years in the game, there's no denying the caliber of the craft YG put into My Krazy Life. Making listeners privy to all aspects of his struggles growing up in Compton (or Bompton if you're in on the lingo), the CTE signee gave fans something to dance to and shared his personal journey along the way. With two huge singles, "My Hitta" and "Who Do You Love," mixed up with strong cuts like "Meet The Flockers" and "I'm Sorry Mama," the album provided the perfect mix of summertime bangers, while DJ Mustard's production gave the album its bouncy backbone. YG also brought back the raw West Coast gangsta sound that we hadn't heard in a while. Simply put, he couldn't have managed to do it in a more authentic way.—MJ


Young Money, Rise Of An Empire

Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew has been pretty active this year. While stars Tyga and Nicki Minaj are busy putting the final touches on their new albums, Weezy’s been busy talking up some of his crew's new names like Euro, Flow and Chanel West Coast. Their second compilation, Rise Of An Empire, comes stacked with solid bangers and serves as an introduction to the incoming class of Young Money signees. Although some of the bigger records we’ve heard months before the release date, it definitely holds up as your go-to LP to turn up. —ED

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