There’s one stipulation we abide by when choosing XXL Freshman. Before the date of the photoshoot, none of them can have a major label debut.
Throughout the years, XXL has been on the forefront of co-signing rap superstars the moment before they popped. In 2012, Future was placed on the cover and a year later exploded with the success of his debut album, Pluto. Likewise, many fans were unfamiliar with Macklemore when he made the same cover, but quickly caught on when “Thrift Shop” from The Heist became an international phenomenon. This time around, Logic looks destined to have a strong year with his untitled Def Jam debut scheduled to release this year. Judging by what he has put out so far, we can’t wait for it to come out.
In the seven years since the Freshman franchise has been around, more than half of the inductees have released a debut album. Even a small percentage of them have gone on to their sophomore efforts off the foundation their first LP created for new fans. Yesterday, we gave you an extensive list of The 73 Best Freshmen Mixtapes, and now we are back for The Best Albums By XXL Freshmen. From known classics like Kendrick Lamar’s XXL-rated good kid, m.A.A.d city to critically-acclaimed efforts like Danny Brown’s Old, there are plenty here to revisit again. Sit back, relax, and go in.—Complied By Eric Diep, Dan Rys, Chris Mench & Ke'Andrea Ayers
freshmen albums best albums xxl
lupe fiasco food and liquor
Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food & LiquorLabel: 1st & 15th/Atlantic
Release Date: Sept. 19, 2006
Notable Songs: “Kick, Push,” “Daydreamin’ (featuring Jill Scott)”
Why It's Dope: The Chi-Town MC’s debut album was a game changer in the mid-2000’s rap scene. Throughout the project, Lupe tackled heavy topics like politics, religion, and inner city life while incorporating lush, string and horn-heavy production from the likes of Kanye West, The Neptunes, and Soundtrakk. The result was a hip-hop record that stands the test of time as one of the 2000s best.
lil boosie bad azz
Boosie BadAzz, Bad AzzLabel: Trill/Asylum/Warner Bros.
Release Date: October 24, 2006
Notable Songs: “Zoom (featuring Yung Joc),” “Set It Off”
Why It's Dope: As Lil Boosie’s major label debut, Bad Azz established the Baton Rouge firecracker as a major player in the gangster rap game. Lead single “Zoom” was a classic Boosie club banger, and much of Bad Azz follows the same vein. Of course, with Lil Boosie’s legal troubles finally behind him and the resumption of his music career ahead, it might not be too long before Bad Azz is dethroned by an upcoming project. Until then, it remains the classic example of Boosie’s strong gangster rap sensibilities.
papoose nacirema dream
Papoose, The Nacirema DreamLabel: Honor B4 Money/Fontana
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Notable Songs: “Cure (featuring Erykah Badu),” “6AM (featuring Jim Jones & Jadakiss)”
Why It's Dope: After going through self-described “A&R Hell” in a failed deal with Jive Records, releasing over a dozen mixtapes, and dealing with delay after delay, Papoose’s debut album The Nacirema Dream finally dropped in March 2013. Boasting appearances by artists like Mobb Deep and Erykah Badu, Nacirema stayed true to Papoose’s long-stated vision. While the album treads on familiar territory after years on the shelf, its release was nonetheless a huge victory for the Bed-Stuy rhymer, as he finally got to put out the project he wanted to.
joell ortiz free agent
Joell Ortiz, Free AgentLabel: E1 Music
Release Date: February 22, 2011
Notable Songs: “Battle Cry (featuring Just Blaze),” “Call Me (She Said) [featuring Novel]”
Why It's Dope: Despite leaking three months before its release date (thanks to a mistake by Amazon), Free Agent managed to make waves in the rap community. Ortiz’ solid lyricism and beat selection made the album an underground success, with the Brooklyn veteran demolishing tracks like “Battle Cry.” While Ortiz has gone on to have great success as a member of Slaughterhouse, Free Agent was the last solo album he released.
plies definition of real
Plies, Definition of RealLabel: Slip-N-Slide/Warner
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Notable Songs: “Bust It Baby, Pt. 2 (featuring Ne-Yo)
Why It's Dope: Despite being slightly overshadowed by the mammoth release of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III on the same day, Definition of Real remains Plies’ best work. Buoyed by Top 10 single “Bust It Baby, Pt. 2” with Ne-Yo, Plies enjoyed crossover success. Much of the material was radio friendly, and yet it maintains a street-hardened edge that his debut, The Real Testament, occasionally lacked. The Florida native’s intense delivery, along with high-profile guests like Trey Songz and Jamie Foxx, helped made the record a street-oriented success.
saigon greatest story never told
Saigon, The Greatest Story Never ToldLabel: Suburban Noize
Release Date: February 15, 2011
Notable Songs: “Come On Baby (featuring Jay-Z & Swizz Beats),” “The Greatest Story Never Told,” “Clap (featuring Faith Evans)”
Why It's Dope: For a couple of years, it looked like The Greatest Story Never Told was destined to be the next Detox, as label drama with Atlantic had suspended its release all but indefinitely. While the first single came out in July of 2007, the album didn’t end up dropping until February 2011. Fortunately, those who endured the wait were not disappointed. Richly layered production by Just Blaze underscores Saigon’s intellectual lyrics on everything from history to the hood. While the album didn’t blow up like it could have with a proper release, it showed the world that Saigon’s fight for artistic integrity wasn’t for nothing.
Rich Boy, Rich BoyLabel: Interscope
Release Date: March 13, 2007
Notable Songs: “Throw Some D’s (featuring Polow Da Don),” “Boy Looka Here”
Why It's Dope: Rich Boy burst onto the scene in 2007 when his debut single “Throw Some D’s” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Atlanta producer Polow Da Don filled the Alabama MC’s self-titled album with club-ready beats. Capitalizing on the top-notch production, Rich Boy got the party started on songs like “Boy Looka Here,” with his southern drawl punctuating lines about drinking and hustling. The success of Rich Boy’s debut was bittersweet, however, as his sophomore release was tied up in delays until 2013.
gorilla zoe don't feed the animals
Gorilla Zoe, Don’t Feed Da AnimalsLabel: Bad Boy South
Release Date: March 17, 2009
Notable Songs: “Echo,” “Lost,” “I Got It (featuring Big Block)”
Why It's Dope: Some critics have dismissed Gorilla Zoe’s rap style as simplistic and Auto-Tune reliant. On his second album Don’t Feed Da Animals, however, the former Boyz N Da Hood member played this to his advantage. Combining catchy hooks with deeply personal lyrics, Gorilla Zoe managed to create strangely workable club records. Tracks like “Echo” and “Lost” dripped with both personal angst and undeniably good production, proving that Gorilla Zoe was more than he seems on the surface.
young dro best thang smokin
Young Dro, Best Thang Smokin’Label: Grand Hustle/Atlantic
Release Date: August 29, 2006
Notable Songs: “Shoulder Lean (featuring T.I.),” “Rubberband Banks”
Why It's Dope: As one of the earliest artists signed to T.I.’s Hustle Gang imprint, Young Dro was instrumental in the label’s initial success. Propelled by the popularity of his T.I. collaboration “Shoulder Lean,” Young Dro quickly rose to prominence. Best Thang Smokin’ showcased some of Dro’s best club tracks, and was the last official album he would release for nearly seven years.
crooked i apex predator
Crooked I, Apex PredatorLabel: Treacherous C.O.B./Empire Distribution
Release Date: July 30, 2013
Notable Songs: “Let Me Get It (featuring Tech N9ne),” “No Sleep Gang”
Why It's Dope: Despite nearly two decades in the game, Crooked I didn’t release a proper full-length debut until just last year. Apex Predator, while not everything one would hope for from such a talented MC, was nonetheless a solid step in the right direction for Crooked I as a solo artist. More than anything, it proved that the Slaughterhouse member certainly hasn’t forgotten how to spit. Whether he was going toe-to-toe with Tech N9ne or handling things on his own, the California MC’s debut album showed why he was in the top tier of hip-hop lyrically.
bobby ray bob
B.o.B, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby RayLabel: Grand Hustle/Atlantic
Release Date: April 27, 2010
Notable Songs: "Nothin’ On You" (featuring Bruno Mars), "Magic" (featuring Rivers Cuomo), "Airplanes" (featuring Haley Williams of Paramore)
Why It's Dope: B.o.B’s debut album bubbled with his signature genre-bending style. Massive, multi-platinum singles like “Airplanes” and “Magic” helped propel the project to the top of the charts in 2010, debuting at No. 1 and going on to sell over 500,000 copies. The wide-ranging album incorporated elements of pop, rock, funk, and of course hip-hop, showcasing Bobby Ray’s versatility and his hit-making sensibilities.
kid cudi man on the moon
Kid Cudi, Man On The Moon: The End Of DayLabel: Dream On/G.O.O.D. Music/Universal Motown
Release Date: September 14, 2009
Notable Songs: “Day ‘n’ Nite (Nightmare),” “Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare) [feat. MGMT & Ratatat], “Up Up & Away”
Why It's Dope: Many consider Man On The Moon: The End of Day to be the quintessential Kid Cudi album. Narrated by Common, the album brought the listener on a journey through the mind of Scott Mescudi. Along the way, they learn about his dreams, his fears, and his nightmares. The innovative album built upon Cudi’s work on mentor Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak, melding the style into a spaced-out dreamscape of a project. MotM spawned many of Scott’s most successful singles, and was certified gold for selling over 500,000 copies.
currensy pilot talk
Curren$y, Pilot TalkLabel: DD172/Def Jam
Release Date: July 13, 2010
Notable Songs: “Breakfast,” “Address (featuring Stalley),” “The Day (featuring Mos Def & Jay Electronica)”
Why It's Dope: Curren$y has released a handful of solid albums, but the original Pilot Talk, his third, stood a shoulder above the rest. It was on this record that the New Orleans native really began to solidify his style. Aided by Ski Beatz smoky production, Curren$y delivered a laid back flow that still manages to feel urgent. His stoner-friendly persona and thick rhymes helped make the album a hazy triumph.
ace hood trials tribulations
Ace Hood,Trials & TribulationsLabel: We the Best/Cash Money
Release Date: July 16, 2013
Notable Songs: “Bugatti" (featuring Future & Rick Ross),” “We Outchea (featuring Lil Wayne),” "Mama" (featuring Betty Wright)
Why It's Dope: After years of (largely unrecognized) hard work on Def Jam, Ace Hood’s Cash Money debut finally achieved some of the crossover success he had been working for. While “Bugatti” was rightfully inescapable last year, Trials & Tribulations also contained a deeper roster of personal songs than Ace’s previous albums. His work ethic and passion really came through in the music, and the result was his best project yet.
asher roth retro hash
Asher Roth, RetroHashLabel: Pale Fire/Federal Prism
Release Date: April 22, 2014
Notable Songs: “Tangerine Girl,” “Fast Life (featuring Vic Mensa),” “Pot of Gold”
Why It's Dope: After critics savaged his 2009 debut Asleep In The Bread Aisle, many hip-hop fans wrote Asher Roth off as a one-hit wonder. Nearly five years later, after a slew of successful mixtapes and a departure from his major label, he returned with his sophomore LP RetroHash. The project delved deeper into the many musical influences Roth has explored since his “I Love College” days, and the result was an album that showed a great amount of maturity and promise for a rapper who has fought to be taken seriously by the hip-hop community for years. Playful instrumentals accompany Asher’s dense wordplay, proving that the red-headed Pennsylvania native was much more than just a frat rapper.
Blu, YorkLabel: Nature Sounds
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Notable Songs: “SLNGBNGrs," “Hours," “Everything’s OK”
Why It's Dope: While it’s difficult to pick a best album from a skillful and prolific rapper like Blu, York was perhaps the greatest example of his ample talents. Blu attacked a wide range of important topics on the album, and left the jazzy East Coast beats for something more backpack that resonated in L.A. Considered by many to be an underground classic, the album established Blu as an artist that any true hip-hop fan needed to pay attention to.
Wiz Khalifa, Deal Or No Deal
Label: Rostrum Records
Release Date: November 24, 2009
Notable Songs: “This Plane,” “Chewy”
Why Its Dope: While far from Wiz Khalifa’s most commercially successful work, his sophomore effort on Rostrum Records remained his most artistically consistent album. Released just months before his career-changing Kush & OJ mixtape, Deal Or No Deal showcased Wiz at his best. Smooth tracks like “This Plane” and “Chewy” find the ganja-loving rapper delivering solid rhymes without the aesthetic-compromising pop tracks that became an issue on Rolling Papers.
wiz khalifa no deal
Freddie Gibbs, ESGN
Label: ESGN/Empire Distribution
Release Date: June 19, 2013
Notable Songs: “Eastside Moonwalker,” “One Eighty Seven (featuring Problem)”
Why Its Dope: After years of quality mixtapes, Freddie Gibbs had a lot to live up to on his debut. ESGN is, in many ways, a culmination of a career’s worth of hard work. Gibbs’ gruff-voiced flow and bleak subject matter are in abundance, with the Gary, Indiana native spinning tales of street life over trap and jazz-inspired beats. While not everything one might wish for from the highly talented rapper, ESGN was nonetheless a solid debut from a long overlooked rapper.
freddie gibbs esgn
Jay Rock, Follow Me HomeLabel: Top Dawg Entertainment/Strange Music
Release Date: July 26, 2011
Notable Songs: “Hood Gone Love It (featuring Kendrick Lamar),” “All My Life (In the Ghetto) [featuring Lil Wayne & will.i.am],” “Say Wassup (featuring Black Hippy)”
Why It's Dope: Jay Rock’s much anticipated debut Follow Me Home was everything most fans hoped it would be. Its smooth, West Coast-inspired grooves provide the perfect background for the TDE spitter’s heavy lyrics. Despite solid guest appearances by his fellow Black Hippy members, as well as heavyweights like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and Tech N9ne, Jay Rock managed to keep the album’s voice consistently and uniquely his own. Luckily, years of languishing on the shelf at Warner Bros. didn’t soften the California MC’s many talents.
oj da juiceman
OJ Da Juiceman, The Otha Side Of The TrapLabel: Asylum Records
Release Date: January 19, 2009
Notable Songs: “Make the Trap Say Aye (featuring Gucci Mane)”
Why It's Dope: OJ Da Juiceman’s first (and only) album brought together the highlights of his many mixtapes into a cohesive project. Several Gucci Mane features and stellar trap production by Zaytoven helped elevate the album beyond OJ’s typical swagger raps. The single “Make the Trap Say Aye” with Gucci Mane was also a minor hit on the Billboard Rap Songs chart.
Fashawn, Boy Meets World
Label: One Records
Release Date: October 22, 2009
Notable Songs: “Samsonite Man (featuring Blu),” “Hey Young World (featuring Aloe Blacc & Devoya)”
Why Its Dope: On Fashawn’s independently released debut, he evoked many of the elements of old-school hip-hop. Boy Meets World, entirely produced by Exile, was a collection of smart raps and smooth flow. Pushing the genre forward, and yet honoring its roots, Fashawn crafted an intelligent but still fun debut album. Exile’s production works as an updated version of classic hip-hop beats, giving the project a new, yet timeless appeal.
fashawn boy meets world
kendrick lamar gkmc
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d cityLabel: Top Dawg/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records
Release Date: October 22, 2012
Notable Songs: "Swimming Pools (Drank)" “Backseat Freestyle," "Poetic Justice" (featuring Drake)
Why It's Dope: There’s no question that any album nominated for not only one, but four Grammys is anything less dope, especially when one of the nominations is for Album Of The Year. good kid, m.A.A.d city was Kendrick’s second studio album, which sold 242,000 copies its first week and debuted at the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 chart.
mac miller watching movies
Mac Miller, Watching Movies With The Sound OffLabel: Rostrum Records
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Notable Songs: “S.D.S." "Watching Movies," "Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes" (featuring Jay Electronica)
Why It's Dope: This sophomore album from the Pittsburgh rap-star sold over 100,000 copies in the first week. Although he was in competition with J. Cole and Kanye West, the big numbers proved that he could hang with rap's elite stars. The album itself was an overall strong effort, where songs alongside his buddies Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, ScHoolboy Q, Action Bronson and Tyler, The Creator brought out the best of him.
lil b i'm gay
Lil B, I’m Gay (I’m Happy)Label: Amalgam Digital
Release Date: June 29, 2011
Notable Songs: "Trapped in Prison," "Unchain Me"
Why It's Dope: In addition to the fact that this album ranked No. 56 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, this album was great simply because it was the most controversial album of 2011. The title alone had everyone from hip-hop executives to the LGBT community questioning his intentions from the moment he announced it at the 2011 Coachella Festival. Every news outlet began talking about it and the Cali native rap star even sat down with CNN to explain the reasoning behind the title. Lil B was originally going to name the album “I’m Gay,” but after receiving death threats and national attention he added “(I’m Happy)” in parentheses.
Yelawolf, RadioactiveLabel: Shady Records/ Interscope Records
Release Date: November 21, 2011
Notable Songs: "Let's Roll" (featuring Kid Rock), "Hard White (Up in the Club)" (featuring Lil Jon), "Throw It Up" (featuring Gangsta Boo & Eminem)
Why It's Dope: Catfish Billy's Shady debut was highly anticipated the moment he snapped on Trunk Muzik. While Radioactive didn't sell as much as many industry insiders would have hoped, fans saw Yela's style of fast-rapping and his varied tastes connect with the mainstream. Standouts include songs he made with notable artists such as Eminem, Mystikal and Lil Jon. To this day, Yela is still someone who Eminem really admires.
meek mill dreams nightmares
Meek Mill, Dreams And NightmaresLabel: Maybach Music Group/ Warner Bros
Release Date: October 30, 2012
Notable Songs: "Dreams and Nightmares," "Tony Story (Pt. 2)," "Believe It" (featuring Rick Ross)
Why It's Dope: Meek Mill was up next in line to put for MMG. His debut album, Dreams And Nightmares, upped his profile in the game, selling over 165,000 copies in its first week. Portraying his idea of intertwining success and failure on the album cover, it was divided into those sections throughout the whole thing. On songs like "Amen," Meek is at his best, while a revealing number such as "Tony Story (Pt. 2)" shows he's very much embedded in the streets. He had to grind like this to shine like this.
yg my krazy life
YG, My Krazy LifeLabel: Pu$haz Ink/CTE World/Def Jam Recordings
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Notable Songs: "My N*gga" (featuring Rich Homie Quan, Jeezy), "Left, Right," "Who Do You Love" (featuring Drake)
Why It's Dope: After a relentless grind in the mixtape circuit, YG's My Krazy Life was a surprisingly good effort that showed the West was shifting back to the top of rap's mountain. Fueled by his hit single "My N*gga," as well as frequent club banger "Who Do You Love," YG guided us through Compton with tight beats by DJ Mustard. "Meet The Flockers" was a real story of robbing a few homes, and "Bicken Back Being Bool" was 100 percent gangster. C-Walk to this all day.
diggy simmons unexpected
Diggy Simmons, Unexpected ArrivalLabel: Atlantic Records
Release Date: March 20, 2012
Notable Songs: "88," "Two Up," "4 Letter Word"
Why It's Dope: This album set up Diggy as hip-hop's next bright star. With a lineage of musical talent in his family, Unexpected Arrival confirmed he's no longer the kid rapping alongside his bro JoJo. Features included Jadakiss, Tank and Jeremih.
danny brown old
Danny Brown, OldLabel: Fool’s Gold Records
Release Date: October 8, 2013
Notable Songs: "Dip," "25 Bucks" (Purity Ring), "Dope Fiend Rental" (featuring Schoolboy Q)
Why It's Dope: Despite low album sales, Danny Brown's debut was widely appreciated by hip-hop purists. Our review last year on it pretty much summed it up: "In a year that’s seen aging rappers in both the mainstream (Jay Z, Kanye West) and underground (J-Zone, Ka) confront the concept of their own mortality with varying degrees of honesty and depth, Old might be the most impressive yet. Brown displays real bravery in his willingness to merge the sacred with the profane, the independent with the arena-ready, the old with the new. As the binaries of rap continue to collapse, Brown looks less like an outcast and more like a trailblazer. It feels like time is on his side."
hopsin knock madness
Hopsin, Knock MadnessLabel: Funk Volume
Release Date: November 24, 2013
Notable Songs: "Old Friend," "Hop Is Back," "Rip Your Heart Out" (featuring Tech N9ne)
Why It's Dope: While Hop says this was his "last album" before going to retirement, Knock Madness made a significant impact on the charts. With features from Tech N9ne and Funk Volume's Dizzy Wright, Hop held his own.
mgk lace up
Machine Gun Kelly, Lace UpLabel: Bad Boy Records/Interscope Records
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Notable Songs: "Wild Boy," (featuring Waka Flocka Flame), "See My Tears," "Invincible"
Why It's Dope: This album was expected to be strong when the debut single "Wild Boy" was certified gold after selling over 500,000 copies. The album went on to debut at No. 4 on US Billboard 200 with first week sales of 57,000 copies. Great features with Ester Dean, Tech N9ne, DMX and Lil Jon were also on the album.
macklemore the heist
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The HeistLabel: Macklemore, LLC
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Notable Songs: "Can’t Hold Us" (featuring Ray Dalton), "Same Love," (featuring Mary Lambert) "Thrift Shop" (featuring Wanz)
Why It's Dope: As an independent artist, Macklemore shook the world when his song "Thrift Shop" became the No. 1 song on the Billboard 200 and sold over 7 million copies. Couple that with his controversial win for Best Hip-Hop Album at this year's Grammy Awards and going platinum in three countries, Mack's been riding high since his debut.
french montana excuse
French Montana, Excuse My FrenchLabel: Coke Boys/Bad Boy Records/Maybach Music Group
Release Date: May 21, 2013
Notable Songs: "Pop That" (featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne), "Freaks" (featuring Nicki Minaj), "Ain’t Worried About Nothin"
Why It's Dope: This album hit the No. 4 spot on the Billboard 200 charts after selling 55,000 copies in its first week. Diddy, Nicki Minaj and Snoop Dogg were just a few of the many big names featured on the album. French released three singles from the LP and all three ranked on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Label: A1/Freebandz/Epic Records
Release Date: April 22, 2014
Notable Songs: "Honest," "Sh!t," "Move That Dope" (featuring Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino), "I Won" (featuring Kanye West), "Covered N Money"
Why Its Dope: Future's second offering established him as a true star out of The Dungeon Family. Mixing in trap bangers, loverboy anthems, and more, the ATL rapper/crooner showed a lot of growth and progression since his strong debut, Pluto. Plus, anyone who can get Andre 3000 to rap again is always a win.
kid ink my own lane
Kid Ink, My Own LaneLabel: Tha Alumni Music Group, 88 Classic, RCA Records
Release Date: January 7, 2014
Notable Songs: "Show Me" (featuring Chris Brown), "Iz U Down" (featuring Tyga), "No Option" (featuring King Los)
Why It's Dope: This album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts when selling 50,000 copies in its first week and over 115,000 copies to date. DJ Mustard produced three songs off the album including his first single "Show Me."
iggy azalea new classic
Iggy Azalea, The New ClassicLabel: Island
Release Date: April 21, 2014
Notable Songs: "Work," "Change Your Life" (featuring T.I.), "Fancy" (featuring Charli XCX)
Why It's Dope: The New Classic is the highest ranked female hip-hop album since Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday. It sold over 50,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. Iggy became the first non-American female rapper to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Her album has guest appearances from Watch The Duck, Charli XCX, Rita Ora and T.I.
jon connor unconscious state
Jon Connor, Unconscious StateLabel: Varsity
Release Date: July 2, 2013
Notable Songs:"Rise Up" (featuring Talib Kweli), "Michigan Shit" (featuring Royce Da 5'9")
Why It's Dope: By this point, Connor was known as one of the most lyrical MCs in the game, but Unconscious State—with its features from Royce, Kweli, Freddie Gibbs, Danny Brown and Smoke DZA, to name just a few—proved that he could stand his ground amongst his peers in the game. Connor may have made his name through his mixtapes—calling himself The People's Rapper, he's been known to cater to his fanbase but consistently delivering top-notch music for free—but Unconscious State established him as a rapper with more than just technical ability on his side.
jarren benton grandma's basement
Jarren Benton, My Grandma's BasementLabel: Funk Volume
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Notable Songs:"Razor Blades And Steak Knives," "Cadillacs And Chevy's"
Why It's Dope: Jarren had been making a name for himself as a spit-fire MC with his mixtapes before this, but his first Funk Volume album was his most fully-realized project to date. This album launched him from just another ATLien into one of the premier talents on the scene without him being entrenched in the now-formulaic Atlanta trap world.
august alsina testimony
August Alsina, TestimonyLabel: Def Jam
Release Date: April 15, 2014
Notable Songs: "I Luv This Shit" (featuring Trinidad Jame$), "Ghetto" (featuring Yo Gotti), "Make It Home" (featuring Jeezy)
Why It's Dope: When August first started making waves on the scene, it was his backstory—impoverished kid with a drug-addicted father trying to make it through the impoverished New Orleans projects—that set him apart from other singers crooning about love and sex. Testimony proved there was more to him than just a story; he has a melodic sensibility that many would dream of, and a wealth of integrity that many would dream of.
chief keef finally rich
Chief Keef, Finally RichLabel: Interscope
Release Date: December 18, 2012
Notable Songs: "I Don't Like" (featuring Lil Reese), "Love Sosa," "Hate Bein' Sober"
Why It's Dope: It was the album that launched a million white kids dancing with their arms perched awkwardly next to their faces, but it was also the album that established Keef as the unequivocal leader of the then-emerging Chicago drill music scene. If "I Don't Like" put him firmly on the map, this album proved that, despite all the drawbacks, bullshit and lyrical deficiencies, Keef could write hooks that get stuck in people's heads for days and days and days.
schoolboy q oxymoron
ScHoolboy Q, OxymoronLabel: TDE/Interscope
Release Date: February 25, 2014
Notable Songs: "Collard Greens" (featuring Kendrick Lamar), "Man Of The Year," Break The Bank"
Why It's Dope: Q's album was easily one of the most anticipated of 2014, and it didn't disappoint, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and rescuing hip-hop heads from the doldrums of the often-slow early year release schedule. With powerhouse singles, a slew of high-profile features and some beats that were flat-out undeniable, Q put the West Coast on his back and rode it back to its gangsta rap origins, earning TDE's first No. 1 album along the way.
Wale, The Album About NothingLabel: Atlantic/MMG
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Notable Songs: "The Body" (featuring Jeremih), "The Matrimony" (featuring Usher)
Why It's Dope: The Album About Nothing is arguably Wale’s best effort to date. With mostly positive vibes built off a period negative experiences—Wale said in an interview he was depressed for much of the time he was crafting the album—it also causes one to wonder if Wale has to come into a new chapter along with the material. Seinfeld’s appearances are all appreciated and complement the material. Although there were some skepticism about the two joining together at first, after giving this album an invested living, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Wale and Seinfeld were to hook up on a project once more.
Big Sean, Dark Sky ParadiseLabel: Def Jam
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Notable Songs: "I Don't Fuck With You," "Blessings," "All Your Fault"
Why It's Dope: With his latest effort, Big Sean arguably put forth his best work yet. Dark Sky Paradise starts off on a high with Drake and Kanye features within the first three songs, but the LP only gets better as it builds up to the most poignant records towards its end, as "Deep" and "One Man Can Change The World" are undeniably standouts. After shaking off some inconsistency with his previous two albums, Sean finally delivered what the fans knew he had in him the entire time with a project that is nearly unskippable. Contender for album of the year already.
J. Cole, 2014 Forest Hills DriveLabel: Roc Nation
Release Date: December 9, 2014
Notable Songs: "Apparently," "G.O.M.D.," "Wet Dreamz"
Why It's Dope: With barely any heads up, Cole stole the top spot on the Billboard 200 and pushed 375,000 copies of this album in a week before anyone even had a chance to get ready for it, marking another success story for artists employing surprise releases. Aside from the market value, Cole not only served up his vocals for the his latest work but he also assisted in the production aspect of 10 out of the 13 tracks on the album. And did we mention that, without a single guest feature, Cole delivered his best project to date? Cole world indeed.
Troy Ave, Major Without A DealLabel: BSB Records
Release Date: June 5, 2015
Notable Songs: "Doo Doo," "Your Style (Remix)," "All About The Money"
Why It's Dope: Although the album's sales are a hot topic on the internet at the moment, Troy was able to secure some top-level features for this project including 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Fat Joe and Jadakiss. But the Brooklyn rapper also held his own by churning out a steady stream of radio-friendly records. Troy has proven over and over that he's not gonna let the haters hold him back, and if listeners can get beyond the backlash they'll find an album worth bumping.
Big K.R.I.T., CadillacticaLabel: Def Jam
Release Date: November 10, 2014
Notable Songs: "Cadillactica," "King Of The South," "Mt. Olympus"
Why It's Dope: With this album, Big K.R.I.T. certainly felt he had something to prove following mediocre reviews of his debut album. Immediately it was clear that K.R.I.T. had stepped up to the plate. The album's lush production and Southern stylings were more reminiscent of the MC's highly-regarded mixtape work and earned the Mississippi rapper a spot in the top five of the Billboard 200. After his debut failed to live up to the hype, K.R.I.T. was able to successfully bring fans along on his trip to the planet Cadillactica.
Action Bronson, Mr. WonderfulLabel: Vice/Atlantic
Release Date: March 23, 2015
Notable Songs: "Baby Blue," "Easy Rider," "Actin' Crazy"
Why It's Dope: Action Bronson certainly went hard with his major label debut and earned himself a title as one of hip-hop's new stars. The Queens-bred MC paired his eclectic taste in production with his goofy, oddball personality on the LP, which unfurled into a magical journey through his twisted head. "Easy Rider" and "Baby Blue" are standouts on the effort, but it's really the album as a whole that's to be treasured rather than any big singles. In crafting a body of work, Bronson has proved his value to the game.
Lil Durk, Remember My NameLabel: Def Jam/Coke Boys/OTF
Release Date: June 2, 2015
Notable Songs: "Like Me," "Tryna Tryna," "What Your Life Like"
Why It's Dope: Durk's debut came two years after his breakthrough mixtape Signed 2 The Streets announced to the world that there was more to Chicago drill music than Chief Keef. His ear for melody and ability to consistently pen catchy hooks set him apart from the rest, while this album was an experimental one that saw Durk step out of his comfort zone to great effect, particularly on songs like "Tryna Tryna" with fellow former Freshman Logic. It may not have sold as well as other debuts, but Durk fit a lot into a tightly-packed 12 songs.
Logic, Under PressureLabel: Def Jam/Visionary Music Group
Release Date: October 21, 2014
Notable Songs: "Under Pressure," "Buried Alive," "Nikki"
Why It's Dope: Logic is without a doubt one of the slickest young rhymers in the game right now and his highly-anticipated Def Jam debut delivered on the hype and surprised many who had been sleeping on him in the process. It's a concept album more than anything, with A Tribe Called Quest-esque narration tying the themes together and a clever way of raising themes early on and delivering on them as the project moved forward. Perhaps most surprising was that the album—which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200—was such a hit that it came within 1,000 copies of beating out established superstar T.I.'s LP, Paperwork, which came out the same day.
Joey Bada$$, B4.Da.$$Label: Cinematic/Pro Era/Sony RED
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Notable Songs: "Big Dusty," "Paper Trail$," "Christ Conscious," "Like Me"
Why It's Dope: Joey Bada$$ has been considered a leading light for New York hip-hop since his debut mixtape in 2012 announced a young, lyrically-adept MC had arrived on the scene. Setbacks and delays pushed things back, but when B4.Da.$$ arrived on Joey's 20th birthday it proved that the wait was worth it. Sure, there was plenty of boom bap to the production—DJ Premier, Statik Selektah and Pro Era's Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers held down most of the beats—but Joey's poetic rhymes and varied flows, not to mention his unapologetic storytelling, made this one of the best debuts for a rapper that young in years. It's still in rotation more than six months later.
Dizzy Wright, The Growing ProcessLabel: Funk Volume
Release Date: May 26, 2015
Notable Songs: "Higher Learning," "Floyd Money Mayweather"
Why It's Dope: Vegas MC Dizzy Wright had gone more than three years since his first independent album, during which time the rapper was able to grow up and understand what he wanted from a proper commercial release. That, in addition to his heavily weed-centric aesthetic, led to the album's title and its more mature sound and subject matter. It may not have moved crazy numbers, but it was a positive step in the right direction for Dizzy, and features from Krayzie and Layzie Bone as well as Tech N9ne, to name a few, helped make the tracks pop.
Fashawn, The EcologyLabel: Mass Appeal
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Notable Songs: "Something To Believe In," "Higher," "Out The Trunk"
Why It's Dope: To many it had almost seemed like Fashawn was stuck, creatively undone and unable to release another album after the success of his 2009 debut had been followed up by mixtape after mixtape. But Fashawn was creatively reborn at Mass Appeal and returned with an album worth waiting for, grabbing features from Nas, Dom Kennedy, Aloe Blacc and BJ The Chicago Kid to augment his own consistent flow. It was a reminder of how dope the West Coast MC was for those who may have forgotten.