The most acclaimed hip-hop projects of the year are on an artistic, black liberation bent. This doesn't mean that tracks featured on our Top 10 list of the Best Hip-Hop Songs of 2015 (So Far) sound like they came from Kendrick Lamar's celebrated album, To Pimp a Butterfly. In fact, it's a pretty diverse slate of tunes.
Rapper Kanye West appears three times on the list, including two songs where he makes a cameo appearance. His latest single "All Day" is great but it didn't have the same impact as Drake's infectious anthem "Know Yourself," which appears on this list.
In addition, you have multiple other storylines coming to a head. For example, Vince Staples, considered one of hip-hop's most underrated rappers, justified the anticipation for his upcoming album, Summertime '06, with his outstanding lead single, "Senorita," that somehow brings Future into the mix. The California rhymer also makes a good cameo on Earl Sweatshirt's track "Wool" as well.
Meanwhile, K.Dot makes an excellent single with "Alright" and Lupe Fiasco delivers a powerful song called "Mural."
So without further ado, check out The Boombox's top 10 list of the Best Hip-Hop Songs of 2015 (So Far) below.
In the context of To Pimp A Butterfly, “Alright” is the reliever following the suicidal self-deprecation of “u.” By itself, it’s the pep talk that “i” wanted to be, with Pharrell Williams dropping the “Happy” act for a brother-to-brother chant. Lamar is fighting off industry ill and is fitting in jargon about Cerberus. But he never loses sight of the main goal: elation.
“Blessings”Big Sean Featuring Drake
Eager to prove that we were indeed witnessing a comeback instead of a fluke, Big Sean followed up "IDFWU" with "Blessings." This time Vinylz's production anchors the song. Specifically it's that drum kick — a hollowed-out knock that combines malice and moodiness. Juxtaposed with the perpetually moody Drake's "Waaaay Up," the hook feels like an evangelist's outcry in the club. Big Sean is still at the dead center of the storm: "My grandma just died, I'm the man of the house/ So every morning I'm up cause I can't let them down." The stakes have rarely been higher for Big Sean.
“Smuckers”Tyler The Creator Featuring Kanye West & Lil Wayne
Tyler The Creator recently made news for responding to a fan who was upset with him for not making “depressing” rap. He’s not allowed to be joyful apparently. But it’s the fans loss, because Lil Wayne and Kanye West can get down with the movement. Tyler may not know how to mix an album quite yet, but he does know how to wring superb guest verses from the century’s greatest rhymers. Kanye West, in his last great verse, makes another proclamation based on racial dichotomies. Weezy, unbothered by label drama, delivers playful gun talk with Tyler keeping the momentum. It’s a good time, and "Smuckers" is the speck of blue sky amidst the surrounding clouds.
Recent dance crazes have been homages to one very specific demographic: The hood dudes who want dance in the club. Well, what about everyone else? Silento delivered the successor to the Nae Nae, except with an immediate all ages charm. Silento isn't going to be replacing Rae Sremmurd as the 24-and-under turn-up prince, but Rae Sremmurd is probably banging this.
Staples’ nasally, monotonous delivery works because of his confidence. He leans back and allows the lurid details of his verses to lurch at the listener. “Senorita” isn’t his best song, but it’s the best example of that style. He remains steely amidst a chaotic trap instrumental, which even the perpetually cool Future sounds like he’s panicking in. But the words’ venom are still potent: “My burner gets stuck if I shoot it too much / So a n---- resorted to domin'," he raps. To the uninformed, Staples is your telephoto lens to a generation under distress.
The story of the hood dude who wants to love isn't a new persona in hip-hop. However, its never been done with as much verve as Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen." The wailing, slightly manic performance could've been brushed off as eccentric. But it didn't. Instead, a stadium filled with people was shouting those lyrics back during his Summer Jam set. It's great times for Paterson, N.J. and gender equality.
Curren$y is a gem because he’s one of the few rappers in the game to come up with an infallible formula: A superb ear for beats and free-associative lyrics. It’s the latter that propels the track with its mix of blaxploitation and Scooby Doo vibes. The New Orleans rhymer just does not collapse under duress. He’ll take your girl and act cool in public when crossing paths to avoid awkwardness. There’s also the matter of these haters trying to test him. But no worries because as Curren$y says, “we’re trying to make classics here.” And you believe him.
"All Day”Kanye West Featuring Allan Kingdom, Paul Kingdom & Theophilus London
"All Day” is the rare hip-hop song that has a live version that’s superior to the CDQ version. The latter version is fine, as it finds grime-influenced glitchiness and dancehall leanings united under Kanye West’s brashness. It all feels too streamlined, though. The song is well-produced, but it lacks the pure fury and aggression from his 2015 BRIT Awards performance. It was a bit of Yeezus-level chaos and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-level grandeur. The only downside is that you can’t see those flamethrowers through your music player headphones.
The concept of liberation - whether artistically or in mindset - overtook some of the year’s best albums. For some reason, they felt like they needed move away from rap to do so (see his Chance the Rapper's band the Social Experiment). The unfairly maligned Lupe Fiasco kicked off the year with the argument that you can find freedom and good raps. And “Mural” is seven-minutes worth of good raps. It’s free-associative, it’s funny, and it’s poignant all at once.
A big criticism against Drake is how he isn’t a man of the times as much as he is a man manufactured. Aubrey Graham is Drake because Drake sells, but Drake and Aubrey Graham isn’t the same thing. His latest single, “Know Yourself,” is your aggressive dose of that salesmanship. You have your throwaway quotables that happen to stick (“Pray the fakes get exposed!”), a bit of sing-song and that hook to serve as a galvanizing cry with a dose of exclusive terminology for good measure (“Woes!”). And you have Boi-1da producing the beat from an aggressive trek to some twinkling, bass-heavy underworld. It sells, and it’s perhaps the only way to immortalize the folks who aren’t at those immediate turn-ups: Johnny Bling the tutor, Jibba the Driver and Baka, who has a national holiday waiting for him. Drake never mentions if it’s a U.S. or Canadian holiday, but you don’t know it’s a continental one with the strength of this track.