Hip-hop is currently in the middle of another golden age. The breadth, scope and innovation at play within the genre has rarely touched such elevated peaks, and 2022 offered undeniable proof of this fact. That there are so many different artists representing so many different styles here, and that we'd have agonised over what we were leaving out even if stretching this list to 20 entries, illustrates that this a genre in sublimely rude health.
Standing tall amid fierce competition, here are the 10 best hip-hop albums of the past 12 months.
10. Denzel Curry – Melt My Eyez See Your Future (The Extended Edition)
Denzel Curry has been one of rap's finest voices over the last decade, and his fifth album, first released in March, would have been a strong contender for this list in its original form. But it's the extended version of Melt My Eyez See Your Future which emerged on streaming services in late September which cemented itself in our ranking today.
Songs like Mental, featuring Saul Williams and Bridget Perez, were already beautifully honest, delicate, personal songs, but when Curry recorded tracks from the album live in one take with the Cold Blooded Soul Band it elevated everything massively. Hearing these songs played by a full band in the organic way in which they were almost certainly originally intended, with Curry giving the players license to stamp their personality all over them, made this the definite edition of a superb body of work.
Melt My Eyez See Your Future (The Extended Edition) is not yet available on vinyl, CD or cassette.
9. Marlowe - Marlowe 3
The third album from MC Solemn Brigham and producer L’Orange’s Marlowe project is their finest so far. Fans of classic hip-hop will salivate at the deep, dexterous, beats and soulful loops that L’Orange delivers here, but if we were to pick a man of the match then it is undoubtedly Brigham. The North Carolina native has a drawl and flow that manages to exude slacker cool and teeth-gnashing intensity all at once.
Whether it’s the strutting, woozy, smoky Light Trip, the old school, popping, bobbing fun of Past Life or the tumbling, manic Heist, the pair work wonders here. It’s also great to hear top UK comic, and committed hip-hop fan, Romesh Ranganathan turn up on Rom Auditions.
A vinyl edition of Marlowe 3, set for release on February 14, is available to pre-order now.
8. Black Thought & Danger Mouse – Cheat Codes
Two of the most consistent and essential voices in hip-hop during the early years of the Millennium, both Black Thought and Danger Mouse have contributed enough to the genre to be able to easily phone it in this deep into their career. So, the fact that Cheat Codes is such a magnificent love letter to classic, progressive hip-hop, whilst also still sounding brilliantly contemporary, is testament to the passion and talent that still oozes from the pair of them.
Cheat Codes just exudes the sights, the smells and the aura of New York coffee shops and crate digging, record store basements, and the duo are ably assisted by guest collaborators, from Run the Jewels and A$AP Rocky thrusting their way through Strangers, to Michael Kiwanuka’s beautiful rich tones shining on Aquamarine, to the late, great MF Doom joining the pair on the NOLA drag and shuffle of Belize.
The biggest treat of the year for old school hip-hop fans.
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7. Little Simz – NO THANK YOU
Little Simz managing to make our list despite releasing NO THANK YOU only a fortnight before the end of the year means that it might be a shock to see it listed here. But just a cursory listen to her fifth full-length should be enough to convince you that it not only belongs here, but would have almost certainly been ranked higher if we'd had longer to live with it.
Following last year's sprawling, world class, Mercury Prize-winning concept album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Simz adopts a shorter, more direct approach here, but that doesn’t mean that the sounds that longtime producer Inflo creates, with pure soul, sweeping strings and choral voices colliding fantastically, are any less inspiring. But Simz herself is the star here, superbly detailing her problems with the music industry and generational struggles with mental health, and from the cocksure Gorilla to the beautifully subtle Broken, her lyrical content and flow is truly magnificent. NO THANK YOU might have arrived late in the day, but the UK's queen of hip-hop has smashed it again.
NO THANK YOU is not yet available on vinyl, CD or cassette.
6. Backxwash – His Happiness Shall Come First Even Though We Are Suffering
The final instalment in the Canadian-Zambian experimental rapper's trilogy of albums, which started with 2020’s God Has Nothing to Do with This, Leave Him Out of This, closes the story in magnificent style.
Backxwash’s growth as an artist over this three-album run is clear for all to see. From where she started, mentally grappling with her transitioning and faith in a thrillingly unapologetic manner, her sound has evolved from dark trap, to industrialised metallic soundscapes, to an amalgam of the two alongside some truly beautiful soul flourishes - particularly on album highlight Mukazi - and utterly unique nods back to the music of her African heritage.
She’s hinted at the fact that what comes next will be quite a shift from these last three records, but, wherever she goes, the quality of the trilogy she’s just wrapped means that we’ll be following it intently.
A vinyl edition of His Happiness Shall Come First Even Though We Are Suffering is scheduled for release in April.
5. Billy Woods – Aethiopes
Whether as half of Armand Hammer (alongside Elucid) or as a solo artist in his own right, Billy Woods has been an essential, vital and unique voice in rap for many years now. And the first of his two albums this year was as noisy, angry, threatening and disturbing a record as you’d care to hear.
Musically Woods uses everything from pure ambience, to the sounds of a century of black music and some oddly unsettling samples to create an aural template that expertly serves his unique rhymes. The Washington DC-born rapper paints pictures with his lyrics that will cling to your psyche - “Draw straws from clenched fists, human souls in the hall” he slurs in the haunting The Doldrums, and even though he can be oblique enough to make it unclear exactly where we are or why we are there, Woods drags you kicking and screaming into his world, a world as unnerving as it is unforgettable. Intensely bleak, and magnificently powerful.
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4. Kojey Radical – Reason To Smile
Kojey Radical has been a name on the tip of many UK rap fans' tongues for a while now, and his long-awaited full length might just be the best debut album of the year.
A maelstrom of classic soul, liquid funk and elegiac gospel gives Kojey the perfect accompaniment to spit, wink, strut and emote his way through this album. And we’ll be damned if he isn’t just the coolest-sounding fucker on the planet right now, for Reason to Smile oozes such effortless confidence, allied to genuinely sweet and respectful nods to his mother, extended family and community, that it’s impossible not to fall for him.
Pretty much everything here will put a spring in your step, but the single Payback is a pure 70’s Blaxploitation funk/punk riot brought up to 2022 standards. The slickest album of the year.
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3. Kae Tempest – The Line Is A Curve
The fifth album from the critically acclaimed UK spoken word artist is a clear highlight in a career that features some of the most idiosyncratically unique music this country has produced in the last decade. Tempest has leaned in on ice cold, industrial synth previously, but never to the extent that you hear so outstandingly on The Line is a Curve.
In musical terms, it’s a consistently gorgeous record: opening track Priority Boredom is pure Blade Runner, gargantuan, stabbing synth lines, and Salt Coast sounds like a krautrock banger with self-esteem issues. And having Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten lend his distinctive voice to the stunning I Saw Light is a masterstroke.But, as ever, it’s Tempest’s delivery, simultaneously unremarkable and yet touchingly honest, and lyrics, raw, honest, bruised and defiant, that make this record so essential.
Another brilliant record from one of our finest artists.
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2. Loyle Carner - Hugo
While it is untrue to say that this is Carner’s breakthrough year (with a bunch of BRIT and Mercury nominations he was already something of a big deal), Hugo is the point where the Londoner delivers a record of the monumental quality that he had previously hinted at.
A grand exploration of societal ills told through the lens of Carner’s bi-racial identity and inspired by the dual totems of losing of his own father whilst becoming one himself for the first time, this is a magnificent and moving piece. The deep, classic soul samples that drive Nobody Knows (Ladas Road) or the almost apologetic drum shuffle and piano drag of Homerton give Carner a fantastic musical canvas to work with, but it's his understated delivery and lyrics, that range from resignation to heartbreak to righteousness, are the real reason this album places so high.
Carner describing observing a mother of a teenager who has just been murdered will undoubtedly choke you up on Blood On My Nikes, as will the closing conversation between Father and Son on the final track HGU. This is Carner’s masterpiece so far, and a beautifully poignant and essential listen.
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1. Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
The reason Kendrick Lamar is one of the biggest artists on the planet and is unquestionably considered the single most essential voice in his genre for so many years is due to the fact that he can make an album as spellbinding as Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
It’s to his eternal credit that an artist as sizeable as Lamar refuses to rest on his laurels and continues to mine and explore both his own personal trauma and the parameters of what a hip-hop album can be with such incredible results. Mr. Morale... is a record that is musically so grandiose, so supremely produced, so dense in its sonics, that you could arguably take Lamar out of the mix completely and it would still be an excellent listen, but add in a rapper who now has to be in the conversation for one of the greatest of all time and it’s already got classic status stamped all over it.
The entire thing is a high point, and this is a piece that should be consumed in full, but if we were forced to isolate a single moment it's Portishead’s Beth Gibbons turning up on Mother I Sober, a good shout for the finest individual song of the year, as Lamar deconstructs the culture of sexual abuse, his own experiences and the psychological result of those experiences in just under 7 minutes. Spine tingling, world class, heartbreaking, often shocking and utterly unlike any other artist operating in music today, Kendrick Lamar continues to set the bar and remain the master of this genre.
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