I don’t know when I fell in love with hip-hop but I know that I’ve never known a musical life without it. More than any other genre, hip-hop can bend and expand to the whims of modern culture without ever losing its original shape. When Nielsen announced in 2018 that hip-hop was officially the most popular music genre in America, many of us who grew up consuming entire albums on tape, then CD, then MP3 player, then streaming service audibly thought “it’s about time.”
Even if hindsight is 20/20, it’s hard to argue that the 2010s weren’t special in the short history of hip-hop. Digital streaming and distribution democratized the genre (for good and bad), while some of the greatest musicians ever released their seminal works (looking at you Kanye West). In a decade where quality and consumption both reached new heights, some of the best work continues to be criminally underrated. As we look back on the 2010s, here are my top 10 most underrated albums.
A$AP Mob Lords Never Worry (2012)
When A$AP Rocky released his 2011 mixtape Live.Love.A$AP, few people were looking to New York hip-hop as a barometer of where the genre was headed. Rocky’s mixtape signaled a new chapter, and the subsequent release of Lords Never Worry by Rocky’s collective, A$AP Mob, was as much an ode to kings of the past as it was a new dark step forward.
Lords Never Worry was underrated not because it was a mixtape but because it was unfairly discounted as a group album by a bunch of less-talent Rockys. Rattling through 18 tracks, the mixtape jumped through stylistic nods rooted in Southern “trap” music and heavy-bass griminess birthed in one of Wu-Tang’s 36 chambers. Lords Never Worry was rough around the edges but it was unafraid to present a perspective of New York from a bunch of guys too young to care.
Joey Badass 1999 (2012)
At the same time that A$AP Rocky and A$AP Mob were melting New York rap into something new, Joey Badass presented the damn-near perfect era-specific mixtape, 1999. When Joey Badass released 1999, the general consensus was one of disbelief. And really how could it not be? Joey Badass was still in high school when he released this homage to the golden era of hip-hop. Thinking about it now, 1999 was so special because it tapped into something that just felt right. It’s hard to call this album underrated because when it dropped it was critically celebrated. But in 2019, it still dumbfounds me how many people have not heard of 1999. Of all the albums on this list, this is a definitive must.
Denzel Curry Nostalgic 64 (2013)
At the tail end of the 2010s, with the release of 2019’s ZUU, Denzel Curry finally broke through. ZUU was amazing for many reasons, but, above all else, it shined as an album because of Curry’s ability to transcribe the intricacies of his upbringing and locality (Carol City, FL) into every word. That ability began its development with 2013’s Nostalgia 64. Rough around the edges and full of pent-up aggression seeping through the youthful growl of Curry’s voice, Nostalgia 64 ripped through flurries of police violence, racial transgressions, and loss. It was the portrait of a young man who, at the age of 18, had already lived a life worth resetting. Curry arrived with 2019’s ZUU, but his most impressive work coupled purpose with personal nightmares.
Kid Cudi Indicud (2013)
Kid Cudi has had a hell of a career. It’s safe to say that without him and his psychedelic experimentation with mixing sounds and genres, hip-hop would be in a much different place. Cudi’s 2013 Indicud was a prime example of why that is. Featuring guest appearances from HAIM, Father John Misty, Kendrick Lamar, and RZA, Indicud was a musical representation of Cudi’s fearlessness in going in whatever direction he wanted. Cudi has always been an outlier in hip-hop. His love of melodic deliveries, Freudian introspections, and rhymes that match up with anyone in the genre have always been recognized, but not always accepted. As hip-hop continues to push the boundaries of what the genre can envelop, Indicud stands as a reminder of who never paid much attention to those boundaries, to begin with.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Piñata (2014)
Before Freddie Gibbs & Madlib released 2019’s album-of-the-year contender, Bandana, they quietly put out a weird shoot-from-the-hip experiment called Piñata. Much of the acclaim for 2019’s Bandana is exactly what was missing from Piñata; at times the album felt too disjointed as if Gibbs and Madlib made it work out of sheer luck. Despite its imperfection, Piñata came at a time in Gibb’s career when he was either still thought of as an indie rapper or a rapper who missed his shot to go mainstream. Piñata showed that Gibbs was neither, and laid out the blueprint for how his career would evolve.
Without Piñata there would be no Bandana, there would be no Freddie Gibbs as we know him.
Isaiah Rashad Cilvia Demo (2014)
When it comes to record labels, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) was one of the most dominant forces of the past decade. Amongst all of the accolades received by TDE mainstays like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q, the surreal skill of Isaiah Rashad has always been bypassed. Released in 2014, Rashad’s debut EP Cilvia Demo struck the perfect balance between the intricate wordplay of Kendrick Lamar, the aggressiveness of Schoolboy Q, and the rash psychoanalysis of Ab-Soul. Rashad’s raspy voice was also perfectly suited for the spacey bass-heavy retrospective production that poured through every one of the 14 tracks. Personal favorites like “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” “Heavenly Father,” and “West Savannah” carry you away to some undefined space in your mind, making the whole experience much more transformative than any debut as any right to be.
Travis Scott Days Before Rodeo (2014)
Despite being his second mixtape, Travis Scott’s 2014 Days Before Rodeo was the first step in a career that would eventually be advertised via Netflix. Days Before Rodeo was the first time Scott put his collective talent into a distorted lucid soundscape that started whispers of him becoming “the next Kanye.” You could argue that this album wasn’t underrated; tracks like “Mamacita” and “Don’t Play” had success beyond Datpiff. But as part of Scott’s impressive catalog thus far, Days Before Rodeo is often relegated to the citations of his career instead of the all-important introduction.
21 Savage & Offset Without Warning (2017)
Without Warning was a total surprise. The album dropped on Halloween with no promotion and no flair. In the world of collaboration albums, Without Warning was perfect. The production was driven by Metro Boomin’s low-fi heavy bass calling cards elevated from the previous year’s Savage Mode. In fact, every aspect of this album felt like an upgraded version of a previous iteration. 21 Savage’s bleak depiction of death and murder first introduced to the masses on Savage Mode was even more refined on Without Warning, and Offset’s machine-gun triple cadence was more lethal than anything he had done with the Migos.
The reason Without Warning is continually overlooked is mainly down to how focused it is. The album is moody, ambient, and refined to such an extent that it feels more like a proof-of-concept. But two years later, it feels like a highlight reel of three masters of the genre.
Maxo Kream Punken (2018)
I’d wager to say that every album Maxo Kream has released since 2015’s #Maxo187 has been underrated by if I had to choose one it’d be 2018’s Punken. Maxo Kream’s appeal has always been married to his uncanny ability to pair vocal cadence with the subject matter. Every song, even the bouncy “Bussdown,” is driven by a story of junkies, trials and tribulations of abject poverty, and crime. Punken is technically considered Kream’s debut, but for me, it symbolized the first time Kream refined the way he tells his story. If you listen to previous releases, especially 2016’s The Persona Tape, you start to see inklings of that storytelling, but Punken elevated it to a new level. Often times the excellence of a previous album is judged by the album that comes right after it. If that’s the case, Punken, which proceeded 2019’s amazing Brandon Banks, is a definitive classic.
Danny Brown uknowhatimsayin¿ (2019)
Most of the albums on the list aren’t recent. I think it’s hard to know if an album is underrated without the luxury of time and hindsight. But with Danny Brown’s 2019 uknowhatimsayin¿, it’s already easy to say that a lot of people slept on this transformative album. Brown’s 2019 release felt like the long-awaited apex of a career that started in 2010 with The Hybrid. Uknowhatimsayin¿ features some of the best production you’ll find on any rap album in 2019, as well as some of the best lyrics. At the ripe old age of 38, Brown no longer has the youthful “anything goes” mentality of his earlier work. Instead, you find an artist who is finally comfortable with his journey, comfortable with the obstacles of his past. What you get as a result is an album that only Danny Brown could make.