A collage of various hip-hop albums from the past 10 years. (Hayden Fish)
A collage of various hip-hop albums from the past 10 years.

Hayden Fish

A decade in hip-hop

February 26, 2020

As 2020 marches on and the previous decade fades away, it is important to recognize the stellar works of art to come to the genre of rap and hip hop over the last 10 years.

These albums have had a profound impact on the musical landscape or achieved a legendary critical or commercial status.

Join me on a chronological walk through the great pieces of fine musical art from this past decade.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” – 2010

Artist: Kanye West

Album: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

Best Production: “Devil In A New Dress”

Extended Play: “Runaway”

Kanye West needs no stage name. The American public has known his name since the 2009 Grammys incident, where West interrupted Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech for her Best Female Video award. After this moment people assumed West’s career would be terminated, with even the at the time president, Barack Obama calling West a “Jackass.” Only a miracle could save the Chicago rapper, and he delivered. 

Secluded at a Hawaiian recording studio with stringent rules, West utilized his large number of contacts to create an impressive and lengthy list of collaborators and features for “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

Yet this was not West’s apology, rather he doubled down, embracing his egotistical media perception, giving everyone in his way the middle finger. West raps about his influence, importance and even own mortality on “POWER” with a hard hitting King Crimson sample. Defying all odds and creating a grandiose experience when a flop could’ve killed his career, this album is a must listen for the decade.

“Take Care” – 2011

Artist: Drake

Album: “Take Care”

Best Hype Track: “Headlines”

Song to Bump in Your Feelings: “Marvins Room”

If a single artist ruled the 2010s, it would be no one other than the Champagnepapi himself, Drizzy Drake. Dominating the charts over the entire decade was no difficult feat for Drake, and his 2012 album “Take Care” was proof. This album has had a lasting effect on hip hop and its involvement in R&B, along with the newfound sensitivity of mainstream rappers. Drake opened up and spoke about his emotions and vulnerabilities in a new way, helping to usher in the “sad” or emo-rap wave that many artists have ridden. 

Specifically, in the track “Marvins Room” whereupon an ambient instrumental, Drake drunkenly calls his ex and asks for her to abandon her new boyfriend and return to him. While other rappers would have used this scene to “get the girl back,” Drake is played for a fool, ending up only sad and alone. 

Many other instances on the album continue this “sad” theme, but “Take Care” still contains undeniable bangers, such as “Headlines”  and “HYFR,” where Drake is seen at a much more lively and charismatic moment. Since 2011 Drake has become an icon for his influence alone, and much of it traces back to here


“good kid, m.A.A.d city” – 2012

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: “good kid, m.A.A.d city”

Extended Play: “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”

Best Bonus Track: “Now Or Never”

Growing up in Compton, Ca, Kendrick Lamar, simply put was a “good kid,” in a “mad city.” Throughout this conceptual album, Lamar paints his genuine experiences of sex, drugs, crime, and the inherent dangers that lie within the intercity streets. 

Before and after many of the tracks, a story unfolds told through a series of soundbites of Lamar and his friends, along with voicemails from Lamar’s worried mother. This story is told in a non-linear form which gives added interest to repeat listens to slowly piece together the series of events and their chronology. 

Lamar describes his conflict between fitting in, versus doing what he knows is right on the tracks “Backseat Freestyle” and “The Art of Peer Pressure.” Critical success would be an understatement for Lamar’s work, as it has not left billboard’s top 200 albums since it came out over seven years ago and is currently ranked within the top 100. “good kid m.A.A.d city” has quickly become a classic over the few years it has been out.

“The Money Store” – 2012

Artist: Death Grips

Album: “The Money Store”

Unique Music Video:I’ve Seen Footage”

Most Headbang-able Outro: “Hacker”

The first time I listened to Death Grips, “The Money Store” it evoked a genuine uneasiness within me, that wholeheartedly intrigued me while simultaneously spookingmail me. Death Grips’ lead vocalist Stefan Burnett hits hard with his deep raw voice, coupled with the energetic EDM dance-tune yet dark and industrial sound within “The Money Store.”

This album is unique to say the least. Never expect to hear Death Grips on the radio or at the supermarket, this music is not for everyone and they’re OK with that. The trio has paved their own lane that they have been able to thrive in, with extensive critical success. 

“The Money Store” reminds me of a lemon. It might seem tart at first, but in reality it’s just unique, which can work wonders in spicing up a dish. In this sense of a lemon, Death Grips is much more nuanced and complex than one might believe, and are undoubtedly pushing the boundaries of rap.

“2014 Forest Hills Drive” – 2014

Artist: J. Cole

Album: “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

Best Hype Track: “A Tale of 2 Citiez”

Best Hybrid of Rapping and Singing: “Apparently”

“2014 Forest Hills Drive” is a masterpiece in the eye of the creator, evident from the almost 15 minute credits as the closing track, and the numerous name drops Jermaine “J. Cole” Cole believes he has surpassed. Cole somehow manages to come off both humble and braggadocious. 

Cole is quite talented as a rapper and likewise a vocalist, Cole has certainly been a giant over this last decade in hip-hop, and I felt he deserved to be on this list in some capacity. However, Cole has become notable for both his lack of features on his own music, as well as how his best verses happen to frequently be on other’s songs. 

This album surely is heart to heart, and Cole is often more open about his thoughts and experiences than others. Even the title is a reference to Cole’s childhood home, (which was vandalized after this release). 

Cole tells about his personal experiences and speaks on many topics, from how he feigned himself as a player in order to lose his virginity, to the adversities with poverty people in the intercities struggle with. Although Cole himself never experiences many of these hardships, he still manages to bring attention to the injustices surrounding them through his music.

Falling into the lyrically dense manor of rap, Cole and his music have unquestionably made his mark on this decade. 

“Rodeo” – 2015 

Artist: Travis Scott

Album: “Rodeo”

Most Replay-able: “Antidote”

Best Beat Switch: “90210”

Travis Scott’s debut album “Rodeo“ introduced the world to his iconic electronic sound. Coupled with immaculate production, “Rodeo” at its best is thriving in the “nightlife” of California, delivering a dark and mysterious vibe. Scott’s lengthy five, six, even seven plus minute tracks become epics in his journey to success as he raps about his experiences. 

The Track “90210” serves as a self-reflection for Scott, the first half of the song depicts a young porn star moving from her homewtown. Not only does this keep with the partying theme of the album, but directly mirrors Scott’s move from Houston to the Golden State. As the beat beautifully switches in the latter half, Scott’s connections to this unknown girl develop; as he unveils the complexity of his family situation, reflecting on both the struggles of leaving his family behind, and how his success has affected them. 

Scott’s “Rodeo” has been immensely influential in today’s sounds, with Scott’s trap wave tunes dominating the charts. Yet, despite this, “Rodeo” manages to still feel like a breath of fresh air when listening. 

“To Pimp A Butterfly” – 2015

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: “To Pimp A Butterfly”

Jazziest Song: “These Walls”

Deepest Track Meaning: All Tracks; each song has a unique perspective

For most rappers, topping the commercial and critical success of Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” may have been seen as an impossible feat, yet Lamar is not most rappers.  Asserting the political messages to a much greater degree, Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” tackles the plight of African Americans and the institutional injustices they face. This album is more of an experience than simply a piece of music, as one goes through the act of listening to Lamar’s rave reviewed album. 

“To Pimp A Butterfly” has done the significant task of bridging itself from musical the musical sphere into the genuine politics as it became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. With tracks such as “Alright”, “King Kunta”, and being prominent at BLM political rallies. Yet, those songs are not the extent of the political messages, each and every song plays a larger role in the activist narrative throughout “To Pimp A Butterfly”. Spearheading the issues, Lamar has made an enormous impact on what it means to indulge in a political statement through song.

“4:44” – 2017 

Artist: Jay-Z

Album: “4:44”

Must Listen Track: “The Story of O.J.”

Best Feature: Frank Ocean – “Caught Their Eyes”

After 13 Studio albums, Shawn Carter, known as Jay-Z, has changed dramatically since he started rapping in the mid-’90s, and he knows this. On 4:44 Jay-Z gives the listener a glimpse of his life as a billionaire, and classily raps about new bourgeois topics such as expensive paintings, investing and credit. 

Due to his longtime musical prominence, Jay-Z sees himself as judge, jury, and executioner for the next generation of rap, either calling out or endorsing the younger artists, while reminiscing of his history of street thuggery. Jay-Z understands his legendary reputation and uses his status to spread progressive verses through endorsing the LGBTQ+ movement, which would have been unheard of during Jay-Z’s era of rap.

As the closing track, “Legacy” would confirm, 4:44 has firmly cemented Jay-Z as a hip-hop legend who can still deliver insightful and compelling bars despite his older age.

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