Another year, another 365 days of good music. Here are five rap projects that came out in 2014 that you should definitely give a listen to.

5. Schoolboy Q—Oxymoron

A lot can be said about Schoolboy Q. Some call him the savior of West Coast gangster rap, others call him one of hip-hop’s true “hippies.” What people can’t argue is that he came out for blood during the beginning of 2014, releasing his major label debut Oxymoron. Right off the bat, Q delivers one of his most hard-hitting songs “Gangsta,” with heavy drums and bass as well as a rowdy but simple hook. While older fans were a bit turned off by his more accessible sounding release, Oxymoron sounds like Q finally found his niche within TDE as well as rap and is attempting to flesh out that niche. In terms of lyrics, Q spits the same mix of street rap/pill pusher rhymes and the deep, airy introspections that first got him attention. The production is what puts this album over the edge though, with several unique, progressive sounding beats such as radio hit “Collard Greens” or the Pharell Williams produced “Los Awesome.” Oxymoron shows Q becoming comfortable with his flow, but also his willingness to rap over some less-than traditional beats.

4. J.Cole—Forrest Hills Drive

A pleasant surprise to end the year. Outside of a few guest verses and an emotional tribute the protests in Ferguson, rapper/singer J.Cole was largely quiet in 2014. After a lukewarm reception from his commercially-geared Born Sinner, J.Cole went dark in the studio to provide a definitive follow-up in Forrest Hills Drive. The album wasn’t even announced until late into the fall and featured no singles and no guest verses; one hundred percent J.Cole. Without the pressure of making a radio hit, J.Cole ended up selling more copies in the first week than his previous album did in the same time(375k) and ends up providing a much more fluid body of work in the process. He sounds much more at ease on the production and delivers the same honest, gut-checking verses that he’s known for. His effectual statement on the rap game “Fire Squad” caught a lot of attention with its cracks at white appropriation within the music industry, particularly within hip-hop (“look around…white people have snatched the sound”). With Forrest Hills Drive, Cole not only proves that rappers don’t need to cater to the mainstream with catchy singles and guest verses from mediocre mainstream rappers, but provides hardcore fans and newcomers alike with a thoughtful album that firmly puts J.Cole within the upper echelon of current rappers.

3. Flying Lotus—You’re Dead

A few issues back, I reviewed Flying Lotus’ (FlyLo) fifth studio album You’re Dead and while I enjoyed the album initially, I enjoy it even more a few months removed. The jazz-infused electronic album has received universal critical praise, as Flying Lotus continues to show why he’s one of the most talented and visionary artists of the 21st century. You’re Dead mixes the electronic/beats sound he grew up on with rapid episodes of jazz from live studio musicians such as bassist Thundercat and jazz legend Herbie Hancock. While FlyLo’s albums have always taken on concepts, You’re Dead is his most ambitious one yet, as he attempts to explore the concept of death and all of the emotions that come with with it. The album is incredibly short, clocking in at just over 38 minutes, but each song feels purposeful and pertains to a particular aspect of death. The beginning of the album starts of chaotic and frantic with its short bursts of jazz and speedy drums, but quickly twists and turns into a more mysterious, ambient album with classic FlyLo drum loops and angelic vocals. By the end of the album, one can tell that Flying Lotus has reached a certain comfort with death with a terrific closer in “The Protest.”

2. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib—Piñata

Sometimes the oddest matches in music can create the most brilliant work. Freddie Gibbs is a rapper out of Gary, IN. Prior to this album, Gibbs had been quietly gaining appreciation and acclaim on the underground scene for his technically-sound, matter of fact rapping, detailing the day-to-day life of your average drug dealer. A few years back, Gibbs let it be known that he was teaming up with legendary producer Madlib (behind the brilliant rap album Madvillainy) to create an album. After a few singles and several delays, the album was finally released in the spring of 2014. While some fans and critics weren’t sold initially, the rapper/DJ duo quickly silenced any doubters with a superbly crafted album. While Gibbs mostly stuck with trap beats prior to this album, he sounds right at home over Madlib’s dusty, 70’s inspired beats. As for lyrics, Gibbs topics range from the girl who ditched him while he was in prison (“Deeper”) to the perfect chicken joint (“Harold’s”). He still spits the same street raps that he built his name off of, but there are also brief moments of introspection where you can tell Gibbs is questioning this lifestyle. But as quick as they appear, Gibbs puts his armor back up and he’s back on the streets.

1. Isaiah Rashad—Cilvia Demo

Isaiah Rashad, a Chattanooga, TN, native, is one of the newest signees to quickly rising hip-hop label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). In January 2014, he dropped his first project ever with the Cilvia Demo. The first thing that sticks out about Rashad is his undeniable Southern influence. You can hear the southern drawl bounce all across this album, borrowing influence from southern legends such as Outkast and Master P, both of whom get tributes from Rashad in two of the album’s song titles (“R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “West Savannah”). Not only does Rashad rap with a certain energy and urgency, but he manages to explore deep issues such as drug abuse and issues with a father who abandoned him in a way that feels honest and genuine. One gets the sense that drugs and alcohol—typically rapped about in a celebratory manner—are actually means of coping with Rashad’s inner demons. With a fresh take on Southern rap and Rashad’s ear for crafting a complete song, this rapper will be making waves in the music industry for years to come. (Bold Prediction: I think he will be as big as label-mate Kendrick Lamar).

Honorable Mentions: FKA Twigs-LP 1, SZA-Z, SBTRKT—Where We Land, Jessie Ware—Tough Love, YG—My Krazy Life, Prhyme—Prhyme, Mick Jenkins—The Waters, D’Angelo—Black Messiah

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