Too often people complain that Hip Hop isn’t what it used to be. True enough: if you only consider most of what the mass-media is serving up, you would be forgiven to think that Hip Hop is nothing but a shadow of its former self. In the late eighties and early nineties all kinds of Hip Hop made it into the mainstream spotlights – sonically more diverse than nowadays and lyrics-wise lightweight and more substantial side by side. The last two decades the same few brands of monotonous and empty-headed materialistic drivel have dominated the mainstream, the big media companies promoting the same dumb sh** over and over and the kiddies eating whatever is served to them. Thing is there has ALWAYS been plenty of real Hip Hop around.
Even if today’s sad realilty is that not talent and quality but marketing and promotion determine what is commercially successful, these days you don’t need to rely on the mainstream media anymore – all the dope music released over the last decades can be found online, if only you know where to look. Articles like this aim to help. Real heads will know at least some of the albums listed here so they don’t need schooling, ideally, this article gets read by casual fans who claim they love Hip Hop but who think someone like Drake makes Hip Hop music – maybe it turns out they are just pop-music fans (which is just fine of course!), maybe they will be set on the path to real Hip Hop.
For this article, we have selected 9 incredibly dope but sadly slept-on Hip Hop albums from the 2010s – these albums are all projects with substance, creatively and artistically of the highest level – Hip Hop for grown-ups.
Kno – Death Is Silent (2010)
Residing in Atlanta, Georgia, Kno has made a name for himself by being a founding member of CunninLynguists and Built To Fade and producing dope beats for artists such as Tonedeff, Rise, Pack FM, Braille, Jugga the Bully and many others.
On the four CunninLynguists albums preceding this project, Kno already amply proved that he can put a big stamp on an album in terms of production. In 2010 the CunninLynguists producer released Death Is Silent: a solo album on which he also accounts for a large part of the lyrics.
The production on this album is nothing short of spectacular, and the beats and the stories blend together like gears on a machine. “Loneliness”, “Rhythm Of The Rain”, “Spread Your Wings”, “Graveyard”, “I Wish I Was Dead”, “They Told Me” and “The New Day” are all highlights, but this album’s strength is its consistency. The whole album has the same feel, without ever sounding monotonous. This is an album to zone out on, to press play and let it run from start to finish – no need to skip anything, there are no fillers tracks and no stupid skits. Of course CunninLynguists colleagues Natti and Deacon The Villain make appearances, as do regular collaborators like Tonedeff and Substantial. But even if Kno will always be a producer before he is an emcee, he can carry an album on the microphone as well. He calls himself the Emo Premo on one of the tracks, providing lyrics that should shame most full-time rappers.
Death Is Silent is one of our favorite album released in 2010, a true musical gem in a world full of fake thugging, bling-bling, dumb-ass b.s. From start to finish, this is a masterpiece of music (not just Hip Hop). Anyone with an interest in quality music with substance will like, if not love this melancholic masterpiece.
Rashad & Confidence – The Element Of Surprise (2011)
Confidence is an authentic golden era Hip Hop producer bringing back that 90’s feel with an updated sound. Responsible for Rashad & Confidence’s perfect The Element Of Surprise album.
Too easily we label albums as classic these days, but this album deserves it – everything about Rashad & Confidence’s The Element Of Surprise feels CLASSIC. The golden age-esque album cover, clearly inspired by Lord Finesse’s debut album Funky Technician (1990), serves as a perfect primer for what you can expect. This album is boom bap Hip Hop at is very best. In the era of ringtone bubblegum rap, Rashad & Confidence stay true to Hip Hop’s roots and bring the heat. The Element Of Surprise is produced to perfection with that early 90’s feeling – echoing the best work of legends like DJ Premier and Pete Rock – and Rashad’s great rhyming skills and storytelling matches Confidence’s top-notch production.
As you may know, here at HHGA we hate it that mainstream rap gets thrown in as Hip Hop. Artists like Drake, Migos, Travis Scott, Lil This-or-that and their like have very little to do with Hip Hop if you ask us. They make pop-rap or something and have found a very lucrative niche in the music biz – their sh** gets promoted by the media companies with the power and the kids eat it up. But Hip Hop it is NOT.
The Element Of Surprise IS Hip Hop. Golden Age Hip Hop fans who turned away from Hip Hop around the turn of the millennium because all the mainstream offered up was watered-down dumbed-down rap music, should check out albums like The Element Of Surprise and have their faith in and enthusiasm about Hip Hop restored.
We said The Element Of Surprise is a true classic and we will stick to that claim, even though there is one aspect that doesn’t fit classic status: recognition and commercial success. It’s a crying shame that a beautiful album like this has never reached a large audience. Wack albums released in the same year from Lil Wayne (Tha Carter IV) and Drake (Take Care) went multiplatinum, while The Element Of Surprise – superior in every aspect but sales – sold next to nothing. Like KRS-One rapped in 1997, Rashad & Confidence are “strictly about skills and dope lyrical coastin’ – relying on talent, not marketing and promotion’. If you like albums like Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn and Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s Mecca And The Soul Brother from the early 1990s or Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show and Ohmega Watts’ The Find from the early 2000s, you will also love The Element Of Surprise – one of the best albums of 2011, even of the entire decade.
CunninLynguists – Oneirology (2011)
There has never been an anomaly in Hip Hop quite like the southern trio CunninLynguists. Sampling genres from psych-rock to blues, New Romantic to polka, they have been musically compared to UGK and Atmosphere in the same breath.
Before dropping Oneirology in 2011, Deacon The Villain, Natti & Kno had already established their names with four straight dope albums: Will Rap for Food (2001), SouthernUnderground (2003), A Piece of Strange (2006) and Dirty Acres (2007). A Piece of Strange is one of our favorite albums of the 2000s, and Oneirology will be one of our top albums of the 2010s.
Oneirology is the study of dreams – listen carefully to tracks like “Darkness (Dream On)” and “Shattered Dreams” and you’ll understand where the album’s title is coming from. The lyrics and flows on Oneirology are dope as hell and the soundscapes are even better – once again it’s Kno’s production that’s stealing the show. Oneirology is fantastic in every way – an exceptional follow-up to Kno’s Death is Silent and another jewel in the CunninLynguists crown.
Boog Brown – The Late Bloom (2013)
Boog Brown is a Detroit native traveling the world and making music, simultaneously. It’s pretty awesome and so is she.
Boog Brown and Apollo Brown’s collaboration Brown Study is one of our favorite albums of 2010, The Late Bloom ranks high on our list with the best albums of 2013. Boog Brown is a Detroit native who has made her mark in the Atlanta underground Hip Hop scene. She hasn’t adopted that typical Southern Hip Hop sound though – just like on Brown Study Boog Brown brings soulful boom-bap fused with jazzy vibes on The Late Bloom. It’s a shame really that so much trashy pop-rap out of Atlanta dominated the mainstream in 2013 while a gem like The Late Bloom hardly got any attention at all. Never too late to get into it though:
Damani Nkosi – Thoughtful King (2014)
Damani Nkosi has worked with well-known artists including Dr. Dre, Swizz Beatz, Snoop Dogg, Pusha T and Malice of Clipse. Nkosi was born in Inglewood, California. His father chose an African name for him. “Damani” means “Thoughtful” and “Nkosi” means “chief, ruler or king”. He became part of Los Angeles’ Hip Hop underground, recording his first track in 1999.
Thoughtful King is an aptly chosen title for this album – not only because it is a literal translation of his name, but also because of the deep lyrics Damani spits. Production is flawless, Hip Hop to its core but with (neo)soul sensibilities as well and giving off vibes of a classic Jazz album at the same time – even the album cover is reminiscent of a vintage jazz vinyl. Guests such as Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Badd Lucc, BJ The Chicago Kid, Thurz, Ill Camille, Rick Rude, and PJ Morton help make Thoughtful King a well-rounded musical gem – thematically and sonically as consistent as you could wish for. Slept on by most in 2014, but one of our favorite albums of that year. If you missed out on Thoughtful King for some reason, check it out now:
Oddisee – The Good Fight (2015)
Prolific Hip Hop artist Oddisee first became known as an underground producer before gaining respect as a rapper. His literate, relatable lyrics tackle personal issues and political themes, and his productions encompass retro-soul, go-go, and gospel influences. Born in Washington, D.C. to a Sudanese father and an African-American mother, Amir Mohamed grew up in Maryland, influenced by soul and rap as well as myriad musicians on both sides of his family.
The Good Fight is Oddisee’s tenth studio album (also counting the two excellent albums he did as Diamond District with YU and Uptown XO), and it showcases his continuing growth as a producer and as an emcee. Soulful and eclectic, this album almost transcends genre boundaries in its musicality. Lyrics-wise The Good Fight is more than a worthwhile listen as well – with Oddisee telling us about his experiences as an artist in the music business and life in general. The Good Fight is put together meticulously from start to finish resulting in a remarkable blend of lyrical depth, complexity, beauty, and soul. “Counter-Clockwise”, “First Choice”, “Contradiction’s Maze”, “Want Something Done” and “Book Covers” are a few of the stand-out tracks, but this album has no filler tracks at all. The Good Fight is one of those albums that gets better with each listen – highly recommended for fans of soulful and relatable Hip Hop.
billy woods – Known Unknowns (2017)
billy woods is a rapper who defies easy categorization; he was born in the U.S. but spent much of his childhood in Africa and the West Indies. On the mic, woods is no less of a conundrum, possessed of versatile flows and an ability to not only tackle topics other artists wouldn’t dream of, but also to bring unique perspectives to the familiar ones.
Known Unknowns is HHGA’s favorite album of 2017 and one of the best Hip Hop albums of the decade, but it was totally overlooked by most Hip Hop fans and noticed only by those heads who dig deep or those who have always been following billy woods.
billy woods’ debut album Camouflage (2003) and the albums that followed in the 2000s were all fine enough, but it was the excellent History Will Absolve Me (2012) that started a new level of excellence in woods’ career. Dour Candy (2013), Today, I Wrote Nothing (2015) and Hiding Places (2019) (with Kenny Segal) are all top quality Hip Hop albums. Together with the projects he dropped as Armand Hammer (a collaboration with rapper/producer Elucid) – Race Music (2013), Rome (2017) and Paraffin (2018) – and Known Unknows, that’s eight straight very dope projects in the 2010s that should appeal to all Hip Hop fans who had enough of generic empty-headed mainstream rap.
Substance over fluff, creativity over genericness, intelligence over materialism – that’s what characterizes billy woods, and knowing that dumb sh** dominates the mainstream means little chance on mainstream exposure for woods’ music. Admittedly woods’ music may not be easy to get into for everybody, but it’s clear that he likes to make his music to have more meaning than that of your typical Hip Hop artist. We could have included any of billy woods’ albums as an example of excellent grown-up Hip Hop, we went with Known Unknowns here because it is one of his most easy-to-get-into albums, mainly because of Blockhead’s consistently dope and reasonably accessible production. Don’t sleep on billy woods.
O.C. – Same Moon Same Sun (2017)
Omar Credle, best known by his stage name, O.C., represents Brooklyn and Queens, NY. From his early beginnings as part of the Organismz crew w/ Organized Konfusion, to becoming a staple member of the legendary D.I.T.C. crew, O.C. has solidified his stature in Hip Hop for over 25 years. A master of vivid imagery, profound lyrics, real-life introspect, clever wordplay and confident flow.
Ever since he released his classic but underappreciated debut album Word… Life in 1994, O.C. has put together a very strong discography – with some of his very best efforts released in the 2010s. His collabo with Apollo Brown – Trophies (2012) – was one of the best albums of that year and in both 2017 and 2018 he had album-of-the-year worthy projects as well. Same Moon Same Sun, which was billed as the “first phase” of a three-album series and is one of our favorite albums of 2017. Clever, next-level lyricism and dope beats all around – Same Moon Same Sun is on par with O.C.’s early classics Word… Life and Jewelz (1997). High praise, but true enough nevertheless – Same Moon Same Sun is easily that good. Why did everybody sleep on this flawless album?
Armand Hammer – Paraffin (2018)
Armand Hammer (pronounced Arm & Hammer) is a New York-based Hip Hop duo consisting of MC/producer ELUCID and enigmatic rapper billy woods. The duo’s debut, Race Music, was released in 2013, garnering immediate praise. That album was quickly followed with an EP; Furtive Movements in 2014. Despite burgeoning solo careers both artists continued to collaborate over the following years; making appearances on each other’s work and performing together, but fans would have to wait four years for a new full length. Armand Hammer released ROME in November of 2017 to effusive praise and then doubled down with Paraffin 2018. Like opposite sides of a coin, the two albums are connected, yet radically different in their design. Rome and Paraffin have been greeted with a wave of critical acclaim, cementing ELUCID and woods place as two of the most vital voices in the genre today.
Parafinn may not an easy album to get into, it’s sonically and lyrically as dense as you might expect from Elucid and especially billy woods. The way billy woods paints lyrical pictures is neither straightforward nor easy to decipher. But it doesn’t have to be easy – this is Hip Hop for thinking people. Both men’s cerebral lyrics are dark and heavy, but humorous here and there at the same time. Parafinn is amazingly produced and lyrically incredibly layered – Armand Hammer has something substantial to say for those motivated and intellectually equipped to really listen. Not for everybody, but for those who appreciate abstract, experimental Hip Hop Parafinn is a must-have.