1. Kevin Gates - Luca Brasi 2: A Gangsta Grillz Special Edition
Every word Kevin Gates spits sounds taxing. His voice drips with experience, pain and power. Luca Brasi 2 is full of tales of turmoil and reminders that Gates has earned his place, fighting every step of the way to avoid life's many pitfalls.
2. Chester Watson - Tin Wooki
Chester Watson follows in the blunted, monotone footsteps of MF DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt. And like his forbears, Watson has a hand in the production on Tin Wooki, too. The 28-track, 69-minute affair serves as much as a beat tape as a rap album. Watson builds absurd settings with even loonier rhyme schemes and word constructions. He's an artist worth monitoring, and, at 17, Tin Wooki is just the beginning of his creative potential being realized.
3. Girl Talk & Freeway - Broken Ankles EP
Greg Gillis released the partial sample list for his EP with Freeway when the project dropped on DatPiff. It's a long list and it's still incomplete. Broken Ankles is a rugged and loud album. Girl Talk's maximalist tendencies bring out Freeway's best, with his workmanlike nose-to-the-grind bars. Over standard hip-hop beats, Freeway might just sound like another MC boasting to the sky, but with Girl Talk steering the cartoonishly bombastic ship, Free sounds like he could actually throw you through a car window.
4. Lucki Eck$ - Body High
Chief Keef announced he was dropped by Interscope via Twitter, and in the tweet he included a screenshot of his iMessage conversation with Lucki Eck$. Two things stand out for me in Eck$'s responses: his tremendous Emoji use, and his unfailing commitment to the grind. Body High is Eck$'s texting techniques in album form. He is wise beyond his years (still just 17) and hardened by the streets, but he still sees the world through a teenage lens. Whether it's silly backpack rap puns or a student-like ambition to finish assignments, Eck$ inserts his youth into his serious adult life.
5. Lakutis - 3 Seashells
Lakutis' 3 Seashells is a sly commentary on the contemporary rap scene, but at the same time, it indulges in many of today's rap tropes. Unsurprisingly, Lakutis got his break with Das Racist, the group that pioneered making fun of rap while doing the exact same things that they were satirizing. Lakutis raps about money, women, and his own swagger, but does so in the creepiest way possible over ominous beats. He doesn't just have a chain, his "Jesus piece is [his] whole body" and he mutters it like a bizarro monk's chant. Lakutis could be an amazing conventional rapper, but he's much more interested in deconstructing what it means to be a rapper at all.
6. Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait EP / Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2
Vince Staples' two 2014 projects work in symbiosis. Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 is the bridge between his past work (Odd Future features and murky mixtapes) and his current output (tough, gritty, honest street tales). The beats on Coldchain are still a little fuzzy and the bravado is front-and-center. On Hell Can Wait, his Def Jam debut, the beats are major-label crisp and Staples is a narrator with experience. Compare the intro tracks: "I'd murder God, if he was trying to fuck up my paper" on Coldchain's "Progressive 3"'; and, "13 years old runnin' my home" on Hell's "Fire." Staples learns that he doesn't need to talk a big game; he's lived it.
7. Future - Honest
Honest is proof that Future's not a one-trick pony. He's not just a "sensitive rapper." He's not just a product of Auto-Tune. He's not just a hookman who wakes up in Bugattis. On Honest, Future comes into his own as a street rapper with a clear message: He's made it and if you're not with it, then he's not with you.
8. GoldLink - The God Complex
Anybody could rap over house production for 25 minutes, but nobody can do it as convincingly as GoldLink. The dance rhythms aren't a gimmick for GoldLink--it's the only way he can operate. The God Complex (a very self-aware title) is an exercise in hyperbole. GoldLink paints himself a sex god, much like how Rick Ross creates a larger-than-life drug kingpin persona. GoldLink will take you to "Planet Paradise" and show you "How It's Done." More than any other rap release this year, The God Complex is a work of pure fiction that revels in its own fantasy.
9. YG - My Krazy Life
My Krazy Life is detail-oriented and a pop album at the same damn time. Lines like "All my homies gangbangers / They dry their clothes on hangers" on "I Just Wanna Party" coexist perfectly with the song's catchy hook. My Krazy Life, largely produced by DJ Mustard, is an album that promotes its own re-listenability. There's no way to hear "Left, Right" just once. It's also, quite possibly, the best-paced album of the year, so there's never a moment where you even want to skip to the next song. Once Mustard hooks you in, YG's there to spit some of the most honest bars of 2014: On My Krazy Life, you come for the party, but stay for the storytelling.
10. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
Run the Jewels 2 has something for everybody. For the casual listener, there's El-P's killer production and one-liners ("You can all run naked backwards through a field of DICKS"). For the political rap junkie, there are the serious moments of "Early," in which a racist police officer profiles, then stops-and-frisks Killer Mike in front of his wife and children, and the moments of pure anger ("We killin' them for freedom 'cause they tortured us for boredom" on "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)"). RTJ2 is the best rap album of 2014 because Mike and El don't ask for you attention, they command it.