NPR Music's 20 best hip-hop albums of 2022
A pall has been hanging over hip-hop this year: the ongoing criminalization of being a rapper looms large.
The genre has faced over-policing and sensationalism before, dating back to the NYPD's rap intelligence unit in 1999. But the scope of the crusade has expanded: lyrics continue to be treated like transcripts by the law, rappers are painted as crime lords, and their imprints are characterized as mob outfits.
There has been no shortage of abuses, including New York City getting drill rappers removed from the Rolling Loud bill, but one in particular has reverberated across the rap landscape: Young Thug, Gunna, and the members of YSL record label being rounded up and charged in a RICO case. It feels like the Atlanta rap scene, the epicenter of hip-hop, is still recovering.
Twenty-six YSL associates were arrested on criminal conspiracy charges in May, and 25 remain in jail, despite the absurdity of those charges. Its reverberations have been quietly felt throughout the rap world. Thug's lyrics are being weaponized against him. What does a genre built on words do when those words can, and almost certainly will, be held against its artists in court?
But hip-hop's story is one of surviving adversity, of creating under disadvantageous circumstances, and so the culture has persisted, as it always does, and rappers continued to raise the bar for bars. Some observers have been looking at the tea leaves (streaming metrics) and wondering if the genre's dominance is waning. That's an industry concern, not an artistic one.
In reality, rap's influence has never been stronger, and its selection has rarely been more compelling. The rap of 2022 found veterans setting new career benchmarks, breakout rappers rising to meet a fractured monoculture, and rising rappers making bold, position-redefining statements. Some rappers chose to stay the course this year, growing bolder within their signature styles, and others chose to detonate the monuments built in their image and reimagine their messages.
In the wake of everything, rap reunited and revitalized old partnerships, revisited and critiqued old haunts, unearthed powerful new voices and even helped plug a new Minions movie. These are hip-hop's 20 best albums of 2022, a formidable bunch reminding everyone rap can't and won't be stopped.
— Sheldon Pearce
Pusha T, It's Almost Dry
After two-plus decades in the rap game, Pusha T has mastered multiple arts: brevity, snarkiness and wit. It's Almost Dry is yet another installment of his signature brand of rap, which succinctly examines a tireless hustler's lifestyle. While it's topically on par with his previous work, reveling primarily in an empire built on cocaine and double-crossing, the album is imbued with insatiable passion.
Emboldened by his win over Drake in their 2018 battle of egos, King Push has now turned to waging war against anyone he peeps exhibiting fraud-like behavior. His delivery throughout is patient and measured, an apt reflection of the project's title (if you know, you know). Executive produced by Pharrell Williams and Ye, the two producers that have defined the halves of his career, It's Almost Dry is sonically adventurous yet familiar, the perfect terrain for Pusha T to gloat about his unparalleled authenticity.
— Kiana Fitzgerald
JID, The Forever Story
The Dreamville standout JID was already a dynamic lyricist, but that proficiency finally becomes something more spellbinding than high-powered stunt work on The Forever Story. It isn't simply that this concept album is more story driven than all of his previous projects — taking listeners inside his upbringing as the youngest of seven siblings with a dream of playing pro ball — it's the brio with which he performs, the engaging ways he embodies his family history and the ways that the history informs the rapper he's become.
He takes you inside conversations with his mother, outside for a brawl at his brother's school in New Orleans and around his Atlanta hometown for lessons learned being hard headed. The rapping here specifically serves his detail-rich parables and flashbacks. But every now and then, he'll just rattle off a sequence so tricky it feels like watching an X Games rider nail a twisting halfpipe run. This is the sound of a rapper ascending to a new rung in the hierarchy.
— Sheldon Pearce
Quelle Chris, DEATHFAME
We see it happen often: A noted artist dies, and the news spreads quickly across social media. They are mourned with hashtags and photos, and suddenly they're "the greatest to ever do it." It's a weird and frustrating phenomenon: Why do creative people have to die to get the public adoration they always deserved? And why are the dopest artists usually whispered about?
This was the basis of DEATHFAME, Quelle Chris' most experimental rap album, a collage of pitched-down vocals, gospel-centered hymns and piano-laced ballads. Though he's amassed big-name fans, helped score the Oscar-winning film Judas and the Black Messiah, and is now a Grammy-nominated producer ( thanks to Lizzo), he's still seen as an underground talent.
This LP found him taking aim at this notion with chest-thumping rhymes proclaiming himself the best. On "The Agency of the Future," for instance: "Every year an album drop, I'm on top of the Best Ofs / And if I don't drop, shit, I'm on someone's album that was." He's not lying. He has long deserved his flowers.
— Marcus J. Moore
GloRilla, Anyways, Life's Great...
After blessing the break-up anthem canon with 2022's song of the summer, "F.N.F. (Let's Go)," Glorilla obliterates all "one-hit wonder" talk with Anyways, Life's Great... It's the way Glo's accent careens around syllables as she provides positive affirmations like: "Ain't f***ed up 'bout no credit score, I might be rich as f*** tomorrow / Every day the sun won't shine, but that's why I love tomorrow."
It's the self-assurance of setting and maintaining boundaries — "I ain't in these bitches beef, I'm in my motherf***in' prime / Told em, 'Leave me out the way, no parts and I'm not takin' sides.'" The Memphis phenom's major label debut EP boasts themes of optimism and autonomy with a Big Glo-sized dash of ratchet debauchery mixed in.
— Sidney Madden
Open Mike Eagle, Component System with the Auto Reverse
How does Open Mike Eagle follow up an album as revealing as 2020's Anime, Trauma and Divorce? What happened when his therapist told him, "Write your feelings"? He revisits how writing raps became a lifeline in the first place. He unearths homemade cassette recordings of the college radio programs that introduced him to future idols-turned-collaborators: MF DOOM and Diggin' in the Crates fixture Diamond D.
By doing so, he finds renewed purpose in even the most unglamorous parts of his indie career ("Making moves, making lunch and making beats / single-layer on a non-stick baking sheet"), even while languishing during lockdown. As self-deprecating as he still is for memorable laughs, by the album's end he swells with pride at how he's "making a living out a broken language" — his most triumphant moment in years.
For anyone who has turned their passion into a hustle, or gets that writing is akin to "filling out a crisis card," the mixtape-inspired Auto Reverse is refreshingly relatable.
— Christina Lee
NBA YoungBoy, 3800 Degrees
You could mine the contents of YoungBoy's vast 2022 discography and assemble a better, more representative album than any single one the Louisiana superstar has dropped. But the signature one is 3800 Degrees. It's probably the most cohesive YoungBoy record in years, which maybe isn't something to actively seek from an artist this versatile and unpredictable, but it works as the capstone to an unbelievable run.
Across a canvas of glossy, Cash Money-inspired beats, YoungBoy unleashes fire and brimstone, channeling the flows of local heroes like Silkk the Shocker, inviting unexpected guests like Mouse On The Track and E-40. Recorded while the rapper was on house arrest in Utah, he's rarely sounded so pent-up and disillusioned with the industry. It's an intimate dispatch from America's most slept-on superstar — and maybe its most important rapper.
— Mano Sundaresan
Roc Marciano & The Alchemist, The Elephant Man's Bones
Since 2010's Marcberg, the Long Island rapper Roc Marciano has carved a path for a certain kind of insular, hardscrabble MC. In that same period, Los Angeles producer The Alchemist has continuously repaved that lane with dozens of albums worth of gritty, bar-friendly soul loops that seem to uncoil infinitely. The two masters of their respective, intersecting forms reunite here for a collaboration that's delightfully surprising despite its 11 years in the making.
The Alchemist challenges Roc with some of his strangest beats ever, craggy numbers that chime, clang and squawk. The rapper responds in kind with casually sinister verses that stagger in and out of pockets. It is an off-kilter, fulfilling entry into New York's racket rap canon.
— Sheldon Pearce
Saba, Few Good Things
Four years after releasing CARE FOR ME, a project of raw vulnerability with transportive qualities, Chicago MC/producer Saba returns with Few Good Things. The album is weighty, but a comparatively lighter listen. Over production that feels jaunty and curious at times, and soulfully ambient and ground at others, Saba explores the aftermath of grief and the comfort of reminiscing, and the caution one must exercise when moving forward in an uncertain world.
CARE FOR ME focused primarily on Saba's voice, but this album brims with evocative interplay — the G Herbo and Krayzie Bone performances are particularly striking, thanks to the artists' willingness to look inward without fear and dream outward without reservation.
— Kiana Fitzgerald
Yeat, 2 Alivë
Did Yeat beat the corny allegations? Is he some sort of anti-art, anti-criticism psyop designed for hypebeasts to worship? After 2022's deluge of memes and editorializing on this kind of boring main character with a strange, amphibian rap voice ... who's to say?
Whatever the case may be, I'm among the millions of earthlings who have been Yeatpilled. Nearly a year out from release, so long that Yeat dropped something else, 2 Alivë is still in rotation and still sounds so fresh. Every beat sounds like an Atlanta strip club descending into lava. And every song, Yeat is booted up, drunk on riches and sorrow, gargling out incantations about the same four or five vices, bobbing and weaving through purgatory.
Sometimes pop stars aren't that deep; they're just here to make our brains happy. Just don't think about it too hard.
— Mano Sundaresan
Black Star, No Fear Of Time
Many years in the making, Yasin Bey and Talib Kweli's widely anticipated follow-up to 1998's Black Star is littered with bright traces of magic. Entirely produced by Madlib, No Fear Of Time, released through podcast network Luminary, finds the Brooklyn duo making up for lost time; the years have not eroded their enduring chemistry.
They are as sharp and unwavering as ever: "My songs is knowledge to heroes that need honoring / A promise, we demolishing all Confederate monuments," Kweli raps on "So Be It." His verses provide a solid counterbalance to Bey's singing, which lends a spiritual air to a number of songs. As the two rappers trade knotty, counterbalanced raps, Madlib shows off his gift for excavation, flipping and repurposing samples that are equally bizarre, jazzy and soulful, creating a comfortable space for an all-time rap tag-team to reconnect.
— John Morrison
Smino, Luv 4 Rent
The polymath Smino's Luv 4 Rent is an album that carries you off. These are woozy, groovy songs that ooze like the wax inside a lava lamp. His smelted soul has become even more malleable. In his first release in four years, the St. Louis native uses his versatile, off-center performances to bring listeners on a lush journey through self-love, doing the best you can and making do.
The album expands the Smino sound without sacrificing his signature laid-back approach. He remains unconcerned with definition; his raps bleed into singing, tracks flow into one another, and collaborators come and go in the mix without warning. Luv 4 Rent is a stress reliever and, at the very least, serves as a rejuvenating reminder to stop and just let loose a little!
— Teresa Xie
redveil, learn 2 swim
The PG County rapper-producer redveil is unassuming. Even his constant use of lowercase feels like understatement. Unlike most one-man hip-hop shops, braggadocio isn't his modus operandi. Instead, he traffics in a probing, thoughtful kind of lyricism that isn't scared to let the work show.
His second LP, learn 2 swim, released on his 18th birthday, is a snapshot of a teenager who has climbed out of something and is fighting every day to stay on the bright side. On "better," he spits, "I came from fighting for a day to smile to happy verses / So trust me, dawg, I know the feeling when you steady hurting."
The emotional intelligence displayed in his songs is matched by a comprehension of beat structure and melody that stretches far beyond his years; the production style is vintage yet in step with the current rap moment, incorporating synthesizers and samples, boom-bap and 808s. That inclusive approach helps a fast-growing whiz to bridge the rap listener gap.
— Bobby Carter
Danger Mouse & Black Thought, Cheat Codes
A dense and relentless avalanche of imagery, Cheat Codes finds Black Thought operating at the peak of his still-growing powers. While much of the album's appeal revolves around his technical virtuosity, Danger Mouse's production is bold and cinematic, especially on cuts like "The Darkest Part" and the organ-driven "Close To Famous."
Black Thought has always been a referential writer with ornate verses that seem limitless, but on this album he shows greater focus and control, and his detailed storytelling sense is heightened. On songs like the MF DOOM-featuring "Belize" and "Identical Deaths," the Roots rapper guides us through vivid reflections on family, spirituality and politics with an open, stream-of-consciousness approach without filler.
— John Morrison
Flo Milli, You Still Here Ho?
Taking her affection for early '00s reality TV as inspiration, Flo Milli's sophomore album, You Still Here Ho?, answers that very question with biting precision and winks at pop culture.
By channeling some of her favorite small screen sirens in the visuals, tapping Tiffany "New York" Pollard to host the project and upping the seriousness of her delivery on tracks like "Bed Time," "No Face" and "Big Steppa," Flo Milli proves exactly why she's here: To make music for the bougie babies, the fringe-Internet-obsessed and the sassiest among us who need positive outlets for our attitudes.
— Sidney Madden
Earl Sweatshirt, Sick!
After a few years reassessing his youth and remaking his image, the rapper Thebe Kgositsile, who performs as Earl Sweatshirt, shares the most accessible record since his enlightened, lo-fi turn, carrying the lessons of a 20-something veteran and new dad in his sagely bars.
Where Feet of Clay, his last post-album experiment, was nearly impenetrable, the verses on Sick! are punchy and idiomatic. Rarely has his rapping been so snappy, or so transparent, and the spiraling, enclosed production from The Alchemist and Black Noi$e reflects the atmosphere into which it was released. Kgositsile is no stranger to isolation, but this music is restless; not closed off, anxious to step outside.
— Sheldon Pearce
Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart
For anyone who grew up in less-than-ideal conditions, it's easy to feel conflicted about your upbringing. You love where you came from, but as you get older, you wince at the blemishes, the fight-or-flight moments that could've gone left. On Ramona Park Broke My Heart, Vince Staples portrays the brightness and bleakness of his hometown, rapping nuanced narratives in a customary deadpan over bouncy SoCal-influenced beats.
Before this, he held the city close, speaking of it through an "us against the world" perspective meant to shield it. While the love is still there on Ramona Park, honesty prevails. He scans it with bleary eyes, taking stock of what it has become — or seeing it for what it really is.
On "Magic," the good ol' days weren't so good after all. Committing crime doesn't seem so cool in retrospect: "Sick of police lights, sick of gun sounds." Ramona Park was both a clear-eyed portrayal of a place Staples adores, and a mournful assessment of the despair still gripping it.
— Marcus J. Moore
Jeezy and DJ Drama, SNOFALL
The man behind "My President" now boasts of having "Biden on the text." The man who helped bring glory to the mixtape is now a Grammy winner for his role making an album. But before all of that, Jeezy was the Snowman, a formidable presence on mixtapes like Trap or Die, a street classic in Drama's long-running Gangsta Grillz series.
They reunite for SNOFALL revisiting where the history-making began: Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, the neighborhood that was ground zero for Gangsta Grillz before it became a tourist stop. So much has changed, which becomes a point of pride for Jeezy: "What you n***** expect? Ten years the same n****? / Waste a whole decade, and that'll be a shame, n****," he smirks on "Street Cred," pleased with his personal and artistic growth.
There are subtle tweaks to his message and mindset, but what's most remarkable about the album is how energized and vital this partnership still sounds, all these years and achievements later.
— Christina Lee
MAVI, Laughing so Hard, it Hurts
The first time I saw MAVI perform, he was still studying at Howard, just trying to make this music thing work. In a dim basement in D.C., with a crowd still growing familiar with him, he gripped the mic, closed his eyes and performed the earnest, heady music of his 2019 debut Let The Sun Talk.
In the three years since, the Charlotte rapper has learned, loosened up and evolved. On his breezy follow-up Laughing so Hard, it Hurts, he's drawn to a smooth, melodic style, a careful and deliberate unspooling of the web-like raps of Sun Talk. His producers — a cast including Dylvinci, monte booker and Wulf Morpheus — lend him a silky, almost R&B touch. And MAVI grapples poignantly with the weight of the last few years and of generations past.
— Mano Sundaresan
Freddie Gibbs, $oul $old $eparately
With the release of his latest album, $oul $old $eparately, Freddie Gibbs has cleared all hurdles to solidify himself as an elite, all-time rapper. On the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2020 album with the Alchemist, Alfredo, he steps into his new major-label deal and delivers the blockbuster version of his patented no-nonsense dexterity.
There's an impeccable balance of styles here: He bodies beats by the Alchemist and Madlib and also hops in lockstep with Moneybagg Yo and Offset. No grit is lost in his transition to Warner. Instead, within this loosely conceptual record, paranoia makes him a bit more contrite, and he becomes as accountable as he's ever been, settling into a comfortable perch he made for himself. As the opening track indicates, they said it "Couldn't Be Done," but now it's time to crown Big Rabbit.
— Bobby Carter
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
Having mastered da art of storytellin' — flipping it forward and backward, inside and out over several album cycles — Kendrick Lamar shot it all to hell in 2022. Hence, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, which is not really an album at all, but a theatrical performance with Kendrick as playwright and protagonist.
He's not our savior anymore (if he ever was). And he damn sure ain't here to entertain us. His character is flawed; his weaknesses, exposed. His intentions, though virtuous, are often betrayed by vile impact. He's a tragic character in a tale of his own undoing.
But these traumas are not his alone to bear. He's diagnosing a generation of Black men, unveiling insecurity, fragility, hypermasculinity. And he's naming the source of suffering that's made us so insufferable. In the name of breaking the cycle and bequeathing something other than tribulation to his children, he calls out a culture that revels in misogyny, genderphobia and material wealth to mask its low self-worth.
It's not heady work; it's heart work, which can make for a very hard listen. Many of the beats are baroque. The confessionals can be overbearing. And if you find yourself reviled by Kendrick's toxic revelations or his ill-conceived attempts at redemption, you probably should be. This is what therapy is supposed to sound like. Rap n***** haven't kept it this real and honest in ages. And, honestly, it's about damn time.
— Rodney Carmichael
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