It was a strange year for rap. For the first time in over two decades, an entire calendar year passed without a rap song topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart (Doja Cat’s “Paint the Town Red” came to the rescue in August and broke the dry spell). That, and the overall drop in sales across the genre, had many believing that rap’s time as the most popular music in the United States was drawing to a close. Of course, those worries were a bit unfounded. Drake and 21 Savage as well as Lil Durk and J. Cole dropped hits that peaked at #2. And then Drake and J. Cole would team up later in the year to grab the #1 spot with their explosive collaboration “First Person Shooter.” So, yeah, while rap wasn’t doing as well as in previous years, it was still able to create memorable moments that captured the attention of the entire world of pop culture.
Moments like Bronx newcomer Ice Spice dropping her debut album, which proved she had more up her velour sleeves than “Munch.” Or, the aforementioned Doja Cat putting her money where he mouth is and releasing a project that’s majority rap. Or Gunna making one of the year’s catchiest, most meme-able songs, on top of an album better than anyone who just came home from a contentious prison stint had any right to make. Or what about Jack Harlow surprising everyone with his most personal project yet before going away and making what may turn out to be the biggest single of his career so far?
The year may have started slowly, but, in the end, it delivered. And we think next year is going to be even better. So while we wait for 2024 to officially begin, check out 20 of our favorite rap albums of 2023.
Drake, For All The Dogs Scary Hours Edition
The For All The Dogs buzz was as big as the Super Bowl. There was a rumored blockbuster appearance by Nicki Minaj. Lil Yachty championed Drake’s rapping, deeming it the best of his career. And, of course, the OVO demigod broke the 11th hip-hop commandment and pre-anointed his album a classic. Despite striking out on all three of those pre-release promises, The Boy still reminded us with Dogs why he remains music’s ultimate Goliath when battling half-pint mortals. Uncaged when in his R&B bag, Drake punctures hearts on the SZA-assisted “Slime You Out” while cutting his losses early on “Tried Our Best.” Even when paired with the youth (Yeat, Teezo Touchdown, and Yachty), he camouflages himself and plays to his guests’ strengths, making them all standout features. And though signs of the 6 God’s lyrical supremacy are a little sparse on FATD, he loaded up on bars for the album’s Scary Hours deluxe reissue — proving why in the end, he’s still always worth the hype. — Carl Lamarre
Jack Harlow, Jackman
Despite clutching his first solo Hot 100 chart-topper last year, Harlow felt his grip softening. Though he sprinted past the venerable six-figure mark in the opening week for his sophomore album Come Home The Kids Miss You, Harlow endured criticism for his paltry showcase. Fueled by the hate, Harlow bulked up (physically and lyrically) to release his best project yet with Jackman. The mini-set finds a nimble Harlow outfoxing his foes (“Common Ground”), contesting for the throne (“They Don’t Love It), and speaking on his doubts (“Questions”). With Jackman, Harlow rewrote his wrongs and remains on the path to being one of hip-hop’s leading men. — C.L.
Key Glock, Glockoma 2
As he continues to mourn the death of his cousin and mentor, Young Dolph, this year, Key Glock resumed his responsibilities as one of Memphis’ top players with the searing sequel to his 2018 project Glockoma. The same brash, headstrong Glock who was Dolph’s running mate on their Dum & Dummer series is an unrelenting opponent, as proven on “Sucker Free” and “No Hook.” Glock shines best in his ode to the apex predator, “Randy Orton,” as he morphs into The Viper and vows to “whack an opp every month.” — C.L.
2 Chainz & Lil Wayne, Welcome 2 Collegrove
2 Chainz and Lil Wayne quash the idea that rap is a young man’s sport with Welcome 2 Collegrove. With 50 Cent serving as the album’s narrator, the 40-something MCs excel as a lethal tag team, throwing endless alley-oops at the expense of father time. Not only do they applaud BBLs on their Bangladesh-produced club banger “Presha,” but they peel back their tough exterior when cruising alongside Usher on the grown and sexy track “Transparency.” Despite those gaudy wins, Wayne and Chainz are at peak form when standing aside some of their peers, Benny The Butcher (“Oprah & Gayle”), Fabolous (“P.P.A.”) and Rick Ross (“Can’t Believe You”), proving why age is merely just a number in rap. — C.L.
Babyface Ray, Summer’s Mine
A Billboard R&B/hip-hop Rookie of the Month honoree last year, Detroit mainstay Babyface Ray followed up his 2022 breakthrough album Face with this winning next chapter in his musical and career evolution. Summer’s Mine finds the rapper contemplating life and staying true to his artistry in the wake of his rising career trajectory. On the melodic “Donda Bag,” he notes, “Ayy, my name good, my face clean, my pockets full, my people straight.” Then he leans more introspective on tracks like “I Can’t Rap Foreva” and “Life Full of Lies,” in which he acknowledges, Yeah, I’m in the owner box / but still got ties with the hood … / You see ’em hatin’ on me / It’s a full-time job.” Still intact and just as compelling: his nonchalant yet gritty delivery. The 16-track set also includes cameos by frequent collaborator and fellow Detroiter Veeze and Westside Gunn. — Gail Mitchell
Westside Gunn, And Then You Pray For Me
If he’s to be believed, And Then You Pray For Me will be Westside Gunn’s last solo album for a long while. As the co-founder and stylistic figurehead of the Buffalo-bred rap group, Griselda, Gunn has been on a marathon run. He’s dropped a deluge of mixtapes and albums and executive produced acclaimed projects from guys like Mach-Hommy and Stove God Cooks. Hard to argue that anyone worked harder than him to bring unnerving street rap back to the mainstream. Without him, would Drake have tapped Conductor Williams to help make the Scary Hours deluxe pack sound the way it does? Arguable.
What’s inarguable is that Gunn delivered his best solo effort before bowing out. And Then You Pray For Me mixes Griselda’s beloved warm soul samples lovingly chopped to support coldhearted coke capers with more of-the-moment trends. The result is an album that features both a RZA beat for the ages (“House of Glory”) and some of the best Tay Keith beats (“Kostas,” “Steve and Jony”) not found on a Lil Baby, Drake, or Moneybagg Yo album. Lyrically, Gunn does his thing, bleating out memorable one-liners and giving space for collaborators like Stove God to shine. If this really is his last album it’s one to be proud of—but we pray it’s not. — Damien Scott
Rod Wave, Nostalgia
Rod Wave has quietly been one of the most consistently dominant rappers when it comes to albums. This year, he earned his third consecutive Billboard Hot 200-topping LP with Nostalgia – a record that marries smart samples with Rod’s signature bluesy trap balladry. This time, however, there’s a strong undercurrent of hope that courses throughout the record. On “Call Your Friends,” he proselytizes the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, and he breathes new life into Fitzgerald’s classic Great Gatsby novel with a song (“Great Gatsby”) that explores the devastation of getting in the way of your own love story. Along the way, Rod ties the whole thing together by borrowing from a Paramore classic – he flips “Ain’t It Fun” for “Crazy” — and leaving his audiences with couplets of resilience and encouragement in “Back Lit.” He’s made a killing immersing himself in a whirlpool of his feelings, but Nostalgia hints at a different – and potentially brighter – next act for the Florida superstar. — Kyle Denis.
Who’s got next is a constant refrain in the music industry. But stepping forward to answer that question on the rap front in 2023 was Veeze. The Detroit rapper launched his Navy Wavy label — also the title of his breakout 2019 debut mixtape — in partnership with Warner Records this year. Gaining national props with his Hot 100 bow in 2022 as a featured guest with fellow Motor City peer 42 Dugg on Lil Baby’s “U Digg,” Veeze released Ganger in June. On the 21-song set (No. 1 on Heatseekers Albums and Independent Albums), the raspy-voiced rapper underscores why his refreshing originality and authentic storytelling have become drawing cards for a steadily growing fan base. Aside from popular “Not a Drill” and “GOMD” and its remix with Lil Uzi Vert, Ganger boasts the tracks “Fresh,” “Safe 2” and “Amusing” (on the album’s deluxe edition) plus assists from Lil Yachty, Lucki and fellow Detroiters Babyface Ray and Icewear Vezzo. — G.M.
Larry June & The Alchemist, The Great Escape
San Francisco’s Larry June continued to raise the bar — and claim more fans — with this follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2022 album, Spaceships on the Blade. Partnering for the first time with veteran producer The Alchemist (Nas, Snoop Dogg), June found a fellow creative muse whose engaging beats and sonic touches are the perfect accompaniment to the rapper’s laidback flow and purposeful lyricism. The album, which peaked at No. 9 on Top Rap Albums and No. 4 on Independent Albums, features guest assists from Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa, among others. Key cuts include “89 Earthquake,” “60 Days” and “Summer Reign” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. — G.M.
Destroy Lonely, If Looks Could Kill
One of the most promising rappers to come out of Atlanta in the past few years sounds like an amalgamation of the best rappers to come out of Atlanta over the past few years. Like his Opium stablemates, Lonely is a stylist first and foremost. His lyrics and flow work primarily to further the overall aesthetic of a guy who is so ahead of his time and competition that he can’t be bothered to expound on what it took to get him there. All we need to know is that he’s flyer and gets more money than you and anyone you know. And, even though the album could stand to lose about five to eight tracks, he’s able to drive that point home repeatedly without it turning grating or boring. Don’t believe him? Take a listen to the title track, the guitar-drenched “fly shit” or the Ken Carson-assisted “money & sex.” — D.S.
Travis Scott, UTOPIA
For his first post-Astroworld full-length project, Travis Scott let time do its thing. The concept of Utopia had been percolating amongst the Travis Scott fandom years before the fatal 2021 Astroworld crowd crush, so the record fans ultimately received obviously underwent a series of evolutions. The result is a combination of tracks that recall the broodier moments of Scott’s early catalog, production that spanned influences from deep house and psychedelia to boom-bap and trap, and subliminal peeks into the state of Scott’s post-Astroworld psyche. For most of his career, Travis Scott has been a blank canvas for fans to project their rage on, a brand before much else. On standout track, “My Eyes,” however, he sheds that corporatized snakeskin for a few moments of genuine vulnerability: “I replay them nights, and right by my side, all I see is a sea of people that ride wit’ me / If they just knew what Scotty would do to jump off the stage and save him a child,” he raps somberly. — K.D.
Offset, Set It Off
Four years after his debut solo album Father of 4, Offset set out to establish himself as a solo star —following the breakup of the beloved trap trio Migos (and the unfortunate death of Takeoff) and out from under the limelight of his estranged wife and fellow MC Cardi B — on his sophomore set, Set It Off. He slides on Boi-1da’s skittering beat on the Miami playlist essential “Skyami,” gets into his melodic bag on the gangsta love song “Dissolve” and effortlessly defends his lofty position on the hard-hitting cut “Big Dawg.” But flashes of vulnerability, like when he raps, “Man, I would be lying if I say I ain’t miss the three” on the Metro Boomin-produced “Night Vision” or “Why I lose my brother to bullets? Why I lose my grandma to cancer? Why me, God? I need answers” on the Travis Scott-assisted “Say My Grace,” reminds listeners that Offset isn’t impervious to pain. He’s using it as a catalyst for a creative reset, and showcasing his musical and lyrical range to further cement his legacy in the rap game. — Heran Mamo.
Infallibly is often a rap superpower. Not for Noname. On the follow-up to her 2018 debut studio album, the Chicago-born rapper aims nearly everything and everyone worth talking about. She shoots at Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, the NFL, Rihanna, Disney, and a bunch of other beloved institutions. Left in the hands of lesser rapper, this album would be created on a pedestal, the MC rapping from on high to let us plebians know how simpleminded and gullible we’ve been. Noname instead spits those bars right here on earth, even taking time to turn her aim to herself. It’s a wonderous, elegantly rapped album. One that shows immense growth and promise in equal measure. Sundial makes clear Noname’s strength comes from within. — D.S.
Dave & Central Cee, Split Decision
The pair of young and gifted U.K. rappers join forces on Split Decision, a perfect-for-summer four-track EP that was released on Dave’s 25th birthday and the day after Central Cee’s 25th. The combination of Dave’s conscious and clever lyricism and Cench’s lightning-speed delivery brimming with U.K. street slang make for a winning formula. Their verses balance gritty storytelling about surviving their harsh realities (“Back then I got chased by feds, I ran out of breath and I wanted to vomit/ I hit that freak, she put me in cuffs, it triggered my trauma, I tell her to stop it,” Dave raps on the reflective opener “Trojan Horse”) with vivid imagery of their newfound riches and luxe lifestyle. The Latin-tinged melodic drill smash “Sprinter” became the longest-running No. 1 rap single in U.K. chart history with its nine-week reign, cementing Dave and Cench’s legacies across the pond while notably expanding their reach outside U.K. rap’s borders. — H.M.
Sexyy Red, Hood Hottest Princess
Few stars can rival the breakout year that Sexyy Red is having, and even fewer can say that they delivered a project as consistent and gloriously ratchet as Hood Hottest Princess. Introduced by the off-the-wall runaway hit “Pound Town” and featuring follow-up hits “SkeeYee,” “Looking for the Hoes,” and “Hellcats SRTs,” Hood Hottest Princess is a manifesto of all the deliciously hood, ghetto fabulous energy that courses through both Sexyy’s inimitable impulsive thoughts and her faultless beat selections. Parlaying the gritty house party feel of Boosie and Gucci’s most beloved hits for Gen Z, Sexyy’s breakout mixtape is the kind of top-to-bottom collection of bangers that feels distinctly free from the trappings of contemporary hip-hop commercialism. Near the end of the year, the St. Louis rapper repackaged the mixtape with eleven new tracks that further expanded both her sonic profile and songwriting hallmarks by way of winning collaborations with Summer Walker, 42 Dugg, and Chief Keef. — K.D.
Doja Cat, Scarlet
Doja Cat pivoted from pop back to rap for her fiery fourth studio album. Eschewing features, the artist carried Scarlet on her shoulders — and demonstrated she was more than up to the task. Thanks to the left-of-center earwormy sample of the Dionne Warwick classic “Walk on By” and Doja’s frank lyrics (“You can’t talk no s–t without penalties/ B–ch, I’m in your s–t if you send for me”), “Paint the Town Red” notched the artist’s second Hot 100 No. 1 and the tally’s first rap leader in over a year. But there’s more … like “Demons,” her nod to haters who’ve deemed her the devil. Or the love-vibed “Agoura Hills” and “Attention,” a current Grammy nominee for best rap song and best melodic rap performance. Rapping with mature assurance and take-that finesse, Doja Cat proved her versatility is no fluke. — G.M.
Gunna, a Gift & a Curse
For his first full-length studio album since returning home from a year-long prison stint, Gunna flew completely solo and delivered some of the biggest and best songs of his career. Beyond “Fukumean” —the summer smash that became his highest-peaking unaccompanied entry on the Billboard Hot 100 — Gunna got introspective and confessional. The guitar-laced “Back to the Moon” finds Wunna waxing poetic about the convoluted devolution of certain relationships, while the sobering “Turn Your Back” directly addresses both the rumors surrounding his current connection to YSL and his seemingly endless search for peace despite all his success. Confessional yet effortlessly smooth, a Gift & a Curse isn’t just Gunna’s best album, it’s one of the strongest LPs across genres this year. — K.D.
Teezo Touchdown, How Do You Sleep at Night?
With silver nails in his hair, eyeblack, football shoulder pads, and an eccentric rockstar style, Teezo Touchdown emerged as one of rap’s most exciting newcomers in 2023. Following his opening stint for Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost Tour, the 31-year-old MC scored features on Travis Scott’s Utopia and Drake’s For All the Dogs. His proximity to mainstream rappers is shocking yet refreshing for someone who makes anything but mainstream rap, as indicated by his incredibly experimental debut album, How Do You Sleep at Night? Across 14 tracks, Teezo delivers a funk number with guitar riffs and helium-pitched “Wee!” ad-libs on “Mood Swings,” while on “Too Easy,” Isaiah Rusk lends a hand on the garage punk anthem that boasts 2 Live Crew-esque chants and warm R&B melodies. The oft-kilter jams all fall under his “rock & boom” genre. Drake gave Teezo the ultimate cosign when he described his album as “some of the best music ever.” Teezo lives up to that A-lister-fueled hype, and his unrelenting charisma, paired with his unorthodox artistry, proves Teezo has a very bright future ahead of him. — H.M.
Ice Spice, Like…?
After giving fans a taste with her breakout 2022 single “Munch (Feelin’ U),” Ice Spice dished out more delectable hits with her debut EP Like..? She proudly wears her crown on “Princess Diana” (and invites queen Nicki Minaj on the top 10 remix), flips Diddy’s “I Need a Girl (Pt. 2)” for her first Hot 100 hit with the Lil Tjay-assisted “Gangsta Boo,” and introduces phrases like “baddie friend” and “smoochie” to the pop culture lexicon—all while breathlessly bouncing off RIOTUSA’s boisterous drill production. With Like..?, Ice Spice proves she’s no one-hit wonder but a persistent hitmaker with strong pop sensibilities who has quickly ascended the charts and onto major stages across the globe, rightfully earning her title as Billboard’s 2023 R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Year. — H.M.
Killer Mike, Michael
Killer Mike has lived many lives. The Atlanta native got his start as an Outkast understudy, then moved on to sign with T.I.’s Grand Hustle label right as the Rubber Band Man snatched the crown as King of the South. He then linked with indie producer El-P to knock out his last solo album R.A.P. Music and then form what would become the critical darling indie duo, Run the Jewels. Between all of that he somehow found time to become a well-regarded political pundit.
To break down how, exactly, the man born Michael Render can contain all those multitudes, Killer Mike tapped No ID to oversee the production of an album that operates, in his words, as an origin story. James Baldwin once said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” On Michael, the ATLien works to make sense of both the world that made him and the world he’s made.
It’s richly produced and expertly rapped, flowing from heart-aching, soul-tinged tracks like “Motherless” to ruthlessly modern works like the Future and Andre 3000-featured “Scientists & Engineers.” He touches on a multitude of subjects: abortion, black solidarity, the political past and present, loss of family, drug using and drug selling—the former informing the incredible “Something For Junkies.” In the hands of a lesser artist, an album spanning this many topics and situations would run the risk of feeling disjointed or, worse, dispirited. But Mike holds it all together. It feels like the album he was born to make. — D.S.