“R.E.K.S.’’ Lauding Reks’s third solo album for its adherence to rugged East Coast lyricism and gritty sample-based beats (from Statik Selektah, Pete Rock, and others) is missing half the point. Sure, the DJ Premier-produced single “25th Hour’’ is intelligent street hop at its best, but Reks’s ear for detail and versatile flows, plus a fearless introspective streak, demand attention from rap fans of any region or background.
2. KENDRICK LAMAR
“Section.80’’ While he’s been grouped with emerging rap voices like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar’s indie album - a conceptual piece exploring the psychology of the post-Reagan era youth - shows serious artistic ambitions that set him apart from the crowd. Equally adept in getting personal (“Kush and Corinthians’’) and relating others’ stories (“Keisha’s Song’’), the 24-year-old has been taken under Dr. Dre’s wing - and it’s no surprise.
3. DANNY BROWN
“XXX’’ Behind his crude sense of humor and a flow that occasionally strains his voice into a rushed, manic waterfall of syllables, Danny Brown is really just a guy coping with turning 30. Steeped in a grimy post-Dilla Detroit vibe, Brown reflects on three decades of life, from drug abuse battles (“DNA’’) to petty theft (“Scrap or Die’’) to rap itself (“Pac Blood’’).
4. A$AP ROCKY
“LiveLoveA$AP’’ In indulging in his love for Houston’s chopped-and-screwed rap aesthetic, the 23-year-old Harlemite’s breakout release stands as a landmark for post-regional, post-hardcore hip-hop. Slipping comfortably within dreamy, stoned-out instrumentals from producer Clams Casino, Rocky’s talent isn’t in dominating the mike but in assimilating disparate rap styles into a vibrant, engaging overall package.
5. FREDDIE GIBBS
“Cold Day in Hell’’ Gary, Ind.-born Gibbs has won comparisons to such legends as Tupac and Scarface for his gritty brand of gangsta rap, of which this mixtape is a perfect example. Harsh and unrelenting as his songs can be, Gibbs quietly frames his personal struggle within a social and political context, reminding listeners how powerful hardcore hip-hop can still be.
6. FRANK OCEAN
“nostalgia, Ultra’’ After riding a wave of hype through most of 2011, California hip-hop crew Odd Future’s best candidate for continued success is singer Frank Ocean. Over beats sampling the likes of Radiohead, the Eagles, and MGMT, Ocean crafts an album stocked with memorable cuts (“Novacane,’’ “Songs for Women’’) that walk the line between indie, electronic, and new-wave hip-hop influences.
“Electronic Dream’’ Bombastic, aggressive hip-hop crashes headfirst into ’90s rave anthems on this impressive debut record from the Providence-based producer (Cam’ron, Jim Jones). Layers of crisp drums, ethereal vocal samples, and meticulous sonic detailing transform past dance hits into richly textured, postmodern rap instrumentals, ranging from spectacularly grimy (“Underground Stream’’) to hazy melancholia (“Lost in a Maze’’).
8. DJ QUIK
“The Book of David’’ After a six-year absence, the perennially underrated DJ Quik released a comeback album that shows how ahead of the curve the rapper-producer has always been. Using mostly live instruments he plays himself, Quik invites old friends Ice Cube, Kurupt, Suga Free, and others to indulge in his best production in years, a warm, organic combination of West Coast funk and glossy ’80s R&B.
9. ACTION BRONSON
“Dr. Lecter’’ In a genre lacking compelling personalities, Queens rapper-producer Action Bronson provides a memorable glimpse into his New York state of mind, populated by women, drugs, guns, and his biggest inspiration, food. Moving freely between gritty reality raps and bizarre fantasies, Bronson’s world plays out like a Fellini movie set to an East Coast boom-bap beat.
10. THE WEEKND
“House of Balloons’’ This Canadian-based music project led by singer Abel Tesfaye isn’t hip-hop, but its initial offering executes a distinct style of vacuously seductive, minimalist electro-R&B whose influence is permeating into rap (see Drake’s collaboration with Tesfaye on his most recent album). Even when he seems enraptured in the album’s preening sense of over-indulgence, Tesfaye makes songs like “What You Need’’ sound urgent and alluring.
“Instrumental Mixtape’’ While not groundbreaking in itself, this collection of instrumentals from New Jersey producer Clams Casino (A$AP Rocky, Lil B) provides a glimpse of hip-hop’s sonic evolution beyond 2011. As 808 drum machine kicks and fuzzy Southern synths clash with atmospheric chillwave electronica, the difference between a hazy stoner jam and a bold, cinematic beat becomes increasingly blurred.