1. SCHOOLBOY Q
“Oxymoron” On his Tog Dawg Entertainment debut, Schoolboy Q had a lot to live up to: not just cloud cover from the stratospheric success of his labelmate Kendrick Lamar, but also the height of the bar Q set for himself with his spacey 2013 independent project, “Habits and Contradictions.” But “Oxymoron” was unflinching in getting across Q’s menacing LA gangsta aesthetic, and uncompromising in pushing a sound as hard as it was trippy. Vulnerable as Q had to be to spin a story about abusing the very drugs he sold on “Prescription/Oxymoron,” he was equally at home turning a chaotically fun beat from Pharell Williams into a gang-banging party song on “Los Awesome.”
2. J. COLE
“2014 Forest Hills Drive” Selling more first-week records than Kanye West will buy an artist some creative freedom. Coming off his sophomore album, “Born Sinner,” Cole cashed in his creative capital, and came up with his most unshackled project since he popped on the scene in 2009 with “The Warm Up.” Without a trace of apprehension, he croons in the key of Mos Def, reminiscing on his adolescence, but also trying reconcile it with today’s tension — from the Ferguson riots to pop music’s co-opting of black culture. It’s as heartfelt as he’s ever been allowed to be.
3. RICK ROSS
“Mastermind” Amazingly, the sound that Ross carved out for himself four years ago on his breakthrough “Teflon Don” — a cocktail of frightening trap beats and junk-food lyrics — still has legs. But he knowingly switched things up on the first of his two albums this year, pulling out the horns and strings and indulging in lush soul soundscapes.
“My Krazy Life” In a year supercharged with racial conflict, it probably says something that the biggest rap single was another anthem about that con-lifting (or in YG’s case endearing) racial slur. But “My [Hitta],” as the edited version was called, was huge, and along with DJ Mustard, YG invented another distinct sound that can only be identified as Los Angeles.
5. RUN THE JEWELS
“Run the Jewels 2” It’s nice when a pair of political cynics and hip-hop purists can come together and cook up something seething and frantic; it’s even better when they can do it twice in two years. Killer Mike and El-P have a way of holding your attention hostage, and songs like “Early” — on which Mike squeezes out every ounce of the angst in a police stop — make sure they get a point across while they have it.
6. BIG KRIT
“Cadillactica” From Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y to Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky, most of KRIT’s peers from the blog-rap era have made their statement records. But KRIT made his statement by doubling down on the bluesy, thumping, funky, soulful trunk-shakers that have always been his security blanket. He knows his lane, and he rides in it slowly with his sub pounding.
7. ISAIAH RASHAD
“Cilvia Demo” If you’re the only one on Top Dawg who isn’t from California, there’s probably no better way to make your regionalism clear than by crafting a sonic scrapbook for any 20-something who spent formative years being shaped by southern rap. That’s what Tennessee native Rashad did on his insular, nocturnal debut, dropping winking references like breadcrumbs with songs like “Brad Jordan” (a nod to Houston pioneer Scarface), “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” (Master P), and “West Savannah” (Outkast) to make sure you know both who he is and where he’s from.
8. BOOSIE BADAZZ
“Life After Deathrow” The five years Boosie spent in jail gave him more than enough time to pore over all his grudges — friends who said they’d visit but didn’t, women who left him, a system that tried to pin him with murder — and when he got out, it was as if there weren’t enough songs to hold it all. His return album is a monumental emotional purge that makes you look at all the things he was charged with and, somehow, actually empathize.
9. FREDDIE GIBBS AND MADLIB
“Piñata” The undeniable chemistry these two developed in four previous link-ups reached an apex here. Between Gibbs’s knack for detailed narration and Madlibs’s cinematic sounds, the two fit hand-in-glove.
10. ROYCE DA 5’9” AND DJ PREMIER
“PRhyme” For rap nerds, this is a heaven-sent collaboration: Premier’s neoclassic boom bap and scratches plus Royce’s slithery way with words. It’s a short but potent dose of true-to-form hip hop.
“Stolen Youth” All the heavyweights took the year off, so new faces like Young Thug, Bobby Shmurda, Def Loaf, Logic, and Tink took the opening and ran with it. But Staples is easily the one to keep an eye on: He’s a Long Beach rapper with Kendrick Lamar’s eye for haunting details and Earl Sweatshirt’s puppetmaster control over words.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.