1. Kendrick Lamar
"To Pimp a Butterfly" Does this album sound like Parliament, N.W.A, Suga Free, DJ Quik, Foreign Exchange, Flying Lotus, and Terrace Martin? Absolutely. Does this album sound like nothing on the radio right now? Absolutely. Is it an album black music needs? Without question. There's nothing wrong with music that makes you dance. That's what it's meant to do. But it's also meant to make you think. And the journey that takes you from Compton to Hollywood to heaven to the White House to Ferguson to the afterlife where Tupac's waiting is one of rap's coolest think pieces since "Aquemini" — or at least since "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
"Dirty Sprite 2" We're supposed to thank Ciara, right? Her broken engagement with Future fueled the furious spree of increasingly love-stoned and self-destructive mixtapes ("Monster," then "Beast Mode," then "56 Nights") that turned him into 2015's hottest rapper, culminating in a sequel to the tape that was his original springboard. He purged his emotions over mutant trap beats concocted by Metro Boomin, Southside, and Zaytoven that became the sounds of the summer and beyond.
3. The Internet
"Ego Death" With all due respect to "Channel Orange" and "Wolf," the two most interesting projects to come out of the Odd Future collective the past two years have come from the Internet. But where 2013's "Feel Good" was wistful, its music suited to the album title, on "Ego Death," Syd the Kid and Matt Martian settled in a darker, more mature comfort zone, crafting smooth neo-soul with no pretense.
"If You're Reading This, It's Too Late" The highlights of this rap star's year were swinging Wii tennis rackets to the rhythm of a Timmy Thomas sample (or a D.R.A.M. ripoff) and, somewhat shockingly, dismantling Meek Mill in a rap beef. That almost stole the spotlight from the shadowy mixtape he dropped in February, which smashed streaming records despite being entirely insular in sound and content. It was nocturnal, woozy, but still anthemic — ask the Woes.
"The Good Fight" There was a time when Oddisee easily could've been boxed in as a talented producer — and no one would have been better off for it. His exquisite ear, refined beats, and thoughtful tone make him a compelling counterweight to the mainstream, and it comes through here: Whether he's stretching sonically with the sunny opener, "That's Love," or settling into his wheelhouse over the tumbling bells of "Counter-Clockwise," Oddisee sounds as comfortable and confident in his voice as he is with his beats.
6. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
"Surf" Chalking this up as a trojan horse for Chance the Rapper's first project since 2013's "Acid Rap" is missing the point. Chance might be the Social Experiment frontman, but Trumpet stands out even in the background. On a free project that's still flooded with more than 20 guest appearances — from J. Cole and Busta Rhymes to Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu — Trumpet is still the star. He uses his horn as the album's pulse ("Slip Slide") and makes it moan ("Nothing Came to Me"); more than anything, on an album that feels like one big surprise party, his horn feels like the life of it.
"So the Flies Don't Come" Picture a Chicago-born, Maine-raised millennial who cut his teeth in Milwaukee's suddenly bubbling rap scene, and who twists and folds words like Rubik's cubes and origami cranes. That's milo. When he unpacks lines like "It's him who wrote the Tao of the pessimist, as thespians maneuver through the now and its messiness," you get a sense what you're in for. He translates meandering thoughts of complacency and solitude into a language all his own — and does it largely on sumptuous production by Kenny Segal that makes him sound isolated, yet still inviting.
8. The Game
"The Documentary 2"
In a year when Compton hit the silver screen and was showered with unending praise, it made perfect sense for Game to offer up two discs' worth of music (nearly four hours!) as tithes to the church of West Coast hip-hop. No one's worshiped more devoutly at the altar of the west than he has; here, he used the sequel to his debut album as an opportunity to surf through sounds that raised him, from N.W.A to DJ Quik, resulting in his most inspired work in years.
9. Cool Uncle
"Cool Uncle" The title's enough of a wink to get the cheeky idea behind Bobby Caldwell's collaboration with jazzy super-producer Jack Splash (Alisha Keys, John Legend, Kendrick Lamar). Caldwell's been in the game for over three decades; his groove "What You Won't Do for Love" has been sampled and covered more times than you can count. He coos to Jessie Ware about his Charlie Brown luck with the ladies ("Break Away"), and hopscotches over horns with Denice Williams ("Breaking Up") — if lovers decide to part ways, at least they can do a two-step on the way out.
10. Erykah Badu
"But You Caint Use My Phone" Not to take anything away from all the memes and covers, but Badu's mixtape was the best thing to spring off of the contagious earworm that was Drake's "Hotline Bling." She used it to explore the broader concept of technology's spell over society. It was also an excuse to pull Andre 3000 out of seclusion on "Hello," where the old flames serenade each other to the sound of chirping birds, in their first collaboration in 15 years.
Abstract Radio Sure, it’s not really an album; it’s one of the artist-hosted shows on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio. But of all the A-listers Apple managed to sign up — Elton John, Run the Jewels, Drake, Haim — the two hours that Q-Tip puts together each week always feel like a master class in black music, one that can start at Bill Withers and weave its way to Future. It’s essential listening.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.