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—by Garfield Hylton
Lyric-driven rap is alive. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Eminem, and Logic frequently top charts with highly conceptual albums based on great beats and the strength of their pens. Still, there is a wealth of underground emcees putting out equally impressive, if not more so, lyrical excellence. These aren't albums likely to make a streaming service's top playlist, but for those who care deeply about the perfect marriage of beats and rhymes, they'll provide untold hours of sensational listening experiences.
Skyzoo, In Celebration of Us
Skyzoo is the poster child for rap fans who enjoy dissecting multilayered lyrics. This year, the Brooklyn emcee had his first child and wrote an album to serve as a guide his son can follow. The album deals with heavy topics like police brutality, making good decisions, and navigating what it means to be a man in today's society. That's not to say it's short on slick talk or braggadocious rhymes, however. Sky balances all topics in equal measures, crafting some of the finest rhymes of his career over some of the best beats he's ever penned on.
Best Songs: "Black Sambo," "Parks and Recreation," "Forever and a Day," "The Stick-Up Tape From Menace"
Tobe Nwigwe, The Originals
Tobe Nwigwe's impending stardom began in an unlikely place: a podcast. Bomani Jones was effusive in his praise of the Houston rapper and, around that same time, The Ringer published a piece about Nwigwe and his new album, The Originals. The Nigerian-American rapper is, quite frankly, an absolute monster wordsmith, his husky voice and effortless flow sounding like a hybrid of Big K.R.I.T. and Andre 3000, and the the first couplet from the album likely to make listeners screw their face up. Stay focused, though. Nwigwe's smooth enough that it's easy to get lost at the very sound of him rapping, and that...would be a mistake. He's only two projects deep, but now is the best time to get in on the ground floor. He won't be unknown for too much longer.
Best Songs: "MURDER," "CHILL," "100K"
Roc Marciano, Rosebudd's Revenge 2
Roc Marciano is a throwback to the glory days of mid-90s rap. If you're a listener who loved the more grimy aspects of East Coast hip-hop from the era of The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Mobb Deep, and the Wu-Tang Clan, Roc Marci has everything you need in spades. RR2 is the sequel to last year's acclaimed Rosebudd Revenge. On this go-around, the music is lush but minimalist, allowing the Long Island native to be the focus. He doesn't disappoint, so vivid you could expect an old crockpot of illegal substances and a Pyrex bowl to magically appear while you're listening. Rosebudd Revenge 2 is best enjoyed during a long commute with a great pair of headphones. The raps, beats, and vibe will ensure infinite head nods.
Best Songs: "Tent City," "Corniche," "Saks Fifth"
Royce 5'9, Book of Ryan
Royce, like fine wine, whiskey, and Angela Bassett, is getting better with time. Personally, his albums have always left a little to be desired. Whereas his excellent Bar Exam series has been the zenith of lyrical excellence, his albums seemed to be lacking some of that same personality. Book of Ryan successfully merges "album Royce" with "mixtape Royce" for what should be, in a fair world, nominated for one of the best rap albums of this year. Though the tracklist looks intimidating, coming in at 21 songs, one hardly notices. The LP finds the emcee opening up to his son about his own history of growing up with an abusive father and their tenuous relationship, but there's enough wit and pure lyricism to make the bitter taste of some of those tracks go down a lot smoother. Royce is at the peak of powers and this album is recommended to anyone who even remotely cares about rap music.
Best Songs: "Legendary," "Power," "Stay Woke," "Boblo Boat"
Black Thought & 9th Wonder, Streams of Thought, Vol. 1
A solo Black Thought album has been at the top of rap Christmas lists since the inception of The Roots. Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 may not be a complete turn in that direction, coming in at only five songs, but Black Thought assuredly makes the most of his time. The short ride through the mind of the legendary Philly emcee is worth every second. There is no time wasted on hooks, bridges, or even actual songs in the way listeners understand them. There's a beat, there's Black Thought, and then are consistently complex rhymes flying through the ears of listeners like jets during an American parade. Outside of guest verses from Styles P and Rapsody, this is pure, unadulterated and uninterrupted Thought at his best. The energy of his legendary Funkmaster Flex Freestyle at Hot 97 is carried over to the album, where he raps as if might actually be going out of style. Thankfully, he proves it's not.
Best Songs: The entire EP.
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