Perhaps ironically, Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary started with a surprising statistic. Throughout the first half of the year, no rap albums cracked the top spot on the Billboard charts. It was the longest stint without a Hip Hop chart-topper since “In Living Color” was still on the air. Whether that speaks to a larger conversation on the culture and where it’s headed is beside the point. Clearly, several high-quality albums were released regardless of chart position. But what 2023 did deliver was many experimental releases and artists pushing boundaries.

Whether it’s Lil Uzi Vert channeling his inner System of a Down, Travis Scott delivering his version of a Yeezus (as online commentators consistently compare it to), Doja Cat challenging her pop-star reputation by returning to her boom-bap roots or BigXThaPlug raising a flag for Texas’ next generation, scores of artists took the time this year to reach beyond the brink of breach. At its core, that’s what Hip Hop is all about: Artistically challenging yourself by trying something new, something fresh and something different, even if it’s simply fresh and new for you.

So, without further ado, check out the 13 top rap albums of 2023, in no particular order, below.

1. Killer Mike — Michael

In many ways, Killer Mike’s Michael is an exercise in self-actualization straight out of the gate. Tracks like “Down By Law” featuring CeeLo Green, and “Shed Tears” featuring Mozzy and Lena Byrd Miles find the ATLien pointing out the ills of the world only to then turn the lens on himself and highlight his own trials and tribulations. On “Down By Law,” Mike kicks, “Listen, my n**ga / Snakes in your circle and them b**ches hissin’, my n**ga / My n**ga don’t listen, one thing I hate ’bout my n**ga / So I just pray ’bout my n**ga.” Every syllable delivered feels like it’s slathered in disgust, only to reveal one track later, on “Shed Tears,” that he has also lived a hard-headed life: “Lookin’ at me, I was struttin’, proud as can be / Couldn’t tell me nothin’, I was hushin’ people, keepin’ it G / I heard my ancestors’ voices, now they speakin’ through me / Sometime my faith get fully shaken, I’ll be weak as can be.”

Killer Mike’s coveted André 3000 feature on “Scientists & Engineers,” which also features Future, doesn’t disappoint, and neither does “Run,” which features Dave Chappelle and Young Thug. “Motherless” is an emotional tribute to his deceased mother and grandmother, and “NRICH,” featuring 6lack and Eryn Allen Kane, is an apt blueprint for generating generational wealth. There’s a slew of relevant conversations throughout the project, but perhaps the most poignant is hearing Killer Mike embrace the “go woke go broke” axiom on the anthemic “Talk’n That S**t!,” which was produced by DJ Paul & Twhy Xclusive. While it may resonate as out of culture to some, it contextually captures a growing ethos of Black conservatism. If you think about it, Black American culture can be considered inherently conservative; we love Bibles, dollars and guns. Killer Mike can not be marginalized, which is what makes Michael such a powerful listen.

2. Lil Uzi Vert — PINK TAPE

One of the biggest talking points of 2023 was the fact that for the first half of the year, Hip Hop had the longest run without a rap release topping the charts since the Clinton administration. Leave it to Lil Uzi Vert and his album PINK TAPE to break the streak and the mold. At 26 tracks in length, his third studio album is a raucous mash-up of angst-injected genre-bending concoctions. “Suicide Doors” finds the Philadelphia native screaming off his haters — like Charleston White whose criticism of Lil Uzi Vert opens the track — with lines like, “I put spikes all on my head just like I’m Goku / She looked at me in my eyes, said, ‘Be the old you / Suck my d**k, you dumbass b**ch,’ she said, ‘You so rude.’” “Just Wanna Rock” is bass-heavy, rave-ready and feels more inspired by the Jersey Club sound than the trapped-out stylings most associated with Lil Uzi Vert. And “CS” is a straight-up cover of System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” From punk rap to metal to rage, Lil Uzi Vert’s PINK TAPE stands tall in his catalog and stands alone from anything he’s released to date.

3. Travis Scott — UTOPIA

Travis Scott’s UTOPIA is the type of album that connects most viscerally through its feel than through its lyricism. However, several stanzas jump out like a mole from whack-a-mole. On opener “HYAENA,” which was produced by Scott, Wondagurl and Mike Dean, Scott coolly kicks, “Write a show ’bout myself like I’m Chelsea Handler / Or write a series ’bout my b**ches like I’m Kelsey Grammer / Nicknamed the jet Jayhawk ’cause it’s outta Kansas” over a quintessential a Hip Hop production that samples Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” and Gentle Giant’s “Proclamation.” However, infectious offerings like “FE!N” featuring Playboi Carti and “DELRESTO (ECHOES)” featuring Beyonce hit hardest as a vibe over the vocabulary, which is the beauty of UTOPIA. Scott’s fourth studio album amazingly highlights his ability to wrangle a football team’s worth of who’s who — Teezo Touchdown, Drake, Rob49, 21 Savage, Yung Lean, Dave Chappelle, SZA, Kid Cudi, Future, James Blake and more — into a gargantuan release that rocks righteously in any setting.

4. Drake — For All the Dogs

Teflon Drizzy doesn’t miss a year without dropping and chart-topping. For All the Dogs expectedly debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 featuring a cascade of high-profile guest appearances and controversial lyrics ready-made for viral debate. “Slime You Out” featuring SZA provoked the ire of many when Drake delivered, “Whipped and chained you like American slaves” on the project’s first release. Was the bar in poor taste? It depends on your perspective. Regardless, it was provocative. The lyric got people going, as Drake tends to do. “First Person Shooter” featuring J. Cole is an immediate highlight, though. Two of Drake’s generation’s big three teamed up for a bar-tastic extravaganza where half the fun is judging who won. “IDGAF” featuring Yeat and “Rich Baby Daddy” featuring SZA and Sexyy Red also stand out in the best possible sense. But, for all of Drake’s selfie-sensibilities, he continues to remind the world that if he drops, the No.1 spot is his and his alone.

5. Moneybagg Yo — Hard to Love

Moneybagg Yo has become one of rap’s surest bets. Following his stellar 2021 release, A Gangsta’s Pain, the Memphis, Tennessee native continues his hot streak with Hard to Love. Bagg is blessed with the ability to kick insightful street narratives wrapped around hilarious bars about relationships. “Dressin’ snazzy, talkin’ country, got her hooked on phonics,” he raps on the Future-assisted “Keep It Low” before concluding with “Call me toxic, but she can’t keep me from out her stomach.” The hilarity continues on “F My BM” when he kicks, “Sometimes it be true when she textin’ my phone ’bout b**ches … Damn, she right, gettin’ head right now, thank God these windows tinted.” Arguably the strongest offering on Hard to Love is the smoothed-out “Ocean Spray.” Sure, Bagg is simply flexing flyness and intoxication, but in a way that’s contagious. “Motion God” and “On Wat U On” featuring GloRilla round out this album, causing its title to come into question. Is Moneybagg Yo really hard to love? For the past few years, he’s been in the zone.

6. Doja Cat — Scarlet

Doja Cat set out to prove a point on her fourth studio album, Scarlet. The Los Angeles native has received criticism in recent years for leaning too much into the pop genre, becoming too popular, having too much success and straying too far from her LA underground rap roots. So what does the multi-platinum superstar do? She crafts a creative body of work that harkens back to her days performing at Project Blowed. “Paint The Town Red,” with its Burt Bacharach–composed sample, “Walk On By,” shines through its quiet confidence and embrace of criticism she’s received in recent months. When Doja says, “Yeah, b**ch, I said what I said,” you can tell she means it. Just like on “Wet Vagina,” which showcases one of the year’s most chant-ready hooks: “Move out the way ‘cause here comes giants / Move like a goat ‘cause b**ches lion (lying).” It’s the type of lyrical subtlety rap fans hone in on. But perhaps the best thing about Scarlet is that it finds the thinnest line between her rap roots and pop stardom. “Agora Hills” meets fans from both sides of her career in the middle, offering something to love for everyone in her fanbase.

7. Gunna — A Gift & a Curse

It seemed like the world wanted to hear what Gunna had to say once he was released from custody. All ears were on whether the Georgia native would address allegations that he snitched on his former homies during the YSL RICO trial. On “Bread & Butter” off of his fourth studio album, A Gift & a Curse, Gunna appears to tackle the tough subject directly. “F**k I paid the lawyers all them mills for?” he delivers solemnly in the second verse. “Never gave no statement or agree to take no stand on ’em / On whatever you n**gas on and trust me, I’ma stand on it / Lawyers and the DA did some sneaky s**t, I fell for it,” he adds. It’s the type of verse that resonates through its honesty and vulnerability. While “Bread & Butter” may be the album’s most newsworthy offering, it’s merely one of several enthralling tracks. “Back to the Moon” finds Gunna plotting to regain the time he lost while he was forced to sit down. “Fukumean” is a simply beautiful composition that basks in excess, women and drug use. Gunna’s return was highly anticipated, but who knew he’d return sounding this good?

8. Nas — Magic 3

Nas and Hit-Boy’s Magic 3 feels a bit nostalgic. Not only is it the final edition of an improbable six-album run that not only includes a Grammy victory for King’s Disease and three nominations but also shatters the idea that only the young can be creatively successful in rap. Aspirational anthems like “I Love This Feeling” and “Superhero Status” serve as a reminder that no goal is unachievable, while nuanced narratives like “Based On True Events” and “Based On True Events Pt. 2” exemplify Nas’ uncanny ability to lyrically paint vivid pictures. In “Speechless, Pt. 2,” Nas shares the frustration he feels with the state of America. He raps, “I’m lost for words at the state of my nation’s consciousness” before continuing with “Either you woke or nationalist is the politics / I’m lost for words for Black babies with low confidence.” Whether through Magic 3‘s storytelling, success or consciousness, Nas and Hit-Boy complete the trifecta.

9. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne — Welcome 2 Collegrove

2 Chainz and Lil Wayne’s Welcome 2 Collegrove is easily one of 2023’s most fun releases. Whether it’s the ensnaring whistle embedded in the beat of “Presha” or uproariously simplistic lines like Weezy’s “I love my trigger finger so much, I bought her a wedding ring” in “Long Story Short,” this dynamic duo never falls short of personality. Case in point: “P.P.A.” featuring Fabolous, which is an entire song littered with bars complimenting a woman’s pretty punani. “I’m like who you getting mad at? / Go and send the address / You know you deserve the pretty p**sy award,” 2 Chainz delivers on the hook. It’s perhaps one of the most improbable makeup songs of the decade. “Oprah & Gayle,” featuring Benny The Butcher, is another highlight along with “Bars” and “Big Diamonds” featuring 21 Savage. Wayne and 2 Chainz rap incredibly throughout, which makes Welcome 2 Collegrove a must-listen.

10. Larry June and The Alchemist — The Great Escape

There’s something endearing about Larry June’s relentless positivity. The San Francisco-lyricist’s slippery wordplay and laid-back delivery is only elevated by his ability to remain relatable. Take “Solid Plan,” featuring Action Bronson, where June slyly delivers, “Stop complainin’ my n**ga, go hard instead / Invest in yourself, f**k what they said / You can accomplish anything with a solid plan” like he’s hosting a Ted Talk. On “Summer Reign,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign, June reminds everyone what is the most important thing in life: “How you gon’ say you boss if you don’t handle biz? / Real men stay on 10, take care of they kids.” Big Sean, Slum Village, Boldy James, CurrenSy and Joey Badass also put together notable contributions to The Great Escape on various songs from “Orange Village” to “Barragán Lighting.” This album sounds like it’s designed for a sunset ride down California’s Pacific Highway.

11. Rod Wave — Nostalgia

Rod Wave is one of music’s most unique talents. In fact, his talent is so unique that it’s not entirely obvious which genre fits his music most naturally. He emotes reflexively, floats over trap and sounds right at home in a gospel choir. It’s one of the reasons his fifth studio album, Nostalgia, has captured so many listeners. Debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200 — becoming his third album to top the charts — Nostalgia resonates deepest when Wave is at his most introspective. On “Call Your Friends,” he implores, “If it wasn’t for favors, they’ll never call you / Sometimes I need someone to talk to / Sometimes this life can be confusing / Call your friends and ask how they doin’.” In “Boyz Don’t Cry,” Wave opens up about heartbreak and the distance between him and his creations: “Never fall in love again, my heart is on a shelf / My music’s full of pain, but I keep my problems to myself.” It’s amazing that such a unique talent has galvanized an audience appreciative of his one-of-a-kind gifts. Nostalgia is a reminder that Wave’s wave is real.

12. Young Thug — Business Is Business

Young Thug’s third studio album didn’t arrive at the best time for the artist born Jeffrey Williams. Fighting a RICO case in Georgia at the time of its release, on Business Is Business, Thugger feels more distant and muted than we’re used to. Perhaps that’s what makes this project feel so compelling. On “Oh U Went” featuring Drake, Thug raps, “Oh, you went kingpin, oh, you went wings in / Oh, you wеnt hands-on, oh, you ain’t seen it? / Oh, you went Demon, shootin’ out the Demon” with enough effectiveness to keep from unintentionally reading between the lines. It’s hard to keep the mind from wandering towards off-track issues. For example, on “Want Me Dead” featuring 21 Savage, Thug raps, “They want me dead / They want me dead / If I had my wish I’d bring my n**gas back from the dead.” It feels like Thugger is fighting morbid thoughts. Whether he is fighting those thoughts or not is irrelevant. Business Is Business feels like a time capsule of an era that hopefully Young Thug never experiences again.

13. BigXthaPlug — AMAR

As the adage goes, everything’s bigger in Texas. Dallas’ newest microphone titan, BigXthaPlug, represents all the best stereotypes of the Lone Star State. His debut album titled AMAR — named after his son — shines through booming vocals and relentless wordplay, spilling imagination like a fountain full of dirty Sprite. “B**ch, I’m from Texas / Where we still ride in swangas and put diamonds in our necklace / Pour drank inside my lemonade ’til it look like a Pepsi,” he raps on “Texas,” a twangy dripped out ode to his home state. Several luminaries receive shout-outs: Beyonce, Pimp C, Luka Dončić, Sauce Walka and Devin The Dude. It’s the type of track that is surely bumping across college campuses statewide. On “Safehouse,” the former high school football star describes life before the limelight: “Was cold on that field, was a jockey / But I had been jumped in that field before cleats and a high knee / These n**gas too p**sy to try me / Bumpin’ they gums on the ‘net like they don’t know where I be / 600 the block, do you copy?” From mic to plug, AMAR is a fantastic listen and a sign that the future is bright for BigXthaPlug.