It’s downright scary making a top 10 albums list in the landscape of 2022 hip-hop. The genre is in such an exciting place, with artists blurring genres in ways that have never been seen. And with classic artists dropping albums that will undoubtedly withstand the test of time. How do you compare golden-age, boom-bap sound with genre-bending aesthetics? How do you compare compelling storytelling with magical wordplay and call one work of genius better than the next?
None of these lists are definitive. And obviously, so much comes down to taste, which is our job as tastemakers. While the below projects are listed in a semblance of order, many feel fluid. Depending on the time, place, or headspace, you may prefer one over the other. I know I do. Here are our Top 10 Albums of 2022.
In a year dominated by Dreamville releases, Ari Lennox seemingly repurposed the R&B genre. With her contemporaries generally moving further toward pop, Ari used classic sounds of soul and gospel to present a modern theme with a nostalgic sound. Dispelling autotune, forced up-tempo trills, and other in-vogue methods, she relies on the power of her vocals, the strength of her lyrics, and soundscapes that fit her voice like a glove.
The project is mature, yet sexy, confident, and vulnerable. Trap drums accentuate her gorgeous riffs and harmonies, further accentuating the juxtaposition between the now and the then. Features from Chlöe, Summer Walker, and Lucky Daye add depth without detracting from Ari’s shine. Age/Sex/Location is reflective of a woman who understands her power. Who knows the dark side and the light side that come with relationships in different forms. And above all, who knows that she is in the driver’s seat.
Favorite Tracks: Outside, Queen Space
Above all, Ghetto Gods is Atlanta. It captures the city’s charms and pitfalls, the same contrasts that Olu and Wowgr8 explore within people. 2 Chainz, one of Atlanta’s most beloved rappers, sets the tone for the album on the intro, Glow, laying out a theme that Earthgang returns to again and again: [“Ghetto Gods, diamonds in the rough/You know it’s hard to see the greatness when they tell you, ‘You ain’t gon’ be shit.’] The concept of “starting from the mud”, ascending to a position of status, and then navigating the new challenges success brings are central to understanding Earthgang’s message.
Aesthetically, Ghetto Gods leans into its identity as southern rap, without sacrificing Earthgang’s eccentric definition of the genre. Beat selection is bass heavy, and expressive, with ample space for the rapper’s prolific, word-heavy style. There is cohesion, and progression within the album as well – the first half of Ghetto Gods is especially hard-hitting, with the first four tracks presenting the loudest noise, and the biggest features. While critics may claim the second half of the album loses steam or drags on too long, instead, it speaks with a more delicate, articulate voice.
Ghetto Gods is a masterful blend of southern fusion, using the faces of Westside Atlanta as a portal to access the greater challenges of modern society. And Earthgang approaches these issues with their unique musical talents while fully embracing their identity as Atlanta’s premier rap group.
Favorite Tracks: AMERICAN HORROR STORY, WATERBOYZ
In an illustrious career that has spanned nearly 30 years and 15 solo albums, Nas has remained a relevant and powerful force with the aid of Hit-Boy. The King’s Disease Trilogy has only modernized a legend, presenting his legendary storytelling in a format that is digestible to 2022 fans, and nostalgic for those of us who have been around long enough to watch his rise.
Lyrical content and storytelling lean into reality, as Nas weaves rich tapestries of his entrepenereul spirit, wealth, and artistic legacy. Never one to put the old-school on a pedestal, Nas pays homage to a younger generation, while celebrating the roots of where he came from. Hit-Boy’s production is the perfect platform, channeling atmospheres that are reminiscent of earlier times, with the crispness of today’s production.
Most impressively, Nas still raps with a purpose. An edge and hunger that are generally absent from an artist with such an impressive pedigree. As always, he displays a balance of street wisdom and business acumen, setting a blueprint for generations to follow.
Favorite Tracks: 30, Til My Last Breath
2000 is very close to a no-skip project. It’s a front-to-back listen, presenting tracks full of nostalgia, technical brilliance, and cohesion. More so, unlike All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey himself feels free, uninhibited by a thematic thread, or inner angst. 2000 is loose, free-form, and reliant on presenting an overarching feeling rather than a lesson. That type of mental freedom is only achieved through personal growth and is what unlocked the very best in Nas on an album like Illmatic.
Joey’s strengths are tied to consistently impeccable beat selection. 2000 sees him partnering heavily with Statik Selektah. Additional production credits belong to Mike WiLL Made-It, Cardiak, Kirk Knight, Erick the Architect, and more. The resulting instrumentation is arid, open, and warm. 2000 truly feels like a summer project – but not poolside Daiquiri or beachfront property heat. It is the sun blazing against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, the relentless heat sitting on a Flatbush stoop.
The authenticity of the soundscape lends itself brilliantly to Joey’s forward style. There are few rappers, maybe ever, who have the mic presence that Bada$$ carries. He seems more comfortable on the mic than he does when speaking. There is a timbre, a confidence, and a delivery that are so unique, yet familiar, like watching Jason Tatum hit a one-footed fade away that was clearly learned from working with Kobe. This charisma is what has long since made Joey a favorite among hip-hop heads.
Favorite Tracks: Where I Belong, Show ME
Few projects capture the trials and triumphs of everyday life with the precision of Kota the Friend’s MEMO. In an era of hip-hop that relies heavily on vanity, trends, and hyperbole, the Brooklyn-born artist chooses to reintroduce his audience to reality. The best poets are the ones who paint the ordinary with extraordinary strokes. Who captures every day in real-time. And most importantly, who uses the specific as a key to the universal.
MEMO does just that, as Kota opens the pages of his personal journal to the world. His personal journey through the world. With an understanding that what makes him an exceptional talent is his ability to share his story so vividly. Kota’s mass appeal starts with his self-awareness. Looking inward allows him to project outwardly with verses born from the human condition. Even when he might not like what he sees.
As a result, MEMO is a purification. It functions exactly as a journal should, cleansing its creator of all the negativity and bad energy, freeing Kota to focus on the good. His family. Fatherhood. His wealth. Independence. And most importantly, inner peace. After all, to recognize the good we have, sometimes it’s vital to cope with the bad. Kota the Friend’s MEMO with all its twists and turns, is this process personified.
Favorite Tracks: Good To Be Home II, MEMO
Denzel’s superpower is taking jazz and boom-bap style production and spicing it up with elements of trap, rock, and genre-defying versatility. And this contrast moves past his sphere of sound, into his love for anime, pop culture, and social commentary.
Bolstering an album that shows his many talents with dynamic features such as slowthai, 6LACK, Rico Nasty, J.I.D, T-Pain, and more, Melt My Eyez feels like Denzel’s coming-of-age, where the potential and technical mastery we’ve seen through past projects meets a maturity and cohesion we had yet to see.
Denzel finally feels like an artist comfortable in his own skin, embracing his idiosyncrasies, personal history, and immense talents. Ambitious, sonically pleasing, and varied Melt My Eyez See Your Future is most impressive because it feels still as if Curry is still only scratching the surface of his potential.
Favorite Tracks: Walkin, Mental
Unsurprisingly rich with soul, southern flavor, and delightfully playful lyricism, Smino remains one of the most exciting talents the rap game has to offer. More importantly, the album presents a man who is unafraid to confront his shortcomings, in hopes that sharing his errors will positively impact his listeners.
Delivery-wise, it’s hard to think of an artist who is silkier. Smi skates over switch-ups and beat breaks with ease, changing styles and skins without breaking a vocal sweat. He approaches topics that are delicate and brazen with equal enthusiasm, never sacrificing sound for message. Luv 4 Rent is rich, textural, and ambitious, but ultimately remains approachable. It presents talents as a musician and as a writer with equal fervor.
In a time where even the brightest stars are shrouded by a seemingly endless stratosphere of new music, Smino remains untouched. And Luv 4 Rent might be his greatest example of this transcendent talent to date.
Favorite Tracks: Blu Billy, Curtains
The crown of thorns on the cover of Mr. Morale is no mistake. Kendrick shows that he carries guilt, remorse, and self-doubt, humanizing his work in ways very few artists can. Nearly every song on the album follows a gut-wrenching formula – pinpoint a true societal issue, provide specific examples from Kendrick’s past, and present them in a way that challenges the way we see the world.
Fear, anxiety, and social stress are amplified, not alleviated by Mr. Morale. It is not a feel-good body of work, or self-healing (for anyone but Kendrick maybe.) But there is true power in discomfort. In short, Kendrick challenges his listeners to embrace that.
He leaves the Top Dawg on a note that is honest, personal, and oftentimes hard to listen to. The double album touches on grief, cancel culture, and deep-rooted familial grief. It feels almost like a therapy session, with Kendrick asking unqualified fans to dig through his issues. Sonically, Mr. Morale is a masterpiece, with beats as heavy and haunting as the lyrics themselves.
Favorite Tracks: Father Time, Count Me Out
JID’s skill as an emcee is lauded by music critics and Reddit forums with equal fervor. He’s been slick with the rhymes, effortless with the flow, and versatile with delivery. His bars ooze with confidence, ricocheting like gunfire across long-time producer Christo’s beats.
With The Forever Story, all inclinations that JID cannot share the experiential are put to rest. Its ambitious range, array of purposeful features, and spirited storytelling have immediately elevated JID from a technical prodigy, to a rap titan.
It might be lazy to say that JID has grown. Maybe his technical talents have seen a little bit of improvement, and it’s rumored that he hired a singing coach to shine on tracks like Kody Blu. But more than anything, what separates The Forever Story from past projects is JID’s willingness to open himself up. To reveal his humanity. To tell his story naked in the streets of East Atlanta, rather than looking down on them. The result is a project that should immediately propel him to AOTY considerations. And ultimately, cement his legacy in the lore of hip-hop greats.
Favorite Tracks: Dance Now, Kody Blu 31
It’s to our great surprise that the first album we reviewed in 2022 remains our favorite all these months later. But time, as always, is the ultimate judge, and we’ve come back to this project repeatedly, appreciating it more with each listen.
Saba’s third studio album Few Good Things is a compilation of colorful contradictions. Its contrasting elements play on themes of acquired wealth vs. systemic poverty, heartache vs. hope, all while transcending time and space.
Stylistically, the album takes a similar approach, featuring drill-type beats with the vicious flow in places, while other tracks rely on neo-soul instrumentation, intimate vocals, and elegant layering. By warmly incorporating facets of juxtaposition across levels, Few Good Things finds unity through its internal conflict.
In the words of our initial review:
“A little more than a month into 2022, it is a bold time to make audacious proclamations, but it is a safe bet, at year’s end, that Few Good Things will be one of the most profound hip-hop projects presented. Saba is truly at his peak, influenced by a grouping of grief, foresight, cultural awareness, and artistic excellence. This is an album for music fans across genres, for fans of poetry, for fans of art, and most importantly for subscribers to the human experience.”
Favorite Tracks: an interlude Called “Circus”, 2012