Say you’re going to your high school reunion. You are in your high school’s gym, with everyone donning name tags, substandard decorations strewn about haphazardly to make it look like they tried to decorate, and some spiked punch that is probably a little too strong. When you look around, what do you see? Do you see people focusing on their high school achievements, celebrating how they were in high school, and basically never shutting up about high school, ignoring any present successes or future plans? If so, recognize that those people peaked in high school, their best year are far in the past. That year could have been fantastic, but the best for them is probably in the past.
Or how about this: you’re at a bar, hanging out with your friends, celebrating one friend’s recent promotion. It’s their third promotion of the year, and they’ve only been at their company for two years. They’ve also recently just bought a house, and got married to their significant other of seven years. You and everybody else in the room recognize that they’ve been killing it this year, that this is without a doubt their best year, their peak. It’s easy to recognize and it is always fun to see.
This was basically an unnecessarily indirect way to say that people have a peak, a pinnacle, a best year of their life. It’s a year where they unequivocally killed it, showcasing the best of their abilities while also being their most creative. Naturally, rappers, like all normal people, experience their peak at some point in time within their career. It’s probably the best year of the career; making their best work, collaborating with megastars and killing guest verses, fully molding into the pacemaker for culture and artistic creativity, setting the standard for what other artists should strive for. What this article will do is give you a guide to what your favorite rapper’s best year was. Before we get started, some ground rules must be laid: (1) first, all rappers can be mentioned here, no excluding. (2) Okay, I lied, Hoodie Allen will not be mentioned. (3) R&B artists are not to be included, mostly because R. Kelly doesn’t know how to act and he ruined it for everyone else. (4) Only musical factors are being considered here, makes it easier for everyone. (5) Multiple rappers can have the same best year, because despite common misconceptions, multiple rappers can succeed at the same time. (6) Years will be represented similar to NBA seasons (sometimes, I get pretty liberal with how I represent it), like 2001-2002, because this method encompasses more music to look at. So I guess it is a 2 year period.
Now that the easy part is handled, let’s get started.
Kendrick Lamar’s best year was…
…2015-2016. I think it should be recognized that Kendrick Lamar has at least 3, arguably 4, classic albums to his name. That is what makes him the best rapper in the game: nobody has had a greater stretch of success, nobody constantly delivers the best quality verses, nobody has successfully pushed the boundaries of creativity in rap like Kendrick has. That is what made it difficult to determine what his best year(s) was. But upon deeper inspection, it is clear that his best stretch began in early 2015, with the release of To Pimp a Butterfly.
TPAB should be considered Kendrick’s magnum opus. The genre of rap often has the (unfair) stigma of being monotonous: a constant droll of trap beats and repetitive subject matter. But this album was a complete departure from any of the negative stereotypes of rap. Kendrick played around with so many different elements that it felt as though he had a symphony of genres and styles at his disposal. He perfectly blended the brashness of funk and jazz with the honesty of rap into a ball of perfection. It was experimental, but was flawlessly executed a way that you would think that this style of music had long been perfected.
That album alone would have been enough to justify making this Kendrick’s best year(s?), but he doubled down on the rampant creativity and experimentation by dropping untitled unmastered. This loose collection of lost demos that did not make it onto TPAB gave us a deeper look into what Kendrick is really capable of. The raw, visceral nature of these songs, due to them being unmastered, brought out a different level of emotion from the listener. There was a new level of beauty that was unlocked, in which basically got a live-look into what a studio recording with Kendrick is like. If that wasn’t enough, this was the year where Kendrick was fully in his bag on his feature verses, with his talent manifesting on “Holy Key,” “I’m Ya Dogg,” “Easy Bake,” “Wat’s Wrong,” “Really Doe,” and “Sidewalks.” So yeah, this was the best choice.
Kanye West’s Best Year was..
…2010-2011. This was most likely the toughest decision between individual years, with a close second being the stretch between 2011-2012. Kanye put together a legendary year of features in 2012 (“Birthday Song,” “Jesus Piece,” “White Dress,” and “Another You”) and dropped the Good Music Cruel Summer album with the rest of his label.
The only thing stopping me from making it 2011-2012 was that the Cruel Summer isn’t technically his album, and he didn’t appear on every song. Maybe if he was on every song, I would have given that stretch the advantage. But Kanye achieved perfection with back to back albums from 2010-2011 with solo and joint albums, in a fashion that he will surely never be able to recreate.
There were the two albums Kanye released during that stretch: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne. If we’re including Watch the Throne in the lexicon of Kanye albums, those are his second and third-best albums (first is Graduation, obviously). Aside: This is the list of Kanye albums from best to worst, so people don’t get confused from now on; Graduation, MBDTF, Watch the Throne, College Dropout, Late Registration, 808s and Heartbreaks, Kids See Ghosts, Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, ye.
MBDTF was the product of artistic dedication, birthed from an obsession to prove that he was the best. There is literally not a skippable track throughout the entire album, a testament to its consistency and high level of quality. It is said that some that an album is only as good as its worst song. Well, the worst song is “Blame Game,” and that song itself is no worse than an 8/10. The album’s floor is the ceiling for so many other works: it is the peak that other artists only dream of reaching. Then, the next year, he doubled down by linking up with his then best friend Jay-Z to create maybe the most powerful album of the decade. Watch the Throne is a perfect album and should be treated as such. Kanye did not stop killing it for those two years.
Lil Wayne’s Best Year was…
…2008-2009. The Carter III. Enough said.
2Chainz’s Best Year was…
…2012-2013. In any conversation, I am quick to point out that 2Chainz is the greatest rapper alive. That’s not a joke. It’s the truth: I believe it and you should to. No other rapper consistently drops a project a year that is a complete display of their ability to make hits. Also, name one 2Chainz verse that you haven’t liked. That’s right, you can’t. 100% of his verses are fire and I will not be convinced of otherwise.
As great as he has always been, his peak started in 2012, when he released his best work ever, Based On a T.R.U. Story. This was the album that put him on the map, solidifying 2Chainz as a formidable presence in the rap game. His charisma oozed throughout the entire project, finding his voice for the rest of his career. It makes sense that an album that has “Crack,” “I’m Different,” “No Lie,” and “Riot,” would be considered a masterpiece because those songs are perfect. But what really set this stretch of TityBoi’s career apart was the incredible feature verses that he had between 2012-2013. When looking for a rap feature, he was the easy #1 choice.
Here is the list of perfect feature verses that he provided in 2012 and 2013: “Beez in the Trap,” “Mercy,” “My Moment,” “Ali Bomaye,” “R.I.P.,” “All Me,” “Rich as F***,” “Mula Remix,” “All Gold Everything Remix,” “F***in Problems,” “Upper Echelon,” “Headband,” “Bandz A Make Her Dance.”
He could literally do no wrong during that stretch. He was a god damn sniper with his bars, an assassin that other rappers called upon when they needed someone else to kill a track because that couldn’t do it themselves. 2Chainz was unstoppable, at his peak, and quite possibly the most important rapper during that stretch of time.
Drake’s Best Year was…
…2013. Okay, so I lied about the part where I’m going to format the years like an NBA season. I couldn’t really justify another year for Drake outside of 2013 (I almost picked 2011, but no). Nothing Was the Same was Drake’s creative peak, one that perfectly encapsulated the duality of his artistry. He is soft, a simp, somebody who’s lunch money you’d probably want to take. But at the same time, he commanded the respect of a 20-year veteran with his confidence and flow. The two aspects of him combined to create the best album he has ever created (you could also say Take Care is his best album, you’d be wrong, but I wouldn’t be mad at it). Think of it this way: Take Care was the warm-up, and NWTS was a 30 point triple double in a playoff game. That sounds about right.
Jay-Z’s Best Year Was…
…2001-2002. When it comes down to it, Jay-Z should be considered in the top 5 of greatest rappers of all time. He has maybe had the longest run of creative and commercial success. But nothing was as monumental as the 2001-2002 campaign. He dropped The Blueprint, on September 11th, 2001, and still sold over 427,000 copies within the first week. That’s how good that album was. While his success has been continuous throughout his entire career, his musical peak has been and will always be that album that dropped on 9/11.
Rapsody’s Best Year Was..
…2016-2017. One of the worst injustices in the music industry is looking past the abilities of rappers who are women. The misogyny of the rap community continues to be prevalent as many talented rappers are disrespected or not taken seriously because they are women. This I believe, is the reason that Rapsody is often left out of the conversation for best rapper alive, because I truly believe that there are few who can equal her technical skill and lyrical ability. She’s a lyrical assassin with wordplay and should be treated as such. Her past two projects, Crown and Laila’s Wisdom, are the essence of artistic perfection, as she showed she was able to flawlessly flow over soul samples and remixes. She has a number of features from rap legends like Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and Kendrick Lamar, and never seemed to be out of place. A legitimate argument could be made that she out raps almost everyone she collaborates with. And honestly, Laila’s Wisdom should have won the Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year. Her rapping ability has continued to improve since she began, so honestly her peak could still be on the way, but as of now, this is all we got.
Childish Gambino’s Best Year was…
…2013-2014. This is another artist where it was difficult to decide when they were truly firing on all cylinders creatively. I almost chose 2016, due to ‘Atlanta’ and the “Awaken, My Love!” album, which are both masterpieces in their own right. But went with 2013-2014 because the artist soon to be known as the Artist formerly known as Childish Gambino went on an absolute musical tear in this span. He released three projects within the 2013-2014 years, Because the Internet, Kauai, and STN MTN.
There’s something almost mythological about Because the Internet: it’s a daunting 19 tracks long and comes with a 75 page screenplay. Throughout the entire album, Gambino saunters between experimental and unrealistic, like he’s playing a character. The production throughout the album is amazing, never once being boring or repetitive. It has two sides, almost like a day and night experience. The first half sounds like it should be exclusively played at parties or working out, while the back half is more melancholy and low-key. On top of the duality, the entire album keeps on your toes, and before STN MTN, was an exhibition of his best rapping to date.
He then doubled down on the perfection, releasing the double album and mixtape pairing of Kauai and STN MTN. It’s almost as though he split up the two talents that he held, singing and rapping. The thing about it is that there was no fall off between the two of them. Kauai is the perfect representation of Gambino’s ability to make pop hits and late night vibe music, as shown by “Sober” and “The Palisades.” Then on STN MTN, he spent 11 tracks destroying old Atlanta hits like “Southern Hospitality,” “Partna Dem,” “Move That Dope,” and “U Don’t Have to Call.”
On top of that, in 2013, he also unleashed one of the greatest freestyles ever on Sway in the Morning, killing Drake’s “Pound Cake” beat. In that stretch, he displayed the full scope of his artistic abilities, turning himself into the premier renaissance man of the rap game.
Tupac’s Best Year Was…
…1996. You could also say 1993, both answers could work really.
Big K.R.I.T. Best Year Was…
…2017. There’s something about having the freedom to release what you want that allows you to reach your full potential. Big K.R.I.T. left Def Jam in 2016, in what he said was a moment of “understanding his worth.” Well once he did, he created the best album project he has ever embarked on: an ambitious double album that fully allowed him to work and grow. When it comes to Big K.R.I.T., the more you get to hear him, the merrier, as he is a generational talent in terms of rapping and production quality. The 22 tracks of 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time were chockfull of K.R.I.T.’s lyrical acumen and his charismatic voice, and was the display of his best work to date.
Eric B & Rakim Best Year Was…
…1987-1988. If you don’t know these two might be the best pairing of a rapper and DJ ever, like ever ever. Eric B is a legendary on the vinyls (when they were vinyls), and Rakim is and should be recognized as one of the greatest rappers of all time. There was no better time for this pairing then the start of their career, when they released two great albums, Paid in Full and Follow the Leader, back to back. These two albums might be two of the most important works in rap history and were the basis for early production and rhyming skills.
Outkast Best Year Was…
…1998. This on is sad because Big Boi and Outkast appear apart so often that I feel robbed of more joint albums. It’s also because there could be multiple answers for Outkast: 1996, 2000, or 2003. It all depends on what you think was Outkast’s best album together, ATLiens, Aquemini, Stankonia, or Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Personally, I believe the answer is Aquemini, but again, I wouldn’t be mad at any of the other answers. Outkast was so god damn good.
Nicki Minaj Best Year Was…
…2010-2011. Pink Friday is Nicki Minaj’s best album (objectively). It’s been a gradual downhill since then, but that’s just because Pink Friday was amazing. It’s really hard to follow up the greatness that was her debut album. In addition to that, her feature verses during this stretch were ridiculous: “Monster,” “My Chick Bad,” “Letting Go (Dutty Love),” “Make Me Proud,” “The Creep,” “Dance A$$ (Remix).” But like I said, it’s been a slow downhill since then.
Lil Uzi Vert’s Best Year was…
…2015-2016. Luv is Rage and Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World back to back? Unstoppable.
Future’s Best Year Was…
…2014-2015. Do you remember when Future ran music for basically the entirety of two years? Pepperidge farms remembers. In 2014, he maybe had the greatest 3 song stretch of the year on Honest, hitting us with a three peat of “Move That Dope,” “My Momma,” “Honest,” (I think there’s nothing more important in an album or playlist than the three song stretch). So that was cool.
But then 2015 was probably the best year he’s ever had, with the release of DS2 and What A Time To Be Alive. I don’t think you guys understand how big DS2 was. That album still gets bumped on the daily without fail, like a gospel for unfaithful Black men everywhere. It revitalized the trap game and was Future’s peak. Then, like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, he and Drake linked up to create the megahit album WATTBA, creating instagram captions and athletic team mantras for years to come. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, he dropped the mixtape trilogy Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights during this span, which is insane. He was truly the hardest working person between 2014-2015, achieving ridiculous amounts of success then as well.