Album sales have been on the decline since the turn of the century, thanks to the rise of piracy and the steady migration to digital streaming. But in 2015, artists proved that the art form is far from dead. Some used the album template to embrace their freeform way of thinking, like Kendrick Lamar and Dawn Richard, while others like Adele and The Weeknd embraced it to launch their careers to the next strata.
It was a year when some A-list artists promised to deliver their new works, and failed (Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kanye West), but that did little to detract from the amount of quality records that arrived at retail. From K-Dot’s To Pimp a Butterfly to Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show, these 10 albums proved that hip-hop and R&B continues to thrive as its best artists innovate in their respective fields.
Here are Rap-Up’s 10 best albums of 2015.
10. Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show
A lengthy hiatus after 2010’s Love Me Back left listeners worried that Jazmine Sullivan had turned her back on the music industry. Instead, it was the demise of a devastating relationship that kept her from the studio, up until Reality Show, where she returned in mint form. The Philadelphia native bemoaned the lost romance on the guitar-plucked ballad “Forever Don’t Last,” but she showed humility in gushy R&B tracks like “Mascara,” where she conveys she hasn’t gotten lost in the emotional wreckage.
9. Dawn Richard, Blackheart
The former Danity Kane member spend her first two solo releases, her Armor On EP and 2013’s Goldenheart, developing an alt-R&B sound that explored the more expansive corners of her mind. Blackheart took her creativity to the next level, skewing traditional song structures for wildly imaginative, futuristic confections that established her as one of contemporary music’s most successful risk-takers.
8. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife
Being young and reckless hasn’t felt as exciting as it does on Rae Sremmurd’s full-length debut SremmLife, one of the first—and best—hip-hop albums of the year. While some have criticized the duo for skimping on lyrics, the Mike WiLL Made It protégés used tracks like “No Type” to show that it isn’t all about dazzling with head-spinning rhymes—it’s about creating a mood, laying it on wax, and inspiring listeners to feel your energy with every listen.
7. Future, DS2
In the wake of his breakup from Ciara, Future didn’t wallow in his pain—instead, he pushed it to the side, popping pills and drinking lean and making it the focus of his darkly-shaded DS2. With smoky beats and a general disdain of the world around him, Future Hendrix disguises his pain with odes to drugs (“Blow a Bag”) and put-downs of hanger-ons (“Where Ya At” featuring Drake). His perspective on life is dire and often worrisome, but even so, Future proved that beyond all the hardships in life, he still knows how to cook a mean track.
6. Justin Bieber, Purpose
Spending years in the headlines for personal issues rather than his music, Justin Bieber proved his haters wrong with a banner year. A guest spot on Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now” restored faith in his listening public, but it was Purpose that put him back in stellar standing. Tracks like “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” shifted his pop sound into tropical house territory, setting the framework for him to apologize for his mistakes while cementing a new legacy.
5. Big Sean, Dark Sky Paradise
Once he finally achieved his goal of becoming Finally Famous with his first couple albums, Big Sean revels in his success on Dark Sky Paradise, his most confident album yet. From the sizzling kiss-off “I Don’t F**k With You” to the sensitive “One Man Can Change the World,” the G.O.O.D. Music rapper remains consistently nimble with his rhymes, enlisting an all-star cast to help him reflect on his humble beginnings and appreciate his current lifestyle.
4. The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
The Weeknd’s introductory trio of mixtapes built a mysterious buzz around the Canadian singer-songwriter, who remained an elusive figure with his brand of floating, removed R&B. His major-label debut, Kiss Land, tightened the song structures before reaching Beauty Behind the Madness, a pop-leaning collection that ushered him into the A-list stratosphere. Singles including “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” dominated the charts with their respective upbeat and brooding sounds, while the Kanye West-produced “Tell Your Friends” brought his aesthetic into more experimental areas.
3. Adele, 25
Adele’s hiatus after her worldwide smash 21 only ramped up anticipation for 25, her triumphant return. It’s not entirely relevant that the album destroyed first-week sales numbers by selling upwards of three-million copies—rather, it’s that the music itself justified its tremendous release. She’s not as mournful as she was on her previous record, but she’s older and wiser, reflecting on past mistakes with songs like “Hello” and “When We Were Young,” showing a deeper, more mature side of one of the biggest artists to ever do it.
2. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Scoring two No. 1 releases in a calendar year is no easy feat, particularly when they dropped without warning. But Drake did just that with What a Time to Be Alive, his collaborative mixtape album with Future, as well as If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a record that proved that you can have quantity with quality. Songs like “Energy” and the PARTYNEXTDOOR-assisted “Preach” had dark undertones, but it takes the most skilled artist to make them versatile enough to get play across platforms and in the club.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Many hailed Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city as his magnum opus, which is why To Pimp a Butterfly was such an important record. Seldom do artists top their own classics, let alone release them consecutively, but the Compton native proved that he’s hip-hop’s most conscious, dexterous musician in the business. K-Dot spends the jazz-inflected LP expanding the scope of his major-label debut, tackling social injustice, poverty, depression, and more on the year’s most challenging, yet satisfying body of work.