With yet another year gone by we here Step Off! Magazine want to thank you all again for taking part in our online reader poll for the top Hip-Hop album of the 2010s and for helping us celebrate our third full year of operation here at Step Off! Magazine. This year reader’s choice award for top album of the decade goes to To Pimp A Butterfly from Kendrick Lamar, with a majority of eighteen point two percent of readers voting it as their favorite album of the decade. In a two-way tie for second place, J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Immortal Technique’s The Martyr earned nine point one percent of the vote each respectively. Followed by a myriad of artists which included ScHoolboy Q, Nipsey Hussle, Wiz Khalifa, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, PRhyme, Jedi Mind Tricks, Celph Titled, XXXTentacion and Kanye West; who all earned four point five percent of the vote each respectively for their projects released over the course of the past decade. Thank you to all the readers who took part in our poll, we hope that next year you all help us again to rank the top albums of 2020. Below we have created a chart showing the reader breakdown of the poll; as well as our very own top five albums of the decade. Happy New Years Step Off! fam, we look forward to seeing you all for another prosperous year and a brand new decade in 2020!
#5 J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
J. Cole in many ways is an anomaly in regards to the status quo of the modern rap game. Since releasing his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story in 2011 the North Carolina emcee has progressively earned the reputation of being the more socially conscious and politically active of his contemporary peers. Citing Nas as one of his greatest lyrical influences, J.Cole to many has been held in the same regard as other lyrical heart weights such as Kendrick Lamar of taking the reigns from past legends. As two of the biggest names to rise to prominence in the last decade, the two are easily some of the most talked-about and respected relative new-comers to the rap game which has respectively earned them the status of being two of the most creative and in-demand artists in the industry. However, while Lamars’ dabbling into politics is often muddled in advent-grade representations and layered in symbolism; Cole has very much been upfront and explicit about his social activism through his music. From doing shows in Ferguson, Missouri following the police execution of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson; to even visiting the city to meet with protesters and activists, discussing the civil-unrest that was taking place throughout the city in the wake of Brown’ death. The project that most would consider the turning point in this regard to J.Cole would easily be 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his third full-length studio album. Announced hardly three weeks before its release with very little marketing, with no singles or promotion taking place prior to its release; the album would ultimately spawn by four singles: “Apparently”, “Wet Dreamz”, “No Role Modelz” and “Love Yourz” which would propel the album to being certified triple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in May 2019. The album would debut at number one on the Billboard 200 upon its release, ultimately selling 353,000 copies in its first week alone. 2014 Forest Hills Drive would also mark J. Cole’s move to end featuring artists on his studio albums; a move that has persisted through 4 Your Eyez Only and KOD. Needless to say going platinum, (3x fold at that) with no features, virtually no promotion and raw talent alone is quite an accomplishment. Given modern Hip-Hop artist’s propensity for superfluous features, flavor-of-the-month cameos and monstrous promotional campaigns waged by record labels; J. Cole’s artistic approach and overall worldview flies in the face of modern-day Hip-Hop sensibilities rooted in superficial flash, decadence, and bravado. While Cole’s honest nature and earnest humbleness have proceeded him even in the days of his career; 2014 Forest Hills Drive onward these attributes as long as his critical lens regarding modern trends in Hip-Hop has only grown. To many, Cole’s worldview gives him wisdom beyond his years and those of musical peers, cementing him as an artist who has grown past vapid superficiality; determined to cement his legacy in the modern pantheon of contemporary Hip-Hop artists. While Cole may not receive nearly as many props as he deserves, the success of albums such as 2014 Forest Hills Drive speaks for itself. While the first decade of the 21st century can in many ways be looked back at as a significant step backwards for the genre (and one that debatably has persisted in the 2010s) J. Cole has cemented himself as one of the greats to take the genre back to roots and refocus the genre on solid, complete bodies of work; rather than hot singles and one-off cameo appearances. While many albums, mixtape, and artists have come and gone in the span of the past decade it is likely fans and critics alike will not only still be talking about 2014 Forest Hills Drive for many more years to come; they will still probably be talking about J. Cole and the lasting legacy that he has left in the genre for many years to come after this album’s initial buzz has long subsided.
#4 Nas – Life Is Good (2012)
The 2010s were an interesting decade, to say the least for Nas. Marked by several misguided collaborative efforts with Damien ‘Jr Gong’ Marley, Kanye West, as well as an underwhelming compilation album of unreleased material The Lost Tapes II dropping earlier this year to dismal reviews, it goes without saying not every project released this decade by Escobar have home-runs. That being said, the past ten years also marked a few high points of triumph for Nasty Nas as well. Going in at the start of the new decade the veteran Queensbridge emcee not only saw his magnum-opus Illmatic reach the twenty-year mark; the decade was also marked by the beginning of a transformative era where Nas began to embrace his status as an elder statesman in the Hip-Hop scene. Marking a transition from that of strict an emcee; to that of a prouder, mogul and entertainer with his hands in more dealings than just simply music. And while Nas has displayed the qualities of an artist wise beyond his years even at the beginning of his career some things can simply only be learned through experience; and 2012’s Life Is Good is arguably one of the best compilations of these experiences. Touching on a host of heavy topics such as divorce, depression, a parent’s struggle to accept and cope with the maturation of their adult children among others; Life Is Good is the epitome of ‘grown man rap’. Often compared, by fans and critics alike to the late Marvin Gaye’s 1978 effort, Here, My Dear (an album recorded to pay alimony and court fees after his ugly, bitter divorce from Anna Gordy), touching on deep often uncomfortable themes, Life Is Good is very much tailored in the same manner. Aside from the obvious imagery, such as the album’s cover art featuring a pensive Nas posing with the green wedding dress of his estranged wife, Life Is Good very much catches Nas at arguably one of the lowest points of his professional life both emotionally and from a personal perspective. With much of the album’s content featuring cuts such as “Stay”, “Bye Baby” and “Roses” among others touching on marital woes; the album manages to place a heavy focus on the deterioration of Nas’ marriage without coming off as bitter or too self-pitying. While albums discussing topics of toxic relationships, divorce and emotional lows that come with it are nothing new, the album’s from an artist of Nas’ pedigree dedicating an entire project to such exploration are rare to come by. That being said, not every track featured on Life Is Good is all doom and gloom. “Daughters”, an album stand out for example focuses on Nas’ struggle as a father coming to terms with his daughter Destiny reaching adulthood and making a life of her own. Meanwhile, tracks such as “Cherry Wine” (featuring vocals from longtime collaborator and personal friend of Nas the late Amy Winehouse) have Nas reflecting on the bright spots of relationships and realizing that all things considered ‘life is good’. Life Is Good in many ways can be considered a return to form album sonically for the Queensbridge emcee as well. With production from producer No I.D. and long-time collaborator Salaam Remi, Life Is Good utilizes what is easily the best production featured on any Nas album since 2006’s Hip-Hop Is Dead. Touching on much of the same subject matter that Jay-Z would retread five years on 4:44 (which also featured heavy contributions from producer No I.D. as well), Life Is Good in many ways can be viewed as a precursor to many prominent, veteran emcees of the early 90s embracing maturity and reflecting on the legacy of their careers. While Nas may not be the first artist to touch on such subject matter, few have done it so earnestly or gracefully as that seen on Life As Good. With countless albums and flavor of the month artists having come and gone in the years since its release, Life Is Good still sounds fresh nearly eight years after its initial release. While not every project is a slam dunk or home run out of the park, even on his off days Nas is still head and shoulders above almost any other emcee in the game. On on his best days, projects such as Life Is Good shows us why nearly thirty years into the game Nas is still a force to be reckoned with and nastier than ever.
#3 Pharoahe Monch – PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (2014)
Few artists on our list, let alone those in Hip-Hop in general, can boast the critical acclaim and longevity of which Pharaohe Monch has enjoyed. Over the course of his long, illustrious career not only has the Queens emcee comprised one half of the iconic Hip-Hop duo Organized Confusion alongside Prince Po; but for the past twenty years has also enjoyed success as an adept solo artist, releasing four critically acclaimed solo albums over the course of the last two decades. While Pharoahe Monch’s productivity may pale in comparison to some of his other musical contemporaries, his slow-burn approach to producing projects has not only resulted in the creation of some of the most creative albums of the past several years; but some of the most introspective and thought-provoking bodies of work ever produced by a Hip-Hop artist in general. And perhaps no album is a better testament to his 2014 effort, PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Coming a mere three years after W.A.R (We Are Renegade) in 2011, (a relatively quick turnaround between albums for Pharaohe Monch) PTSD is unquestionably, without a doubt Pharaohe Monch’s most personal and introspective project yet to date. Covering a variety of taboo topics such as substance abuse, mental health, depression and even suicide PTSD is easily Pharoahe Monch at his most raw and vulnerable of any of his release, period. The album also features a star-studded cast of guest appearances, with cameos from Black Thought, Talib Kweli, Denaun, The Stepkids, and Vernon Reid; as well as featuring production from Lee Stone, Marco Polo, and others. As a loose concept album, PTSD follows Pharaoh assuming the role of a veteran returning from combat experience and his trials and tribulations of his return home, the deterioration of relationships, drug addiction, and severe depression. Through this foil, Pharaohe Monch enrolls in a fictional program called ‘Recollection’ a high-tech, virtual, psycho-analysis facility that subconsciously works to untangle much of the trauma experienced by the character and where much of the album’s heavy material is explored and expanded upon. Topics such as gun violence and police brutality are also touched on tracks such as “Damage”, while songs such as “Broken Again” (which in another time should have been another hit for Pharaohe Monch) touch on addiction and the loss of love which are perhaps more similar to one another than we may like to admit. Though the concept itself is a fictionalized narrative, much of the painful subject matter very much rooted in reality, particularly discussions regarding depression and mental health. While many of these topics have since become more common in our everyday national discourse and in the music produced by many mainstream artists as well (in songs such as “1-800-273-8255” by Logic), in 2014 many of these themes and subject matter still rarely make their way into the music of most Hip-Hop artists, let alone serving as the main theme and underlining premise of an entire album. In many ways, PTSD is a testament to not only have ahead of the curb Pharaohe Monch was addressing these topics in such a straight forward, candid and unflinchingly honest manner; but a testament to how far we’ve come as a society in the mere six years since the album’s first initial release back in 2014. As an album that both pre-dates the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the election of Donald Trump and a heightened awareness regarding mental health; PTSD is not only a reflection of our broken and deeply troubled society, but a mirror into a dark, and frighteningly plausible and not far off dystopic future. Emotional, jarring, raw and unflinchingly honest, while PTSD may not have been one of the most celebrated albums by mainstream music critics, it’s uncanny ability to see into the future and relevance nearly six years later is a testament to its staying power. Making PTSD not only arguably Pharaohe Monch’s best work to date, but one of the best albums released in the 2010s in general.
#2 Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) – Awaken, My Love! (2016)
It’s an understatement to say that 2016 was downright one of the wildest years in recent memory, from the 2016 presidential election to social moments and political turmoil the year will likely go down as one of the most hectic, tumulus years in recent memory. These conditions, however, have always been ripe for creating the conditions in which great art is birthed; and needless to say, 2016 was an incredible year for music; a year filled to the brim with secret releases, unexpected hits, and surprise reunions. Out of all of these releases perhaps none were as strange or delightfully surprising as Donald Glover’s third full-length album Awaken, My Love!. Coming off a three-year hiatus from the music scene Glover’s previous effort was his sophomore effort Because the Internet and with Awaken, My Love! Glover not only managed to come out of left field and produce a record daring to push musical boundaries that few of his own Hip-Hop and R&B contemporaries (or artists any other genre for that matter), but stepped into a realm that few mainstream artists dared to tread then or since. Influenced by the soul and funk sounds of the 1970s Donald Glover crafted an atmospheric eleven-track musical odyssey of interstellar cosmic soul, psychedelic electro-funk and slinky jazz-fusion that came out of left field late in 2016. Here, Glover seamlessly emulated the sounds of yesteryear and all but completely diverged from the modern Hip-Hop and R&B stylistic elements that he had come to been known for in prior efforts. Taking the best elements of sounds from the past and remixing them with the aesthetics and sensibilities of the twenty-first century, on Awaken! My Love! Glover created a project that as we said in our review in 2016 “sounds like the spiritual love child of Sly & the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green and a dash of Prince thrown in for good measure”. Quite frankly, Awaken, My Love! was the epitome of a gift you weren’t asking for, but so very glad to receive. Dropping at the tail end of 2016, Awaken, My Love! was an unexpected hit that literally nobody was expecting. As a so-so rapper and as a middle ground writer/actor/comedian, it’s been difficult to tack down Donald Glover in one particular category considering that he’s almost always in limbo between several projects and multiple occupations. Previously working on shows such as 30 Rock and later starring in other television series such as FX’s Atlanta and NBC’s Community Glovers career always seemed like an afterthought taking back seat to more profitable and stable acting and writing gigs and while Glover was an average emcee at best, his true range and virtuosity as a musician wasn’t truly realized until being showcased here on Awaken, My Love! Propelled by its hit single ‘Redbone’, Awaken, My Love! accomplished the incredibly difficult task of utilizing old school elements, while also remaining contemporary in an ever-changing digital, social media drive age.Taking much of its influence and inspiration that can be traced its roots and artistry from the aforementioned artists and other musical acts of the 1970s, Awaken, My Love! managed to take all of these classic elements while also implementing modern influences such as hints and glimpses of other fellow modern contemporaries such as Outkast, which can also be heard throughout the album’s run time. Awaken, My Love! was not only by far one of the most creative, innovative and surprising hits of 2016 (as well as our own number one pick), it is easily one of the greatest albums of the past decade, period. It’s a project that was not afraid to break away and be completely different; refusing to allow itself to be boxed in by the narrow constraints of contemporary musical trends or limited to just one single lane or clearly defined category, not unlike Donald Glover himself. The album was and still is a beautiful reminder that a healthy amount of spontaneity and unpredictability can pay off in big ways and a testament that mainstream artists who aren’t afraid to take chances and push the envelope can reap still large rewards. Even though the project may have come as a curveball to longtime fans who were expecting a more orthodox Hip-Hop album in the vein of Because the Internet, the album was and still is a welcomed breath of fresh air for listeners that yearn for the new and unexpected from artists. While some albums released the same year already sound dated a mere three years later, Awaken, My Love! will undoubtedly remain fresh to listener’s ear whether it be ten or twenty years from now; and only the fact that it technically wasn’t a complete Hip-Hop album is the only thing that kept it from making our number one pick of the decade. In short, Awaken, My Love! is a top tier album. Not only of its respective release year but the decade as well. A dazzling project that effortlessly captured the beauty, vitality, and spirit of the music of yesteryear and paid homage the artist who laid the foundation while repackaging and updating the formula to appeal to modern audiences. Three years later we’re still talking about the album, and its likely audiences will still be talking about Awaken, My Love! for many years to come!
#1 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Few would argue that of all the relative newcomers to make their mark in the Hip-Hop scene over the past ten years, no artist has been more prolific, critically acclaimed and universally celebrated than Kendrick Lamar. Since first signing to Aftermath Entertainment back in 2011, Lamar has released five critically acclaimed albums, a full-length original soundtrack accompanying Marvel’s Black Panther, made dozens of cameos on other artists projects, and snagged dozens of awards (including twelve Grammys). Needless to say, the Compton native has thus far managed to walk a tightrope of balancing critical mainstream success while maintaining the respect and admiration of hardcore Hip-Hop heads and street scene crowds alike. With that said, we here at Step Off! Magazine had a very difficult time deciding which project produced by Lamar was ultimately our favorite album of the decade. While many fans and critics point to the Compton wordsmith’s sophomore effort Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City as Lamar’s crowning achievement and others still raving over his last effort 2017’s Damn.; those of us here at Step Off! believe that the honor for best album of the decade rightfully goes to none other than Lamar’s seminal third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly back in 2015. While Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City undoubtedly introduced much of the world to Kendrick Lamar, showcasing the talents that would propel him to stardom; it’s our opinion that To Pimp A Butterfly is where those skills and talents were truly allowed to run loose, completely unrestricted and ultimately free of any label or creative interference. In fact, in many ways, Lamar has not since enjoyed such artist freedom as that seen on To Pimp A Butterfly. The album can also be credited to introducing many outside of his loyal hardcore fanbase to Thundercat, who crafted much of the album’s unique sound and played a large part in the sound and direction on the LP. In fact, much of the album’s unique sonic composition and direction can be attributed to the bassists virtuoso, who was not only heavily featured throughout both of Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered; but was singled out as the main driving creative force that “shaped the sound of To Pimp a Butterfly” and being credited as the album’s “creative epicenter” by Lamar himself. Thundercat’s involvement in what could arguably go down as not only one of the seminal album of the decade, but one of the best Hip-Hop records of all-time even earning him a Grammy award in 2016 for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for his work on the track “These Walls” on Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. In fact, the album was so popular and influential that less than a year later other long lost gems left off To Pimp A Butterfly to languish on the cutting room floor were rescued and gifted to fans to enjoy on Untitled, Unmastered serving as essentially a spiritual successor follow up To Pimp A Butterfly. These hallmarks and tidbits aside, To Pimp A Butterfly as a project manages to blur lines and genres, marrying Funk, Jazz, Soul, and Hip-Hop is a strange, wonderful cauldron of sound and vibration. Thundercat’s brand of interstellar cosmic-soul and psychedelic, electro jazz-funk fusion; layered, spacey almost dreamlike vocals, along with the use of vintage synths, keyboards, a combination of live and programmed drums give To Pimp A Butterfly a unique unlike any other album in Lamar’s catalog. In many ways, the album is also a sonic time capsule of the best kind. Crafting modern civil-rights anthems such as “Alright” and producing equally compelling visual art to accompany it, To Pimp A Butterfly does what all great albums do. Capturing much essence of its respective era; in this case, the spirit, anger, and anguish of the Black Lives Matter movement which at the time of its release in 2015 was at its peak. This being said, the album also isn’t without its slower, more subdued ambient tracks which shift the album into a lower gear periodically throughout the album’s run time giving the experience a variety of range and emotions during the album’s run time. More focused, innovative and sonically superior to Damn, and more envelope-pushing than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City in an already impressive catalog the project is a beautiful crowning achievement of an album. Simply put, To Pimp A Butterfly is not only a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s talent as an emcee and artist but an indicator that the Compton rapper has no plans of slowing down and that the future is bright with much more to come on the horizon. While many albums released in the past decade have made their impact, it’s doubtful that any looking back to maintain the legacy that To Pimp A Butterfly is likely to accrue. Much like Awaken, My Love!, it is likely audiences will not only still be talking about Kendrick Lamar; but they will still probably be talking about To Pimp A Butterfly and the legacy it has left for many years to come.