2013 was the year many major rappers made some curious decisions. Some of the decisions, while odd at the time, seemed to pay off. But many of these odds choices, resulted in some pretty disappointing releases, which is why my annual top albums list features several newcomers. Rappers like Chance the Rapper, Red Pill and Gilbere Forte claimed spots over solidified legends like Jay-Z and Eminem. I finally decided to stop sleeping on producer/rapper cats like Black Milk and Terrace Martin, and they both dropped stellar autumn and late summer albums, respectively. Mac Miller and Big Sean realized their potential, with vastly improved albums, and El-P and Killer Mike talked some epic shit all summer. While this year may be a little weaker than the past few years (which I believe are to be some of the best years for hip hop in a while), there was a lot of unexpected excitement.

Over the past five or so years, I’ve assembled a way to calculate albums on a 1-100 scale. There are 10 categories, which I consider important aspects that a great album will have, and they are worth up to 10 points each. These categories include:

* Replay Value (How often I want to go back and listen to this album again)
* Vocal Performance (Mind you, I rate non-hip hop albums on this scale as well. This category essentially means how good is the rapping: rhyme scheme, flows, etc.)
* Production (Are the beats dope or nah?)
* Subject Matter (Is there a decent amount of topics or angles for songs on the album?)
* Songwriting (I don’t have a lyric category because good lyricism can mean many different things. For multis, punchlines and technical prowess, you get points in the Vocal Performance category. Songwriting includes structure, hooks, etc.)
* Cohesion (do the songs flow well in order? Is there a common theme?)
* Originality (does this album bring something different to the table?)
* Popular Influence (how did this album affect popular culture? Yes this category gives an advantage to mainstream artists, but if an album can do everything else effectively, but on a bigger scale, I believe it deserves more points than an artist who isn’t reaching many people)
* Personal Influence (how did this album reflect my personal life in 2013?)
* Gut Reaction (How did I feel about this album the first few times I heard it?)

When you see the scores, try to refrain from the school-style of grading (ie: 90-100 = A, etc.) because it is very difficult for an album to get a perfect 10 in a category (for reference, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, mAAd city received a 95 last year, which is the highest an album has ever gotten since making this system). To give you a point of reference, an album that I would give an 8.5 on the RapReviews scale would probably get around an 80 on mine. For tie breakers, I chose the album with higher Personal Influence, then Replay Value, then Popular Influence, then Gut Reaction.

Just Missed the Cut (75 and Up):

Tonedeff – Glutton EP
Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – 12 Reasons to Die
Imperial & KINETIK – Pencils Not Pistols EP
Louis Logic – Look on the Blight Side
Natti (of the CunninLynguists) – Still Motion
Tyler, The Creator – Wolf
Childish Gambino – Because the Internet

Top 15 Rap Albums of 2013:

15. Dessa – Parts of Speech (76.5)
The Doomtree rapper/singer dropped an album that was in all honestly probably better than the score she received. But Dessa’s opening two tracks were double edged swords because they are the two best songs on the album (and some of the best songs of the year), which caused me to just replay those first two tracks and ignore the rest of the album for most the year. I understand this is an odd, and probably unfair, critique of an album, but this is my list about how I consumed music in 2013.

14. Big Sean – Hall of Fame (76.5)
I’ve flip flopped many times about my feelings towards Big Sean. But in 2013, I can freely admit I am a fan, and his performance on “Hall of Fame” is what set me over. Yeah he’s kind of corny, and sometimes he gets a little too cute with his flows (see: his verse on Pusha T’s “Who I Am”), but he showed on this record that he can make a good, versatile album.

13. Ugly Heroes (Apollo Brown, Red Pill & Verbal Kent) – Ugly Heroes (78.5)
Apollo Brown gained a lot of attention over the past few years by working with big name rappers (Ghostface, O.C., Guilty Simpson), but with Ugly Heroes, he decided to link up with two relatively unknown rappers. Chicago’s Verbal Kent and Detroit’s Red Pill (my 2013 rookie of the year) trade bars over Brown’s consistent-if-not-slightly-repetitive production. The two emcees effortlessly complement each other, with Kent’s dexterous battle raps and Red Pill’s confessional flows, and made relatable music for the everyday blue-collar worker.

12. The Uncluded (Aesop Rock & Kimya Dawson) – Hokey Fright (79)
Aesop Rock linked up with a highly unusual collaborator, Kimya Dawson (you may remember her from the Juno soundtrack), and the result was a highly unusual album. Aesop’s raps over Dawson’s folky guitar plucking is an awesome change of pace from the percussion and synth heavy production of your typical Aesop Rock album. And Dawson’s child-like vocals paired next to Aesop’s baritone rap delivery is also a nice touch. This is definitely not an album for your typical rap fan, but for the rare fan that enjoys both of these artists, this record doesn’t disappoint.

11. Mac Miller – Watching Movies With the Sound Off (79)
Miller’s 2011 debut LP got shitted on. I thought the harsh reviews were a little over the top, as there were a lot of flashes of potential on that record, and with his more trippy sophomore effort, Mac Miller proves that he’s a legitimate emcee.

10. Danny Brown – Old (79)
With Danny Brown’s “XXX” album, he made an album that started out with tales of over-the-top gluttony, and ended with an earth-shattering hangover of life in Detroit. On “Old” Brown reverses this structure, which makes it slightly less effective, but he is still among the best writers in hip hop at the moment.

9. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (79)
After three years of waiting, we finally got the album from the man who “ranaway” with brilliant guest spots on Kanye records. Pusha is relentless over cynical, cold production, and is one of the last great gangster rappers left.

8. Run the Jewels (El-P & Killer Mike) – Run the Jewels (79)
Killer Mike and El-P have the best bromance in hip hop. This album has the best title and album art of the year, hands down. It’s full fledge swagger and shit talk, from two underground champs that are finally getting their dues from the public.

7. Gilbere Forte – PRAY (79)
Gilbere Forte is a rapper from Philly (by way of Flint, Michigan), who caught my eye earlier this year when I saw a song that flipped a great Fiona Apple song. That track was the tip of the iceberg for Forte. “PRAY” sounds like a Drake album, if Drake rapped like Royce da 5’9″. With the 40-influenced production from Raak, Forte made an album that sounds like a drunken summer night.

6. Red Pill & Hir-O – The Kick (80)
Red Pill and Hir-O’s “Waiting on the Train” was probably my favorite song of 2013. This Inception-inspired album stayed in rotation for nearly all of 2013, and has propelled Red Pill into the list of my favorite rappers.

5. Drake – Nothing Was the Same (81)
I was expecting – no I was wanting – “Take Care” part two. When I didn’t get that, I was upset. Drake switched up his style and aesthetic, but still managed to release a great album. Less heartbreaks and drunk dials, and more brashness.

4. Terrace Martin – 3ChordFold (81)
I can’t tell you why I decided to check out this album. I recognized his name from production credits on albums from Kendrick Lamar and Murs, but never heard a solo song from Terrace Martin. Regardless, this was a pleasant surprise as my first summer in Chicago was ending. Top notch production and plenty of assistance from a talent ensemble, helped Martin make one of the year’s best albums.

3. Black Milk – No Poison, No Paradise (83)
“No Poison, No Paradise” is the Detroit “good kid, mAAd city.” In a year where Detroit went bankrupt, the city put out a slew of great releases, and Black Milk, one of the city’s most respected artists, made the best album to come out of the city in 2013.

2. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (88)
About two months before I made my move to Chicago, I wanted to collect a bunch of Chicago rappers. One song I was told to check out was “Juice” by Chance the Rapper. Then a day later, I saw that “Acid Rap,” the second tape from Chicago’s next big thing had been released. It was an album that I loved before moving to Chicago because of his innovative flows and jazzy, psychedelic production. But it was a record that I grew to appreciate even more after moving to the city. It was more than references of the ‘L,’ Redeye and squares, but Chance explains how tragic the city can be. On “Paranoia” he begs for a little more cold weather because the summer is when the murder rates go up, which makes my complaints of the frigid winds coming off Lake Michigan seem frivolous and selfish.

1. Kanye West – Yeezus (88.5)
Here come the sighs of disgust. Yes, the great Yeezus did it again. In a year where everyone was doing something unexpected, Kanye was the biggest wild card. Daft Punk made a dance record using beautiful sounds from actual live instruments. Kaney used Daft Punk to make fart noises. The opening 8 seconds of “Yeezus” is enough to turn away most music listeners. This was not an easy listen, but it was probably the most played album of 2013 for me. I am an unabashed Kanye stan, and I will admit that this is probably in the middle of the pack in his catalog. But despite its stripped down-ness, there is something new I find on this album after every listen. It’s not his strongest moment musically (especially lyrically), but it’s his most daring and frankly, most interesting.