Rap feels more splintered than it ever has, and this was best demonstrated by the various outlets’ End of Year lists. On social media, all I saw was Top 10 lists exclusively of one style of hip-hop (ie. Lloyd Banks, 38 Spesh, Conway…), mainstream publications trolling for clicks by championing genuinely bad albums like “Hood Hottest Princess”, and more specialist websites like Passion of the Weiss listing off eclectic output ranging from unconventional fire to straight-up noise. Browsing music and increasingly finding what is considered “great” as “noise” simply makes me feel old and a bit disconnected. So my favorite albums of 2023 are probably safer than most, but hey, this is my list and I think all of these projects are dope!

10. Atmosphere :: So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously

Slug and Ant are no strangers to RapReviews readers, considering they regularly appear in these Year End lists we’ve published since the year 2000. While they may no longer be the poster child of underground hip-hop that they once were, their output continues to be a real treat each year they emerge with a new, extravagantly worded album.

9. Beneficence & Jazz Spastiks :: Summer Night Sessions

As brilliant as the Jazz Spastiks have been, this might be their best project. By working with Beneficence, a veteran of the 90s, who is, admittedly, limited outside of kicking rhymes about rhymes, their knack for carefully crafted beats shines brightly, owing much to production styles of three decades ago. The album benefits from frequent guest appearances, and a warm, cohesive feel – it’s paced brilliantly, constantly moving the listener on to the next slice of head-slamming hip-hop.

8. Chino XL & Stu Bangas :: God’s Carpenter

We like to categorize rappers, particularly by their style of lyricism, but for somebody like Chino XL, I can only really describe him as a monster. He looks more like a wrestler, with tightly-packed verses delivered with all the overblown character of The Rock. The imagery that Chino frequently portrays in “God’s Carpenter” is a necessary reminder of his unrivaled, unique abilities. Some of it can seem fairly one-note – verbal abuse taken to the extreme – but if he’s not blowing your mind with his mastery of the English language, he’s making you smile with outlandish metaphors. Something he’s been doing since 1996.

7. Elzhi & Oh No :: Heavy Vibrato

Elzhi rarely misses, but I didn’t return to his previous project (“Zhigeist”) as I did with his earlier material. It felt a bit too understated, and by bringing in Oh No (of Gangrene and ‘being Madlib’s brother’ fame), he’s got a selection of beats that slap hard enough to give El’s intricate style a chance to flourish. I get the most out of Elzhi from repeated listens, as his approach to storytelling is often unconventional and littered with tricks and treasures. “Heavy Vibrato” leans more on straight-up fire-spitting than conceptual wizardry, but there are few things more enjoyable than listening to Elzhi in full flow, over a tough beat.

6. Cappo :: Canon Chapter 1: Pain

In my opinion, Cappo is the best emcee in the UK and has been for many years. The Nottingham veteran returned right at the end of 2023 with a new EP, containing five songs of dense, purposeful lyricism. There’s always been a different level of potency to British emcees when they have an accent that isn’t conventional Londoner, but considering Cappo is particularly eloquent, he attacks tough backdrops with a calculated menace. I fucking love it – the second installment recently arrived in January and is even better. “listening’s equivalent to placing your fist in a nest of vipers”. Ill.

5. Oddisee : To What End

It’s easy to forget the long-awaited return of Oddisee happened in 2023, and that’s a shame because one of the best artists in hip-hop returned with another excellent full-length. It didn’t quite live up to his previous material, which is why it feels a bit forgotten, but a good Oddisee album is better than most emcee’s best work. He acknowledges that he’s been an underdog since he ran a blog and it appears that remains an accurate definition.

4. Noname :: Sundial

“Sundial” caught plenty of acclaim last year, deservedly so. It’s a brilliant album from an artist unafraid to be playful when handling serious themes – political commentary, black pride, and feminism are all covered without coming across as preachy. The offputting artwork hides a sweetly soulful selection of tracks, and while it does talk about ‘pussy’ a lot, it’s filled with great tracks like “boomboom”, “beauty supply” and “namesake.

3. King Kashmere & Alecs DeLarge :: The Album To End All Alien Abductions

Kashmere has always been a fascinating emcee, possessing a captivating vocal presence not unlike MF Doom if he had stayed in the UK. Compiling numerous songs released over the last few years, “The Album to End All Alien Abductions” is a brilliant hip-hop album that has enough of a kooky, retro sci-fi aesthetic to separate it from the pack, blending youthful creativity with a variety of instrumentals that vary from traditional kicks and snares to drum-less loops. Highly underrated.

2. El Michels Affair & Black Thought :: Glorious Game

While everyone was worrying about what critical darling Andre 3000 was up to, Black Thought quietly cemented his legacy as a solo artist associated with a group that has back-to-back albums par excellence. Last year’s “Cheat Codes” with Dangermouse was my favorite album of 2022, and with “Glorious Game”, The Roots frontman came close again. I just liked “Magic 3” a little bit more. This album was a less abrasive, in-your-face approach that possesses some of The Roots’ renowned soul. There are not many pure, bar-spitting emcees that can hold down the microphone duties alone on an album, let alone one as enchanting, mature, and wordy, as the master Black Thought.

1. Nas & Hit-Boy :: Magic 3

My most played album of 2023 was “Magic 3” and I’m still not tired of it. Granted, I listened to a lot of Nas in 2023 (the Hit-Boy’s production seems to keep improving, and hearing Nas in his thoughtful, concept song mode was even better than I expected. “Magic 2” was good, but too flawed to put up against the mighty “King’s Disease 3”, yet this sixth album in four years (despite a slow start) is a relentless showcase for what makes Nas so special. It is the perfect representation of hip-hop’s fiftieth birthday celebrations – old combined with new and creating something magical in the process.

Honorable mentions:

  • 38 Spesh & Grafh :: Art of Words
  • DJ Muggs :: Soul Assassins 3
  • Doppelgangaz :: Black Cloak Lifestyle
  • Marco Polo & Torae :: The Return
  • Nick Grant :: Sunday Dinner
  • Nas :: Magic 2
  • Navy Blue :: Ways of Knowing
  • Rawlsmatic :: Role Reversal
  • Speaker Bullies :: Art of Disrespect
  • Spectacular Diagnostics :: Raw Lessons
  • Teflon :: 2 Sides to Every Story