2023 has started with a bang. We’ve already had great releases from Lil Yachty, 03 Greedo, Skyzoo, Boldy James and more. HipHopDX will continue narrowing down the endless amount of music released during the course of this year to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects.
Struggling to find a list of the Hip Hop Albums that have been shifting the culture? Take a look at our lists for Rap and R&B to get a complete survey of the projects that are dictating the conversation around Hip Hop culture.
Need some new songs to throw in the rotation but Spotify and user-created playlists are way too long? We kept it simple and added only the best of the best songs from each month to make sure you get the songs you need without a hassle. Peep the lists below.
Looking for some up-and-coming rappers and underground gems? We’ve done the work for you and highlighted the short EPs, mixtapes and projects to check out if you’re tired of the mainstream album cycle.
Editor’s note: Albums from this list were released between December 2, 2021 – January 31, 2023.
Free 03 – 03 Greedo
From the GTL line, 03, formerly known as 03 Greedo, stated that when he gets out of prison he would “speak on the pain.” His new project, Free 03, doubles down on that promise, thumbing through his rolodex of styles to remind us all what he’s capable of, and how he’s the true pioneer of the melodic rap dominating the sound today. Considering he reportedly recorded around 3,000 songs before starting his sentence, Free 03’s grab bag mentality makes sense. The three new songs (“Today,” “Hype,” “If I Die”), all of which 03 recorded while behind bars, make the case that his technical proficiency and preternatural songwriting chops remain intact, if not sharper than ever. The tracks recorded prior to his bid move effortlessly from syncopated Southern California slink to manic Atlanta-inspired trap to silken sex jams. But no matter the subject, it always feels as though Greedy’s shoulders are up by his ears, eyes darting to keep every exit in sight.
I Rest My Case – NBA YoungBoy
The key to YoungBoy’s workaholic overload is consistency — he’s developed a dependable sound, not quite country rap, but aching with a bluesy soulfulness and frequently accompanied by classical guitar. It’s a style he does well, but his voice encompasses a wider spectrum of timbres and emotions. When YoungBoy veers from the formula in favor of something more unpredictable — like the old school Southern sound he channeled on last year’s 3800 Degrees — he’s easily one of the most exciting rappers out. I Rest My Case splits the difference between these two tendencies: about half the songs are YoungBoy as usual, while the rest go in over futuristic rage beats.
Mind Of A Saint – Skyzoo
Fully thematic albums can be a mixed bag. If an artist’s concept is too complicated or obscure, listeners will lose interest. Conversely, if it’s too loose, artists open themselves up to criticism for poor execution. Brooklyn MC and ATL restaurant owner Skyzoo’s latest release, The Mind Of A Saint: A Soliloquy by Skyzoo, is a master class in pulling off a conceptual album without breaking character or losing steam (no easy feat). The album is told from the point of view of drug kingpin Franklin Saint, a character in Snowfall, a drama co-created by the late John Singleton, set in 1980s Los Angeles at the start of the crack cocaine epidemic. Throughout the 10-song affair, Skyzoo’s penchant for crafting lyrically rich, rewind-worthy Hip Hop loaded with easter eggs shines as brightly as ever, with an almost mind-boggling level of attention to detail. Whether it’s telling the engineer that he’s not used to the studio as he’s from a “different life” on the song “100 to One” or describing Franklin telling his friend Leon about working on an album on the intro to “Brick by Brick” (“Yo Saint, I know you’re going to get all poetic”), he fully commits to his character.
Indiana Jones – Boldy James & RichGains
Just a few weeks after it was reported that rapper Boldy James had been in a car accident in the Detroit area that left him with broken vertebrae in his neck and other injuries, the MC (who has since moved to a rehab center) released a sobering collaborative project with Rich Gains, Indiana Jones. Boldy’s non-assuming delivery and melancholy aura seem almost elastic when applied to the sonic signatures of different producers—which makes, for example, his Nicholas Craven-helmed Fair Exchange No Robbery sound so different from his work with Futurewave (Mr. Ten08), Alchemist or Real Bad Man. In this case, Rich Gains, half of the production duo Blended Babies (with partner JP), has given the Detroit MC an eclectic vibe that pushes him in ambitious new directions. As a result, Boldy delivers incredibly intriguing tracks balanced against some of his bleakest bars in recent memory.
Ab-Soul – Herbert
It’s been six years since Ab-Soul’s last project, Do What Thou Wilt. A lot can change for man in that time, but at times, with change comes struggle. Herbert is the result of an individual looking to find inner peace, escaping the desire to give in to suicidal thoughts, and emerge reformed, ready for the next chapter. For his fans, it’s a bittersweet yet satisfying return for one of TDE’s greatest acts.
Heroes & Villians – Metro Boomin
Metro Boomin has assembled The Avengers of the Hip Hop universe to help him save the rap world as we know it with his triumphant Heroes & Villians album. Complete with a Marvel and DC Comics-rivaling rollout featuring theatrical video trailers and mock comic book covers that double as guest feature announcements, Metro Boomin has pulled out all of the stops for his first full-length solo release since 2018’s Not All Heroes Wear Capes. Seemingly building on the courageous efforts he and 21 Savage brought forth on their 2020 Savage Mode II collaborative project, Metro Boomin has recruited Young Thug, Gunna, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Future, A$AP Rocky, Don Toliver, Young Nudy, John Legend and more for assistance on Heroes & Villians.
This Is What I Meant – Stormzy
The title of Stormzy’s latest project is fitting because the UK chart-topper says a lot on the 12-song album. Stormzy’s personal life is inherently tied into the storyline of the album and with minimalist production, his heartfelt lyrical poetry is able to shine through. Songs like “Fire + Water” & “Bad Blood” will leave even the most emotionless listener feeling teary-eyed. But This Is What I Meant isn’t simply an ode to the love of his life; songs like “Holy Spirit” and “I Got My Smile Back” are triumphant self-love anthems. Overall, Stormzy proves with this album that he is following his creative flow wherever it takes him and his artistry will win out over everything else.
King’s Disease 3 – Nas & Hit-Boy
Nas fans love to debate which producer works best with him. He’s collaborated with some of the greatest on the boards in an illustrious 25 year career that spans 15 solo albums. But in the 2020s, maybe Hit-Boy is his best fit for keeping him relevant in a changing rap landscape. Nas and Hit-Boy have compared their creative output to Shaq and Penny and Michael and Quincy, paying homage to duos with undeniable success and chemistry. While the Grammy-winning super producer has synced up with artists before, there’s something special about Hit-Boy modernizing Nas’ sound, heightening his stories with subtle, elegant beats. Continuing where the Grammy-nominated predecessor left off, King’s Disease 3 shows Nas has more to say about career longevity, legal hustling, the Queens borough that raised him, and the wealth he’s accumulated as a rap mogul. The song ideas and themes are coherent, showing Nas is improving as he approaches 50. It keeps Nas in the relevancy conversation because his voice is still impactful, calling to action when some might say he doesn’t need to do this anymore. It’s a lesson in purposeful storytelling and aging with grace.
Only Built For Infinity Links – Quavo & Takeoff
With dynamic production, anthemic hooks, and raps that are as personal as they are agile, Infinity Links delivers most of the exhilarating highs of Migos’ best work while cutting the fat that plagued Culture II and Culture III. Like the best Migos projects, Infinity Links plays out like a stylish joy ride. Featuring production from Buddah Bless, Murda Beatz, Mustard, DJ Durel and more, it’s a soundtrack for a trap spaceship. Over the course of 18 tracks, they lace their triple-time flows over everything from dazed trap (“Hotel Lobby”) to ratchet music courtesy of Mustard (“See Bout It”) as they alternate between flows and structural approaches that keep sounds from getting stale.
$$$ – Freddie Gibbs
While Freddie Gibbs’ Alchemist-produced Alfredo earned him his first Grammy nomination in 2020, it became clear he isn’t willing to sacrifice his gritty lyrical integrity in the hopes of adding coveted hardware to his trophy cabinet. Two years later, $oul $old $eperately ($$$) — Gangsta Gibbs’ fifth solo album — has real-world implications while also reaching new heights worthy of his own Hip Hop ‘hood Grammy. Opening with the hard-nosed bars of the Kelly Price-assisted intro “Couldn’t Be Done,” $$$ maneuvers in and out of countless rhythmic rabbit holes with ease. The Indiana native also elevates the caliber of his collaborations by commissioning verses from Pusha T, Rick Ross, Offset and Moneybagg Yo, as well as producers like Boi-1da, DJ Paul and DJ Dahi. In the same way the cover art for the project personifies his “Big Rabbit” persona, $$$ affirms Freddie Gibbs’ ascent from underground mainstay to mainstream contender.
2000 – Joey Bada$$
Whether it was fair or not, at one point, the weight of New York was on Joey Bada$$. He’s reached major highs during his career, and low lows, but throughout it all his technical skills on the mic were unquestioned. 2000 reminds listeners what Joey is capable of when expectations are shed from his shoulders. Paying homage to the titular year, Joey and his producers bridge between crate digging dusty jazz samples and the polished sheen of the jiggy era, allowing Joey to work with a plush palette. The beats across 2000 are breezy and opulent, billowing in the space between the smooth marble floors and high ceilings of an expensive penthouse. Pianos and glassy keyboards weave around sweeping string samples, snares diffuse into long tails of reverb. Joey seems right at home in this more silken vibe, gliding effortlessly across each expensive-sounding drum pattern. He’s a joy to listen to — there are few rappers that sound as natural on the mic as Joey Bada$$. He’s not angling to be a momentary King of New York, he’s more interested in building a legacy and — perhaps more than anything – enjoying rap.
The Elephant Man’s Bones – Alchemist & Roc Marciano
New York rapper Roc Marciano has been a mythic figure in Hip Hop since his 2010 debut Marcberg and has continued to release grimy, dusty projects such as Marci Beaucoup, Reloaded and now his latest, The Elephant Man’s Bones. Working with longtime collaborator and legend in his own right, superproducer The Alchemist, Marciano’s most recent effort is a testament to consistency, a rap project which finds him spitting at his highest level more than 10 years since he broke onto the scene. Spanning 14-tracks split between two sides, The Elephant Man’s Bones also includes verses and appearances from artists ranging from Action Bronson and Boldy James to Ice-T and Knowledge The Pirate.
The Course Of The Inevitable 2 – Lloyd Banks
To Banks, The Course of the Inevitable means “to go backwards and remember what you’re doing it for.” So, The Course of the Inevitable 2 comes a year later and arrives at a time when the former G-Unit member’s sword is the sharpest. He’s dropped plenty of sequels for his album and mixtape franchises before, but COTI 2 proves that time has only made Banks more productive and consistent. COTI 2 is tighter than the initial installment and made for the same ‘real rap’ heads who listen to Griselda, Roc Marciano, Stone God Cooks, Boldy James, and the like, resulting in an album that leans heavy into documenting street lessons learned and shows that Banks’ main concern is making the music he desires, trends be damned.
You Still Here, Ho? – Flo Milli
Flo Milli does what she wants. Upending all marketing plans and conventional rollout energy, the Alabama rapper dropped her debut studio album, You Still Here, Ho?, two days before its release date, maintaining her persona as a disrupter who does as she pleases. Featuring guest appearances from Rico Nasty, BabyFace Ray, and Tiffany “New York” Pollard, You Still Here, Ho? is a self-aware manifesto from the “princess of this rap shit.” Flaunting cockiness and flexing staccato flows the Alabama rapper grows her presence on tracks such as “Conceited” and “Hottie,” remaining true to her mastery of self-empowering mantras. You Still Here, Ho? isn’t shy about only being interested in the hedonism of the early 2000’s. Obsessed with money, sex and having a good time, “Big Steppa” and “PBC” sport an impressive exploration of electronic dance music for Flo Milli; while the punk-esque “Pretty Girls” boasts a lyrical riff of Cyndi Lauper’s, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Despite being creatively based on nostalgia, the pop rap album doesn’t get bogged down by reflection – with deliberate one-liners and experimental instrumentals, Flo Milli always finds a way to talk her shit and keep it moving.
DRILL MUSIC IN ZION – Lupe Fiasco
Four years removed from his previous release Drogas Wave — aside from some loosies and two EPs — Lupe is back with a project he dubbed his Illmatic. While it remains to be seen whether he can match that classic’s cultural influence and inspire a new generation, DRILL MUSIC IN ZION is arguably his most accessible album in years, with Lupe showing himself to be in impeccable lyrical shape. Produced entirely by Soundtrakk — the beatmaker behind highly acclaimed singles such as “Kick, Push” and “Superstar” and his recent Tape Tape EP— and recorded in mere days late last summer, the album has an incredibly cohesive and, at times, jazzy feel, with Lupe staying in his pocket throughout. While unabashed in its sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy-handed criticism of the culture, there’s something so alluring and easy-going about DRILL MUSIC IN ZION. With no filler or fluff, this album is bound to satisfy those who like their bars bountiful and Lupe Fiasco in peak form.
REFLEXIONS – Tony Shhnow
Reflexions is a reminder that over the past two years very few rappers, if any, have been as consistently excellent as Shhnow — plugg music’s Curren$y. He was already established as an underground prodigy, but his new output suggests his ceiling is far higher. In an industry ravaged by the desire to make a quick buck at any and all costs, Tony Shhnow is a black sheep, an artist who raps for himself first and everyone else second. There’s nothing cheap about Reflexions: no flashy trends, hit-hungry A&Rs or marketing gimmicks in sight. It’s a project which can be looped and repeated without ever sounding stale. But Shhnow doesn’t care about any of that: he’s already focused on the next one.
MR. MORALE & THE BIG STEPPERS – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar opens Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers with a brutal confession. “I’ve been going through somethin’,” he mutters on “United in Grief,” the staccato piano chords soundtracking a descent into madness. It’s a simple phrase, curt and concise, that begins to cut through all the intrigue surrounding his artistic disappearance. On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick explains what that “somethin’” was. For 75 minutes on this double-sided album, he parses through every issue that’s plagued his mind during his break from the spotlight. He’s placed under the microscope, using enthralling funk, jazz and soul compositions to fuel the uncomfortable, introspective ramblings that have been churning for half a decade. In doing so, he combines grand moments of musical execution with intense vulnerability, pulling off one of the greatest feats in his career yet.
DEATHFAME – Quelle Chris
Quelle Chris’ latest release DEATHFAME sees the Detroit MC parse out the concept of fame and its effect on a “king of the underground” like himself. For Chris, fame isn’t a monolithic experience: it’s rife with failures and insecurities that are shielded from the public eye. It’s not going to be rousing and celebratory at every turn. Crawling through a mountain of piano jazz production that leans toward melancholy, he raps with an introspective clarity that most artists take their entire career to achieve. Where Chris’s previous release with Keys was a breezy, easygoing meander through life and death, DEATHFAME is devoid of the same airiness. There are long stretches of production marked by murkiness and instrumental cacophony, over which Chris contorts his voice and tempo when needed.
NO FEAR OF TIME – Black Star
Released exclusively on the podcasting platform Luminary, the LP is a different sonic experience than its predecessor. Throughout the nine-song affair, they don’t quite match the energy and earworm appeal of their legendary hit “Definition” or the soul caressing warmth of the Hi-Tek-produced “Respiration.” But for artists as dedicated as Black Star, simply trying to recreate the same feeling would be more than a little corny, especially given their career trajectories. Instead, they’ve enlisted Madlib’s trademark brand of curated chaos, displaying who they are now instead of who they once were. The patchwork of soundscapes fits like a glove as they bend themselves through a variety of themes, from self-worth to white supremacy (with a few sidesteps along the way) that highlight their differing perspectives. The results are strong and delightful, with both MCs sounding weathered but focused.
MR. CRAWFORD – NoCap
Alabama-bred artist NoCap has already started off the year with a bang. Having already been stamped by the likes of DaBaby and NBA YoungBoy off the strength of hits such as 2021’s “Vaccine,” the 23-year-old rapper exploded into 2022 with his popular “Fortune Teller” single in January. Now, NoCap continues his ascent into the rafters of the rap game with his 21-track Mr. Crawford album, which serves as the follow-up to 2020’s Steel Human. His detailed song writing about the struggles of mental health and recovering from trauma serves as compelling pain rap, but NoCap’s vocal range and knack for painting pictures sets him apart. His modern day blues tales show off the ugly side of being on the come up, complete with the skeletons of the past that linger long after the first check hits the bank.
IT’S ALMOST DRY – Pusha T
It’s Almost Dry is the result of a paranoid new dad and quarantining from COVID-19. “I wasn’t going anywhere,” Pusha T told Charlamagne Tha God in a recent interview with a twinge of anxiety in his voice. He went on to explain he tapped into his creativity to elevate his pen game. Push’s writing has only sharpened after 20 years. The storytelling has become more meticulous and wit behind the bars heightened. The way Push flips different terms and definitions surrounding cocaine is almost mastery of the English language. Even though it lacks the bite of past releases, It’s Almost Dry is a good rap record that delivers a few hard hitting tracks, some great production and bar-for-bar excellence by one of the best rappers in the game.