While the Madlib agenda during the late ’00s and early ’10s was heavy on beat-tape projects like the Beat Konducta and Medicine Show series, his gigs doing production for straight-up rap albums is worth highlighting as an underrated stretch of his post-Madvillain / pre-Gibbs period. With Strong Arm Steady, there’s a clear tendency to lean more towards the lyrical style of a post-Freestyle Fellowship weeded-out mic-skills-centric West Coast underground, and guests like Guilty Simpson, Phonte, and Talib Kweli exemplify that vibe from the Midwest, South, and East. But the grimy strangeness and deliberately weathered timbre of Madlib’s soul samples make it a bridge to the faded-yet-focused vibe that would dominate 2010s indie rap.
2010s Art Rap
At the end of the 2000s, indie rap was in something of a state of flux. There were all the old standbys: college-friendly back-to-’88 acts, perceptively revolutionary political firebrands, and autobiographical storytellers who maintained all the old conscious boom-bap fundamentals they’d grown up with. But with rare exceptions, it felt like it was run through with the defensiveness of the preservationist rather than the freedom of the iconoclast — too busy focusing on calling out the fakes and not enough on creating something so new that the vultures and counterfeiters in hip-hop would be completely incapable of latching on to it.
Something changed once the streaming model, social media fragmentation, and the inevitable generational shifts in taste left everyone but the pop-crossover 1%ers adrift. The across-the-board critical and commercial success of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an early sign that there was a legitimate demand for hyper-ambitious, rulebreaking rap that wanted to be Basquiat instead of just buying him. But decades’ worth of conventional wisdom that considered the likes of Rammellzee and Kool Keith uncommercial eccentrics had let business get in the way of expression for countless others without Yeezy-level clout. If there was supposed to be a real revolution, it would have to come from the bottom up, from underground lifers and aging heads whose disinterest in being some corporate version of “relevant” freed them up to put limitless inspiration before scarce commerce.
Fortunately, there were still support systems to encourage next-phase artists who wanted to break out from the stasis — scenes like L.A.’s Low End Theory and its endlessly influential beat scene, artist-first labels like Backwoodz and Mello Music Group joining established indies like Anticon and Stones Throw, collectives like Odd Future and Bruiser Brigade, even outside-the-genre labels like Sub Pop and Warp signing rappers to do whatever worked for them. Maybe that’s why “art rap” feels like a more appropriate descriptor for the 2010s incarnation of what used to be known by market-bound, compared-to-what terms like “indie” or “alt” or “underground.” “Art rap” might feel a little glib, maybe — even if it worked for Open Mike Eagle — but it’s as good a descriptor as any for this collection of hip-hop artists that include the famous, the infamous, and more than a few cult heroes of wildly varying aboveground success. These are artists who, whether through their beats or their lyrics or their personae or just their overarching sense of aesthetics, picked up on the same impulses that drive their cratedigging and lyrical referentiality to worldbuild even further with a post-Tumblr sense of arresting audiovisual intensity, where region increasingly took a backseat to vibe.
Art rap takes on the same kind of polyglot post-genre postmodernism and noise you get from big-ticket blockbusters, but with a fraction of the cash (and attention) budget and a certain amount of freedom that comes with being outside that panopticon — or at least inside a smaller, more manageable one. Creating art “for its own sake” inevitably winds up being inseparable from art as a means of defining oneself — or redefining yourself, in the case of some of the creatively revived 40-somethings on this list, still sounding as outre and challenging as the teenage phenoms they inspired. And in the 2010s, with its social media self-branding exercises and influencer ambitions, being able to define yourself feels like one of the only defense mechanisms an artist has against the endless demands of a notoriously fickle industry.
The two EPs Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire dropped in 2009 were startling, but the first proper full-length Shabazz Palaces album broke things wide open: here was an enigmatically rooted yet clearly forward-thinking vision of hip-hop from an ex-Digable Planets member who first made waves as a ’70s-feting jazz-rap throwback. Black Up was hip-hop for a world where that ’70s kept building off its noisier, synthier, avant-Afrofuturist tendencies until they burst with a promise that’s been resonating with ego-death acid trip revelations ever since.
After chopping it up in an early ’00s indie-rap marketplace that was on the verge of oversaturation, billy woods re-emerged after a largely collaborative decade with the most appropriately titled aging-head declaration of a still-thriving second act. As definitive as his later-decade work both solo and with Armand Hammer feels, it’s still staggering to hear him unleash this now-familiar voice — personal-as-political lyrics delivered in indestructible verbal typesetting, a proper heir to the relentless all-seeing intensity of collaborator (and last-track feature) Vordul Mega from Cannibal Ox. Moreso when the beats fall closer to Death Grips than 9th Wonder when it comes to harshness.
Someday it’ll be remarked upon with bewildered awe that a GZA cohort / Brownsville firefighter / producer-MC was able to maintain such a singular career. But you don’t need a hagiographical documentary to pick up on Ka’s strengths — just start with the album that brought them all to the forefront. Grief Pedigree starts a hardworking, subtly self-refining run that builds off Ka’s stark, matter-of-fact delivery and a negative-space-emphasizing production. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of a black-and-white film snapshot that’s more detailed and focused than any 100-megapixel digital photo you’ve ever seen.
Just before Killer Mike helped him realize his dream of starting a cyberpunk EPMD, El-P was the kind of uncompromising solo artist that made his Run the Jewels popularity all the more remarkable. While he kept both feet in hip-hop roots, he found power in a tendency to create beats that made synthesizers sound unbearably filthy before turning his run-on flow against their very structure. And after the 2008 death of his close friend Camu Tao and the 2010 conclusion of his Definitive Jux label, Cancer4Cure sounds like El turning his catharsis into a call for solidarity, whether it’s with victims of personal and systematic abuse, or against the plague of fuck shit that fuels it.
Years before Flying Lotus did collabs with Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown, he was looking for a way to connect with hip-hop on a level he hadn’t shown before — namely, as an actual rapper himself. But with a self-imposed outsider perception, he opted to come out as an MC for the first time using the mysterious masked pseudonymous approach that placed him (not for the first time) in a tradition somewhere between MF DOOM and Burial. The Odd Future vibes are everywhere — Brainfeeder and OFWGKTA shared similar art-damaged stoner-Angeleno [adult swim] circles, after all — but the gnarly vulgarity that earned him Tyler-soundalike comparisons takes a backseat to FlyLo’s faithfully bloodshot take on Quasimotoid cratedigger boom-bap.
When Odd Future’s turn-of-the-decade emergence precipitated untold terabytes of hype, deconstruction, and speculation, it was teenage phenom Earl Sweatshirt that garnered some of the most feverish talk: how would he develop as an artist? Did he have more than just shock value in store? When was he even going to be able to drop a record, anyways — isn’t he in some Samoan boarding school? Doris answered all those questions, only to stir up even more, dwelling on his self-doubts even as he embodies his own inner creative strengths. His semi-detached yet expressive voice spills invitingly bad vibes everywhere, whether it’s Neptunes, RZA, BadBadNotGood, or his own “randomblackdude” self he’s rapping over.
Serengeti’s best feature as a lyricist is his ability to inhabit the lives of others — and not just third hand. A gruff, heavily Midwest-accented character who started out seeming like a regional jokey riff on a certain kind of middle-aged blue-collar Chicagoan, Kenny Dennis broke through thanks to a series of albums that producer Odd Nosdam helped lend an air of small-scale but fascinatingly rendered drama. Sure, Kenny is obsessed with aging-Gen X cable-TV movie and sports touchstones, and it feels like every other verse is riddled with references only Second City locals fully grasp. But it’s Kenny’s personal grudges and heartbreaks that make him a richly realized figure, less funny-voice gimmick and more real-enough regional hero.
The L.A.-via-Chicago polymath who opened the decade with an album titled Unapologetic Art Rap nailed an even better self-descriptor with Dark Comedy: here’s a battle rapper who could’ve easily become a confessional writer or a stand-up but embodies the best elements of all three. He’s a pretty good singer, too; hearing his elastic flow snap from conversational deadpan or agitated recitations to contemplative melodies is one of the best tricks in the game. DIY-synth beats and Adventure Time namedrops lend it a certain organic geekiness, but Mike’s joints aren’t nerdcore — they’re just smart.
Time might reveal Wiki’s solo career to be one of the most fulfilling breakthroughs in turn-of-the-’20s underground hip-hop. But it stands out more starkly when you consider the formative work he did with fellow rapper Hak and producer Sporting Life in the supergroup-in-retrospect Ratking. Here you’ve got two rappers in the waning months of their teens embodying 2014 NYC through full-immersion city-building narratives like OutKast did the ATL of 20 years before. It’s old-soul cynicism and knowledge mixing into youthful this-that-new-shit defiance over beats that do unholy things with snare rolls and melted-gunk loops.
From Project Blowed to P.O.S., Busdriver’s found himself in nearly every single corner of art-minded hip-hop from the ’90s onwards, the kind of advantage you get when you’ve got an extremely distinct voice that can still mesh with collaborators practically at will. With a voice capable of hyperspitting turbo verbiage at impossible cadences, Busdriver’s not only unafraid but totally geeked to take alarming yet effective turns into cosmic surrealism. Thumbs is deep into his career, but it’s also the best entry point into his discography, as the group-effort beats (including Mono/Poly, Kenny Segal, and Jeremiah Jae) and mic-wielding guests (Milo pre-R.A.P. Ferreira and Anderson .Paak post-Compton) reveal that he’s finally found an abstract hip-hop world that’s caught up with him — to everyone’s benefit.
It might not officially be one of those often-dreaded musical Meditations On Aging, but for Aesop Rock — seven full-length albums deep and some fifteen years after Labor Days earned him next-level acclaim — he let his facade of interpretation-demanding lyrics crack just enough to let some middle-aged ennui break through. Even as he sounds like the snarling, linguistically oblique worldbeater he always was, he can’t stop considering regrets and losses: his lapsed interest in drawing (“Rings”), his detachment from the lingering juvenilia in his overfamiliar hip-hop circles (“Dorks”), the passing of producer/rapper and close friend Camu Tao (“Get Out of the Car”).
Elucid spent nearly ten years putting out mixtapes, EPs, and collabs — including Race Music, his first teamup with billy woods as Armand Hammer — before his first solo album-qua-album. Majority self-produced with a goth-worthy overcast bleakness given claustrophobic effect, his poetic cadences rewire traditional emphases, and his alienated perception of his situation is spit breathlessly enough that listeners get the wind knocked out of them just by proximity to it. It not only sounds like those parts of NYC that gentrification forgot, but the parts of that landscape where only the maintenance workers with the most arcane duties get to see — a 20-foot graffiti burner sprawled across the subterranean machinery that keeps the city breathing.
XXX and Old whipsawed between drugs-in-the-drivers-seat mania and reflective depression, but Danny Brown hit a breaking point with Atrocity Exhibition that finally saw those two modes converging in horrifying ways — self-destructive and deliberately aware of it, yet frank in how helpless he feels against it all. If that threatens to make it a hard listen, Danny compensates by being hard as hell, hammering his way through panic-attack flows over Paul White-curated beats that find headnods in industrial psychedelia and sheer noise. Easily one of the most unrelenting self-examinations of being a casualty — of drugs, crime, poverty, and his own worst impulses reacting to them — that hip-hop’s ever seen. Exciting without necessarily being fun, and utterly essential.
For someone who played a not insignificant part in the rise of Griselda Records, Mach-Hommy would rather be heard than seen — and even then, often in limited amounts, as the bespoke short-run pressings of his physical releases can attest to. But even if he’s more get-that-bag than the other artists on this list, he’s more beast than hype: he’s selling out his merch but not his principles, and tamer artists than him have failed to consolidate hip-hop’s artistic, fashionable, and street-minded sides as effectively as he has. Could be because he spits about high style and status symbols with the drive of someone resentful of the mere idea that it would ever be denied to him, and his very presence makes August Fanon’s upscaled yet arcane boom-bap beats sound like luxury goods.
Call it fate on his birth certificate, which he says reads Rory Allen Philip Ferreira, shortened to R.A.P. Ferreira when the decade flipped. But before that, the artist then known as Milo was building to a statement like this one: the realization that he can really stake a claim on this rap shit, thanks to the support of several already-mentioned names on this list and the continued refinements on his poetic-speaking style. Intellectual meditations and cultural affirmations ricochet off punchlines that scan like syllabi for an epiphany. And the beats — many of which he made under his Scallops Hotel alias — are soul-jazz flips at their grimy timeless finest, like Ahmad Jamal on an absinthe bender.
It’s not quite “what if Run the Jewels was a married couple,” but the teaming of veteran artists Jean Grae and Quelle Chris did result in a perfect meeting of sardonically intelligent, often flat-out absurdist rapper-producers in the habit of turning to laughter only because screaming’s harder on the voicebox. The big comedy names (Nick Offerman, John Hodgman, Hannibal Buress) don’t distract from the headliners’ own wits, balancing show-and-prove style-minded lyricism with the kind of suckerpunchlines that prove how much of this shit comes from a place of genuine frustration — with cornball influencers (“My Contribution to This Scam”), the panopticon of undying old stereotypes (“Gold Purple Orange”), the racist police state (“Breakfast of Champions”), and *gestures around wildly* (“Peacock”).
Queens rapper Homeboy Sandman released an album and at least a couple EPs nearly every year of the 2010s, but one of his most resonant is this seven-track co-billed joint with an artist whose presence had been noticeably more sporadic. Edan revealed that he’d maintained his touch in the fallow stretch between 2005 psych-rap miracle oddity Beauty and the Beat and his re-teaming with Sandman for Humble Pi, and the two geeked each other up enough to hit some of their respective conceptual peaks: Vivaldi gone true crime on “Grim Seasons,” social media flushed down the toilet on “#Neverusetheinternetagain,” and return-to-caveman aesthetics on “Evolution of (Sand)Man” show a remarkable range from bleak reportage to cartoonish wiseassery.
Picking one particular Tyler, the Creator album instead of just letting all the good, bad, ugly, surprising, funny, dumb, and beautiful elements of that whole Odd Future phenomenon seems like a tough order if you want to personify just what Tyler brought to this strange hip-hop world (and what he carried over from the old one). Suffice it to say that if you first knew him as the sick-joke-enthusiast enfant terrible antagonist of a thousand panicking 2012 thinkpieces, the empathy and desire and regret in his relationship-struggle record IGOR should reverberate with the shock of the perpetually new. What’s left from those old days, fortunately, is the fact that as a musician he operates (and sings) like someone who was never told that The Neptunes and MF DOOM were supposed to serve different markets.
It’s almost some cosmic joke on the intersection of mainstream culture and the avant-garde that one of noise-rap’s most abrasive groups is fronted by a man who’s halfway to an EGOT because of his part in Hamilton. But give this to Daveed Diggs: put some morbid, hissing synthesizers and snares that sound like sudden-onset chills beneath him, and his scenarios start sounding a lot more like John Carpenter’s than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s. There Existed an Addiction to Blood follows in the traditions of Gravediggaz and Three 6 Mafia in making the trappings of horror fit so naturalistically into hip-hop’s familiar themes, where the grotesque is highlighted in every corner of the game from police violence to mafioso cruelty to racist bloodlust.