One of the most exciting aspects of discovering music is getting to hear low-key releases that completely went under the radar. Every year has its clear mainstream standouts, but a lot of creative – and ultimately quality – records drop that receive little to no appraisal despite deserving so.
The past years have been a fruitful era for underground hip-hop; arguably the most since the early-to-mid-2000’s. Many excellent rappers have been quickly adding to their prolific catalogues, but the frantic release schedules can cause standout albums to get lost in the clutter. Here’s one album from each of the past five years that you may not know…and need to check out.
Wiki, No Mountains in Manhattan (2017)
New York rapper Wiki’s presence before this release can be traced to a variety of extended plays and mixtapes, as well as features; the latter were plentiful, tying his name to that of Earl Sweatshirt, Skepta, Run the Jewels, and more.
This debut album is a proper testament to Wiki’s eccentricity, being as colorful as his delivery is. His voice sounds youthful and bright, which could be compared to the atypical styles of Danny Brown or Chance the Rapper. As for the sound itself, it divides itself in two; the first half is southern-influenced and occasionally industrial, whereas it dips into a more relaxed energy towards the end that surely embodies New York.
The album is packed with wavering flows and a remarkable confidence, which makes Wiki a very entertaining lyricist, above anything. Features are scarce, meaning that he takes the spotlight for the majority of the project; he holds his ground, however, and keeps the guest artists on their toes whenever they do appear.
Of all these albums, this is the best suited for those looking for “vibe rap”. The album is generally upbeat and straightforward, not needing much attention for casual listens. So you Isaiah Rashad and Mick Jenkins fans; this one may be for you, too.
Descriptors: Unique, Charismatic, Fun
Track to Check Out: Made For This
Listen if You Like: Chance the Rapper, JID
CRIMEAPPLE & Big Ghost Ltd, Aguardiente (2018)
Straight out New Jersey, CRIMEAPPLE is yet another rapper holding down the energy of old-school mafioso rap in the modern age.
Aguardiente is one of the darkest-sounding albums of its time. CRIME’s voice is commanding and aggressive, and Big Ghost’s production is both clean and grimy simultaneously. Being of Colombian descent, he frequently turns to Spanglish bars, which adds a layer of uniqueness to his persona. This is immediately evident from the introductory “Palo Santo”, which is one of the best cuts on the record.
For those oldheads that perhaps want to see the energy of The Infamous or Supreme Clientele repurposed, this is a must-hear. Seeing the old-school’s influence on the current underground is always a great sight, and the energy throughout this is incredible. Whether it be on familiar soul loops (“Your Love”) or killer posse cuts (“Gorillas”), there isn’t a miss to be found.
Descriptors: Gritty, Gangsta, Confident
Track to Check Out: Big Face Frankies
Listen if You Like: Griselda, Ghostface Killah
Skyzoo & Pete Rock, Retropolitan (2019)
While Aguardiente is like a gangsta rap revival, Skyzoo & Pete Rock’s Retropolitan references the jazzier, more cozy sound of 90’s east coast hip-hop.
This album attempts to bring back the energy of classic albums such as Illmatic or Mecca and the Soul Brother, albeit polished with the luxuries of modern production technology and an equally capable, but more experienced pen game. Skyzoo is known for his excellent writing that has been apparent since his earliest projects, but it manages to catch a reminiscent essence on this album more than anywhere else.
Pete Rock’s beatmaking has arguably only gotten better since the golden age, too. “Carry the Tradition” finds him in a cinematic – and suspenseful – soundscape for Sky and Styles P to flow over, and “It’s All Good” is as Pete Rock as it gets. Just listen to those chimes.
Considering both of these artists have solidified legacies to boast, if you’re a fan of either and haven’t heard this…what are you doing? This is hip-hop at its most orthodox, and a pleasant listen all-around.
Descriptors: Nostalgic, Urban, Traditional
Track to Check Out: It’s All Good
Listen if You Like: Nas, Gang Starr
Killah Priest, Rocket to Nebula (2020)
For those that are Wu-Tang fans, you’d know Killah Priest. As a frequent collaborator and notable presence on GZA’s Liquid Swords, he’s nearly considered a member by some.
With that being said, even Wu-Tang fans have to be cautious entering this one. This album is brilliant, but very well may be the most inaccessible hip-hop album ever.
The underground’s recent affinity for drumless beats – that being those consisting of sample loops and no rhythm – is interesting, but has almost never served as a full basis for a record. Rocket to Nebula doesn’t have a drum in sight, and is a pure hour of amazing lyricism over psychedelic, swallowing production. Creative samples of fantastic singers, including Sampha and Prince, only make this more immersive.
This album is a very introspective and personal one for Priest, considering its storytelling-based nature and focus on his experiences. If you can garner the attention span for some complex rhymes, this is fully worth your time. It’s one of the most unique and impressive feats in hip-hop history.
Descriptors: Experimental, Ethereal, Vivid
Track to Check Out: Starring Directly Into the Sun
Listen if You Like: Roc Marciano, GZA
Mello Music Group, Bushido (2021)
Mello Music Group is an Arizona-based music collective that has been the hub for a lot of the underground’s talent this past decade. Familiar names include Apollo Brown, Ghostface Killah, Joell Ortiz, Bilal, and more; some of these legends come together on this year’s Bushido to provide a very left-field hip-hop experience.
This album is one of those that manages to feel both muddled and cohesive at the same time. With an underlying dedication to respecting Japanese culture, both the sound and cover bring the listener into a world of their own. Beats ranging from abstract boom bap to new takes on trap are present all-around, and every rapper present manages to deliver.
With a hefty fourteen producers behind the boards for this, its sound does not tire itself, even in an hour’s runtime. It’s the definition of a free collective project, with nobody present to limit the creative risks taken. It is guaranteed there’s something here for everyone, and that’s what makes it such a reliable recommendation.
One of the many slept on works this year for sure.
Descriptors: Abstract, Diverse, Creative
Track to Check Out: No Trouble
Listen if You Like: MF DOOM, Quelle Chris