Collage by: Lindsay McCarthy
This past decade has brought a new era of music: hip hop and rap overtook pop as the most popular genre of the industry, streaming services allowed for listeners to be exposed to millions of different artists across the world, and Kanye West went from interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMA’s to declaring he’ll be running for president. However, from the thousands of albums released this decade, five stood out to me as the top albums considering lyricism, production and concept.
To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
When it comes to matters of race and divisions in society, Kendrick Lamar has never shied away from giving the world his honest truth. In his groundbreaking album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Lamar gave listeners a journey through modern and retro African culture in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” features a mix of jazz, funk, and freeform rapping that makes Lamar unlike any other artist right now. His rejection of the status quo for the genre of rap shines greatly throughout this project. In the album’s lead single “i”, Lamar raps about self-love in a world of failure through lighthearted beats and in “u,” demonstrates his pure talent with projecting emotion in his lines. Along the way, the more light-hearted tracks “These Walls” and “Hood Politics” show the many personas of Kendrick Lamar, from a powerful figure with a troubled past to someone who wants to party and live life. Not to mention, the album’s standout hit, “Alright” delivers a message to a country torn by police brutality and injustices in the black community, and assures those affected by such disparities that “We gon’ be alright.”
“To Pimp a Butterfly” rebranded hip hop in the 2010s. Breaking barriers of rap music, Lamar beautifully blends opposing genres to create a cultural game changer.
Songs to listen to: Hood Politics, These Walls
“Pulitzer Prize-winning Kenny”, a trademark of Kendrick Lamar in the new era of his career that proves Lamar owned the rap game of the 2010s. From beginning to end, Lamar’s fourth studio album, “DAMN.”, is flawless. A political message, a love story, a religious awakening, “DAMN.” takes us through Lamar’s mind with beautiful lyricism and storytelling.
From the first listen, “HUMBLE.” stands out as a radio hit and a window into Lamar’s perspective on the current stage that the rap scene is in, with flashy clothing and constant flexes of wealth. However, introspective songs “FEEL.” and “FEAR.” show the emotional side of Lamar’s psyche, one that has experienced hardships throughout his life growing up in Compton and being a leading member of the rap scene for a decade. More than anything, “DAMN.” shows the artistry behind Lamar’s music. The album’s closer “DUCKWORTH.” tells the story of Lamar’s father, “Ducky” and his experience being robbed by “Top Dawg,” who is now the head of his record label Top Dawg Entertainment. This is a single example of Lamar’s ability to tell a complete story within a four-minute song, a quality that makes him stand out from any other rapper in the industry.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning “DAMN.” is Lamar’s masterpiece of the decade.
Songs to listen to: DUCKWORTH., LOVE.
Beyoncé owned the 2010s in music and pop culture. However, with the release of her sixth studio album “Lemonade”, she began a new era of her life, one that puts feminism and power in the front seat. “Lemonade” is an album of empowerment and self-love, a true diary of Beyoncé’s deepest emotions and fears and the troubles she has experienced within her relationship with Jay-Z. With the allegations of her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity in the year prior to “Lemonade’s” release, it was evident that it was time for Beyoncé to rebrand herself as more than a pop singer, and she did just that.
The album debuted with a short film including parts of each song that shows the stages of grief Beyoncé experienced with the knowledge of her husband’s unfaithfulness. Lemonade quickly establishes a feminine power that made the album more than just an album: it’s a work of art.
Standout songs “Sorry,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and “Freedom” command the listeners’ attention, both with hearty beats as well as the soulful bars Beyoncé projects on top. On the softer side, the beautiful “Daddy Issues” and “Sandcastles” show the pain behind the anger she feels towards her relationship. From top to bottom, Lemonade shows the dimensions of human emotions.
The vulnerability Beyoncé shows in both her powerful and emotional songs show her growth and maturity that has advanced throughout this decade, and makes “Lemonade” one of the top albums of the 2010s.
Songs to Listen to: 6 Inch, Sandcastles, Sorry
Frank Ocean began his rise to fame at the beginning of the decade and solidified his legacy in 2016 with “Blonde”. A 13-track journey through Ocean’s sexuality, psyche and love life, this album is unlike any R&B listeners have heard before. Intimacy shines through every song on the album, and the mix of flowy beats with Ocean’s beautiful voice is enough to mesmerize listeners.
The album opens with the unique fan-favorite “Nikes,” a slow, psychedelic track that makes it stand out amongst some of Ocean’s other hits. This track encompasses the true beauty of Ocean’s music; the stream of consciousness in Frank Ocean’s mind laid out with creative production. The Pharrell Williams-produced “Pink + White” features some of the most gorgeous melodies and musical background seen in any music this decade, and sounds like heaven in an R&B song. Ocean’s confidence with his love life and relationships shines through the slow ballad “Self Control,” in which he tells the brutal story of a relationship falling apart because of his partner’s immaturity.
“Blonde” is a little piece of heaven; a true showcase of Frank Ocean’s influence and importance in the R&B music scene.
Songs to listen to: Self Control, Seigfried
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Ten years after its release, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” has earned its title as a “classic” in the eyes of critics and fans alike. Both a concept album that tells the story of an artist escaping from fame, as well as a masterpiece of both production and lyricism, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is a timeless expression of Kanye West’s genius.
Track by track, the album follows a pattern before in the music industry and is anything but predictable. Opening with an ambiguous monologue and gospel-sounding melodies repeating “Can we get much higher?”, West makes it clear that “MBDTF” is breaking away from his earlier work of “808s and Heartbreak” as well as the “College Dropout” series.
The chart-topping powerhouse (no pun intended) “Power,” delivers a perfect lens of West’s feelings towards his rise to fame and how long he could last with this much influence in society. “Runaway,” an infamous track featuring label partner Pusha T, is one of the anthems of the decade and was declared one of the top songs of 2010 by MTV, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and several others. Although these two stand outs defined the album in the eyes of some, “MBDTF” is an album of hits top to bottom, from “Monster” with the iconic Nicki Minaj verse in which she established her upcoming role in hip-hop, to the rock-inspired “Gorgeous” capped off with the insatiable Kid Cudi singing the hook.
From the story each song carries on, to the iconic cameos, to the masterful beats created by West himself, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is the most outstanding and influential album of the 2010s.
Songs to listen to: All of the Lights, Runaway, Lost in the World