BEST OF 2023 The Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2023 By Phillip Mlynar · December 13, 2023

As the rap year 2023 comes to a close, it’s time to engage in the time-honored tradition of rounding-up the most essential releases to hit Bandcamp. Listed in diplomatic alphabetical order, here are the ten best hip-hop projects of the year.

Armand Hammer
We Buy Diabetic Test Strips

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Shirt, Bag, Cassette

Armand Hammer is a constantly moving phenomenon. Since the 2017 release of the New York duo’s riotous third album ROME, group members billy woods and ELUCID have navigated rap with shark-like relentlessness, re-calibrating their creative course from album to album. Leave whatever preconceptions you’ve formed at the door, because the next Armand Hammer project is reliably a pivot. So it is with We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, which switches from the single producer setup of 2021’s Alchemist-helmed Haram in favor of a sweeping roster of collaborators for a musical statement piece with abrasive and glitchy production from cohorts that include El-P, DJ Haram and Child Actor avoe subtle live music contributions from Shabaka Hutchings. (We Buy Diabetic Test Strips also marks a label shift for Armand Hammer, being released via Fat Possum, rather than woods’s own Backwoodz Studioz label.)

The two MCs deliver sage-like verses shot through with a mix of personal and worldly lament. “I be lying like I’m just a man/ I be lying like I’m just a man,” repeats ELUCID on “Woke Up And Asked Siri How I’m Going To Die,” accompanied by JPEGMAFIA‘s synth-steered digital blues. “Life’s a trip, if you live long enough you gon’ see it all/ Life’s a blip, I flew in under the radar,” adds woods, before tempering the fantasy of future worlds with mortal inevitabilities: “Beat up spaceships sliding under the light of a dead star/ Still made my shift, appropriately lit for the graveyard.” This idea of contemplaying the here and now defines the album, with the two MCs ruminating above production that reaches funkily cacophonous peaks. (See especially: the El-P-helmed “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and DJ Haram’s “Trauma Mic.”) “Everything that matters is finite/ Hindsight before it happens,” woods rapse on closer “The Key Is Under The Mat,” before his rhyme partner signs off with a bar that reinforces Armand Hammer’s identity as shapeshifters: “A stranger at home/ You don’t know my name.”

Chester Watson
fish don’t climb trees

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

In the world of Atlanta rapper Chester Watson, abstractions are as solid as the terra firma. With a title based on a quote from Albert Einstein, fish don’t climb trees explores the relationship between an individual’s philosophy on life and the mechanisms of the society surrounding them, over a production backdrop in which bass tones smolder below the flickering embers of snares and hi-hats, and wafts of synth dissapear into the dusky atmosphere.

Watson outlines his mission on the track “spirits”: “We let the music shake us down to our bones and let the spirits crowd around/ Hope they guide us all home safely/ I look up to the sky, pray to God, my tone shaky/ A vagabond stuck inside my mind.” This spiritual wanderlust becomes a motif across the album. On “eyes closed,” Watson seeks out nirvana, while muted trumpet lines on the title track soundtrack a series of thoughts conjured, contemplated, and discarded while tiptoeing through a twilight zone. Rather than than cramming unnecessary syllables into every verse, Watson’s flow allows space, restraint, and ellipses to provide impact. And throughout, Watson seeks to correct his flaws while prospering within his own code. “You know I done made mistakes, I’m only blaming me/ Accountable is something people hate to be,” he raps over the cherubic boom-bap bump of “money & love,” before coining an indelible mantra: “How can you be conscious without morality?”

Fatboi Sharif & Bigg Jus
Insomniac Missile Launcher

Insomniac Missile Launcher is a siren call of apocalyptic visions, backed by the most intense hip-hop sonics of the year. The head-spinning product of an alliance between New Jersey lyrical dreadnaught Fatboi Sharif and esteemed independent rap and graff figure Bigg Jus, the experience crackles to life with a sample announcing: “Today, we have the technology to hack human beings on a massive scale.” From there, Sharif and Bigg Jus tackle topics like cyber-warfare, surveillance, and corporeal spirituality over a backdrop of buzzsaw bass and acid-corroded snares.

The intensity never lets up, the project’s dystopian sonics coming off like a cross bewteen Bigg Jus’s old crew Company Flow and early The Bomb Squad. “Conditioned to accept death as an everyday condition,” laments Bigg Jus on the funereal “Grimy Squadron Grow A Garden” railing against economic inequality in a capitalist society before proposing a holistic solution: “The most gangsta-est thing you can do is grow a garden.” Sharif blesses closing cut “God”—an operatic statement piece that includes sampled horse whinnies—with an attack on “the wicked pecking order—all guilty.” Later in the same song, Big Jus raps: “Kingspitter keep a vast compendium of never-ending sacred polymorphic rhythms, open doors to dimensions.” The line casts Insomniac Missile Launcher as the secret key to an escape from society: “With the coded wisdom of past millenniums so you can navigate out the beast system with one listen.”

H31R
HeadSpace

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

HeadSpace is a tribute to forward motion. Joining forces as H31R, Brooklyn wordsmith maassai and electro-influenced New Jersey beat scientist JWords build on the momentum of 2020’s luminous ve·loc·i·ty by crafting an album commmitted to the goals of musical and spiritual propulsion. As an MC, maassai operates with cocksure resolve: “Y’all did it for the love, we did it off the love/ We different, oh/ Know that birds and snakes got different souls,” she raps over glacial hi-hats and a quovering bed of synths on “Glass Ceiling” (a song that also features the lyrical firepower of Semiratruth). On “Backwards,” the MC vents her frustration with people heading in the wrong direction; On “Rotation,” maassai is, “headed to the sanctuary when I’m ready to be saved,” diving into the fluidity of human consciousness. “Static” focuses on the ways societal disruption can affect a person’s sense of self.

Behind the boards, JWords fuses together various strands of electronic music, knowing precisely when to triple up on the kicks, or fade in a particular synth line to heighten the impact. Case in point: On “Down Down Bb,” guest MC Quelle Chris reacts to pockets of the production, alternating between keeping pace with the track’s testy energy and holding back and relaxing. This marriage of electronic production and supremely assured hip-hop positions HeadSpace in the lineage of Street Sounds’s pioneering compilation series ’80s Electro, where sparky Southside Queens rappers Frick ‘n’ Frack nestled next to Detroit techno mastermind Juan Atkins’s futuristic Cybotron experiments. On HeadSpace, H31R uphold that heritage with an undeniably modern zest.

KING VISION ULTRA
SHOOK WORLD (hosted by Algiers)

Merch for this release:
Cassette, Sweater/Hoodie, T-Shirt/Shirt

SHOOK WORLD is a time capsule. Inspired by New York City mixtape history and the holy tenets of sampling culture, KING VISION ULTRA presides over the 21-track experience, coaxing stellar performances from an ensemble cast headed featuring the talents of Dreamcrusher, Nakama, and amani, to name just a few. The project came about when KVU was granted access to the stems for the latest album by Atlanta post-punk group Algiers’s Shook, which he embellished with fragments from his own archived mixtapes, voice memos, and sonic snippets of hip-hop memorabilia. It’s hard not to be smitten by an album that floats a coy fragment of Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.” within its first 10 seconds.

SHOOK WORLD’s historical chops are matched with cutting-edge contemporary ambition. “Irreversible” is a lesson in sound as soul vibration, with guest MC ELUCID swiftly constructing a gateway into the rest of the album. Other highlights include Desde’s destruction of the heaving, bass-heavy “Fangs” with a mix of grounded life philosophy and insouciant one-upmanship; Dreamcrusher gracing a couple of cuts to add an essential layer of distortion to the album’s patina; and Lord Kayso pledging allegiance to the time-honored tradition of speaking in codes on “Media Training” atop a swaggering guitar riff. “If you wasn’t there you don’t need the details of the rumble,” raps amani on “Shatterproof,” a late-album track with conga-like percussion that drums up images of rattling interborough trains—a reminder of the cultural stewardship that forms the backbone of SHOOK WORLD.

Nosaj from New Kingdom & steel tipped dove
House Of Disorder

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

2023 was the year when steel tipped dove certified his talent as a producer. Previously known as the underground super-engineer behind projects from an esteemed list of MCs including Armand Hammer, Fat Tony and the MC formerly known as milo, the last 12 months saw the Brooklyn-based dove release vital full-length collaborations with AJ Suede (Reoccurring Characters), Alaska (the Patriot-referencing The Structural Dynamics Of Flow) and Fatboi Sharif (the gothy Decay). But it’s House Of Disorder, cut in cahoots with raspy-voiced maverick MC Nosaj from pioneering ’90s rap experimentalists New Kingdom, that showcases dove’s knack of tailoring his sonics to match an MC’s voice.

Casting himself as a nomadic hip-hop troubadour, Nosaj attempts to recall fragmented details of blackout misadventures and dishes out scattershot references to popculture—references to Karen O, Courtney Love, and Keith Richards coexist alongside nods to The Rappin’ Duke and MC Ricky D. On “Ramblin’,” the MC declares himself, “walking with a zombie last night in the rain” before zapping back to hazy reality: “Now I’m uptown, opposite of moment I feared/ Hallelujah for the whiskey and the beer.” 2017’s “Modern Man” gets a boost via new production from dove, enhancing Nosaj’s thoughts on how geographical displacement can lead to existential crisis. At times on House Of Disorder, Nosaj is a willingly chaotic presence, but dove smartly tempers the mayhem with twisting and twirling contrails of synths, turning the whole shebang into the most perfect 3 a.m. dive bar jukebox soundtrack.

Open Mike Eagle
another triumph of ghetto engineering

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Open Mike Eagle clings to nostalgia with a romantic’s conviction. There’s an earnestness in the way the L.A. MC reflects on the past and connects it to the present, whether building on the influence of a now-razed public housing complex for 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream or attempting to navigate the aftermath of a failed relationship on 2020’s Anime, Trauma and Divorce. (As Mike told Bandcamp Daily, do not assume the title is any sort of a metaphor.) Building on this pedigree, another triumph of ghetto engineering is an exploration of the creative process filtered through the lens of a life influenced by hip-hop culture, complete with rap-referencing song titles.

“The wrong way on a one-way/ I’m off base in a fun way,” Mike confesses on opener “I bled on stage at first ave,” embracing his personal missteps over a Quelle Chris production that commingles grungy drums with cascading layers of bittersweet synths. The idea of considering past decisions, opportunities, and shenanigans with the benefit of hindsight emerges as the heart of the nine-track album. “Been doing shows with Quelle since it was Christopher,” Mike recalls on the Child Actor-produced “we should have made otherground a thing.” The song then turns into be a backwards-looking roll call of Mike’s path through the independent rap realm that doubles as a who’s who of the current sphere; billy woods, R.A.P. Ferreira and Curly Castro all get name-checks. “I was too old to be famous and too young to be jaded,” Mike adds with a knowing wink, over a musical backdrop that sounds like a loop of a fondly remembered childhood cartoon. Further driving home the album’s wistful nature, penultimate track “Dave said these are the liner notes” resurrects the sadly retired shout-out song over the same Child Actor production that carried “otherground a thing.” As Mike gives gratitude to an extended list of artists and industry figures, including Dante Ross, Edan, and Diamond D, the moment solidifies another triumph of ghetto engineering as the 2023 album that conveys the greatest amount of sheer love for hip-hop.

SKECH185
He Left Nothing for the Swim Back

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

SKECH185 is a remarkable MC. The Chicago-raised, New York City-based rapper is blessed with the sort of stadium-commanding megaton baritone voice that, in the hands of a less ambitious talent, might be the artist’s only calling card—or, worse, would be perceived as a gimmick. But on He Left Nothing For The Swim Back, SKECH185’s booming vocals—which recalls Chubb Rock’s intensity with KRS-One‘s persuasiveness—delivers some of the savviest and most cutting bars in recent years.

“Don’t kill your idol—let them crash on your couch, it does the same thing,” quips the MC on the album’s title track, before dropping equally scathing commentary about there being, “not enough white girls with Pepsi cans to shield the whole movement.” Entirely produced by Jeff Markey, the project’s sonics are underscored by powerhouse drum patterns topped with deliberately askew melodic embellishments. “Badly Drawn Hero,” in particular, is fueled by brilliantly abrasive, cascading synth stabs, while “The River” employs nervy hi-hats to drum up a feeling of anxiety worthy of SKECH185’s narrative. With a bartender’s keen eye for seeing the full backstory behind fleeting interactions, the second piece of the album’s two-part “Western Automatic Music” finds SKECH185 mourning the departure of friends who succumbed to substance addiction, and reflecting on various forms of sacrifice. “She walks out of his life, he straightens up, back to work,” raps the MC, stepping into the third person to depart with a short story writer’s flair for circularity: “He’s only good at fucking, fucking up and making art about it/ He’s back, it worked.”

Spectacular Diagnostics
RAW LESSONS

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

RAW LESSONS simultaneously charts an intergalactic journey while also providing a topography of the current underground hip-hop landscape. Masterminded by Chicago-based Spectacular Diagnostics, the third installment of a series that began with 2015’s RAW GAME and continued through 2020’s RAW UNKNOWN builds on the producer’s playful “moon-bap” formula: Sci-fi sonics, spot effects, and suitably ethereal synths, layered over crunchy and crusty drum sounds to deliver hypnotizing, mid-tempo boom-bap. But along with demonstrating his canny ear for conjuring backdrops that sound like soundtracks to ’60s and ’70s science fiction TV pilots, enlisting a cast of 18 MCs on RAW LESSONS adds verbal flair to the cinematic production.

Following instrumental scene-setter “Rat Burger”—which is all warped easy-listening loops laid beneath a kooky conversation warning about the titular delicacy—the album lurches into effect by tasking the trio of Curly Castro, Illogic and Defcee to embellish the lonesome guitar twangs and hauntingly wavering choral voices of “Class” with verses that consider both musical and personal comeuppance. As the album progresses, the cast of MCs position themselves as natural denizens of the Spectacular Diagnostics universe: “Done It” unites Sheffield spitter Immi Larusso with Bruiser Wolf over swaying melody lines; “Crisp” enhances the low-end punch of PremRock and Fatboi Sharif‘s voices by infusing their verses with vocal samples about the rap writing process and using clusters of typewriter keys for percussive impact; and Lee Scott and Bisk distribute stark threats over thudding dinosaur drums and sinister lopsided piano stabs on “SAMH4IN.” Consider RAW LESSONS a seamless top-drawer example of how to incorporate an ensemble array of voices into the musical world building process.

YUNGMORPHEUS
From Whence It Came

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)

YUNGMORPHEUS‘s debut solo album for Lex Records proves you can gain momentum by slowing things down, even while the world spins out of control around you. The MC and producer is blessed with a grainy, low-slung voice, and he delivers verses with the languid confidence of an old-timer who’s seen trends come and go and is now content to simply raise an eyebrow rather than get overly ruffled. During the album’s opening section, YUNGMORPH delivers a sermon on paper chasing, jealous grievances, and finding contentment in a sense of place and time. “Dominoes on the table, fried fish with escovitch/ I’m hoping I can trust the one who lay beside me,” raps the MC on “Cassava Bread,” over Graymatter‘s dreamy soulscape. “Relish go inside potato salad at my auntie crib/ Your final offer need a trip with the start of the mountain.”

From Whence It Came also boasts an expansive roster of producers who imbue the project with a deep sense of soul, enhancing the sagacious spirit of the host MC. Dirty Art Club provides the static crackle of a weeping loop for “Where It Goes,” Shungu channels ’80s west coast soul for “Escovitch Fish,” and August Fanon summons a dusky, shuffling blues for “Fiya Haffi Bun,” which also features verbals from lojii (who might well be YUNGMORPH’s spiritual Philadelphia counterpart). But despite the number of guests who pass through the album—including contributions from Fly Anakin, MED and Ahwlee—there’s a sense that YUNGMORPH prospers as a lonesome character. Throughout the album, the rapper positions himself as a traveler in a realm plagued by conformity. It’s a lasting impression, one brought home on the closer “Faded Memories,” which is built around DMH’s gracefully melancholic production. “Told my homies my problems, it never mattered,” confesses YUNGMORPH, once again embracing a moment of quiet soul searching. “Took the road less traveled—I’m looking for better patterns.”

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