It’s that time of the year again; we’ve already rounded up the full AU crew’s Top 40 Songs of 2015, but here’s something a bit different. The AU’s Chris Singh looks at the best hip-hop and R&B tracks of 2015 after countless hours (probably days; who knows) of picking apart the year’s best releases and working them into a top 50. Note, as always with these lists, things have chopped and changed since our mid-year count down – sometimes tracks have a very short-lasting appeal, sometimes they get better with time – so some of those tracks may not appear here.
Artists appear no more than once each (unless featuring) and only tracks that were first released in 2015 (not including those that were on 2014 albums but released this year) have been included. Here’s Part Two (Part One can be found HERE), the top 25!
25. WSTRN – In2
London trio WSTRN have a huge hit on their hands with “In2”, showing off a different side of this whole re-vitalised UK hip hop and R&B scene. The positive, pop-friendly vibes are playful, all three members flowing into one another, with verses spun around that infectious, tender hook. “In2” nabbed the group a spot on the long list for BBC’s “sound of 2016” award, and with that melody, it’s well deserved.
24. Soul Benefits Feat Angel – Step Up
After signing to Sydney label Big Village this year, this soulful trio put out “Step Up”, a straight-forward soulful hip-hop jam with a classic sample which is worked in around these dizzying verses, grounded with a slightly jazzy, raw hook by local singer Angel.
23. Seth Sentry – Hell Boy
Seth Sentry continues proving that he’s one this country’s best lyricists, writing to the single’s horror theme with sharp, humorous rhymes set over a simple beat of drums and hand claps, bouncing multis off the production like a seasoned vet.
22. Scarface Feat. Nas, Z-Ro & Rick Ross – Do What I Do
This came out of nowhere. There wasn’t much signposting for a new Scarface album (at least as far as I could see) but seeing this new album pop up was a guaranteed day-maker for hip hop fans around the world. The highly praised Houston rapper dropped one of his best albums to date in 2008, and then retreated to battle his own personal demons and stay low-key until this moment, making a huge comeback with Deeply Rooted, one of the year’s best hip hop albums, giving us the likes of this hard-hitting posse cut with legendary emcees Nas and Z-Ro, and a decent contribution from Rick Ross.
21. Stormzy – Know Me From
Powerful, forceful grime at it’s finest, Stormzy came to lead one of the defining sounds of 2015, picking the scene back up and breathing some new life into it, rivaling the same dark, brooding aggression that made trap music such a popular sound, giving us what is perhaps the hardest grime track since Dizzee Rascal’s “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin”.
20. Hau Feat. LTC – Skip Hop **CURRENTLY ON TOUR**
Hau’s soulful The No End Theory is one of the most necessary hip-hop releases in Australia this year, and single “Skip Hop” is the stand-out track. It seems rather overdue for a stalwart of Aussie hip hop to only just now be releasing his debut album, but who’s complaining when we have this funk-leaning westcoast-infelected beat propelling Hau and LTC as they smoothly navigate this groove to give us one of the best local rap songs of 2015.
19. Missy Elliot Feat. Pharrel – W.T.F (Where They From)
Missy will always be better suited to Timbaland’s productions, a natural chemistry that comes from a long-running friendship. On the flip side, Missy’s latter years have seen a huge involvement from Pharrell, whose love for bizarre, futuristic beats is beginning to shape Misdemeanor’s style in the 21st century. “W.T.F” is the strongest offering from the pair to date, giving Missy one hell of a comeback song, that appropriately sounds like nothing else going right now. She’s thrown current trends in the bin and just done her, delivering a song which does sound like it’s just a progression of a sound she’s been messing with for years, and it’s paid off brilliantly.
18. Jay Rock – Money Trees Deuce
Jay Rock re-visiting the track that first brought him attention, label-mate Kendrick’s “Money Trees”, could have been a disaster; sequel songs often are. Instead, Rock’s harsh, raspy tone has a soulful tinge to it, perfect for the nostalgic, melancholic beat that’s much more visceral and grounded than it’s predecessor, putting “Money Trees Deuce” forth as the superior of the two.
Honourable Mention: Gumbo
17. The Weeknd – The Hills
The Weeknd really came into his own this year, and though it may have required a bit of sacrifice in the raw quality of songs like “What You Need” and “Wicked Games”, at least it gave us this gem. “The Hills” has been one of the biggest songs of 2015, and the dark, drugged-up atmosphere balanced against a radio-friendly, big hook has come to define his refined style.
Honourable Mention: I Can’t Feel My Face
16. Earl Sweatshirt – Mantra
The angsty thump throughout I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is almost completely devoid of melody; just one listen is like following Earl home after a party and sitting with him in a dark corner, just listening to him use hip-hop as a means of catharsis. It’d be beautiful if it wasn’t so dark. “Mantra” is Earl refusing to be drowned by his emotions, instead lashing out at life with a stadium-sized package of drums and bass, twisted and muffled to juxtapose the vitality in the young emcee’s flow.
Honourable Mention: Wool Feat. Vince Staples
15. Jeezy Feat. Nas – God (Remix)
Production duo TM-88 and Southside continue the overwhelming dominance 808 Mafia have had over the Atlanta trap scene for years, lacing Jeezy with a deconstructed beast of a production, lifting his ferocious, biblical claims so that we can really focus on how raw and powerful the emcee can be. Bringing in Nas for one of his only 2015 guest posts was a surprising move, and it works very well here; forcing the New York emcee to shift his style and adapt it to the subtly earth-shattering package of sirens, bass, skittering snares, and hi-hats.
Honourable Mention: Church in These Streets
14. Drake – Hotline Bling
Drake’s inescapable, intentionally dorky music video for “Hotline Bling” only served to further this world-dominating ear-worm. Behind it all, is yet another showcase of Drake’s unmistakable sense for melody, spinning a simple song about cell phone sex calls into an incredibly fun, pop-friendly anthem. This will be a karaoke classic for years to come.
Honourable Mention: Know Yourself
13. Logic Feat Big K.R.I.T – Top 10
Straight lyricism, over a banging contemporary production. Such is the result of two of the best rappers of the 2010’s teaming up to steam up our “top rappers of all time” list and show that as long as they keep giving us heat like this, hip hop is in very good hands.
12. Dr Yen Lo Feat. Roc Marciano – Day 81
East Coast emcee KA takes on a different persona here, but he isn’t switching his crisp, whispered flow anytime soon. 2013’s Night’s Gambit made him a local favourite in New York, and this slightly odd project seeks to further that, with tracks like “Day 81” which brings in fellow street-minded emcee Roc Marciano for a stream of Wu-Tang style rhymes that echo the cold, paranoid New York streets and the various oppressive themes of classic film The Manchurian Candidate.
11. Dr Dre Feat. Justus, Anderson.Paak & Kendrick Lamar – Deep Water
There are many highlights on Dre’s massive Compton, thanks to a bevvy of artists from each decade of hip-hop, but “Deep Water” sticks out because of a jaw-dropping performance from Kendrick Lamar, who attacks the beat with savagery and the album’s single best verse. Subtle lifts from Anderson.Paak and Justus help move the track along, with Dre’s cinematic beat that gets dark and darker as the drowned horns come out and trumpet a man’s desperate plea for help.
Honourable Mention: Animals Feat. Anderson.Paak
10. Run The Jewels – Rubble Kings Theme (Dynamite)
Aside from the quirky Meow the Jewels, the imposing duo of Killer Mike and El-P remained at the forefront of discussions about hip-hop in 2015 without actually putting out an album. Instead, the shockwaves of Run the Jewels 2, released in October 2014, continued through the year with help from the hype machine and a little song called “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”. However, it’s this ruthless street anthem, taken from the upcoming soundtrack to Rubble Kings, that really reminds us how unstoppable and necessary this pairing us.
9. Frank Ocean – At Your Best (Aaliyah/The Isley Brothers Cover)
The Isley Brothers have many great songs, but “At Your Best (You Are Love)” has always been at the top. The lyrics are perfect, which is why the cover version by Aaliyah remains one of the late singer’s most loved tracks (not the R Kelly remix, that was a bit of a misstep). On what would have been Aaliyah’s 36th birthday, ‘it’ singer Frank Ocean released this perfect cover on this Tumblr, giving us nothing but a beautiful, soft piano melody and showing off the soothing, heartbreaking side of his incredible voice. This is like something Maxwell would have recorded in the 90’s, balancing that soft, silky falsetto with that meaty, harmonic tenor.
8. Bryson Tiller – Don’t
Championing Trap Soul, Bryson Tiller is one of the freshest R&B artists on the scene, messing with this sparse, spaced-out production with his free-flowing, slick style that, although spread across his entire debut album, is best showcased on this brilliant, cocky single.
Honourable Mention: Exchange
7. NxWorries (Anderson.Paak & Knxwledge) – Suede
Westcoast rap has always had a deep love for the more left-field of vocalists, from Nate Dogg to Butch Cassidy, so it’s no surprise that experimental soul-rapper Anderson.Paak was such a big name on Dr Dre’s Compton. What is a surprise though is that Paak’s best performance didn’t have anything to do with that massive westcoast opus; it had everything to do with innovative producer/DJ Knxwledge. The two gave us this brilliant, experimental soul jam and it showcases exactly what Paak is capable of, sound like a new-age Curtis Mayfield on Cadillac-built funk cut, laid down by the ever-impressive Knxwledge. Watch the duo killin’ it at a Boiler Room session HERE.
6. T.I Feat Young Thug & Young Dro – PBJ
As one of the greatest commercial emcees of the 21st century, T.I is capable of many things, but I never thought he’d be able to make me actually like Young Thug. Since last year’s brilliant “About the Money”, T.I, Thugga, and London on Da Track have been playing on the surprising chemistry between all three to give hip-hop some great collaborations; enough for an EP actually. “PBJ” just may be their greatest achievement yet, bringing in a returning Young Dro (it’s about damn time!) for a fun track full of bravado, bringing out the unique, complementary styles of tip, thug, and dro. Now that Young Dro is back in business, we need more tracks from this triple-threat, asap.
Honourable Mention: Check, Run It
5. Vince Staples – Norf Norf **PLAYING LANEWAY FESTIVAL + SIDESHOWS**
Vince Staples has truly delivered on the promise he has been showing for a few years now, putting on a rare classic double-album as his ambitious debut. Sharp, witty, and completely in-the-moment, “Norf Norf” is one of those tracks that gives you a snapshot of the issues still plaguing L.A in a way that’s a little closer to the street than anything that’s come out of the city since Kendrick’s 2012 masterpiece.
Honourable Mention: Lift Me Up
Tour Info: HERE
4. Miguel Feat. Kurupt – N.W.A
Miguel’s cocky falsetto works well with Kurupt’s buttery, smooth verse over a sparse, thumping production built with bass and percussion. The slick, dreamy finale sung in Spanish and English rounds the track out and speaks for how fully focused Miguel’s Wildheart sounds. As good as that entire album is, this track is the stand-out.
Honourable Mention: Coffee (Fucking)
3. Janet Jackson Feat. J Cole – No Sleeep (Remix)
Hook one of the most endearing voices in R&B/pop history up with her old production team and you’ve got a certified classic on your hands. “No Sleeep” is vintage Janet Jackson. Seductive, slinky, and smoother than anything she has done since the 90’s. The hypnotic soundtrack is perfect for Janet to groove all over, using her breathy, unaged voice to spin something truly magical. Add J Cole for a remix, who adapts his gravely voice surprisingly well to the sensual vibe of the song, and that’s all she wrote.
2. Lupe Fiasco – Prisoner 1 & 2
This could have easily been the almost-9-minute “Mural” or posse cut “Chopper”, but it’s the ambition of “Prisoner 1 & 2” that place it as the best track on Tetsuo & Youth, Lupe Fiasco’s return to form – and in several cases, long form.
Here, Lupe seamlessly bounces his perspective all around the prisons of America, exploring freedom, racism, and oppression in this engaging double-track, split by a powerful spoken-word piece and preceded by a sample of Fela Kuti. Give him all the awards, now.
It’s one of the best things Lupe Fiasco has ever recorded, and it alone more than makes up for the fairly inconsistent material he has been putting out since Lasers (which really isn’t as bad an album as people claim it is).
Honourable Mention: Mural
1. Kendrick Lamar Feat. Pharrell Williams – Alright **PLAYING BLUESFEST 2016 + SIDESHOWS**
Kendrick and Pharrell’s anthemic “Alright” will be go down as one of 2015’s most memorable tracks, and that’s not even considering powerful scenes like the hook becoming a chant for the Million Man March. To Pimp a Butterfly proves that no matter the style, substance always makes for longer-lasting, impactful music, and Kendrick packs it all in here, delivering a thick uppercut to oppression while spinning self-reflective, self-critical, and self-aware rhymes about influence and exploitation. It’s an anthem for the black struggle, but one which is accessible enough for the whole world to relate, adapt, and enjoy. To me, it’s become the perfect symbol for Kendrick’s work on To Pimp a Butterfly. That Boyz II Men sample too. Tough.
Honourable Mention: King Kunta.
Tour Info: HERE