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Last year in music was one for the history books. It’s no surprise 2023 had a lot to live up to, and it certainly tried. Artist comebacks, reinventions, long-awaited blockbusters, and a few surprises turned the gears as the twelve months unfolded. In retrospect, 2023 took some time to get going, with the second half of the year picking up steam with high-profile, quality releases. From Travis Scott’s anticipated showstopper to Sampha soothing the soul, plenty of albums scratched the itch across hip hop, R&B, pop, rock and alternative.

The Mic Cheque team have rounded up the top thirty best albums of 2023, staying largely within the hip hop realm while considering non-rap projects for the list as well.


Here are some additional contenders on the periphery of the list, or were not lived with long enough to be included in the top thirty.

James Blake, Playing Robots into Heaven

Best tracks: “Loading”, “Tell Me”

Kali Uchis, Red Moon in Venus

Best tracks: “Moonlight”, “I Wish You Roses”, “Fantasy”, “Blue”

KwolleM, Melo

Best tracks: “No Heart”, “Mainstream”

Noname, Sundial

Best tracks: “Oblivion”, “Balloons”

Olivia Dean, Messy

Best tracks: “The Hardest Part”, “Dive”, “Danger”

Jordan Ward, FORWARD

Best tracks: “FAMJAM4000″, “Sidekick”

Yung Nudy, GUMBO

Best tracks: “Okra”, “M.R.E.”, “Passion Fruit”

Jorja Smith, Falling or Flying

Best tracks: “Little Things”, “Go Go Go”, “Try Me”

Ragz Originale, Bare Sugar

Best tracks: “Long Stay”, “Flashbacks”

Majid Jordan, Good People

Best tracks: “Waiting for You”, “Hands Tied, “Violet”

McKinley Dixon, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?

Best tracks: “Sun, I Rise”, “Tyler, Forever”, “Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?”

The Japanese House, In the End it Always Does

Best tracks: “Sad to Breathe”, “Touching Yourself”, “Boyhood”


Freedom Sounds / Def Jam

For his major label debut, Navy Blue drew us further into his close circle. Ways of Knowing is a brilliant breakdown of the mental—what’s going on inside Navy’s mind? The raps are the answers, articulated over dreamy production largely courtesy of Budgie. “How come I’m hurting in my 20s? / I guess it’s life,” he says on “Life’s Terms”, simply summarising mid-life experiences not just for himself but for everyone applicable. It’s also in part an ode to his grandparents who have inspired wisdom and sense into the man he is today.

Best tracks: “Chosen”, “Phases”, “The Medium”, “To Fall in Love”, “Kill Switch”


ISO Supremacy / United Masters

The Maryland crooner’s mixtape is chock-full of R&B flips, from the likes of Timbaland and TLC to classic Neptunes. They are often brief yet satisfying snapshots as Brent takes the listener on a nostalgic joyride. When tracks are more fleshed out they’re courtesy of silky collabs with Coco Jones and ASAP Rocky. As usual, Brent Faiyaz’s vocals are a sugar-rush dipped in 2000s Fun Dip. Though not as fleshed and razor in songwriting as 2022’s Wasteland, Larger Than Life leaves listeners curious for the escalation in Brent’s young career.

Best tracks: “Best Time”, “Moment of Your Life”, “Tim’s Intro”, “Outside All Night”


Forever Living Originals

In September, Cleo Sol released two albums in back-to-back weeks. The standout effort was the latter offering, the ten-track Heaven. Being the cryptic artist she is, there is an unclear indication that the albums are companion pieces. Heaven hints at rebirth; baptism; washing away your sins and getting closer to God. Gospel influences play all across Heaven, and in its best moments echo Cleo’s magnum opus, 2021’s Mother.

Best tracks: “There Will Be No Crying”, “Life Will Be”, “Desire”, “Gold”


Paper Route / EMPIRE

Key Glock put fun back into trap in 2023. Glockoma 2‘s standard and deluxe edition invigorate the genre with eccentric beats, addictive flows, and plenty personality from the Memphis rapper. The standard edition with the red album cover held standouts like “Dirt”, “Randy Orton” and “Key Rex”, topped up with highlights from the blue deluxe edition such as “No Hook”, “Let’s Go” and “Lean Habits”. Whether you take the red pill or the blue pill, the result is still Key Glock bangers.

Best tracks: “Dirt”, “No Hook”, “Key Rex”, “Work”, “Ratchet”, “Let’s Go”, “Fuck a Feature”, “Lean Habits”


Atlantic

A six-year hiatus came to a halt in 2023. Paramore’s return felt monumental, proving they’re not just another washed rock band cashing in a lukewarm comeback. Pop and post-punk never feels compromised on This Is Why, granting hearty performances in the form of “You First” and “Crave” and stepping singles like the title track. A comeback that wasn’t phoned in.

Best tracks: “You First”, “Crave”, “This Is Why”, “The News”, “Figure 8”


Hollace Inc. / Republic

The Canadian R&B singer hones his talents back to his strengths; feathery love songs backed by minimalism and potent songwriting. Never Enough is male vulnerability that wisely avoids the toxic outlooks that tend to dominate R&B nowadays. Its best moments summon the spirit of Caesar’s 2017 debut, Freudian, while pulling off some risks here and there.

Best tracks: “Valentina”, “Cool”, “Disillusioned”, “Superpowers”, “Always”


Mass Appeal

On Magic 3, Nas and Hit-Boy take a worthy final bow, granting some of the best material of the eighty album tracks they’ve created together. Magic 3 celebrates Nas’ 50th birthday, as well as the 50th birthday of hip hop. The ode lives up to both half-centuries, a fitting demonstration of an experienced man still running a game that was once just 21 years old when Nas released Illmatic. Hit-Boy rectifies the main issue found on Magic 2—the beats on show are no joke. Throughout their partnership, Nas sounds most rejuvenated when the production moves him. Behind-the-scenes footage shared by Hit-Boy has shown Nas’ reaction to certain beats. It’s from here where the inspiration hits, resulting in high-calibre rapping each and every time.

Best tracks: “Fever”, “Never Die”, “Superhero Status”, “I Love This Feeling”, “Sitting with My Thoughts”, “Jodeci Member”, “Based on True Events, Pt. 2”


VLNS / Loma Vista

It’s easy to forget how long Killer Mike has been around. His output in the last decade has come under the collaborative effort of Run the Jewels, with producer and rapper El-P. It’s therefore refreshing to see an album like Michael in 2023, Mike’s first solo album in eleven years. Rich in features and No I.D. production, Michael is blatantly momentous, and unequivocally Southern.

Best tracks: “SHED TEARS”, “SCIENTISTS & ENGINEERS”, “DOWN BY LAW”, “TWO DAYS”, “MOTHERLESS”


The Freeminded / ALC / EMPIRE

Delving deeper into the music, The Great Escape is unlike anything we’ve ever heard from both Larry June and The Alchemist. The atmosphere that the pair construct throughout the record is heavy, playing into the street dream profile from a completely different angle. Larry’s luxurious statue continuous to play a poignant role in the lyrical content coexisting with Al’s dreary style of production. In some cases, the shift in sound allows Larry to hop into different pockets that normally wouldn’t have been possible. Tracks like “Orange Village” and “Exito” play into this notion as we see Larry open up his palette to loops and chops that otherwise wouldn’t have really clicked with his catalog.

Best tracks: “Summer Reign”, “89 Earthquake”, “Porsches in Spanish”, “Ocean Sounds”, “What Happened to the World?”


(!)

South London singer-songwriter and producer Jim Legxacy worked out a formula on his third project. Garage breakbeats and classic samples are channelled through bitesized tracks elevated by Jim Legxacy’s treacle vocals. It’s part emo, part something totally new.

Best tracks: “hit it light it twist it”, “candy reign (!)”, “dj”, “fake smiles”, “amnesia111”, “eye tell”, “ur marges crib”, “homeless n***a pop music”


YSL / 300

The YSL outcast emerged from the shadows to complete a comeback for the history books. With every valuable cosign out the window, Gunna delivered a featureless album to shows he’s YSL’s most valuable asset. It’s home to one of the biggest rap hits of the year in “FukUMean”, becoming his highest-streaming solo song to date. A Gift & a Curse keeps it mainly PG, allowing Gunna’s raps to be taken seriously for the first time in his career. He raps with a frown, dropping mature observations which aren’t anything revolutionary but do help to paint his mindset since gaining his freedom.

Best tracks: “Bread & Butter”, “FukUMean”, “Rodeo Dr”, “IDK Nomore”, “Back to the Moon”, “Alright”


Fat Possum

Billy Woods and Elucid continue to find indiscoverable pockets on their latest Armand Hammer offering. We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is eerie, anxious and meandering. Listening to Test Strips is like navigating through a 1,000-acre maze. At one point they’re rapping over JPEGMAFIA-sampled telephone beeps, elsewhere they’re grinding gears on noisy production that’s becoming oddly conventional for their standards. Test Strips challenges listeners, as well as the capabilities of Billy Woods who continues to be a jack of all trades.

Best tracks: “Landlines”, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, “Woke Up and Asked Siri How I’m Gonna Die”, “Trauma Mic”, “I Keep a Mirror in My Pocket”, “Don’t Lose Your Job”


RBC / BMG

Mick Jenkins finds his footing again on The Patience, cutting out anything that’s not vital to the experience. It is 11 tracks and 28 minutes, wisely plucking features from Freddie Gibbs, JID, Benny the Butcher and Vic Mensa, and laying spacious production for Jenkins to work with. It’s clear Jenkins takes a leaf out the Griselda boys’ book, finding an ear for beat selection that resonates with the current trends of the underground (“Guapanese”, “Sitting Ducks”).

Best tracks: “ROY G. BIV”, “Guapanese”, “Smoke Break-Dance”, “Sitting Ducks”, “Show & Tell”, “Farm to Table”


Black Butter

Bakar’s been working hard to be the face of UK indie. Last year’s album Nobody’s Home set a foundation, but Halo amalgamates all his talent and potential for his most realised effort to date. Halo can be peppy in cuts like “All Night” and “Right Here, for Now” while honing indie folk for tracks like “Hate the Sun”. Sometimes all it takes is a guitar lick and Bakar’s vocal melodies to result in an album highlight. The balance is continually addictive.

Best tracks: “All Night”, “Alive!”, “I’m Done”, “Hell N Back”, “Right Here, for Now”


Interscope

British singer-songwriter Ama Lou laid some of the most emotive R&B of 2023 on her debut album, I Came Home Late. Filled with poignant writing, teary production and climactic hooks, I Came Home Late is poetic from minute one to end. “Cause the north winds pushed slightly / On horses, I’ll ride in / And I feel you right by me / A Trojan disguise, I hope not,” she delicately sings on “Tokyo Cowboy”, one of many songs where the masterful singer uses extended metaphors to convey her message. It’s a gripping album that tugs at the heartstrings with no mercy.

Best tracks: “Caught Me Running”, “Frustrated”, “Be Well”, “Tokyo Cowboy”, “Range 95”


Warner

On her debut studio album, PinkPantheress graduates from TikTok princess to digital popstar. The traits that led to her success are still there to some degrees: the short-track format, UK garage beats, and cooing vocals. But there’s an upgrade to the song structures, lyricism and hooks. Songs like “Ophelia”, “Capable of Love” and “Blue” are traditional pop songs that simultaneously could only be sung by PinkPantheress. Heaven Knows takes PinkPantheress fever to the next level, home to the most catchy pop songs of 2023.

Best tracks: “Capable of Love”, “Feel Complete”, “Ophelia”, “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2”, “Another Life”, “Feelings”, “Nice to Meet You”, “The Aisle”


PEGGY / AWAL

JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown sent experimental rap goons into a frenzy when they got word of a collaborative album in the works. The aptly-titled Scaring the Hoes is accessible enough for conventional rap fans to enjoy, but you still need that left-field ear to enjoy its most daring moments. Above all, it’s two rappers having fun all over the most kooky rap album of the year. Hoes, be prepared to be scared.

Best tracks: “Scaring the Hoes”, “Lean Beef Patty”, “Kingdom Hearts Key”, “Steppa Pig”, “Burfict!”, “Run the Jewels”, “Orange Juice Jones”


Backwoodz Studioz

You need a really advanced ear to fathom what Billy Woods is rapping about. Always offering a dense listen with each album, it’s the way he strings bars together that few rappers can accomplish. The two verses on “Soft Landing” are vivid to the syllable, adding another thought to the tapestry like an extra carriage being attached to a moving train (“The worst people’ll wiggle out the rubble / Maybe “Suicidal Thoughts” was the “Everyday Struggle” / For a brief, sweet, moment it was nothing in the thought bubble”). In other bars, he is downright straightforward (“I quit lookin’ for solutions / Bought a pistol and learned how to use it”). All’s achieved over the most daring beats by Kenny Segal.

Best tracks: “Soft Landing”, “FaceTime”, “Hangman”, “Year Zero”, “Babylon By Bus”


Warp

Kelela puts listeners in a sixty-minute trance on Raven, submerged in ambient electronica. Raven can be so minimal yet so unique, a talent that’s evident on tracks like “Divorce” and “Washed Away”. Waists can be whined to “On the Run”. We’re taken to the breakbeat room in the club on “Contact”. You feel like you’re drifting slowly in the black water found on the cover on the title track. We could go on and on. Point being, the imaginative imagery available from the songs on Raven speaks to its sheer creativity and genius to convey so much with so little.

Best tracks: “Contact”, “On the Run”, “Divorce”, “Raven”, “Happy Ending”, “Bruises”


Transgressive

Arlo Parks leans further into pop territory on her second album, learning from the process of Collapsed in Sunbeams to make her songs catchier. Yet she’s still able to get equally intimate, as found on spring-kissed songs like “Impurities”, “Purple Phase” and “Pegasus” with Phoebe Bridgers. It’s still undoubtedly indie pop, some of the finest you’ll find this year.

Best tracks: “Impurities”, “Purple Phase”, “Devotion”, “Weightless”, “Pegasus”


10

MIKE expands his mystique for a top ten album of 2023. A daring format, Burning Desire is a 24-track album filled with cuts under two-minute runtime, entirely self-produced under MIKE’s alias DJ Blackpower. The beats are soulful, jazzy, sample-centric gems gleaming under the kaleidoscope of MIKE’s lyricism. The fleeting nature of the album works to its advantage, with transitions between tracks to incorporate intentions in sequencing, adding contrary to the belief that you could shuffle all 24 tracks and get the same album.

Best tracks: “Golden Hour”, “Let’s Have a Ball”, “Sixteens”, “Plz Don’t Cut My Wings”, “They Don’t Stop in the Rain”



Tan Cressida / ALC / Gala / Warner

“Voir dire” is a French legal term that translates “to speak the truth”. Could Voir Dire be the album that The Alchemist said was hidden on YouTube under an alias name? We may never know. Irrespective of that, hip hop finally received the long-yearned collaborative album between Earl Sweatshirt and The Alchemist. Including both commercial versions of the album (which totals to 14 tracks), Voir Dire is a blissful merger that was always bound to end in matrimony.

Best tracks: “The Caliphate”, “Sentry”, “100 High Street”, “Mancala”, “Free the Ruler” (+ “Geb”, “All the Small Things”)


Young

Somewhere in a message chat, Frank Ocean and Sampha were competing to see who could go the longest without putting out an album. After a six-year wait, it’s Sampha that bit the bullet and fed the ever-patient world. Unlike Process, Lahai exists in a joyous parallel universe. Times have changed. Sampha’s now a father, and has clearly embarked on a successful journey of heaving. “I ain’t scared as before, ain’t as scared as before,” he says on the album’s lead single, “Spirit 2.0”. But sonically, it’s the same Sampha we’ve grown to love in the finest of doses. On Lahai, Sampha is deservedly liberated.

Best tracks: “Dancing Circles”, “Jonathan L. Seagull”, “Suspended”, “Spirit 2.0”


Boy Meets Euphoria / Columbia

There is a man out there that goes by the letter Q. We’re convinced he’s come from the past to deliver upper-echelon music. The real story is this is Q Marsden, son of Steven Marsden, producer of the famous Diwali Riddim. But he doesn’t need the affiliation with his father to earn his success. Q’s music is deeply rooted in throwback 70s soul, funk and R&B. Not on no novelty Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak level either—this is the real Class A stuff. His debut album, Soul,PRESENT, masterfully brings back the essence of soul to the 21st century. The vocals, production and hooks are the most organic throwback sound you’ll feast yourselves to this year.

Best tracks: “STEREO DRIVER”, “LUV (I KNOW YOU WANT THIS FOR REAL), “INCAPABLE HEART”, “TODAY”


Golden Angel / Interscope

Amaarae is a ready-made pop princess. The Ghanaian-American singer first made waves with her viral TikTok hit “Sad Girlz Luv Money”. Her whispery pitched vocals are granted full autonomy on Fountain Baby, the best bonafide pop record of 2023. Each track is packed with melody, taking influence from internet pop, R&B, afrobeats, indie and punk. When it comes together, it’s all still uniquely Amaarae. Whether it’s the hedonism of “Princess Going Digital”, the astrology-infused “Co-Star”, or the Kill Bill-esque “Wasted Eyes”, Fountain Baby is a haven of melody with plenty going on for it not to be a standout of the year.

Best tracks: “Princess Going Digital”, “Disguise”, “Wasted Eyes”, “Reckless & Sweet”, “Co-Star”


Cactus Jack / Epic

The Houston native’s fourth album affirms Scott as a sweeping sonic conductor, granting the imposing blockbuster listeners expected. Sonically, it subverts expectations of what ‘utopia’ should sound like. Instead of a blissful, heavenly experience, Utopia is a dim land of chaos. This makes Utopia lack a running thread throughout the album, especially when it jumps from trap and industrial hip hop to dance and reggaeton.For a 19-track album, there are plenty highlights, and nothing worthy of a skip. Opening track “HYAENA” is his most combusting intro to date; “THANK GOD” is flooded in darkness; “I KNOW ?” is a Rodeo remnant.

Utopia shows that at four albums deep, Travis hasn’t lost his knack for sequenced auditory trips. It’s an album that takes elements from his best work while standing tall in its own identity. When it comes to rap explosions, nothing in 2023 will come close to the combustion of Utopia.

Best tracks: “FE!N”, “MY EYES”, “HYAENA”, “I KNOW ?”, “TELEKINESIS”, “LOOOVE”, “SIRENS”


Quality Control Music / Motown

Lil Yachty hit the reset button this 2023. Just a few months prior, Yachty found his music being a meme in ways he hadn’t experienced since his peak of 2016. “Poland” took the internet by storm. It was a song that was so unserious it wasn’t supposed to come out until fans demanded for it. This was all happening while he was recording & announced a ‘non-rap psychedelic project’. For a minute, Yachty’s career was at the mercy of the internet. How would it have felt, being compelled to release meme tracks while you’re working on music so vastly different to that?

But Yachty regained control. At the apex of the year, he released Let’s Start Here, signalling one of the biggest rebrands in modern rap—an unprecedented yet delightful pivot into progressive rock that unlocks not just a new layer of Yachty, but new skin. Let’s Start Here is what you’d get if Pink Floyd, MGMT and Tame Impala had a rap-leaning lovechild. The trap 808s are chucked out for guitars, drums and synths, packed with non-linear twists and turns that make the record a genuine alternative rock album. The risk can be likened to Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR, Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love and Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine, albums that take an artistic risk and stick the landing. To help him out, Yachty enlisted collaborators such as Patrick Wimberly, Mac DeMarco and Magdalena Bay (an UNO-reverse on white artists enlisting black collaborators for their hip-hop-centric efforts).

Best tracks: “The Black Seminole”, “The Ride”, “I’ve Officially Lost Vision!!!!”, “The Zone”, “We Saw the Sun!”, “Say Something”


Warp

“What makes you feel so important? Can you spell it out for us?”, Yves Tumour sings on “Parody” off their fifth studio album. What does feel important is this exact album, a thrilling twelve-track art piece inhabiting the chambers of indie rock, pop and electronic music. Praise a Lord Who Chews… impeccably combines the finest elements of popular genres for the most addictive left-leaning album of the year. What you truly appreciate from the album is the detailed instrumentation. The drums solo boom over the midpoint of “Heaven Surrounds Us Like a Hood”, the electric guitar can’t be escaped on “Meteora Blues”, and the heavenly strings on “Ebony Eye” are a soundtrack to ascension. Yves’ symbolic writing is not be brushed over either.

It makes for the most epic sonic experience of 2023, by an artist who continues to be different and push the boundaries of contemporary music.

Best tracks: “Ebony Eye”, “Meteora Blues”, “Lovely Sewer”, “In Spite of War”, “Heaven Surrounds Us Like a Hood”


XL

Waited a couple years for your favourite artist to drop an album? That’s nothing. Try nine years in the case of North London’s CASISDEAD. The masked rapper’s debut album is an exceptional world-builder, bleak yet glistening in its dystopian soundtrack to an instant classic, generating a puzzling, addictive universe executed with precision. Famous Last Words is both vivid and cryptic, a theatrical sci-fi adventure drowned in dreamy 80s synths. It’s a starry-eyed escapade from the real world into something far worse, mired by addiction, control, self-indulgence, and dormant trauma. CASISDEAD ensures it takes multiple listens to understand the dense narrative, centred around a dystopian society being fed an apathy-inducing drug by a company called DeadCorp. Close your eyes and you can picture the scenes CAS is describing, from the eerie “A Spark” and “Steptronic” to the skits that add context to the story. Above all, it’s CAS’ ability to marry hip hop with the alternative, granting a wholly original UK rap album that is the first of its kind.

At every turn, the listener is presented with the most refreshing album UK rap’s had in years. Famous Last Words is an enthralling experience, maximising efforts, ambition and creativity. In a year where hip hop’s been under the fire for its lack of dominance, CASISDEAD shows the world how to beat the odds and grant an instant classic. Pay attention UK rappers, this the new bar. 

Best tracks: “Pat Earrings”, “Marilyn”, “Actin’ Up”, “Venom”, “Skydive”, “Matte Grey Wrap”, “Boys Will Be Boys”, “Before This”


0207 Def Jam

With Real Back in Style, Potter Payper provides a fully-realised, self-accomplished project worthy of rap album of the year. Potter Payper treats Real Back in Style like his big day, where the spouse is a prime rap album, and the vows are the songwriting, lyricism and production. Tales of upbringing and abuse are told on “All My Life, If I Had…” and “Money or Victims” respectfully. Lyrical peaks are found on the title track and “What They Ain’t”, granting some of the best rap verses of the year. Production shapeshifts on a range of cuts. Previous critiques of Potter’s lack of hookwriting are also put to bed. Blending transitions. Concept songs. Personal content. No stone is left unturned.

The cherry on top of all these checkboxes is the passion. Few albums this year transmit humane passion quite like Real Back in Style did, and the same can be said for UK rappers without an album in their catalogue quite like this. When Potter Payper performs at this level, real can never be out of style.

Best tracks: “Real Back in Style”, “Multifaceted”, “Track Flocaine”, “Quite Befitting”, “Money or Victims (Kayla’s Story)”, “What They Ain’t”, “White Ash”