This has been the summer of hip-hop albums. But who reigned king? With releases from Wale, Jay Z, J.Cole and Yeezy this summer, what does this say about hip-hop?

More than anything, this summer has shown that, in hip-hop, there is an enormous gulf between those at the top of the rap game and those who just inhabit it. Competition is rife and probably more so, than in any other genre. Good music is just but, one of the aspects needed for success.

The releases from Wale, J. Cole, Jay Z and Kanye West display the wide spectrum that hip-hop can encompass. But it also shows how advantageous personality, unique style and a knowledge of the business can be. Most of all, this summer has only confirmed that, of all genres, hip-hop is still the most talked about and as thoroughly debated as ever.

His third album, ‘The Gifted‘ is Wale’s best project so far, and the one in which he most embraces the poetic persona he so revels in, alongside the albums smooth, jazzy sound. Yet, whilst being the most traditionally hip-hop album of those released this summer, the album, in its solidity, fails to push any kind of musical boundaries. It signals Wale’s seeming acceptance that he will never reach that superstar status he craves and is instead content to do his own thing, even if that means falling back on his enjoyable mixtape sound.

J. Cole, on the other hand, has used the release of his sophomore album ‘Born Sinner’ to attempt the very same jump that Wale had previously. Nonetheless, the North Carolina rapper shows that he still has a fair way to go if he is to ever force his way into the so-called top tier of rap. Regardless, Born Sinner is a clear improvement on his debut, with his production more accomplished and several of the tracks ranking among the best in his career so far. He still shows glimpses of the rap saviour he was once hailed as, but seems to have suffered from giving away too much free material. Having seen both Drake and Kendrick Lamar surpass him both artistically and in popularity, Cole’s promotion was to move his release date to coincide with that of Kanye’s Yeezus. Aiming to, at the very least, put his name in the conversation. That bold move has only helped his career, boosting both his sales and his name – even managing to outsell Kanye with 38,718 copies whilst Kanye sold 28,701. Yet Kanye’s lack of acknowledgement of Cole as a competitor perhaps speaks greater volumes.

Whereas Jay Z’s ‘Magna Carta…Holy Grail‘ is perhaps more about the albums well publicised marketing ploy, rather than the music itself. Professing to try and change the game (by releasing the album via Samsung users directly), Jay Z’s release strategy only really works if you’re Jay Z. Neither J. Cole nor Wale could hope to sell 500, 000 units in its first week this way, let alone reach platinum before copies are on the shelves. The album itself is something of a safe effort, toeing the line between commercial and underground hip-hop that Jay has straddled since coming out of retirement. The album shows flashes of the lyrical Jay Z (of old) but will only ever be regarded as ‘a good Jay Z album’, not a great one.

Contrastingly, the provocatively titled ‘Yeezus’, only cements that Kanye will always be Kanye. The album is genre-bending and as polarising as any work of art should be. It forces a listener to have an opinion, for good or for bad. Reactions to Kanye’s sixth solo album suggest hip-hop is not quite ready for such a level of genre experimentation. Most hip-hop traditionalists dislike it with their clout seemingly affecting sales, whilst indie critics with a taste for Burial, Daft Punk and the like gave it rave reviews. Its ability to initiate debate is possibly its greatest strength.

These summer months have proven that hip-hop still has the power to dominate the music industry. But arguably no artist delivered on their quite considerable hype this time around. Jay Z won in many senses; topping international album charts, racking up the most sales and the album itself a solid addition to his catalogue. On balance, Kanye lacks sales but earned near critical acclaim, an even greater feat considering his last album was magnus opus, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘.

But the real winners this summer are the fans. Blessed with an abundance of quality music, there is only more to come as both Drake and Eminem prep releases for later in the year. Indeed, hip-hop is often tarred with a bad reputation (for whatever reason), but the large majority of music on these four albums are perfect examples of the positives of the genre.

While hip-hop is not as competitive lyrically as it had been in its golden age, it continues to go from strength to strength in its diverse range of content and in its undoubted musicality.

Written by Jack O’Neill

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