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2013 was the year of the veterans. It was the year of Eminem, Kanye West and Jay-Z, just as much as it was the year of Drake, Kendrick and Chance the Rapper.

2014 was the year for the up-and-comers. Despite what anyone says, 2014 was not the worst year for hip-hop. It may have been a bad year commercially with no platinum albums and weak first week sales but the music industry’s been going doing the drain anyway.

You had to dig around for your music – there weren’t any major marketing campaigns announcing the release, no partnerships with Samsung, no Call of Duty promo or anything like that.

Here are the top five best rappers alive of 2014.

5. Young Thug

Notable releases: Black Portland (with Bloody Jay), Young Thugga Mane La Flare (with Gucci Mane), The Purple Album (with Gucci Mane), 1017 Thug 21017 Thug 3 – The FinaleRich Gang The Tour: Part 1 (with Birdman & Rich Homie Quan).

Key guest appearances: Tyga’s “Hookah,” Peewee Longway’s “Know Bout Me,” T.I.’s “About the Money,” Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle,” Juicy J’s “Low,” DJ Drama’s “Right Back,” Wale’s “Clappers (Remix)” Migos’ “In Too Deep,” Travi$ Scott’s “Mamacita” & “Skyfall.”

A lot of things have been said Young Thug; about his music, his look, his fashion, even his sexuality. But fuck all that, the one thing you can’t say is that Young Thug isn’t one of the most exciting and unique rappers in the game today.

Word of Young Thug started making its way around after he dropped the acclaimed 1017 Thug last year but his buzz reached an all-time at the end of 2013 when he released his debut single “Stoner” and followed it up with the incredibly catchy “Danny Glover.” A remix of the latter by Nicki Minaj and video footage of both Kanye and Drake dancing to the song pushed Young Thug name from hot to scorching and he entered 2014 as the most watched rapper.

Luckily for fans, Thugga Thugga fulfilled our expectations and hit the studio non-stop. Following Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne’s relentless work ethic, Young Thug dropped mixtapes back-to-back and delivered killer features. Tracks like T.I.’s “About the Money” and Travi$ Scott’s “Skyfall” wouldn’t be the same without Thugga.

Then just when we thought Young Thug was done for the year, Birdman decides to drop Rich Gang The Tour: Part 1 on us. At first the mixtape looked like a bunch of shitty throwaways to me but after the first listen, I couldn’t stop playing it.

Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan have amazing chemistry together; Thug’s quirks, adlibs and randomness are grounded by Quan’s bluesy melody and backed by beatmaking maestro, London on da Track, Rich Gang The Tour: Part 1 turned out to be one of the best releases of 2014.

Usually when an artists enters a year with as much hype surrounding them like Young Thug did in 2014, they fuck it up by not being able to follow through and meet expectations. Luckily for us, not only did he exceed our expectations, Thugga proved he could do it all – street shit, club shit and of course the radio shit.

4. Drake

Notable releases: Nothing Was the Same single – “Worst Behavior.” Non-album singles – “0 to 100 / The Catch Up,” “How Bout Now,” “Days In the East,” “Draft Day,” “Heat Of The Moment,” “6 God.”

Key guest appearances: Future’s “Never Satisfied,” PartyNextDoor’s “Recognize,” P. Reign’s “DnF,” YG’s “Who Do You Love?,” Lil Wayne’s “Believe Me” & “Grindin’,” ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” Nicki Minaj’s “Only.”

Another year, another win for Drake. Album or no album, ever since he blew up in 2009, Drake has consistently been one of the top rappers ever single year and 2014 was no different.

Whether it was spazzing out on Lil Wayne’s “Believe Me,” making ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” even hotter, fronting in the “Worst Behaviour” video or just randomly dropping heat, Drake kept himself hot by doing what he does best – making good music.

The fact that “0 to 100 / The Catch Up” has been nominated for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the Grammy Awards, despite being a SoundCloud loosie, speaks volumes of Drake’s stranglehold on the rap industry.

It’s funny, he’s really only been in the game for 6 years but he’s now seen as a veteran; the big homie putting everybody on. 6 years in the game, 6 winning years in the game.

3. Run The Jewels

Notable releases: Run the Jewels 2

Key guest appearances: N/A

I know it’s cheating to have both El-P and Killer Mike at number 3, but whatever. Fuck you, it’s my list I can do whatever I want with it. It’s 2014 and there’s no way in hell you can mention Killer Mike without bringing up El-P.

Consumers have no idea what they want from a hip-hop artist. Give them too much of the same thing, they’ll say you’re getting too repetitive. Venture out to experiment with different sounds and they’ll tell you to stay in your lane. God forbid you have a hit single because they’ll be yelling sell-out.

Hip-hop fans had no idea we wanted Killer Mike to collaborate with El-P, but once we first heard it on the Atlanta rapper’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, which El-P fully produced, we wanted more. And more. And lots more.

Run the Jewels is simply one of the best partnerships in hip-hop, period. Not just with the perfection of Killer Mike over El-P’s industrial, funk anarchy but also rapping-wise – their chemistry on the mic is unparalleled. Killer Mike is more aggressive – a cross between Big Boi verbal skills and Ice Cube’s anger – El-P is the slick talking Brooklyn dude who’s got a comeback for everything. Whenever Killer Mike makes the track too intense, El-P is there to ease things up.

Run the Jewels 2 was one of the best hip-hop albums of 2014 because the two rappers didn’t change up winning formula. Outside of the rage and anarchy, it was just dope bars over dope beats, pure uncut hip-hop music.

2. Freddie Gibbs

Notable releases: Piñata (with Madlib), The Tonite Show (with The Worlds Freshest), Knicks (Remix) (with Madlib).

Key guest appearances: Curren$y’s “Grew Up In This,” The Game’s “Hit ‘Em Hard,” Jet Life’s “Dollaz, Statik Selektah’s “Carry On.”

I’m kinda disappointed that the whole Freddie Gibbs-Young Jeezy turned out the way it did. I’ve always been a big fan of both artists and thought Jeezy with his industry connects and CTE platform could really help take Gibbs’ career to the next level. Alas, things never work out the way you want them to, or at least the way fans want them to.

But fortunately for Gibbs, it probably worked out for the best for him. Freed up to work on any project he wanted, he linked up with Madlib for the critically acclaimed Piñata and with The Worlds Freshest for The Tonite Show – both projects were dropped this year.

Freddie Gibbs is no doubt one of the best rappers alive at the moment. In addition to his precision and technique on mic, he brings that pain and world-weariness to his lyrics – the very same thing that made us love Pac, DMX and Scarface. In an era that veering more and more away from gangsta rap, Gibbs is the ultimate street rapper and the best one doing it.

1. J. Cole

Notable releases: 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Revenge of the Dreamers (with Dreamville Records)

Key guest appearances: N/A

First and foremost, fuck J. Cole for pulling this surprise album shit. I had my best rappers alive list for 2014 all done and dusted then here comes Cole with a fucking brilliant album out of nowhere and turns everything upside down.

J. Cole is the best rapper alive in 2014. It sounds so fucking unexpected and I would have never predicted this year to be Cole’s year but I should have seen it coming.

Ever since Cole debuted in 2011, he’s been somewhat of a disappointment to fans. Cole World: The Sideline Story was a solid but underwhelming album from a rapper dubbed hip-hop’s saviour. The thing that made it even more disappointing is that fans know exactly what he’s capable of; this is the rapper who put out one of the best mixtapes of all time with Friday Night Lights and bodied the entire GOOD Music crew with one verse. Cole had the potential to be the best.

But the thing about Cole is that he keeps improving; he got back in the lab and continued to work on his craft; dropping Born Sinner last year, which was a big improvement on his debut, and went head-to-head with Kanye in a sales battle. The album showcased a much more confident Cole and his ability to create more organic hit singles.

Then out of nowhere, he drops 2014 Forest Hills Drive on us. No singles, no music videos, no trailers of music videos, no hyped up guest appearances, no A-list producers, nothing. Just 64 minutes and 39 seconds of Cole spitting that shit.He clearly wasn’t worried about radio hits or pleasing the masses and was focused strictly on catering to his core audience. As a result, fans got the best J. Cole album to date.

2014 Forest Hills Drive is the album J. Cole’s been waiting to make ever since he signed to Roc Nation. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is the album fans have been waiting on J. Cole to drop ever since he signed to Roc Nation. He did it, goddamn it, he really did it – he dropped a fucking masterpiece. J. Cole is the best rapper alive.

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