Popular music experienced a major paradigm shift in the 2010s, as rap music ascended to the throne of dominance. That left the field open for infinite sub-genres within the genre. Druggy, weird, and emotional, a new genre, alt-rap, came to be, which centered on experimentation and off-the-wall ideas. This new style could have easily remained outside of the mainstream, falling to the wayside, but instead these boundary-pushing concepts actually worked and began to slowly take over our sonic palette. Here are ten songs that really, really worked.
10. Chance the Rapper, “Cocoa Butter Kisses” (2013)
When Chance the Rapper came onto the scene, he was instantly embraced by young people. His goofy, carefree attitude was the perfect antidote to the self-serious bling-rap they had been inundated with in the decade prior. “Cocoa Butter Kisses” captures the feeling of growing up the way this generation of young people have: reluctantly casting off the things of youth and going out into the world, wishing for a simpler time all the while.
9. BROCKHAMPTON, “BLEACH” (2017)
Track seven on BROCKHAMPTON’s third album of 2017 (it still seems hard to believe that they pulled that off) is an emotional posse cut. The group members take on their feelings in the rawest fashion, reflecting on introversion, lust, and addiction, before arriving at Dom Mclennon’s verse which asks “Do you make mistakes or do you make a change?” Ponderous, weighty, and ultimately hopeful, “BLEACH” showed us the American boy band was both wise and poetic beyond their years.
8. Flatbush Zombies, “Trade-Off” (2016)
On “Trade-Off,” The Zombies are at their acid-dripping finest. Erick the Architect’s exquisite production shines the brightest here, beginning serenely, sounding like a sunrise, before descending into skeletal paranoia. Erick’s cool, confident flow, Zombie Juice’s addled speed rapping, and Meechy Darko’s signature rasp glide over the senses like stages of an LSD trip. Listening to this song feels like taking the drugs that the group raps about, minus any of the side-effects.
7. City Morgue, “33rd Blakk Glass” (2018)
How to find the words to describe this amazing song? I suppose “demented” is a good start. From the insane laugh that starts the track, the New York trap metal duo takes you for a terrifying roller-coaster ride through a haunted house. You never really get a chance to catch your breath as Zillakami and Sosmula scream gangsta rap over heavy 808s, “Chop ‘em down wardog let ‘em all off!”
6. Waka Flocka Flame, “O Let’s Do It” (2010)
Waka Flocka Flame has been overlooked on far to many “end-of-decade” lists to be ignored on this one as well. The sound that Waka brought to the fore at the decade’s beginning has become rap’s dominant form by its end. Seemingly prophetic, the chorus cries “drug dealing music / I influence.” This song isn’t on the list because it’s the best trap song, but because Waka Flocka Flame made trap music what it is today. “O Let’s Do It” walked so that “Bad and Boujee” could run.
5. Denzel Curry, “VENGEANCE” (2018)
South Florida native, Denzel Curry, displayed a remarkable ability this decade to keep his finger on the pulse of hip-hop. “Ultimate” was a meme-hit before meme-hits were a clear path to success. ‘Zel was riding the SoundCloud wave before ’Cloud rap coalesced into mainstream rap. With JPEGMAFIA and Zillakami (one half of City Morgue), ‘Zel brought to the masses the darkness that was beginning to pervade hip-hop in the summer of 2018. “VENGEANCE” takes the listener into the most violent recesses of each rapper’s psyche, and we’re lucky if we make it out unscathed.
4. XXXTENTACION, “Look At Me!” (2017)
This song’s hook and title exemplifies the SoundCloud Rap movement perfectly. Teetering back and forth between X-rated boasting and desperate cries for attention, XXXTENTACION’s breakout single took the music-listening public by storm. It disgusted some, enticed others, yet left a lot of us wanting more. Little did we know that barely a year later, the life of Jaseh Onfroy would be taken in a bitter tragedy, only to be soothed by the enduring influence of X’s music.
3. JPEGMAFIA, “Baby I’m Bleeding” (2017)
“Baby I’m Bleeding” starts out feeling like a manic episode, as vocal samples bounce around and Peggy screams frustrated expletives. Slowly but surely, the disjointed elements all come together into a bouncing beat. With lyrics like, “Now I’m at the White house, looking for your president / hop out the van, pointing guns at your residence,” JPEG spouts vaguely threatening lines and dares you to be offended. Ironically, this song is probably Veteran’s most listenable track. A banger in the repertoire of an artist whose full potential has likely not been realized yet.
2. Death Grips, “Guillotine” (2011)
There are stages to Death Grips fandom. First, you realize “Get Got” is a funny song to listen to. Next, you start to find some actual intrinsic value in the way the group combines industrial rap production with punk/metal sensibilities. Keep going for long enough, and you end up with a pathological need for the kinds of experimentation that MC Ride and Zack Hill made famous. Maybe that’s just me. Either way, “Guillotine” is an amazing song; if you’ve never listened to the track’s breakdown with headphones, DO IT NOW.
1. Tyler, The Creator, “Yonkers” (2011)
That’s right. The number one alt-rap track of the decade is the one that started it all. A joke song that Tyler and his friends made to mock East Coast rap music. This song led to a decade-spanning growth arc for the members of Odd Future — then a couple of kids who did whatever they wanted. Sure, Odd Future got rich, but it was never about the money. It was about expression, creativity, and fun! Nobody embodies the alt-rap spirit better than Tyler, The Creator. His shock value and unique style has been imitated far and wide, and his DIY ethos has likely inspired everyone on this list to some degree.
It’s been a wild decade of music, that much is for sure. Choosing the songs for this list was absolutely agonizing because there were so many songs in the genre that altered our perspectives on culture, opened our eyes to new movements, and ultimately changed the way we listened to music.
What do you think about this list? What songs would’ve made it into your top ten? Let us know in the comments! Happy New Year, and here’s to more great tracks in the roaring 20s.