The debut studio album is a make-or-break moment for artists. There is a blurring of the lines between albums and mixtapes these days, but most mainstream artists give their studio albums an extra level of preparation and curation. Labels give albums an extra marketing push. The magic of the album is why Megan Thee Stallion was sure to clarify that her Fever project was not her debut album, even though it would have been a damn good one. It’s why Chance made a big deal about The Big Day — even though he has two mixtapes regarded as arguable classics.
There’s simply more at stake with the debut studio album. Just who has the best debut albums of the past five years, and how do they stack up against each other? I decided to take a swing at it.
10. YBN Cordae — The Lost Boy
YBN Cordae’s The Lost Boy is deceptively titled. The Maryland artist’s debut album is a sharp, focused exhibition of technical writing ability and thematic diversity. He delves deep on “We Gon Make It” with Meek Mill and “Broke As F*ck” — but the Anderson Paak-featured “RNP” proves that he can still have fun. The Lost Boy was only released last month, and while it may rank higher on a later version of this list, it is too good to not be mentioned.
9. Lil Uzi Vert, Luv Is Rage 2
Luv Is Rage 2 is the follow up to Lil Uzi Vert’s breakout Luv Is Rage mixtape, but it’s also his debut studio album. The 16-track album was another strong collection of melodic, genre-bending harmonies that exemplify why the Philly artist likens himself to a rock star. There’s, of course, the “Xo Tour Llif3” smash, but there are also catchy tracks like “The Way Life Goes” and the change-of-pace “444+222,” which showcases Uzi having some fun over a dance track. While the rap game is overloaded with sing-songy rappers, Uzi is a far better lyricist than most, and that fusion is on joyous display throughout Luv Is Rage 2.
8. G Herbo — Humble Beast
G Herbo established himself as a voice of the Chicago streets with his 2014 Welcome To Fazoland mixtape, but 2018’s Humble Beast is his debut studio album. The project shows Herbo fully in the zone, offering a gritty depiction of the Chicago streets on poignant tracks like “Red Snow” and “Malcolm,” while aiming for mainstream appeal with “Everything” featuring Lil Uzi Vert. The project solidified Herbo as one of the few Chicago rappers from his generation who transcended the local scene and became an established national act.
7. Travis Scott — Rodeo
While Astroworld is the project that made Travis Scott a rap A-lister, it’s the polarizing Rodeo that solidified him as a star. There were critics who felt like the glut of guests and Travis’ lack of lyricism made him a guest on his own project. But in hindsight, that gripe doesn’t hold as much weight in the age of Playboi Carti. Travis rarely takes center stage amid guests like Future, 2Chainz, and Kanye West. But the incredible production, cohesive curation, and highs like “Antidote” make it an undeniable addition to the trap music canon.
6. Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste
Why does Azealia Banks still have a devoted fanbase despite her numerous beefs and questionable statements throughout the years? Because she’s undeniably talented, as her brilliant debut album displays. Tracks like “212” and “Yung Rapunxel” showcase her intriguing ability to both sing and rap over frenetic production that fuses hip-hop with elements of house, electronic, and hip-hop.
5. Noname — Room 25
Noname’s thoughtful Telefone album catapulted the Chicago rapper as a lyricist to be reckoned with, and her Room 25 album delivered even more goods after a two year wait. The 27-year-old is mastering her brand of spoken word-esque musings on Blackness, womanhood, and systemic racism throughout the jazzy album. “Self,” “Window,” and “Ace” are dazzling displays of her stream of consciousness style that holds gems like “I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out” around every corner.
4. Isaiah Rashad — The Sun’s Tirade
Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia’s Demo debut EP stirred anticipation for the Memphis rapper’s next work. 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade album proves he was no fluke. The 17-track album followed up on themes of Cilvia’s Demo, as he frankly discusses his battles with substance abuse, depression, in a thoughtful, compelling fashion.
3. Kevin Gates — Islah
Kevin Gates’ knack for melodic, heartfelt expressions of internal discontent are on full display on Islah, his 2016 debut album. While chest-puffing bangers like “Really Really” and “2 Phones” were breakout singles from the project, they don’t tell the tale of who Gates is. The Baton Rouge rhymer is at his best on vulnerable tracks like “Pride,” where he talks about missing his loved ones while incarcerated. But the project isn’t fixated on hardships in the street, with songs like “Time for That,” “One Thing,” and “Hard For” that showcase his ability to use those earworm harmonies for romantic exploits. The project is a well-rounded introduction to the inimitable Gates, displaying the 360 degree perspective of his humanity.
2. Saba — Care For Me
Saba’s soulful, cathartic Care For Me was a highlight of 2018. The Chicago rhymer spectacularly culls through feelings of grief and residual trauma from the violence in his home city. Saba doesn’t offer the in-the-trenches perspective of a G Herbo or Lil Durk, instead using songs like “Prom/King” to highlight the widespread fallout of gun violence. Piercing lines like “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat” from “Busy/Sirens” show that even if you’re not “in it,” you’re still in it through grief alone.
1. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06
Few artists highlight the disparity between on and off mic persona better than Vince Staples. It’s hard to tell if he’s ever serious after watching his interviews and episodes of his Snapchat show. But when he gets on the mic, listeners know they’re in for some intense, resonant music that paints an unflinching depiction of gang life in LA. Summertime ‘06 is the opus that set that precedent.
Most artists catch flack for long albums, but just about every song on the 20-track Summertime ‘06 serves its purpose. “Lift Me Up” juxtaposes the sunny lifestyle of Beverly Hills with his upbringing in Long Beach, where “my pain is never over, pills and potions fix me up.”
There hasn’t been a movie to parallel the 90’s coming of age tales that were Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society were, but Summertime ‘06 stands next to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, Maad City as the sonic successors to those tales.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.