Hip hop came back with a vengeance in 2012, with stellar releases from both up and coming and emerging artists. Here’s our top 10 pick of the year’s most notable rap albums and mixtapes.

Schoolboy Q – Habit & Contradictions (Top Dog Entertainment)

Released in January, Q’s Habits & Contradictions, the follow-up to his debut Setbacks, set the tone for the year ahead. Featuring appearances by everyone from ASAP Rocky to Curen$y, the album’s boastful production, completed by Q’s straight-up thug world delivery, lay the foundation for tons and tons (and tons) of hits. From the poetically engaged Hands on the wheel, with its infectious sample of a Lissie cover of Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness, to the viciousness of Raymond 1969 and its Portishead sample, every single track is a testament to everything that is right with hip hop today: unashamed, unapologetic and so fucking good. Check Sexting and Druggys wit Hoes Again for the club bangers.

Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid M.A.A.D City (Top Dog Entertainment & Interscope)

The much-anticipated major label debut by the self-proclaimed prodigal son on Compton, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City turned out to be much more than what we could have expected. An insightful journey into the trials and tribulations of a life lived surrounded by violence, addiction and abject poverty, it casts Kendrick in a wide variety of roles and sees him story-telling us through his life with wit, humour and pure skill. From the album’s artwork (a roughly edited Polaroid shot of a young Kendrick sitting with his two uncles and grandfather, a 40 ounce and a baby bottle in full view) to its many different musical references (from G-Funk to 80s R n’ B), Good Kid… confirms Kendrick as the flag-waver of a new generation of rappers who’s style is to have no one style at all. Yes, he has a grim story to tell (a battle with alcoholism, for instance) but he tells it with a pinch of salt (Swimming Pools) which is both endearing and refreshing. If there ever were an album that should be made into a Broadway show this is it and, if Schoolboy Q’s the fun loving criminal of LA’s Black Hippy tribe, Kendrick is its wise sage.

Katie Got Bandz – Bandz and Hittaz

Katie Got Bandz, a murderous female rapper from Chicago who made her name with the track I Need a Hitta last year, continued her ascension to online supremacy in 2012 with a mixtape released in September, Bandz and Hittaz. With a production pallet DIY to the core, this is basement music for the corner people, music you’d imagine Katie to have recorded holding a knife to her producer’s throat. Repetitive to the point of being hypnotic, something made all the more poignant with her off-key delivery, we don’t predict Katie to get a major label deal inked any time soon, although something tells us she couldn’t give a flying fuck. Available as a free download.

JJ Doom – Keys to the Kuff (Lex Records)

The collaborative project of producer Jneiro Janel and rapper Doom, Keys to the Kuff was released in August and sees the metal-faced rapper react to Janel’s discombobulated production with his signature lyrical strikes. The album’s dark and moody undercurrents are reinforced by Doom’s voice having gained in depth, creating an atmospheric and cinematic journey that best encapsulates his recent exile in London (a European tour that ended up with his American visa being revoked) and sees him rekindle with his British roots (dude was born in London). That and the Damon Albarn appearance.

The Quakers – Quakers (StonesThrow Records)

The long-awaited hip hop effort by Portishead producer Geoff Barrow, Quakers is a Pete Rock-esque mega-album featuring the crème of the crop of underground lyricists  spitting over down and dirty productions courtesy of Barrow and his two cohorts, engineer 7-Stu-7 and Australian producer Katalyst. With appearances by rap royalty (Prince Po), underground heroes (Dead Prez), StonesThrow Records label mates (MED, Guilty Simpson) as well as indie novelties (Jonwayne), the album’s stellar production steals the show, with Barrow’s undeniable love and respect for the golden age of hip hop shining through at every turn. You kind of get the feeling the architect of one of the 90’s most important and defining musical acts, Portishead, finally got it his way and managed to fulfil a teenage dream: recording his very own rap album. Job done, and pretty fucking well too.

Ecid – Wherewolf Hologram (Fill in the breaks)

Minesota-based rapper/producer Ecid’s fifth studio album, Wherewolf Hologram is a powerful reminder that there’s still a place for good backpacker rap music. More interested in the boom bap than the bling bling, the album’s 16 tracks build upon Ecid’s tight production to go from strength-to-strength. Following on in the footsteps of rappers such as AWOL One (who is featured on the album’s excellent Rockstars Don’t Apologize together with Eyedea, another indie hip hop heavyweight), Atmosphere’s Slug (also from Minesota) and Definitive Jux’s Aesop Rock, Ecid brings his own, slightly more positive and less cerebral vibe to the leftfield hip hop table.

The Other Guys – The Other Album

Released in October, The Other Album sees DC natives The Other Guys pick up where A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots left off. Recorded with local jazz musicians, the album has a warmth to it that somehow evokes Sunday family dinners with the crackling sound of records spinning in the background. The kind of rap music that’ll leave you with a smile on your face. Available as a free download.

EL-P – Cancer 4 Cure (Fat Possum Records)

EL-P’s first studio effort since pulling the plug on Definitive Jux, the label he founded, Cancer 4 Cure is an orchestral manoeuvre in rap music for the Blade Runner generation of the future. Described by EL-P as ‘fight music’, the album will please old Juxies as much as it will delight the newer breed of hip hop fans brought up on Brainfeeder releases. With guest appearances by Danny Brown, Mr. Motherfucking Exquire and Killer Mike (whose own EL-P-produced R.A.P Music is a strong contender for rap album of the year from Pitchfork to The Fader), this is music to go to war and conquer.

SpaceGhostPurpp – Mysterious Phonk – The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurpp (4AD)

SpaceGhostPurrp makes the kind of music the Grim Reaper would no doubt approve of. Building on the aesthetics and narratives of Three 6 Mafia, Mysterious Phonk’s uniqueness derives from the Miami-native’s penchant for dominating and distorting the dead space of a production, preferring to pare-down rather than occupy. Here’s a kid, steadfast in his vision and execution, who’s clearly realised that the beauty’s not in what is said but in what is left unsaid.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yt81qPljutM

Action Bronson & The Alchemist – Rare Chandeliers (Vice)

One of The Alchemist’s many collaborative project, Rare Chandeliers pares him up with Queens rapper Action Bronson. The album sees The Alchemist do more of what he knows best how to do (layered, sample-heavy productions) while Action Bronson takes a leap forward and delivers some of his strongest bars to date. Straight-up hip hop with no punches sparred.