While the music was constantly good in 2022 — sometimes even great — there weren’t many game changers. Here are the albums that stood out from the rest.
Back in July, at the official midpoint of the year, we wrote that 2022 was “an eventful music year — but not necessarily a memorable one” and that no album had yet “dominated the cultural landscape.” And then, literally two weeks later, Beyoncé came.
It’s hard to call any year that features a Beyoncé album an unmemorable year in music. And her latest album, Renaissance — an instant classic — helped lift what was, at that point, a ho hum stretch, giving music a much needed infusion and a genuine cultural moment (despite the fact she hasn’t done promo for the album.) But she didn’t raise the tide with her. While the music was constantly good this year — sometimes even great — there weren’t many game changers, despite the fact that there were many comebacks, from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Ari Lennox, Ab-Soul, and more.
So how do you make a “Best of 2022” with a music year like this? For Okayplayer we went back to the fundamentals: what are the albums that had the most profound impact on us?
Here are Okayplayer’s 22 best albums of 2022.
22. Domi and JD Beck — NOT TiGHT
DOMi and JD BECK are two future jazz wunderkinds who’ve injected some much needed fun into the genre with their debut, Not Tight. The Anderson .Paak-co-signed duo made their name online through this approach, with DOMi and JD showing their ridiculous chops on keys and drums, respectively — with a sprinkle of humor dashed in. This fusion of jazz virtuosity and humor is what makes Not Tight so great. Most times it feels playful and whimsical, the mostly-instrumental album bouncing between colorful chords and odd time signatures. But there’s moments that show the duo could make pop songs in their own distinct way if they wanted to, as is the case with the .Paak-featuring “Take A Chance.” With Not Tight, DOMi and JD join a roster of wonderfully talented and hilarious jazz-adjacent figures (MonoNeon, Louis Cole, Thundercat) who may not take themselves seriously, but definitely take their music seriously. — Elijah Watson
21. Flo Milli — You Still Here, Ho?
Flo Milli is one of the most exciting rising female acts in hip-hop right now. On You Still Here, Ho? the Mobile, Alabama native is back to rapping aggressively. It’s this passion that has allowed her to flourish over the course of the past two years. On this project, she’s showing her hunger, but she’s also presenting tracks that can serves as inspirational anthems for her fans. “Big Steppa,” “PBC” and “Conceited” are prime examples of her ability to make confident, relatable feminist anthems. — Robyn Mowatt
20. Yaya Bey — Remember Your North Star
Yaya Bey’s Remember Your North Star is a true blues record. Analog style spoken word interludes are weaved between soft keys, sunny island riddims, and mellow horns, as Bey unpacks how love exists within and around her. Stories of emotional short changing from men lay in tandem with realizations on how misogyny has shaped Bey’s understanding of love. At times it feels like being handed her personal journal, filled with misty eyed recollections and humorous musings on time spent, stolen, and reclaimed. — Larry Little
19. Ravyn Lenae — Hypnos
With a moody atmosphere and nasally vocals that shift between feeling sensual and motherly, Hypnos is Ravyn Lenae marking herself out as the heiress to Erykah Badu. Hypnos is the most strikingly original R&B album of the year. On it, Lenae shows immense vocal range across 16 songs, with “Inside Out” nailing a tragic high falsetto and “M.I.A.” mixing cherub vocals with a blissfully stoned sugar trap flow. The Chicago artist can do just about anything and album highlight “Light Me Up” — where Lenae sings: “Come inside, show me you’re the leader / Switching sides, make me a believer” — proves she’s a songwriter capable of sex innuendos that aren’t just mischievous but also profound, a combination lacking in many of her peers. — Thomas Hobbs
18. Lupe Fiasco — Drill Music In Zion
Lupe Fiasco’s Drill Music In Zion is some of the Chicago rapper’s most focused music in years. The tidy project showcases everything Lupe does well as a rapper – pensive reflection, ambitious rhyme schemes, and serpentine flows that tessellate it all together – and places it under a neat umbrella of atmospheric jazz loopings to help clarify his musings. While DROGAS Wave’s bloated runtime dealt with grandiose existential ponderings on fictional underwater slaves, Drill Music In Zion lives in the now, and Lupe Fiasco instead chooses to settle into each song with intentional thought about the state of our society. The album serves as a collective sigh, with Lupe reminding us that while the pandemic has waned, racist “killers” are “still out there.” “Why should he have such views of the ocean?” Lupe asks at one point. This time he doesn’t have an answer. — Mackenzie Cummings-Grady
17. Rome Streetz — Kiss The Ring
Twenty years ago, Rome Streetz would have incited a major label bidding war for the books. The Queens-raised, Bed Stuy-based rapper’s spotless delivery of frigid street gospels and meticulously-calculated profit margins conjures the type of grime and grit cinema that defined the marquee rap crews of the early-aughts. Kiss The Ring, the rapper’s grand and gracious Griselda debut, is a hard-hitting highlight reel of those powers over the broadest and most diverse palette of production featured on a Rome outing yet. On “In Too Deep,” Rome punches the numbers on the plausibility of his come-up over a cascading vibraphone riff. “Ugly Balenciaga’s” is a full-chested flex grounding a shaky accompaniment of wobbling vocals slipping in and out of pitch. And “Cry Champagne” toasts an unlikely ascendence, leaving the darkest parts of an old life in the rear view. — Zo
16. Alex Isley — Marigold
Alex Isley, the daughter of Ernie Isley, does not rely heavily on her name to make her mark in music. Working with producer Jack Dine — her musical partner since 2019 — Isley continues to blossom more after each project and Marigold is her most accomplished record yet. The luxury of her voice, coupled with Dine’s rich production, gives listeners an intimate escape from the difficult moments, with gems such as “Love Again” and “Under The Moon.” — Quierra Luck
15. Syd — Broken Hearts Club
Five years after her braggadocious solo debut, Fin, Syd is back to being in her feelings. On Broken Hearts Club, the Los Angeles native provides her most vulnerable project yet. And Syd, who’s admitted to an ongoing battle with depression, allows her melancholia to do the talking. “Fast Car,” an ode to Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit of the same title, sees Syd escaping into wanderlust with the lover of her dreams. While on the symphonic “Sweet,” the vocalist’s airy tone breaks through the surface as she vows to give up “clubbin’” and “frontin’” for a dedicated romance. — Jaelani Turner-Williams
14. Drake — Honestly, Nevermind
It’s always fascinating to watch Drake discover a musical sub-culture. It always starts the same way. There’s the trail of follows across the accounts of producers and content creators sending ripples through the algorithms, the murmurs of secret video shoots, a spicy IG post or two, and then, boom, a whole project inspired by his latest fascination. And, for what it’s worth, these sorts of tangential collections of songs have been some of his most interesting and least cringe outings to date. On Honestly, Nevermind, the first, and objectively better, of his 2022 albums, doom-scrolling through viral videos brought Drake back to the endless malleability and global appeal of dance music. Specifically, the house-heavy variants that are rooted in Chicago and Detroit, but still resonate and thrive across Baltimore, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. While there are few contributions from producers actually based in those cities, Honestly, Nevermind enlists Black Coffee and Carnage (producing as “Gordo” across the album,) to emulate and augment the raw elements of a revived regional sound inspiring countless permutations of footwork routines across TikTok. “Falling Back” opens the album with a call to electronic dance music’s Windy City origins, threading a spell of hazy synths and snare-less drum programs with a mantra-like melancholy that even Drake just barely pulls off. Six tracks in, “Sticky” ramps up the BPMs and a jarringly low bar count with some guiltless raunch over stabs of creaky chords and a propulsive four-to-the-floor kicks. And “Jimmy Cooks” commits to chaos, stashing the year’s strongest example of Drake and 21 Savage’s impenetrable chemistry in the closing slot of what will inevitably go down as the most-streamed house album of all-time. It’s probably not an instant classic, or even the type of project we’ll spend too much time analyzing for sly subliminals down the line. But Honestly, Nevermind is, arguably, one of Drake’s most compelling and cohesive genre excavations to date. — Zo
13. Earl Sweatshirt — SICK!
Even in his unenthused delivery, there’s no denying just how much Earl Sweatshirt enjoys rapping, As he’s gotten older, his work has gotten more dense and rich, his rhymes (and how he delivers them) requiring multiple listens to truly understand what he’s trying to articulate. On SICK!, however, the brilliant rapper eschews the denseness for something more clear and direct, even enlisting Young Guru as an engineer to make sure there’s no discrepancy on what’s being said. In its brevity, Earl shows how he continues to be one of rap’s most consistent wordsmiths. Despite its moodiness, “Titanic” is so playful, Earl’s wordplay so enthralling, that you’re likely to laugh in amazement at how he’s connecting lines together. “Tabula Rasa” rides with a somewhat off-kilter beat courtesy of Theravada and Rob Chambers, but Earl glides over it effortlessly, creating different pockets and rapping with an urgency that ends the track. SICK! finds Earl looking forward to the future. He’s not just a rapper but now a father, and with that has come an optimism and confidence that can be felt throughout the album. — EW
12. Pusha T — It’s Almost Dry
It’s Almost Dry proves Pusha T’s approach to coke raps is still pure. Delivering his larger-than-life drug-dealing tales over Donny Hathaway and Jerry Butler samples, Pusha T intertwines tales of his youth in Virginia with his disillusionment with fame and rappers who are considered his peers. The album is produced entirely by Pharrell and pre-QAnon Kanye West. “Brambleton,” which features Pharrell’s best production in years, is a melodic revelation that unveils complex layers to Pusha’s personal story. While Ye’s soulful-sample-based production drive songs like “Diet Coke” and “Dreamin of the Past.” —Kia Turner
11. Denzel Curry — Melt My Eyez See Your Future
Melt My Eyez See Your Future traded in the trunk-rattling of 2019’s ZUU for something brooding and reflective. The backdrops, courtesy of Cardo, JPEG Mafia, Kenny Beats and even Thundercat, are hazy and spacious, packed with tidy drums, ghostly vocals, and silky piano keys, all while Denzel Curry turns a critical eye inward and ruminates on his mortality and disruptive paranoia. While known for harboring a fierce urgency on the mic, Curry’s flow instead unspools like a steady stream, as he asks allegorical questions like “Why I feel like hiding a truth is finding a lie?” alongside double entendres about Star Wars. It all amounts to a candid Denzel Curry that fans have never seen before. — MCG
10. Roc Marciano & The Alchemist — The Elephant Man’s Bones
Whether it’s boasting about the ancient gargoyles sculpted into the roof of his condo or just the joys of getting cosy inside a Hermes blanket, the best Roc Marciano verses are driven by snarky delivery and the veteran MC pushing himself to find eccentric new ways to articulate the idea of living lavish. And in a career packed with important albums that kept artsy, verbose underground hood rap alive and kicking, The Elephant Man’s Bones could just be Roc Marciano’s most accomplished project yet. With precise, crime noir-inspired production by The Alchemist, Roc’s raps are subsequently crisp and cutting, and it feels like you’re listening in on a decorated war general dictating his memoirs over a glass of whiskey. The Blaxploitation-honouring “Quantum Leap” sees Roc talk about seeing light at the end of a tunnel, a line that reflects a relaxed state of mind after years of hustling on the independent circuit, while the elevated atmosphere and sumptuous piano-line of “Zig Zag Zig” more than lives up to a hilarious punchline about being “high as Giraffe’ pussy.” Here, Roc Marciano is spitting some of the best rhymes of his career—it would be no surprise if he became a new lyrical muse to Uncle Al, just like how the late Prodigy used to be. — TH
9. Mavi — Laughing So Hard, it Hurts
It’s rare for a rapper to attribute their creations to femininity or softness, especially in a genre that is known to weaponize such feelings against them. But that intentionality and self awareness is what makes Mavi’s Laughing So Hard, It Hurts stand tall in an overcrowded musicscape. The rapper’s sophomore release is an invitation into a delicate yet wince-inducing process of healing from loss and destruction while being forthright about how he contributes to his own suffering. Feelings of shame (“Having My Way”) and longing (“My Good Ghosts”) exist in congruence with thoughts on fragmented relationships (“3 Left Feet”) and a dedication to the grind. Mavi raps with the wisdom of an old griot while fully embodying the confidence and furor of a young man in his early 20s; his gentle yet inspirational cadence spurring listeners to join him in taking emotional inventory within themselves. — LL
8. Lucky Daye — Candydrip
Candydrip is a well-crafted album by Lucky Daye and his key collaborator D’Mile. In recent years, the latter has left a distinct mark on the sound of modern R&B, and for Candydrip they team up again to create poignant music inspired by ‘70s soul, adding key pop elements. Daye knows he’s one of the faces of R&B right now. However, he has more ambitious tendencies, blurring the lines between R&B, pop, and alt, which can be heard on tracks like “Deserve” and “Fever.” — RM
7. Ari Lennox — age/sex/location
If Shea Butter Baby had a more mature, experienced, and sexier older sister with boundaries, it would be age/sex/location. On the album, Ari Lennox finds herself at the crossroads of ditching romantic uncertainty while maneuvering through an exhausting dating life. From the opening track “POF,” where she questions the “lame fish” swimming towards her, to her flirtatious collaboration with Lucky Daye, “Boy Bye,” which plays out with slick-talking back and forth, Lennox’s storytelling chops and singing ability give the ladies an album for us by us. — KT
6. Kendrick Lamar — Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
As his last album a part of Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers was an ambitious end to an era. All of his previous albums proved his capabilities as a rapper and artist, pushing himself to create everything from a concept album about growing up in Compton to an Afrofuturist homage to Black music of the past and present. Even his second to last TDE album, DAMN., earned the Pulitzer Prize in Music. So, making a deeply personal and vulnerable double album as his follow-up wasn’t really much of a surprise. On Mr. Morale, Lamar is a man battling not just himself but the expectations placed upon him. He’s more focused with healing himself than he is being rap’s savior, making for an album that tackles the idea of cancel culture, materialism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual assault, and more. In addressing such complex themes, Lamar is inconsistent and messy. Take “Auntie Diaries” for example, where Lamar’s use of a homophobic slur overshadows the impact of arguably one of the most important tracks on the project. Other times, Lamar is so effective at broaching these weighty topics that it’ll likely leave you emotional, as is the case with the poignant confession that is “Mother I Sober.” Mr. Morale isn’t Lamar’s best, but it could be his most ambitious, lyrically. To see him bring himself down from the rap God pedestal we’ve placed him on and show himself as a fallible and flawed man, spoke to listeners — especially Black men — in a way that other mainstream rap albums haven’t recently. — EW
5. Brent Faiyaz — Wasteland
On the opening track of Brent Faiyaz’s Wasteland, “Villain’s Theme,” you hear a collage of interview clips surrounded by menacing synths and violin plucks. Within them Faiyaz attempts to reframe his “toxic” artist label. He claims, instead, that he musically documents an innately human quest for “temporary euphoria” within a fast-paced existence. The album chronicles this passage as Faiyaz is led by the looming strings of producer Jordan Waré to his eventual doom. Faiyaz’s signature croons feel right at home atop production that feels intended for a film score. His most thematic and narrative based project yet allows him to use enticing melodic flickers like dynamic scene cuts. Hear Faiyaz’s icey falsetto delivery of “You just spilled Louis 13 on my McQueens,” on “Rolling Stone,” or his sharp flutter turned to guttural melisma via the line, “Now my bitch addicted to Chanel,” on “Jackie Brown.” — Miki Hellerbach
4. Vince Staples — RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART
Vince Staples holds his Long Beach origins close to heart on his fifth album. RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART ranges in moods, whether celebratory “(AYE! FREE THE HOMIES)” or grim (“WHEN SPARKS FLY”). Staples’ latest effort harkens back to sounds of his youth, with a nod to G-Funk legend DJ Quik and bringing collaborators Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign along for a ride. The album highlights narratives from those trapped in the cycle of gang violence as Staples connects his crime-ridden streets to universal hoods — enter Atlanta rhymesayer Lil Baby, who brings Staples to the Dirty South on “EAST POINT PRAYER.” — JTW
3. Steve Lacy — Gemini Rights
If anyone needed a peek into the multi-faceted minds and hearts of a Gemini, Steve Lacy gave the world its best glimpse. Launching his second studio album, Gemini Rights, off into high gear with “Static,” we hear Steve profess being tired of boys and wanting a girlfriend, which ultimately leads the way for baring honesty that only continued to shine and be heard on multiple standouts throughout the album’s duration. Composed of 10 tracks, Mr. Lacy perfectly fused elements of Contemporary R&B, Jazz, Rock and other genres while remaining the main character. If TikTok is to be credited for Steve Lacy’s Billboard chart success, It’s Gemini Rights that sets a solid foundation for his radiant future as a solo artist. — Travis Grier
2. Beyoncé — Renaissance
Beyoncé’s brilliant album Renaissance is a culmination of the decades she’s spent expressing herself musically. Throughout the album, she injects dance music, disco, and house which creates an energy that is infectious. The inclusion of legends Grace Jones, Nile Rogers, and Raphael Saadiq — in addition to contemporary acts like Hit-Boy, Tems, and Nija Charles — created an intergenerational musical exchange that landed like a cultural comet. — RM
1. J.I.D — The Forever Story
“I got the shit you could play for your mama; I got the shit you could play for the hoes.”
That statement couldn’t ring more true for J.I.D who is at his best on The Forever Story, an album home to a wide spectrum of records, from the hard-hitting “Surround Sound” to the gospel-inspired “Sistanem” which, somehow, sound like they belong under the same cohesive roof. That’s the beauty of J.I.D’s The Forever Story — J.I.D’s versatility as an artist constructs new levels of excitement on each track. Sounding like one of R&B’s own on “Kody Blu 31,” but spitting ferociously among the greats on “Stars” and “Just In Time,” this album holds J.I.D at his most supreme level: poised, passionated, and precise. There can no longer be a conversation about today’s most talented and consistent in hip-hop without J.I.D being among the best. — TG