Arts & CultureMusicScene Guide

Looking back on 2011 in hip hop: the year’s 11 best debuts



For hip hop, the 2010s began in 2011. It was a blockbuster year. Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and titles like Watch the Throne, Drake’s Take Care, and Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers dominated the charts. But more prescient were the throngs of weirdos bubbling under the surface in the blogosphere, releasing their debuts into the void. Here are 11 hip hop artists who got their starts in 2011 and the works that launched their careers:

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Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter. Armed with one of the most distinctive and interesting personae in hip hop, this 27-year-old former chef seemingly sprung onto the scene fully-formed. His vivid descriptions of a food-fueled high life make Dr. Lecter one of the great escapist rap albums of our time.

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A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP. Even after signing a $3-million record deal with RCA without releasing a single tape, it was hard to imagine what a juggernaut A$AP Rocky would become from his modest debut. LiveLoveA$AP was praised primarily for its production, but it’s still arguably his most solid listen.

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Childish Gambino – Camp. Between Das Racist referencing Julian Schnabel and Danny Brown raving about Joy Division, 2011 was a good year to be a hipster in rap. Perhaps the strongest evidence for this is the fact that people actually took Donald Glover’s relentlessly self-deprecating joke-rap debut seriously.

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Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape. One might never guess the sheer depth and beauty of beatmaker Clams Casino’s Instrumental Mixtape given his list of clients, filled with goofballs like Lil B, Mac Miller, and Soulja Boy. But the man’s got an ear, and Instrumental Mixtape makes that much clear.

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Death Grips – Exmilitary. Mainstream rap is as industrial as a chicken-rendering plant these days, and it’s all thanks to Death Grips. Exmilitary was a great introduction to the band’s brash and provocative style. Still, it was hard to predict they’d be such a cult phenomenon.

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Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra. Odd Future’s biggest surprise would prove to be its introverted hookman. The originals on Nostalgia, Ultra showed Ocean’s flair for songwriting, but the mixtape’s true gems are its covers, especially a tragic, apocalyptic take on Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing.”

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J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story. Before he was trying to make masterpieces, J. Cole was just trying to break through. The spotty Sideline Story attempted to balance Cole’s conscious-rap posturing with his cash-cow potential. It worked, selling over 200,000 copies in its first week.

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Kendrick Lamar – Section.80. The young Compton MC’s debut rippled with promise, even if he still wore his 2pac influence on his sleeve and hadn’t quite developed his operatic narrative flair. The next year, he’d make good kid, m.A.A.d city, one of the decade’s few genuine instant classics.

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Mac Miller – Blue Slide Park. Panned upon release, Blue Slide Park was actually a solid and likable frat-rap album. Miller’s hedonistic lyrics might have been as deep as a puddle of spilled jungle juice, but he had great flow and undeniable personality. 

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Tyler, The Creator – Goblin. Tyler had been kicking around for a while by the time he released Goblin, but his first official studio album launched his career into the cosmos. Goblin has aged badly, but without its success, it’s hard to imagine where his more talented bros Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean would be.


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Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield is a writer for the Arts & Culture desk of the Emerald, specializing in music. He maintained the SF Rebirth blog in San Francisco from 2010-2013, and his work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, KWVA, and the Oregon Voice.