As "back outside" signifies the biggest acts in hip-hop returning to the spotlight with highly anticipated albums, in that same breath, buzzing rap artists have also gotten their foothold in the game, dropping albums in the same airspace as the big dogs. That indirect competition leads to artists on different journeys in their career all shining in the same six-month window of 2022, so far. Here, XXL champions some of the best hip-hop projects that were released this year up until July 8; time will tell where everything lands as the year closes.

No rap album was more anticipated this year than Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale and The Big Steppershis first project since 2017's Damn. The personal (and controversial) work is Kendrick fighting with his own demons and shortcomings, then turning them outward into how they sit in the world and in everyone else's perceptions of him. Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers is a change for Kendrick, both in sound and the type of guests he chose (Kodak Black has multiple appearances). Meanwhile, Future, another top-tier artist, released I Never Liked You, which is more of a course correction to his earlier work, when he was more focused on revolutionizing how trap rap sounded. Pusha T, another hip-hop mainstay who's been in the game for over 20 years now, dropped arguably his best solo album with It's Almost Dry, a project that showcases his skills within coke rap (and his technical talent period) are still there and can hold up within the modern era of music.

While Lil Durk has been around for quite some time, he didn't start to have a true commercial breakthrough until a few years ago. His albums have consistently sold better by the year and his latest offering, 7220, keeps that streak alive. This album feels more focused and centralized than his previous work, without sounding repetitive. Durk getting to a point where he displays this much polish is beautiful to see and is a testament to sticking to one's own path.

On the other side of the coin, some of rap's newer names also had big album releases this year, too. Latto, fresh off of the success of her single "Big Energy," dropped her sophomore album, 777, sounding much more comfortable from a songwriting and structure standpoint than before. Her lyrical skills are there, as they've been out the gate, but she settles into her persona now, as the quick-witted rapper who is just as comfortable with romance as she is with competing against her peers. Coi Leray, rolling along off the success of her 2021 single "No More Parties" and it's Durk remix, released Trendsetter this year, on which she dabbles in trap, R&B, pop and more. Coi has more versatility than she gets credit for and as she continues to develop, will continue to make interesting music and lean into her fearlessness.

Rap's old guard has done plenty to push the genre forward, but the future looks good, too. Take a look at the best hip-hop projects of 2022 so far below.

See the Best Hip-Hop Projects of 2022 So Far

Which project is your favorite?

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