Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
20. Tory Lanez, I Told You
This Canadian upstart has fielded more than a few shots this year from Drake and his fans for hijacking the OVO sound, but perhaps it could be argued just as easily that the two merely draw from the same inspirations. After all, they both spent time in the southern United States throughout childhood. Even if there’s not a lot of R&B/rappers making major headlines from the province of Ontario, between Drizzy, The Weeknd, and now Lanez, Canada is better represented in the hip-hop world than many formerly major music cities in the US. Back to I Told You, though, which is Lanez major label debut, the record follows a more traditional linear storyline complete with skits, which are mostly very bad, and fourteen luscious, falsetto-driven songs that outshine Drake’s singing voice even at his peak “Hold On We’re Going Home” levels. If Lanez can ditch the skits and differentiate himself a bit more from Toronto’s two biggest stars, he will easily be the most exciting R&B artist working in Canada — or the US for that matter.—Caitlin White
19. 6Lack, Free 6Lack
6LACK came in as a late-game entry into year-end lists when he released his Free 6LACK project in November. For many, the 11-song release was the formal introduction the 24-year-old member of the Atlanta collective LoveRenaissance, and he made a strong impression on his debut by crafting songs that were dark, intoxicating but above all relatable.
The singer-songwriter refers to his sound as being “monochromatic” with the desired effect being to create a level of relaxed cool for listeners. “I wanted it to be aggressive, but I also wanted it to be calming,” he said of the project. “I want people to feel something. Regardless of how personal it can be at times, and how intense the message is, it still soothes you.”
Apparently, fans took note of the vibes. “PRBLMS” and “Ex Calling” racked up over eight million plays on SoundCloud alone, the bulk of which came before the project released. Tracks like “Ex” and “Luving U” are preoccupied with the constant tug of war that goes on with relationships while “Worst Luck” finds 6LACK facing himself in the mirror as the reason why things go sour. He sings, “I swear no matter what I touch it breaks.” His honesty in his lyrics is one of the album’s strongest qualities, alongside his mastery of hooks and melodies.
Above all, Free 6LACK’s most impressive quality is how the emerging artist paints a picture of life as he knows it: the struggles to break free from his previous label, him being homeless at one point and, of course, the heartaches. Everything centers around the dark clouds that hung over his life and career for the past few years. But, 6LACK need not worry because what Free 6LACK shows is how bright his future is about to become.—John Gotty
18. Yuna, Chapters
Even if Usher is no longer the undisputed king of R&B, a look from a mastermind like him is still an important indication that a new artist has something special. So when Yuna enlisted him for her sultry hit duet “Crush,” it was time to sit up and pay attention to this Malaysian singer. Chapters is the third international release from the musical prodigy, who began writing songs in her home country at the tender age of fourteen, and has spent the last sixteen years building a global reputation. Considering her other guest star is Jhene Aiko, you could say that Yuna has earned the respect of important R&B players, but the thing about Chapters is she doesn’t even need the star power boost. She wields her own voice with the precision and grace of a veteran, but writes with the tender bleeding heartedness of a rookie. Throw on “Unrequited Love” the next time you’re nursing a one-sided love, or “Too Close” if you’re feeling jaded after a devastating heartache. I’m not guaranteeing Chapters will fix either situation, but damn if there isn’t comfort in hearing your misery reflected so masterfully.—C.W.
17. Alicia Keys, HERE
Alicia Keys made headlines this year for her decision not to wear makeup to a high profile entertainment event… which is a sentence no one should ever have to write. Sure, she had a good reason, and dismantling the standards of heteronormative western beauty is a cause I can definitely get behind, but this kind of stunt around an album release always feels a little… thirsty. On HERE, Keys cranks it up to eleven, looking far beyond feel-good R&B to interrogate the injustice that lurks around every bend, translating the pain of others into uplifting, soulful cries that can’t be silenced. It is an album full of intensely earnest, compassionate songs that clearly have great intentions but rarely transcend the confines of their respective causes. Odds are, though, if you put it on in the car for your mom she will be thrilled. Every year should have an album like that.—C.W.
16. The Weeknd, Starboy
There was a legit reason for concern when the tracklist for The Weeknd’s Starboy was released. The project was 18 tracks long. That’s a huge deal for an artist who typically keeps it short and sweet.
His first three mixtapes — House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes Of Silence — were all nine songs apiece and two out of three are crowned classics. His debut album, Kiss Land, boasted ten songs. His breakout album, Beauty Behind The Madness, pushed it a little with 14. But 18? Those many songs stacked together could’ve been released as a double-LP when compared to the number of tunes on Abel’s previous projects. While Starboy boasts hits, its length is also its weakness as it points out the misses and brings down the average of an otherwise solid album.
Abel shines brightly on numbers like “Die For You,” “Ordinary Life,” “Attention,” and “True Colors.” The content is much deeper than what The Weeknd is typically known for by fans who only know him as the guy who made a catchy pop song about sniffing cocaine. Where Starboy stumbles is when he rehashes sounds we’ve heard from him previously. He traps himself in the one-trick pony box with songs like “Six Feet Under,” a lazy number that’s pretty much “Low Life” meets Beyonce’s “Six Inch Heels,” a song Abel coincidentally helped pen for Queen Bey. The similarities to Michael Jackson are also a little too apparent on the released singles and “A Lonely Light” as well as “Rockin” and border karaoke as a result.
Overall, the album has more hits than misses. The difference is those great songs outpace the less than stellar ones by a sizable distance. Perhaps if the Starboy had cut down his latest effort by five or six entries, it would have made for a much more consistent listen.—Delenda Joseph