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.
In 2016, rap embraced the weird. In 2017, rap got serious, grew up, and both became fiery and political, and personable and confessional. Hip-hop culture has always been vaguely autobiographical in nature. The best MCs tell their stories, exaggerated for effect and magnified a hundred times to play to the back seats. But lately, with the building sense of discontent and insecurity growing in the national zeitgeist, all the trappings of fame and wealth seem to be vacuous and empty, without meaning. In response, rap became more pared-down, getting back to basics with more straightforward, quick-and-dirty productions, or else it looked far ahead, embracing Afrofuturistic themes as an escape to the day-to-day dystopia, where a tweet feels like the tinder to spark a nuclear war.
Jay-Z and No ID released a creatively daring, intellectually stimulating reflection on fidelity, manhood, and generational wealth to address the buzzing undercurrent of civil unrest, while Vince Staples went the opposite way, bringing that clattering paranoia to the surface and then slingshotting it 100 years into a possible future where Black is the dominant culture. Kendrick Lamar moved away from the funky, jazzy experimentation of his most recent album to an old-school collection of straight-up bangers that nevertheless peeled back the layers of insecurities, doubts, fears, and faith that make him such a fascinating study of an artist’s psyche. Rappers tackled every subject from gentrification to creating a legacy, using a hundred different angles. They personified project buildings, imagined space alien visitations, and used both high concept and plainspoken, naturalistic narrative to illustrate the breadth of the culture, and more importantly of the human lives that constitute it, proving that hip-hop is not a monolith, but an intricately-woven, colorful tapestry.
30. Lil Yachty, Teenage Emotions
For a brief period of time in 2017, Lil Yachty was the tipping point when it came to celebrating fun over skill in hip-hop. He played coy in interviews, became a larger entity solely off of his infectious personality and finished off 2017 with his head held high. When the rollout for Teenage Emotions first began, the cover art became the talk of the town. All of your phobics were trotted out and questioned, from those who hate the fat, gay, or anything in between. Yachty put it front and center, all but saying: “This is what America looks like and we’re going to be completely fine with it.” (To wit, Harlem rapper JR Writer attempted to mock it but ultimately failed.) Then the music arrived, a bushel of squelchy pop-rap moments where the main emotion presented was to have fun and forgeting everything else you may be going through.
When his previous mixtape, Lil Boat, pushed Yachty to this position thanks to singles like “1 Night,” “Minnesota,” and a guest spot on D.R.A.M’s “Broccoli,” many expected his musicianship to improve around album time. Chasing the approval of rap’s gatekeepers wasn’t Yachty’s main thinking point in creating Teenage Emotions. Crafting records such as the falsetto-driven “Lady In Yellow” and “Made Of Glass” is the main point. Yachty’s slipping in between autotune driven melodies and cadences, even dropping goofy, sex-related puns along the way. Most of the early appeal about Yachty was his aimless charm, a song constructor who got from point A to point C, ignoring what point B was all about.
Teenage Emotions scrubs that thought and basks in the fact that Yachty is here, he’s nabbing Migos features (“Peek A Boo”) and inviting them to his world rather than dancing around in theirs. He’s here for the here and the now, which is why the large glut of his one-hour debut album spends so much time trafficking in the highs and lows of emotion. Big personalities are always surefire winners in rap. What lies beyond the bright red braids and smile is a musician far more careful with his sound than he’d like to put on. Old heads be damned, the youth will anoint Yachty as a man of the present, which is all that matters to that crowd anyway.–Brandon Caldwell
29. Meek Mill, Wins & Losses
Growth can be a funny thing for an artist. If the artist grows faster than the fanbase, that growth can be rejected and seen as a misstep in a promising career. In the case of Meek Mill, after the disastrous feud with Drake and an increasingly redundant content base, the growth he exhibited on Wins & Losses was not only welcomed, but celebrated, as the troubled 30-year-old Philly MC turned that growth into the greatest project of his still young career.
Yes, raps about his watches and cars are still prevalent throughout, but so were moments of impressive and surprising introspection and maturity like on the poignant “Young Black America.” Meek was still caught up in his wild ways, running the streets and getting into trouble, but on Wins & Losses instead of celebrating those incidents, he was reflecting on them and growing to understand the error in his ways.
It was a refreshing journey into the mind of Meek, a 30-year-old man slowly figuring life out one mistake at a time and seemingly learning from each and every one of them. Unfortunately, a decade-old transgression landed him back in prison before he could truly bask in the glory of Wins & Losses, but with all the maturity and clarity he exhibited on the album, it all adds to the anticipation of we’ll see next from him.–Eddie Gonzalez
28. Mike Will Made-It, Ransom 2
Mike Will Made-It is one of the top purveyors of modern hip-hop’s subcutaneous, 808-leaning soundscape, which is the mainstream sound du jour. The super-producer had a busy 2017, crafting ubiquitous hits like Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” and Yo Gotti and Nicki Minaj’s “Rake It Up,” but he still had time to put some fire to the side for his own endeavors.
Enter Ransom 2, the debut studio album that showcases him on top of his game as a producer. From the outset, with the Big Sean-featured “On The Come Up,” Mike Will’s labyrinthic drum programming and futuristic EQing serve as the perfect canvas for some of today’s biggest stars to talk their shit. From the normally reserved Lil Yachty boasting “They lookin’ at boat like I am the villain” on “Hasselhoff” to the rare Chief Keef feature on the turn-up anthem ”Come Down,” Will found the gamut of MCs who would sound ideal on his production. Oh, and he got Rihanna to come through on album-closing banger “Nothing Is Promised.”
Released in late March right as the weather changed for most regions, Ransom 2 turned into the perfect soundtrack for sunny days and wild nights.–Andre Gee
27. Kamaiyah, Before I Wake
It took Oakland’s Kamaiyah longer than expected to truly follow up her stellar 2016 debut A Good Night In The Ghetto. Whether it was label strife or creative issues, clearly Yaya hit some sort of a rut, and after a lukewarm single release, it was worthing wondering if she’d even get the chance to drop a new mixtape anytime soon. But when she finally jump back into the fray, she picked up right where she left off on her new LP, Before I Wake.
Once again, the 25-year-old leaned on her decidedly retro sound and meshed the with her decidedly modern deliveries to craft a unique synthesis of old and new. But where A Good Night in the Ghetto seemed to be a celebration of life, sexuality, and confidence, Kamaiyah seems downright frustrated and annoyed at times on Before I Wake. Maybe it was the issues she had trying to release new music, maybe it was something else going on in her life but there’s more bite to Yaya this time around. Still, she finds time to flaunt and stunt some more when necessary, bragging “I been her, I been that, I been this bitch” on the 9-track LP’s opener, “Dope Bitch.” So, yeah, Kamaiyah may have “f*cked up this summer” because she “didn’t put out one damn song,” but clearly she still isn’t lacking for confidence, and with as smooth a ride as Before I Wake is, she has plenty of reason to be a little cocky.–E.G.
26. Loyle Carner, Yesterday’s Gone
It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated that the most lyrically-complex, personal project of the year came not from some product of one of the slums of America’s big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, or New York City. Loyle Carner, the 23-year-old creator of Yesterday’s Gone, instead hails from the Lamberth section of South London, yet his bars will hold up against even the most cerebral New York spitters most elaborate rhyme schemes, both by the nature of their density and their intense relatability.
The debut album was nominated for the Mercury Prize (sort of like Britain’s Grammys), and several songs landed in national campaigns for Apple and Yves Saint Laurent. With just one listen, it’s easy to see why. Soulfully revealing tracks like “Florence” and “Sun Of Jean” peel back the layers of his early life as a product of a single-parent household where he was forced to be the man of the house way before he should have been, shining a light on the universality of rap’s well-trod favorite issues. But “The Isle Of Arran,” which samples S.C.I. Youth Choir’s “The Lord Will Make a Way,” illustrates the inspirational flip side of that equation, while “No CD” remains one of the illest odes of the year to hip-hop and its powerful effect on the youth — no matter which side of the pond they call home.–Aaron Williams
25. Cardi B, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 2
Of all the big years in rap in 2017, Cardi B’s may have been the biggest. The 25-year-old scored a ubiquitous hit in “Bodak Yellow,” and completed her transformation from reality star to bonafide superstar as she nabbed two Grammy nominations. It was quite the story, and all of the Cardi hoopla overshadowed her lone full-length release of the year, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2.
And that’s a shame because all of the things that made Cardi the year’s most affable and likable personality — and made “Bodak Yellow” a smash — were evident on Vol. 2. Sure, there’s no clear runaway like “Bodak,” but there is plenty of potential on Vol. 2, especially when she links up with her now-fiance Offset for the rowdy, banger “Lick.” Cardi is as rambunctious and transparent as ever, and the signs of her development as an artist are evident. “Now how much times do I gotta prove these n—-s wrong? / And how much times I gotta show these b*tches I ain’t soft?” she raps to open up the set on “Bronx Season.” And while she begins fighting off her pundits, before long she’s unloading trademark Cardi quips like “No tolerance for a hatin’ b*tch talkin’ shit / Only time I hold my tongue is when I’m suckin’ dick.”–E.G.
24. Nocando, Severed
Though he’s already moved on, releasing a dark, sultry new project called King Snake this past Friday, it was Nocando’s Severed, from this spring, that resonated in 2017. Anchored by the raging “El Camino,” which kicked off the album cycle late in 2016, Severed amounts to a comeback album from a rapper born under a bad sign.
Nocando, real name James McCall, has been a fixture in the LA underground rap scene for over a decade, spotlighting other rappers with his longtime label Hellfyre Club, and getting little thanks in return for the pains of running an independent business in an industry that actively seeks to squash upstarts. Whether it’s biting back against the shady business practices of some of his peers, or celebrating the legacy of one of LA’s greatest battle rappers, Mykraphone Myk, McCall can’t turn off his truth-telling, tantalizing flow, that taunts and teases enemies, before tenderly turning inward to contemplate the dissolution of his first major romantic partnership.
Atmosphere’s Slug shows up here, as does British rapper Ghetts, but they are just visitors in Nocando’s world, and Severed is very much the story of letting go of some parts of himself that would be better left on the cutting room floor. Calm comes before the storm, and bloodletting before the battle. Lean, mean, and ready to reclaim his spot on the food chain, Severed proves that you can’t keep a good man down, even if he has to cut the fat before he stands back up.–Caitlin White
23. Big KRIT, 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time
Constructing a great double album has long been one of hip-hop’s greatest mysteries. Jay-Z couldn’t do it 15 years ago. Nas couldn’t do it 13 years ago. The Notorious B.I.G. may have been the closest to fully realizing it, but even Life After Death has some skippable moments on there. Big KRIT, fresh off leaving Def Jam and maybe the major label game altogether, managed to take 20 songs that cover a wide-range of his psyche and hunger for 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time and came away freer than ever.
KRIT, at his best, is a Southern revivalist who understood the precise nature of Pimp C and Organized Noise’s production and 8Ball’s authoritative growl. Decades of reflection have given KRIT his greatest music whether it be “The Vent,” “Good Enough,” or even “Free My Soul.” 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time pushes most of those moments to the second half of the album with “Drinking Sessions” and “The Light” among some of KRIT’s best work. In other years, KRIT may have made concessions, songs of appeasement where the radio was the main goal. Here, he shuns it, and somehow crafting tracks radio would readily eat up.
“Lay Up” is breezy and relaxed, “1999” takes an interpolation of Juvenile’s 1998 classic “Back That Ass Up” for an R&B joyride thanks to Lloyd. Most of all, Krizzle’s hunger, the one that seemed a bit absent on those Def Jam releases, is on full display here. “Confetti” stretches as a gothic, chest-thumping hymn while “Keep The Devil Off” masters the electric revival OutKast set out on “B.O.B.” KRIT came back better than ever on his double album. He always had something to say. Giving him the creative freedom to do so made the message louder.–B.C.
22. 2 Chainz, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
In the debate over the best album title of the year, 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, clearly sits at the top of the list, and as for the actual music, it’s not too far from the top either. After trading bars with his idol Lil Wayne on last year’s ColleGrove, Tity Boi came back on the solo tip, with sxiteen booming tracks full of his signature braggadocio and flavor. Sure, a few older tracks found their way onto the LP, like “Big Amount” with Drake and “Good Drank” featuring Quavo and Gucci Mane, but that doesn’t stop the moment at all, and both feel right at home even when hindered a tad by familiarity.
What Chainz provides throughout is a colorful and exciting approach, unfurling line after line after line about his wardrobe as well as his exquisite taste in everything from food to liquor to women. His life is opulent and his raps are elegant, adding up to an hour-long ride through the trap in a Phantom while chowing down on a thousand dollar burger and sitting next to a model. On the soothing “It’s A Vibe” he practically whispers, “I got the ambiance just where I want it,” before he rips through lines about his ego being as big as a house, cougars pining to spend money on him, and sex so good he needs riot gear. 2 Chainz is clearly living his best life and on Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, he allowed us to all take a peek at just how he’s living — through Versace shades, of course.–E.G.
21. The Outfit, TX, Fuel City
The Outfit, TX don’t need an introduction if you’ve been paying attention — unfortunately, a lot of you haven’t been. For years this Dallas-based group has been simmering in the Texas underground, melting old school crunk down for parts, and recasting it as a vehicle for their own superb bars. Whether it’s stunting anthems like the album opener “Big Splash” or horny drug dealer anthems like “Baby’nem,” the group doesn’t let up for a single second of their latest record, Fuel City, which includes the infectious single “Phone Line,” and the unmissable, dizzying “Outta Control.”
Dorian and Mel helm production for the group, and with the welcome addition of JayHawk, all three rap on the project. In an era that’s dominated by solo stars, the powerful pull of group dynamics unfolding across their songs makes Fuel City stand out among competitors. This year, The Outfit, TX linked up with local LA label POW Recordings for the release, helping them earn an audience of outside of their native Texas.–C.W.