Somehow, we’ve managed to reach the midpoint of 2017. Looking back on the past winter and spring, it’s staggering to consider the dominant place that hip-hop currently occupies in the music world at large. The album charts in sixteen of the last twenty-six weeks have been dominated by rap acts; the singles charts were equally flooded with rap hits.
Blockbusters from Drake and Kendrick Lamar have dominated the conversation, but there’s also been some significant next steps from established acts like Migos, Future, and Joey Badass, as well as some less heralded gems from G. Perico, The Last Artful Dodgr, and DJ Quik and Problem. As we round into the second half of the year, now’s a good time to take stock of where we’ve been and who is coming out on top in rap so far in 2017.
You can read our survey of the larger rock and pop music world here.
30. Wale, Shine
Wale is at his best with nothing to prove, and nothing to say. His best projects prove it; The Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing felt like the best representations of the Wale who wore Nudie jeans and told us not to sass him for doing it. While there were some moments of finger-wagging — “The Vacation From Ourselves” springs to mind here — it was all done with a jovial air, a wink and a smirk from someone who knew he had the whole sky as his ceiling and unlimited potential for success in his future.
Then, Attention Deficit bricked, and he was left scarred and scrambling, desperate to justify the little success he’d attained and intent on not squandering the rare second shot he’d been afforded by the kindness and foresight of one Rick Ross. The result was a Wale who was mad at the industry, mad at his critics, mad at himself, mad at Twitter, and mad at the world.
Shine is the exact opposite. It’s a Wale who embraces his second generation immigrant roots on “Fine Girl” and “My Love,” who is willing to get back to rapping for the fun of rhyming words to impress himself alone on “Fashion Week” and “Smile.” It’s like he went to therapy between albums, got all the anxiety and angst and frustration and anger out of his system, took one look at his newborn son, and said, ‘I have nothing to worry about anymore; life is good.’ Shine is a reminder of that; no matter what is said about you online, no matter how many L’s you’ve taken, your attitude about it is the only thing you have control over. You might as well smile.—Aaron Williams
29. Jidenna, The Chief
When “Classic Man” dropped waaay back in the far off days of 2015, it was considered a one-off from a gimmicky, one-hit wonder rap singer whose look was an update of the dapper Fonzworth Bentley from ten years prior, and whose sound was destined to end up in the same abyss (Dide note: it really is a travesty we never got a full album from Bentley, because those singles, “Everybody” and “C.O.L.O.R.S.,” were A-1). It was a quiet couple of years from the stylish, possibly overdressed, creative as well. Apart from his appearance on Netflix’s Luke Cage with single “Long Live the Chief,” which to be fair really is a banger, it really looked like Jidenna’s run was over before it began.
Then he unleashed a minor deluge of singles from The Chief like “The Let Out” and “Bambi,” and it was obvious that notion couldn’t have been more wrong. Thank goodness, too, otherwise the world would have been deprived of the menacing “A Bull’s Tale,” the barrel-chested “Chief Don’t Run,” and the triumphant “Helicopters.” “The Let Out” may have never gotten its just due as the best part of any night out on the town; day parties throughout the United States — nay, throughout the world — would never have been blessed with the tropical Afrobeats perfection of “Little Bit More,” Jidenna’s supremely danceable nod to his cultural roots.
And while plenty of rappers have mused on the possible paradoxes of a world where the roles of black and white folks in America were reversed (Nas and Lupe have both given it a shot), few have been executed with as much wit, incisive observational skill, and approachability as the idyllic sounding, daydream-y “White Niggas.” On The Chief Jidenna showed that he was nowhere near a one-trick pony, displaying a wide array of versatile skills and the ability to make clever and catchy pop-rap out of pretty much any subject he wants — from classic man to renaissance man, Jidenna is a man of many hats, with a suit to match every occasion.—Aaron Williams
28. Porter Ray, Watercolor
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Porter Ray, get ready to change that. His hometown of Seattle is already well aware of Ray’s star-making abilities, and Ray has been a regional legend for quite some time now, racking up co-signs from the city’s current biggest star, Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces, who also happens to A&R for the best label up in the Pacific Northwest, Sub Pop Records. That connection led the storied indie rock label to release Ray’s official debut record, the woozy, starlit Watercolor, a record that — along with The Artful, Dodger’s Bone Music — helps establish a real presence for Northwest rap.
Though Ray is a great MC in his own right, the host of talent involved with Watercolor is staggering. Along with expected appearances of Butler himself, features from THEESatisfaction, Cashtro, Fly Guy Dai, Jus Moni and more are sprinkled throughout the fourteen tracks, waxing eloquent on the state of being Black in America, to more exalted subjects like “Sacred Geometry,” and, most often matters of the heart. Like his mentor, Butler, Ray is able to take topics like rap and f*cking and make them as cosmic as any other facet of the human experience. Watercolor is as personal a rap album you’ll hear in 2017, and it sounds like just the first chapter in what is sure to be a long and fascinating story.—Caitlin White
27. Raekwon, The Wild
About a week before Raekwon dropped his latest solo album The Wild, he told me “You know, it’s one thing to be a legend, and to be a legend that don’t got it no more. I’m a legend that still has it.” Normally, I dismiss declarations of this sort from artists that have been around the game for a bit as spin or bluster. Listening to his latest work, I was happy to discover that it was neither. Raekwon still totally has it. The mighty chef of the Wu-Tang Clan came raging back this year following a disappointing effort on 2015’s Fly International Luxurious Arts. I think in critic-speak, the phrase one might use to describe The Wild would be to call it a return to form. There’s fire in these verses and in these beats, that bely Rae’s status as a ‘90s rap icon. Many old-school heads look down on what gets blasted out of the radio today, but the Wu-Tang-er himself is taking notes. You can hear his passion through his journey in the harsh concrete jungle of his upbringing in “This Is What It Comes Too,” you can hear it on the soulful send-up to the Motown icon Marvin Gaye on “Marvin,” and you can hear it in the collaboration with his young protégé P.U.R.E., “M.N.” Oh yeah, Raekwon still has it alright.—Corbin Reiff
26. Roc Marciano, Rosebudd’s Revenge
“Rappers are rappers, pimps are pimps,” are the main takeaways from the opening dissertation on Roc Marciano’s fourth LP, Rosebud’s Revenge. Roc Marc exists in a weight class that celebrates, cherishes and upholds the halcyon days of New York rap. You know, that Timbs and hoody era where every tough guy had a switchblade or wandered day and night wondering when the sun would set on Ed Koch and rise on David Dinkins’ mayoral tenure. A Long Island native, Marc doesn’t piece together his rhymes in a distant land as RZA would, especially not on this album. Instead, he delivers words and verbal theory on top of dusty, era=specific production with basslines that feel as heavy as clothes drenched in molasses. “Beefin’ with me and mine’ll lead to E.Coli” is a line that exists on “Rosebud’s Revenge” and the imagery only becomes more vivid from there. Marc’s lean delivery makes all of this seem cinematic, colors that pop, names that only ‘90s babies would immediately perk up at (Dominique Wilkins, Christina Applegate) and a near Mafioso hitman approach that Rick Ross would only make more outlandish and cartoonish. It’s clear from Rosebud’s Revenge’s opening moments that this is an album that wastes little time establishing character and motive. In Roc’s mind, this isn’t a confessional or a high-priced therapy session that namechecks certain issues. It’s a guttural, descriptive piece of noir, from jewelry cleaning (toothpaste gets the job done still) to leaving robberies with a small piece of a conscience (“Burkina Faso”). Roc’s world and stylistic approach is less Miami Vice and more gritty Superfly. It’s unclear as to whether or not he wants to go down as a known auteur or rather a rapper who became appreciated long after he was gone. Whatever the case, he’s still crafting worlds with some of the most arresting detail in hip-hop.—Brandon Caldwell