Rap in 2016 was a strange beast. Two of the biggest superstars in the genre put out records — Kanye and Drake respectively — but neither release possessed the world-stopping power that was apparent the last time this face off happened, back in 2013. Another huge contender, Kendrick Lamar, had already dominated 2015 with jazz-fusion of To Pimp A Butterfly, so his surprise collection of castoff demos this year felt like a carryover, but not a crown. After the initial thrill of these big name records wore off, there was still energy left over to celebrate emerging acts like Open Mike Eagle, Noname, and Lil Yachty.
A vacuum of sorts began to open up in the hip-hop world, particularly in the back half of the year, that let weird, wild newcomers like D.R.A.M. and Rae Sremmurd step into the spotlight. It let near-supernovas who have been grinding just outside the spotlight like YG and Schoolboy Q take center stage. But more than anything, the lull from rap’s two reigning kings let two other superstars-in-the-making rise, so two of the youngest, brashest, most independent voices clamored so loud they clambered all the way past their idols. In 2016, the student has become the master, and everybody is still learning.
20. Open Mike Eagle, Hella Personal Film Festival
Open Mike Eagle makes paranoia sound zen on his sprawling collaboration with UK producer Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival, a record that playfully interrogates deadly serious topics. Mike’s sly expansiveness mimics the deceptively cheerful warmth of the city of Los Angeles that he now calls home, and though he can sound downright lackadaisical on rubbery, light-headed jams like “Dang Is Invincible” or “Drunk Dreaming,” his steely-calm exterior is the result of a Chicago upbringing.
Mike has four solid solo albums, five EPs, and five formidable collaborative albums — including this one — and yet the mainstream has yet to catch onto his self-styled Art Rap aesthetic. Probably because, as he points out on “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” rappers are expected, and nearly required, to inhabit a certain set of signifiers and speak within certain grammars in order to achieve success. His music eschews any of the popular and prevalent sounds of successful rap in 2016, a fact that feels like a feat as homogeneity becomes a shoo-in for success. (See: Desiigner.)
Film Festival carves its own lane by hewing closer to existential interstitials and tongue-twister rapping than trap drums or insatiable hooks. Mike is most at home rapping in, around, and through the jittery, soulful beats that White provides here, using the space to break apart and examine everything from the overwhelming constance of digital notifications to the specters of surveillance and police violence. Despite the weight of these topics, Mike uses his wiry flow and dark humor to create frustrated poetry that never gets dragged under, and to voice lamentations that never slip into defeated resignation. —Caitlin White
19. Lil Yachty, Lil Boat
If a rising tides lifts all boats, and all press is good press, then Lil Yachty is sitting pretty. Hell, even if neither of these adages end up being true, Yachty has risen from near obscurity to New York Times Style icon in the span of mere months, a glow up that’s undeniable no matter how many old head radio hosts take shots at him (Can that tiresome, pathetic subset of rap beef be over in 2016, please?). After his initial breakout in 2015 with the Summer Songs EP, Yachty has turned 2016 into a success story that is rivaled perhaps only by fellow ATLien Gucci Mane’s reemergence as a sober, happy Trap God.
This year alone Yachty modeled in Yeezy Season 3, released his debut Lil Boat, released the followup Summer Songs 2, went double platinum with the D.R.A.M. collaboration “Broccoli,” teamed with Asian entertainment channel 88rising to release a mixtape devoted to k-pop boy band BIGBANG as Big Boat, got into the studio with Kanye West, performed at Jay Z’s Made In America festival, and launched a fashion line with Nautica. Even if Lil Boat was unlistenable, which it isn’t, that list of accomplishments alone is worth giving the tape that synthesizes this kid’s vision a couple more spins.
The record is a collection of squiggly, emotional tracks that wade through the day-to-day glee, confusion and loneliness of being a young, successful black man in America. Yachty uses AutoTune to polish and blur his sad, vindictive and romantic instincts, steering through choppy waters of adolescence with the same wide-eyed selfishness and wonder of any teenager in America. And if Lil Boat is just what comes naturally to this 19-year-old Georgian, who knows what he’ll be able to unleash once he sharpens his navigation skills for real.—C.W.
18. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife 2
Yes, “Black Beatles” wouldn’t be a hit without the viral push of the #MannequinChallenge. A great song, sure, but not a hit. You might want to use that to question the validity of SremmLife 2 making its way into our list of best rap albums. But let me counter with this: The Mannequin Challenge wouldn’t be a challenge without the music of the Brothers Sremm behind it.
To ask a crowd to take in the sounds of Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi — two rappers who concentrate turn-up music down to its very essence and then make everyone within earshot do shots of it — and then tell them to not move is a very tall order. These songs are real crowd pleasers, and nothing’s harder for a crowd to do than nothing.
“Black Beatles” is a relatively low-speed track compared to the others on SremmLife 2, an album that starts off with the sounds of liftoff and spends the rest of its runtime earning it. There were rap albums that meant more, that tried harder or that were more creative in 2016. But no one has time for #bars in the club, and nothing was as fun as the sounds these two Mississippians cooked up.—Alex Galbraith
17. Noname, Telefone
Almost more fascinating than Chance The Rapper’s unprecedented rise to independent success is his ability — and desire — to put on other members of Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene. Of course, these cosigns work to varying degrees, and it was a long three years between Noname’s appearance on Acid Rap’s “Lost” and the arrival of her debut mixtape, Telefone, this summer. Whatever might have been lost in translation across those three years has been deciphered, dictated and delivered, and 2016 marked the year Noname, Fatimah Warner if you must, arrived.
Warner raps with an aloof ferocity, or a tired intensity, or a tentative joyfulness, and Telephone lives up to its name in that it feels like a communication coming to the listener through some sort of barrier or third party, like a veil has yet to be lifted. Perhaps that distance is necessary for the listener to cope with and connect to the immense grief that Warner pipes out through Chicago production, refusing to dodge the bullets that litter her streets on “Casket Pretty” but also refusing to let this fully blot out the sunniness of her city.
On “Bye Baby Bye” she tells the story of abortion, the kind of experience that too often remains silenced behind closed lips, and elsewhere busts open a back catalogue of black female pain that has historically gone unrecorded. While Beyonce and Solange are fighting to broadcast these stories the world stage, Noname is adding her own verses from the wings. Here’s hoping it’s not another three years before she draws back the curtain even further. You’d be a fool to write her off as a “female rapper” but her devotion to her own femininity is part of what made this tape stand out this year.—C.W.
16. Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered
As you listen to Untitled Unmastered, keep one thing in mind: this is K Dot on an off day. This is the stuff that didn’t make the cut for 2015’s pretty-well-undisputed Album of The Year. And it’s still some of the best rapping to exist in 2016.
Untitled is one of the coolest victory laps in the history of music. It’s akin to Prince stepping onto a stage looking half-asleep and blowing a bunch of guitar legends away. Take a listen to it again. Let Kendrick’s melodic and numerous flows wash over you and remember, he can do better. I’m not sure I’ve ever fallen as deeply for an outtake, cast-off or B-side more than “Untitled 7” — for the people who haven’t digested the admittedly irritating naming conventions on this album, think “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate, uhh” — and it’s closest competition might be on the same album.
“Untitled 2” is the antithesis of the meticulously polished and thought-out To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick delivering every line in a cracked, yearning voice that contains within it the sound of twitchy eyes and messy hair. And even when he’s working in this intentionally framework, Kendrick sounds smoother than anyone else. Did we mention these are demos? Get an engineer — and Top — on the phone.—A.G.
15. Boogie Thirst 48 Pt. 2
One of the biggest criticisms about Compton MC Boogie is that he’s too similar to fellow Comptown native Kendrick Lamar. There is some merit to the gripe, mostly vocally, but there’s also some appeal to Boogie being the micro alternative to K. Dot’s macro observations of society and all its ills.
That contrast is exactly what makes Thirst 48 Pt. 2 work so well. Everything is insular, as Boogie spends the entirety of the 13-track project looking inward, examining his psyche and his apparent inability to foster truly meaningful relationships with women in length. At one point he laments “can pass up our wife but can’t pass up these ratchets,” both acknowledging his flawed thinking, but admitting there’s not much he can do to change it at the same time.
Boogie constantly questions himself, wondering aloud about his flaws and even how they’re rubbing off on his son. It’s gritty and melodic, mixing his troubled upbringing in Compton with his sophisticated self-scrutiny.
It’s a riveting ride, and deserving of the praise he received from Rihanna, of all people, who called Boogie her “Fav” after stumbling upon the enthralling “N***a Needs,” a microcosm of all the nuance and pessimism packed into packed into the 40-minute runtime.
It’s not all doom and gloom either, with all that analysis of himself there’s plenty of optimistic discovery as well. “Sunroof” is especially joyful, and “Best Friend (Jamesha Pt. 2)” is a fitting end to the progression of self that occurs within the confines of Thirst 48 Pt. 2.
Despite whatever similarities he may have to the TDE titan from around the way, Boogie is forging his own lane and displaying all his immense talent more consistently now, and the potential for his career is brighter than ever.—Bansky Gonzalez
14. Dave East, Kairi Channel
Harlem’s Dave East can refuse to refer to Kairi Chanel as his debut album all he wants, but the 15-track LP is for all intents and purposes his debut, and a solid one at that. It has all the makings of a fairly new artist finding himself, stepping into the game and finding his footing as he toys with sounds that work for him and skills that he’ll have to sharpen as he looks to enter rap’s elite.
Kairi Chanel hits the ground running with the Nas-influenced “It Was Written,” produced by Mr. Authentic and featuring sharp, boastful quips like “Used to watch House Party, now Kid and Play listen to me,” at every turn.
The album serves as Dave’s arena to flex his versatility, and show that he’s more than gritty street raps and clever flexing bars. That’s still his bread and butter though, and “Type Of Time,” with its tingling piano keys and woozy Sade sample is the album’s best track, mixing pristine production with East’s effortless flow.
He does get out of his perceived comfort zone throughout though, weaving a tightly wound narrative on “Keisha,” lamenting on the frightening and all too real probability of being a victim of police brutality on “Don’t Shoot.” It all adds up to an impressive debut for the 28-year-old Harlem MC, whether he wants to call it that or not.—B.G.
13. Gucci Mane, Everybody Looking
Rap’s comeback player of the year? Any other contender reluctantly would have to admit that no one had a bigger bounce back than Gucci Mane. Mr. Zone 6 made his rightful return to the trap music throne with Everybody Looking, his first post-prison album and his ninth studio release. Physically and personally, Guwop may be a changed man after spending the past several years behind bars, but he’s still the same musically, thanks to the help of Zaytoven and Mike Will Made-It’s work behind the boards for Everybody. The gun-toting, brash-talking living legend from the Atlanta streets we know from the past comes out blazing on “No Sleep,” “Out Do Ya” and “Back on Road.” The more playful version of his old self pops up the Kanye West-assisted “Pussy Print” where the Trap God’s back bending words and lines in improbable ways.
However, there is a noticeable shift towards wanting to remain free that resides in his bars as well. “Pick Up The Pieces” finds him running down the list of potential enemies who either want to see him dead or behind bars, while “Robbed” is a reminder that even the biggest bad guys can take a loss if they’re caught slipping. Make no mistake: Prison did make him smarter and more aware of his position and certain parts of his music reflect that. “All My Children” is another lighthearted moment where Gucci takes a moment to let a younger generation of artists know he’s proud of them, and even reflects on the road he helped pave for them, “Making rock stars, out of trap boys.” With Everybody Looking, Gucci cements what we already knew — that he’s the biggest rap star that the trap ever produced.
12. Drake, Views
When this album came out, I actually loved it. Personally, I loved the sheer sh*thead nature of it, all the pettiest, unwoke pithiness of it all. Not every album can be spurring us toward unshakeable joy all the time, right? Apparently not — critics took Drake to task for being too selfish, too long, too dark and meandering, but the numbers kept racking up and up and up. Until Views was technically the most successful rap album of the year, despite the fact that everyone claimed they weren’t listening to it. Then, summer hit.
Not only was it clear that people were listening to the record, it was clear that, once again, Drake had played the long game. “Controlal” was on every time you left the house, “Feel No Ways” grew on everyone as a sleeper 808s era hit, “Weston Road Flows” went from grudging acceptance to celebrated gem, and “One Dance” became Drake’s first official No. 1 hit.
Turns out across the 20 tracks on this record, there was something that eventually pulled everyone in, even if it was just the familiarity of “Hotline Bling” and its inescapable domino-clack backbeat (pilfered from D.R.A.M., natch). If anything, this album was proof that Drizzy’s formula has officially transcended the need for critical approval, that his numbers are literally coming in from around the world, and that even when he whiffs, his airball still puts numbers on the board.
If an album that remained Billboard’s No. 1 album for thirteen consecutive weeks, hit the billion stream mark on Apple Music, went four times platinum, and received five Grammy nominations is the one that’s considered to be one of his weakest efforts, then we should be wary of what rap’s new Canadian king will unleash on us in 2017. After all, we already know that there’s nothing Drake loves more than revenge.—C.W.
11. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition
It seems fitting that the heir to Eminem’s Detroit throne be a helium-voiced rapper with broken front teeth and a Joy Division obsession. As an antidote for all of Eminem’s white, buttoned-down mainstream commercial rage, Danny Brown strikes back as an electronic music scholar with a proclivity for dirty sex and the kind of exultant rapping that pirouettes in and out of pocket with little regard for the needs of others. Danny Brown has come a long way since his celebrated pair of Fools Gold releases, 2011’s XXX and 2013’s Old, and signing with Warp Records for this fourth official album is just a small part of that.
In between Old and Atrocity Exhibition Brown began writing a children’s book about black female self-esteem dedicated to his thirteen-year-old daughter, penned the theme song for the critically-acclaimed show Fresh Off The Boat and opened for superstars like Macklemore and Eminem himself.
Strangely, none of these commercial successes took any of his weird, wild edge off. If anything, Atrocity Exhibition is Brown at his nastiest and most bizarre record to date — though appearances like the trifecta of Kendrick Lamar, Ab Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on “Really Doe” does help boost his profile even more. But for those who were already mesmerized by Brown’s sky-high voice, frenetic phrasing, and lascivious subject matter, Atrocity Exhibition is just the next logical step for the Detroit rapper’s rightful ascension.—C.W.
10. Kamaiyah, A Good Night In The Ghetto
It might not seem it anymore, especially with musicians doing everything in their power to destroy the release date, but when an album comes out is still important. Some albums belong in fall, some albums belong in summer. Knowing what type of album you have and when the public is going to want to hear it is crucial. And Kamaiyah absolutely nailed it when she opted to release A Good Night In The Ghetto at the very first sign of green this spring.
This is a mixtape that’s perfect for barbecues and windows-open driving, and she dropped it right at the time when folks can do those things and not look like idiots. (There’s never a time — not even when a polar vortex comes to town — when somebody’s dad isn’t outside on their grill wearing shorts.) Even the songs themselves seem like celebrations after a long period of hibernation.
“Remember when I didn’t have shoe strings?” the Oakland rapper reflects on the tape’s opener. “Now, I pull up, hop out watch that coupe swing.” It’s an album about and for parties in the heat, and everything from its West Coast production-style on down to the flat backyard singalong of the chorus to “How Does It Feel?” reflects that. We’ve already put it away for the winter, but even money we hear from this Bay Area hitmaker again when the weather turns warm.—A.G.
9. D.R.A.M., Big Baby D.R.A.M.
D.R.A.M. is a study in overcoming expectations. It seemed like maybe he would never have another hit after “Cha Cha — especially after Drake thundered on down from his tower atop the 6 and snatched it from under him, leaving the Richmond rapper nothing but bling of the stolen hotline, the smell of Aqua Di Gio, and piece of paper with several strippers’ Instagram handles on it.
WasD.R.A.M. done? I thought he might be after I caught him opening for Chance The Rapper last year. I’d never seen a crowd less on-board with what was going on on the stage. D.R.A.M. wailed under blue lights to a stone-faced group of college kids who waited diligently for his one and probably only hit. Here’s a brief reminder to never trust a festival crowd as a barometer of success.
Then “Broccoli” happened. But that was definitely D.R.A.M. coasting off the energy of a younger, more vibrant star, right? The highlight of the video is Lil Yachty pretending to play a recorder that he probably bought for elementary school music class more recently than you graduated from college. It’s a great song, but the “Cha Cha” guy definitely doesn’t have enough gas to create a whole album of tunes like that, does he?
Big Baby DRAM answered that question on its album cover. D.R.A.M. telegraphed the joy contained within his full-length with a goofy-ass grin and an adorable dog. And then he did the impossible and lived up to it. We should have learned by now.
8. Isaiah Rashad, The Sun’s Tirade
Isaiah Rashad didn’t have the element of surprise as an available option for The Sun’s Tirade, a project billed as his proper studio debut. With his previous release, Cilvia Demo, listeners were unsure of what to expect from the only rapping member of TDE who wasn’t a California native, and he managed to win them over with his mix of non sequiturs and off beat flows. With all eyes on him the second time around, Rashad stayed unflinchingly true to himself to himself and his unique style, creating a project that further depicts the narrative of an artist who traveled across the country to find his way.
One thing the Chattanooga native never questioned was himself, best exemplified by the “Park” boast “I knew I was ‘bout it, way before venue was crowded.” However, his self-confidence was tested in the time between Demo and Tirade. He opens up about using alcohol and Xanax to self-medicate during bouts of writer’s block, depression and overall uncertainty, addressing these choices explicitly on songs like “Stuck in the Mud,” “AA,” and “Dressed Like Rappers.” The latter song also highlights another drawback to success for Rashad — being so far away from home, his daughter and the people who helped shape him.
But dreariness doesn’t overcome the project. Tracks like “Free Lunch” and “Wat’s Wrong” with Kendrick Lamar are both lyrical exercises. On “Wat’s Wrong,” he showcases his versatility, alternating from a sing-songy flow on one verse and unloading a flurry of thoughts on another. When it all comes together, it’s apparent The Sun’s Tirade confirms Rashad’s place on the roster, mostly because he’s able to shine in a world he’s created for himself. —J.G.
7. Travis Scott, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight’
As Travi$ Scott continues to fine tune his own brand of effervescent, auto-tuned party rap he continues to push his peak higher. Say what you will about stealing or borrowing ideas, beats, choruses and even full songs, La Flame’s ability to compile bangers is nearly unmatched.
For Scott, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, is his finest example yet and a worthy successor to his thunderous debut Rodeo. His brand of digitized trap is mixed with his evident increase in substance abuse, making for a woozy, luscious and loud ride.
On the initial listen in September, surprise guest appearances from the likes of Andre 3000, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, 21 Savage, Kendrick Lamar and more made for a pleasant jolt and addition to the experience.
As always, Scott is cushioned and buoyed by plush production from a wide range of superstar producers like Hit Boy, TM88, Mike Dean, Cardo, T-Minus and Vinylz. La Flame also plucks away heaters from underrated upstarts like Nav — who supplies maybe the album’s best verse and hook on “biebs in the trap” — which is still rivaled by other contributions from WondaGurl, and Murda Beatz.
Provided all the necessary tools, Scott simply mans the captain’s chair, organizing everything into lush, lurid tracks, sometimes broken in two midway through just to keep the listener on edge. As a vocalist, he’s simply complementary, choosing to jostle his way into the madness, and find a crease where he can contribute, but his vocals never take over the song’s core experience. Often, he leaves that type of heavy lifting to the more talented supporting cast, a wise decision that makes Birds one of the better listens of the year.
6. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face LP
Schoolboy Q turned 30 this year, and on his fourth album Blank Face LP, that coming of age could not be more apparent. For many, 30 is a nice round number that represents a crossroads of life, the time when we shift from fun-loving, free and careless young adults, to stoic, conscious and maturing grown-ups with the weight of the world and all its responsibilities crushing our clavicles at every waking moment.
Blank Face often depicts that transition, as Q spends time hopping between unflinchingly ignorant gangbangers, to songs about a reformed father with newfound and hard earned riches looking to protect and provide for his daughter. Throughout the album Q is both remorseless and apologetic, making Blank Face the memoirs of a man who seeks forgiveness for his sins, yet understands why he committed them in the first place.
It’s brooding, then melancholy, then shimmering, then right back to the steely demeanor from before. To make all those emotions and hues work together the album is sequenced impeccably, making Blank Face feel fast-paced, despite clocking in at 17 songs and nearly an hour and 20 minutes.
The sinister and bouncy “JoHn Muir” is bested only by the potency and eye-opening contriteness of “Black THougHts.” It’s there, over a production from TDE’s in-house producer Willie B — that is somehow both syrupy and ominous at the same time — that Q pleads in the voice of a man that is every bit of his 30 years old and maturing: “Let’s put the rags down and raise our kids, let’s put the guns down and blaze a spliff.” It’s beautiful, and even more chilling when Q ends the album two tracks later with a blaring, Crip anthem “Tookie Knows,” that’s explicit and unremorseful. The perfect kind of contradiction for someone who just turned 30, because old habits die hard and nobody completes an entire 180 overnight.
5. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo
The only reason The Life Of Pablo isn’t the best rap album of the year is because, in our heads, everyone is comparing Kanye to Kanye. It seems clear from the real-time editing process that Pablo was Ye’s equivalent to a weak essay with a brilliant thesis, and the spottiness of the record shows this, even after Yeezy’s second pass. But like Drake before him, g*ddamn does a half-assed effort still sound a hell of a lot like a classic record.
Will Toledo probably put it best in a piece for The Talkhouse, when he noted that the sequencing of the record is so mesmerizing that one song only feels completely when the beginning of the next one has been tacked on. That’s the kind of mastermind production tactic that makes Kanye seem more like a general at war in this rap game than an exhausted dad with millions in debt and a passion for clothes. So does the decision to host a live playback of the record in the modest venue of Madison Square Garden while Yeezy Season 3 unfolded in the background. Even months later, while Ye is recovering from a serious hospitalization and a wounded psyche, the image of him grinning and moshing with Kid Cudi in front of a laptop feels like the clearest distillation of what rap was like in 2016.
From the effervescent tetris of “Ultralight Beam” and its overpowering guest stars, to the eyebrow-raising and drama-stirring “Famous,” all the way through the impassioned altar call of “Low Lights,” the whirring gospel-hubris of “Waves,” the tongue-in-cheek but spot on self-laceration of “I Love Kanye” and old-Kanye precision of “No More Parties In LA,” Pablo delivers at almost every turn. That’s not even to mention the Arthur Russell sample on “30 Hours,” the slow burn appeal of “Facts,” both parts of “Father Stretch My Hands” and Ty Dolla $ign and Teyana Taylor’s scene-stealing performances for “Fade.”
And that’s still not to mention the AutoTuned joy of “Highlights,” or the twisted, can’t-look-away debauchery of “Freestyle 4,” or the spare, silvery contemplation of friends and family’s betrayal on “Real Friends.” By the time you get to the end of a full listen through Pablo, it’s hard to understand why it wasn’t unanimously considered the rap album of the year, until you remember, it’s because we all know Kanye still could’ve done better.
As much as I hope to hear what that might sound like, I truly hope he invests in himself and his own welfare before the music. Because what we need way more than a new Kanye record is a happy, healthy Yeezy for years to come. Even if that means we never get a new Ye record again, it’s an exchange I, and most Kanye fans, would happily make. Get better Yeezy, we’re all rooting for you. Waves don’t die.—C.W.
4. YG, Still Brazy
In an era dominated by playlists, scattered songs, random singles and mostly unorganized collections of tracks, Compton’s YG just might be the foremost album maker in rap. After dropping a near-classic in My Krazy Life in 2014, it would have surprised no one if YG simply couldn’t live up to the legacy he fermented, especially without his go to producer DJ Mustard in tow.
Instead, YG released Still Brazy, and spent 17 tracks growing and scratching even further down the surface of his hardened exterior than he did on his previous effort. The album is draped in paranoia — after was shot by unknown assailants during a recording session — never more apparent than on “Who Shot Me,” the sonic representation of someone constantly looking over their shoulder and through their blinds at home. It’s paralyzing, and terrifying, just as he intended.
While not as tightly-wound and tied to a narrative as his debut, Brazy is the most cohesive rap album of the year, a gander into the psyche of the character presented in My Krazy Life, this time with more money, more enemies and more awareness of the world around him.
It’s that final development that gives the album and 2016 its most fiery trifecta of songs. “FDT,” the anti-Trump anthem resides — like YG’s narrative and music often do–– on the opposite end of the political spectrum as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Instead of pledging self-love and resilience, YG and Nipsey Hussle instead choose to bang down the door, fight fire with fire and demand their respect and equality. Neither is better than the other, but they present separate perspectives towards accomplishing the same goal.
The final two songs “Blacks And Browns” featuring Sad Boy and “Police Get Away With Murder” are downright Tupac-ian. Especially the latter, which plays chillingly next to the bloody murders of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and countless others gunned gunned down by police in 2016 and beyond.
3. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Most band reunions are driven by factors like finances or a desire to regain a measure of fame from yesteryear. Others come about by the burning desire to make a statement through music, which is what A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service was have born out of. Finally able to put aside years of discord, all four group members holed up in Q-Tip’s in-home studio — as did all of their invited guests at different times — to renew the chemistry first heard on their earlier works like Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, the same cohesion that was missing from their last album together, 1998’s The Love Movement, is present here.
Back was their taste for jazzy production and east coast boom bap. Tip and Phife sounded like their were of one accord and even Jarobi even takes his turn on the mic as well. The most important element revived here was their ability to drive home a message without coming off preachy. Songs like “The Space Program,” “Killing Season,” and “Conrad Tokyo” all tap into the state of the country (“CNN and all this shit, gwaan yo, move with the f*ckery, Trump and the SNL hilarity, Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy”) and in a way that represented and connected with an audience still reeling from the November election.
Like most reunions, Tribe’s benefited from another overlooked factor — timing. The late Phife Dawg’s spirit did loom large over the release but it also made fans a little bit more appreciative for what a great album from a classic group sounds like and what it can do to renew hope even in the darkest times. We Got It from Here… was 18 years in the making, but it was also right on time. Fans needed the album just as much as the group needed a final chance to reconcile with one another.—J.G.
2. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book
Coloring Book is not the best thing Chance The Rapper has ever done. And even still it was good enough to convince the Grammys to shape themselves in his image. It was good enough to draw in 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Jeremih, and Jay Electronica. More than anything, it was good.
And that, in and of itself, is pretty wild. We as rap listeners have proven for a while now that our favorite mode is drugged out, turnt up, menacing and more than a little bit sad. Chance blew through all that with a big smile and some church music, dropping an album (mixtape?) about positivity, God and community. He made an album with Future and Kanye West on it that you could still probably play for your grandma, depending on how cool your gram is (We know she’s not as cool as Chance’s, natch). In a dark year, Chance was our best case for the power of radical positivity and it seems to be working. He played Ellen, everyone wants him on their songs and he literally rapped his own Grammy eligibility into being on The Life of Pablo.
But through his meteoric rise and through Coloring Book in particular, Chance’s default mode has been to grin like he knew all of this was coming. And maybe he did. After all “when the praises go up…”—A.G.
1. Young Thug, Jeffery
There are brief, fleeting moments on songs where Young Thug rests in minuscule pockets of space, and the most unorthodox rapper in the world settles into what a rapper should do in that space. But like the whiplash of a car accident you never saw coming because you were busy typing an inconsequential text at an inopportune time, Thug instantly pivots, snaps into another quadrant of the universe and unleashes some otherworldly yelp, warble, squeal, shriek or harmonic cooing that jolts the song right back into what Young Thug would and often does do.
That’s Jeffery in a nutshell. When he’s hopping through typical rap braggadocio like comparing his own brand of balling in Atlanta to that of the actual Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, he’s only moments from squawking like a seal in an infectious, squealing hook that only Thug could make fans yelp along to.
Thug’s 2016 truly peaked on “Harambe,” where he launches into a dizzying array of flows, rhyme schemes, deliveries, vocal inflections and general approaches to the same bouncy instrumental that the uninitiated just might confuse the solo number for a posse cut. He pivots at a moment’s notice, both sonically and in terms of content, but somehow Rumpelstiltskin’s all that straw into gold for three of the most exciting minutes of 2016.
As always, Thug is treated to the very best production Atlanta has to offer, leaning on TM88, in house producer Wheezy and the collective of producers known as the Billboard Hitmakers for the palette of bright, radiant hues he works with on Jeffery. Each backdrop takes a different turn, from the warbling “Swizz Beats” to the rambunctious “Future Swag,” each track is another chance for Thug to waltz onto the beat and pirouette, dazzlingly so, like Simone Biles flipping all over a balance beam to dizzying affect.
Shortly after the album’s release, Thug told XXL it was him “want(ing) people to understand who I really am,” and if the album is any indication he’s a loving, selfless, emotional wreck. At its core, Jeffery is an album about love, love of one’s self, love for his girlfriend/fiancé and love for everybody close to him. On “Pick Up The Phone” he’s likens cheating on his girlfriend to treason, on “Webbie” he’s offering to write her songs as a sign of his affection. On “RiRi” he’s buying his mother $60,000 rings and $500,000 on the rest of his family before taking them on a “ride on a boat.”
Lil Wayne once rapped in his mixtape and commercial heyday, “Got so many styles, I am a group,” and it’s only fitting that this random quip applies to his foremost offspring more than any other artist since. Throughout the year, Thug has toned down his projects, scaling back from massive, 20 song dumps, to calculated 8-10 track releases. On Jeffery, the reasoning for that decision finally begins to reveal itself. Thug can diversify eight songs so much it feels like 20, but the shorter, more concise releases sift out all the filler and redundancy from his previous works. Now, with the fat trimmed, each time Thug releases another project it’s just the juiciest, and most tender portions of the filet mignon, served to near perfection.