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.