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.
20. Problem, Selfish
It’s astonishing to think that Selfish is the Compton native Problem’s first official retail album. After all, he’s got a squadron of mixtapes, EPs, and smash hit singles to his name, not to mention the stellar joint project with fellow Hub City representative DJ Quik, Rosecrans. However strange it may be to think of Selfish as the first album, though, it is an incredible introduction to the wider world outside of his Southern California habitat, where the last ten years have made him a hometown legend.
It’s easy to see how he attained that vaunted status from the opening bars. With a signature combination of slick wordplay, no-nonsense, cinderblock-hard tough talk, and wise-beyond-his-32-years insights, Problem captures your attention. He then proceeds to wrangle it into the passenger seat of his lowrider and take you on an audio tour of not just his hometown and the wider Los Angeles area, but also of the inner depths of his mind, where he’s previously only shown glimpses of how truly introspective he can be.
In fact, the track that the album takes its name from holds several meanings for Problem; not only has he been selfish in past interpersonal relationships, he’s being selfish now with the music he makes. Rather than the ratchet turn-up anthems he helped pioneer with the likes of Iamsu and E-40, he delivers deep thinkers like the title track and “Man Enough,” the soulful summertime banger “Top Off,” and the Luke Skywalker-influenced “Get On It,” all in the space of just nine concise tracks. Selfish shows the world that Problem is an artist with breadth, depth, and vision, and proves that his hometown hero status isn’t just warranted — it’s a no-brainer.–A.W.
19. Smino, blkswn
The evidence that Smino comes from a musical family can be found in his delivery. It is often loose, fast-paced, and built around a rhythm. When it gets going, as it does on “Netflix & Dusse,” it flows downhill with a happy chirp and gleam to it. blkswn, the St. Louis native’s March album, managed to establish him as a force. Thanks to lead producer Monte Booker as well as his own studio work, blkswn covered all of Smino’s notable skills and wrapped them around woozy, swing-ready production.
“Anita,” the album’s breakout single, speaks to the warm midpoint of developing feelings for someone. It arrives moments after Smino gets keen advice from his grandfather, one of the two men in Smino’s bloodline who previously attempted a music career. If “Anita” is about accepting emerging thoughts and situations, the rest of the album from that point on challenging the other vices in Smino’s life. Lush creations like album closer “Amphetamine” split up Smino’s thoughts into two patterns. One is an acknowledgment of his vices and chasing away the ills of the day with them: “Right now can’t focus on anything / Why they take lil bro instead of me? / I hurt when you hurt, we was Siamese.” The other is where he’s soaked up all of the game passed onto him and seems ready for the new world: “Grandaddy spittin, ain’t nothing new bout the system / ‘Cause how they do me they did him.”
2017 gave Smino almost everything a new artist could ever want. He embarked on his own headlining tour and opened for SZA on her CTRL jaunt. Best of all? After a year of covering T-Pain, he managed to snag the Tallahassee legend for the remix to “Anita.” The Lou got two stars this year, and Smino plans to be around for a while.–B.C.
18. Gucci Mane, DropTopWop
Gucci Mane was on another level in 2017. After securing his freedom last year from Federal incarceration, Guwop has been on a creative tear without any kind of sign of slowing down. This year, he put out two full-length projects, a proper “album” Mr. Davis, and a mixtape that he cooked up with Metro Boomin DropTopWop. For my money, DropTopWop comes off as the superior project even while Mr. Davis comes with a bevy of superstar guest spots from the likes of ScHoolboy Q, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, and ASAP Rocky. There really is something to be said for cooking up a release with only one producer, especially when that producer happens to be Young Metro. The cohesiveness in vision, the brevity, the chilliness, the danger; there’s kind of an irony to the sense that DropTopWop feels more like a real statement than Mr. Davis. It also doesn’t hurt that it comes with “Met Gala,” one of Gucci’s best post-prison offerings yet.–Corbin Reiff
17. Shabazz Palaces, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star; Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines
For decades now, Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro, has been narrating the intersection between sci-fi and hip-hop with a measured insouciance, first within the legendary late ‘80s group Digable Planets, and most recently as part of Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based duo who keep intellectual priorities as close to the surface as possible. Within these jagged, funky, and hyper-aware songs that often border on academic, Palaceer and multi-instrumentalist/drummer Tendai “Baba” Maraire had released two albums up through 2014. This year, they decided to double that output in one go by releasing Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star and Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines in one go.
While their past work dabbled in the fantastical, this double album takes right off into the great intergalactic unknown, weaving cultural criticism about plenty of current practices here on earth with imaginings about what the path further into the cosmos — and into our own dependence on technology — might hold. This is silky, superbly-constructed jazz-funk that cannot be unraveled in merely one or two sittings, or even one or two months. No, what is contained here may well take two or three years to properly digest. If nothing else, that gives Shabazz fans a reason to keep hanging on through what may end up being some of America’s darkest years.–C.W.
16. G. Perico, All Blue
Here are a couple universal statements you’ll hear about South Central’s G Perico. That he’s a rapper born of the same ilk as DJ Quik, that his sound is a reminder of the ’90s G-Funk that became the West’s signature calling card. While all of that may be true, the So Way Out rapper showed that on his proper debut All Blue that the West is in good hands beyond the known heavyweights.
Lasting no longer than a Simpson‘s episode and a half, All Blue is a manual for living in Los Angeles with Perico as your tour guide, telling stories of how old fly guys have turned junkies and how you should never have your back against traffic. Produced mostly in-house, All Blue shimmers at times and others, feels like an ice-grill trek through the underbelly of Los Angeles. Perico doesn’t flinch in admitting his goal in life: getting “everything he got coming.” “I got business to handle,” he states on “Right Now.” For 35 minutes, he drops enough futuristic West Coast inspired rap that it could become not only a daily mantra, but superhero music.–B.C.
15. 21 Savage, Issa Album
21 Savage probably shouldn’t have worked. A hardened, street act with the most laid back flow this side of “Wait (The Whisper Song)” has no place in the era of energy and rambunctious rap acts with face tats and rock star ambitions, but here we are. After striking gold last year on Savage Mode with Metro Boomin, 21 spent most of the year gearing up for a proper follow-up, which eventually came to fruition in the form of Issa Album. While most pundits believed he’d falter outside the comfy confines of Metro’s exuberant production, 21 flourished, and even produced his biggest solo hit thus far, “Bank Account,” by himself.
On his true debut album, 21 found a comfort zone, carefully sliding his lazy flow on top of crevices of the thunderous production that has become his forte. Zaytoven, Southside, Jake One, DJ Mustard, Wheezy, and, of course, Metro all help craft the thumping sonic thumbprint of the album, and 21 takes it from there, ripping through 14 tracks without one guest appearance. 21 even takes a break from the typical, murderous street raps to sing to a female companion as charmingly as he can. “I’m too drunk to text so can we FaceTime?” he says with the aid of autotune and a silky production from Twice as Nice and DJ Mustard on “FaceTime,” showing that those cute Instagram videos with Amber Rose are no fluke.–E.G.
14. Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
I wrote that Laila’s Wisdom should be the album that finally brings Rapsody the mainstream awareness that she so richly deserves (as well as a Grammy to boot), but even if it doesn’t, it still holds up as one of the best rap releases of 2017, and a true demonstration of the perfect synthesis of major aspirations with indie creativity.
It’s an exercise in intertwining contradictions, both incredibly cohesive and substantially diverse. It bonds the intelligent, sibilant wit that Rapsody has wielded on prior releases like The Idea Of Beautiful and She Got Game with an evolved sense of both her musical identity and her growth as a person. She slickly rebukes a deadbeat ex on “Pay Up,” switches to an evenhanded lesson in hip-hop on “Nobody” with Black Thought, and somberly reflects on the nature of violence in the community on the epic, three-part album closer “Jesus Coming,” with mentor-producer 9th Wonder drawing on his experience crafting the transformative beats on Kendrick Lamar’s “Duckworth” to repeat his feat with flying colors.
Rapsody surpasses not just gender stereotypes, but the expectations of a straightforward MC in 2017. Rather than railing about “mumble rap”, she embraces change. Instead of chasing radio appeal, she calmly (and wisely) stays the course, creating a masterpiece of both lyricism and innovative beat making, sprinkling in exactly the type of artistic evolution that ensures Laila’s Wisdom will find its way back into rotations long after Rapsody has become a household name.–A.W.
13. Mozzy, 1 Up Top Ahk
Mozzy rose to underground fame with vivid, hyper-realistic tales of street life in Sacramento, CA, but on 1 Up Top Ahk — which serves as his debut album of sorts, despite dozens of mixtapes beforehand — he sounds like a man reborn. A prison stint at the notorious San Quentin will do that to anybody, even a hardened and reputed Blood member like Mozzy, and that’s on full display on 1 Up Top Ahk, where at one point he agonizingly admits, “I sat on my bunk and I prayed for this life… day in day out I would beg for this life.”
Now, instead of detailing the brutal scenes he saw in Sacramento, he’s reflecting on and dealing with the repercussions of the violence that surrounded him. On “Take It Up With God,” he remembers another slain friend in almost every line, and painfully hugs each of their mothers in the chorus while they cry over their lost sons. On “Can’t Take It (Ima Gangsta)” he takes on his responsibility as the one who made it out, solemnly telling the family of another murdered friend that they can “cancel the car wash” because he’s going to pay for the funeral himself.
1 Up Top Ahk is not art imitating life or the other way around, it’s simply Mozzy retelling his story, excruciatingly and as a tortured soul dealing with all of his trauma, one song at a time.–E.G.
12. Big Sean, I Decided
The career arc of Big Sean has undergone a yo-yo effect. There was the big nature bombast of his debut album following a string of famous (no pun intended) and beloved mixtapes. His sophomore album hit a brick, the mixtape after it in Detroit got him back on track. Then came Dark Sky Paradise, where the marriage of Sean’s maturity and joyful — if not the crass — mimic of early Kanye records took place. I Decided opted for a sharper, personal effort from Sean Anderson. It widely succeeded.
Big Sean, since 2007, at least has concerned himself with being witty and relatable. On I Decided, the wit arrived and shone in various spaces such as the Grammy-nominated “Bounce Back.” He still sneered at the competition and his exes in spaces because believing himself to be the forever underdog is Sean’s main motif. Such records like “The Light” — which brings on Jeremih to rap along a sample of Eddie Kendricks’ “Intimate Friends” — and “Halfway Off The Balcony” make platitudes about fame and success relative to Sean’s upbringing.
It’s on “Sacrifices,” the high-charged Migos feature where Sean crystallizes both sides of himself. He discusses humility yet is quick to slice down anyone who’d think any less of him. If anything, Big Sean’s got a calling as a motivational speaker when his rap career is over. He’s come a long way from “Marvin And Chardonnay” to reach that point.–B.C.
11. Run The Jewels, RTJ 3
El-P and Killer Mike have worked together on four albums, including a Killer Mike solo disc in R.A.P Music. For the past four years, their work as Run The Jewels has elevated both of them to absurd heights; festival darlings, voices of the voiceless if you will. They didn’t immediately take on the role of being this generation’s answer to Chuck D’s public decrees of abolishing the system or even Paris’ sound bombing style. They grew into it. Their collective anger manifested throughout RTJ 2, and on RTJ 3, it found its creative peak.
Each RTJ album took on the beliefs of its predecessor and blew them up to giant moments of anthemic, in-your-face rap. RTJ 2 felt like a warning. RTJ 3, arriving at the end of 2016, rolled right into 2017 discussing a “devil with a bad toupee and a spray tan” on “Talk To Me.” It also invoked personal trauma (“Thursday In The Danger Room”) and called for accountability on all fronts. It even brought Miami queen Trina along for the ride (“Panther Like A Panther”). Years after their initial union, the bond between KIller Mike and El-P is stronger than ever. They’re best friends now, the son of a police officer from Atlanta and a Def Jux producer from the ‘90s who became the perfect partners to craft honest, unflinching rap music.–B.C.
10. CyHi The Prynce, No Dope On Sundays
If you’d told me a year ago that CyHi The Prynce’s long (long, long, long)-awaited debut album No Dope On Sundays would be one of the standout releases of 2017, I’d have thought you were smoking dope and on a lot more days than just Sunday.
But then the damn thing dropped and wouldn’t you know, the forgotten member of GOOD Music, the one most of us had written off ages ago, turned out to have the dopest (pun definitely intended) project of any Kanye West-affiliated artist this year. After CyHi released the high-spirited “Elephant In The Room” in 2015, the general consensus among fans was that his tenure as part of the GOOD Music stable of artists was over. However, No Dope On Sundays still bears that iconic logo, and even better, the cohesive, textured sound that the label has become known for over the past decade.
But the beats are only worth half of the value of any given project; the lyrics have to hold up as well and that area is one CyHi has always excelled in, albeit with a few caveats. Here, those caveats are practically obliterated. His wordplay is sharp and clever without veering into the realm of cheesy puns that he once over-relied on. His storytelling has become crystal-clear, yet layered. He touches on aspects of both Black nationalism and Black religion without ever coming across preachy. At age 32, Cyhi The Prynce has crafted the rare, delayed debut that fully encapsulates all of his years but still sounds as fresh as his contemporaries.–A.W.
9. Young Thug, Beautiful Thugger Girls
Leading up to the release of Beautiful Thugger Girls, Young Thug promised his fans a “singing” album, the promo videos before the album promised hints of country and when the LP finally dropped back in April it featured a little bit of everything. What was clear is Thug wanted to try some things, so he threw a ton of ingredients at the wall and in true Thugger fashion just about all of it stuck.
Thug harmonically waxed poetic about fatherhood, smoking weed with Snoop Dogg, bounced through a bubbly pop tune, sang a ballad with Quavo and strummed out some country music all in the span of an hour and never once did a single note feel out of place. Buoyed by production from Wheezy, London On Da Track, Young Chop, Ben Billions and more, Thug took unique approaches to each and every record.
With Beautiful Thugger Girls, Thug leaves behind his trap roots — for the most part — to truly experiment with where he wants to go artistically, to gorgeous results. His mastery of melody throughout makes up for whatever actual singing chops he may lack, and his diverse palette of both cadences and content make it so there’s never a dull moment. Even as he’s spewing advice to his daughter like “Colgate, baby, you gotta keep your teeth straight,” Thugger makes it work. —E.G.
8. Lil Uzi Vert, Luv Is Rage 2
It’s a difficult feat to write about the year that Lil Uzi Vert had, because it doesn’t really feel tied to a sole project. Instead, his appearance on two massive hits, Migos’ “Bad And Boujee” and his own “XO Tour Llif3” helped dictate what a successful rap single would sound like in 2017, and in many ways, his massive 2016 hit “Do What I Want” helped set the tone for those former two tracks to blow up, too. So by the time Luv Is Rage 2 dropped this past summer, Uzi’s star had already risen so high, that his tape almost flew under the radar. That was a mistake.
Luv Is Rage 2 is not a thrown together collection of tracks that Uzi had laying around, it’s a cohesive collection of songs that show off his range as a singer, rapper and one of hip-hop’s savviest young auteurs. With huge collabs from The Weeknd(!) and Pharrell, and a mini-doc on Beats 1, Uzi made his mark on the rap landscape this year without sacrificing an ounce of his devilish charm and existential autotuned glee. Don’t be surprised if several other songs off this record become hits by the time this list needs to be replaced next year.–C.W.
7. Jidenna, The Chief
There was some argument in the Uproxx Slack offices regarding whether to include Jidenna’s The Chief as rap album in the first place. After all, he melodically laments lost love on the massive “Bambi,” cheerfully promotes his Nigerian roots on the Afropop banger “A Little Bit More,” and professes his adoration for exotic dancers with “Trampoline,” any of which could easily classify the album as one of the best R&B albums of 2017.
However, as a counterpoint, I only needed to mention the Luke Cage-lacing, hard-body banger “Long Live The Chief” to completely devastate those arguments. Mentioning “2 Points,” a Cirque du Soleil of lyrical acrobatics over a swinging big band-sampling beat just felt like overkill. “A Bull’s Tale,” the album’s autobiographical lead-off track, is the coup de grace, as Jidenna spits one of the most engrossing, vivid storytelling track of 2017’s many, many rap releases.
Forget tales of crack peddling or surviving tough times through the benefits of government assistance. Jidenna’s wild ride through his childhood in Nigeria, facing down kidnappers and potential assassins with the aid of paid, AK-47-bearing bodyguards is harder than anything contemporary hip-hop has been able to muster in the preceding 12 months. Face it, being a rock star is fun, being a boss is great, but nothing beats being the chief.–A.W.
6. Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Open Mike Eagle is quietly becoming a legend — proof that heroes don’t need to spit fire and slam dunk in order to be a champion. On his sixth solo album — though he has about as many collab releases, too — this ghetto superhero reframes the cold Chicago world he grew up in as a playground for his resilient, fast-talking childhood self to explore from the relative safety of adulthood. Unsurprisingly, the poignant memories of his young life, told through the faux-posturing of an adolescent brain, are harder and more compelling than most of the full-fledged adult rap egos that mainstream MCs assume.
Whether or not Mike’s superb raps ever make it to that level of commercial success, it’s exactly his independence that allows him to deliver project after project of simmering, shimmering hip-hop mind-warps that construct whole universes unto themselves. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is an ode to ghetto children the world over, and on the album, Mike gives voice to the storylines and imaginative tools that keep these kids going. In the process, he’s given them another comfort to cling to, and another weapon to help them slay their dragons. Perhaps the role of the rapper has always been to help perfect strangers ward off their own monsters, but Mike makes it feel brand new, every time.–C.W.
5. Migos, Culture
Migos have achieved the biggest successes of their career in the past twelve or so months, with “Bad And Boujee” shooting to a Billboard No. 1, and the resulting confusion about who was on the song resulting in one of the most memorable moments and one-liners of the year. For all the hoopla about the group’s numerous run-ins and whether Quavo should go solo, it feels like many within the culture may have taken for granted why the trio is so highly regarded in the first place.
They can look no further than Culture, a perfectly-titled exhibition of their simple formula for success: Gruff, hyperbolic rhymes about drug culture and material excess over sinister 808 production that will have you involuntarily grooving and dabbing. With songs like “T-shirt” and “Brown Paper Bag,” the group sets themselves apart from the lot of trap acts with Quavo’s melodic gifts and a collective mastery of a forceful triplet flow that’s oft-imitated but rarely duplicated — even by Snoop Dogg.
Migos brought some co-pilots on for the Culture ride, like Gucci Mane, who skates on the mesmerizing “Slippery,” and Travis Scott, who gets as close to a vocal solo as possible at the end of “Kelly Price.” In today’s hip-hop, there’s something to be said for running your race. Migos have gotten where they are with consistency and beholdence to a recipe that keeps them — and their growing core — well fed. Culture exemplifies how the accolades eventually came to them — they didn’t chase them.–A.G.
4. Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer
While I’d hesitate to call 2017 the “Year Grime Broke” in the U.S., Stormzy easily puts the biggest crack in the dam yet with the release of his stellar album Gang Signs & Prayer. It only seems like a matter of time before US audiences catch up to what UK acolytes already understand and his debut project is just the primer to get them ready. Over an hour’s worth of darkly-layered, chilly sonic backdrops, Stormzy goes off, bringing a fresh viewpoint and a self-assured braggadocios swagger. “Shut Up” is the one that gets the most shine, a sparse but infectious track where Stormzy big-ups himself while also trying to raise up the ships around him. “All my young black kings rise up, man this is our year / And my young black queens right there / It’s been a long time coming I swear.” That being said, “Cold” takes the cake as one of the most exhilarating grime anthems of 2017 and beyond.–C.R.
3. Aminé, Good For You
Aminé might be rap’s most colorful newcomer, both in a metaphorical and literal sense. His Good For You album cover stands out among music libraries as a splash of vivid yellow, prompting him to deliver the year’s oddest flex: “I own the color yellow,” he crows, “Pantone hit me up.”
As rap becomes fractured down the middle between self-serious, ultra-woke lyricism rap, and pointedly surly, contrarian, opiate praising mumble rap, Aminé’s irreverence is not just a breath of fresh air, it’s a jolt of the sort of humor that used to mark non-traditional, Golen Era acts like The Fat Boys, Kid’N’Play, and Biz Markie.
Aminé is less interested in accumulating the trappings of wealth or dazedly pondering the depths of his own depression on Good For You. Instead, he makes playful passes at late-’90s pop icons on “Spice Girl,” goofily praises the benefits of essential vitamins and minerals on “Veggies,” and pays homage to soulful dad music with Uncle Charlie Wilson on “Dakota,” all with a breezily cavalier attitude and cheerily upbeat charisma that sets him apart from his contemporaries. The Portland rapper turns out to exactly the one thing hip-hop needs more of, a shot in the arm of the wit, positivity, and nervy artistry that keeps any musical genre healthy in its middle age.–A.W.
2. Future, HNDRXX
Future may have scored his highest charting single ever in “Mask Off,” from his self-titled No. 1 album, but his follow-up album HNDRXX was easily his best offering of the year. In HNDRXX, Future answers the question, “What would happen if Jodeci made an album, on lean?” Whether he’s belting out agonizing ballads on “Use Me” and “Damage,” or gleefully cooing about love on “Looking Exotic” and “Incredible,” Future never misses a beat on the lengthy and sultry 19-track album.
In essence, Future delivered the R&B album his fans have been longing for since the days of his soothing but painful cuts like “Codeine Crazy” and all of the crooning from his sophomore album Honest. Here, though, he’s mastered the formula, mixing his melodic twist on auto-tune with syrupy production from the likes of Metro Boomin’, DJ Mustard, Southside, Detail, and Wheezy. The diversity of the album, wherein Future effortlessly switches from falsettos to rapid-fire rapping, allowed for just two features — and two more on bonus tracks added later — and that space to himself allowed Future to fully open up to his listeners. Whether it’s self-loathing over losing his ex, or boasting about the current love in his life, HNDRXX makes for a beautiful listen at any time of day.–E.G.
1. Vic Mensa, The Autobiography
It’s been a long, winding road for Vic Mensa. The former Kids These Days frontman saw his debut album experience delays, breakdowns, and left turns that nearly derailed its production for three years as his friend and Savemoney crew cohort Chance The Rapper exploded into mainstream prominence. In that time, Vic also suffered through depression, addiction, and the nerve-wracking pressure that comes with album delays and newfound fame.
Fortunately, The Autobiography isn’t just worth the wait, it’s a masterful revelation that highlights just how much growth the 23-year-old Chicago MC has undergone in that span. By turns inspiring, harrowing, and deeply confessional, The Autobiography admittedly feels clunky the first time you hear it. Then you start to realize with each subsequent playthrough that you are witnessing an audio coming-of-age, complete with all the fits, starts, setbacks, and breakthroughs of real life as Vic transforms from a bright-eyed, optimistic young adult to an experienced, slightly jaded but still idealistic industry veteran.
He is a firebrand, railing against injustice on tracks like “Rage” and “The Fire Next Time,” a brokenhearted, failed lover on “Homewrecker” and “Coffee & Cigarettes,” and a proselytizing preacher on “We Can Be Free” and “The Fire Next Time.” Through it all, he demonstrates lyrical deftness and insight beyond his years. On The Autobiography, Vic Mensa grows up, but the real reason to be excited is realizing that if he can be this good, this quickly, the next chapter of his story will be several orders of magnitude greater.–A.W.