Looking for a common thread for the best rap songs of 2017, it almost seems more daunting than it really is. There is tremendous diversity there, so much so that it seems almost like they have nothing in common. But if you look just a hair closer, you start to see it. That sing-song delivery, the slow meshing of melody with the spoken delivery that’s turned hip-hop into the culmination of the style originally envisioned by Bone Thugs N Harmony way back in 1993.
It might seem cliche to say now, but a rapper in 2017 can’t just be a rapper — with the amalgam of rap and pop dominating practically every music chart (including country. Check out Sam Hunt’s “acoustic mixtape” for your evidence), a rapper must be clever not just with rhyme schemes and wordplay but tunes and harmonies as well.
Drake may have kicked off the modern version of the concept with his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, but what was once a novelty and an idiosyncratic quirk of The Boy’s delivery has become the en vogue style du jour of both his contemporaries and his adherents, and even of more traditional R&B singers like SZA. Rap may not sound the way it did in 1993 when Bone Thugs were an exception, but that’s ultimately a good thing — it means that the genre is adapting, growing, evolving, and thriving, and will continue to do so as long as it keeps changing.
20. Travis Scott, “Butterfly Effect”
Travis Scott’s musical aesthetic can be boiled down to one thing: capture a moment. Think about it, no song from the Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight rapper has sounded the same, even if the desired result is. If his sometimes growling melodies can turn into subversive riot starters at his live shows, they can have the reverse effect when listening by yourself. “Butterfly Effect” came in mid-May and stands as a sauntering, melodic Felix Leone and Murda Beatz scored track. Scott’s vocals here hum and dance along to the point where they become infectious, daily mantras. All flexes. “Bend laws, bend lanes / Been bustin’ bills, but still ain’t nothin’ change / You in the mob soon as you rock the chain / She caught the waves just thumbin’ through my braids.”
“Butterfly Effect” came amongst a batch of new songs including “A Man” and “Green and Purple” alongside Playboi Carti. It easily won out with thanks to Scott sticking to a very repeatable and believable ethos, “For this life I cannot change.” It’s gotten him this far, why stop now? He’s rich, can dance all through the Hidden Hills and be amongst the upper crust of both music and Hollywood. Flexing is all he wants to do now.–Brandon Caldwell
19. Meek Mill, “1942 Flows”
Meek Mill promised growth and openness on his new album Wins & Losses and for the most part he delivered both of those things in spades, and his maturity and transparency were never more apparent than on “1942 Flows.”
“When you see me out don’t ask me about no Nicki,” he raps in the third verse of the track so frenetic he barely takes time to breathe. “F*ck I look like tellin’ my business on Wendy?” It’s Meek’s finest bit of rapping on his stellar third album, spitting his verses over the soothing production from Dougie of frenzied drums and haunting piano keys.
It’s here he tosses around in quips like “.40 bust your windows out, Jazmine Sullivan,” in the same breath that he attacks Drake once again and refuses to back down from his ghostwriting allegations. Meek even tossed in some extra bars for Drake for the extended, radio edit of the track on the clean version of Wins And Losses.–Eddie Gonzalez
18 . Gucci Mane Feat. Migos, “I Get The Bag”
It’s so much fun to watch fathers and sons enjoy their shared interests together. It’s why we love watching Lebron James cheer on Bronny and why Lavar Ball’s shenanigans haven’t quite tired us all the way out yet. However, we so rarely get to watch rap “fathers” create new music alongside those they’ve obviously inspired, what with the turnover rate for new rappers and hip-hop’s propensity for discarding its older models in favor of the latest rhyme slingers to hit the market.
However, every so often we get a perfect synthesis of the past and the present. That’s what “I Get The Bag” represents. It’s the highlight of the past decade inspiring and being inspired by the current rap favorites, bringing the best out of both. Gucci Mane is considered by many to be one of the pioneers of the modern trap rap style that’s been perfected and matured by Migos. However, rather than railing against “kids these days” for not paying homage, Gucci brings his decade-plus of experience and wisdom to the track, lending it a gravitas that Migos won’t be able to achieve for at least another five years.
On the other hand, they keep Uncle Gucci sounding fresh and reinvigorated, infusing him with a bit of their youthful energy. It’s a credit to both acts that they are willing to accept the alchemical reaction that results, letting it transform “I Get The Bag” from just another trap song to the realization of the platonic ideal of what rap could be, if only the generational warfare saw a long enough ceasefire for its purveyors to realize that they have far more in common than in conflict.–Aaron Williams
17. 2 Chainz, “4 AM”
“4 AM” is the third single from 2 Chainz Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, an album that was basically built of nothing but singles. But whereas “It’s A Vibe” with Ty Dolla Sign was all about telling you that it was, well, a vibe, “4 AM” simply creates one. The woozy beat evokes the exact state of mind that the song’s title generates after a long night of no sleep, which makes it perfect for those late-night turn-ups, right around the time those last few shots kick in and you start wondering how the heck you’re going to get home (here’s a hint: call an Uber, kids).
Travis Scott is wisely relegated to hook duty, where he’s always demonstrated he’s most comfortable, allowing 2 Chainz to pack the two verses full of his trademark off-the-wall punchlines and wobbly rollerskate flow, keeping the song’s length, like that after-midnight state of inebriation, perfectly brief.
The cyclical beat never quite wears out its welcome, you never get too tired of any single element, and as they all blend and swirl together like the details of those early-morning excursions upon late-afternoon recollections, you lose yourself in the appealing stasis between too drunk to stand up straight and having too much fun to call it a night.–A.W.
16. Goldlink Feat. Brent Faiyaz & Shy Glizzy, “Crew”
2017 was the year that DC area hip-hop artists not named Wale vaulted themselves into the mainstream discussion. Long a city known more for go-go music and R&B than hip-hop, it looks like the so-called DMV area finally has its bearings with a diverse collective of talented artists. “Crew” is a simply-titled, exceptionally-crafted collaboration between two of the region’s most prominent upstarts. Shy Glizzy and Goldlink occupy different places in the scene, with Goldlink’s melodic, earthy sonics a seemingly welcome respite from the flashy, gun-toting rhymes of Glizzy.
But on “Crew,” the two come together for an irresistible meeting exemplified by a prayer – that happened to be laced with “m*therf*ckers.” That intriguing intro sets the stage for one of the smoothest tracks of 2017. Both artists take turns melodically flowing over sharp 808s, perfectly contrasting the mellow vibe of the Teddy Walton production. By the time Brent Faiyaz drops his velvety vocals onto the track, it feels like their three-man weave was executed perfectly. Thanks to “Crew” and his stellar At What Costalbum, Goldlink made a mark in the hip-hop scene that simply made him marvel, “God damn what a time, what a year.”–Andre Gee
15. Macklemore Feat. Lil Yachty, “Marmalade”
From its plinky keys to its nursery rhyme chorus, “Marmalade” is hands-down my favorite song of 2017, I don’t care what anyone says. Yachty is a joy on tracks like this when he’s simply allowed to be silly and have fun as opposed to trying to prove his lyrical dexterity. Macklemore himself benefits so tremendously from the unserious vibe because it allows him to shake off the earnest, conscious rapper stigma that’s attached itself to him ever since he and Ryan Lewis first popped up with “Same Love.”
But this is exactly the type of track hip-hop needs more, not less of. As fan bases splinter over lean-loving “mumble rap” and neurotically verbose “conscious rap,” it seems like rappers are forgetting to paint in all the other corners of the hip-hop universe. “Marmalade” is specifically designed to eschew the perpetual fight between both honestly exhausting extremes and remind us all that rap, regardless of beats or cadence of delivery, is basically just Mother Goose rhymes set to music.
What better way to poke holes in rappers’ (and their fans’) puffed-up egos than a song engineered to underline the genre’s connection to lighthearted, cheerful fare that looks to spotlight sunny days over struggle? Hip-hop may or may not be your go-to music to cry to, but when you feel like you need an audio pick-me-up, look no further than the ray of concentrated sunshine that is “Marmalade.”–A.W.
14. Playboi Carti, “Magnolia”
When Tidal decided to make their massive advertising push during the NBA Finals, after a merger with Sprint and with a Jay-Z album on the way, they chose Playboi Carti’s bouncy tune for the occasion, and with reason as few songs defined the sound of rap in 2017 quite like “Magnolia.” Carti hops all over the exuberant production from his partner in crime Pierre Bourne with several stunted but syrupy flows that listeners can’t help but replicate once the track envelopes them.
By the time Carti hops into the Big Tymers flow, the infectious track has already taken effect, and he spends bulk the track unfurling couplets that could double as choruses on Top 40 hits from other rappers. It’s as addicting as any other song of the year, and propelled Carti into the mainstream with a twist on the simplistic style that seemingly represents the bulk of the genre. It’s like all of his peers were simply wearing denim, and Carti decided to fray the fabric and cut out the knees, introducing a whole new way to wear jeans.–E.G.
13. Offset & Metro Boomin, “Ric Flair Drip”
The closest thing we got to an Offset solo album in 2017 was Without Warning, his highly-anticipated collaborative album with rising rookie rapper 21 Savage and Atlanta wunderkind producer Metro Boomin. Several of the songs on the tape only feature Offset, and one immediate standout in that category was “Ric Flair Drip,” an homage to the WWE legend himself that incorporates his signature “whoo!” adlib into yet another deep flex collab.
Even without his Migos brothers-in-arms Offset manages to employ so many different flows that if you played this for a civilian, they’d be hard-pressed to believe it was all laid down by just one guy. That’s the power of the Migos flow, and perhaps, an example of how Offset channeled Ric’s theatrics. Head out to any club and wait to see the floor turn up when this song comes on. Hell, if they don’t, leave — that place is probably dry as hell and you should go find a place where it drips.–Caitlin White
12. Amine, “Spice Girl”
Fun fact: Aminé had to get “Spice Girl” approved by every member of the Spice Girls band thanks to the “zig-a-zig-ah” ad-lib that he interpolates throughout the chorus of the song. Thank goodness they all liked it, or we would have missed out on this gem from the Portland rapper’s colorful debut album, Good For You.
The artistic dedication and craftsmanship of “Spice Girl” is perfectly indicative of his overall creativity on the project, from the double-take-inducing, bright yellow cover, to the innovative marketing tools he used to promote the album, including the newspaper from the cover, which he gave away at album listening parties all over the US.
The goofy, bouncy track even has deeper roots in the Spice Girl metaphor. Aminé says that his first concert ever was a Spice Girls one, inspiring a lifelong fanship that ultimately culminated in the foulmouthed appearance of Mel Brown (aka Scary Spice) in the surreal, comedic video for the song dedicated to the group.
He name-checks the band’s members throughout, but it holds up without the references as a fun ode to the “dream girl” ideal so many songwriters have experimented with through the years. It’s just that Aminé makes it even more fun and colorful — just like the band at the height of their popularity.–A.W.
11. 21 Savage, “Bank Account”
In 2017, 21 Savage went from a buzzing, online sensation to a bonafide, hit-making star, all thanks to a catchy little bit of counting and a thumping production from none other than 21 himself, with a little help from Metro Boomin. “Bank Account,” was the lead single from his debut album Issa Album, and some of his finest song-making to date. The track helped propel Issa to No. 2 on Billboard‘s album chart and a gold plaque, and represents 21’s first and only foray into Billboard‘s Top 40 for a single, peaking at No. 12.
Like most 21 songs, “Bank Account” is simple, with his trademark, laid black flow and a myriad of entertaining one-liners, but there’s a little extra oomph from 21 this time around. Bragging “You can’t even talk to the b*tch, she f***ing with bosses and sh*t,” reads like a basic line on paper, but 21’s delivery and ad-libs make the lines an opener that sets the pace for the rest of the track. Add that to the hook that makes for uproarious sing-along sessions, especially after a few drinks on a night out, and you have all the makings of one of the best tracks of the year.–E.G.