Somehow, we’ve managed to reach the midpoint of 2017. Looking back on the past winter and spring, it’s staggering to consider the dominant place that hip-hop currently occupies in the music world at large. The album charts in sixteen of the last twenty-six weeks have been dominated by rap acts; the singles charts were equally flooded with rap hits.
Blockbusters from Drake and Kendrick Lamar have dominated the conversation, but there’s also been some significant next steps from established acts like Migos, Future, and Joey Badass, as well as some less heralded gems from G. Perico, The Last Artful Dodgr, and DJ Quik and Problem. As we round into the second half of the year, now’s a good time to take stock of where we’ve been and who is coming out on top in rap so far in 2017.
You can read our survey of the larger rock and pop music world here.
30. Wale, Shine
Wale is at his best with nothing to prove, and nothing to say. His best projects prove it; The Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing felt like the best representations of the Wale who wore Nudie jeans and told us not to sass him for doing it. While there were some moments of finger-wagging — “The Vacation From Ourselves” springs to mind here — it was all done with a jovial air, a wink and a smirk from someone who knew he had the whole sky as his ceiling and unlimited potential for success in his future.
Then, Attention Deficit bricked, and he was left scarred and scrambling, desperate to justify the little success he’d attained and intent on not squandering the rare second shot he’d been afforded by the kindness and foresight of one Rick Ross. The result was a Wale who was mad at the industry, mad at his critics, mad at himself, mad at Twitter, and mad at the world.
Shine is the exact opposite. It’s a Wale who embraces his second generation immigrant roots on “Fine Girl” and “My Love,” who is willing to get back to rapping for the fun of rhyming words to impress himself alone on “Fashion Week” and “Smile.” It’s like he went to therapy between albums, got all the anxiety and angst and frustration and anger out of his system, took one look at his newborn son, and said, ‘I have nothing to worry about anymore; life is good.’ Shine is a reminder of that; no matter what is said about you online, no matter how many L’s you’ve taken, your attitude about it is the only thing you have control over. You might as well smile.—Aaron Williams
29. Jidenna, The Chief
When “Classic Man” dropped waaay back in the far off days of 2015, it was considered a one-off from a gimmicky, one-hit wonder rap singer whose look was an update of the dapper Fonzworth Bentley from ten years prior, and whose sound was destined to end up in the same abyss (Dide note: it really is a travesty we never got a full album from Bentley, because those singles, “Everybody” and “C.O.L.O.R.S.,” were A-1). It was a quiet couple of years from the stylish, possibly overdressed, creative as well. Apart from his appearance on Netflix’s Luke Cage with single “Long Live the Chief,” which to be fair really is a banger, it really looked like Jidenna’s run was over before it began.
Then he unleashed a minor deluge of singles from The Chief like “The Let Out” and “Bambi,” and it was obvious that notion couldn’t have been more wrong. Thank goodness, too, otherwise the world would have been deprived of the menacing “A Bull’s Tale,” the barrel-chested “Chief Don’t Run,” and the triumphant “Helicopters.” “The Let Out” may have never gotten its just due as the best part of any night out on the town; day parties throughout the United States — nay, throughout the world — would never have been blessed with the tropical Afrobeats perfection of “Little Bit More,” Jidenna’s supremely danceable nod to his cultural roots.
And while plenty of rappers have mused on the possible paradoxes of a world where the roles of black and white folks in America were reversed (Nas and Lupe have both given it a shot), few have been executed with as much wit, incisive observational skill, and approachability as the idyllic sounding, daydream-y “White Niggas.” On The Chief Jidenna showed that he was nowhere near a one-trick pony, displaying a wide array of versatile skills and the ability to make clever and catchy pop-rap out of pretty much any subject he wants — from classic man to renaissance man, Jidenna is a man of many hats, with a suit to match every occasion.—Aaron Williams
28. Porter Ray, Watercolor
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Porter Ray, get ready to change that. His hometown of Seattle is already well aware of Ray’s star-making abilities, and Ray has been a regional legend for quite some time now, racking up co-signs from the city’s current biggest star, Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces, who also happens to A&R for the best label up in the Pacific Northwest, Sub Pop Records. That connection led the storied indie rock label to release Ray’s official debut record, the woozy, starlit Watercolor, a record that — along with The Artful, Dodger’s Bone Music — helps establish a real presence for Northwest rap.
Though Ray is a great MC in his own right, the host of talent involved with Watercolor is staggering. Along with expected appearances of Butler himself, features from THEESatisfaction, Cashtro, Fly Guy Dai, Jus Moni and more are sprinkled throughout the fourteen tracks, waxing eloquent on the state of being Black in America, to more exalted subjects like “Sacred Geometry,” and, most often matters of the heart. Like his mentor, Butler, Ray is able to take topics like rap and f*cking and make them as cosmic as any other facet of the human experience. Watercolor is as personal a rap album you’ll hear in 2017, and it sounds like just the first chapter in what is sure to be a long and fascinating story.—Caitlin White
27. Raekwon, The Wild
About a week before Raekwon dropped his latest solo album The Wild, he told me “You know, it’s one thing to be a legend, and to be a legend that don’t got it no more. I’m a legend that still has it.” Normally, I dismiss declarations of this sort from artists that have been around the game for a bit as spin or bluster. Listening to his latest work, I was happy to discover that it was neither. Raekwon still totally has it. The mighty chef of the Wu-Tang Clan came raging back this year following a disappointing effort on 2015’s Fly International Luxurious Arts. I think in critic-speak, the phrase one might use to describe The Wild would be to call it a return to form. There’s fire in these verses and in these beats, that bely Rae’s status as a ‘90s rap icon. Many old-school heads look down on what gets blasted out of the radio today, but the Wu-Tang-er himself is taking notes. You can hear his passion through his journey in the harsh concrete jungle of his upbringing in “This Is What It Comes Too,” you can hear it on the soulful send-up to the Motown icon Marvin Gaye on “Marvin,” and you can hear it in the collaboration with his young protégé P.U.R.E., “M.N.” Oh yeah, Raekwon still has it alright.—Corbin Reiff
26. Roc Marciano, Rosebudd’s Revenge
“Rappers are rappers, pimps are pimps,” are the main takeaways from the opening dissertation on Roc Marciano’s fourth LP, Rosebud’s Revenge. Roc Marc exists in a weight class that celebrates, cherishes and upholds the halcyon days of New York rap. You know, that Timbs and hoody era where every tough guy had a switchblade or wandered day and night wondering when the sun would set on Ed Koch and rise on David Dinkins’ mayoral tenure. A Long Island native, Marc doesn’t piece together his rhymes in a distant land as RZA would, especially not on this album. Instead, he delivers words and verbal theory on top of dusty, era=specific production with basslines that feel as heavy as clothes drenched in molasses. “Beefin’ with me and mine’ll lead to E.Coli” is a line that exists on “Rosebud’s Revenge” and the imagery only becomes more vivid from there. Marc’s lean delivery makes all of this seem cinematic, colors that pop, names that only ‘90s babies would immediately perk up at (Dominique Wilkins, Christina Applegate) and a near Mafioso hitman approach that Rick Ross would only make more outlandish and cartoonish. It’s clear from Rosebud’s Revenge’s opening moments that this is an album that wastes little time establishing character and motive. In Roc’s mind, this isn’t a confessional or a high-priced therapy session that namechecks certain issues. It’s a guttural, descriptive piece of noir, from jewelry cleaning (toothpaste gets the job done still) to leaving robberies with a small piece of a conscience (“Burkina Faso”). Roc’s world and stylistic approach is less Miami Vice and more gritty Superfly. It’s unclear as to whether or not he wants to go down as a known auteur or rather a rapper who became appreciated long after he was gone. Whatever the case, he’s still crafting worlds with some of the most arresting detail in hip-hop.—Brandon Caldwell
25. GoldLink, At What Cost
As DC continues to cultivate local talent and thrust them outward into the national spotlight, GoldLink and to an extent Wale are bringing the foundation of the region with them. GoldLink, for example, rides a sound that brings up dashes of go-go and the slippery and constantly moving sirens of house music, and mixes them with hip-hop — he calls it “future bounce.” On his major label debut, he’s as pensive as he is celebratory. “Meditation” finds time for Katrayanada to tear a hole in the atmosphere with a chunky bass line and stretched out synths, meanwhile, Jazmine Sullivan is staring you in the eye, admitting that she wants to be more than just friends. “You don’t like religion but you like this,” GoldLink raps on the track, as if he’s whispering to a woman on a dance floor. It’s funk and go-go tied together at the hip, only to be chased off by the sounds of gunfire, a nod that’s too close to reality of when the club lets out. DC regionalism play heavily into what At What Cost is offering. Mya, one of the area’s biggest R&B stars shows up for “Roll Call.” Wale — the city’s biggest rapper to date — essentially does what Shy Glizzy does on “Summatime,” just not as well or as memorable. On “Crew,” which is currently fighting for Song of the Summer, the entire DMV gets a hand at low-eyed, swaying R&B, as if it were born from the skating rinks in Atlanta. Brent Faiyaz delivers a an honest to God sing-a-long worthy chorus and Glizzy proffers flexes and tough guy talk all in one swoop. Playing up to tradition is what makes At What Cost a fun. GoldLink made And After That We Didn’t Talk strictly about meeting women, cherishing them, and navigating relationships; At What Cost keeps that focus but as “Pray Everyday” proves, there’s a worldly view attached as well. Not just for him but for the entire region.—Brandon Caldwell
24. The Last Artful Dodgr, & Neill Von Tally, Bone Music
This queer, female raspy-voiced Portland MC wants to put the whole city on the map, and her gruesomely titled, surprisingly melodic new project Bone Music is about to do just that. Double billed to Dodgr, born Alana Chenevert, and her producer, Neill Von Tally, Bone Music seems to draw from the Northwest’s own gloomy atmosphere, turning small, skittering beats and damp instrumentals into gorgeous, green-hued melancholy that grows and surges on repeat listens.
Album closer “Jazz Crimes” flips a blaring siren into a flex track, while the more subdued early tracks like “Housee,” where her voice slithers over a flickering synth and wispy percussion. Dodgr raps in slow motion, savoring the words as they leave her mouth, until suddenly, she’s switched into a high gear, a breathy sing-song, or a fierce spit that’s so forceful it sounds angry, even if she isn’t.
Chenevert — who is technically a California native — released her debut mixtape 199NVRLND in 2013, and has been steadily building EPs with Tally, releasing Rare Treat and Fractures as collabs that both included him. It feels worth noting that Dodger and Tally are a team, evoking earlier old school rap duos like Mustard and YG to create a sound that functions more like a landscape than anything else. Bone Music is as foggy and skeletal as the title might suggest, grinding out a sport for an unlikely star in her even more unlikely, but fertile, surroundings.—Caitlin White
23. Khalid, American Teen
Sure, you could argue that Khalid is an R&B singer and not a rapper, but it’s impossible to ignore the hip-hop influences and sensibility of his new album, American Teen. Hip-hop was founded off rebellion, and mixing disparate styles to create something entirely new, which is exactly what Khalid, who was born in Georgia and raised Texas, has done on his debut album. The 19-year-old singer cites A$AP Rocky and Father John Misty as two of his most powerful influences, along with Frank Ocean, India Arie, and others, but needless to say his music ploughs right down the center of American pop culture, heedlessly grabbing from rap, folk, and R&B whenever it feels right.
The result is an album highlighted by his honeyed, often AutoTuned singing voice and sharp, wide-eyed lyrical style. “Location” already skyrocketed up the Billboard charts all the way to the No. 16 position, putting Khalid on the map with people who value numbers and play count above all else. But for those of us listening in for the heart and soul of an artist, songs like “Saved” prove he can hold his own with any acoustic musicians in the game. “Young Dumb & Broke” pokes fun at the plight of the ever maligned American teen, as does the title track, which flips the experience into the dream that it is — insightful, for someone still stuck in it.
Across a fairly lengthy sixteen tracks, Khalid proves himself again and again as one of the most interesting new voices to emerge in 2017. He mostly sings, sure, but the beats and production on American Teen rival anything else on this list, and Khalid’s heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics put him on the map as a self-aware and succinct songwriter who has just begun to come into his own.—Caitlin White
22. Kodak Black, Painting Pictures
Kodak Black may be as problematic a rapper as there is in the industry at the moment. Incarcerated up until yesterday, he faces a bevy of charges and accusations ranging from standard delinquency and assault, to an ugly sexual assault. The justice system still has to figure out what he’s actually done, and while that is all sorting itself out Kodak was granted a brief reprieve, and he used his time to put together the greatest manifestation of his potential yet.
The 19-year-old Florida native has always been undeniably talented, if not a little inconsistent, but his froggy melodies and harsh depictions of street life and revelations of psyche have always been promising enough to dig through the mines that are his mixtapes for the diamonds that are their highlights. On Painting Pictures, his debut studio album, Kodak gets closer than he’s ever been to a complete, consistently quality project, which makes his current incarceration and legal issues even more frustrating.
Kodak struck literal gold with “Tunnel Vision,” the album’s Metro Boomin-produced second single that surged up to No. 6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. It’s Kodak’s greatest chart success to date, and with reason, as the melodic banger is undoubtedly the best Painting Pictures has to offer. At 18 songs, the album is a tad bloated, but it’s the consistent type of quality those touting Kodak knew he had in him all along.—Bansky Gonzalez
21. Young MA, HerStory
Is it possible for a woman to be the King of New York? What about an openly lesbian woman who refuses to hide who she is for the public or for traditional rap norms? Well, Young MA is giving it her best shot, and in a world where New York rap’s sonic thumbprint drifts further and further from the old standard, MA, might be New York’s best hope yet to return to their desired place in rap’s hierarchy.
The 25-year-old began her ascent toward the crown this year with her EP HerStory, the prelude to her debut album set to arrive later this year. It’s only 7 songs long, including her mega-hit “Ooouuu,” but it’s the strongest glimpse at just who MA is and what her true potential is yet.
For that peek, she gives listeners exactly what made her a sensation to begin with, a ton of hard-hitting raps and clever punchlines with tons of braggadocio and some New York flair. There may not be another “Ooouuu” lurking here, but she displays the talent to make another hit at some point, and even opens up a tad by showing a softer side on tracks like “Bonnie.” We don’t get the full gamut of just who Katorah Marrero is, but we get just enough to want to see and here more whenever she drops her debut HerStory In The Making.—Bansky Gonzalez
20. Smino blkswn
When the leaked version of “Living Single,” the Big Sean track with Chance The Rapper and Jeremih came last summer, few would recognize the guy who ran anchor leg on it. St. Louis’ Smino not only came with the most descriptive information about a car this side of Young Dro, it became a eureka moment for him. That verse ended up batting leadoff on “Netflix And Dusse,” one of the highlights from his woozy, rubbery and earnest blkswn debut album. He delivers “pink Caddy, Pepto Bismol-bile” with the type of Midwestern drawl and sincerity that alerts you that he’s different and sincere about everything. blkswn as an album is centered around vices, about love (“Anita”) and enjoying Backwoods rolling papers more often than most. It operates and swings up and down in tone quite often, from the sensuality of “Lobby Kall” to the cycle of smoking, drinking and sleeping with women that is “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up”. Smino isn’t a rapper who latched onto melody and gave up lyrics. Rather, he’s a third generation musician, both his father and grandfather attempted to circumvent the dull moments of a 9-5 for music careers. Despite falling into debut album sloppiness about crew and making it big, blkswn finds its heart and emotional center within “Father Son Holy Smoke.” Smino knows the world is messed up, painted in more greys than hues of blue. But he mostly smokes and hugs to his vices to keep the pain away. Sometimes it should only be that easy.—Brandon Caldwell
19. Loyle Carner, Yesterday’s Gone
American rap is still adjusting to the idea that British rappers can be good — or even excellent. The resurgence of Grime as a global phenomenon has surely helped open minds this side of the pond, and Loyle Carner is more than ready to slip into that gap. Because his debut studio album Yesterday’s Gone is not just good, it is excellent, and his British accent and slang are part of what make it so compelling.
Carner draws on his heritage to tell a story that’s uniquely British, offering a perspective on life in the UK that isn’t often represented in the media. He raps about deep and heavy pain, like being abandoned by his biological father, and the more flippant stress of 2 AM text messages. Like any other 21-year-old, Carner has a lot to sort out in his lie, and Yesterday’s Gone is his attempt at that.
The record incorporates plenty of gospel, blues and even jazz; occasionally Carner slides into a singing voice, though most of the album is delivered in his blistering, quick-paced rap. Not a single thing about the album is Grime, so don’t get lazy and try to lump him in with that lot strictly based on his British identity. Instead, Loyle taps his mom to appear on “Swear,” and poses in the album artwork with his family and close friends; this is a family affair, and one that both the UK and the US sorely needed.—Caitlin White
18. Rich Homie Quan Back To The Basics
When Rich Homie Quan split from the super group that was Rich Gang, it appeared he’d gotten the short end of the stick and would just fade into oblivion. Instead it was Quan — not Young Thug — who scored a Top 40, double platinum hit with “Flex (Ohh, Ohh, Ohh)” in 2015. From there he bided his time, collected his plaques and stacked up bangers for his latest retail mixtape Back To The Basics.
On this 11-song project Quan applies all of the qualities that allowed him to share the stage with a supernova like Thug and never feel overwhelmed in their Rich Gang era: His mastery of melody, his ability to string together entertaining similes and the way he bellows out raw emotion during almost all his diatribes.
The LP’s greatest moment might be “Replay,” a bouncy, booming production that sees Quan switch flows sporadically and blurt out a catchy hook ready-made for radio. His foray over a twinkling Zaytoven production shows off both Quan’s harmonic qualities along with his harsh upbringing that can lead to downright brutal revelations.
In the nearly three years since Quan and Thug crossed paths and produced greatness, Thug has gone on to become a star just waiting to be elevated to stadium status. By the sound of Back To The Basics, Quan won’t be too far behind him.—Bansky Gonzalez
17. Tee Grizzley, My Moment
One of the most critical elements that rap fans consider when they’re checking out a new artist is authenticity. It’s one of the reasons why the subject of ghostwriting is so fraught within the culture at large. Tee Grizzly is about as authentic as it gets. A son of Detroit, Tee has come into 2017 guns blazing with an incredible debut tape My Moment under the 300 Entertainment banner. The standout single, the one that got him the most attention is the cut “First Day Out.” In it, Tee relays his own feelings about spending the last three years locked up behind bars, and what life in prison is really like. “You ever been inside a Federal courtoom / N***a you ever went to trial and fought for your life?” he pointed asks? “My first offer was 30 years, not a day lower / I told them crackers holler at me when they sober / On parole, I’m a felon, you think I ain’t got that blower?” It’s a deeply personal song, and not the only one like that on My Moment. The intense lyrical content is matched by the music that was put together largely by Helluva, Sonny Digital and DJ Mustard. The whole project is dark, exhilarating, and marks a great entry-point for someone who has the ability to really shake things up in the years to come. —Corbin Reiff
16. Kehlani, Sweet Sexy Savage
Kehlani’s ascent to a platinum, burgeoning star is the prototype for a developing, major-label in the streaming era. A seemingly label-assisted mixtape pushed her to a Grammy nomination and online relevance, a certainly label assisted soundtrack placement landed her a platinum plaque and nearly forged her way onto the Top 40. From there, Kehlani just had to live up to the hype, and despite having her relationship woes laid out online for the world to see, the Oakland native did just that with her debut album SweetSexySavage.
Just a few months before her 22nd birthday, Kehlani spends the album’s hour-long runtime talking herself through her various insecurities and depression that she’s struggling through. In theory, that sounds dank and gloomy but in practice Kehlani takes her plight and her adolescent naiveté and weaves it all together into a vibrant and shockingly candid discussion of self.
Kehlani never pretends to have it all figured out, in fact she seems to admit the exact opposite: She has no idea what’s going on but she’s comfortable with the idea that she’ll figure it out, one way or another. At times Savage can feel immature, but endearingly so, and her willingness, or inability to avoid falling head over heels in love makes the 19-song journey as enthralling as it is wide-eyed and exuberant.—Bansky Gonzalez
15. Swet Shop Boys, Sufi La
Swet Shop Boys could have been another vanity music side project for an actor on the come up, but they are so much more than that. If you’ve heard of them, but haven’t actually heard them yet, it’s probably because you’re aware of Riz Ahmed’s -– he of Star Wars, Night Of and Girls fame -– role in the group. What you don’t know is that the man who fought for the Rebel Alliance in Rogue One can bring some serious bars to a track. The Swet Shop Boys, which include Heems and their producer Redinho, occupy a rare space in the hip-hop world. There aren’t too many entitles of South Asian descent creating music in rap these days, which, really, is a damn shame, because the sounds and perspectives that this group brings to the table are truly engrossing. Take for instance the single “Zombie,” a powerful track that opens with some Indian musical flourishes and find Riz openly wondering on what’s going to happen to the community of people that looks like him in America now that Donald Trump is in office. “Wanna see me lost like Toto / And now there is no place like home bro / Next stops Toronto or the ropes / So pack up quick but Pakis ain’t gonna quit.” Heems echoes that sentiment on the next verse, “Yo, the world finna end / Yes boss, my friend / If you black or brown / Babylon coming for your head.” This is an important conversation taking place in the wider world, and it’s encouraging to hear someone bringing it into the hip-hop culture.—Corbin Reiff
14. Rick Ross, Rather You Than Me
For half a decade Rick Ross settled into a stasis of redundancy that led to plenty of decent music but no truly great output from the Miami boss. Well, Rozay returned to form in 2017 with the release of Rather You Than Me and helped him score one of the best albums of the year thus far.
For his return to grace Ross dipped back into the two sounds that brought his most glorious works, and somehow found a way to make it all sound refreshed rather than a rehash of old times. Even though Justice League isn’t at the helm, tracks like “I Think She Like Me,” “Game Ain’t Based On Sympathy” and “Santorini Greece” harken back to the most triumphant and soulful productions of their heyday. He also dips back into the well of his now trademark trap sound for bangers like “Dead Presidents” with Future, Yo Gotti and Jeezy and the aptly-titled “Trap Trap Trap” with Young Thug and Wale.
While sonically the album is well-executed, what separates it from Ross’ last five years of work is his performance on the mic, where the veteran sounds reinvigorated and hopefully has hit a second wind in his career. While lush tales of opulence are still prevalent, Ricky takes some time to peel back the curtain a bit and reveal slivers of the man behind the designer shades.
With Rather You Than Me, Ross has returned armed with his unmatched ear for production and soothing flow and cadence that makes any appearance enjoyable. By digging into his bag of content rather than skimming from the top he’s catapulted himself back near the top of the game and hopefully this is just the beginning of another phase of his career and not just an aberration before a regression back to the mean.—Bansky Gonzalez
13. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 3
Run The Jewels already owned the blustery, braggadocios, take-no-prisoners, over-the-top bombastic rap corner for the last several summers. They expanded their territory immensely with their latest album, Run The Jewels 3. They don’t open it up by “banging this sh*t the f*ck out!” like they did on their last release. Instead, on “Down,” they slowly lure you into their world of fearsome monsters and savage demons where the good guys are the bad guys, and the bad guys get theirs. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat boys,” El-P warns from the outset. The Run The Jewels experiment, the East Coast meets Atlanta clash that was cemented five years ago now — good lord where does the time go? -– on Killer Mike’s solo effort R.A.P. Music isn’t just thriving, it’s prospering in a way that no one could have predicted. They duo is pushing the envelope in ways that are both unexpected, and extremely enjoyable, like on buzzy, thrilling “Ticketron,” the frenetic Danny Brown-featuring “Hey Kids,” and the mournful, but still exuberant “Thursday In The Danger Room.” Run The Jewels 3 might just be the most fulfilling project that the duo has put together. That being said, it still feels like the best is yet to come.—Corbin Reiff
12. Nocando, Severed
Even if Severed begins with a music box tinkle and a sweet French voice, don’t be fooled; this is an album about anger, and that’s a good thing. As someone who has just left behind and processed all the romance and whirlwind wonder of his twenties, James McCall has returned with an opus that addresses all that remains after the first decade of adulthood is over — and contrary to popular belief, your twenties do not signify the end of adult life.
McCall is now a single father, a sometimes kingpin of his own deeply influential LA record label Hellfyre Club, and a former battle rapper who can’t shake the urge to build every bar into a steely trap that sounds like it might snap shut on your leg while you’re listening. But the trap never snaps, he always pulls back in time. This gives Severed the feeling of a crisis barely averted, a steely wire of tension underlies the entire listening experience. Through it all, Nocando has learned to warp and twist his anger into just another tool in his rap arsenal, instead of becoming the defining feature of his oeuvre, it becomes a weapon of contrast.
So yes, Severed spends a lot of time dwelling on situations that can only be explained as infuriating, but whether he’s “Salty,” or rapping and screaming furiously on the album standout “Mykraphone Myk,” McCall supersedes his fury, de-escalating at just the right moment to charm the listener right back into his arms. The album may be called Severed, but it’s the most enticing thing Nocando has released to date. I wouldn’t be surprised if it drew many listeners closer to him than ever.—Caitlin White
11. Big Sean, I Decided.
I’ve been called “salty” over some of my rap opinions — especially when they generally run counter to what I see expressed online. Look, I just want people to be honest. Following the crowd isn’t honest. At least listen to the thing you’re going to diss if you expect to be taken seriously. Case in point: Big Sean is one of the most maligned artists on social media, and I Decided one of his most derided albums, and I do not understand why. It can’t be because he can’t rhyme; “No Favors” proves that. He addresses the criticism, the flow-jacking, American racism, and of course his own out of control work ethic, in a breathless, tongue-twisting verse that is, in my opinion, on a way higher tier of skill and coherence than guest rappity-rap specialist Eminem’s.
Sean has had a tendency of spouting cringe-worthy dick jokes and misogynistic bars directed toward his paramours, but those are far less frequent here. He declares “We already wasted too much time… I think I’m ready to jump out the window,” for his dream girl here. There are actually a lot of songs about love here — but since when is that a bad thing? Hip-hop’s obsession with the player image has long been tired, the big man on campus stereotype was stale when it debuted back with LL Cool J. Rap fans constantly harp on how rap needs positive role models, uplifting messages, and personal growth. These are almost literally the only things Big Sean raps about, but he catches “Medium Sean” jokes and gets called corny on a nearly daily basis. I Decided delivers on all the themes that hip-hop heads say they want, so it’s time Big Sean gets his due. If thinking that makes me salty, call me Lawry’s and embrace the flavor.—Aaron Williams
10. Mike Will Made-It, Ransom 2
It takes an especially connected individual with a ton of clout to coax Gucci Mane and Kendrick Lamar to jump on the same song, but that’s exactly what Mike Will Made-It did for just one of the cuts from his second compilation album Ransom 2. That’s the kind of clout you gain when you toss both K. Dot and Guwop their first ever No. 1 songs, on top of a decade of handing Gucci the finest production Atlanta has to offer.
Mike called in plenty of favors for Ransom 2, and Big Sean, Lil Wayne, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Pharrell, YG, Chief Keef, Lil Yachty, Future, Rihanna and of course Rae Sremmurd all put their best foot forward when it came time to lace Mike with their presence for the project. With a star-studded lineup like that, the vocal performances, either rapped or sung were always going to be worth the price of admission, but what makes Ransom 2 more than your average hodgepodge of star power is Mike accepting the challenge and giving the 17-track album a production backdrop worthy of the names on the liner notes.
Still, even with all of those artists giving their best, the highlight of the album was always bound to be Gucci and Kenny trading verses after Slim Jxmmi sets the stage and Swae Lee coos a chorus between each verse. Yes, Guwop is verbally in the trap, saran wrapping work with Vaseline, but it’s Kendrick, just weeks before he’d spring back into the world’s consciousness with “Humble” blitzing the track with his verbal wizardry that wins the day, and Mike Will sitting back reaping all of the benefits.—Bansky Gonzalez
9. G Perico, All Blue
The next face of LA hip-hop is here, packing enough tough talk and sinewy production to hit you in the face with every single line. All Blue, G Perico’s no frills debut album is as honest a rap record as there may be from South Central Los Angeles in 2017. That’s with DJ Quik and Problem’s excellent Rosecrans album also existing within the same space and time. There’s the audacious dark comedy of “Get My Staccs,” the cold instruction manual that is “All Blue” and the free-wheeling nihilism of “How You Feel.” In Perico’s world, there’s survival and then there’s smiling in front of the police who’d rather you be dead or in the county jail. From the onset of All Blue, that yelped out chirp of Perico’s rap voices dominates everything it surveys. Perico’s always played a tough guy, the next in line to single in on DJ Quik’s direct street reporting while up against strung together beats soaked in LA’s rich rap tapestry. Here, it all manifests into an album that is as cutting as it is brief at a mere 35 minutes. Dodging foes while looking more like a throwback, All Blue is a show-stopping moment for a rapper who is more than certain that the crown of LA hip-hop deserves his fingerprints on it.—Brandon Caldwell
8. Joey Badass, All Amerikkkan Badass
Before 2017, the most political Joey Badass had ever gotten was taking pride that Malia Obama daughter had worn a Pro Era T-shirt. That was 2015, back when Joey was still pumping out tracks grounded in boom bap and NYC revivalism. Most rappers are asked to grow up on their sophomore efforts, Joey sprouted upward like a tree in regards to his mindset. Pragmatic with little hints of optimism, All-Amerikkkan Badass carries a weight of importance that can’t be ignored. The ‘90s boom-bap sound was absconded in favor of melodic production from 1-900, Kirk Knight and DJ Khalil. Lyrical growth and subject matter is a nominal touching point for any rapper on their second go-round. Joey not only went after the President on records such as “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka),” he pushed it in a way to challenge listeners to listen deeper. “Devastated” is the biggest single from All Amerikkkan Badass and it’s one of the few that don’t tackle racism or oppression directly. Rather, Badass squares up with depression and maneuvering through the dark spots of life. Nobody would have guessed Joey Badass would have the first important hip-hop album of 2017 but All Amerikkkan Badass is a political charge we can rally behind. —Brandon Caldwell
7. Migos, Culture
2017 is the year that Migos took over as one of the prime forces in rap, so much so in fact, that many people on social media openly wondered whether Future should be opening for them on their upcoming run through the summer amphitheater circuit together. It’s a preposterous idea, but not a totally insane place to start a discussion about their newfound standing. Much of the Migos fresh juice — were they at every set at Coachella this year or just half of them? –- stems from their tremendously solid second studio album Culture. Okay, to be more specific, it came from the stand out single “Bad And Boujee” which dominated the charts for more than a minute earlier this year, eventually becoming the group’s first No. 1 single. The success of that track also helped mint Culture as their first No. 1 album. The crazy thing is, I don’t think “Bad And Boujee” is even the best song on the record. That single got the supercharged internet meme boost, but “Deadz” featuring 2 Chainz is a far more thrilling, and way more intense offering. Then you have stutter-spitting bombast of “T-Shirt,” along with the dripping-with-lean psychedelic collaboration with Gucci Mane, “Slippery.” Migos destroyed any ideas of suffering from a sophomore slump. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep this wave going.—Corbin Reiff
6. Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer
From the opening couplet of “First Things First,” Stormzy tells you exactly who he is, and his mission statement: “… I’ve been puttin’ in the work, I’m a rebel with a cause / Had problems with the fam, had problems with the gang, but I put that sh*t on pause…” Stormzy is not here for the bull, fam. He’s here to do his thing, do it differently than it’s been done in the past, and any and all accolades and acclaim he receives, he deserves, because he’s earned it. Gang Signs And Prayer grips the listener by the neck with both hands and doesn’t let go until the end.
Addressing everything from depression to roadman beef, Stormz gnashes his teeth and bites off every line he delivers. You can hear the starvation in his voice through each clipped, snarled exhalation. While there is enough classic, rave-ripping grime riddim and battle rap for even the most jaded skengman, Stiff Chocolate is more than willing to take creative risks and they pay off. Just after rampaging all over the ominous “Bad Boys” alongside Ghetts and J Hus, he switches to straight-up, stripped down gospel for the soulful interlude “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1.”
“Cigarettes & Cush” is a gorgeous ballad that invites singer Kehlani to wax vulnerable over good old late-90’s R&B piano and finger snaps. He ties the whole thing up in a bow with the somehow still banging “Shut Up,” his signature jam that opened the doors of rap stardom for the son of Ghanaian immigrants from Thornton Heath, London to become the first grime MC to attain #1 on the UK albums chart — a position many have prayed for, but only Stormzy was able to thug it all the way to the top.—Aaron Williams
5. Lil Yachty, Teenage Emotion
Is there any rapper in 2017 who has *Beyonce voice* caused all this conversation more than Lil Yachty? Let me answer that for you — no, there is not. Whether it’s washed up haters like Joe Budden lording over an armchair from a New York studis, or detractors clowning his Teenage Emotion sales numbers from a couple days after the album came out, it seems like people are more concerned with clowning Yachty than they are listening to his actual music. The truth is, the album is truly phenomenal, not just for what it sounds like, but for what it has accomplished.
It features Kamiayah, Migos, YG and Diplo, but Miles Parks McCollum doesn’t need big names like this to have a hit album; in some ways, he’s already more influential than these guests. Lil Boat pops up on Teenage Emotion in third person, as his omnipresent “Uncle” narrator parses the feelings of his two nephews, but the main character here is a cocky teen who is concerned with rapping — sometimes poorly, sometimes cleverly — about the insane glow-up he’s experienced in the last year or so.
Yachts is so untouchable that he opted to create one of the most inclusive pieces of album artwork in the history of rap — and face down the homophobic, fat-phobic, and backward commentary from the old guard with the kind clever, chilled-out teen diplomacy that only youth culture breeds. If you have a problem with two men kissing on the cover of Teenage Emotion, then you’re a bigot, and you’re not welcome in the strain of hip-hop that Yachty is concerned with proliferating. Full stop, but no pause here — that sh*t’s over.
Much of Teenage Emotion falls into the same oeuvre as Yachty’s incredible trap-adjacent breakout tape Lil Boat, which I highly doubt most of his detractors have spent any time with. Truthfully, they’ve probably spent even less with his major label debut. Because, perhaps McCollum’s greatest strength is his ability to meld some of the more melodic and open-hearted aspects of emo with rap, a combination that clearly stirs hatred in the hearts of the old school elite. But for the teens? Yachty is a standard bearer of a post-Internet, post-genre consumption of songs that are meant to be worn as signifiers of personhood, the more muddled and less stratified, the better.
If there’s one thing Yachty can teach us, it’s that album sales are officially no longer a signifier of success. He’ll be suffering through his 360 deal’s success all the way to the top of the pop culture wave, cresting, and spring-boarding out into the atmosphere, while those who this annoys remain rooted on earth, lost in a past that will swallow them whole. And nobody will be shedding a tear, let alone the crowd who has Yachty on their shoulders. —Caitlin White
4. Future, HNDRXX
It’s been a couple months now, so it’s time for some perspective: Do not let the hype surround Drake’s More Life and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. distract you from the fact that Future put out not one but two great new albums this year, and even managed to make history by replacing his own self at the No. 1 slot on the Billboard 200 chart. His initial self-titled release Future was a solid effort, and it will forever be hallowed as the record that gave us “Mask Off,” which is arguably his best song to date. However, the album that came right his self-titled is the one that really staked Future’s claim in a new way: HNDRXX is a pop album. And unlike the ill-fitting sounds of Honest, this one is pop music made in Future’s own image instead of the other way around. Needless to say, that concept sounds f*cking incredible.
Speaking of which, if you haven’t spent much time with this record, take a listen to “Incredible” — which deserves to be a No. 1 hit — “Hallucinating,” “Fresh Air,” (a song which calls the Pacific Ocean “sexy”), “Thank U,” and his incredible duet with Rihanna, “Selfish.” Every single one of those songs would hold its own against any other rap and R&B song that’s currenlty dominating the mainstream airwaves, and hell, “Incredible” could hold its own against any pop single of the summer.
After cementing his status as the undisputed king of Atlanta trap, one so powerful that even the all-mighty Drake needed to enlist him for a nation-wide tour, Future is ready to swerve into his own king-making lane, one that spans wider than his initial southern stronghold. I have a feeling that HNDRXX is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Future’s next moves, but for now, this glittering, icy pop still deserves a warm welcome, and it’s ridiculous not to bring up Future’s name when subject of best rap album of the year rolls around.—Caitlin White
3. Drake, More Life
I think More Life is the best thing Drake has ever done. There, I said it. It’s better than Nothing Was The Same, better than If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Yes, even better than Take Care. After spending the last few months living with it, I put More Life at the top of the Drake-shaped heap. I feel like Kendrick Lamar and the hurricane force of DAMN. caused a lot of people to forget how wild, exciting and experimental More Life is, which is a shame. Call him a global swagger-jacker all you want, I applaud Drake for expanding his sound and viewpoint past the frigid, monolithic mid-tempo whine-fest that was Views. Okay, so there are still some groan-worthy passages on the “playlist” — bragging about not taking naps is kind on “Gyalchester” is one of the weirder boasts you’ll hear on a rap record — but the overall listening experience of More Life is incredible. Afro beats, Jamaican rhythms, trap, grime; it’s a modern index of some of the most exhilarating sounds from around the world, and for me personally, it opened a lot of doors to other artists and genres that I didn’t even realize existed before I heard them here.—Corbin Reiff
2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
It’s right there in the title, kids. DAMN. All caps when you spell the (heh) damn name. It’s Kendrick, so you know what you’re getting. An audio tour of his and my hometown, a linguistics in rhyme seminar, Mixed by Ali running wild on the engineering tip (my fellow audio nerds will feel me on this one), and tightly coiled, Swiss-precision storytelling that works from beginning to end, and — gasp — the other way around.
Confession: I am guilty of the cardinal sin in hip-hop of not really like Mr. Duckworth’s music all that much. I once likened him to Allen Iverson: an inefficient chucker whose personality and charisma outshines and thus glosses over any deficiencies in his game, but not someone I’d personally start a team with. However, when he’s on, and he keeps it simple, he dazzles. All the internet consternation over “Humble” aside, that song BANGS. It’s been tearing apart trunk speakers since it dropped a month and half ago, and it hasn’t gotten tired yet. Cornrow Kenny gets all the way into his bag, sticking out his chest over a classic LA G-Funk beat that WC or Mack 10 might have smashed on back in ‘97, but with the raps of a young, hungry Kurupt. This is the Kendrick I can get behind.
There is so much synergy on DAMN. between delivery and subject and beat and vocal effects and emotion, on every track. “Lust” and “Love” especially hit between the ribs, the former sounding like Funkadelic at their wooziest, sleaziest, and most relatable, the latter leaning hard into the schmaltz, sounding almost like a parody of the rap ballad for the ladies genre, but coming out on the other side somehow still feeling genuine and real. “Fear” is a 7-minute trigger alert for any human being who grew up black, just north of poor, and rambunctious since the first Juneteenth. Somehow, by dropping all of the bells and whistles and extras that his other projects have usually been cluttered with and getting back to basics, Kung-Fu Kenny has finally made me a fan of more than just our shared zip code.—Aaron Williams
1. DJ Quik & Problem, Rosecrans
If I wasn’t already in love with Los Angeles, DJ Quik’s new album Rosencrans would’ve romanced me into it — it probably will for you, too, if you let it. First of all, it’s fitting that an album which functions almost exclusively as a love letter to Los Angeles would be the thing drove Quik’s name back to the very top of “greatest producer of all time” conversation, right where it belongs. His latest project, a collaborative album with fellow Compton native — rapper Problem — is the best hip-hop album to come out in 2017. Hands down. For all the Kendrick stans who will be furiously reading their beloved heroes name a single slot above this album, please consider some of the history that defines DJ Quik. Also consider, that by simply swapping these two entires I’ve made you pay more attention to DJ Quik than you have in a couple years. There’s levels to this sh*t.
Speaking of levels, David Marvin Blake has been a towering force in west coast hip-hop for just over three decades, a cut above the competition, and yet somehow, despite his immense, sweeping influence, he’s stayed underrated. No more. Let’s recap, quickly. His debut mixtape, the The Red Tape came out back in 1987 (when he was 17 years old), four years before Dr. Dre’s west coast pillar The Chronic, and actually, Quik’s debut album Quik Is The Name, also preceded that album by a year. Quik tells the story of Eazy E himself trying to poach Quik, back then, from Profile Records, who eventually did put his debut album out, but it’s hard not to imagine what might have happened if he’d become a Ruthless artist, and subsequently, a direct competitor with Dre. If there’s anyone on Dre’s level, it’s Quik, who arguably, has been a much stronger solo artist for the last two decades than Dre ever was.
In the following two decades, Quik took his sound, which was heavily influenced by George Clinton, funk, soul, and the talk box — which he was taught to use by the legendary Roger Troutman himself, later retiring his use of the talk box after Troutman died — and left his imprint on west coast hip-hop with a substantial, always consistent discography. Remember, Dre’s solo follow-up 2001 came out in 1999, then came a sixteen year gap broken only two years ago by 2015’s lukewarm Compton. During that same period, Quik released eight solo albums, along with multiple collaborations of varying import. Despite his breadth as a solo artist, 2016’s Rosecrans joint EP with Problem, and this subsequent full-length, represent some of his best work to date.
Or maybe it’s not, maybe he’s been operating at this level all along, and it just takes the spotlight of a revolutionary force like Kung Fu Kenny to get some shine focused back on the strange, stacked neighborhood of Compton and its unsung heroes. For a veteran like Quik, teaming up with a member of the generation right below him, aka Problem, helped re-energize his creative impulses. As it follows, Rosecrans is like a who’s who for the underrated, overly-talented ranks of west coast hip-hop royalty, who never popped off for one reason or another. West coast rap guru Jeff Weiss noted in a comment to me that while DAMN. tells the story of one person moving through Compton, Rosecrans captures the feeling of the entire city of Los Angeles. And as much as I love a subjective narrative, there’s room inside of Rosecrans for all the stories I’ve encountered in the ten months since I moved back to California from New York. Partially, the album achieves that by featuring all the other under-the-radar talents that call this city home.
Only three tracks here don’t include additional guests, and when they show up, Quik and Problem bequeath the mic to visiting talent with aplomb. Dom Kennedy is in full lascivious force for a luxe verse on “Bad Azz,” with Boogie on there too for good measure, returning the favor Quik paid him on last year’s Thirst 48 Pt. II. The Game and Candice Boyd make the title track, “Rosecrans,” almost too sexy to be a song that’s just about a road. Though, of course, it’s not really about a road; it’s about the feeling of owning a street because of who’s beside you, or the impossible idea that a stoned car ride down the right freeway might unlock a different level of freedom inside your universe. Later, Buddy flips “This Is Your Moment” into a laughed-off flex that’s pointed enough to feel like a diss track, and MC Eiht owns the chopped and screwed groove of “Central Ave,” flexing his fifty years harder than most MCs ever learn to.
The rest of the time, Quik and Problem are stunting on each other, one-upping until they’re going above and beyond, with Quik in particular recalling his impenetrable history, and both reflecting on what they’ve built in the present: An independent record label that is beholden to no majors, the freedom to create and live on their own terms. Which, in the end sums up the beauty of this record and the beauty of Los Angeles; the pace is slow enough that real rebels are all over, bubbling just under radar, simmering just off the grid, emerging from hiding when the time is just right, doling out gems like “You Are Everything” and “Chachi’s Ride” at will, then parking the whole machine back in the garage until a later date — or until they feel like another joyride. The entire ethos of the record is based off wanting this same freedom for everyone else, an urge to their community to bring the joy of creating back into the process, and venerate that above all else.
Rosecrans argues that not everything needs to be out in public all the time, and that often, the best things are kept to themselves until it’s absolutely necessary to show ’em off. Los Angeles is a city of hidden dreams, closeted loves and unexpected talents, and really, these three elements form the groundwork of almost every great hip-hop releases. Rosecrans is the best representation of all three in 2017, and it will be there, idling away, even if you never head down that road to explore it. But remember, there’s nothing more humbling than having your own ignorance revealed,
and forging your own way through a place you don’t know well is more rewarding than walking someone else’s path through it. If we’re actually going to
change things around here, it’s time we stop crowning a single rap game savior and start looking around at the rest of the congregation — I’ll take community over a prophet any day. —Caitlin White