Rap in 2016 was a strange beast. Two of the biggest superstars in the genre put out records — Kanye and Drake respectively — but neither release possessed the world-stopping power that was apparent the last time this face off happened, back in 2013. Another huge contender, Kendrick Lamar, had already dominated 2015 with jazz-fusion of To Pimp A Butterfly, so his surprise collection of castoff demos this year felt like a carryover, but not a crown. After the initial thrill of these big name records wore off, there was still energy left over to celebrate emerging acts like Open Mike Eagle, Noname, and Lil Yachty.
A vacuum of sorts began to open up in the hip-hop world, particularly in the back half of the year, that let weird, wild newcomers like D.R.A.M. and Rae Sremmurd step into the spotlight. It let near-supernovas who have been grinding just outside the spotlight like YG and Schoolboy Q take center stage. But more than anything, the lull from rap’s two reigning kings let two other superstars-in-the-making rise, so two of the youngest, brashest, most independent voices clamored so loud they clambered all the way past their idols. In 2016, the student has become the master, and everybody is still learning.
20. Open Mike Eagle, Hella Personal Film Festival
Open Mike Eagle makes paranoia sound zen on his sprawling collaboration with UK producer Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival, a record that playfully interrogates deadly serious topics. Mike’s sly expansiveness mimics the deceptively cheerful warmth of the city of Los Angeles that he now calls home, and though he can sound downright lackadaisical on rubbery, light-headed jams like “Dang Is Invincible” or “Drunk Dreaming,” his steely-calm exterior is the result of a Chicago upbringing.
Mike has four solid solo albums, five EPs, and five formidable collaborative albums — including this one — and yet the mainstream has yet to catch onto his self-styled Art Rap aesthetic. Probably because, as he points out on “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” rappers are expected, and nearly required, to inhabit a certain set of signifiers and speak within certain grammars in order to achieve success. His music eschews any of the popular and prevalent sounds of successful rap in 2016, a fact that feels like a feat as homogeneity becomes a shoo-in for success. (See: Desiigner.)
Film Festival carves its own lane by hewing closer to existential interstitials and tongue-twister rapping than trap drums or insatiable hooks. Mike is most at home rapping in, around, and through the jittery, soulful beats that White provides here, using the space to break apart and examine everything from the overwhelming constance of digital notifications to the specters of surveillance and police violence. Despite the weight of these topics, Mike uses his wiry flow and dark humor to create frustrated poetry that never gets dragged under, and to voice lamentations that never slip into defeated resignation. —Caitlin White
19. Lil Yachty, Lil Boat
If a rising tides lifts all boats, and all press is good press, then Lil Yachty is sitting pretty. Hell, even if neither of these adages end up being true, Yachty has risen from near obscurity to New York Times Style icon in the span of mere months, a glow up that’s undeniable no matter how many old head radio hosts take shots at him (Can that tiresome, pathetic subset of rap beef be over in 2016, please?). After his initial breakout in 2015 with the Summer Songs EP, Yachty has turned 2016 into a success story that is rivaled perhaps only by fellow ATLien Gucci Mane’s reemergence as a sober, happy Trap God.