Saturday, December 31, 2016


2016 may have sucked in many ways, but it was an awesome year for rap music. There was so much good stuff out there it was hard to keep up - ranging from young upstarts who forced us to re-think the boundaries of what should even be considered hip hop, to elder statesmen who set out to prove they could still hang. Below (in reverse order) is my take on the top 10 rap albums of the year. Enjoy.

10. Royce 5’9” / Layers – Whenever I listen to Royce Da 5’9” I’m reminded of the same fact - this dude can rap his ass off! On Layers, Royce is given ample space to show off his verbal high jinx, which come off as clever, quick-witted and razor-sharp as always. “Dope” is a hilarious take on a hustler’s addiction to the drug game. “Startercoat", is a rapid-fire throw back to the days when Royce rocked the iconic jacket. And “Layers” is a tour de force where he raises his game to compete with Pusha T and Rick Ross who show up for cameos. But he does his best work when he goes beyond just battle rhymes, such as on “Tabernacle” where he tells a moving story about the most important night of his career. It rounds out this already excellent record with some much needed depth.

9. Curren$y & Alchemist / The Carrollton Heist – I’m not sure what went down at the actual Carrollton Heist, but I’m guessing whatever it was it took place after midnight. Indeed, this is late night music to get high to. Dusty, smoked out, laid-back and dope AF. The Alchemist loops jazzy funk over hazy low-end beats that beg for a bag of weed and some Hennessy, while Curren$y supplies his impeccable monotone flow. When things start to get a bit too sleepy, A-List guests emerge from the backroom with fresh energy to keep the party going. Those include Action Bronson, Styles P and a remarkably lucid Lil Wayne, who spits the hottest verse I’ve heard from him in years. “This for the smokers and the real ones” he raps on “Fat Albert” and I have to admit, truer words have never been spoken.

8. Travis Scott / Birds In The Trap Sing McNight – Moody, atmospheric soundscapes dominate hip hop these days and no one does it better than 24 year old Houston native, Travis Scott. Tracks like “goosebumps” (ft. Kendrick Lamar), “sweet sweet” and “through the late night” show off Scott’s impressive production talents - representing his best work to date. When future generations ask what contemporary hip hop sounded like circa 2016, historians will do well to point to Birds In The Trap with its lush keys, polished drums and digitized vocals. It’s a pleasing blend, even if it owes more to EDM and R&B than rap's true school roots.

7. J Cole / 4 Your Eyez Only – J Cole shook things up with his pre-release drop of “False Prophets”, a song where he expresses disappointment with some unnamed peers and former idols. But we find him in a much more introspective mood on 4 Your Eyez Only where “False Prophets” fails to make an appearance. At 31 years old and no longer giving a damn what his detractors think of him, Cole let’s loose with his most personal album thus far. He’s on some serious grown man sh*t here, contemplating life, love, fame, death and the joys of domestic bliss. The sound is soulful, mellow and deeply felt. He scores with “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine Pt. 2”, beautiful ballads about his wife and newborn daughter, respectively. And “Foldin Clothes” works as an exuberant (if somewhat goofy) celebration of settling down with a good woman and enjoying the little things, thanks in part to an extraordinarily funky baseline. But the apex of the album is the title track, a wistful tribute to a friend (speaking from the grave to his daughter), that only reveals itself as such after repeated listens. This is J Cole at his most authentic, giving us the best that he has to offer.

6. Pusha T / King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude  - At nearly 40 years old, Pusha T might be the most skilled MC working today - a steely, dead-eyed wordsmith with no time for mumble-rap, melody or syrupy hooks. On King Push, he mostly stays in his lane with tracks that are sparse, sturdy and predictably bleak. The album crackles with intensity before reaching its peak on the final track, “Sunshine” (featuring Jill Scott), a surprisingly poignant protest song that feels right at home in the Black Lives Matter era.

5. Drake / Views – Drake offers nothing new on Views and that’s totally fine. It turns out dude is really, really good at what he does – making danceable hip pop that sounds perfectly of-the-moment. And indeed Views is loaded with an hours long road trip worth of hits ("Westin Road Flows", "Hype", "Feel No Ways", "One Dance", etc.). Despite many of us not wanting to admit it, Views shows that Drake is the total package - a clever rapper, capable singer and deceptively skilled songwriter – who’s able to toss off can’t-miss singles that manage to burrow their way into every crevice of pop culture without breaking a sweat. It’s so easy for him that it can all be a bit annoying really.

4. ScHoolboy Q / Blank Face LP – On Blank Face, TDE MC ScHoolboy Q lives up to his potential and then some, serving up a blistering platter of psychedelic G Funk that brings present day South Central, LA to life in vivid color. This is hard core gangsta rap for sure, except updated with an impressive array of musical influences and lyrical styles. Tracks like “Ride Out” and “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane” bang with the fury while “Blank Face”, “Lord Have Mercy” and “By Any Means” summon that laid back Cali vibe with just the right amount of menace. Then there’s “JoHn Muir”, which captures the day-in-the-life of a true G aesthetic in the mode of Ice Cube’s “Steady Mobbin’”. It’s my favorite track on the album, which is saying a lot since I haven’t even mentioned the Kanye-assisted “THat Part” a melodic, slick-talking street anthem that might just be the song of the year.

3. Kanye West / The Life Of Pablo – After the Trump rant, I’m done with apologizing for Kanye. Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that The Life of Pablo is a hell of an album. Say what you want about the man, but as an artist Kanye is a visionary who pushes the sound of popular music forward like no other artist of his generation. TLOP is an ambitious, sprawling masterwork that somehow hangs together over the course 65 minutes. It’s packed with diverse highlights, including "Ultralight Beam", "Fade", "Father Stretch My Hands", "Famous", and so on - that are at once challenging, impeccable and deeply satisfying.

2. Chance The Rapper / Coloring Book – In any other year (one not featuring a fantastic come back from A Tribe Called Quest) this would be the best hip hop record by a wide margin. On Coloring Book, Chance seamlessly embodies the best of all of all eras and sub-genres – effortlessly sliding in and out of slick bars, off-kilter flows and catchy, sing-songy hooks, all while sounding unabashedly earnest and optimistic. But it’s the album’s gospel underpinnings that make it truly special, infusing nearly all 16 tracks with a sense of spirituality that’s soulful, stirring and utterly irresistible.

1. A Tribe Called Quest / We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service – Eighteen years removed from what we thought was their last album and only 8 months after the death of Phife, we’d all have forgiven ATCQ if they had submitted an earnest, nostalgia-filled record that sounded melancholy and dated. Instead, the world’s most beloved rap group delivered the album of the year, just when we needed it most (3 days after the election of Donald Trump). We Got It From Here is a joyful, infectious jam session that improbably finds ATCQ still at the top of its game. Q-Tip reveals himself once again to be a maniacal genius, lacing track after track with complex, percolating instrumentation that updates the unmistakable ATCQ formula while never straying from its roots. Whether on the mic or behind the boards, The Abstract Poet proves he can still really bring it! Phife for his part, is as on-point as ever, kicking his signature punch lines with renewed vigor. And guest appearances from the likes of Busta Rhymes, Jack White, Andre 3000, and even Elton John all add to, rather than disrupt the groove. All in all, it’s a pretty spectacular piece of work, as worthy as anything in the Tribe catalog – and that’s saying a lot.

11. Isaiah Rashad / The Sun’s Tirade
12. De La Soul / And The Anonymous Nobody
13. Vince Staples / Prima Donna
14. Kendrick Lamar / untitled unmastered
15. YG / Still Brazy
17. Common / Black America Again
18. Masta Ace / The Falling Season
16. Danny Brown / Atrocity Exhibition
19. Saba / Bucket List Project
20. Kevin Gates / Islah