Notable Rap Tracks of 2016

Here are my favorite rap tracks of 2016…at least the ones I can recall.

Aesop Rock, “Blood Sandwich”
Amine, “Caroline”
Antwon, “100K”
A$AP Ferg feat. Future, “New Level”
The Avalanches feat. Biz Markie, “The Noisy Eater”
Bas, “Too High to Riot”
Danny Brown, “Ain’t It Funny”
Chance the Rapper feat. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, “No Problem”
Clams Casino, “Level 1 (instrumental)”
Common feat. Bilal, “Joy and Peace”

Curren$y, “Enter”
Dae Dae, “Wat U Mean (Aye, Aye, Aye)”
Daedelus feat. Zeroh, “Minotaur”
De La Soul feat. Estelle, “Memory of (US)”
De La Soul feat. Snoop Dogg, “Pain”
Death Grips, “Eh”
Denmark Vessey, “Black Love”
Denzel Curry, “ULT”
Drake, “Weston Road Flows”
DJ Drama feat. Lil Wayne, “Intro”

DJ Khaled feat. Jay Z & Future, “I Got the Keys”
DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels, “Nobody Speak”
E-40 feat. Nef the Pharoah and D.R.A.M., “Slappin”
Elucid, “Cold Again”
Elzhi, “Hello!!!!!”
Fat Joe & Remy Ma feat. French Montana, “All The Way Up”
Flatbush Zombies, “Bounce”
French Montana & Kodak Black, “Lockjaw”
Future, “Lie to Me”
Future feat. Drake, “Used to This”

The Game, “Bompton”
Kevin Gates, “Not the Only One”
Robert Glasper feat. Bilal and Illa J, “They Can’t Hold Me Down”
Nick Grant, “Get Up”
Gucci Mane feat. Kanye West, “Pussy Print”
Gucci Mane feat. Travis Scott, “Last Time”
Hodgy, “Barbell”
Homeboy Sandman, “God”
J Cole, “False Prophets”
J Cole, “Ville Mentality”

J Dilla feat. Snoop Dogg & Kokane, “Gangsta Boogie”
Jidenna, “Chief Don’t Run”
Joey Bada$$, “Devastated”
K Camp feat. 2 Chainz, “5 Minutes”
KA, “Grapes of Wrath”
KA, “Ours”
Kamaiyah, “How Does It Feel”
Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled 05”
Kodak Black, “Vibin in This Bih”
Logic, “44 Bars”

Lushlife feat. Killer Mike, “This Ecstatic Cult”
Mac Miller feat. Anderson Paak, “Dang!”
Meek Mill, “Blue Notes”
Vic Mensa, “Danger”
Migos & Lil Uzi Vert, “Bad & Boujee”
Mr. Lif feat. Erica Dee, “A Better Day”
Moor Mother, “By the Light”
Mozzy, “All Day”
9th Wonder, “Base For Your Face”
Oddisee, “No Reservations”

Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)”
Phresher, “Wait a Minute”
Problem feat. 2 Chainz, “My Squad”
Rae Sremmurd, “Look Alive”
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles”
Rapsody, “Fire”
Isaiah Rashad feat. Zacari & Kendrick Lamar, “Wat’s Wrong”
Isaiah Rashad, “Free Lunch”
Red Pill feat. P.O.S, “Fuck Your Ambition”
Rome Fortune, “Love”

Royce Da 5’9″ feat. Pusha T and Rick Ross, “Layers”
Run the Jewels feat. Boots, “2100”
Schoolboy Q feat. Jadakiss, “Groovy Tony”
Skyzoo & Apollo Brown feat. Westside Gunn & Conway, “Basquiat on the Draw”
Smoke DZA, “It’s Real”
Snoop Dogg, “Super Crip”
Spillage Village feat. J Cole, “Can’t Call Up”
Tay Way, “Fuck It Up”
Trae, “All Good”
A Tribe Called Quest, “Black Spasmodic”

21 Savage & Metro Boomin, “X Bitch”
2 Chainz, “Not Invited”
Kanye West feat. Kid Cudi, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
Kanye West feat. Kendrick Lamar, “No More Parties in L.A.”
Kanye West feat. Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin & The-Dream, “Ultralight Beam”
Westside Gunn, “Gustavo”
YFN Lucci, “Key to the Streets”
YG & Nipsey Hussle, “FDT”
YG, “Who Shot Me?”
Young M.A, “Ooouuu”

Young Thug, “Problem”
Young Thug & Travis Scott, “Pick Up the Phone”

Notable Rap Albums of 2016

Here’s a brief list of 25 notable rap albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.

1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

Rap music with religious themes was a minor trend in 2016 (see Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo), but no one communicated the ecstatic sensation of being “Blessed” by Christ quite like Chance the Rapper. His Coloring Book brims with positive messages, whether it’s his assertion of independence from major labels on “No Problem,” or calling out Chicago’s homegrown juke dance scene on “Juke Joint,” and the music simmered with a surplus of post-millennial sounds like gospel, house, R&B and trap. Chance may claim that Coloring Book is a “Mixtape” and not a full-fledged album, but few if any rap projects had as much impact or creativity as this Chicago optimist’s launch into international superstardom. (Napster – December 10, 2016)

2. Common, Black America Again

Common, whose talent for composing understated gems makes him a perpetually overlooked GOAT candidate, is at his best when he’s serious as cancer. Luckily, Black America Again arrives during a year when his usual intensity seems timely. It may have not yielded much radio support; programmers didn’t know what to do with its main single, “Love Star,” just like they underplayed its 2000 classic predecessor in neo-soul romance, “The Light.” But his call to arms on “Black America Again” resonates, as does his claim, “We need Avas, Ta Nehisis and Cory Bookers/The salt of Earth to get us off of sugar/And greasy foods.” “The Day The Women Took Over” is a fantasy about “Michelle, Oprah and Rosa/The mayor of Chi is Liz Dozier.” “Joy and Peace” is a lyrical fever dream; “Pyramids” is a throwback to the Afrocentric ciphers of golden age rap. The jazzy classicism of Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper’s production holds him down. So does the knowledge that, as he explains on “Letter to the Free,” he’s still standing despite the fact that “We staring in the face of hate again/The same hate they say will make America great again.” (Rolling Stone – December 20, 2016)

3. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition

“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave,” Danny Brown begins on “Downward Spiral,” the opening track from the Detroit rapper’s Joy Division-inspired (by way of science fiction writer JG Ballard) Atrocity Exhibition. Every fan of Brown’s music knows that he chronicles the highs and lows of chemical and sexual indulgence. But if XXX was a Xanax fantasy that turns sour, and Old was an electric Molly candyland, then Atrocity Exhibition is a tweaker fest. Petite Noir’s blues-rock beat for “Rolling Stone” offers him cold comfort as he loses his brain and goes insane, while Playa Haze’s dusty soul loop underscores the grungy tedium of a dealer getting high on his own supply. But it’s the Adderall shake of Paul White’s “Ain’t It Funny,” “Golddust,” and “When It Rain” that really drives Brown’s exploration of his frazzled mind, and makes Atrocity Exhibition a thrillingly uncomfortable exercise in self-flagellation. (Rolling Stone – November 22, 2016)

4. Death Grips, Bottomless Pit

It’s remarkable to think that Death Grips once seemed as unstable as radioactivity, battling record labels, canceling shows, and presumptively announcing their breakup in 2014. Two years later, the Sacramento trio has surprisingly evolved into a dependably provocative unit that operates at a nexus of punk rock, live electronics, and barking energy raps. Bottomless Pit offers further refinement: “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” rattles like an old Ministry industrial banger, “Hot Head” applies breakcore dynamics like smeared lipstick, and “Warping” stutters on a toy piano melody. Then there’s Stefan Burnett, an animated and muscular presence who splits the difference between DMX and Henry Rollins, and whose vocal performance goes beyond mere war chants. When he quietly shrugs “Eh” over Andy Morin and Zach Hill’s whirligig rhythm, he sounds just as devastating as when he’s bellowing over “Houdini,” his voice raining down like a hammering fist. (Rolling Stone – November 22, 2016)

5. Elucid, Save Yourself

6. J Cole, 4 Your Eyez Only

7. Mick Jenkins, The Healing Component

8. Kevin Gates, Islah

Since 2013, Kevin Gates has established a run of quality projects that spotlight his emotionally resonant striver raps. He’s one of the few street artists that can convey love and monogamy convincingly. When he harmonizes, “I’ve been misused, what the fuck you want my heart for” over the country-ish stomp of “Hard For,” you feel his confusion. Islah ranges from trap hammers like “La Familia,” to dramatic, synth-driven tracks like “2 Phones” and “Ask for More.” But what stands out is how his voice sounds so naturally melodic, and how he exudes so much passion in his songs. He hearkens to an earlier era when the Dirty South stood for hardscrabble authenticity. (Napster – January 28, 2016)

9. Ka, Honor Killed the Samurai

Kaseem Ryan’s ghostly whisper of a voice is one of the most indelible instruments in rap today. It’s remarkable how this onetime 90s underground rap also-ran turned fire chief who makes critically acclaimed albums in his spare time can reduce his rough Brooklyn accent to a quiet murmur, as if he were practicing Tai chi on a sandy beach. With Honor Killed the Samurai, he continues to reinvigorate New York boom bap into something more compelling than hidebound tradition. He crafts his beats from 70s jazz and prog-rock obscurities, and wraps them in vocal cues from samurai movies, resulting in a eerie, foreboding sound that underlines street symphonies like “Mourn at Night,” and contradicts meditations on his rejuvenated career like “$” and “Just.” The music is so placid that every verse stands out. but when it gets loud on the harsh synthesized maelstrom of “Ours,” he sounds like a hardened OG holding court on a cold city block, no matter how hard it rains. (Rolling Stone – December 20, 2016)

10. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered

This addendum to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is the best rap demo collection since Nas’ The Lost Tapes. It’s as ambitious and orchestral as that 2015 instant classic, but its lack of finishing touches – some of the tracks like “Untitled 07” burble with tape hiss and studio chatter – results in an appealingly loose collection. There are some surprises like when Lamar’s voice suddenly gives way to Jay Rock on “Untitled 05,” or when CeeLo Green begins to croon on “Untitled 06.” “Untitled 08,” a G-funk throwback co-produced by Thundercat and Mono/Poly that’s alternately known as “Blue Faces,” would have been a fantastic B-side to “King Kunta” if Lamar had issued the latter as a 45. Still, its inclusion on this superior epilogue to one of the best albums of the decade is more than enough. (Rolling Stone – December 20, 2016)

11. Kodak Black, Lil Big Pac

12. Noname, Telefone

13. Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival

On Open Mike Eagle’s partnership with UK producer Paul White, the indie rapper continues to weave smart, slightly melancholy rhymes. When he complains how “Nobody smiles at me ‘cause I’m a black man” on “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” there’s an undercurrent of sadness in his voice. “A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night” could be taken literally, or as a metaphor for crippling shyness; and there’s no mistaking the intent behind “Insecurity.” But Hella Personal Film Festival isn’t a depressing album. In fact, it’s very funny, thanks to Open Mike Eagle’s talent for punch lines and self-deprecating humor, as well as White’s whimsically melodic beats. Whether matching wits with Aesop Rock, or claiming that he’s just living “Check to Check,” Open Mike Eagle makes sure we’re having a good time, even if he may not be. (Napster – March 22, 2016)

If a Wes Anderson movie could be transmuted into a rap album, it might sound something like Hella Personal Film Festival. Open Mike Eagle gives us small but odd details – “Woke up without a hangover/That burrito worked,” he says offhandedly on “Dang is Invincible” – that accumulate into neurotic numbers like “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” where he bemoans how crowds at his shows are afraid to talk to him “‘cause I’m a black man,” and the self-explanatory “Dive Bar Support Group” and “Insecurity.” UK producer Paul White – who has a breakout year, thanks to his simultaneous work on Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition – counters the rapper’s self-deprecatory with sounds that range from the chirpy and whimsical “I Went Outside Today” to the mock-blues of “A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night.” The result is both funny and heart-rending, as if Max Fischer of Rushmore had somehow grown into a successful L.A. indie rapper, podcaster, and serio-comic personality. (Rolling Stone – December 20, 2016)

14. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife 2

Anyone, even a duo blessed with the guidance of Atlanta über-producer Mike Will Made It, would find it difficult to follow up a platinum debut that not only yielded four Top 40 pop hits, but also turned the triple-platinum “No Type” into the clarion call of thirsty, hormonally charged bros around the globe. So while SremmLife coasted like a magnolia breeze, SremmLife 2 lumbers, weighted by the burden of expectations. The brothers’ hooks are convoluted and loquacious, and lack the gif-ready appeal of their earlier smashes. Certainly, SremmLife 2 is a different beast. If Rae Sremmurd’s debut approximated a beatific red cups/red bottoms swag party, this follow-up approximates a smoked out, hot-boxed ride.

Mike Will Made It, who produces most of the album, has shifted into darker territory, perhaps an inevitable response to Future and 808 Mafia’s dystopian game-changer DS2. Tracks like “Shake It Fast” exude a whirlpool effect akin to Three 6 Mafia’s crunk nihilism – along with a typically debauched Juicy J cameo – while others like “Swang” meanders charmingly with a dizzying and tipsy tilt. Amidst Mike’s startling evolution, the brothers Rae signify that they’re adults, and no longer resemble the Mississippi kids who cheered two years ago, “No flex zone!” Their trap boasts have taken on an air of menace, and their choruses emerge uneasily, like offhand punctuation marks meant to hold the songs together. …

There are pleasures to be found on SremmLife 2 once you adjust your expectations and realize that it’s not a “No Flex Zone” sequel. Instead, it charts a different but still familiar path: Every youth explosion is eventually tempered by the grind and hard-won rewards of grown-man work. (Spin – August 8, 2016)

15. Isaiah Rashad, The Sun’s Tirade

16. Run The Jewels, RTJ3

17. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face

With his second major label album, Schoolboy Q continues to assert himself as the Top Dawg camp’s grimiest member. If his colleague Kendrick Lamar – who briefly appears as a backing voice on “By Any Means” – appeals to our intellects, then Q fulfills our desire for seamy street antics. He asserts, “I’m a gangbanging deadbeat father and drug dealer” over the crackling live drums and gospel overtones of “Lord Have Mercy,” then claims, “We used to run from the cops/Now we buying the block” over the post-disco EDM of “Whateva U Want.” He resurrects the slovenly growl of Ol Dirty Bastard on “Kno Ya Wrong,” and trades verses with Jadakiss on “Groovy Tony” and Kanye West on “That Part.” The aura of Blank Face is of stark, thuggish menace. (Napster – July 7, 2016)

18. Skyzoo & Apollo Brown, The Easy Truth

On The Easy Truth, Skyzoo lyrically explores his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn home with a classic feel. He (as well as guests Conway and Westside Gunn) brags that he rhymes like the legendary graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat on “Basquiat on the Draw,” and he pays homage to 90s underground DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito with “On the Stretch and Bobbito Show.” Producer Apollo Brown complements him with lush boom bap loops that sound like a post-millennial update of Pete Rock’s iconic work. For this duo, making lovely hip-hop is a bigger priority than the ephemeral riches of “A Couple Dollars” and “Jordans & a Gold Chain.” (Napster – September 30, 2016)

19. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here…Thank U For Your Service

A Tribe Called Quest’s final album is a wistful mix of nostalgia for their golden age past, and inspired protest at a difficult present and future. The gang’s all here – even Jarobi, who hasn’t been heard on a Tribe disc since their debut album, drops a few rhymes. They talk with amusing grumpiness with Andre 3000 about the millennial generation on “Kids,” and a flicker of melody from their classic love jam “Bonita Applebum” percolates through “Enough!!” But We Got It From Here is more than just a reunion of a beloved hip-hop group. Produced by Q-Tip (with help from guitarist and engineer Blair Wells), it sounds starkly different from Tribe’s canonical 90s output. It often has a strange and otherworldly minimalism typified by “We The People” and “Conrad Tokyo,” which find Q-Tip punching out harsh keyboard notes; and “Black Spasmodic,” which features a grungy, rickety dancehall loop reminiscent of Kanye West’s irreverent patchwork The Life of Pablo. Speaking of Mr. West, he appears on “The Killing Season,” and other Tribe descendants like Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, and Anderson Paak also pay homage. The vibe is looking backward and thinking forward, whether it’s protesting how people of color and the LGBT community is marginalized on “We the People,” or worrying that the world is facing an uncertain apocalypse on “Conrad Tokyo.” It’s a fitting sendoff for the late Phife Dawg, who sounds magnificent here, and certifies his reputation as one of the best to ever do it. (Rolling Stone – November 22, 2016)

20. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin, Savage Mode

21. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo

Generally speaking, Kanye West’s “unfinished” album The Life of Pablo is a hot mess. It’s not just the so-called “Yeezy Season 3” listening party at Madison Square Garden, which aired on a TIDAL video stream beset by buffering problems; nor is it his insistence that the album isn’t actually finished. It’s how he encourages Andre 3000 to hum the chorus to “30 Hours” for minutes on end, and then interrupts the melody when his cell phone rings with a call from manager Dave Free. It’s how “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” is nothing more than West shouting over Desiigner’s previously released single “Panda”. It’s how “Low Lights” is nothing than more than DJ Dodger Stadium, Mike Dean, and West’s remix of Leedia Urteaga’s a cappella vocal from Kings of Tomorrow’s “So Alive”. In other words, it’s how West manages TLOP with an artless ineptitude that belies his well-deserved reputation as one of the most inspired musical conceptualists in recent memory. …

West is a brilliant composer, so while TLOP isn’t exactly The Basement Tapes or Smile, it has value as unfinished songs inspired by his usual thematic concerns, such as the crisis of black spiritual life in a secular, consumerist society (a topic he’s mined ever since The College Dropout, despite erroneous claims that TLOP is his singular “gospel album”); and a conflicted relationship with 50% of the human race that often materializes into unrepentant misogynist boasts. “No More Parties in L.A.” is a Madlib-produced whirligig freestyle session between Kendrick Lamar and West that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1990s broadcast of the Stretch & Bobbito show. “Feedback” is a simple yet intoxicating slice of oscillating noise over which West calls himself the Dennis Rodman to Jay Z’s Michael Jordan, and shouts, “Name one genius who ain’t crazy!” “Real Friends” is a haunting autobiographical note about how West’s celebrity has ruptured his connections with his pre-fame family and friends.

Shorn of the noise surrounding its gestation and intentionally chaotic release, TLOP bears modestly erratic delights. (Impose – February 22, 2016)

22. Westside Gunn, Flygod

23. YG, Still Brazy

YG’s My Krazy Life caught many by surprise with its effortlessly confident odes to L.A. gang life. After the album became a critical and commercial hit, the Compton rapper later claimed victoriously, “It’s easy to make a classic.” Well, it’s not that easy, but YG makes a valiant effort to repeat his debut’s success with Still Brazy. He’s still got the Piru flag-waving raps like “I Got a Question,” which features a standout verse from Lil Wayne, and a hydraulics-boosting G-funk sound ripples throughout the album, most memorably on “Twist My Fingaz.” He also adds a political element: “Blacks and Browns” calls for unity between the black and Latino community in Los Angeles, while Nipsey Hussle states “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans” on “FDT.” Then there’s “Don’t Come to LA,” where YG tries to portray the second biggest city in the country as a “no fly zone,” and seems to contradict this invitation to experience the life of a man from “Bompton.” (Napster – June 14, 2016)

24. Yoni & Geti, Testarossa

25. Young Thug, No, My Name is Jeffery

Anyone who claims that Young Thug is just another incoherent, monosyllabic “mumble rapper” isn’t listening to him hard enough. The heavily tattooed ATL iconoclast has a vocabulary that expands his terrain of getting high, having sex, copping bands and doing dirt. “Pop a molly now I’m in the fucking air/Cloud nine, nigga smokin’ like a fucking bear,” he raps on “Floyd Mayweather” as he drops a clever reference to Smokey the Bear. He has an inimitable voice – no one else sounds like him – and a sharp sense of rhythm that allows him to flip easily from the electronic trap bounce of “Future Swag” to the plodding bass speaker charge of “Harambe.” As usual, Young Thug splayed his talents over too many releases in 2016, and it remains unclear if he’ll ever fulfill his fans’ expectations that he’s the new Lil Wayne, his sometime-influence, sometime-enemy (depending on the day and who’s Tweeting or Instagramming). But No, My Name is JEFFERY is an undeniable highlight, from deserved hit “Pick Up the Phone” with Quavo and Travis Scott, to that awesome cover art of Thugger in a purple dress, a small but important crack in mainstream rap’s glass house of heteronormativity. (Rolling Stone – November 22, 2016)

Notable R&B Tracks of 2016

Here’s a list of my favorite R&B tracks this year. Selections have been limited to one per artist.

1. Ameriie, “Sing About It”
2. Badbadnotgood, “In Your Eyes”
3. Guordan Banks, “Keep You in Mind” (2015 track)
4. Beyoncé, “Formation”
5. BJ the Chicago Kid, “Cupid”
6. Mary J. Blige, “Thick Of It”
7. Blood Orange, “Thank You”
8. Charles Bradley, “Ain’t It a Sin”
9. Cody Chesnutt, “Bullets in the Streets and Blood”
10. Childish Gambino, “Me and Your Mama”
11. Denitia & Sene, “Favorite”
12. Drake, “Controlla”
13. Fantasia, “Stay Up”
14. Frank Ocean, “Nikes”
15. Anthony Hamilton, “Save Me”
16. Jahkoy, “California Heaven”
17. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “Midnight Rider”
18. Kehlani, “Crzy”
19. Alicia Keys, “In Common”
20. Michael Kiwanuka, “Black Man in a White World”
21. Lloyd, “Tru”
22. Maxwell, “Lake by the Ocean”
23. Chrisette Michele, “Steady”
24. K Michelle, “If It Ain’t Love”
25. Mila J, “Kickin’ Back”
26. Kendra Morris, “Twist & Burn”
27. Musiq Soulchild, “Life on Earth”
28. Laura Mvula, “Angel”
29. Nao, “Get To Know Ya”
30. NxWorries, “Get Bigger/Do U Luv”
31. Anderson Paak, “The Dreamer”
32. Partynextdoor, “Come and See Me”
33. PJ, “Gangsta”
34. Dawn Richard, “Paint It Blue”
35. Jordan Rakei, “Midnight Mischief”
36. Rihanna, “Needed Me”
37. Ro James, “Permission”
38. Earl St. Clair, “Good Time”
39. Sampha, “Blood on Me”
40. Lance Skiiwalker, “Lover’s Lane”
41. Solange, “Don’t Touch My Hair”
42. Esperanza Spalding, “Judas”
43. STWO, “Blue Sky”
44. Tigallerro, “Something”
45. Tinashe, “Player”
46. Tweet, “Magic”
47. Usher, “No Limit”
48. The Weeknd, “Keep it Coming”
49. Adrian Younge, “Sandrine”
50. Yuna, “Lanes”

Notable R&B Albums of 2016

Here’s a list of 25 notable R&B albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.

1. Beyoncé, Lemonade

2. BJ The Chicago Kid, In My Mind

BJ the Chicago Kid’s major label debut follows years of yeoman work for LA rappers like Schoolboy Q, for whom he sang the chorus on the hit single “Studio.” However, his In My Mind eschews R&B formulae. On “Church,” he sings, “She says she wants to drink, do drugs and have sex tonight/But I’ve got church in the morning.” He finds solace in the Biblical story of the Hebrew prophet “Jeremiah,” delivers a roots soul track reminiscent of D’Angelo on “Turnin’ Me Up,” and his “Falling on My Face” resembles Bonnie Raitt’s adult contemporary “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” “Cupid’s too busy in the club,” laments BJ on album standout “The New Cupid.” While his ideas don’t always translate into great songwriting, his attempts to balance love and spirituality makes In My Mind a worthy listen. (Rhapsody – February 15, 2016)

3. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound

4. Charles Bradley, Changes

On his third album, Charles Bradley burns hot. The New York soul singer renders his voice into a hoarse scream, and then an equally raspy half-shout, and manages to convey decades of hard living into the frames of three-minute songs. Much of Changes is familiar territory for him and his fans, but there are a few surprises. “Ain’t It a Sin” is a pip of a funk track that contrasts sharply to the slow, bluesy soul that marks much of this album. His backing group, the Menahan Street Band works in a few curveballs, including a horn section on “Nobody But You” that turns a hook from Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” into stoned soul. But the centerpiece is “Changes,” a Black Sabbath cover that Bradley turns into an epic of weariness and heartbreak. (Rhapsody – March 30, 2016)

5. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”

For his third album, Awaken, My Love!, Childish Gambino delves into the kind of grungy stanklove that OutKast once indulged in on their magnum opuses. When its first track, “Me and Your Mama,” was sent to websites last month, listeners were stunned at the epic six-minute track, its soaring gospel chorus, and the raggedly intense spirit he summoned with ease. (Some already anticipated his evolution – he debuted the project during his PHAROS Festival at Joshua Tree, CA last September.) While the rest of the album, produced by longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, doesn’t quite equal that first, sensational single, it’s still an inspired detour from a multi-talented hyphenate who has already dazzled us this fall with his critically acclaimed comedy/drama, Atlanta. (Rolling Stone – December 1, 2016)

6. K Michelle, More Issues Than Vogue

It’s unfortunate that the mainstream press and pop radio continues to dismiss K Michelle as an “adult R&B” singer – a stereotype that she pushed back against recently in a revelatory Huffington Post interview. In reality, she’s one of the most fascinating and unpredictable musicians in R&B right now, and someone who has far outgrown her initial fame as a luminary of VH1’s celebreality programming block. (For the curious, you can still catch K. Michelle: My Life on the cable channel.) Her latest, More Issues Than Vogue is proudly campy and deeply poignant, from the album artwork that shows her blowing a bubblegum with a man trapped inside it, to the way she coos “Not a Little Bit” as she reluctantly lets go of a lover. She dips into mono-pop with Jason DeRulo on “Make the Bed,” countrypolitan pop with “If It Ain’t Love,” sashays with Miami sexpot Trina (who delivers a burner verse) on “I’m Rich,” and pops game over an interpolation of OutKast’s epochal funk jam “SpottieOttieDopalicious” on “Got ‘Em Like.” “I need stacks, otherwise motherfucker you can get back,” she says, mockingly. She doesn’t take any mess, but she’s still got a heart of gold. (Spin – April 14, 2016)

7. Alicia Keys, Here

On her most political album to date, Keys sings from the perspective of a black everywoman with undiminished optimism. Her subjects on Here are many: the angry, struggling woman at the center of the heartbreaking “Illusion of Bliss”; the city of New York as personified as a young woman with roots in “Egypt/She was a queen in Cairo” and living fast over a vintage boom-bap loop “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,”; and the gay couple on “Where Do We Begin Now” that worries about leaving the closet. Much like her widely publicized decision to abandon heavy makeup in public appearances, she strips down her music and largely communicates through her own strident piano chords, save for the occasional homage to classic NYC rap like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Spot Rusherz” (“The Gospel”) and Nas’ “One Love” (“She Don’t Really Care”). There is a bit of spoken-word braggadocio as she declares over the latter, “The chair that I’m sitting on is a throne/Perfection kneels at the seat of my soul.” However, her true victory is identifying and empathizing with others, and finding hope that the world, despite all its problems, is changing for the better. (Rolling Stone – November 22, 2016)

8. KING, We Are King

9. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate

10. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits

This is a classic producer album, not in the post-millennial, Mark Ronson-writing-a-hit-song sense, but the kind of thick, woolly tapestries that Quincy Jones made in his pre-Michael Jackson days. There are a few boldfaced names here – Robert Glasper’s signature glissando keys opens “Curly Martin,” while Kamasi Washington’s saxophone sheets of sound punctuates it. Yet it’s mostly Martin, fresh from his triumph assembling Kendrick Lamar’s world-beating To Pimp a Butterfly, and a few session musician friends showing off what they can do as they explore California vibes as easily as David Axelrod once fused soul-jazz with big band orchestration. Why not a little house music via “Think Of You”? And who cares if “Oakland” sounds a little bit like Childish Gambino’s “Telegraph Ave.”? From the down-home blues of “Patiently Waiting,” where Uncle Chucc pairs with the Emotions (yes, the Emotions of “Best of My Love” fame); to the Vocoder G-funk of “Push” and the too-smooth yacht jazz of “Valdez Off Crenshaw,” Martin and co. do what they want, and the listener is all the better for it. (Rolling Stone – December 16, 2016)

11. Maxwell, BlackSUMMERS’Night

Maxwell’s long-anticipated return after a seven-year silence brings endlessly intricate meditations on love. He sings, “love is the medicine” on “Lake by the Ocean,” and realizes, painfully, that a woman he just broke up with may be his soul mate on “Of All Kind.” “Gods” unfolds into a romantic argument, and he admits on “The Fall,” “Feel like I’m average/The pressure’s so savage.” The arrangements are just as complicated, and incorporate dub reggae (on “1990x”), lovers’ rock (“III”), and spacious, jazz-like tempos. Maxwell’s honeyed voice, and the way he coolly alternates between his anguished speaking voice and an ecstatic falsetto, matches the airy sound of the music. But make no mistake: blackSUMMERS’night is an album about romantic crisis, and it’s as beautiful as it is emotionally tumultuous. (Rhapsody – June 29, 2016)

12. Laura Mvula, The Dreaming Room

Laura Mvula’s 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, was an extraordinary mélange of chamber music, cabaret pop, big band jazz, singer-songwriter plaints, and British downtempo. As a soul masterwork made of ornately vintage threads, it left listeners grasping for past iconoclasts to compare her – a lot of Nina Simone, a little Roberta Flack – because she sounds like no one else right now. Smartly, Mvula doesn’t turn The Dreaming Room into a mirror image of her classic bow. Instead, she tries to bridge the gap between the highbrow classicism of Sing to the Moon and the electronic thrust of post-millennial pop. On “Angel,” Laura Mvula sings about the end of her marriage with unsettling optimism and a bright and soaring choral pop voice, and while a grainy cowboy guitar and keyboard washes strum beneath her. “Phenomenal Woman,” her enthusiastic tribute to the feminist spirit, pulses hard like a New Wave pop banger, but also betrays Mvula’s weakness for chanting universal themes that threaten to turn into simple bromides. Her collaboration with disco-funk genius Nile Rodgers for the Ibiza peak of “Overcome” strikes a similar theme of perseverance with more impact. (Spin – August 12, 2016)

13. Nao, For All We Know

British R&B singer Neo Joshua has charted a slow yet inexorable path to her own startling breakout moment. She entered as one-fifth of The Boxettes, a quintet that earned some notice for its imaginative mix of pop vocal, a capella melody and beatbox skills. “So Good,” Nao’s Aaliyah-esque stunner with the enigmatic AK Paul, anchored a 2014 debut EP of the same title, and precipitated a cameo on Disclosure’s Caraval and, this year, a songwriting credit on Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman. Last fall, Samsung licensed “Zillionaire,” the squelchy electronic funk stormer from Nao’s February 15 EP. Now, Nao’s full-length bow, For All We Know, burnishes her status as one of the UK’s brightest new talents with an hour of clubby and emotionally complex wonderworks.

Nao’s girlishly dulcet voice resembles the limpid tones of Aluna Francis. But while the latter’s AlunaGeorge embraces post-millennial electronic pop a la DJ Snake’s hit EDM remix of “You Know You Like It”; Nao burrows into subterranean soul, and the kind of murky nu-funk and woozy bass heard in nightclubs and via British tastemaker labels like BBE. “Inhale Exhale,” which was first released on the February 15 EP, shakes along a hypnotic platform stomp and fizzy gusts of synth melody. For “Get To Know You,” London soul revivalists Jungle assemble a scratch guitar stroll filtered to sound like a RZA banger. And “Happy” rolls on bulbous bass synths and a shimmering candy hook reminiscent of 80s R&B legends Shalamar. Despite its release on Sony imprint RCA Records, For All We Know is a refreshingly noncommercial dance record. (Spin – July 26, 2016)

14. NxWorries, Yes Lawd!

If Anderson Paak’s Malibu is a smorgasbord of styles, then this side project with beat tape aficionado Knxwledge burrows in on a singular, ear-worming sound. With a title inspired by Paak’s mid-song shout on last year’s crate-digger favorite “Suede,” Yes Lawd centers on raspy-voiced pimp boasts, and gangsta leanin’ soul samples that Knx loops, chops and sautés into minute-long bursts of inspiration. “Baby get your shit together, we hittin’ the town,” sings Paak on “Wings.” “I hope I never have to cut you off,” he laughs over the smoothed-out jazz-funk “Best One,” then sheepishly adds, “I love you.” Sure, Yes Lawd is a frothy confection, but Paak delivers his outrageous lines with such winning charisma that you can’t help but enjoy it. “Khadijah,” where he sings how “the whole world got me vexed” and searches for nirvana in the arms of his wife, suggests that he knows there are more important things in the world than a woman that knows how to cook grits. (Rolling Stone – December 13, 2016)

15. Frank Ocean, Blond(e)

R&B fans may grouse that, much like its predecessor, Apple Music labeled Blonde as “Pop.” But unlike channel ORANGE and its 70s singer-songwriter stoned soul tones, this truly sounds like a post-millennial pop record, from its computerized ambience to a diverse list of contributors that include French electro-house producer Sebastian (who tells a silly little tale on “Facebook Story”) and a lyrical reference to Elliot Smith’s “A Fond Farewell” on “Seigfried.” The presence of Kim Burrell’s gospel testimonial near the end of “Godless” feeds into the minor narrative of urban pop heroes like Chance the Rapper, Kanye West and others re-engaging with spirituality.

When his words are clear, Frank Ocean sings about desperate youth, bloodthirsty babes, and the intoxication that results. “We’re not kids no more,” he sings over “Ivy” and its Twin Peaks-like glow. He sounds brazenly erotic when he asserts on “Solo,” “I’ll be your boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” But on one of the album’s highlights, “Seigfried,” he sings plaintively, “I couldn’t gauge your fears/I can’t relate to my peers/I’d rather live outside/I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here.” He aims to be someone different from the norm, but hesitates on defining what that means.

As an hour-long drift into Ocean’s consciousness, Blonde blooms with too-pretty moments like “Pink + White,” which features a maternal, wordless backing vocal from Beyoncé. Its melodic haze often threatens to blur into aimlessness. Yet Ocean convinces us to trust his vision of modern youth in a time where the world may lie at your fingertips, yet you can still be murdered if, as he sings on “Nikes,” you look just like Trayvon Martin. And when he sings, “Maybe I’m a fool” on “Seigfried,” his deep husk can’t be interpreted as anything other than the sound of soul. (Rolling Stone – August 20, 2016)

16. Anderson Paak, Malibu

For anyone who first heard Anderson Paak during his star-making appearance on Dr. Dre’s valedictory album Compton, discovering his breakthrough solo album Malibu must be like finding a Jacob Lawrence painting at a Compton swap meet. But those of us who have followed the Oxnard musician since his first nationally distributed project, 2014’s underrated Venice – or even early works like O.B.E. Vol. 1 – this drumming, rapping, and singing dynamo has simply evolved from a Low End Theory outlier to a multi-talented composer for the New West Coast. He sings of growing up on free lunches and afterschool TV on “The Dreamer.” He coos seductively on “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “I know in the morning/The sunlight covers your wounds/But I’m hoping I look the same as the way you always knew/Baby of course I flew.” Throughout, he portrays himself as a free bird that shouldn’t be caged, whether he’s shifting from the juke joint funk of “Come Down” to the deep house of “Am I Wrong,” or stealing hearts with the most winning vocal performance since Kendrick Lamar twelve months ago. (Rolling Stone – December 13, 2016)

17. Jordan Rakei, Cloak

For those of us who didn’t know about Jordan Rakei’s 2014 EP Groove Curse; or overlooked his hazy yet sonorous vocal on “Masterpiece,” a deep cut on Disclosure’s Caraval; this summer’s Cloak is an unexpected delight. The Australian-raised, UK-based singer-songwriter has a quietly insistent tone that’s utterly unique, and displays a impressive emotional range, from the achingly lonely despair of “Lost Myself” to the bubbly optimism of “The Light.” And like fellow countrymen Hiatus Kaiyote, he dazzles with sounds that lie somewhere between neo-soul, jazz-funk and downtempo. If there’s a quibble, it’s that Rakei sings so softly and alluringly that he occasionally descends into murmurs, a lovely quality that often obscures the exact meaning of his poetically drawn lyrics. But that doesn’t keep the album’s best track, “Midnight Mischief,” from being one of the most thrilling depictions of seduction heard this year. (Spin – August 12, 2016)

18. Dawn Richard, Redemption

19. Rihanna, Anti

Rihanna’s first album in over three years is a beguiling and enigmatic departure. Only the power ballad “Kiss It Better” sounds typical of her pop career up to know. The rest of Anti offers contrary moods and styles: the mellow soul of “James Joint,” a murky duet with SZA on “Consideration,” a 60s pop throwback in “Higher,” and a duet with Drake on “Work” that winds and swings with a Caribbean lilt. At its center is a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes” that Rihanna turns into a louche, frustratingly vague and yet absolutely magnetizing tour de force. Throughout, Rihanna performs with a confident looseness she’s never had before. It’s thrilling to hear her thinking her ideas out loud. (Rhapsody – February 4, 2016)

20. Solange, A Seat at the Table

21. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution

“Emily” is Esperanza Spalding’s inner spirit or id. This childlike imaginary friend and titular character of Emily’s D+Evolution finds her fullest expression on One” and “I Want It Now,” the latter on which she sings, “I want a party with rooms full of laughter.” Musically, comparisons to other iconoclasts like Janelle Monae and St. Vincent abound, and some will hear echoes of Joni Mitchell in her The Hissing of Summer Lawns phase. But the jazz bassist’s prog-like fusion of jazz, rock and soul is her own, and yields delightful songs like “Judas,” and the heavy and lumbering “Earth to Heaven.” The tumbling, askew rhythm of “Elevate or Operate” spotlights her crackling band, which includes drummers Karriem Riggins and Justin Tyson, and guitarist Matthew Stevens.

22. Tigallerro, Tigallerro

Back in the early to mid 2000s, former Warner Bros. signee Eric “Erro” Roberson was the biggest indie star you never heard of. Despite scant press attention, he shifted tens of thousands of neo-soul collections like The Vault and Left on his Blue Erro Soul imprint while rocking deep house clubs with his classic 12-inch “Don’t Change.” His pioneering DIY efforts were later followed by the Foreign Exchange, the North Carolina collective built by Netherlands future jazz producer Nicolay and backpack-rapper-turned-singer Phonte “Phontigallo” Coleman who parlayed 2008’s Leave It All Behind into a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. Tigallero brings two generations of R&B together into a fan-appeasing soul summit. They compose a breezily casual thirty-minute roundelay of grown-folks love jams, from a dapper testament to monogamy on “Grow This Love” to the Philly soul-quoting gangsta lean and God shout-outs on “Something.” On the album’s funniest moment, “Thru The Night,” Phonte resurrects the rap persona that briefly turned his late, lamented group Little Brother into a hot mid-Aughts commodity when he rants about the dangers of cheating on your wife. “So many try to be Mr. Man,” he raps, “But when the bullshit hits the fan, you really telling your kids you risked it all for that bitch off of Instagram?” (Spin – August 12, 2016)

23. Tweet, Charlene

Back in 2003, Tweet briefly shined as part of the Missy Elliott and Timbaland universe with delights such as the shameless auto-erotica of “Oops (Oh My),” and the Bhangra-sampling seduction of “Call Me.” Her, ahem, hummingbird-light voice drew frequent comparisons to Aaliyah, whose tragic 2001 death in a plane crash was still fresh in our devastated minds. Like so many R&B performers from that era, she seemed to disappear as quickly as she emerged, and her 2005 album It’s Me Again was followed by a near-decade of silence as she recovered from personal addictions and recommitted herself to God. (In 2013, she put out an EP, Simply Tweet.) One of the pleasures of Charlene is how we can now enjoy Tweet, now years removed from the burden of carrying Aaliyah’s legacy, as a startlingly unique voice in her own right, a fact that we sometimes forgot during her brief reign on Billboard. The way she weaves her fluttering vocals around songs like “Magic” and “Addicted” is rapturous. The acoustic guitar arrangements and fluttering yet smooth soul are simple and sturdy enough to focus attention on her spiritual minded delivery, and how she can turn a nearly wordless “Dadada…Struggle” into a thing of beauty. Another highlight: Tweet and Missy Elliott reunite over the throwback vibes of “Somebody Else Will,” as these newly revitalized queens emerge older, wiser, and as engaging as ever. (Spin – April 14, 2016)

24. Adrian Younge, Something About April II

Something About April II reflects Adrian Younge’s ascending reputation. Raphael Saadiq, Bilal and former Stereolab vocalist Laetitia Sadier lend vocals. On “Magic Music,” Younge drops a riff from “Sirens,” the Something About April instrumental sampled by Jay Z. Younge’s idiosyncrasies haven’t changed much between that 2011 track and its sequel. His arrangements unspool like jazzy sketches, and his vocalists often struggle to draw clarity out of the shifting tempos. However, there’s a nice, fuzzy guitar riff that opens “Psalms,” “Sandrine” soars from Loren Oden’s sweetly charming whispers, and Sadier and Bilal’s duet on “La Ballade” is a delight. (Rhapsody – January 19, 2016)

25. Yuna, Chapters

After two critically acclaimed but commercially ignored albums, Malaysian star Yunalis Zara’ai finally broke through to the U.S. market when adult R&B radio warmed to “Crush,” her lovely courtship duet with Usher. Yet there’s more to Chapters, which is segmented like pages torn from a diary, than its occasional starry cameos or its production from Robin Hannibal (of Quadron and Rhye), Fisticuffs, and other alt R&B heavyweights. On “Lanes,” she pivots on an argument that ensues after her lover posts a night of clubbing on Instagram. “Why do you keep telling me you’re self-destructive?/I’m getting tired of your lies and your excuses,” she sings. “If you’ve got a good girl then appreciate it.” Her emotional sincerity is underlined by her quiet yet insistent voice, and she often sounds like she’s whispering as she lyrically dismantles her ex-lover’s arguments. Much of Chapters finds her falling out of love, but there are a few happy moments in this beautifully broken valentine: “Best Love” sways with a light disco pulse, and “Time” is a snapshot of her sometimes-painful adolescent years, and her mother’s comforting words, “It takes time…it’ll be fine.” (Rolling Stone – December 13, 2016)