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)

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