20. Drake - Views
The most clowned album of the year was also the most successful-- how many times has that happened? For the first time in his career, Drake saw his own personal cultural zeitgeist crest, with critical downturn weighing heavy upon him as unprecedented commercial achievements buoyed him to remain level, failing to level-up for the first year in half a decade. Views is not as bad as you remember, it's just not as exciting as Drake's last three albums. Apart from the forays into dancehall-- which were an inevitability ever since those If You're Reading This It's Too Late interludes-- Drizzy does what Drizzy's done best for the entirety of his career: balance pettiness, power, and "punchlines" better than anybody else. Views is the sound of him coping with no longer being the most revolutionary force in hip hop stylistics, while still maintaining a firm grasp on the basics of form and songwriting.
19. Mick Jenkins - The Healing Component
On the surface "concept album about love" doesn't sound like an enticing prospect. But when the force behind it is Mick Jenkins, the wise-beyond-his-years Chicagoan whose built a steady track record of entrancingly deep mixtapes, you begin to remember how broad of a topic love really is. Obviously centered around romance, The Healing Component not only examines that with unique angles, but also views love through the scopes of life and death. Accompanied by suitably mature, groovy beats by BADBADNOTGOOD, Kaytranada, and others, THC offers a sobering, emotive listening experience.
18. Solange - A Seat At The Table
Solange Knowles may have the toughest job in showbiz: being Beyoncé's little sister. But 2016 was the year that she finally showed even her biggest skeptics that she could transcend that tag, thanks to the masterful Seat At The Table. An intensely personal, political album, it ventures as deep into its creator's psyche as it does into everyday mundanity and the black, female experience in America. I imagine that it speaks deeply to those in similar shoes to Solange, and to the rest of us, it's an eye-opening, important listen. Its music matches, if not exceeds ASATT's mission, with soul veteran Raphael Saadiq helming the backing band, and Lil Wayne, Sampha, Q-Tip, The-Dream, BJ The Chicago Kid, and Kelela all showing up as featured vocalists. As a cherry on top, it's narrated by the one and only Master P.
17. dvsn - Sept. 5th
Definitely the album most fit for baby-making on this list, Sept. 5th succeeds within the bounds of romantic R&B while also meditating on sex more deeply than the vast majority of its peers. On one hand, it's an album that opens with the line "fuck me now" and contains a pull out joke in its second song, but on the other, it's grown as fuck. Chalk that up to singer Daniel Daley's age and experience, as well as producer Nineteen85's remarkable ability to conjure distinct moods with minimal melodic elements. Easily the most retro thing OVO's ever put out, the album nevertheless bears the label's signature sleekness, and is the best thing they released this year.
16. Rihanna - Anti
Say what you will about 2016 being a year of overhyped, streaming-exclusive releases, but you'll have to concede this: most of them branched out from the artists in question's prior projects in unexpected ways. It all started with Rihanna's ANTI back at the beginning of the year, where one of the world's biggest pop stars shied away from almost anything that could be considered "pop," and instead went with neo-soul, dancehall, rock, and retro soul. At times, the album feels like RiRi wandering aimlessly in and out of genres (especially on the half-assed Tame Impala cover karaoke), but never before has she allowed herself this much musical freedom and never before has she sounded this amazing, this human, while singing.
15. Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered
Unlike another low-stakes release that recently followed two classic albums, Kendrick Lamar's collection of demos and outtakes still felt essential, if a bit less focused than To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city. The eight song project, somewhere in between an EP and an album, has a looser, jammier feel to it, as if Kendrick and the very talented cast of musicians who participated in TPAB were just hanging out in the same room and vibing off of each other. But even though that allows for some goofier moments than usual (see the second half of "Untitled 7"), K Dot's not one to allow a full song to go by without imparting nuggets of wisdom or socio-political commentary (see the treatise on John Locke/manifest destiny that is "Untitled 3" or the capitalism critique of "Untitled 8"). Thank god these songs weren't kept in the vault for eternity. Kendrick has now shown that even in stream-of-consciousness, non-album-mode, everything he puts his name on as a lead artist is essential.
14. Skepta - Konnichiwa
Skepta's path has been a wacky, winding one for over a decade, sustaining failed pop crossover attempts and music videos that double as softcore porn, but this year he was able to capitalize on his biggest moment in the American spotlight and release his best project to date. Konnichiwa does make some concessions for US audiences with a doughy middle section that includes the mediocre "Ladies Hit Squad" and "Numbers," but outside of that, this thing is grimy AF. "It Ain't Safe," "Man," "Shutdown," and "That's Not Me" are bangers of the highest order, a ridiculous number of party-starters to have on one album, and elsewhere, Skepta shows his versatility by displaying other sides of his personality. Almost entirely self-produced and giving shine to many of Skepta's peers in his UK scene, Konnichiwa is just as good of an album for grime superfans as it is a grime 101 handbook for beginners.
13. Rae Sremmurd - Sremmlife 2
2015's Sremmlife was wall-to-wall bangers, with Mike Will Made It serving up his highest-octane club beats and Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi rattling off meme-starting catchphrases like SEO-driven chipmunks. This year's follow up is weirder, more muted, and better. Mike Will goes full sci-fi behind the boards, deploying chilly synth pads, reverberating piano licks, and mathematically precise drum patterns like he's vying for a chance to score next year's "Blade Runner" sequel. Swae and Jxm both up their games considerably, still keeping things youthful and upbeat ("Get you someboy that can do both") while also allowing for some time to get reflective and melancholic (especially on "Came A Long Way" and "Just Like Us"). Despite improving on its predecessor's depth, Sremmlife 2 looked like it was going to be a flop until the surprise fourth quarter success of "Black Beatles," which earned them their first #1 and hopefully gives them the confidence to continue fleshing out their sound for years to come.
12. Tory Lanez - I Told You
Perhaps the album that devotes the most time to skits of all-time (the only competition I can think of is Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves), Tory Lanez's I Told You is kept afloat by a compelling storyline and his strongest batch of songs to date. Switching between rapping and singing more effortlessly than anyone else in the game in 2016 (rival Drake included), Lanez showed his ability to do any style in the book, undoubtedly boosted by his experience as a prolific ghostwriter. He's for once allowed to be ambitious as he wants to be, extending nine songs past the five-minute-mark and dragging I Told You near the 90-minute-mark with its bonus tracks, and proves that he deserved the chance all along. After all, he told you...
11. The Weeknd - Starboy
Ever since breaking out of his anonymous, amazing 2011 run with three near-perfect mixtapes, The Weeknd has struggled to recapture that magic while satisfying the demands of a major-label star. Last year's Beauty Behind The Madness was a massive improvement on Kiss Land, but Starboy is where he really comes into his own for a powerful second act. He finally lets down the tinted Wraith windows and lets us catch a glimpse of the real Abel Teafaye, but through enough smoke and mirrors to maintain intrigue and an artistic persona. He reunites with House Of Balloons architect Doc McKinney, as well as everyone from Max Martin to Jake One, and creates a shimmering, '80s-indebted world to inhabit, with the formula now responsible for some of his catchiest songs to date. Still a little overlong and silly at times, Starboy nevertheless paves a new, exciting path forward for one of the 2010s' biggest success stories.
10. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
With features on Dr. Dre's Compton and The Game's Documentary 2, Anderson .Paak was primed for a big 2016, and delivered on that promise within weeks of the year beginning. Malibu is him showing us the range of his skills, he's able to sing about "titty meat" at one moment and then turn around and be the modern-day Bill Withers on songs like "Celebrate." .Paak's smoky voice has been a constant in his career, but this time, he brought more pristine compositions to the table with the help of sampledelic masters such as DJ Khalil, Madlib, and 9th Wonder, all of whom contribute to an overall sound that's adventurous but familiar. In addition to his collab album with Knxwledge, NxWorries, Malibu was part of .Paak's tour-de-force this year, proving himself as one of the most talented R&B guys on the planet.
9. Kevin Gates - Islah
Another early arrival whose power has stuck around for months (we're still hearing "2 Phones" and "Really Really" on the radio all the time), Kevin Gates' Islah saw its creator gunning for his most pop-friendly moments yet, and succeeding due to his continually surprising songwriting chops. There's only a few songs with beats and vocal deliveries that call back to Gates' thug rap past, but his subject matter is the same, all aspects of his life revolving around his fascinating and often-contradictory personality. He's the only dude who could sing "You're the only one who my dick could get hard for" over a Hozier-esque stomp, and turn a despicable moment of kicking a female fan into an actually-pretty-decent song. Gates continues to be a complete enigma, but his songwriting instincts couldn't be more accessible.
8. YG - Still Brazy
How do you follow up one of the best albums of the past five years, especially when many people thought it'd be a fluke? In YG's case, you go for new concepts while keeping your sound and no-nonsense rapping style intact. Still Brazy offers scattered snapshots to My Krazy Life's linear narrative, and winds up painting a bigger picture of YG's existence, rather than forcing us to extrapolate from a day-in-the-life perspective. We get meditations on his attempted murder, gender politics in South Central, interpersonal relations within the clique, and most importantly, racism in America, all through a tough-talking, but humble lens. The closing trio of songs are all within the top ten most powerful political songs released this year, especially "FDT," which we need now more than ever.
7. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
The most damaged, addled-sounding rapper of all time got even more damaged and addled-sounding on his latest, a fever dream of psychedelic samples, obstacle-course rhythms, and verbal histrionics. Atrocity Exhibition does away for once and for all with Danny Brown's party-starting EDM phase, recreating Old's first half with a much greater devotion to sounding wild and unhinged. Brown also continues to convince us that he's much more than just a party monster, sobering up for some of the album's most powerful moments. But even at his most deadpan and somber, Brown's music feels like the aftermath of a harrowing night in the clutches of sixteen different substances. This is "Bad trip: the album."
6. Schoolboy Q - Blank Face LP
The second-most psychedelic album on this list, Schoolboy Q's latest also fails to supply any shred of good vibes. Blank Face transforms South Central LA into napalm-ravaged Vietnam, with Q alternating between laughing maniacally and whipping his neck around to look over his shoulder-- call him the rap game Colonel Kurtz. After getting vulnerable on Oxymoron, he's back to being nihilistic towards 99% of the world on here, with the one concession being made for his daughter. Other than that, he's done with this shit-- you can fuck his bitch, you can have his hoe-- a lifetime of paranoia, violence, and greed has rendered him a war-weathered husk of a man who takes delight in the world's terrors and leaves the weak out in the cold. Q knows a nuclear winter take no prisoners.
5. Isaiah Rashad - The Sun's Tirade
The third TDE album to appear on the list, The Sun's Tirade is the one made by the youngest guy, but is also the best of the three. Isaiah Rashad showed definite promise on Cilvia Demo, but finds a way to be more engaging here, making the most consistent album over an hour-long on this list. He does this by blending the old with the new, a one-man antidote to hip hop's ongoing generational wars who idolizes Boosie and Gucci just as much as Andre 3000 and Scarface. Somehow, even when working with a whole crew of different producers, he crafts a consistent mood that's jazzy and intoxicating. Rashad's delivery takes on a number of forms here, each more emotive than the last, as he accurately portrays addiction while finding a voice that's charismatic and compelling. It's no small feat to craft something that tops full-lengths by Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul (and a collection of outtakes by Kendrick Lamar) but Rashad really did it this year.
4. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
During the second week of November, the only thing I was thankful for was Tribe. The most unexpected release of the year, especially after the passing of Phife Dawg in the spring, Tribe's sixth and final album covered more stylistic ground than any of their previous ones, and aged gracefully with it creators into their 50s. The second most effective anti-Trump album of the year, We Got It From Here... uses love and joy like YG uses rage, which is in keeping with the group's day-one Native Tongues message, and honestly, very refreshing in a year of us vs. them mentalities. Busta Rhymes and Consequence go above and beyond the call of duty as unofficial additions to the group, both turning in performances that deserve to stand alongside Tip, Phife and Jarobi's, and the beats and song structures here are just incredible. Tribe had been gone a long while, but it's clear that they never lost a step.
3. Beyoncé - Lemonade
Another powerful political statement in a year full of them, Beyoncé's Lemonade arrived with a wave of gossip about her marriage, but stuck around long after that subsided. What's left is an incredible examination of black womanhood, and an even more jaw-dropping display of musical creativity and prowess. There are things that just shouldn't work on here-- the Enya-esque backdrop of "Hold Up," the fact that adding Jack White and Led Zeppelin sample to "Don't Hurt Yourself" was a good idea, the fact that white British dude James Blake absolutely murders his appearances-- but it's all held together by the most effortlessly charismatic pop star of our time. Like Rihanna, she showed that she could do any style in the book with this album-- rock, electro-pop, psychedelic soul, piano ballads, even country-- but Lemonade is ultimately stronger because A) there's not a weak track and B) it all unites into one clear vision.
2. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
Sometimes, the most masterful works are the ones that show the most seams or imperfections-- the Venus de Milo with its limbs mising, the Sphinx with its nose lopped off, Quentin Tarantino's slipshod opus "Inglorious Basterds." Kanye West had a year full of blunders and WTF moments, and The Life Of Pablo will live on as a testament to his tortured genius. Songs abruptly end after one verse, samples roam free without accompaniment, guests flit in and out with cameo appearances, songs continued to be updated and restructured for months after release. For any other musician on the face of earth, this would spell disaster, but for West, it offered a unique opportunity in a career filled with them thus far-- let it all hang out, let them see the chaos within. A deeply embattled album struggling with religion, family, hedonism, and nostalgia, TLOP strives to be the dawn after Yeezus' storm, only to find itself in the eye of the hurrikanye.
1. Frank Ocean - Blonde
Yes, we picked the weirdest, most experimental album on the list as our number one. Why? Because Frank's deft skills make you forget that you're listening to a zig-zagging, ambient, almost-drumless hourlong composition. His songwriting has improved leaps and bounds since Channel Orange, and he's now addressing his own life with an unflinching gaze into sexuality and interpersonal struggles for the first time. Events play out in a nonlinear, "Arrival"-style format-- a blind date, crashing on a girlfriend's couch after being displaced by Katrina, jumping off of porches as a kid, smoking weed on solitary, forlorn nights in Colorado-- that lends itself to the jump-cuts in Frank's music. He's able to conjure entire scenes in single lines, entire movements of music in a few minutes, and never lose you along the way. Blonde is nostalgia, but not the rose-tinted kind-- it's a window into the past that informs a present that reflects the past, a flat circle of time where we find ourselves flailing about, repeating mistakes but learning, not in increments, but in bolts of revelation, growing by folding past versions of ourselves on top of themselves, climbing an M.C. Escher staircase but being comforted by the fact that we're going nowhere, riding white Ferraris into the sumptuously sad ether. Lose yourself in Blonde and you'll see yourself reflected in it, no matter who you are.