30. THEY. - Nu Religion
THEY.’s debut album doesn’t really sound like anything else right now. In 2017, there are many newcomers in the world of R&B, but they generally wear their influences on their sleeves in a way that more difficult to pinpoint on Nu Religion. Earning a co-sign from Timbaland, whose work with Jodeci, Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and Justin Timberlake, has consistently pushed boundaries, further proves that they’re doing something right. The songs are packed with grungy power chords and practice amp distortion, giving a garage band edge to the duo’s slick songwriting. Paired with their psychedelic videos, the duo has created a unique world all their own with their debut, but it wouldn’t mean anything if the songwriting at its center weren’t rock solid as well.
29. Smino - Blkswn
With the possible exception of Young Thug, no human alive is DISRUPTING the English language like St. Louis rapper Smino. The dictionary is his playground; he stretches and twists words and their meanings like silly putty. Smino di grigio, these hoes dutty wine.
On his debut album blkswn, Smino pairs his unique linguistic sensibility with a funky, nimble flow. Amidst a Monte Booker-crafted landscape of warm electric pianos, elastic synths, and loopy bass lines, he attempts to reconcile religion with his need to experience physical pleasures: to be crossfaded off weed and liquor, to feel the caress of a woman.
28. G Herbo - Humble Beast
Renowned for his torrid street bangers, G Herbo elevated his game to entirely new level on Humble Beast by using his personal experiences to illustrate societal issues endemic to Chicago, and the ways they are passed down from generation to generation. The album reaches a boiling point on “Malcolm,” a story about a young boy born into a vicious cycle of poverty, violence, and incarceration that Herbo spits over the kind of beat that Kanye West used to cook up for Beanie Sigel in the early ‘00s. “Mom still getting higher than a motherfucker / Malcolm used to cry at night, shit a motherfucker.”
27. Future & Young Thug - Super Slimey
Future and Young Thug have had huge years with their respective solo efforts, further solidifying them as juggernauts in Atlanta’s trap music scene. Their influences in hip hop were arguably in peak form this year, and the two of them teamed up to not only create a powerful project but a memorable moment within hip hop’s storied timeline. Considering their weight in the genre, they didn’t even need to give fans much time to build expectations-- they just dropped it.
On Super Slimey, Future and Young Thug didn’t experiment as much as they might with their solo ventures. Instead, the project found both artists delving into each others’ worlds, mostly playing it safe in terms of sound. Joints like “Patek Water” and “All Da Smoke” ensured we got the bangers that we wanted from them. However, the album’s highlights were marked by the solo efforts. Future’s “Feed Me Dope” and “4 Da Gang” sound like pre-DS2 joints that perfectly meshed vulnerability in his lyrics with tone. On the other hand, “Cruise Ship” and “Killed Before,” highlight Young Thug’s sonic development as well as his versatility on the microphone.
Southside’s already teased the possibility of another collaboration album between them, even going on to say that whatever landed on Super Slimey wasn’t the best music they’ve come up with. Maybe we aren’t ready for it yet, but if anything, Super Slimey is just the beginning of a blossoming relationship between the two.
26. Playboi Carti - Playboi Carti
2017 is the year SoundCloud rap broke, and there’s no more perfect of an entry point than Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut. Much like many of his peers, Carti built a loyal fanbase years before putting out any kind of collection of songs, to the point that his followers had been yelling ‘drop the album’ for at least a year, while bumping snippets to hold them over for Carti’s debut. When it arrived, Carti’s album was everything it needed to be: stylish, vivacious, and most importantly, new. That last descriptor couldn’t have been possible without the album’s secret weapon, Pi’erre Bourne, perhaps the year’s most exciting new producer, who has already inspired his share of imitators. Together, Carti and Bourne are innovators, but they’ve also achieved what some of their peers have not, making one of the year’s best major label rap albums.
25. Young Dolph - Bulletproof
Sometimes it’s impossible to separate music from the mythology surrounding it. Life After Death dropped two weeks after Biggie’s murder; Kanye West recorded “Through The Wire” days after shattering his jaw in a car wreck; The Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped bears a photo of Bushwick Bill at the hospital after an attempt on his life. Young Dolph’s survived two attempted homicides this year, and after the first incident he responded with Bulletproof, the second of his three great 2017 mini-albums. For its taunting alone, which involves a not-so-subtle message in the tracklist and an opening track that asks incredulously, “How the fuck you miss a whole hundred shots?”, Bulletproof deserves canonization. It also doesn’t hurt that the album is Dolph’s finest to date. Gothic beats from trap pioneers like Drumma Boy and Zaytoven perfectly complement the charismatic South Memphis rapper’s dark humor and unwavering exuberance, the full package putting you squarely in the shoes of an artist who faces near-death experiences and decides to live even bigger to spite his enemies.
24. Chief Keef - Thot Breaker
Chief Keef has been teasing Thot Breaker for years, and while it’s unclear how recently its material was recorded, 2017 felt like the right time to release it. It joins Future’s Hndrxx and Young Thug’s Beautiful Thugger Girls in something of an unofficial trilogy of R&B-leaning albums from some of rap’s most inventive voices. Unlike Future and Thug, Keef has operated at a less visible level in the years following his Finally Rich debut. At the same time, his influence has never been greater -- his vocal style and preference for lo-fi production looms over the work of the SoundCloud rappers that emerged this year. On Thot Breaker, he’s already moved beyond the sound that’s birthed a thousand sons and daughters. As he tends to, Keef is not making eye contact with his peers (if he has any at this point) on this album, using his own production to sculpt rumbling ballads that always land in surprising places. Glossy by his standards, Keef’s inventive melodies have never come through more powerfully on vulnerable love songs like “You My Number One.” As is typical with Keef, we may not know how influential Thot Breaker is until years later.
23. Big Sean - I Decided.
While it’s not the best piece of work from Big Sean, it’s definitely a stand-out in a year of great hip hop records. If Dark Sky Paradise was a formal exit for Sean into a more mature sound, then I Decided is Sean basking in it. Sean is fully self-aware on this project, delivering some of his most honest and darkest thoughts on wax.
The thing about I Decided is Sean didn’t rely on an obviously catchy single (i.e. “IDFWU”) to carry the project forward. At this point in his career, his fans are more interested to hear what’s going on in his head. While he may flex his riches still, because what rapper doesn’t, he still has moments of true vulnerability on the project, discussing everything from depression, to relationship and familial issues.
The album’s title reveals a lot about Sean’s project as well. He made the decision to go make an album that he wanted to make. While I Decided is his most personal and transparent to date, it’s also one of his most compelling.
22. Syd - Fin
The latest Odd Future alum to garner individual acclaim is Syd Bennett, the 24-year-old singer who stepped aside from her duties as frontwoman of R&B outfit The Internet to put together a solo project called Fin. It is a focused, 12-track meditation of mental health, romance, and sex, complex themes that Syd handles with confidence and grace. Blessed with a feathery falsetto and a gift for songwriting, she sings with a preternaturally light touch. The album is soft around the edges, as if whispered into a lover’s ear. Syd doesn’t need to speak any louder.
21. Meek Mill - Wins and Losses
Initially announced as a sequel to Dreams & Nightmares, this album is a deeply personal journey in Meek Mill’s life that tried to distinguish the wins and the losses that he’s experienced over the years. From run-ins with the law to a sort-of response to that famous Drake diss, Meek fearlessly tackles those issues and more. On “These Scars,” Mill explains his reasoning for shifting from a flex-heavy lifestyle to one that is more conscious of making the smarter decision, while “Young Black America” deals with racism in America, specifically when dealing with law enforcement. “White man kill a black man, they never report us/Black man kill a white man, they gon' start a war up” is a line from the latter that cuts right to the heart of his emotional outrage at being victimized by a broken system. His ongoing legal saga with a Philly judge makes this song seem almost eerily predictive.
20. Drake - More Life
Drake’s More Life playlist proved a polarizing concept to some but, at the same time, it seemed to placate anyone underwhelmed by 2016’s Views. More Life showcased every bit of Drake’s artistry, revelling in the scope of it too; from joints like album opener “Free Smoke” (which starts soulfully but ends up being a Drake banger), to “Teenage Fever” (which shows the vulnerable side of him that was evident on NWTS) to “Passionfruit,” (an infectious venture into UK pop), he pretty much delivered a project that encompassed every side of himself possible, while still managing to rejuvenate some of the sounds he worked with in the past.
Aside from his own work on the project, the features, including Skepta’s and Sampha’s interludes, highlighted his ear for talent. His A&R’ing skills benefitted from those talents, as they contributed to the project and strengthened the sound. He also emphasized the closeness and relation in cultures between London and Toronto with the amount of UK artists that are featured. Although disparate on a map, they have similarities in slang and overall culture due to the heavy Caribbean influence found in both places, so to hear Drake tie them together over the course of his playlist worked out really well.
Drake’s idea of dubbing More Life “playlist” rather than an album also seemed to allow him to venture into any direction he pleased, creatively, without having to worry about cohesiveness. The project played out almost as though it were an episode of OVO Radio. It that sense, it felt less-contrived than previous releases.
Overall, More Life is a project that may be helping an era in Drake’s career come to a close; by giving fans a bit of everything they’ve grown to love about him over the years. More Life and Views kind of blend into one “era” of Drake, and now that it seems he’s got everything he’s needed off his chest, he is starting with a clean slate as he readies his next album.
19. Lil Uzi Vert - Luv Is Rage 2
In the first verse of his debut studio album, Lil Uzi Vert declares, “I'm the one that really started all this/And you know I changed a lot of you n****s/In a matter of months, I raised a lot of you n****s.” It’s true. In the two years since the inaugural Luv Is Rage, a whole host of SoundCloud rappers have taken Uzi’s neon-haired, rockstar-styled emo rap and ran with it. LIR2 is him taking that style everywhere he possibly can, from sensitive ballads like “The Way Life Goes” to abrasive bangers like “For Real.” The album’s too long and too scattered to be a classic, but as a statement of dominance over Uzi’s peers, it’s confidently ahead of the pack.
18. Joey Bada$$ - All Amerikkkan Badass
If not the savior of the people, Joey Bada$$ certainly positioned himself as their spokesperson on All-Amerikkan Bada$$. The 12-track offering is full of soul-inspired grooves that soften the edges of Joey’s lyrics, which are a scathing indictment of not only the American political landscape, but also the systemic racism that he and so many other hip-hop artists confront on the regular. As an example, “Land of the Free” sees Joey proclaim that there are three K’s in “AmeriKKKa,” adding that “we can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” Was Joey a trendsetter for 2017’s rise of political activism in hip-hop? It’s hard to say, but he was certainly one of the first to challenge a wider audience with frank views on polarizing topics. A virtuoso effort that pulled the career of this Bada$$ out of the underground scene and thrust it into the spotlight.
17. Big K.R.I.T. - 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time
4eva is a Mighty Long Time is split into two sides. The first side is anchored by brash tracks like “Big Bank,” which sends out a brave Roland-808 cowbell to keep the pulse amidst a gloriously stormy soul chop, and “Subenstein,” which was meant specifically to rattle the subwoofers of the listener’s candy-painted vintage Cadillac. The second side, told from the perspective of Justin Scott (K.R.I.T.’s given name), is more dewy-eyed, psychedelic, and spiritual by comparison. Two Southern sauces. Both irresistible... welcome to flavor country.
16. Offset & 21 Savage - Without Warning
In a year where Atlanta all but dominated the musical landscape, Metro Boomin, Offset, and 21 Savage emerged as some of the movement’s cornerstone players. Metro found himself orchestrating hit after hit, carving out a place as one of the game’s most influential and sought after beatmakers; his ghostly aesthetic paved the way for a legion of imitators, though none could ever replicate the young producer’s Midas Touch. In many ways, Without Warning is as much his album as it is Offset or 21’s, a logical conclusion of the ominous journey he began on Gucci Mane’s DropTopWop. Throw in a Halloween release date, and you’re looking at a bonafide trap nightmare.
While some decry the seemingly “rushed” nature of these collaborative projects, it seems more fitting to celebrate the genuine artistic spontaneity that’s driving them in the first place. The idea of a couple of homies linking up to make an album over a weekend may seem foolish to a certain sect of perfection-chasing fan, yet brilliantly organic to another. In that regard, Without Warning feels like a passion project, a loosely conceptual piece of horror, picking up where Savage Mode left off. Both Offset and 21 Savage are in fine form here, and while both emcees are allotted their moments in the spotlight, Offset continues to establish himself as one of the game’s most promising young rappers.
While he certainly thrives within the comfortable confines of his group, Offset feels like a different rapper on Without Warning, giving his flow ample space to shine. “Ric Flair Drip” is a star-making performance, and hearing Offset consistently going in over Metro Boomin’s minor key production is a promising sign of things to come. And let’s not front on 21 Savage, who continues to evolve as an artist, revealing his gleefully bleak sense of gallows humor with lines like “Kim Jong, yeah big bombs,” and “Hurricane Irma on my neck n***a, flooded out
Hurricane Harvey on my wrist, shit, flooded out.” If you’re at all invested in the menacing underworld that these three artists have cultivated, Without Warning is a delightful cruise down the River Styx.
15. Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy
As a hilariously accurate tweet recently pointed out, Tyler, and by extension, his fans, have changed a lot in the last 6 years.
Tyler fans in 2011: KILL PPL BURN SHIT FUCK SCHOOL!!— glockbampton (@glockbampton) October 30, 2017
Tyler fans now: look Flower save bee haha
Flower Boy, Tyler’s fifth album (if we’re including Bastard, which we absolutely should be), is a side of the Odd Future rapper that has always been present, but never completely fulfilled until now. The pretty sounds ring through on Tyler’s new material, bouncing off the jazzy N*E*R*D-isms of Cherry Bomb to land in a place that’s more subtle and gentle, but also more confident in structure and composition. In some ways, it’s the fully realized version of a song like “Analog 2,” which stands as one of his sunniest and most gorgeous compositions. As confrontational as some of his past work has been, Tyler has never been afraid to be vulnerable, but here he’s more willing to let the music fill the space between the lines than spilling his heart out in a chillingly personal verse. For the first time on record, Tyler feels more content than ever in simply being himself, whether that be through freely exploring his sexuality or urging black kids to embrace their creativity (“Tell these black kids they could be who they are Dye your hair blue, shit, I'll do it too”). It feels like the start of a new tangent for Tyler, one that doesn’t need to work through his demons with a therapist character and more like “weird hippie music for people to get high to.” Just don’t expect him to stay anywhere for long.
14. Brockhampton - Saturation 2
At their best, Brockhampton sound like a group of best friends getting together and having a blast in the studio. The important thing is, they’re a multiracial, LGBTQ-friendly group of best friends who aren’t afraid to talk about their feelings. After the impressive-but-ungainly Saturation, the abruptly-released sequel finds the group effortlessly switching between youthful braggadocio and misty-eyed confessionals, a complete showcase of distinctive, vibrant personalities. One part boy band, one part Odd Future minus the scare tactics, Brockhampton have a very bright future ahead of them.
13. Ty Dolla $ign - Beach House 3
Though he may be known primarily as an enlisted hook singer by the casual fan, Ty Dolla $ign is a masterful pop craftsman when it comes to his own albums. Beach House 3, while not as deeply personal as Free TC, or as boundary-pushing as 2012’s Beach House mixtape, is an immediately rewarding listen that represents every element of Ty’s appeal. “Don’t Judge Me” is a shout-along club record with a deep emotional center. “Side Effects” is a pop-crossover record that should realistically be just as big as “Work From Home.” “Lil Favorite” is both Ty at his most romantic and his most economically catchy: one of many deceptively simple moments on an album that has a lot of complex wirings under its hood. Beach House 3 is easily one of the most entertaining albums of the year, which means it’s a perfect party album. But as the perfectionist that Ty is, from the lush transitions to the slick references, it’s just as playable as a headphone record. Ty contains multitudes, and it’s time we acknowledge it.
12. Freddie Gibbs - You Only Live 2wice
One day, Freddie Gibbs would be wise to pen an autobiography. The man has no doubt lived through a harrowing experience, in which he was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned while on tour overseas in Paris. Gibbs proceeded to spend weeks in jail, sharing the yard with hardened inmates, including murderers and rapists, being subjected to racism, threats, and general nightmare fuel. Yet Freddie found comfort in his pen, revealing that the majority of You Only Live 2wice was written from his cell in Austria - “I just wrote things down, wrote ideas, because I didn’t think that I was gonna be able to rap again.”
Despite the dark backstory, Freddie’s first post-prison album is a tour-de-force in nearly every department. From the lyricism, to the flow, to the performance, to the production, You Only Live 2wice is a hazy gangster rap album, intimidating as it is soulful, haunting as it is introspective. Technically, Gibbs is a dominant force on the mic, using his baritone voice to convey intimidation and pain in equally effective measure. In fact, the backstory behind this album gives the project an inherent weight, while simultaneously providing insight into the mind of an actual prisoner. I’ve wondered if Gibbs is able to look back on this album fondly, or if the circumstances through which it was conceived have proved too traumatic to revisit. Many rappers have been incarcerated, but to be falsely accused in a place where you don’t even speak the language is a different beast altogether.
“Crushed Glass” finds Gibbs reflecting on his arrest with palpable frustration, sliding over an eerie, string-driven instrumental, while “Andrea” harkens back to the Pinata days, with vivid depictions of a kingpin’s come-up. Yet perhaps the album’s shining moment comes from the project’s centermost cut, the hypnotic “Amnesia.” The closest thing You Only Live 2wice has to a club banger, “Amnesia’s” instrumental draws you in like a will-o-the-wisp, while Freddie Gibbs holds it down with unapologetic alpha male bravado. Overall, You Only Live 2wice is concise, backed by stellar lyricism and ominous production; a 2017 standout you might very well have forgot existed.
11. Gucci Mane - Drop Top Wop
Over the course of his career, Gucci Mane’s never struggled with prolificacy. What his extensive discography was lacking, though, were bite-sized offerings of cohesiveness. Leave that to Metro Boomin. Between gifting such a present to 21 Savage on Savage Mode and 21 and Offset on Without Warning, the young phenom got the chance to curate the beautifully minimal, well-sculpted Drop Top Wop, a fun-as-fuck listen that refuses to let GuWop ramble. The beats are a little more stately than those Metro’s gifted 21, but still retain that crucial sense of unease, and Gucci’s polished and comfortable in his second act skin. His confidence persisted on Mr. Davis, but the succinct DTW is everything that bloated, star-studded album is not.
10. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie - The Bigger Artist
A Boogie is finally pulling his own strings. At least, that’s the message he’s looking to purvey with his debut album, The Bigger Artist. The Bronx native’s two releases leading up to his debut, a mixtape and an EP, both found Boogie with strings around his fingers, and someone else puppeting those strings-- on Artist, it’s a girl sitting atop his piano, dressed in nothing but a black bodysuit and a black ski mask hiding her face. On TBA EP, we can’t see who is behind the strings that are snug around Boogie’s fingers, although this time, the piano he’s playing shows the cityscape. On The Bigger Artist, A Boogie is looking to become just that. With The Bigger Artist, it’s clearly his hand mastering the strings, pulling a variety women-- worth noting, they are all stick-figure women, including one that closely resembles the lady we saw previously on his Artist cover. Among other things, it is this close attention to detail and the connectedness in theme that makes A Boogie such a refreshing artist.
He is entirely a creation of the modern hip-hop world, to be sure, while still sounding true, thus he’s been able to maintain his appeal to both an NYC rap purist (or rap purist, regardless of the ‘NYC’), and a youth who is mesmerized by the SoundCloud wave. How does he straddle this line? A Boogie has often received comparisons to Drake, for his nimble rap-based approach to singing, his use of melody, and his penchant to show us a softer side. It’s not a bad comparison, in fact, it’s an apt way of looking at how he does keep “both” types of hip-hop fan happy, much in the same way Drake heeds that weary balance. A Boogie's debut album does just that, as well. The album has one of the strongest trio of opening tracks in recent memory, which could very well extend to the opening five songs if we're feeling generous. As for what follows the fifth track, “No Comparison,” we’re treated to Boogie’s women-friendly side, with forays into love, mostly the times when love has gone, or is going, awry. He still keeps his street edge on these explorations, perhaps getting most vulnerable on the stalker anthem accurately titled “Stalking You.” The concept itself might be cringe-worthy, but Boogie makes it work, resulting in a catchy end-of-album ode to the women in our social media-driven world. Boogie’s keen ear for production shouldn’t go unrecognized either. Throughout The Bigger Artist, he’s managed a differing, but versatile, producer list.
9. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples, the human personification of an ice bath (painfully refreshing and good for your muscles), needed something, or someone, unexpected to help him push the envelope on his sophomore album Big Fish Theory. And so he sought the help Zack Sekoff—Yale graduate and producer-savant to help him draw paths between electronic music and hip hop (smash bang fusion).
“I started going over and hanging out with him at Ty's house and played beats for him— going to the weirdest ones that I thought he wouldn’t like,” Sekoff said in an interview with Pigeons and Planes. “And he kept saying, ‘Yeah, go in that direction.’ One of those was the beat that became ‘Crabs In a Bucket,’ which was kind of my take on UK garage with swing drums. Around September of last year, I realized that was the sound he was listening to. He was listening to Detroit music and house music and just electronic music of all kinds.”
Big Fish Theory is not merely “forward-thinking.” Itdoes not merely “embrace” the future— it hurtles into the future, often at breakneck speed. It was fitting that “Bagbak” the raised black fist of a single that more or less represents BFT’s sound, appeared in the latest trailer of Black Panther.
8. Young Thug - Beautiful Thugger Girls
When Young Thug announced his “singing album,” there was one question on everyone’s minds: isn’t every Thug album a singing album to some extent? As far back as I Came From Nothing 2, the Atlanta rapper was delivering sweet, melodic ballads alongside his more extreme vocal experiments. On Beautiful Thugger Girls, he’s zoned in on that more delicate side of his persona, and it’s evident even in its presentation. On the cover, Thug appears clutching an acoustic guitar, framing BTG as his singer-songwriter album (the decision to be depicted as a floating torso is less clear, but part of Thug’s appeal has always been unexplainable). Thug is an artist who has often opted for raw, artistic expression over concise structure, to the point that Lyor Cohen suggested that the rapper was leaving his songs ‘orphaned’ by not further refining them after more-or-less freestyling his ideas in the studio. Despite BTG being a departure in its concept, it actually resembles Lyor’s vision for Thug’s work more than you’d expect. From the perfect pop duet of “Relationships” with Future, to the verse-chorus-verse builds of his collaborations with songwriter Millie Go Lightly, Thug is playing by the book while still pushing his sound forward; yelling “Yee-Haw” all the way.
7. Future - HNDRXX
Future played the trick of the century this February, dropping what seemed like his millionth consecutive trappy, hard-nosed project (FUTURE), and then no more than a week later, a follow-up that completely upended his post-Honest trend. Musically, the melodic, poppy HNDRXX acts like Future’s amazing 2014-2015 mixtape run, as well as DS2, never happened. This could have been the sound of the erstwhile pop mastermind picking himself up and brushing himself off after what he viewed as a disappointing sophomore album, and perfecting his radio-ready formula. But that’s not what HNDRXX, which arrived three tumultuous years after Honest, is. The open-hearted, confessional album is a sunrise after a long, stormy, and often thrilling night, a statement of acceptance after years of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
HNDRXX is unique because it’s an artist’s poppiest album while also being his most honest. If you only listen to Future for trap bangers, you’ll prefer the self-titled predecessor, but if you’ve been spellbound for the past seven years watching him prove that emotional melodicism and gangster rap are not mutually exclusive qualities, HNDRXX seems like the culmination of an alchemical experiment Future’s been attempting since his Astronaut Status days.
6. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
Moving away from his experimental, concept album image into more single-friendly territory, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. continued to showcase his strengths as a writer and showman. “DNA” didn’t waste time setting the tone, with K. Dot diving right into emotional territory that, while he has covered the same ground on previous albums, seemed more intense and direct than ever before. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA” are lines that acted as the album’s mission statement, encapsulating how the ferociousness of his spirit coexists with all the scars that have been left behind from his maturation process, both as a rapper and as a man.
The manifestation of this seemingly paradoxical attitude came at the listener in different colors, at different volumes. “Humble” may have been the hit single that airplay Kendrick craved, but DAMN. really flexed its muscles on tracks like “Pride” and “Fear,” which represents some of his best introspective lyricism to date. “Duckworth” was another notable moment, harkening back to the cinematic storytelling flourishes on good kid, m.a.a.d city.
Perhaps this LP’s finest hour came during what feels like a two-act play with “Lust” and “Love.” The former saw Kendrick as an uncomfortable beneficiary of the sexual pleasures that are often seen as a privilege one is expected to enjoy as a member of rap’s elite. Emotionally, he seemed far more at peace with himself on “Love,” where he admitted that, if he didn’t have the affections of the one woman he truly cares for, he’d have “nothin’.” It can also been seen as a vocalization of the fact that, in terms of valuing surface-layer sheen over real human connection, Lamar still doesn’t fit the trendy mold of a rap superstar. Even with this more commercial offering, he’d rather goes his own way and make music that satisfies him before anyone else. It was the standout sequence on an album with more than a few highlights.
5. 2 Chainz - Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
With Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, 2 Chainz has cemented himself as not only a hitmaker, but an album artist. The Atlanta rapper’s career tangent has been far from conventional. When he first rebranded from Tity Boi to 2 Chainz, he became known primarily for his features and singles to the point of near overexposure. As rap fans turned their attention to the next trend, 2 Chainz quietly worked and his craft and emerged stronger than ever. That’s about where we’re at right now, with PGLTM being the final result of years of hard work and perseverance.
As fellow Atlanta artists stretched and experimented to varying success, Chainz stuck to trap’s center, keeping his center of gravity low and his punches forceful and precise. As a result, PGLTM rarely misses, making for a reliable collection of catchy, no-bullshit singles that each stand on their own legs but work best in unison. Chainz himself sounds more confident and comfortable than ever. “Believe in yourself, health is wealth,” he raps on “Rolls Royce Bitch,” one of many songs that mirrors the aspiration that’s driven him to become one of the most dependable voices in the genre. While surrounded by A-listers like Gucci Mane, Drake, Quavo, and Nicki Minaj, Chainz never loses the spotlight, and he probably won’t be stepping out of it anytime soon.
4. SZA - CTRL
There can be no doubt that CTRL is SZA’s greatest work to date. If previous EPs and mixtapes from the singer cast any doubt as to her prowess, then CTRL washed it all away, and in a sense, gave SZA a fresh slate. To be clear, though, it’s a slate that she herself has been working on cleaning tirelessly, perhaps in both body and mind. We’ve seen SZA’s physical transformation: since the release of her Z EP (which was also her first release on TDE) in 2014, she spent a quiet three years, undoubtedly also working on the musical exploration that would result in her debut album, CTRL. At 28-years old, she is finally figuring out who she is, and she is (becoming) acutely aware of that person too. This awareness has led to a relatability for all those included SZA’s generation and the millennials that follow suit (it extends to her album title, too, Control, offered up in the abbreviated format that our Internet Age finds so familiar).
This is r’n’b for a 2k17 girl (*insert favorite emoji*): who watches Netflix, smokes weed every other day, is heavily influenced by social media and the *ideal* body types found there, yet, isn’t confined by aged connotations ~love~. Tracks like “Supermodel,” “Drew Barrymore,” “The Weekend,” “Normal Girl” and “20 Something” (ok, the entire tracklist!) fill that role perfectly, and when intertwined with the elderly wisdom and advice of SZA’s mother and grandmother, it brings the listener full circle. Full circle comes within the album’s tracklist too, although it’s not necessarily a neat resolution, it’s frayed at the edges. What begins with an adamantly doubt-filled record, “Supermodel,” ends with the confidently doubt-filled “20 Something.” The disparity here is the fact that SZA comes to terms with where she is in life, who she is, and while it won’t (nor can it) be her position forever, she is content with it for now-- she has found her control, perhaps; versus “Super Model,” where she feels entirely uncomfortable with herself and her situation. What happens in between? Everything that happens in your 20 somethings-- mostly centering around love and the lack of it.
3. Jay-Z - 4:44
After Jay-Z dropped Magna Carter Holy Grail, he didn’t have to release another album. And while that 2013 project wasn’t exactly respected as peak Jigga material, it was a solid effort in an extensive and storied catalog. It might not have been the ideal grand finale, but were Jay to have hung it up, he would have retired with an unprecedented sense of dignity. After all, Shawn Carter had essentially done it all, and seemed content to sit back with his Basquiat paintings and watch his daughter grow old.
And then Lemonade dropped, and the fantasy surrounding his relationship with Beyonce seemed doomed to erode. Talk of “Becky With The Good Hair” and the infamous Solange Elevator incident became focal points of Jay-Z discourse, and the public sphere (which generally reveres Beyonce as a sort of deity-queen) began to turn on the legendary rapper. Regardless of the fact that Jay and Bey were sorting out their family business in public, it didn’t stop the fact that Beyonce had put her husband and his adulterous ways on wax, laying him bare for the world to see.
Is it safe to say she did him a favor? When Jay came through with 4:44, he seemed a changed man. Gone were the ostentatious habits and endearing, yet undeniable arrogance of Magna Carter, replaced by a sense of wisdom and poise befitting of a hip-hop veteran. 4:44 may very well be Jay’s most personal album yet, boasting social commentaries on race like “The Story Of OJ,” apologetic confessionals like “4:44,” and familial insight on “Smile” (which finds Jay spitting his best verse since American Gangster). At his recent concert in Montreal, he called the title track “the most uncomfortable song he ever wrote.” Yet he managed to pull it off, revealing yet another side to both the artist and the man behind the pen name. Throw in some fire production from No I.D, and you’ve got one of Jay’s most important albums to date.
2. Migos - CULTURE
You know an album is great when the rest of the album exceeds the already enormous strength of the lead single. That was the case with Migos’ Culture. The rap trio have dominated the globe since the album’s release and continue to carry that same fire for its sequel. From the cover art to the tracklist to producers and features, Migos’ sophomore album brought them from the forefront of trap’s subculture to a household name in pop culture entirely.
Culture was an accumulation of years of work from the familial trio. After a prolific run of mixtapes and one studio album, they finally came to their full form with this album. Culture allowedthe group the proper acknowledgement and credit they deserved as trendsetters in the game. The album’s intro doesn’t start with the Nawfside natives, instead it’s the booming voice of DJ Khaled, providing his co-sign following a year of his Snapchat rants “for the culture.” It immediately kicks the album into high gear, with a sampling of Takeoff’s hook and Quavo’s opening verse. While the intro is often overlooked, even during their live sets since its release, it’s an important part of the album that sets the tone for everything else that follows. “Culture, how the fuck you fuckboys ain’t gon’ act like Migos ain’t reppin’ the culture? They rep the culture from the streets. Fuckboy, bow down!” Khaled announces at the end of the title track.
From the production to their delivery, we were able to clearly witness a refined sound with this release; finding a middle ground between the grittiness of Atlanta’s trap sound while moulding it in a way that can appeal to mainstream America. It had a bit of everything, for the OG fans who’ve been following them before Drake even hopped on the “Versace” remix, to those that simply tuned in off the virality of “Bad & Boujee,” they managed to figure out a perfect formula that highlighted all of their talents.
“Call Casting” is a perfect example of their trap roots while joints like “What the Price” and “Out Your Way” fit better towards matured sound. The album also showcased the strengths of each artist. While Quavo is the man with the melodies, and often the hooks by extension, Offset is the dude with the ad-libs. And while the jokes of Takeoff being the odd man out continue to play out for far too long this past year, it shouldn’t go unacknowledged that he’s technically a better rapper than the other two. However, each one of the members play their respective roles in the group and Culture is the fruits of the years of labor they’ve put into their craft, and further evidence that the “sophomore slump” does not need to be a thing.
1. Future - FUTURE
Future released the best album of 2017, and he titled it after himself. The cover art for FUTURE is a burnt yellow blur of the man of himself. He appears frozen, yet in motion, the yellow haze that surrounds him creates an aura that’s halo-like, or else, perhaps it’s simply a hood from his coat, it’s unclear. His hands are almost covering his face, seemingly there just to show his diamond ring-littered fingers. It’s luxurious: the rings, the fur, the color itself; yet it’s also gritty, lofi, unfinished. This description is equally true of the music.
Future has managed to straddle the highbrow/lowbrow line to amazing effect. He appeals to high-end fashion designers and their purchasers, while he also maintains his appeal to the underworld, the streets, and those who lurk there. FUTURE for it's part, doesn't seem to be a creation for the upscale fashion world, rather, it’s for the streets Future came from; perhaps its the sister album HNDRXX, is better suited in the former regard, with its soft edges and forays into love and loss.
FUTURE is an exercise in the trap. It comes all too easily to Future too, it almost seems unfair, how effortlessly the flows drip off his Actavis-laced tongue and fall squarely in the pocket of sleek trap beats. Although Future is oft a proponent of drugs that he says himself he doesn’t actually do, we become willfully ignorant of that walking contradiction when the chiming horns of “Rent Money” proceed to zoom in one ear and out the other, echoed by Future himself: “they comin’ in and out, in and out, in and out.” Despite having production from many different producers, the album feels so succinct in sound and style. It might be Southside’s touch, as the producer with the most tracks under his belt (8 out of the 17), that helps with this uniformity, or perhaps it’s Future’s own guiding hand, or that of his mixing engineers, Seth Firkins (RIP) and DJ Esco-- it’s clear that someone said: "there will be no skippable tracks." It’s a hard mandate to truly realize, but FUTURE made it so. It feels like little time has passed when you arrive at the album’s centerpiece, a flute-riddled hit single in its own right, “Mask Off”; that is how efficiently-dope each record is. Everything builds up to “Mask Off” as well, there’s an urgency in tracks like “Super Trapper” and “POA” that set you up nicely for “Mask Off,” which itself, takes you into some funkier, trap explorations that make up the second half off FUTURE. It’s in this vein then that we’re blessed with the warped guitar of “Outta Time,” the super-groovy “I’m So Groovy,” the deeply-permeating synth line of “Poppin Tags.” Things are taken full circle with the album’s closer, which opens up with a familiar flute sound. “Feds Did a Sweep,” much like its title would indicate, isn’t exactly a happy foray-- it feels as sombre as the situation itself might be, while Future also uses it as a way to self-reflect.
“I don't fantasize, I make movies,” he raps on this album closer, and although in reality it actually is a little bit of both; the end result is always cinematic.