The Best Hip-Hop of 2017

The hip-hop story is more exciting to follow than a lot of primetime TV as it changes and adapts, telling stories of so-called "minorities". These are the ten albums that we think tell the biggest stories of 2017's hip-hop scene.

It’s not a stretch to say that hip-hop is one of the fastest moving genres currently, if not
the fastest. It never slows down, never stops reaching for the future, but also never forgets its journey. This year saw Atlanta rise to the top of the game with Migos flooding the market, Future dropping back-to-back number one albums, and Young Thug, Gucci Mane, 21 Savage, and 2 Chainz (to name a few) all dropping hit records. Although trap is still the name of the game, the underground is still experimenting, a boy band is trying to take over the West Coast, and legends return to remind the new class what greatness is by reinventing themselves. The hip-hop story is more exciting to follow than a lot of primetime TV as it changes and adapts, telling stories of so-called “minorities”. In a genre that’s so incredibly productive, these are the ten albums that we think tell the biggest stories of 2017’s hip-hop scene. – Chris Thiessen

10. Young Thug: Beautiful Thugger Girls (300)

Not since the unimpeachable
Black Portland has Young Thug been as vocally experimental as he is on this year’s Beautiful Thugger Girls. He begins the album with a twang and ends it with a slurred whine, running the gamut of intonations heard on the radio and then some existing in the universe where only Young Thug songs are played for good measure. Slick production backs the self-examining (“I must’ve taught myself a million things”) and lighthearted (“Give the password – psych!”) alike, with neither giving a higher billing than the other. Even with its expected uniqueness, the creator of such avant-garde templates as “Florida Water” and “OMG” gives the album its most radical feature: it’s his most tightly-focused yet. – Brian Duricy

9. Tyler, the Creator: Flower Boy (Columbia)

Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator has had an interesting career. His previous efforts have been spotty, controversial, even offensive — but always ambitious.
Flower Boy finally sees that ambition come to true fruition…or flowering. From the beautiful piano coda on “Where This Flower Blooms” to the shrill Jaws/Psycho-esque intro on “Who Dat Boy”, Tyler’s production and arrangement chops are in peak form. In stark contrast to his past sarcasm and machismo is the raw emotion shared throughout this album. Tyler allows his loneliness, depression, and most notably, sexual orientation to be expressed so honestly on this album that it completely changes how one evaluates his entire back catalog of lyricism. Whether Flower Boy is viewed as a “coming out” album or just a bunch of expertly crafted bangers and ballads, it warrants multiple listens. – Chris Thiessen

8. Migos – Culture (Quality Control / 300)

In a year when Atlanta-based hip-hop rose to even greater national prominence, several artists released albums ranking among their best work – 2 Chainz’s
Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, Future’s HNDRXX, Young Thug’s Beautiful Thugger Girls, Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut, Gucci Mane’s Mr. Davis and so on. Migos’ Culture is definitely, defiantly their most full-color, sophisticated album. They’ve taken their wordy, frenetic style of trap-rap and built it into larger-than-life anthems that wield their potent tools of trade –descriptive yet code-like language, a palette of sounds – like a blazing axeman on the biggest of rock stages. Front-loaded with some of the biggest hip-hop singles of the year, Culture gets hazier and deeper as it goes, even when the surface-level subject-matter concentrates on live-for-the-moment fatalism. – Dave Heaton

7. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music)

“I promise you, I will never fit in your descriptions” Open Mike Eagle says in his hook on “Brick Body Complex.” OME is an atypical rapper making atypical music. More whimsical than aggressive, more clever than stylish, more high mids than low bass,
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is no exception. In fact, it’s one of the more laid back and introspective album’s he’s ever made. But the themes on the album are firmly within the overarching narrative of hip hop. Brick Body Kids is about the Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago and the times that Mike spent there with his aunt and cousins. It’s about the hard facades people often wear, about the systems of power in America and especially in cities like Chicago, and about coming to terms with loss and devastation that turns one’s world upside down. Open Mike Eagle delivers heartfelt, humorous, and thought-provoking weirdo rap that continues to defy description. – Dan Kok

6. Jay-Z – 4:44 (Roc Nation)

A dozen or so albums into his career, with multiple retirements and comebacks along the way, Jay-Z came through in 2017 with the type of album it would have been hard to predict from him at this point. As much as he’s built his career around his own mythology, especially the story of his pre-music years, he’s been a generally cagey figure – not wearing his heart on his sleeve.
4:44 is an overt attempt to deviate from that and challenge himself, opening with the self-eviscerating “Kill Jay Z” and on other tracks responding to specific allegations and stories about him. Produced nearly entirely by No I.D. (an artistically rewarding approach, as demonstrated on Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 and Common’s The Dreamer/The Believer and Nobody’s Smiling), the album utilizes a sample-heavy, classic soul-based sound that heightens the feeling of vulnerability and emotional depth, and accentuates the extent to which Jay-Z’s more introspective raps reflect on community concerns, not just on his own persona. – Dave Heaton

5. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)

“If your song played, would they know that?” questioned Vince Staples on the metallic, Kendrick Lamar-featuring “Yeah Right”, a song which sounds like a hip-hop album’s requisite banger on the surface, but with an intense complexity usually reserved for baroque beats and not a hellscape provided, in this instance, by Flume and Sophie. He spends the entirety of his exceptional 2017 effort
Big Fish Theory dismantling an album of faithfully warped Detroit techno that extends the lineage of Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition and Kanye West’s Yeezus with a flow that imparts the striking directness he’s been perfecting since the breakthrough Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 2. We’ve ranked some rap albums higher this year, but it’s definite that his singular release has the most affirmative answer to his question. – Brian Duricy

4. BROCKHAMPTON – Saturation & Saturation II (Question Everything Inc. / Empire Distribution)

Brockhampton is not just a rap group (or boy band as they like to be called). They’re a force. At least 15 strong and one of 2017’s hottest new acts, Brockhampton exploded with not one, but two fresh and robust albums, and another on the way already! These guys know how to have fun, churning out songs like “STAR” which crams as many pop culture references into three minutes as you possibly can. And if you’re a sucker for catchy hooks, check out “SWEET”, “SWAMP”, “GOLD”, and “BOYS” for starters. The group’s members don’t shy away from real issues either. Ameer Vann especially brings hard bars about the realities of being black in America, while Kevin Abstract’s motivation is that “not enough niggas rap and be gay.” This diverse collection of voices and stories shared over two albums in 2017 is one of the best outputs of today, and they show no plans of slowing.
– Chris Thiessen

3. Joey Bada$ – ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$ (Pro Era / Cinematic Music)

Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$ is a traditionalist in a lot of ways. He takes clear inspiration from New York’s legendary hip-hoppers, he gravitates toward simple beats with lots of soul and jazz vibes, and he incorporates a lot of his Caribbean heritage into his sound. But with
ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$, Joey directly attacks and dismantles the ideas of traditionalism and fundamentalism in America. The album finds Joey grappling with his participation and membership in a nation that actively refuses and denies his equality. He discusses not just the damage done by traditional views of race, but also of the way we think about success, failure, incarceration, religion, sexuality, and on and on. ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$ feels like important, powerful music that will live on and continue to grow alongside the movements it is informed by. – Dan Kok

2. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom (Jamla / Roc Nation)

2017’s hip-hop landscape isn’t only populated by ostentatious macho men. The North Carolina-based rapper Rapsody has been showing her skills for the entirety of this decade, including mixtapes, an album (2012’s The Idea of Beautiful) and appearances on albums by Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak and others. The latter two return the favor as guests on her illuminating second album Laila’s Wisdom, along with BJ the Chicago Kid, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought and other luminaries. They all play supporting roles in an album built around Rapsody’s frankness and pure hip-hop lyricism. With a title referencing her grandmother by name, the album gets deep into notions of self-identity, individualism and community. Unafraid of baring her soul and tackling big questions, she at the same time raps in a self-assured and at times dazzling way. Laila’s Wisdom is more than just a showcase of skills; it’s rich and rewarding. – Dave Heaton

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (Top Dawg Entertainment)

Very few people in today’s music are as talked about, dissected, and mythicized as Kendrick Lamar.
good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly were masterful concept albums that required countless listens and created endless fan theories and interpretations. His music is basically treated like a Stanley Kubrick movie. But can an artist at the same time strive to be Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron? What I mean is, the task Kendrick Lamar undertook on 2017’s DAMN. was to continue delivering honest, truly artful outputs that require careful consideration to understand, but in a format more commercial and accessible sonically. The execution was flawless. Kendrick rose to the top of the charts with “HUMBLE.” and captured that commercial accessibility elsewhere on “GOD.” and “LOVE.” But those efforts in no way handicapped his ability to express his emotions, like on the hard-hitting “FEEL.” From the cryptic opening skit to the running theme that “ain’t nobody praying for” Kendrick to cousin Carl’s thoughts on African-Americans being cursed to the beautiful storytelling on the closing “DUCKWORTH.”, DAMN. deserves more than just a few listens. In 2017, Kendrick continues his winning streak, even if we never did get that theorized second album. – Chris Thiessen