Music

The Best Hip-Hop of 2016

Graffiti wall with hip-hop, via Shutterstock.

In a year full of uncertainty and pessimism, the ever-stretching definition of what it means to be “hip-hop” was a welcome reprieve.

If album covers are your guide, then this year's best hip-hop music was full of technicolor diversity that indicated the expansiveness of the genre. If locations are more your style, then we traversed the United States and added a British spoken word poet for good measure. But if you're of the substantive type, then there's no end to the range of the content within, moving from absurdist maestros to political upstarts and veterans, dead-eyed nihilists to filmic descriptors of everyday experiences. Though Atlanta has proven itself to be the most fertile ground for the genre's ascents to commercial stardom, the internet has allowed it so that no worthy stone goes unturned, and in a year full of uncertainty and pessimism, the ever-stretching definition of what it means to be "hip-hop" was a welcome reprieve.

Genre lifers proved that they could hold their own against novices buoyed by their ability to be memed, and producers pulled their weight as much as the artists they backed. As the year winded down, we got glimpses of what the next year has to offer from some of the best in the game, and it's clear that they looked at the quality of the past 12 months as a bar they want to clear. Where hip-hop will go from here is unknown, but the fifteen albums selected existed either outside of temporal bounds or fit snugly into the mold of 2016. What they share is a collective place in posterity.

 
Artist: Common

Album: Black America Again

Label: Def Jam

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/common-black-america-again-album-cover-art-350.jpg

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Common
Black America Again

Common started to get his focus back on 2014's Nobody's Smiling, but Black America Again is perhaps his post-Be masterpiece. It's pointed and of-the-moment, but as a veteran activist Common approaches the issues of today with decades of knowledge about how to enact change and an understanding of the fight for equality that lies ahead. Sonically, the record is among his most cohesive, with production largely coming from Karriem Riggins, whose precise and muscular instrumentals pair well with Common's frank bars -- there's no sugarcoating here in any form. Particular highlights include the title track, a crash course in the history of the black struggle featuring chilling piano and a battle cry bridge by Steve Wonder. Some moments here are particularly tough to swallow like the ill-fated "The Day Women Took Over", but overall Black America Again is a record that will be looked back on not only as an example of quality conscious hip-hop, but also as inspiration for those troubled by the course of the world. -- Grant Rindner

 
Artist: Kate Tempest

Album: Let Them Eat Chaos

Label: Lex

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List number: 14

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Kate Tempest
Let Them Eat Chaos

Spoken word poetry, if you are of a certain age, is a huge thing amongst certain social media circles. The spoken word of virality, however, is often standard deviations removed from hip-hop. Other than cross-over artist Watsky, Kate Tempest has carved out a lane all her own in the meshing of these two disciplines, creating an updated Dickensian portrait of youth in London on Let Them Eat Chaos. Though it got quite a bit more coverage in her native England than across the pond, Tempest's inflective voice and hyperdetailed language bringing about a listening experience as much akin to an audiobook than a traditional album. It's singular, but the best music always is. -- Brian Duricy

 
Artist: Kamaiyah

Album: A Good Night in the Ghetto

Label: Self-released

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List number: 13

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Kamaiyah
A Good Night in the Ghetto

Kamaiyah's debut solo single "How Does It Feel", was named one of the 100 best songs of 2015 by Pitchfork. Now the Oakland-based rapper is riding that wave with her first full-length mixtape and it is chock-full of head-bobbing beats, '90s R&B synths, and solid bars. Whether she's singing over groovy slow jams or gliding on top of retro West Coast instrumentals, Kamaiyah sounds comfortable and confident. She has a good time on the mic and that vibe permeates the whole project. A Good Night in the Ghetto has great energy and hits on the best things about fun, crankable, hip-hop. -- Dan Kok

 
Artist: Savage

Album: Savage Mode

Label: Self-released

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List number: 12

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Savage
Savage Mode

"I sit back and read like Cat in the Hat" is about as lyrically ambitious as 21 Savage gets on his collaborate EP with producer-of-the-moment Metro Boomin, Savage Mode. Instead, he relies on Metro's beats and his unemotive monotone delivery to create one of the most compelling pieces of music this year. He lets up for a song to show his softer side, but for the most part plays the villain not even happily, but matter-of-factly. It's a perspective rarely seen in hip-hop these days, what with the focus on expanding your portfolios as soon as you notch a hit song, and his apparent lack of desire to do anything but rap exhaustingly discomfiting content is unique in its own right. -- Brian Duricy

 
Artist: Oddisee

Album: Alwasta

Label: Mello Music Group

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Oddisee
Alwasta

Another strong release in Oddisee's growing catalog, the seven-song EP Alwasta again showcases his thoughtful, tradition-based yet in-the-moment approach to rhyming. Just as significantly it displays his strengths as a producer, his way with elegant, minimalist but lush beats and grooves. There's a melancholy tone to Alwasta, with barely held in anger and an overriding desire for community, that matches the current mood of our country. Oddisee, Sudanese-American by heritage, declares, "Love my country / hate its politics", in the middle of the most incisive track, "Lifting Shadows". Its mellower neighbor, "Catching Vibes", is just as effective in its attempt to focus on progress and positivity in the face of absolute insanity. -- Dave Heaton

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