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The Best Hip-Hop of 2016

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

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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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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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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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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

10 – 6

Artist: YG

Album: Still Brazy

Label: Def Jam

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YG
Still Brazy

It’s a shame that we have to endure four years of the Donald Trump presidency knowing that the best anti-Trump protest song there could be came out during the campaign cycle. “FDT”, the YG and Nipsey Hussle anthem is a far cry from civil disobedience, but the song’s brazenness is restorative, and the track’s one line hook is positively cathartic. And yet, “FDT” is just one of the many brash, often riotously funny standouts on YG’s sophomore album, which makes as strong a case for a West Coast gangster rap revival as any record put out in the last 15 years. While his debut was feature heavy, Still Brazy is undeniably YG’s show, and he steps up with more focused bars, better instrumentals, and a surer understanding of his role in the rap climate. His rhymes are side-splitting on the no-handouts anthem “Gimme Got Shot”, he evokes neo-noir on the meta “Who Shot Me?” and offers powerful commentary on police brutality with “Police Get Away Wit’ Murder”. YG bet big on himself that he was a commanding enough presence to carry the brunt of a 17-track album on his shoulders, and he succeeded with flying colors. — Grant Rindner

 

Artist: Noname

Album: Telefone

Label: Self-released

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Noname
Telefone

Chicago rapper/poet Noname’s debut mixtape applies heavy coats of that same gospel-tinged, mellow jazz utilized by her Chicago contemporary and collaborator, Chance the Rapper. Her uncomplicated delivery and her loose attitude toward rhythms give the whole album a chill, conversational vibe. Noname’s writing is refreshing and personal and displays a self-assured artistry that’s pleasantly surprising on a debut album. Telefone is a unique and memorable album with enough sonic and emotional depth to keep listeners coming back to it for more and more. — Dan Kok

 

Artist: Young Thug

Album: Jeffery

Label: 300 / Atlantic

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Young Thug
Jeffery

Artists undergoing name changes is nothing new, genre regardless, but they’ve always come with the caveat that this decision had to be backed up by a worthy album. Though Young Thug hasn’t stuck strictly to the “Jeffery” moniker, the name will live on thanks to the retail mixtape that bears it. Jeffery doesn’t boast as many big-name Atlanta producers as previous Thugger releases, but they certainly pick up the slack by crafting tunes that match their titles in sound and spirit. Save for tacked-on album closer “Pick Up the Phone”, there are no apparent singles, instead relying on a philosophy of radical consistency to create an extremely listenable project. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Rae Sremmurd

Album: Sremmlife 2

Label: EarDrummers / Interscope

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Rae Sremmurd
Sremmlife 2

Sremmlife 2: the rare sequel that improves upon the original. Rae Sremmurd and producer Mike Will Made It refined and amplified the charms of their debut — their idiosyncratic approach to youthful ambition and hedonism. As if anticipating they’d have their first #1 hit this year (“Black Beatles”, appropriately king-of-the-world big in scope), they sound absolutely triumphant throughout Sremmlife 2. Yet at the same time, there’s a persistent bittersweet undertone — about life, the world — even while they’re popping bottles and setting the roof on fire. The unity of purpose behind these songs is indelible, and the purpose is more emotionally complex than it seems (their music would be easy to cast aside as novelty, but novelty matters too, and doesn’t preclude weight). The duo’s energy is off the charts, even when they slow things down — for example, to appreciate women who do yoga during the day and get high at night (“Do Yoga”). Rae Sremmurd are the hip-hop party superstars of the moment — in presence and imagination. They’re starting a party, and we’re a part of it. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Danny Brown

Album: Atrocity Exhibition

Label: Warp

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Danny Brown
Atrocity Exhibition

Danny Brown gained some significant notoriety for his 2013 album Old, which was packed with bangers and party tracks. But with this 4th full length studio album, Brown takes a sharp turn away from the pop-rap sound and retreats back to the frenetic, disordered feel of his earlier albums. Atrocity Exhibition is sonically disjointed, intentionally dissonant and explores the themes of mental instability, heavy, crushing addiction, and disturbing reality. It is a jarring and frantic experience that refuses to become what it is expected to be. Brown delivers manic energy that the instrumentals sound desperate to match. As the title of the opener suggests, the album is a consistent downward spiral getting more and more wild as it progresses. Brown has created something unlike anything in his catalog and anything in the mainstream and for all of its insanity it delivers just as much and more in artistry. — Dan Kok

5 – 1

Artist: Schoolboy Q

Album: Blank Face LP

Label: TDE / Interscope

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Schoolboy Q
Blank Face LP

Four albums into his career, Schoolboy Q is quietly reinventing West Coast gangsta rap. He channels the despair and struggles of a dealer and hustler just trying to survive, with a sense of presence that prevents this from feeling like snapshots of the past. Nightmares of the past and present are unified. Even more successfully than before, he weds the vivid atmosphere of his rhymes with an equally robust sound that pulls from darkness. Working with a variety of producers (Nez & Rio and Digi+Phonics, still, but also Swizz Beatz, the Alchemist, Cardo, Tyler the Creator, Metro Boomin and more heavy-hitters), Schoolboy Q constructed a diverse 72-minute epic that maintains one unified tone — bleak and beautiful. That tone is developed even within an album that includes everything from slow jams to horrorcore, freestyle autobiography to dance tracks. The length allows for moments where Schoolboy Q glides through a song, easygoing-like, only to pummel us with brutal words on the next. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: clipping.

Album: Splendor & Misery

Label: Sub Pop

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clipping.
Splendor & Misery

One of the best albums of 2016 is a highly conceptual hip-hop space opera about an escaped, rapping slave and the computer that falls in love with him. The concept alone sounds horribly nerdy, but if any group can pull off that kind of story-driven, glitchy-sounding project, it is clipping. Daveed Diggs writes and performs a tale that is not only intensely politically charged, but narratively engaging. Producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes create semi-beats from metallic clangs, electronic blips, and static sweeps to create the soundscape of a drifting, lonely spacecraft. The group juxtaposes the sci-fi sounds with gospel choirs and interludes that sound like old spirituals. Splendor & Misery is the newest and perfect next evolution of afro-futurist music. — Dan Kok

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Artist: A Tribe Called Quest

Album: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Label: Epic

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A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

The biggest surprise of the year was the return of one of hip-hop’s most legendary groups, 18 years after their last album. That’s unprecedented in hip-hop, especially to return and operate at this high a level. Musically driven by Q-Tip’s vision more overtly than in the past, the album is cohesively in step with the rest of their catalog while also pushing forward in a new direction. It’s a communal direction, utilizing a laundry list of current and past talents. Two other big surprises are on hand: the emergence of Jarobi, whose membership in the group was always enigmatic, as a strong topical voice; and how sharp Phife sounds, given that he passed away partway through the album’s making. The ghost of Phife lingers over the whole endeavor in a tender way, yet Tribe is also more in tune with our country’s current political and social realities than ever. Its release a few days after the horrifying presidential election was as close to a balm as can be imagined. It’s one meant to keep us sharp, focused, thinking and trying to move forward together. “Let’s get it together… let’s make something happen” is the sentiment they begin the album with. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Chance the Rapper

Album: Coloring Book

Label: Self-released

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Chance the Rapper
Coloring Book

Chance the Rapper’s evolution from local force to globetrotting beam of positivity has been one of the most unexpected musical developments of the past few years. On Surf his 2015 record as part of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, he didn’t quite manage to channel those feelings into particularly sharp songs, opting instead to help craft a joyous, yet occasionally edgeless project. Coloring Book bridges Surf Chance and Acid Rap Chance together to create an album full of rich instrumentation and grateful exaltations, all while giving Chance more of a platform to shine as an MC. On “Summer Friends,” a chilling ode to those lost during Chicago’s most violent season, he makes the listener feel the weight of the tragedy that was a part of his everyday reality, while his opening verse on “Blessings” is mesmerizing and incendiary despite its nonchalant delivery. Easily one of the most star-studded records of the year, Coloring Book is a technicolor tapestry that illustrates not only the power of Chance’s positive message, but also his status as one of the best MCs rhyming today. — Grant Rindner

 

Artist: Isaiah Rashad

Album: The Sun’s Tirade

Label: TDE

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Isaiah Rashad
The Sun’s Tirade

It can be easy to miss the brilliance of Isaiah Rashad on first listen. The Chattanooga MC isn’t concerned with where he ranks on any hypothetical best rapper or best album lists; he’s all craftsmanship and minimal showmanship. The Sun’s Tirade happens to be craftsmanship of the highest possible order, filled with rich insight from a rapper who doesn’t seem to write bars as much as he processes his world through them. There are classic moments of Rashad musing on tracks like “Silkk Da Shock”, a gorgeous, tender duet with Syd from The Internet, and “Stuck in the Mud,” an ode to the perpetual quest for self-improvement while being bogged down by our most detrimental dependencies and worst tendencies. But there are also moments where Rashad branches out artistically and shines. He sings most of “Rope”, and what he lacks in technical fluidity he makes up for with his ability to convey emotion in his raspy cadence. He even murders a minimalist Mike Will Made It soundscape that sounds more Rae Sremmurd than TDE on “A Lot”. 2016 more than any year in recent history seemed to reward bombast and sheer volume over plainspoken wisdom, but luckily that isn’t the case in hip-hop, where Rashad’s star continues to rise, although it’s tough to tell whether that matters to him at all. — Grant Rindner

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