While 2017 was the year where all of our worst social, political, and cultural fears became true and general anxiety disorder became a lifestyle for many of us, hip-hop remained an odd sort of “safe space.” The year began with fears about a new generation of teenagers with prefix heavy rap names who had never heard of REDMAN ruining the entire game, and ended with a slew of top notch records by excellent rappers. Even the old heads didn’t have that much to complain about this year. Sure, we had to survive the six-month LIL YATCHY fever, but much like actual teenage emotions, Yachty’s 2017 album donning same name was flimsy and forgettable. We had, instead, a year of strong albums produced by seasoned veterns (JAY Z, OPEN MIKE EAGLE, QUELLE CHRIS, ROC MARCIANO), young artists and teenagers breaking new creative ground (MIKE, VINCE STAPLES, TYLER, THE CREATOR, WIKI), and, also, KENDRICK is exactly who we thought he was: Thank god.
Rather than do a straight up, one-through-ten ranking, I am splitting my list this year into four categories: honorable mention, good, really fucking good, and the best. By doing this I am either pushing the feeble minded reader to break free from the numerical prison that dominates their perception of culture, or, I am too lazy to carefully construct a numerical list. You be the judge.
VINCE STAPLES – Big Fish Theory
Apologies to anyone who thought that in 2017 VINCE STAPLES would somehow magically start giving a fuck about any of the expectations that anyone has for him. He does not. Not at all. In a year where the new wave of LA rappers have developed a minimal but cohesive sound, his second studio album, Big Fish Theory, opens with a beat that would sound at home on an early 2000’s UK garage mix. The paradoxical crossroads of LA’s beautiful weather and ugly social and economic conditions, is replaced by the bleak aesthetic of an East London warehouse. And while narcissistic self loathing has become commonplace in contemporary rap (thanks a lot Drake), on a song like “745 Staples” manages to deal with disappointment and romantic alienation in a way that honors grim reality over tired cliche. Throughout the record, but especially on “Yeah Right,” STAPLES calmly reminds the listener that most rappers are full of shit. All while doing it over production aimed to reclaim dance and house sounds for the black artists that developed these sounds in Detroit and Chicago, before corny white dudes stole them and took them to Vegas for their residencies. And not that it relates to this album, but VINCE STAPLES is also the best rapper on twitter.
JONWAYNE – ‘Rap Album 2’
JONWAYNE should not be a successful hip-hop artist.
He is a big awkward white guy who, on first sight, looks like he would play the bongos for a jam band formed at a liberal arts college. Add to that some horrific sounding struggles with alcoholism and anxiety, and it’s even harder to imagine this guy putting out an incredible hip-hop record. But, if JONWAYNE has proven anything this year, it’s that he is a god damn force to be reckoned with. Four years after his debut record, Rap Album One, and without the built-in credibility of his former label (Stones Throw), Rap Album Two is genuinely on some auteur shit. JONWAYNE is behind the boards and in front of the mic for most of the record, and it sounds like the hip-hop version of the first BON IVER record. By that I don’t mean acoustic guitars and high pitched crying, but instead this is the work of someone who went to the proverbial cabin in the woods and poured his entire fucking soul into his music, and it paid off. Songs like “Out of Sight” and “Afraid of Us” are some of the most personal in recent memory, and it’s disarming (in a good way) to listen to a rapper invite us into their psyche like this. My only hope is that JONWAYNE still isn’t wearing slip-on sandals when he performs live. (This is a real thing).
WIKI – ‘No Mountains in Manhattan’
One of the most popular talking points of the past twenty years has been the various deaths of New York rap. First, it died when some people from New Orleans killed it while riding tanks. Then, some other people from New Orleans, including a precocious fifteen year old, killed it. And, then, various artists from Atlanta killed it. The Midwest kind of killed it for a little bit, but then California, who first killed it in the nineties, decided to kill it again.
This is all stupid. And anytime you fell privy to one of these arguments, you were being stupid. And if you ever made one of these arguments, you were a walking spout of stupidity. New York invented rap, New York created a world in which hip-hop has become the dominant form of global culture, and New York has never stopped producing some of the best rappers to ever rap.
A recent case-in-point is WIKI. The chipped-tooth wild man from the group RATKING has been getting hype since he was a high school student, and, while his lyrical chops were never in question, with No Mountains in Manhattan he has put together an impressive record from top to bottom. It’s not only a celebration of New York City rap, but of rap in general. Throughout, WIKI sounds so damn happy to be rapping words over snare heavy beats. This dude clearly thinks that rapping well is a very awesome and very fun thing to do, and there is something infectious about listening to him impress himself with his own bars. He also has some of the best New York specific food bars in quite some time. If this album doesn’t make you want to hit a bodega for a bacon egg and cheese, then I don’t trust you or your palate.
ODDISEE – The Iceberg
It’s so dumb that, in 2017, I feel an impulse to explain who ODDISEE is. He’s been making impeccable music as both a producer and a rapper since the late 90s. Many of your favorite artists have jacked his sound and style and gone on to become much more popular than he is. In a year where GOLDLINK (rightly) achieved worldwide success, ODDISEE is still the strongest DC hip-hop artist by a huge margin. He is wildly concise with his writing, to the point where if you’re not paying attention you might miss the fact that he’s near flawless on the mic. When you add this to the fact that the record is completely self-produced, it’s even more insane that this dude isn’t a household name. And if, like me, you had a chance to see him live this year, you will see that his live band, GOOD COMPANY, is second only to THE ROOTS crew in terms of live hip-hop groups. Luckily ODDISEE finished 2017 with a live album (Beneath the Surface) so you could get a taste. Like much of his recent work, ODDISEE’s songs jump between soulful critiques of 2017 America (“Like Really”), to dance tracks about the everyday hustle (“Things”). And as one of the most prolific muslim artists making hip-hop music right now, he doesn’t shy away from letting us know what it’s like to be him in this horrible world. So, start here and then work your way back through his entire catalog.
The VERY Fucking Good
MIKE – May God Bless Your Hustle
This may not be the objectively best hip-hop album of the year but it is my objective favorite of the year. MIKE, a teenager who lives in the Bronx, made an album that doesn’t sound like anything else being made. It is equal parts traditional New York rap and completely futuristic low-fi dystopian hip-hop. The production and delivery on this record bounce between familiar and surprising before you even get to the chorus of most songs (if there is one). And unlike some of his other young NYC colleagues (sorry JOEY BADA$$) he avoids trying to provide an overarching social critique, but rather delves into his own psychology and experience in a way that ends up touching on universal social themes. And this introspection is further served by the virtuosic specificity of the bars on this album.
If MIKE and his colleagues are the future of New York hip-hop, then the future is bright. And if you’re still not interested, one of MIKE’s biggest fans and supporters is EARL SWEATSHIRT. So unless you think your taste in music is better than EARL’s (it’s not), you should purchase his record via bandcamp (it’s not on your streaming app) and listen immediately. If you feel bad spending some money on this, fuck you. Dude is eighteen years old and I am sure he could use the $10 more than you. Selfish fucks.
QUELLE CHRIS – Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often
Even if this album was the song ‘Popeye’ seventeen times in a row I would still say that this is one of the best albums of the year. Luckily, it also has sixteen other songs that are excellent in a variety of ways. QUELLE CHRIS isn’t really a rapper, he is an honest-to-goodness hip-hop artist, and the depths of his creativity are on full display on this record. This is especially apparent on the track ‘Great to Be’ where he folds in lyrics from previous tracks in a way that makes the whole album feel like a cohesive narrative. And it’s way more fucking satisfying to the listener than an album of fourteen unrelated tracks. Oh, and he raps with HOMEBOY SANDMAN over an Alchemist beat. Which is like eating a caviar and fried chicken sandwich on bread baked by Jesus Christ. (Read the bible, dude talked about bread a lot.)
Also, on the song ‘The Prestige’ JEAN GRAE completely fucking spazzes. And now QUELLE CHRIS and JEAN GRAE are engaged. And I think that’s romantic. And maybe if you listen to this record and share it with someone they will finally love you, and the loneliness that characterizes you very existence will leave forever. But probably not. Oh well.
Jay-Z – 4:44
I will be the first to admit it, I was pretty sure that JAY had completely fallen off. His last studio album was a fucking mess that seemed like it was mostly created solely for the purpose of a Samsung commercial. And the whole world was mad at him after BEYONCE put out one of the best records of 2016 that was inspired by Jay cheating on her.
But then he linked with old friend NO I.D. and made ten good rap songs. All of these songs are good, some of them are great. And on these songs JAY Z has figured out what it means to be a billionaire husband, father, and man in his mid-forties who also raps. This might not sound like a big deal, but I would like you to take a second and think about the type of rap music produced by men in their forties for a second. If you have a bad imagination, let me help. This year a gentleman from Detroit, two years Jay’s junior, EMINEM, put out an album called Revival. It is a bad album. The production is bad, the rapping is bad, the lyrics are stupid. It’s not good. And this is a record made by someone who at various points over the past two decades has been the most technically gifted rapper to ever hold a microphone.
Why do I bring this up? Because it’s very fucking hard to overcome twenty-five years of musical baggage and put out good rap music as someone who is almost fifty. But JAY Z did it, and he should be commended for this. He should also be commended for his SNL performance where he wore an all black Kaepernick jersey while two men with dreadlocks ran behind him on stage waving Jamaican flags. On NBC. In Trump’s America. If you missed that performance go watch it. And be happy that JAY is still good at rapping and also capable of providing a subtle ‘fuck you’ to all the horrible racist shit bag fucks currently wielding their tiny-dicked power in our country.
Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Oh man has it been hard to defend TYLER over the years. He has said a lot of wild shit, and intentionally pushed a lot of buttons, while, at his worst, making music that sounded like an industrial re-thinking of early 2000’s N.E.R.D. records. But fuck me if he didn’t come through with one of the most musically sublime and lyrically self-reflective albums in recent years. The production is immaculate, and it seems like he’s finally transcended the influence of The NEPTUNES / N.E.R.D. and developed a sound that’s all his own. And rather than a bunch of lyrics about making green tea inside a gay babies asshole while he murders a school bus full of nuns, Tyler really lets us inside his psyche throughout this record. This is the type of raw and vulnerable music that hip-hop always needs more of, and it’s a delightful surprise that Tyler is the one giving it to us.
Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
I spent my Christmas holiday in Chicago, staying in a neighborhood that doesn’t really have a name. It’s very central, walking distance from lots of interesting areas, and with a clear view of the downtown skyline. But if you google an address in this area on google maps, you’ll see some gray lettering that indicates you are in an area named Cabrini Green, one of Chicago’s (in)famous, and recently destroyed housing projects. When Cabrini Green, and other projects like it, were destroyed, people were spread out in neighborhoods around the South and West sides of the city. In many cases, spreading out residents of these areas had the effect of placing rival gangs from different parts of the city right next to each other. So if you’ve ever wondered why you here so much about violence in Chicago in recent years, simply look up the dates of the destructions of these buildings and match that up with a rise in killings and gang related violence.
And that neighborhood I was staying in, that was once Cabrini Green, is now supposed to be called ‘New City’. And what is New City? Motherfucking condos and a shopping centre with a Whole Foods, REI, and a variety of similar shops. Generations of families grew up in Cabrini Green and called it home, and now that home doesn’t exist anymore. But in fairness, there is a movie theater that serves cocktails and a thing where you get to feel like you’re skydiving.
Why the fuck did I just tell you all of this? Well, because one of the best damn hip-hop records of the year, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream by OPEN MIKE EAGLE is an album inspired by one of these destroyed communities, the Robert Taylor Homes, which were destroyed in 2007. But lest you think this is an overtly political record about gentrification and segregation, MR. EAGLE instead takes us on a spiritual journey into how the destruction of a community affects a people. He doesn’t often spell out exactly what he’s trying to say, but you can feel the shit loud and clear throughout this record. And it’s a testament to EAGLE’S lyricism and incredible ear for production that this album implies an entire emotional narrative underneath the more literal story being told through his bars. My favorite song on this record, “(How Could Anybody) Feel at Home” might be my favorite song of the year.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
OPEN MIKE EAGLE is not the only artist to name drop The Robert Taylor Homes on record in 2017. Kendrick Lamar, of Los Angeles, lets us know on the final track of DAMN that his own father was from there. But let’s keep this one simple: anyone who doesn’t have this album on the top of their 2017 rap list is just trying to get attention. Or, they genuinely have horrible fucking taste in rap music and don’t think this is the best album of the year. Let’s consider this – with To Pimp a Butterfly KENDRICK put out a record that re-thought the limits between hip-hop, jazz, and funk, all while producing a political anthem that could be heard throughout the streets of places like Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, and New York. And, then two years later, he puts out a record that sounds absolutely nothing like Butterfly with a lead single produced by MIKE WILL MADE IT, a producer who hitched his wagon to MILEY CYRUS for his own solo project. This also means that over his last three albums KENDRICK LAMAR has played with completely different concepts, lyrical content, and production styles all while remaining one of the most skilled lyricist of his generation. And at all times,KENDRICK has never let being a clever rapper get in the way of making insanely good rap music. Three years after the (overrated, if we’re honest) Control verse, KENDRICK has produced rigorous empirical evidence to show that he is a better rapper than everyone he named. (The only ones who could provide a challenge are PUSHA T and JAY ELECTRONICA. PUSHA seems to be mostly concerned with doing things for Adidas, being a spiritual advisor for KANYE, and being DESIIGNER’s hype man. JAY ELECTRONIC mostly just plays polo with the ruling class in England. So Kendrick should be safe.)
And if you still don’t believe the hype around this record, consider this: fucking BONO is on this record. The corny ass motherfucker from U2 who has used the guise of charity and cultural critique to basically create his own colonial empire to make an absurd amount of money over the past thirty years. Who is the fucking worst. AND THE SONG HE IS ON IS ONE OF THE STRONGEST ON THE ALBUM AND IT’S STILL REALLY GOOD. It’s basically like operating a childcare centre and employing John Wayne Gacy and still having the highest rating on Yelp. Basically.
BLACK THOUGHT – “Hot 97 Freestyle”
This ten minute freestyle by BLACK THOUGHT (of The Roots) would be the best rap album of the year if it was released as an album. He is the best rapper alive. He has been hot for over twenty-five years straight. And his musical ability has not aged one fucking bit.
FRANK OCEAN (feat. JAY Z and TYLER, THE CREATPR) – “Biking”
This is the best song of the year, it just happens to not be on an album. But I can’t remember the last time I listened to a song this many times and still found the shit hauntingly good every time. If you prefer the version without the Jay Z verse, you’re a dweeb.