Top 5 Mid-Year Hip-Hop Albums of 2017

Hip-Hop is in a weird place in 2017.

Remember that “new generation” of great MCs that’s been endlessly debated about – you know, all those people Kendrick named in his “Control” verse four years ago? Well, they’re not so new anymore. They’re nearly a decade into their careers now. Meanwhile, the genre’s “new faces” could not be a less cohesive bunch; people seem to like Lil’ Yachty ‘cause he’s weird, 21 Savage ‘cause he’s scary, and XXXTenacion ‘cause, well, he’s a SoundCloud rapper that dissed Drake.

What is the SOUND of Hip-Hop in 2017? I have no earthly idea how to answer that question. It’s everything and it’s nothing. “Mumble rap” may be a common contemporary term that’s thrown around, but there’s too much negative connotation associated with it for the style to have much longevity (see also: “ringtone rap”, circa 2007). And “Trap” may loosely describe the sonic backdrop of much of the genre’s mainstream output, but then how would we explain the popularity of industry darlings like Chance the Rapper, Danny Brown, and Joey Bada$$> Adding more confusion to the situation, we can’t forget that Hip-Hop’s elder statesmen – the Jay-Zs, the Eminems, and Nases of the world – are STILL relevant and still breaking the Internet with new music, much of which eschews the sounds of the young guns.

But Hip-Hop is also in a good place in 2017.

It continues to broaden and expand and reinvent itself and if you ask me, it’s as diverse as it has ever been in its near-forty year history. And in 2017 thus far, as it does every year, the genre has done what it does best; it’s offered us some jaw-dropping greatness, and it’s served up some real shit sandwiches (I’m looking at YOU, Machine Gun Kelly). But in this article, we’re gonna stay positive – we’re taking a look at five Hip-Hop albums from the first half of 2017 that I have loved the shit out of.

As always, keep in mind that all of my music commentary is based solely on personal taste; I’m not trying to tell you that these albums are better than other albums, I’m just trying to tell you that you’re stupid if you don’t like them. Just kidding.

It’s all just one dude listening to music and talking about why he likes it. Simple as that.

And with a list such as this one, also keep in mind that I’ve spent very different amounts of time with each of these albums – some of them I’ve lived with for months, and some of them are still relatively new to my life – so this list (and by proxy, the omissions from it) is subject to change as the year progresses. Hope you enjoy these picks and here’s to another five months of great Hip-Hop!

5. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music – 2 Chainz

I have never been a 2 Chainz fan. I have never even made it through an entire 2 Chainz project. His over-the-top, in-your-face braggadocio and all-too-familiar song topics have never appealed to me. But, holy shit. I took a chance with this LP, and “pleasantly surprised” is an understatement. This thing is phenomenal. It’s excessive in all the right places (e.g. the completely unnecessary bass boosts on “Riverdale Road”, which make my car feel like a 747), but manages to have a degree of subtlety as well. 2 Chainz is wildly creative with his flows throughout, and manages to make the tracks with the most predictable guest appearances into the album’s shining moments (the contemplative “Realize” with Nicki Minaj, the euphoric “Blue Cheese”, with the Migos). Not to mention, this album contains the most absurd, hilarious line of 2 Chainz’s career thus far; on “Sleep When U Die”, he spits the following gem: “I got a bank account, got anotha bank account, got anotha bank account.” ‘Nuff said.

4. Rather You Than Me – Rick Ross

Right up there with 2 Chainz in the “Jesus Christ, I never expected THIS!” department, Ricky Rozay came through with a surprisingly dope project this time around. Who would’ve thought that it’d be this motherfucker’s NINTH album that finally won me over? But on Rather You Than Me, Ross balances his usual bravado-filled tall tales with some genuine vulnerability and emotional depth. To be clear, this is far from 808s and Heartbreak, but when Ross – who, by the way, has quietly developed into an impressive MC over the years– dips into his psyche from time to time, it makes for a much more well-rounded listen. Plus, from a production standpoint, he assembles a murderer’s row of some of the best instrumentals 2017 has to offer; luxurious cuts like “Santorini Greece” and the jazzy “Game Ain’t Based on Sympathy” are sprinkled alongside traditional trap bangers like “Dead Presidents” and “Summer Seventeen”, as well as more minimalistic moments like the Nas-assisted “Powers That B”. It all makes for a fluid, easily enjoyable, and consistently engaging 62 minutes. Don’t worry, I’m as surprised as you are. Here is a full review.

3. Captain California – Murs

Every year, Tech N9ne’s powerhouse indie label Strange Music comes through with at least one absolute gem (and by the way, it’s never from Tech N9ne himself– the guy is superbly talented but his projects are bloated as fuck. But I digress.) Last year, it was Rittz’s third record Top of the Line, which placed high on my year end list and I couldn’t shut the fuck up about. This year, it’s veteran LA spitter Murs, whose sixth studio album Captain California delivers everything I look for in Hip-Hop on a silver platter. Aside from checking all the boxes from a technical rapping standpoint, what impresses me most about Murs is his range. This album will be downright goofy one minute – as with the laugh-out-loud opening cut “Lemon Juice”, a little ditty centered on Murs and his guest Curtiss King competing for one female’s attention – and it’ll be heartfelt the next, as with the aptly titled “God Bless Kanye West”, or the touching love song “1,000 Suns”. This LP is likely to end up in the “fuck all of you, this is so underrated!” column for me, so don’t be one of the idiots who sleeps on it!

2. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar

 You can go here for some extended thoughts on this album, but I’ll sum it up this way: we are witnessing Hip-Hop history with this guy. How many Hip-Hop artists can you think of that came right out of the gate with FOUR EXCELLENT RECORDS?? Please, enlighten me. Outkast? Sure. DMX? Perhaps. Eric B. and Rakim? I guess, but it’s debatable. Point made: it’s a short fucking list. While DAMN. might not be as intricate or conceptual as Lamar’s universally-acclaimed previous LP, To Pimp a Butterfly, what I love about this one is how emotionally raw it is. This is as depressed, anxious, and conflicted as Kendrick has ever sounded, and that’s saying a lot since he’s never exactly branded himself as Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. But this record is so raw and so real, and I relate to Kendrick on a more visceral level this time around. That, and he has continued to push himself as a wholistic MC, upping the ante with his flows, his versatile vocal inflections, and his increasingly complex rhyme structures.

  1. All the Beauty in This Whole Life – Brother Ali

 Aptly titled, this album makes me happy to be alive. Not that it’s a shining beacon of optimism or anything – these songs tackle suicide, pornography addiction, racial inequality, and some of Alis darkest personal struggles – but hearing this man put a Hip-Hop song together is truly remarkable. Brother Ali oozes passion, sincerity and raw emotion out of every last breath of these 61 minutes, and as a listener it’s contagious. You can’t help but be inspired by the uplifting single “Own Light (What Hearts Are For)”, or be moved to tears by the emotional weight of “Dear Black Son” or “Pray For Me”, or be challenged by food-for-thought tracks like “Before They Called you White”. Not to mention, Ant from Atmosphere provides a gorgeous sonic backdrop, and Ali, being simply one of the most gifted rhymers on the planet, knocks all fifteen tracks out of the park. If you haven’t yet, please get the hell off this blog and go listen to this album. Or watch my review. Thank you and have a nice day.

June 2017 Album Round Up!

Wow, we’re halfway through 2017?! It feels like just yesterday that I was at a Virginia Tech New Year’s party making tasteless school shooter jokes.

What a crazy year 2017 is so far. I’ve probably been the busiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. Psychology says that busier people are happier, but I think the jury’s still out on that! I wouldn’t have it any other way though. The older I get, the more the whole “free time” thing starts to feel toxic to me. We’ve got such finite time to do everything we wanna do, so unless I’m hanging out with friends I always have to be working on something. Even if it’s re-listening to the first three Carcass records for the billionth time trying to rank how much I like them.

By the way, if reading this Round Up just isn’t enough for you, and you need more Panny in your life, you should definitely check out my guest appearance on the Surreal Resolution podcast, where I participated in….well, a June 2017 Album Round Up! (ya boy starts rambling at the 01:24:00 mark).

For real though, this was a fantastic month for new music! If you’re a Metalhead, there was Goatwhore, Dying Fetus, and Iced Earth. If you’re a Hip-Hop head, there was 2 Chainz and Vince Staples. If you like Pop music, Lorde dropped a gem. Pop-Punkers got some new music from All Time Low, indie folk got some Portugal the Man….we’re all sitting pretty right now. So thank you, music industry. You don’t always let me down.

 

 Last Young Renegade – All Time Low

 Having skipped over these Pop-Punkers’ last couple outings, I decided to pop my head back in and check out Last Young Renegade, their seventh album. And while it’s a pretty lightweight, run-of-the-mill Pop-Punk-but-mostly-Pop affair, there are a few exceptional standouts that make it worthwhile, like the hungover rockstar identity crisis of “Life of the Party”, or the Tegan and Sara collab “Ground Control”, one of my favorite songs of the year. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS – Young Thug

 He may be one of the most polarizing figures in Hip-Hop right now, but regardless of how you feel about him, you can’t deny that Young Thug has been fun to watch. BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS is the eccentric cross-dressing MC’s much-discussed “singing album”. Although the cover art is ominously reminiscent of Lil’ Wayne’s disastrous “rock album” Rebirth, BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS is actually awesome! I was shocked that I liked it, but Thugger’s playful experimentation and impressive sense of melody carry these tunes effortlessly. Cut out a few filler tracks, and this would’ve been one of my favorite albums of the year. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED 

Incorruptible – Iced Earth

 On their twelfth studio album, Jon Schaffer and Co. are still churning out quality classic-leaning Metal with an extra Thrashy kick to it. This record can get downright ferocious (“Seven Headed Whore”), but the band can bring it down for some powerful melodic moments as well (“The Veil”). Definitely give this a listen if you’re on the hunt for vintage-sounding Metal with heavier, more modern production. RECOMMENDED

 Wrong One to Fuck With – Dying Fetus

 The first release in five years from these Death Metal titans is as relentless and crushing as the genre gets. My favorite thing about Dying Fetus is how they balance different shades of aggression – this record is super noodl-y and tech-y in spots (check the middle of a song like “Seething with Disdain”, for instance), but it’s also got a ‘90s Death Metal stomp at times (“Panic Amongst the Herd”), it’s got slam parts, and perhaps my favorite Dying Fetus signature, the Hardcore-influenced mosh riffs. One of my favorite Metal albums of the year so far. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 Evolve – Imagine Dragons

 Though an improvement on 2015’s Smoke + Mirrors (which I found to be an uninspired dud), Imagine Dragon’s third record still leaves a lot to desired. The choruses are repetitive, the singles (“Believer” and “Thunder”) are unbearably corny, and even though this LP was supposedly born out of a period of emotional turmoil for frontman Dan Reynolds, the heartache doesn’t translate into something I can connect with. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

 Pretty Girls Like Trap Music – 2 Chainz

 “I got a bank account/got anotha bank account/got anotha bank account,” boasts 2 Chainz in the single greatest line of his career. Kidding aside, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is the unexpected artistic peak of this man’s career. It takes everything the Trap genre strives for – banging beats, swaggering flows, hard-hitting hooks, and a rugged, hyper-masculine aesthetic – and rolls it into one record. I’ve never been a 2 Chainz fan, but he sold me with this one. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Heart Break – Lady Antebellum

 Every month I try to give a couple Country records a chance in the hopes that I’ll be pleasantly surprised. A couple Mondays ago I was mowing my lawn and needed a soundtrack, so I picked this one. To my delight, I enjoyed a lot of what I heard. It’s definitely cut from the same cloth as a lot of the Pop-Country that I’ve been bashing for years, but the male-female vocal interplay adds a little extra, and I’ve found myself hypocritically enjoying simple, hook-heavy cuts like “The Stars” and “Heart Break”. RECOMMENDED

 Return of the Don – Kool G Rap

 At nearly fifty years old, Kool G Rap proves once again on Return of the Don that he is one of the most vicious MCs to ever touch a mic. Though not as narrative-driven as some of his classic ‘90s output like Live and Let Die or Roots of Evil, G Rap still brings his signature brand of ultra-violent technical rhyming over some the of the best beats of his career courtesy of MoSS, who produced the entire thing. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 Hydrograd – Stone Sour

 So frontman Corey Taylor went ON AND ON AND ON in the press about this being a big departure for Stone Sour in that it’s a “straight ahead rock and roll album”. He’s kind of right – parts of this album really fulfill that promise, and others are an awkward mish-mash of Rock and Metal elements. But despite that, and the fact that the track list takes a nosedive in quality towards the end, Hydrograd has enough highs – the anthemic title track, the moody mid-tempo number “The Witness Trees”, the lovely steel-guitar tinged ballad “St. Marie” – to outweigh its lows. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 Boomiverse – Big Boi

 Even though Big Boi is one of my favorite MCs of all time (a while back I TALKED ABOUT how important his first solo album Sir Lucious Left Foot is to me), I had a tough time getting into this one. I got soured early on it by a cringeworthy Adam Levine appearance on “Mic Jack” (for God’s sake, keep this man AWAY from Hip-Hop!) and the album’s lack of strong hooks only gets more apparent from there. Big Boi’s rapping is still on point – great at times, on tracks like “Order of Operations” – but I don’t find any of the songs sticking with me. NOT RECOMMENDED

A FEW MORE:

LIKE:

Vengeful Ascension – Goatwhore

Woodstock – Portugal. The Man

Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 – Calvin Harris

Unparalleled Universe – Origin

Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples

Melodrama – Lorde

DON’T LIKE:

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Halsey

Wolves – Rise Against

Witness – Katy Perry

Grateful – DJ Khaled

 

March 2016 Album Round Up!

What did I think of what the music industry had to offer in March 2016? Meh. There was the excitement of some new Kendrick Lamar (which I didn’t include here since it wasn’t an official LP per se) in addition to a few other high profile Hip-Hop releases. There was a pair of excellent albums from Metal staples Killswitch Engage and Amon Amarth. There was The Knocks. And then there was a whole lot of uninteresting shit. Regardless, below is a recap of eight records I was checking out in the midst of obsessing over my college basketball bracket.

Incarnate – Killswitch Engage

The roaring return of original vocalist Jesse Leach for 2013’s Disarm the Descent set a new standard for Killswitch Engage. Incarnate, that LP’s follow-up, smacks its remarkably high expectations right on the nose. Tracks like “The Great Deceit”, “Hate By Design”, and “Alone I Stand” have the makings of future Killswitch classics. And while Howard Jones-era albums The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies are excellent, the three Leach records (not including the original self-titled effort) have floated to the top of the KSE discography for me. Here is a full review (I also did a print one here). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

This Is What the Truth Feels Like – Gwen Stefani

Between “Naughty” and “Red Flag”, Gwen Stefani has two of 2016’s worst pop songs, and we’re only three months in. The latter is an especially horrifying Iggy Azalea-meets-Fergie attempt sure to leave helpless ears in varying states of deformity. It’s a shame, because “Make Me Like You”, “Used to Love You”, and “Truth” are all highly listenable, radio-ready pop tunes. But then the 46-year-old Stefani makes a cringe worthy song like “Send Me a Picture”, and any album highlights are immediately drowned out. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED.

3001: A Laced Odyssey – Flatbush Zombies

Full disclosure here. I am brand new to Flatbush Zombies and have yet to hear their highly regarded BetterOffDead mixtape. But an act’s full-length debut is as good a place to start, isn’t it? Well, maybe not in Hip-Hop, but you get my point. Anyway, it didn’t take long for Flatbush Zombies to win me over, as Zombie Juice attacks the album’s first verse with a frantic inflection and a Grandmaster Flash shout out. Erick the Architect and Meechy Darko immediately follow with nimble flows and I was swoon. I have no context surrounding this LP aside from the group’s association with high profile collaborators like Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson (appearances they shy away from on here). What I can say, however, is 3001 is chalk full of charisma, grade-A lyricism, and unique production. If this is the future of Hip-Hop, the genre is in quite capable hands. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

55 – The Knocks

It’s hard to believe we’re a year and a half removed from when “Classic” dropped, isn’t it? Either way, a fuck ton of A-listers grace this duo’s highly anticipated debut. While there’s certainly tracks like “Tied to You” and the X Ambassadors collaboration “Comfortable” that I don’t care for, 55 has a remarkably high batting average. The track list comes out of the gate 5 for 5 and doesn’t really slow up. And most importantly, the guest appearances actually do the LP a service rather than simply get in its way. Cam’ron kills it. Wyclef kills it. Later on, Carly Rae kills it. 55 is diverse yet focused. It’s instantly likeable. It’s truly how EDM and Pop SHOULD merge (I’m looking directly at you, Avicii!). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Jomsviking – Amon Amarth

Amon Amarth’s tenth studio album and first full-blown concept record just might be their best in a decade. The Viking Metallers’ tried-and-true formula is accompanied by a trio of stylistic risks – the singalong chorus in “Raise Your Horns”, the blatant Maiden worship of “At Dawn’s First Light”, and a vocal duet with Doro Pesch in “A Dream that Cannot Be” – that ultimately pay off and help diversify the band’s sound. The cohesive storyline enriches the listening experience, recalling Amon Amarth’s best story-based moments (“Prediction of Warfare”, anyone?). Doro’s guest vocal appearance at the narrative’s climax (the aforementioned “A Dream That Cannot Be”) generated perhaps the most unique moment in Amon Amarth’s discography to date. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Black – Asking Alexandria

Sometimes a simple lineup change is enough to shove a new record into my ears from a band I have loathed from the beginning. And many a time I regret this morbid curiosity getting the best of me. Such is the case with Asking Alexandria’s fourth album The Black, their first with new vocalist Denis Stoff. Despite all the hype about stylistic departures and whatnot, it’s still more or less the faceless Metalcore of their first two LPs, albeit with a bit of traditional Hard Rock and Heavy Metal hastily thrown in. For instance, those chunky verse riffs in “Just a Slave to Rock ‘n Roll” have no business alongside the overly sappy melodic chorus – the track is completely Frankenstein’d together. In general, The Black offers a lot in the way of melodrama, but little in the way of thoughtful song construction or compelling musicianship. Hey, I did give this one a fair shot though. NOT RECOMMENDED

Collegrove – 2 Chainz & Lil’ Wayne

2 Chainz and Lil’ Wayne’s collaborative album (on 8 of the 13 tracks, at least) feels more like a mixtape most of the time, but in 2016 what the fuck is the difference anymore? Whatever label you feel is appropriate, this project is jam packed with lazy fucking hooks that tested my attention span and my nerves (see “Blue C-Note”, “Bentley Truck”, or “Not Invited”). It’s especially disappointing since the effective lead single “Gotta Lotta” surpasses any post-Carter IV music Wayne has dropped. And I did enjoy the cinematic trap beat and clever Weezy verse on “Smell Like Money”, as well as the production on “Dedication”, which sounded like something Wiz Khalifa would’ve spit over five years ago. But beyond that, Collegrove didn’t hold my interest. But I did learn the magnificently pretentious word “portmanteau” from its title. NOT RECOMMENDED.

That’s Hip Hop – Joell Ortiz

The four members of Slaughterhouse have been dropping projects as if they’re actively trying to outpace each other. Joell Ortiz did the !llmind collaboration Human last summer, Joe Budden dropped All Love Lost, Crooked I (aka Kxng Crooked) put out Statik Kxng with Statik Selektah, and now Royce da 5’9 has a new mixtape Trust the Shooter out that directly precedes Layers (out April 15th), and supposedly has ANOTHER full-length album on the way. Whew. I’ve never had to take a deep breath after typing something before. What caught my eye about Joell Ortiz’s new record That’s Hip Hop– aside from my Slaughterhouse fandom – is that he coaxed one of my favorites, the legendary Kool G Rap, onto a song with him! So I had to listen to the album. At 30 minutes and nine real songs, it’s got the feel of either Illmatic or a brief mixtape – whichever comparison you goons prefer. It’s also exponentially more aggressive than 2014’s House Slippers ,the last Ortiz project I gave thorough, repeated listens. While I did enjoy House Slippers, the Puerto Rican is rapping like he has something to prove again. That’s Hip Hop lives up to its name and then some! RECOMMENDED.