December 2016 Album Round Up!

I don’t care what anyone says – the last month of 2016 belonged to Hip-Hop. In the 11 months prior, every other genre had seemingly said all they had to say, but a legion of brilliant MCs, beat makers, and (hopefully not too many) ghostwriters were just getting started.

I.E. The hare that was the rest of the music biz had all but settled in for 2017, and Hip-Hop was the ultimate tortoise. And for me, this is not even COUNTING the surprise Christmas Eve release of the highly anticipated Run The Jewels 3 album – I can wait ‘til the official date in January for that (I think).

And I’m glad that I didn’t have a crazy influx of new music to deal with, ‘cause I was so God damn busy with my year-end lists that it would’ve been too much to handle anyway. I needed to debate Frank Ocean vs. Beyonce for hours on end in peace.

Anyway, I’m beyond psyched to see what 2017 has in store for us (anticipated albums coming next!), and I’m gonna enjoy turning my eye toward the future once again, ‘cause List Season is all about the retrospective. But before I turn forward, here’s one more look back – eight albums that I was bumping in between year-end list work:

Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’ – Kid Cudi

Hands down the best Kid Cudi project since 2010’s Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr. Rager. If you’re a longtime Cudi fan, I bet you’re LOVING this. Unfortunately, there are a couple things holding me back from an overall positive verdict. A) this thing is an incredibly bloated 86 minutes – Frustratingly, a lot of said 86 minutes consists of Cudi ruining otherwise great tracks by dragging them out for unnecessary lengths. B) it’s excessively mopey at times – and “mopey” as in minus the self-destructive charisma of the “moping” on his first two records. But FUCK ME if there isn’t a killer album in here somewhere! Getting some dope, vibed-out production from the likes of Dot da Genius, Plain Pat, and Pharrell definitely helped – I love the spacey beats on tracks like “ILLusions”,”Swim in the Light”, and the Travis Scott-assisted lead single “Baptized in Fire”. And “By Design” is one of the top 5 tracks of Cudi’s entire career. I swear, one of these days this guy’s gonna drop a FIRE project front to back. I can feel it. But not this one. NOT RECOMMENDED

4 Your Eyez Only – J. Cole

I fucking hate J. Cole’s fans. J. Cole’s fans ruined (the stuff I did like by) J. Cole for me. They tried to act like JUST because there was a loose concept to this album – Cole’s fourth – anybody who didn’t like it must feel that way ‘cause it’s “over their head” and they’re JUST NOT SMART ENOUGH. What a crock of shit. 4 Your Eyez Only does have a cool (easy to follow!) storyline, and it has a few phenomenal tracks like “Neighbors” and the tear-jerking title track, but it has a major momentum problem. Too much mopey crooning, too much underwhelming lyricism, and an abomination called “Foldin’ Clothes”. However, I did enjoy the strong cuts enough to grant it a 6/10. But no, dickriders, it’s not a “classic”. FOH with that. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino

Donald Glover is CRUSHING it right now. The other night, his critically acclaimed TV series Atlanta got hella more critically acclaimed when it took home a pair of Golden Globes; he’s playing Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Star Wars film; AND he dropped Awaken, My Love! – this total stylistic left turn of a record – out of nowhere. DAMN. If you haven’t heard the LP yet, Glover abandoned rapping altogether and hopped in a time machine back to the mid-70s for some George Clinton-inspired funk and soul jams. I’d be full of shit if I said I was well-versed in this genre of music, but I would not be full of shit if I said I enjoyed what I heard, and that I’m continually impressed with Glover’s versatility. RECOMMENDED

Not the Actual Events EP – Nine Inch Nails

With this quick little Christmastime EP, these Industrial Rock legends have finally crawled out of their three-year cave to (hopefully) give us a taste of what they have in store for us on their highly anticipated ninth full-length. In other words, they’re lubricating their audience (pause). A good chunk of what’s on here is classic Nine Inch Nails though. Exhibit A: the electronic grooves on highlight “Dear World” that are nearly danceable but still ominous and foreboding. I’m especially into the track “The Idea of You”, which has these off-kilter machine gun rhythms that are addicting as hell. Ultimately, it’s all just a teaser though, like the full theater trailer for a summer blockbuster. But this thing has me excited for a new Nine Inch Nails studio album (fingers crossed) this year. RECOMMENDED

White Friday (CM9) – Yo Gotti

While every other music nerd spent Christmas Eve freaking out about the Run the Jewels surprise release, I was bumping this mixtape, lured by the explosive single “Power of Money”. Gotti continues to impress me. He’s clearly a street rapper, but there’s a certain elegance to him – he spits with the self-assurance of an OG with nothing to prove, but with the hunger of an MC half his age. He also gets surprisingly sentimental on the closing track “What Happened”, which is dedicated to his friend and manager Mel Carter, who passed away a few weeks before this tape came out. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 Don’t Smoke Rock – Smoke DZA & Pete Rock

 Harlem MC Smoke DZA teamed up with one of the greatest Hip-Hop producers of all time for a beautifully old school Hip-Hop record, one rooted purely in the ‘90s. Don’t Smoke Rock was so up my alley, it almost feels like it was made specifically for me. I’m giving the top 3 features to Jadakiss, Royce da 5’9, and Big K.R.I.T – they all crushed it. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Darkness and Light – John Legend

So this is the first time I’ve given a full John Legend project a shot. Maybe this style of (mostly) lethargic R & B just isn’t my cup of tea, but these 45 minutes elicited more yawns than anything else. That’s not to say the LP is without its undeniable high points: the funky Chance the Rapper collaboration “Penthouse Floor” is awesome – Chance’s verse on that one, much like himself, is quirky, fun, and imaginative – but my personal favorite is the sensual “Temporarily Painless”. It’s one of my favorite songs right now. It’s SO.DAMN.SEXY, between its dreamy production and Legend’s airtight songwriting – I just can’t get enough. Overall, Darkness and Light is a decent listen for a rainy day, but I’ve found myself coming back to a few select tracks rather than the whole LP. NOT RECOMMENDED

Filthy America…It’s Beautiful – The Lox

No, this hugely anticipated comeback record did not meet my extremely overinflated expectations. The Lox’s 1998 debut Money, Power, & Respect was one of my Hip-Hop bibles growing up, and Jadakiss was always a favorite of mine. Unfortunately, the issue with Filthy America seems to be an identity crisis. This LP doesn’t know whether it wants to be traditionalist (the Premo-produced “Move Forward”) or fit in with the young’ns (the generic trap turn-up of “Secure the Bag”). So it winds up being a disjointed listen. Aside from one gem – the menacing Mobb Deep collab “Hard Life” – I think I’ll stick with Money, Power, & Respect. NOT RECOMMENDED

 

Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2016

Hey everyone, welcome to my Top 10 Hip-Hop albums of 2016, a.k.a. Shit-on-Panny-For-His-Terrible-Music-Taste Round One! This will be my only blog exclusive Year-End List! So be sure to catch the rest on my YouTube channel in the next couple weeks, including the one I already put out. A few clarifications before we get into this:

  • As always – and it’s kinda frustrating that I have to even say this – this list is 100 percent my personal taste! C’mon guys, none of this shit is ever “objective”, whatever the hell that means. These records are arranged solely based on how much I ENJOYED them. An album in the number three slot is not “better” than an album in the number seven slot – I just dug it more!
  • Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered was not eligible, because it wasn’t an official full-length release.
  • Death Grips’ Bottomless wasn’t eligible either – I’d rather file that one under “experimental” music. Dug the hell out of it though!

With all that nonsense out of the way, let’s dive in!

10. THE DIVINE FEMININE – MAC MILLER

Likely to be my most controversial pick, Mac Miller’s fourth record (and best yet) is as fun, wide-eyed, blissful, and heartwarming as any music I heard all year. It’s this brazen celebration of love and sexuality that carves its own unique niche in Hip-Hop. Mac’s whole-hearted commitment to the LP’s concept, his (as usual) great beat selection, and his flawless balancing of his talented guests made this one the ultimate not-so-guilty pleasure.

Top 3 Tracks: “Cinderella”, “Dang!”, “Stay”

9. COLORING BOOK – CHANCE THE RAPPER 

Unfortunately, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Chance’s hugely hyped third project because, well, it was HUGELY HYPED. Overly so, to the point where I got so fucking sick of hearing about it. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it! Chance’s playful personality and seemingly unending charisma continue to set him apart. Not to mention, Coloring Book has more than enough bars, soul, and inventive genre fusions to go around.

Top 3 Tracks: “Angels”, “No Problem”, “Blessings”

8. 3001: A LACED ODYSSEY – FLATBUSH ZOMBIES

The debut full-length from these Brooklyn upstarts gives me high hopes for the future of the genre. Though its clearly rooted in ‘90s nostalgia, 3001 has one eye looking out the front windshield, embracing some trap-based production and molding it to fit the Zombies’ over-the-top O.D.B.-esque charisma. And there’s a sizable melodic undercurrent that makes it all feel like more than just a gritty, drug-addled cypher.

Top 3 Tracks: “R.I.P.C.D.”, “Bounce, “Good Grief”

7. LAYERS – ROYCE DA 5’9

Royce’s unbelievable rhyming skills are on display once again? Zero surprise there. Where the surprise did come: the Detroit OG did right by his phenomenal bars by surrounding them with legitimately great songs, something he and his Slaughterhouse counterparts have struggled with in the past few years. His beat selection is outstanding, with the swaggering production on tracks like “Wait” and “Layers” guiding him to the finish line like a spotter on a bench press. Other times, like on the opening track “Tabernacle” – the single best Hip-Hop song of 2016 – his lyrics and storytelling are so mindblowing that I could literally listen to him a cappella.

Top 3 tracks: “Tabernacle”, “Pray”, “Layers”

6. HANDSHAKES WITH SNAKES – APATHY

CT’s own Apathy came through with an album so directly up my alley, it’s like he made the damn thing with me in mind (I’ll take a second to pause while you wonder if I’m a paranoid schizophrenic). It’s got hard-hitting, sample-based boom bap production, it’s got intricate lyricism up the wazoo, and Ap’s constantly railing against the youngest generation of rappers and the autotune and “emo-rap” that’s becoming all the rage with the kids these days. Don’t sleep on this project!

Top 3 Tracks: “Pay Your Dues”, “Charlie Brown”, “Amon Raw”

5. FISHING BLUES – ATMOSPHERE

My initial review of the latest from these Minneapolis veterans was a bit more mixed, but this fucking record just grew on me and grew on me and grew on me. A lot of it has to do with Ant’s gorgeous production, as well as Slug’s endless likability on the mic. Even when he’s not expressing it in the most impressive or clever of ways, I vibe with everything Slug says here. And that’s how this LP snuck into my Top 5 – I had a profound emotional connection with it. At the end of the day, fuck the critic shit – that’s what music’s about.

Top 3 Tracks: “Fishing Blues”, “Everything”, “The Shit That We’ve Been Through”

4. WE GOT IT FROM HERE…THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST

 Tribe’s sixth LP and swansong is better than anyone could’ve hoped for. The fucking thing picks up RIGHT where classics like Midnight Marauders left off – it combines thoughtful, semi tongue-in-cheek rhymes with rich, instrument-driven production. The only difference, of course, is We Got It From Here feels incredibly TIMELY. In a year where American politics devolved into sickening chaos and everybody seems to hate each other for ten million different reasons, Tribe are exactly who we needed to hear from. Oh, and the features are out of this world. Are you gonna pass up an album that has Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Busta Rhymes, and Talib Kweli on it? Didn’t think so.

Top 3 Tracks: “We the People”, “Dis Generation”, “Kids”

3. TOP OF THE LINE – RITTZ

The third LP from this criminally underrated Strange Music Signee is a spectacular blend of head-splitting double-time flows, meticulously crafted multi-syllabic rhyme schemes, banging production, and infectious pop hooks to top it all off (the latter of which helps set him apart). But most importantly, Rittz has so much to say, touching on a myriad of interesting topics and not wasting a single bar. To give you an idea, here’s a brief list of things the Georgia MC discusses (and chronicles in detail, really) throughout these 21 tracks: his battle with substance abuse, the death of his dog (“Nostalgia” is the most touching moment on the album), race relations in America and how they relate to the white rapper, suicidal thoughts, spirituality, the decadent touring lifestyle, infidelity in relationships, his come up in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and loads more. And it’s all compelling, lyrically dazzling, and packaged into digestible, straightforward tunes.

Top 3 Tracks: “The Formula”, “Nostalgia”, “KISA”…then the other 18

2. ATROCITY EXHIBITION – DANNY BROWN

As an MC, Danny Brown is occupying a lane entirely his own. Though some may be turned off by his eccentric, almost cartoonish delivery, Atrocity Exhibition is undeniably one of the most unique, dark, zany, and wildly stimulating Hip-Hop records ever made. Brown’s tortured rhymes sit atop an A.D.D.-inducing array of beats that contains nods to Rock, Punk, a bit of R & B, and whatever the hell “Ain’t It Funny” is. The all-star posse cut “Really Doe” and the bare “Pneumonia” are two instances where Brown dials back the crazy and serves up some straightforward bangers, but most of the time his mind is off in cacophonous La La Land, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Top 3 Tracks: “Ain’t It Funny”, “Rolling Stone”, “Really Doe”

1. THE LIFE OF PABLO – KANYE WEST

Man, I really had to dig deep on this choice. Once I had my Top 3 narrowed down, I immediately started stressing, my mind racing through every possible negative reaction to my opinions – the worst thing to pay attention to as a music writer. But I planted my feet firmly, blocked out all the outside noise, blocked out all of my friends’ and peers’ opinions, and listened to my gut. What was the Hip-Hop album I got the most enjoyment out of in 2016? What album defined the year for me? What album had the most great songs, and the least not-so-great songs? The answer: The Life of Pablo. Sure, Atrocity Exhibition would’ve been the safe “critic-approved” choice, and Top of the Line is the ultimate underdog, but the dopamine receptors in my brain keep pointing toward the wacked-out, schizophrenic genius of Kanye’s seventh record. For me, this is his best since Graduation. It’s got everything – incredible features, suberb production, lyrics that are as thought-provoking as they are confrontational, incendiary, and outrageous…I know few agree, but this record is a classic. Thanks Kanye, I’ll forgive all your other dumb shit.

Top 3 Tracks: Jesus Christ….ummm…..”Famous”, “Waves”, “Real Friends”?

And here are five HONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Impossible Kid – Aesop Rock

The Art of Hustle – Yo Gotti

Don’t Smoke Rock – Smoke DZA & Pete Rock (full review here)

Black America Again – Common

Do What Thou Wilt. – Ab-Soul (it’s only been out a few days, but wanted to shout it out! It’s HARDD!)