Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2017

Happy holidays everyone!

Oh wait, we’re like a year into the whole “Donald Trump is president” thing. My bad.

In one of the most hilariously ridiculous speeches of his presidency thus far – bold statement, I know – Donald Trump made a promise that as a nation, we’re all gonna go back to saying “Merry Christmas” like we did before things got all politically correct. “Times have changed, but we’re changing them back,” he insisted. It reminded me of that infamous Jason Kidd speech where he said “we’re gonna turn this team around 360 degrees”.

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump talking all bigly about his yuuuuge plans for this great nation didn’t at all sway my December rhetoric. I did what I do every year – I wished an awkward mix of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”, depending on what kind of mood I was in, who was around, and how Christian-y the vibe was.

Joking aside, whatever Winter holiday you and your family celebrate – whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or one of those Pagan things – I hope you find joy, laughter, relaxation, and, of course, good food in the company of your loved ones, and I hope you head into 2018 with the wide-eyed optimism of a six-year-old boy.

Anyway, for my first of FIVE 2017 year-end lists – you’re gonna head over to my YouTube channel to see the rest of them in the next week and a half – we’re gonna talk Hip-Hop. And boy is there a lot of ground to cover.

2017 was another banner year for Rap music, sure. Any monkey with a Twitter account and @ComplexMusic and @XXL in his feed could piece that one together. But even better, it was a year defined by the unexpected. Both positive AND negative, I may add. Here are some things that happened in Hip-Hop this year that I couldn’t have possibly foreseen:

  • The Migos made a Trap album that is literally listenable (and enjoyable) from beginning to end
  • Eminem dropped a turd that makes 2004’s Encore look like a masterpiece
  • CyHi the Prynce’s long-awaited debut somehow lived up to over seven years of album-less hype
  • Jay-Z snapped out of his whole “I only rap to sponsor my art collection” mindset and made his best music since 2003
  • EDM superstar Calvin Harris put Snoop Dogg, Travis Scott, Migos, ScHoolboy Q, Lil’ Yachty, Future, Big Sean, Nicki Minaj, and Frank Ocean on one project. And it worked.
  • Macklemore and a mumble rapper made a song together and it ended up being ten times worse than my limited imagination could’ve even conjured up

So as you can see, it’s been an exciting 12 months. And I’m glad to be done making this list, ‘cause I spent DAYS stressing out about it (especially those #5 – #7 slots!). I really hope my thoughts are informative or, at the very least, mildly entertaining. Honorable Mentions are at the bottom. See you all in 2018!

10. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY – VIC MENSA

 On his debut album for Roc Nation, after a few years of increasing buzz and the immense pressure and anticipation that comes with being a Kanye West protégé, Vic Mensa leapfrogs over the already-lofty expectations set for him with, well, one of the best Hip-Hop albums of the entire year. The Autobiography proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mensa’s got all of the makings of a bonafide Rap superstar. He can make rousing bangers with the best of them, as shown on the Kid-Cudi-meets- Travis-Scott party tune “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” as well as the Chief Keef-assisted hood anthem “Down for Some Ignorance”; he can tell stories (“Homewrecker”), he can be deeply introspective (“Wings”), and he can even make the ladies swoon when he steps out from under his self-loathing (“Gorgeous”).

Not to mention, the guy can collaborate too – the aforementioned tracks round up the likes of Chief Keef, Syd, Pharrell Williams, and even Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, making for a colorful but cohesive tracklist. Mensa’s one of the most promising young Hip-Hop artists in the game right now.

 Top 3 Tracks: “Homewrecker”, “Gorgeous”, “Wings”

9. PRETTY GIRLS LIKE TRAP MUSIC – 2 CHAINZ

 Perhaps the most unexpected entry on this list, 2 Chainz flushed over a decade of ratchet mediocrity down the toilet and knocked the clumsily-titled Pretty Girls Like Trap Music into the stratosphere. As a rapper, beat-picker, hook-crafter, and overall larger-than-life personality, 2 Chainz has never sounded sharper. While the over-the-top ridiculousness of his bars remains a key part of his charm – in particular, the line “I got a bank account, got anotha bank account, got anotha bank account” is my single favorite line of 2017 (which, by the way, given that the FDIC only insurances up to $250,000 per account, this is probably a financially savvy move on his part) – this time around, he has the endless flow and compelling rhymes to back it up.

And his ability to use the occasional guest to light a fire under his ass – Travis Scott Nicki Minaj, Swae Lee, Migos, and Drake all ANNIHILATE the tracks they show up on – helps propel Pretty Girls Like Trap Music into every worthwhile “Best Hip-Hop of 2017” conversation.

Top 3 Tracks: “Blue Cheese”, “Realize”, “Good Drank”

8. FLOWER BOY – TYLER, THE CREATOR

What beautiful irony that an artist like Tyler, The Creator – who rose to prominence by being infinitely rebellious and anti-everything – made his best material to date by softening his edges and buddying up with an industry juggernaut (Columbia Records) for its release.

Production-wise, Flower Boy is perhaps my favorite on this list, bringing together sounds that range from cinematic to insular to manic to just plain weird. Yet the true excellence of the LP lies in Tyler’s undeniable maturation.

By getting unapologetically sappy (“See You Again”), wistfully nostalgic (“November”) and heartbreakingly vulnerable (“911/Mr. Lonely”) alongside his usual aggression and quirks (“Who Dat Boy”, “I Ain’t Got Time!”), Tyler has successfully transitioned from odd-but-compelling enigma to fully formed, three-dimensional artist.

Top 3 Tracks: “November”, “911/Mr. Lonely”, “See You Again”

7. CAPTAIN CALIFORNIA – MURS

That my list will likely be the ONLY year-end Hip-Hop List to give Murs his due is nothing short of a tragedy. On his sixth LP and second for Tech N9ne’s Strange Music label, the California MC shows an elastic emotional range that is extremely hard to come by in Hip-Hop. On the opening track “Lemon Juice”, he and guest Curtiss King will have you cackling uncontrollably as they try to compete for a girl’s attention. Cuts like “God Bless Kanye West” and “G is for Gentrify” will have you mulling over today’s socioeconomic climate. On touching love songs like “1000 Suns” and “Another Round”, Murs will have you reflecting on your best romantic relationships or dreaming of ones like his. On “One Uh Those Days”, he’ll have you carefully following along with his detailed storytelling right up until the hilarious twist ending. It’s time people get their shit together and start paying attention to this talented motherfucker.

Top 3 Tracks: “Lemon Juice”, “1000 Suns”, “Colossus”

6. 4EVA IS A MIGHTY LONG TIME – BIG K.R.I.T.

 While it would’ve been virtually impossible to top 2014’s Cadillactica – an adventurous space-themed concept album that remains one of the finest moments of the genre this decade – Justin Scott continues to build his case as one of the great Southern rappers, filling the shoes of giants like UGK, Outkast and T.I. with ease. This sprawling double-album is split into a more bravado-driven “Big K.R.I.T. half” and a more introspective “Justin Scott half”, with both discs pulling their weight equally, from the most trunk-knocking moments (“ Subenstein”, “Big Bank”) to the most naked and confessional (“Price of Fame”, Mixed Messages”). As I continue to preach the gospel of Big K.R.I.T., I have yet another holy text to read from to convert people to the cause. And thanks to people like ANTHONY FANTANO, they really are doing so.

Top 3 Tracks: “Get Away”, “Mixed Messages”, “Miss Georgia Fornia”

5. NO DOPE ON SUNDAYS – CYHI THE PRYNCE

 I can’t think of a single Hip-Hop album that has been delayed as long as this one and actually LIVED UP to the impossible hype. But that’s exactly what Kanye’s finest protégé managed to do. Besides creating the most lyrically monstrous album on this whole list, on No Dope on Sundays Cyhi the Prynce still manages to stay focused on well-crafted songs, thought-provoking content, and carefully-placed features (in particular, Travis Scott, BJ the Chicago Kid, and ScHoolboy Q kill it here). And to top it all off, CyHi ties everything together with a powerful theme that contrasts spirituality and street life.

Plus, the amount of times I’ve used the expression “get your money and get out the game” in REAL LIFE since hearing this album….that alone earns it a spot in the Top five.

Top 3 Tracks: “I’m Fine”, “No Dope on Sundays”, “Movin’ Around”

4. LAST CALL – RITTZ

 On his final album for Strange Music, this double time-spittin’ white boy once again comes through with a body of work that feels like it’s been made specifically for me. Seriously, this motherfucker checks every box.

  • Emotionally, it covers the entire spectrum, from the tear-jerking “Fuck Cancer” to the ferocious “Into the Sky” (which, by the way, are back-to-back in the tracklist).
  • When appropriate, it’s as introspective as Hip-Hop can get, as showcased on the childhood woes of “Press Rewind” and the modern-day neuroses of “I’m Only Human”
  • From a technical rapping standpoint, Rittz once again has few equals – just check the standout single “Down for Mine” or the stirring opener “Middle of Nowhere” for proof
  • And yet again, Rittz’s ability to sing his own hooks makes him a complete, self-sufficient artist. No big features or name-dropping needed here; this one guy can keep you engaged for over an hour.

Top 3 Tracks: “Crash and Burn”, “Into the Sky”, Down for Mine”

3. DAMN. – KENDRICK LAMAR

 While 2015’s expansive, ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly endeared him to critics and solidified his place in Hip-Hop history, this time around it’s Kendrick Lamar’s fundamentals that make him stand out. At the end of the day, Kung Fu Kenny is just a dope fucking rapper. I never get tired of hearing him rap – his unending supply of creative flows, intricate rhyme structures, and nuanced perspectives ensure that Lamar can sound good on any beat.

But beyond Kendrick’s ability as an MC, my favorite thing about DAMN. is how emotionally raw it is. K-Dot’s music has always carried with it an underlying depression, anxiety and vicious inner conflict– which has been occasionally brought to the forefront on tracks like TPAB’s “u” – but DAMN. takes this to a whole new level. This is a 14-track therapy session, with intense feelings flying every which way like bullets during D-Day. And as a listener who prefers this type of psychological mayhem, I find it to be some of the most gripping work of Kendrick Lamar’s already-historic career.

Top 3 Tracks: “ELEMENT.”, “FEAR.”, “PRIDE.”

2. TRIAL BY FIRE – YELAWOLF

 Against all odds – and when I say ALL ODDS, I mean over seven years of artistic decline since his initial burst of hype and at least one race-related controversy – Rap’s most divisive white trash Hick-Hopper pulled through with, simply put, one of the most unique “Hip-Hop” records I’ve ever heard.

On Trial By Fire, the Alabama native weaves together various shades of Country, Folk, Rock, Blues – and yes, in the midst of all that, a guest appearance from Juicy motherfuckin’ J – into his well-studied rhyming abilities to make the kind of album that no one else could make. Sure, COUNTRY AND RAP MUSIC have had their history together (LINK), but not in a way that hasn’t compromised or caricaturized either side of the spectrum. That is, until exhilarating mish-mashes on this LP like “Punk”, which contains the aforementioned Juicy J feature.

Yelawolf also bares his soul on these 14 tracks, and has a novelists’ eye for storytelling (seriously, check the haunting “Sabrina” or the sentimentally autobiographical “Keeps Me Alive” for some hardcore evidence), bringing these Southern soundscapes to life with each and every verse. On “Ride or Die”, a heartfelt tribute to a day one friend, I can actually picture Yela sitting on a front porch somewhere in Alabama strumming his guitar and staring out into miles of farmland.

 And for me, there’s a personal angle to this as well. Trial by Fire represents the ultimate escapism. It’s an album that whisks me away from my Yuppie tri-state surroundings to long, winding dirt roads, musky dive bars with Harleys parked out front, and remote stretches of land with nothing but grass and the gentle breeze that nudges it from side to side. So I suppose my increasing infatuation with the rural South has fed my love of Trial by Fire. But still, whether you end up smitten like I am or deeply unimpressed, this is music you need to hear.

Top 3 Tracks: “Ride or Die”, “Punk”, “Son of a Gun”

 1. ALL THE BEAUTY IN THIS WHOLE LIFE – BROTHER ALI

As I gushed at the middle of the year, Brother Ali made the kind of special album that makes me happy to be alive. With top-notch production from Ant of Atmosphere ensuring that it’s sonically rapturous, Ali is free to tackle weighty subject matter; sensitive topics that he handles gracefully, I might add. Beauty covers everything from race (“Dear Black Son”, “Before They Called You White”) to pornography (“The Bitten Apple”) to suicide (“Out of Here”) to Ali’s own childhood struggles (“Pray For Me”) sending your emotions every which way in the process. When you combine Ali’s raw talent on the mic with food-for-thought content, gorgeous instrumentals, and hooks like the infectious single “Own Light”, it’s impossible to lose.

Top 3 Tracks: “Own Light (What Hearts Are For)”, “Out of Here”, “All the Beauty in This Whole Life”

Some Honorable Mentions:

Laila’s Wisdom – Rapsody

Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples

Culture – Migos

Radio Silence – Talib Kweli

All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ – Joey Bada$$

At What Cost – Goldlink

4:44 – Jay-Z

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle

Rather You Than Me – Rick Ross

January 2017 Album Round Up!

Greetings to all you lovebirds out there 😉

If you’ve got a special someone in your life, hope you and your bank account are gearing up for some good ol’ Valentine’s Day lovin’ next week . If that special someone is still finding their way to you, or if they already did and you fucking blew it, hope the ice cream, tears, and rom com re-runs are good to you. But for most of the single guys out there, hope you enjoy another typical Tuesday with a pointless cultural label where getting laid might be slightly easier.

As for me, I hope to spend Valentine’s Day VERY erotically – listening to that new Marilyn Manson record he’s hinted at (literally the opposite of coincidentally) releasing on that day. It’s supposed to be called Say10. If that title doesn’t strike a chord with you, slowly pronounce it out loud until it clicks. Don’t worry, it took me an embarrassing amount of time to put two and two together, too.

So while you make the necessary preparations (read: purchases) for a drama-free and sex-filled Valentine’s Day, here are some thoughts on what the first month of 2017 had to offer music-wise! We’re off to a pretty good start if you ask me!

Forever – Code Orange

 The hottest act in Metalcore unleashed their third record this month to frenzied excitement. Me? Just a contrarian son of a bitch, I guess. I LIKE album – furious cuts like “Real”, “Spy” and the title track are bone-crushing rushes of adrenaline, and my biggest praise is the LP’s mindboggling variety, with “Bleeding In the Blur” bringing some melodic Post-Hardcore to the table and “Ugly” fusing together ‘90s Alt-Rock with gruff Hard Rock – but the barrage of not-so-special breakdowns does get tiresome and a couple cuts (“The Mud”, “Hurt Goes On”) miss their mark. So yeah. Cool record but I didn’t go head-over-heels for it like everybody else did. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Vessels – Starset

 I went against the grain with this new Starset record too, the band’s second. Vessels fuses together Electronic Music, Butt Rock, and some djent-y modern Metalcore for a sugar sweet but unfulfilling outing full of excessively angsty hooks, non-guitar riffs, and such a thick layer of production that it’s impossible to tell if a single thing is performed by a human being. It’s unbelievably catchy at points, and I understand the appeal, but it’s not gonna be anything more than an occasional guilty pleasure for me. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

Return of the Cool – Nick Grant

After stumbling across this Billboard article on Nick Grant last year, Return of the Cool quickly became one of my most anticipated debuts of 2017. With the momentum the 28-year-old Grant has behind him right now, I was ready to bear witness to the meteoric rise of Hip-Hop’s next breakout star – and most of all, I was ready to hear soul and lyricism reinstated in Southern Hip-Hop (not to say I dislike what’s going on down there right now, but, I did grow up with ATLIENS as my bible). On Return of the Cool, the South Carolina native shows some promise and a bit of an old school flair, but the project disappointed the hell out of me. The painfully generic “Bouncin’” could’ve been made by ANY of Grant’s contemporaries (Logic, J. Cole, Big Sean Kendrick, etc.). And despite references to icons like Lauryn Hill and Nas, Grant doesn’t do much to uphold their standards with lines like “curves driving me crazy, I need some counseling”. NOT RECOMMENDED

The Search For Everything (Wave One) – John Mayer

 My fellow Pretentious Fairfield County, CT Douchebag is employing an adventurous and exciting release strategy for his seventh LP – he’s releasing four songs at a time in monthly “waves”. In the uncertain and uneasy free-for-all that is music promotion in 2017, I’m so glad to see someone with Mayer’s clout try a different approach. As for the music on “Wave One”? Simply put, three out of four songs connected for me. Most notably, however, I was psyched to see Mayer take a break from the genre gymnastics of his last few releases and just pen some straight ahead, no frills Pop tunes. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Machine Messiah – Sepultura

 Growing up, I thought all you had to know about Sepultura occurred in the less-than-4-hour combined run time of Beneath the Remains, Chaos A.D., Arise, and Roots. I still sorta feel that way, but I was curious to hear Machine Messiah, which is now the band’s eighth (!) as Sepultura 2.0 since Derrick Green took over on vocals in 1997 (by comparison, they only made six LPs with Max Cavalera). So I felt behind.And I gotta say, I’m impressed with this current incarnation’s mix of Thrash, Groove Metal, a bit of Extreme Metal,, and the most thrilling surprise, a symphonic element on tracks like “Sworn Oath” and “Resistant Parasites”! Worth checking out if you’re like me and have only ever known “classic Sepultura”. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 Culture – Migos

Around 20 million people were watching the Golden Globes when, two weeks before the release of their sophomore album, Donald Glover unexpectedly shouted out the Migos during an acceptance speech (his PHENOMENAL tv show Atlanta took home two awards that night). And with Culture, it’s safe to say the Migos are seizing their moment in the sun. This LP is the EPITOME of the Atlanta-based trap sound: Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff hop on these knocking instrumentals (one of the best collections of trap beats I have ever heard) with colorful ad-libs, tons of charisma, and memorable refrains. I mean, how could you not just throw on a track like “T-Shirt” or “Call Casting” and vibe out? Historically , I’m into Rap like this, so I’m gonna need some more time with it, but Culture just might be an unexpected 2017 favorite. RECOMMENDED

Gods of Violence – Kreator

 On album number fourteen from the legendary German thrashers, they delivered a collection of powerhouse Metal anthems and did so without being restricted by that old school Thrash “leash” that some of their veteran peers seem to be hindered by. As with its predecessor Phantom Antichrist, Gods of Violence draws on not just Thrash but Melodic Death Metal, streaks of classic NWOBHM, and a bit of lyrical inspiration from Viking Metal for a well-rounded listen. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I See You – The xx

The third LP from these British indie poppers is chalk full of seductive nocturnal vibes that range from slightly spacey (“A Violent Noise”) to hipster nightclub-y (“Dangerous”) to just plain heart-wrenching (“Performance). While these guys’ music has never really “clicked” with me, I actually found myself enjoying a good chunk of this album! Unfortunately, one thing that bugs me is how overwhelmingly seriously these guys take themselves – at times, they oversell their emotions in an almost histrionic fashion that leaves me feeling a bit drained, like I’m not allowed to enjoy myself or something. Plus, Romy and Oliver just AREN’T the best singers from a technical standpoint. But it’s still a solid LP, definitely The xx’s best yet! RECOMMENDED

AFI (The Blood Album) – AFI

 Call it nostalgia, call it glass half full, call it “a retard who knows nothing about anything” like you all love to do on YouTube, but AFI fucking BROUGHT it this time around, in a way they haven’t in over a decade! I’m serious. “White Offerings” is PURE Sing the Sorrow (the band’s landmark 2003 release – a childhood favorite of mine), while the sharp riffing in “Hidden Knives” does the song’s title justice, and tracks like “Pink Eyes” and “Snow Cats” have all the makings of hit songs (particularly the latter, with its irresistible call-and-response chorus). I’m just shocked at how into this record I am. The Blood Album is the OGs sending the new bucks back to the drawing board. These songs completely justify my endless shit talking about all these wack ass “emo” bands that are coming up on Warped Tour – this is what they should shoot for. A thoughtful melding of Punk, Post-Hardcore, and Hard Rock, The Blood Album proves that AFI still set the standard. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Migration – Bonobo

As easy on the ears as this record is, it DOES tend to drift to the background as you listen to it. The gentle, serene touch of “Break Apart” and the ambience of “Grains” are some of the most pleasant sounds you’re likely to hear from Electronic Music all year, but Migration is not the most outwardly engaging of listens. Of course, you could take that in whatever connotation you’d like! ‘Cause I don’t have any “critiques” here – just my personal experience with this LP, which is that it’s a more passive listen than his early works like Dial “M” for Monkey, which was my favorite album when I was sixteen. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot to like here, and it’s 100 percent worth a listen, but it hasn’t gotten much repeated love from me. RECOMMENDED