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

August 25th Singles: Taylor Swift, Miguel, Demi Lovato & more!

So, Summer ‘17 is essentially over. Whether you spent it at camp, or down in Argentina building houses or some type of “do-gooder” shit, or you just continued to slave away at your 9-5 with one less layer of clothing on like I did, I hope these last few months advanced your life forward in some type of positive way. But most importantly, of course, let’s hope Rick Ross’s entire posse got rich like he firmly suggested would be the case. ‘Cause ultimately, that’s what matters in life. Rick Ross’s posse.

Anyway, the end of summer means that the back-to-school music rush is upon us! These next couple months are gonna be as wonderful a time as ever to be a fan of stuff that involves notes, rhythms, melodies, singing, yelling, or anything that remotely resembles music.

With countless release dates stacking up, we began to see a lot of high-profile singles popping up this past week. So many, in fact, that I felt compelled to write about what I heard. For this article, I specifically went after all the A-list stuff. Sure, I could’ve talked about the new Arch Enemy song or whatever, but isn’t it more fun to talk about things that make people gobs of money? Like a Taylor Swift album cycle launch? No? Well, too bad.

Here’s a quick synopsis of a bunch of big-time singles that came out on or around this past Friday:

Sky Walker (feat. Travis Scott) – Miguel

BANGER ALERT! Wow. I’m not sure what floors me the most, how flawlessly Miguel crafted this more Hip-Hop influenced, Weeknd-ish ode to self-indulgence and bravado, or how well Travis Scott’s voice gels with his. Scott is like Miguel’s drug-soaked, auto-tuned sidekick – the two have so much chemistry, you’d think they’ve already done a whole album together (and hey, after hearing this, I’d probably want that to happen!) And this track, while smooth and swaggering as all hell, also has a bit of a goofy, tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of thing going on, ‘cause after all, the ridiculous line “Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters!” is part of the refrain.

I don’t know when the next Miguel album is dropping, but whenever that is, I want an album full of THIS!

You Can’t Control It – Jack Johnson

 Listening to this infinitely soothing new single from Jack Johnson – a master of folky singer-songwriter pleasantries – I can practically feel my inner tension loosening. It’s almost like a massage (well, minus the part where you roll over and offer 60 bucks for a happy ending).

The third single from his forthcoming seventh album All the Light Above It Too, “You Can’t Control It” is not only pure calming pleasure sonically – featuring sweet, gentle guitar melodies married with Johnson’s reverb-drenched croon – but there’s something so freeing about hearing that phrase, “You Can’t Control It”. ‘Cause when you walk around feeling like everything is up to you, and everything is your responsibility, you apply this immense pressure to yourself that can be suffocating at times (for instance, I didn’t sleep a wink a couple nights ago because, well, I did just that). Perhaps this song is Johnson’s best cure for what he refers to here as “the war within your head; one that you could never win.”

Look What You Made Me Do – Taylor Swift

As the Internet has already redundantly established, T. Swift’s first solo track in nearly three years is fucking terrible. Why have I – and thousands, if not millions of other irritated eardrums – come to this conclusion? Well, there’s a lot of reasons. I will outline three of them:

Reason 1: the unbearable corniness of the “Kanye West diss” that’s at the heart of it. “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined”……oooo, no you didn’t Taylor! Or how about my personal favorite line, when Taylor defiantly chirps: “I got harder in the nick of time”? Hey, it’s always good to know that T. Swift can come through with some clutch erections down the stretch.

Reason 2: the obnoxious hook. Which, by the way, I was so busy being angry at it that I didn’t even pick up on the fact that it was an interpolation of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”. Shame on me. But it still sucks. And it’s about as likeable as Meaghan Trainor’s “Me Too”. Yeah, I went there.

Reason 3: worst of all, this song is attempting to be some sort of Dance-Pop. Meaning it might start getting played in bars….meaning after paying some bullshit cover charge, I might have to turn around and walk out on all of my friends if it comes on. Either that, or I’ll have to stay home for the next 15 months until the coast is clear.

But who knows, maybe the album will be decent. It’s still early.

You Already Know (feat. Nicki Minaj) – Fergie

After over four years of rumors and eleven total years of elapsed time since her solo debut, Fergie Ferg is finally dropping her sophomore LP Double Dutchess on September 22nd. One of its singles (“L.A. Love”) is three years old. Two more of them we already heard a while ago too. Can’t say I’ve got much going on in the anticipation department when it comes to this record.

Stylistically, Fergie’s been trying a lot of shit. I already gave my mixed two cents on her tropical house adventures on “Life Goes On”, and I think we can all agree that “M.I.L.F. $” (which will also appear on Double Dutchess) is a tasteless Hip-Pop attempt. As for “You Already Know”? It’s a little better, but not by much. It’s obviously crafted for high-energy dancefloor type situations, but Fergie’s obnoxious and completely overcooked rapping steps all over the beat. Nicki Minaj brings a bit of genuine lyrical finesse to offset it, but ever since the record-shattering horror that was Fergie’s “All of the Lights” appearance, I just can’t take her seriously when she tries to rap.

 Tell Me You Love Me – Demi Lovato

Demi Lovato is yet another A-lister ramping up for a late-September album release. “Tell Me You Love Me” is our second taste of her forthcoming sixth record of the same name, and I gotta say, this is one of my favorite Pop songs of the Summer.

I hate using the term “empowering” – in my mind, it often equates to corny Liberalspeak – but this track does have such an uplifting sound that it’s tough to squeeze in any other adjective. The instrumental during the chorus absolutely KNOCKS – those triumphant horns and the booming snare and bass are a hell of a combo. And lyrically, if you ask me, there’s something so sweet and so romantic about admitting to a (SMALL) degree of co-dependence – strong relationships are, after all, partially built on a mutual feeling of importance in each other’s lives, and that’s something Lovato captures beautifully here. Hopefully this one doesn’t get beaten to death by radio.

Pizza – Martin Garrix

Bookended by a sweeping cinematic build-up and comedown, the latest single from this Dutch EDM Wunderkind is a sunny, rapturous burst of energy. What I first saw as cheesy and cookie-cutter has evolved into a fun, simplistic escape and a slight guilty pleasure for me. Truth be told, this song breaks exactly ZERO ground as a stereotypical House track (don’t let the intro and outro distract you into thinking otherwise), but it continues to grow on me with repeated listens. Gonna be a great tune to soundtrack some end-of-summer hangouts.