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