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.

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!)