Thus far, 2016 looks like the first year that the center of the rap universe might not be New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta.
The two most celebrated, critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of the year both came from Chicago rappers. Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book was the climax of a four-year rise for the streaming-and-mixtape-only grassroots hero. He used the opportunity to create a completely new strain of hip-hop, informed by beaming gospel choirs which, as we wrote, are "rocketing skyward in the background the same way soul samples did on Kanye records, James Brown breaks did on Public Enemy records or disco interpolations did in the Sugar Hill catalog." His vision is personal and local and spiritual, as his voice careens in melodic anguish and his words tumble in brilliant clusters.
Similarly, parts of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo were informed by gospel music, but the messy, ever-updating 20-track album is more like a variety show and music blog cobbled together by rap's most gifted curator. Inside, you get the first Frank Ocean performance in three years, a huge chunk of Desiigner's Number One hit "Panda," the year's best Chance verse, the Weeknd, Kirk Franklin, El DeBarge, a Numero Group reissue, a Factory Records art-punk rarity and a gospel choir. The best Kanye performance is a spoken word track.
The shooting death of 17-year-old Chicagoan Laquan McDonald looms largest for Vic Mensa, who, on his EP There's Alot Going On, counters Black Lives Matter sentiment like Kendrick Lamar's "We're gonna be all right" with old-fashioned fuck-the-police boil-over: "Ready for the war, we got our boots strapped/100 deep on State Street, where the troops at?" On "Shades of Blue," he details the Detroit water crisis using the sad, synthy avant-blues that propels Future, but for bigger picture issues ("Now you've got toddlers drinking toxic waste/While the people responsible still ain't caught no case"). The title track is the traditional recap of a burgeoning rapper's career, but the twist is that it's deathly personal: Adderall, depression, drunken fights with his girlfriend, amphetamines, jealousy, ecstasy, writer's block and suicidal thoughts. Chance crewmate Joey Purp's iiiDrops is more street-level, with album centerpiece "Cornerstore" delivering a litany of vivid expressions of struggle — talking to his brother on the prison phone, finding a gun while looking for his remote control car charger, paying college tuition by flipping drugs, and condominiums gentrifying the neighborhood.
Of course, Drake's Views and Kendrick Lamar's Untitled Unmastered are the two "surprise" releases that hip-hop fans will stream with the same fervor as West and Chance. But both will likely end up slightly underheralded for being quality continuations of an existing formula: Drake adding some slightly polyglot tastes to his woozy emo woes-and-"woes" sing-song; Kendrick following the ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly with some sketches and B-sides raided from the archives.
Still, despite all these surprises and pop-ups, it's more than possible to release a solid, traditional, major label LP of no-nonsense hip-hop with an old fashioned release date, a physical release and beats made by producers hunched over computers instead of jazz bands, indie rocker guest spots and choirs. The long-awaited debut from Kevin Gates, titled Islah, is relentless Southern rap that's lyrical and emotional in the Bun B tradition — a non-stop brain-spill of flipping drugs, taking drugs, eviction notices, jail, screaming matches with his girl, murders and some incredibly detailed sex raps. YG's Still Brazy details the rapper's Compton warzone with an extra dose of paranoia. The LP comes shortly after YG survived a shooting in a Los Angeles recording studio, taking three bullets in the hip. Unlike, say, 50 Cent wearing them as a badge of honor, YG details his suspicion, anger and lack of sleep over minimalist, Quik-indebted G-funk. By album's end he's raging against cops and Trump. Yo Gotti's The Art of Hustle is a quality full-length from a Memphis rap icon that goes way deeper than "Down in the DM," performing a talking blues about his crime-riddled hometown ("My City"), performing UGK-style players anthems ("The Art of Hustle") and spitting tense tales of the consequences of hustling ("Pay the Price").
Despite Gates and Gotti repping hard for Tennessee and Louisina, the most exciting Southern rap is coming from Southern Florida with Denzel Curry's Imperial as its boldest statement. It's a bonkers testament to the style fellow Floridian Gunplay travels in — traditionally tongue-twisting, lyrical spitting over trunk-bursting beats: "Young Bo Jackson slammin' packs with a passion/Satisfaction with the lack of compassion/It's a maverick hella gaspin'." Kodak Black's Lil B.I.G. Pac mixtape name-checks two iconic rappers in the title, but he's more like Gucci Mane, Lil Boosie and Scarface, a cool-rhyming stream of sorrow and loathing, an MC more focused on the struggles than the spoils. Only 19, he talks about prison like it has aged him decades ("I gave the judge a piece of me"), detailing cold baths, the joy of getting a letter and the endless struggle to stay out of trouble. "Made something out of nothin', And nothin' what I'm from," he raps on "Can I," "Can your boy do something productive for once?" A black cloud of harsh reality, Kodak is like Drake's emotional bloodletting from someone who spent their teenage years in the system instead of a soap opera.
The somnambulant up-and-coming MCs emerging from SoundCloud — Lil Uzi Vert, Madeintyo, Lil Yachty — are obviously the stylistic vanguard of modern rap. But they're also a little formulaic: Each week offering a new song that's various percentages of Chicago drill, Atlanta weirdo and Drake. What better time for a Renaissance of the maligned, unpredictable early Aughts world of "backpack rap," a haven of technical, adventurous, abstract, envelope-pushing iconoclasts.
Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid is the best album in more than a decade from the Joycean motormouth. The simile chiseler keeps his cluttered data-dump style, but loosens his grip on the opaque symbolism. For that existential fix, check out Homeboy Sandman's Kindness for Weakness. The Queens rapper speaks in brilliant, funky koans like: "I give thanks/The glass isn't half empty or half full, it's all drink." And "My ball of wax is made of wax so it change shapes."
Equally enamored with the abstract and beautiful is Yoni & Geti's Testarossa, a collaboration between role-playing rapper Serengeti and the junk-shop poet formerly known as Why? Its story is supposed to be fractured tale of a garage rock musician hopping from Rotterdam to Florida to Madrid who misses his kids, but good luck following the narrative. The album instead finds its life in the details — phonebooths in the rain and drinking gin from a jar — all adding up to a sound that's beautiful and sad. And speaking of dashed dreams, indie-rap curmudgeon J-Zone is back with Fish-N-Grits, a quirky, hilarious album full of takedowns that devours the hopes of any "rap squeegie man" trying to hock their CD in Times Square.
The year's bleeding edge lies in the loosely grouped, barely connected islands of "noise rap," with Death Grips' Bottomless Pit possibly the ugliest release from the free-shouting, glitch-punk trio. On album number five, the elusive group explodes with rhythms that hearken back to the crossover punk and thrash metal of mid-Eighties California. But texturally and lyrically, Bottomless Pit is boiling with the digital chaos, paranoia and tension of Internet-era info overload: "All I do is lose my form, I'm warping." Dälek, who were already combining industrial-tinged noise with political boom-and-pound back in the late Nineties, returned from a hiatus with Asphalt for Eden, a harsh, droning album that turns Black Lives Matter anger into the sounds of shoegaze bullhorns, air sirens and tanks. Clipping's Wriggle EP appeared just days after lead rapper Daveed Diggs won a Tony Award for his dual roles in the acclaimed Hamilton. But Wriggle belongs in the seedier places a few blocks West of Broadway, the group tinkering with samples from power electronics perv Whitehouse, making musique concrete with 15 real guns and performing Twista-style chop raps that splatter through the S&M themes of the noise-tape style artwork.
The giddy, purple-tinted, careeningly melodic sound of modern Atlanta rap has dominated the narrative for years now, and 2016 sees the ATL loosening its grip only slightly. Most of its big stars are staying the course with solid, reliable releases. After three critically acclaimed mixtapes seemingly recorded in a purple haze Future's EVOL returns the breakout rapper to the punishing beats and joyful exclamations of his first two studio albums. Young Thug's Slime Season 3 is another short, sweet, servicable collection of his leaked tracks to hold fans over in that nearly two year gap between "Lifestyle" and his debut album. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne's Collegrove sees the Atlanta pun enthusiast at his most lyrical as the New Orleans label head pushes him into a world of internal rhymes. And Migos' YRN 2 breaks little new ground productionwise, but tracks like menacing "Commando" sound like they're still pushing their trademark flow to technical heights.
And speaking of lyrical heights, good ol' New York punchline rap is one of the least fashionable styles going, but the wildly popular, wildly cool, wildly wild Flatbush Zombies might change that with 3001: A Laced Odyssey. Their skills are straight from the Fat Beats era, but their swagger is from the Odd Future update. The combination is currently unstoppable. Meyhem Lauren's Piatta D'oro can scratch that Akinyele itch for X-rated raps and tongue-twisted flows. Though Cupcakke's Shelters to Deltas (S.T.D.), the second album from the Chicago pottymouth, is filthy and funny enough to make sure Blowfly's legacy will live on for years after his death earlier this year: "Brought my friend to the room he all up on us/'Cause we licking dick like Ariana lick the donuts."
One of the best rap albums of the year — new or reissue or otherwise — is J Dilla's The Diary, his lost major label LP. Originally intended for release in 2002, it shows the pioneering producer in between his era as Common hitmaker and his era as art-rap Picasso. With production assists from Madlib, Pete Rock and Bink!, it's off-beat mean-mug rap that still sounds unique despite a generation of producers attempting their own versions of his raw angles.
Another pioneer, Egyptian Lover, freaked minds on the West with his early Eighties electro. The sound was cold, but the lyrics were hot, letting Prince's dirty mind drive Cybotron's cosmic cars. His sound pretty much defined L.A. hip-hop in the pre-N.W.A days, and his mechanical grooves predated Miami bass, the blipping pop-hop of Black Eyed Peas' The End and the electric pulse of Kanye West's Graduation. Stones Throw's Egyptian Lover anthology 1983-1988 brings some historical focus back via two CDs or four slabs of vinyl.
Going way back, the Soul Jazz archival release Boombox 1: Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro and Disco Rap 1979-82 brings together two discs of essentials and rarities. Old-school rap aficionados will likely already be familiar with well-anthologized offerings from Willie Wood & Willie Wood Crew, Spoonie Gee with the Treacherous Three and Super 3. But the rarities by performers with only one 12-inch to their name are a the real draw: Neil B's delirious flow, Black Bird & Kevski's free-form story-telling and Craig Boyd, Long Island's own "Disco Cop," a dancing traffic cop who would soon find fame in Burger King commercials.