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40 Best Rap Albums of 2016

Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Danny Brown and more in the year in rhymes

40 Best Rap Albums

Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and Danny Brown made some of the best rap albums of 2016.

Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic/Getty, Tim Mosenfelder/Getty (2)

The year in rap featured gospel-tinged dispatches from Chicago, new melodies from the South, introspective gangsta music from the West and the return of two legends of New York's Native Tongues posse. Here's the best albums and mixtapes from a year where MCs shouted down the chaos or partied in spite of it.

21 Savage & Metro Boomin, 'Savage Mode'
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21 Savage & Metro Boomin, ‘Savage Mode’

On Savage Mode, producer Metro Boomin strips away the fun and whimsy that's come to define much of trap music in the post-Migos world. His empty and brittle framework is highlighted by up-and-coming star 21 Savage, whose rapping style rarely moves beyond a low growl; and, with the exception of love song "Feel It," never shows remorse or regret for the crimes he commits on record. "Nihilistic" is an easy worldview to assign to hip-hop music that sees little hope in the world or in one's circumstances, but few artists reach Savage's level of joylessness. When he raps "That AK-47 turn that smile into a frown" on "Mad High," it comes off not as boast or brag, but as a simple fact. D.T.

Kamaiyah, 'A Good Night in the Ghetto'
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Kamaiyah, ‘A Good Night in the Ghetto’

On her precise and poised debut mixtape, Oakland's Kamaiyah moves easily between the sounds of her native Bay Area, classic G-funk and the electro boogie that came out before she was born. Rapping over beats full of fat bass, wet synths, and tinny, classic-sounding drum machines, she's a calm, unflappable rapper, springy and declarative, whether savoring her new levels of success ("How Does It Feel"), partying until dawn ("Ain't Goin' Home Tonight") or playing the field ("Niggas"). Song after song accomplishes everything it needs to within three minutes, small, ebullient get-togethers that show remarkable power in their concision. E.L.

Kendrick Lamar, 'Untitled Unmastered'
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Kendrick Lamar, ‘Untitled Unmastered’

This addendum to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is the best rap demo collection since Nas' The Lost Tapes. It's as ambitious and orchestral as that 2015 insta-classic, but its lack of finishing touches – some of the tracks like "Untitled 07" burble with tape hiss and studio chatter – results in an appealingly loose feel. There are some surprises, like when Lamar's voice suddenly gives way to Jay Rock on "Untitled 05," or when CeeLo Green begins to croon on "Untitled 06." "Untitled 08," a G-funk throwback co-produced by Thundercat and Mono/Poly that's alternately known as "Blue Faces," would have been a fantastic B-side to "King Kunta" if Lamar had issued the latter as a 45 rpm single. Still, inclusion on this superior epilogue to one of the best albums of the decade is more than enough. M.R.

Kodak Black, 'Lil B.I.G. Pac'
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Kodak Black, ‘Lil B.I.G. Pac’

Early on in his career, South Florida rapper Kodak Black was compared to the bluesy expressiveness of Lil Boosie, but on breakthrough mixtape Lil B.I.G. Pac, his verses took on casually slick flourishes, evidence that he was a writer's writer, pursuing his own original, artful vision. Sonically, Lil B.I.G. Pac explored a diverse range of sounds, from the cabana-funk of "Today," to the heartfelt ballad "Too Many Years" with PNB Rock, to the coiled, menacing energy of "Vibin in this Bih" with a newly-freed Gucci Mane. A promise of a serious musical future were his own future not in jeopardy: Kodak's currently been accused of rape and will soon face a protracted legal battle. D.D.

Rae Sremmurd, 'SremmLife 2'
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Rae Sremmurd, ‘SremmLife 2’

On last year's debut, duo Rae Sremmurd bucked the blues and rock & roll tradition of their native Tupelo, Mississippi to go Kidz Bop apeshit by way of adoptive home Atlanta. Its more memorable, stranger sequel is a college party soundtrack via The Twilight Zone. "By Chance" has Swae Lee speaking like some British butler as he searches for a weed connect. The spooky "Do Yoga" finds the duo in a rare moment in child's pose, even though their call to stretch is a euphemism. Even crunk anthems featuring vets Juicy J ("Shake It Fast") and Lil Jon ("Set the Roof") have an air of menace to them. By comparison, surprise viral-turned-radio hit "Black Beatles" – shoegaze without sacrificing swag – actually feels like some reality check. C.L.

Schoolboy Q, 'Blank Face LP'
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Schoolboy Q, ‘Blank Face LP’

Blank Face LP finds Schoolboy Q reconciling the varied and opposing roles he's played in his 20-something years of life: broke gangbanger and rich rap star, drug addict and dope dealer, proud father and fuck-up. Q wears all of these labels without shame. Standout "John Muir," named for the middle school he attended, takes us back to Q's early days in the set: "I was 13 with my motherfuckin' heat, y'all!" He reminisces in gritty detail about his initiation into gang life only to have a bright, hopeful chorus break up the verses: "We love, we go/We rise, we glow/Our pride, we show." He balances all of "Groovy Tony"'s banging on wax with a more sober look at the lifestyle on "Black Thoughts": "Let's put our brains away from gangs/Crips and Bloods the old and new slaves." This is the kind of juxtaposition that Q specializes in, and the reason he'll never be your typical gangsta rapper. T.A.

Saba, 'Bucket List Project'
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Saba, ‘Bucket List Project’

Saba successfully mashes of-the-moment hip-hop and atmospheric, live-band funk textures on his fourth mixtape. The rapper/producer from Chicago's West Side, best known for his guest verse on Chance the Rapper's "Angels," pulls a slew of artists into his orbit, stacking the tape with features – including a typically motormouth appearance from local vet Twista – and rich hooks sung by multiple voices in harmony. Saba shows formal ambitions here as well, gluing songs together with recordings of collaborators revealing what they hope to achieve before they die. These lists of future goals – Chance wants to learn to play the drums; Jean Deaux wants to smoke weed with Beyoncé – provide both moments of levity and an emboldening sense of purpose. E.L.