Home Music Music Lists

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.

Cupcakke, 'Cum Cake'
23

Cupcakke, ‘Cum Cake’

Nineteen-year-old Cupcakke blew through the doors in late 2015 with a single called "Deepthroat," a refreshing burst of bawdy color. Lewd and unapologetic, her persona recalls the in-your-face provocation of hip-hop's Blowfly roots, a 2016 Too $hort whose clever lyrics are as shocking in their unpredictable originality as they are for their up-front sexuality. She's already released two follow-up projects this year – S.T.D., then Audacious – each a further refinement of the persona she pioneered here. But her first time out the gate felt a lifetime in the making, a well-rounded, fully fledged career template that easily proved she's no novelty. From the stark, sophisticated portrait of a failing relationship "Exceptions" to the brutal "Kash Doll Diss" to the shimmering optimism of "Darling," Cum Cake is a portrait of an artist with a strong grasp of both human nature and fellatio jokes. D.D.

D.R.A.M., 'Big Baby D.R.A.M.'
22

D.R.A.M., ‘Big Baby D.R.A.M.’

D.R.A.M., the ebullient voice behind 2015's "Cha Cha" and 2016's bubblegum-trap hit "Broccoli" is well aware that it's not what you say, but how you say it. On his debut LP, the Virginia native talks as greasily about flirtation, seduction and sex as any of his hip-hop contemporaries do, but unlike them, his dirty talk is sung and rapped through an audible smile. "You said that you aaare celibate well, let's celebrate the first time youuuu get this pipe," he sings in a jovial timbre on "In a Minute." More than a rap Cheshire Cat, D.R.A.M. is a modern romantic concerned with love, lust and the technology that mediates them. On "Cute" he flirts with an Instagram crush; on the slow jam "WiFi" he duets with Erykah Badu, using a wireless Internet connection as a metaphor for human connection; and on "Password" he's the cheating lover whose infidelity is discovered when his girl gets into his phone. He's a man as conflicted as any other, he just says it with a smile. T.A.

Lil Uzi Vert, 'The Perfect Luv Tape'
21

Lil Uzi Vert, ‘The Perfect LUV Tape’

North Philadelphia native Lil Uzi Vert, comes from a different universe than the gritty true-life crime narratives of local heroes like Meek Mill or Beanie Sigel: The preferred topics of the 22-year-old rapper are Goyard bags, how much he loves his girlfriend and thumbing his nose at haters. He dropped three mixtapes in 2016, but The Perfect LUV perfectly encapsulated his reckless, gleeful abandon. Lil Uzi Vert's name was inspired by his lightning-fast rapping style, and "Original Uzi (4 of Us)" and "Money Mitch" proved that even if he's just focused on the size of his bank account; he performs with an agile graciousness. D.T.

Tink, Winter's Diary 4
20

Tink, ‘Winter’s Diary 4’

After building a significant fanbase for bars and ballads in her Chicago hometown during the boom years of 2011 to 2013, Tink was quickly pushed through the hype cycle by the press – and by Timbaland, who contended she was Aaliyah's rightful heir. Then, when all eyes were on her, she released songs so out of step with the current moment that it virtually stopped her career in its tracks. Just as the spotlight shifted away, Tink dropped the first project worthy of her multivalent talents with Winter's Diary 4. Confessional yet confident, WD4 is cohesive in sound but comes to life in its careful compositions, and the particulars of Tink's exceptionally tight writing. It's a world-building exercise, a full-length sales pitch for Tink as a versatile, compelling star whose work fans can live with for the long haul. D.D.

Ka, 'Honor Killed the Samurai'
19

Ka, ‘Honor Killed the Samurai’

Kaseem Ryan's whisper of a voice is one of the most indelible instruments in rap today. It's remarkable how this one-time Nineties underground rap also-ran turned into a fire chief who makes critically acclaimed albums in his spare time, reducing his rough Brooklyn accent to a quiet murmur as if he were practicing tai chi on a sandy beach. With Honor Killed the Samurai, he continues to reinvigorate New York boom-bap into something more compelling than hidebound tradition. He crafts his beats from Seventies jazz and prog-rock obscurities, and wraps them in vocal cues from samurai movies, resulting in an eerie, foreboding sound that underlines street symphonies like "Mourn at Night," and contradicts meditations on his rejuvenated career like "$." The music is so placid that every verse stands out. But when it gets loud on the harsh synthesized maelstrom of "Ours," he sounds like a hardened O.G. holding court on a wet Brownsville block, no matter how hard it rains. M.R.

21 Savage & Metro Boomin, 'Savage Mode'
18

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.