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.
For 20 years, Yo Gotti has been a reliable presence in Southern hip-hop, using his story as a preteen slinging in crime-ridden North Memphis to claim the chitlin circuit as his. In a year of Instagram stories, however, came solid proof that the reigning King of Memphis contains multitudes. The Art of Hustle deftly balances sounds of the old and new American South – from earnest, down-home odes to Elvis Presley's adoptive home ("My City" featuring K. Michelle), to stick-up anthems fit for strip-club speakers. Moreover, Yo Gotti charms with all the ways he lets his guard down, whether to the aunties who raised him or, as in surprise hit "Down in the DM," reality star Angela Simmons. C.L.
Since arriving alongside Chance the Rapper a few years back, Vic Mensa has never stuck with a single stylistic mode. He collaborated with EDM superstars Flume and Skrillex, toured with pop music's favorite bad boy Justin Bieber and, this year, he pivoted again with the near alt-rock radicalism of There's Alot Going On. Cribbing a title from Sly and the Family Stone, Mensa as protest performer is his most natural state: "Sixteen Shots," notably, addresses the heightened tensions of the black community and the police, and "Shades of Blue" recounts the persistent water issues that faced Flint, Michigan. Emotions run high in these seven songs, the title title track seeing Mensa turn inwards, flashing back to moments contemplating suicide and reexamining his early career success. D.T.
We call them "viral crazes," but these gloriously stark funk bites are just the new "Land of a Thousand Dances." We call them "memes," but it's just American folk tradition blasted through the ADD velocity of cyberspace, all playing like modern reboots of the Isley Brothers' 1962 "Nobody But Me": Nobody can do the dab like I do, nobody can do the stanky leg like I do. This streaming-only collection gathers the soundtrack to the last few years of viral Vine and YouTubes, literally beginning with the sound of confused old people (see the intro to of Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall's year-dominating "Juju on That Beat"). Songs like Silentó's, "Watch Me," M-City J.R.'s "Addicted to my Ex" and iLoveMemphis' "Lean and Dab" capture the minimalism of mid-Aughties crunk, snap and ringtone rap – often biting it wholesale. Little more than beats that sound good through cell phone speakers (D-Jay the Dance King's "Aspect Sploosh" already sounds like it's playing through some) these raps, chants and dance cues gather the magic of pop without the tyranny of "verse chorus verse." Import it into your own playlist and add Rae Sremmurd's "Black Beatles." C.W.
Part Lil Wayne collaboration, part Lil Wayne tribute, Collegrove sees both 2 Chainz and Weezy at their most nimble and technically bonkers. The rappers combined the names of their places of origin – New Orleans neighborhood Hollygrove and College Park, Georgia – and honor their roots throughout, fusing the sounds of the Southern cities as Chainz pays his respects to Wayne's continuous influence on hip-hop and his own career. "If it wasn't for Wayne, it wouldn't be/A lot of dudes in the game, including me" he raps on opening track "Dedication," a song named for Wayne's acclaimed mixtape series. Later, the pair go rhyme-for-rhyme on the energetic "Bounce" and 2 Chainz shines on the solo hit "Watch Out" above an infectious piano riff. B.S.
No matter the year, De La Soul are going to blaze their own trail. Their eighth album, and first in 11 years, still sounds like no other rap music going, looping a live band like samples into realms of blippy krautrock, art-punk, broken Dilla funk and muted grooves. What hasn't changed is their unique gift for off-kilter imagery: "Last long three-man act to wake up your thermostat/Blind to the property line/Creative minds cross over and back/Scribble with a knife to earn that slice of life," says Posdnous though a vocoder in "Property of Spitkicker.com." C.W.
Not nearly as ubiquitous as Drake or as acclaimed as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole is rap's ostensible underdog. "Ostensible," because he's able to move millions of albums and sell out shows at Madison Square Garden despite his dark-horse positioning. Though Cole is often maligned by critics and Twitter's peanut gallery, he's also loved by legions of IRL fans who see earnestness where his detractors see sanctimony. On his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole pulls off the unlikely feat of satisfying those fans while quieting critics who are wary of his penchant for regrettable punchlines and moralism. The album tells the tragic story of Cole's childhood friend, a young man whose stint as a drug dealer ultimately lead to his murder. Not some one-dimensional street tale, Cole humanizes the protagonist by presenting him as nuanced man, not a stereotype. The friend struggles for survival ("Immortal"), finds love ("She Mine, Pt. 1") and becomes a doting father ("She Mine, Pt. 2"), all the while wrestling with his own conscience and plotting his exit from street life ("Foldin Clothes," "4 Your Eyez Only"). But this album is more than a 10-track eulogy: It's a well-executed meditation on love, loss, fatherhood and being black in America. Good reason to root for the underdog. T.A.
Common, whose talent for composing understated gems makes him a perpetually overlooked G.O.A.T. candidate, is at his best when he's as serious as cancer. Black America Again arrives during a year when his usual intensity seems timely. It may have not yielded much radio support – programmers didn't know what to do with its main single, "Love Star," just like they underplayed its 2000 predecessor in neo-soul romance, "The Light." But his call to arms on "Black America Again" resonates, as does his claim, "We need Avas, Ta-Nehisis and Cory Bookers/The salt of Earth to get us off of sugar/And greasy foods." "The Day the Women Took Over" is a fantasy about "Michelle, Oprah and Rosa/The mayor of Chi is Liz Dozier." "Joy and Peace" is a lyrical fever dream; "Pyramids" is a throwback to the Afrocentric attitudes of golden-age rap. The boom-bap classicism of Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper's production holds him down. So does the knowledge that, as he explains on "Letter to the Free," he's still standing despite the fact that, "We staring in the face of hate again/The same hate they say will make America great again." M.R.
After a stellar 2015 where his debut album Summertime '06 dominated critics' lists, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples dropped this vigorous, smart, seven-track EP. His rhymes are fiercer and his beats are larger and more brooding, providing a booming stopgap from a star that may only continue to rise. On standouts like "Loco" featuring Kilo Kish, he fills a robotic, staccato beat with warmth; dominates on the Nineties-ish "Pimp Hand"; and plays with high-velocity melody on the James Blake-produced "War Ready." B.S.
In mere days, Bronx native A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie went from a local sensation to seeing songs he uploads to Soundcloud cross the million-listen mark. TBA, a brief six-song EP, distills his appeal into a tight 20 minutes. Here, the rapper operates in two modes: the melodic pop of So Far Gone-era Drake ("Ransom") and tender-hearted near-R&B love songs ("Baecation"). His open, tell-all emotional state gives TBA a strong backbone that other hook-heavy rappers tend to lack. On "Timeless" he raps, "If I ever said I loved you/I was lying … 'cause I could never put nothing over grinding." Fans, however, will definitely want to believe his romantic side. D.T.
"If you knew what I'd seen, you'd be traumatized," Chicago Chance-associate Joey Purp raps on "Morning Sex." The beat underneath him, however, communicates no fear: It's shiny and jubilant, built around a brassy sample from early Seventies soul group Phoenix Express. Purp relies on this strategy, juxtaposing gleaming horn loops with his harrowing tales of life in the Windy City. When there's no brass, he's in a different mood – take "Winners Circle," one of iiiDrops' most assertive moments. Here Purp plants his flag: "Take a little Biggie and a little Big L/Add an adolescent on the corner with packs to sell/You take a little Em and Andre 3k, and guess what you got/The 2016 2Pac." E.L.
The second of three short, sharp solo mixtapes Young Thug released in 2016 showcased the rapper's fertile, ongoing partnership with London on Da Track, the producer who helped craft Thug hits like "Lifestyle" and "Check." London contributed half the beats here: He tends to set up a few piano notes, add some prickly drums and then clear out. That works well for Thug, as the steadfast beats contrast with his mercurial delivery. On Slime Season 3, the rapper is feeling celebratory, whether he's stacking cash ("Digits") or head-over-heels in love ("Worth It"). "I feel like Marilyn Manson," Thug declares on the tape's closer, "Problem," "and I want a fucking Grammy." The Grammy committee ignored his request, but consumers are listening: This download-and-stream-only tape hit Number One on Billboard's Rap Albums chart. E.L.
Who else in 2016 gets a verse from the reclusive Andre 3000, while finding space for 21 Savage, Blac Youngsta, Bryson Tiller, Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd? Even with his impressive Rolodex, Travis Scott remains the center of his album, telling late night tales of L.A. drugs and parties. He seems to feel no pressure to replicate the success of last year's surprise pop hit "Antidote," instead Birds buries deeper into ominous apocalyptic trap. Scott invites Kid Cudi to sing the hook of "Through the Late Night" then still interpolates his "Day N Night," basically wearing the T-shirt to the show, a meta-moment of that almost reads like he's flaunting the criticism that he bites from his heroes. The Texas native may listen to his critics, but even that won't stop Travis from being Travis. D.T.
Even among hip-hop heads, Oakland's Koran Streets remains obscure. His hometown knows him as an actor, having appeared in the small, critically respected cult films Licks and Kicks. From his modest metrics, he hasn't connected with much of an online audience either. Yet You.Know.I.Got.It (The Album) – his debut after a string of similarly named mixtapes – is one of 2016's most consistent, affecting releases, an argument for vibrant hip-hop at the commercial and critical margins. The source of the album's power is Koran Streets' disarmingly direct style, one with no wasted motion. He's seldom one for wordplay or showy poetic devices; the most memorable image on the album comes from guest rapper K.I. ("Countin' money, 40 on me while I'm on the shitter"). Yet there's a sincere desperation throughout that gives it both a human spark and a targeted, specific realism. D.D.
Shy Glizzy burst on the scene in 2012 after heated beef with Fat Trel and Chief Keef, quickly becoming one of his D.C. hometown's best hopes. The single "Awwsome" found some traction and "Funeral" became a fan favorite, yet 2016's Young Jefe 2 felt like a substantial level-up. From the hypnotic "New Crack" to the haunted "Rounds," it's a project that deepens the colors of his emotional palette, a step up in sophistication. His music remains as pugnacious and disrespectful as ever, but his cleverness ("Every time they think they turned up, we gon' put that shit on mute") is underlined by ditching the spiky, aggressive sounds of his earlier work for an atmospheric nuance that feels both inviting and frigidly vivid. D.D.
If a Wes Anderson movie could be transmuted into a rap album, it might sound something like this. Open Mike Eagle gives us small but odd details – "Woke up without a hangover/That burrito worked," he says offhandedly on "Dang Is Invincible." It all accumulates into neurotic numbers like "Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)," where he bemoans how crowds at his shows are afraid to talk to him ("'cause I'm a black man"), and self-explanatory songs like "Dive Bar Support Group" and "Insecurity." U.K. producer Paul White – who has had a breakout year, thanks to his work on Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition – counters the rapper's self-deprecatory vibe with sounds that range from the chirpy and whimsical ("I Went Outside Today") to mock-blues ("A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night"). The result is both funny and heart-rending, as if Max Fischer of Rushmore had somehow grown into a successful L.A. indie rapper, podcaster and serio-comic personality. M.R.
Daniel Son; Necklace Don is one of several audacious projects 2 Chainz released this year, as proof that he no longer has to yell his name in every verse to announce himself. He relishes in every detail of his come-up from College Park, Georgia – from how he went from picking up litter in juvie to filling up his mansion as if it was Noah's Ark, how Waffle House meals changed to Southside teppanyaki weddings. Moreover, he reintroduces himself as a trap-rap veteran to be reckoned with, though without the self-serious attitude that legacy artists typically inhabit. If anything, Daniel Son finds him giggling over his good fortune, while flaunting the deft lyricism and R-rated Benny Hill sense of humor that is now his calling card: "Mr. Miyagi/I like my pussy real soggy." C.L.
Swet Shop Boys are two South Asian rappers dealing with Islamophobia in a Western world, despite their global profiles. Himanshu Suri (Das Racist) and Riz Ahmed (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) combat casual and not-so-casual racism in a few ways: Via producer Redinho, they reclaim the Bollywood samples that hip-hop has used in the past for flavor, as if to re-imagine if "Big Pimpin'" featured an Indian-American and a British-Pakistani instead. But they also demonstrate how the genre has lent a voice to the underserved globally. Swet Shop Boys commiserate in having few role models who actually looked like them (Tupac, Andre 3000 and Marcus Garvey get name-checked), though with the wry humor that comes with lived experience. "I'm so fly, bitch," Heems repeats, "but I'm on the no-fly list." C.L.
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., 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.