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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.

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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.

Kevin Gates, 'Islah'
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Kevin Gates, ‘Islah’

As melodic warblers have taken over hip-hop's mainstream, Kevin Gates' instrument has only become more idiosyncratic – his voice full of stern gravitas, stand-at-attention authority and classically technical bars. Judging from the success of his debut studio album – the only non-Drake LP to go Platinum this year – rap fans are clearly craving his distinctive sound. On this brawny, unhurried record, he navigates smutty pileups – "Kno One" and "Jam" (featuring an indelible hook from Trey Songz on the album's deluxe edition) – and the violent, sobering reality of the world around him: "Told Me" is one long, claustrophobic gasp for air. Gates appears to be having the most fun when he composes paeans to his own work ethic, like "Thought I Heard (Bread Winners' Anthem)" and "2 Phones," which slowly but surely climbed into the Top 20, embodying the persistence of someone who's been dropping a mixtape a year for practically a decade. E.L.

Noname, 'Telefone'
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Noname, ‘Telefone’

With the quiet yet assured Telefone, Noname created a safe haven of a debut. She invites in everyone: a crush, people reeling by all the deaths of black children and teenagers, women who choose to have an abortion without judgment. Like pal Chance the Rapper, she offers affirmations by way of Kanye West, who is still a beacon of hope in her native Chicago. But with her sun-dappled, neo-soul memories of bumping B2K in the backseat, Noname also seems worlds away from the rock star lifestyle 'Ye now espouses. Her past as a poet is easily detectable, though she lays down her intricate, kindhearted verses so gently that, more than anything, Telefone sounds like Noname confiding in us. We should be so lucky. C.L.

YG, 'Still Brazy'
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YG, ‘Still Brazy’

YG's greatest strength is his directness. The Compton native doesn't cloak his message in metaphor and he is not given to elaborate wordplay. He is, however, great at getting his point across. "Fuck Donald Trump" isn't a very sophisticated or nuanced critique and it doesn't need to be – it's still popular music's most anthemic and galvanizing statement of dissent in 2016. YG's "call it like I see it" approach and a sound steeped in the funk- and synthesizer-slap traditions of Southern California are the defining characteristics of his sophomore album, Still Brazy. On "The Police Get Away With Murder" YG rails against racist law enforcement, on "Black & Brown" he and Chicano rapper Sad Boy Loko bridge the gap between their communities, and on "Gimme Got Shot" he makes it clear that envy could be hazardous to one's health. But for all the chest-puffing, YG still admits to feeling the sting of betrayal ("Who Shot Me") and the weight of paranoia ("Still Brazy"). The serviceable MC who gave us the happy-go-lucky "Toot It and Boot It" in 2010 has evolved into the type of gangsta rapper who can deliver both the personal and the political without breaking character or having it feel contrived. Ice Cube would be proud. T.A.

Death Grips, 'Bottomless Pit'
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Death Grips, ‘Bottomless Pit’

It's remarkable to think that noise-rappers Death Grips once seemed as unstable as radioactivity: battling record labels, canceling shows and presumptively announcing their breakup via napkin in 2014. Two years later, the Sacramento trio has evolved into a dependably provocative unit that operates at the nexus of punk rock, live electronics and barking energy raps. Fifth album Bottomless Pit offers further refinement: "Giving Bad People Good Ideas" rattles like an old industrial banger, "Hot Head" applies breakcore dynamics like smeared lipstick and "Warping" stutters on a toy piano melody. Then there's MC Stefan Burnett, an animated and muscular presence who splits the difference between DMX and Henry Rollins, and whose vocal performance goes beyond mere war chants. When he quietly shrugs "Eh" over Andy Morin and Zach Hill's whirligig rhythm, he sounds just as devastating as when he's bellowing "My death is money" on "Ring a Bell." M.R.

Future, 'Evol'
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Future, ‘Evol’

On his fourth album, we get a concentrated version of the dark Future we met on 2014's Beast Mode mixtape. He is bitter and he is petty. He is into money and designer clothes ("Ain't No Time"), numbing drugs ("Xanny Family"), sex and "stick talk," but overall he is unapologetic: "I been on the molly and them Xans with your daughter/If she catch me cheating, I will never tell her sorry," he sings in his signature croak on "Low Life," his double-platinum scumbag duet with the Weeknd. And though Future's gift for catchy hooks make him a prime candidate for mainstream superstardom, his fun isn't the good, clean kind. Future's revelry is infused with intoxication, lust, pain and aggression. He's too blues to be straight-up pop, but that doesn't matter because he's still the hero of the trap. T.A.

Drake, 'Views'
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Drake, ‘Views’

Every release from Drake is a love letter to his hometown of Toronto, but Views rises above as a true ode to the city's diversity and its lasting impact on the artist he is today. Borrowing from the Canadian city's deep ties to Afro-Caribbean culture led to his biggest hit to date – the Number One single "One Dance" – and standout moments like the equally breezy single "Controlla." Still, even though he won't always admit it, he's still the Drake from five years ago and his signature relationship-centric self-deprecation pulses through quotable tracks like "Child's Play" while his ego and paranoia duel it out like the rap beefs he knows well. B.S.

A Tribe Called Quest, 'We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service'
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A Tribe Called Quest, ‘We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’

A Tribe Called Quest's final album is a wistful mix of nostalgia for their golden-age past, and an inspired protest at a difficult present and future. They talk with amusing grumpiness with André 3000 about the millennial generation on "Kids," and a flicker of the Rotary Connection melody used in their classic love jam "Bonita Applebum" percolates through "Enough!!" Produced by Q-Tip (with help from guitarist and engineer Blair Wells), it sounds starkly different from Tribe's canonical Nineties output. It often has a strange and otherworldly minimalism typified by "We the People" and "Conrad Tokyo," which find Q-Tip punching out harsh keyboard notes; and "Black Spasmodic," which features a grungy, rickety dancehall loop reminiscent of Kanye West's irreverent patchwork The Life of Pablo. The vibe is looking backward and thinking forward, whether it's protesting how people of color and the LGBT community are marginalized or worrying that the world is facing an uncertain apocalypse on "Conrad Tokyo." It's also a fitting sendoff for the late Phife Dawg, who sounds magnificent here, certifying his reputation as an influential hip-hop great. M.R.

Danny Brown, 'Atrocity Exhibition'
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Danny Brown, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’

Every fan of off-kilter Detroit rapper Danny Brown knows that he chronicles the highs and lows of chemical and sexual indulgence. But if 2011's XXX was a Xanax fantasy turned sour, and 2013's Old was an electric Molly candyland, then Atrocity Exhibition is a merciless, dizzying tweaker fest. "I'm sweating like I'm in a rave," he begins on "Downward Spiral" and only gets more debauched from there. The blues-rock beat for "Rolling Stone" offers him cold comfort as he loses his brain and goes insane, while the dusty soul loop of "Lost" underscores the grungy tedium of a dealer getting high on his own supply. But it's the Adderall shake of producer Paul White's "Ain't It Funny," "Golddust" and "When It Rain" that really drives Brown's exploration of his frazzled mind, and makes Atrocity Exhibition a thrillingly uncomfortable exercise in self-flagellation. M.R.

Young Thug, 'Jeffery'
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Young Thug, ‘Jeffery’

Anyone who claims that Young Thug is an incoherent "mumble rapper" isn't listening hard enough. The heavily tattooed Atlanta iconoclast has a vocabulary that expands the terrain of getting high, having sex, copping cash and doing dirt. "Pop a molly now I'm in the fucking air/Cloud nine, nigga smokin' like a fucking bear," he raps on "Floyd Mayweather." He has an inimitable voice – no one else sounds like him – and a sharp sense of rhythm that allows him to flip easily from the electronic trap bounce of "Future Swag" to the plodding bass charge of "Harambe." As usual, Young Thug splayed his talents over too many releases in 2016, and it remains unclear if he'll ever fulfill his fans' expectations that he's the new Lil Wayne, his sometime-influence, sometime-enemy. But Jeffrey is an undeniable highlight, from deserved hit "Pick Up the Phone" with Quavo and Travis Scott, to the cover art of the rapper in a purple dress, a minor but important crack in mainstream rap's glass house of heteronormativity. M.R.

Kanye West, 'The Life of Pablo'
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Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’

Yes, Kanye West's seventh album was his messiest, his least focused and his first not to spawn a Top 20 single. Some its best moments were 44-second a capellas ("I Love Kanye") or amazing cameos (Chance the Rapper on "Ultralight Beam") or basically just DJing a Chicago house classic ("Fade"). But as the latest statement from the world's most deft curator, the album dominated so many other mediums. It was fashion (his Cali Thornhill Dewitt "I feel like Pablo" T-shirts caused lines into the thousands at pop-up stores); it was film (his gorgeous clip for "Fade" will likely break 24-year-old director Eli Russell Linnetz); it was technology (his constant work-in-progress tweaking changed what an "album" is) and it eventually became politics (he's shaken hands with our president-elect before many world leaders). West pops a wheelie on the zeitgeist time and time again, and we can only eat his dust. C.W.

Chance the Rapper, 'Coloring Book'
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Chance the Rapper, ‘Coloring Book’

The year's finest hip-hop album had a vision as radiant as its pink-sky cover art. Chance the Rapper's third mixtape combines radical politics and heavenly uplift to create life-affirming music that refuses to shy away from harsh realities. He uses the optimistic, joyful sounds of gospel choirs to soundtrack his hopes, fears and blessings, giving practically everything a spiritual hue: "I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom," he raps on "Blessings." The album explodes with enthusiasm, as Chance embraces both the convoluted microphone mathematics of the old-school and the unpredictable melodic twists of the new. An electric dispatch from Chicago, Chance's infectious sing-song weaves together his faith, a city in crisis, his new daughter and the unique struggle of being the world's most famous unsigned musician: "If one more label try to stop me, it's gon' be some dreadhead niggas in your lobby," he raps with the giddiness of someone who's already the victor. C.W.

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