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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.

Lil Uzi Vert, 'The Perfect Luv Tape'
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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
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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'
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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'
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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.