40 Best Rap Albums of 2016 - Rolling Stone
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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.

Tink, Winter's Diary 4

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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.

Kevin Gates, 'Islah'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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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