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.

This Is a Challenge Various Artists

Various Artists, ‘This Is a Challenge’

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.

2 Chainz & Lil Wayne, 'Collegrove'

2 Chainz, ‘Collegrove’

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.

De La Soul, 'And the Anonymous Nobody'

De La Soul, ‘And the Anonymous Nobody’

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.

J. Cole, '4 Your Eyez Only'

J. Cole, ‘4 Your Eyez Only’

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, 'Black America Again'

Common, ‘Black America Again’

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.

Vince Staples, 'Prima Donna'

Vince Staples, ‘Prima Donna’ EP

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.

A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, 'TBA'

A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, ‘TBA’ EP

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.

Joey Purp, 'iiiDrops'

Joey Purp, ‘iiiDrops’

"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.

Young Thug, 'Slime Season 3'

Young Thug, ‘Slime Season 3’

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.

Travis Scott, 'Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight'

Travis Scott, ‘Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight’

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.

You.Know.I.Got.It (The Album) Koran Streets

Koran Streets, ‘You.Know.I.Got.It (The Album)’

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, 'Young Jefe 2'

Shy Glizzy, ‘Young Jefe 2’

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.

Open Mike Eagle, 'Hella Personal Film Festival'

Open Mike Eagle + Paul White, ‘Hella Personal Film Festival’

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.

2 Chainz, 'Daniel Son Necklace Don'

2 Chainz, ‘Daniel Son; Necklace Don’

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, 'Cashmere'

Swet Shop Boys, ‘Cashmere’

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.

Cupcakke, 'Cum Cake'

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.'

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'

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

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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