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40 Best Rap Albums of 2017

Migos, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and more of the year in rhymes

40 Best Rap Albums of 2017

Quavo of Migos, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar

Hip-hop was the success story of 2017, the streaming model providing new levels of speed and access to music that always thrived as dispatches from someone’s here and now. Yes, this meant Jay-Z was able to work in a joke about Al Sharpton’s selfies on an album released weeks later, but it also means Future, 21 Savage and Trippie Redd can flood the market with their latest ideas. Stars were made on SoundCloud, Drake called his 22-track release a “playlist,” Run the Jewels dropped their album via streaming (in 2016!) before their retail release date, and Kendrick Lamar provided a new way to hear his double platinum album by re-releasing it with the track list backwards.

25. Big K.R.I.T., '4eva Is a Mighty Long Time'
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Big K.R.I.T., ‘4eva Is a Mighty Long Time’

Mississippi’s ever-reliable Big K.R.I.T. has been this decade’s most brilliant artist when it comes to keeping the flame alive for what Pimp C called “country rap” – the Southern-accented, bass-blasted dispatches of groups like U.G.K., Eightball & MJG and Outkast. His third album enters his Stankonia stage, complete with a heady conceptual framework and an exploding, lush musical palette. The first disc plays like a master’s degree in Southern rap with help from some of the greats: A manic rhyme from T.I. (“Big Bank”), a huge bass display from Cash Money’s Mannie Fresh (“Subenstein [My Sub IV]”) and a slow-riding, wah-wah-ing track that teams the Organized Noise production team with Bun B (“Ride Wit Me”). The second disc ­– under his birth name Justin Scott – paints with soul, gospel and jazz, with acclaimed trumpeter Keyon Harrold adding bluesy solos on “Drinking Sessions” while Scott raps about label woes, racism, insecurity and the limits of fame and money, saying he “can’t control these tears, I mean after all these years/I’m still the kid writin’ poems, too shy to eat in the cafeteria.” C.W.

24. 2 Chainz, 'Pretty Girls Like Trap Music'
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2 Chainz, ‘Pretty Girls Like Trap Music’

Pretty Girls Like Trap Music features an especially impressive first half, in which 2 Chainz collects a series of spare beats (which leave plenty of space for his peerless voice), and teams up with a roster of guests for a quick, emphatic showcase of his latest booming couplets. He cracks windows on the triumphant “4 AM,” a thumping collaboration with Travis Scott; he and producer Mike Will Made It suggest a new sub-genre – wind chimes trap – on “Poor Fool,” featuring Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee; and he sneaks slinky funk back onto the radio via “It’s a Vibe,” which is buoyed by the inclusion of Ty Dolla Sign and Jhené Aiko. “Got a vibe, make a young chick turn her neck/Make a cougar wanna spend a check,” raps Chainz, being all things to all people. The last half gets darker, both sonically and lyrically, but 2 Chainz’ unflappable attitude never wavers, even on “OG Kush Diet,” where he raps: “My partner just died, my partner just died/Ain’t nothin’ to do but get high.” E.L.

Sahbabii, 'S.A.N.D.A.S.'
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SahBabii, ‘S.A.N.D.A.S.’

SahBabii (an Atlanta transplant from Chicago) may echo Young Thug, but he clearly possesses a giddy gift for integrating that influence into his own bright-eyed, delicately constructed singles (“Pull Up Wit a Stick,” “Marsupial Superstars”), hence this Warner Bros. remastering and release of his 2016 mixtape. “I like the melodies to sound like you’re kissing Cupid,” SahBabii has said, which on S.A.N.D.A.S. means trap-related songs with a skip in their step, blithely dipping past existential, druggy burdens or the relentless shadow of violence. His ad-libs trill and yawp and squawk like a kid imitating the animals on a school zoo trip; when he sings, it’s just as casual, like he’s simply singing along with the radio. I.D.

22. Run the Jewels, 'Run the Jewels 3'
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Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 3’

The shocking ascent of Donald Trump gave Run the Jewels 3 more resonance than the duo’s more generalized anger at electoral corruption across the political spectrum. And as a result, they dropped the album on December 24th, 2016, weeks earlier than its January 2017 retail date – and before Trump’s inauguration provoked days of protest across the country. It kicks off with “Down,” with Killer Mike and El-P trying to assuage their despairing audience: “I know a few people prayed for my demise, y’all/But like cream, I had to rise, I had to rise y’all,” Mike sings alongside Atlanta neo-soul pioneer Joi. The track sets a reflective tone that doesn’t lift, even as the twosome continues to run raps over throttling Blade Runner beats, trade verses with Danny Brown and Trina, and generally talk shit with a sharp insurrectionist bent. The final cut is appropriately titled, “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” on which Mike snarls defiantly, “You take the devil for God, look how he doing you/I’m Jack Johnson, I’ll beat a slave catcher snaggle-toothed.” M.R.

Rapsody, 'Laila's Wisdom'
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Rapsody, ‘Laila’s Wisdom’

On this soulfully assured magnum opus, veteran North Carolina MC Rapsody paints a picture of black womanhood that’s rarely seen and even more rarely celebrated. On “Nobody,” she raps with impeccable candor, dexterity and self-possession: “It’s all hip hop, you can’t divide what ain’t different/Don’t like all underground and I don’t hate all music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Waka Flocka last Christmas.” She’s not here for validation, just to express every side of herself, while championing strength through humanity and grace under pressure. “Black and Ugly” is a testament to self-love in a society where women are seen long before they’re heard and “Jesus Coming” examines death through the eyes of casualties of wars overseas and in our own backyards. Because Rapsody’s so comfortable with herself, she forces listeners to face their own emotional reactions. A concept album baked in maternal love, Laila’s Wisdom benefits from beats by longtime collaborators 9th Wonder and the Soul Council production team. But make no mistake, this is her show. B.Y.

Trippie Redd, 'A Love Letter to You'
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Trippie Redd, ‘A Love Letter to You’

Though he’s a SoundCloud rapper full of childlike flamboyance and ephemeral wordless intonations, 18-year-old Trippie Redd is no simple caricature of Lil Uzi Vert. His debut full-length, A Love Letter to You, comes at you from all angles with raw vulnerability. And in capturing, with compelling immediacy, the diaristic sentimentality, unhinged desire and self-absorbed pain of a young adult male, it stands with some of the best emo albums of the 1990s and 2000s. For instance, “Deeply Scarred,” featuring Atlanta’s UnoTheActivist, is a tortured ballad about overcoming bitter heartbreak; yet it’s also full of life and surprising compassion (“You been scarred too deep, I can tell”) even as it indulges petulant outbursts (“I ain’t worried about you, bitch, no!”). Trippie is so vibrantly self-assured that Love Letter feels like he’s just randomly dropping his deepest thoughts into somebody else’s well-produced project. He may never equal this thrilling shot in the dark, but the fact that he doesn’t seem to care is why this record is possible in the first place. I.D.

Goldlink, 'At What Cost'
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Goldlink, ‘At What Cost’

GoldLink’s album-length love letter to his native DMV (the Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia area) is more than a chronicle of good times. Sure, the album’s first two singles – the Kaytranada-produced and Jazmine Sullivan-assisted “Meditation” and his platinum hit “Crew” – set lusty escapades to house- and go-go-inflected beats. In part, it is about neighborhood girls (“Herside Story”) and dance-floor chants (“Hands on Your Knees”), but upon deeper inspection, the project is a lot more than saucy flirting over smoothly thumping “future bounce” production. Pain, tragedy and the specter of violence co-exist alongside the woo and jubilation. It’s why the bright synths and bass bump of “Meditation” give way to gunshots, and Link warns, “I don’t shoot or fight fair,” on “We Will Never Die.” To paint a complete picture of black life in the DMV, GoldLink uses a palette that includes bright, subdued and dark colors alike, giving listeners an array of real-life drama with sunny pop appeal. T.A.

Smino, 'Blkswn'
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Smino, ‘Blkswn’

A young rapper with such obvious talent and starpower, Smino’s idiosyncratic debut album boldly diverges from any current dominant aesthetics. Alongside the spare, clanking, found-sound funk of producer Monte Booker, the St. Louis rapper disguises clever lyrical turns in acrobatic chains of syllables, delivered with an unpredictable swing. The secret ingredient is R&B, built into the melodic DNA of Blkswn, as on the bouncy woo of “Netflix & Dusse” or the dreamlike he-said-she-said of “Glass Flows,” featuring nimble Zero Fatigue crew member Ravyn Lenae. If there’s any analogue, it might be the pioneering approach of Kelis, who was able to give her eccentricities a pop-chart appeal through R&B’s populist songcraft. D.D.

Cupcakke, 'Queen Elizabitch'
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Cupcakke, ‘Queen Elizabitch’

Cupcakke remains one of hip-hop’s most exciting talents, an artist whose bawdy, unapologetic attitude belies a subtle gift for quotable wordplay and songs with urgent themes that resonate deeply. Queen Elizabitch, her latest, is a refinement of past accomplishments, taking some evident steps towards a more pop sound, with the post-tropical swing of “Biggie Smalls” and the Nineties house echoes of “CPR.” Yet the bulk of the album is plain-spoken, highly skilled rap music with a sharpening grasp of her craft: “I bet her pussy drier than a phone in rice,” she jokes on “Barcodes.” But shock-humor doesn’t define Cupcakke; “Tarzan,” which was enthusiastically embraced by Cardi B upon its release, is aggressive, somber street rap, evidence of the depth of her talent and further proof that she can rap circles around her peers. D.D.

Lil Uzi Vert, 'Luv Is Rage 2'
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Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Luv Is Rage 2’

Lil Uzi Vert was one of hip-hop’s reigning meme subjects of 2017 and, remarkably, his music is just as fun, silly, sassy and unwieldy. On Luv Is Rage 2, he smashes his obsessions into a magnetic, lyrically verbose persona that comes off like a bouncy, chipper Looney Tune with a Tumblr page. No matter the producer – Maaly Raw, Pierre Bourne or Metro Boomin – he challenges them to keep up with his dynamic energy; and indeed, the production here is the best of his career; completely gassed-up and bright. But nothing can outshine Uzi, who flips from fun club tracks to singing to shouting to goofy sound effects with no respite. Completely unflappable and effortlessly glamorous, it’s hard to imagine another rapper who could absently scream, “LEONARDO DICAPRIO” with such melodic flair. Luv Is Rage 2 also has its moments of heartbreak and reflection, but you’d never know it from Uzi’s voice. He’s having the time of his life. I.D.

Future, 'Hndrxx'
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Future, ‘Hndrxx’

With Future’s back-to-back album roll-out, the Atlanta rap star tried to balance his seductively lovestruck and despairingly drugged-up personas. While the self-titled first release was more familiar and harder-hitting with a few attempts at levity, Hndrxx is the sound of Future fully emerging from his man cave, showing nuance and growth, being more selective with beats and crafting a batch of songs that might be the most accessible of his career. He raps with finesse and fire-marshall friskiness amid ghostly ambience (“Damage”), sings with an open-hearted wail (“Use Me,” “Incredible”) and unveils pop-shiny gems (“Comin’ on Strong” feat. the Weeknd, “Fresh Air”). Then he really goes for it in grandly self-aware-superstar mode, lavishing us with an irresistible apology tour – “Selfish” feat. Rihanna, “Solo” and “Sorry” – that nails the landing of Hndrxx‘s slyly sincere balancing act. B.S.