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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.

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.