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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.

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. 

Amine, 'Good for You'
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Aminé, ‘Good for You’

What happens when you score a major hit single and then fulfill the promise of that hit with a quality debut album, only to watch everyone ignore it because they just want to play the hit over and over again? This was largely the case with Aminé’s debut Good for You, which failed to equal the chart success of his utterly charming single “Caroline.” And though he goofed that he wanted to “get gory like a Tarantino movie” on “Caroline,” the young Portland MC spent much of the album adding insightful context to his immigrant story. He makes frequent note of his heritage, boasting on “Sundays” that “I’m not loud, I’m Ethiopian rowdy.” On “Turf,” he yearns to escape the torpor of his hometown, where “the po-po up in P.O./Dirtier than B.O.” Most of all, amid backing vocals from Uncle Charlie Wilson and cameos from Migos’ Offset and Ty Dolla Sign, Amine presents himself as a “yellow mellow fellow” making the tumultuous transition into manhood, often cynical but still romantically inclined. “I don’t know when I’m going to die,” he and indie-pop duo Girlpool harmonize on “Beach Boy.” “I won’t trip if it’s meant to be.” M.R.

21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin, 'Without Warning'
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21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin, ‘Without Warning’

This sharp, succinct surprise release from 21 Savage, Migos member Offset and super-producer Metro Boomin accomplishes many things at once: It further establishes Offset’s solo identity as a rugged, ad-libbing motormouth worth his feature fee; it’s a chance for 21 Savage to flash his West Indian lilt (“Ghostface Killers”); and it adds another impressive line to Metro Boomin’s increasingly untouchable resume – which includes production credits on more Top 40 hits than any other producer in 2017. There’s a pleasing push-and-pull between the two MCs here – Offset raps faster than ever on “Ric Flair Drip,” happily stuffing verses with syllables, while 21 Savage goes in the opposite direction, from laconic to nearly comatose on “Still Serving.” “Yeah, life is The Matrix,” Offset concludes. “Be rich or be broke and be basic.” E.L.

12. Wiki, 'No Mountains in Manhattan'
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Wiki, ‘No Mountains in Manhattan’

Wearing his New York City lineage proudly – could the stump speechifying of “Mayor” be any more Dipset? – Patrick “Wiki” Morales paints a striking portrait of the City. Highlighted by “yerrrs,” bodegas and a Hudson River backdrop, Wiki’s multi-syllabic rhymes and fidgety flows stand center stage. His words topple over each other, filtered through a pinched hustler’s voice. Soulful, melodic cadences embellish the songs, but it’s the relationship and addiction woes, plus being in a state of constant motion without actually going anywhere, that give the album its enthralling sprawl. Even in his anguish and disorientation, Wiki a is charismatic guide and his skyscraper mountains glow gorgeously even when they’re closing in. The manic, off-kilter sound of his previous trio Ratking may have been ahead of its time, but with No Mountains in Manattan, Wiki is the right voice for a bewildered year. B.Y.

Quelle Chris, 'Being You Is Great, I Should Be You More Often'
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Quelle Chris, ‘Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often’

Detroit’s Quelle Chris oscillates between goofy and reflective, self-affirming and self-doubting on his wonderfully titled sixth studio LP. Chris produced nearly half the record with a sure hand, incorporating pleasant loops of old records (“Dumb for Brains”), pensive neo-soul (“Calm Before”) and brassy swing (“The Dreamer in the Den of Wolves”). With those kinds of backdrops, it’s not surprising that various New York underground hip-hop stalwarts – Roc Marciano, Jean Grae, Homeboy Sandman – show up to deliver sharp-witted guests verses. Chris remains a slippery presence throughout, rapping in unpredictable cadences and unusual tones. Nowhere is he more charming than on “Buddies,” which plays like a supremely cooled-out, wildly ambivalent hip-hop sequel to James Brown’s “Super Bad.” “Might bring myself some flowers,” Chris declares. “I’m in love with myself.” E.L.

Roc Marciano, 'Rosebudd's Revenge'
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Roc Marciano, ‘Rosebudd’s Revenge’

With 2010’s subgenre-spawning Marcberg, Roc Marciano stumbled on a formula for making New York street rap fresh for the 21st century: Raw beat loops, cleverly embellished crime tales, chin-stroking rumination and chest-out bravado delivered with serene cool and dry wit. On Rosebudd’s Revenge, he sublimely refines that formula. Musically, Marciano samples moody soul, psych-rock and jazz (minus additional drum programming) to create his glinting, underworld ambience. Lyrically, he writes himself into the pages of a modern-day Donald Goines novel. The character he inhabits is part pimp (“Already”), part drug lord and part international playboy. On “Better Know,” he calmly muses: “Hopped out the foreign/They thought I was Warren Buffett/From here on, it’s all or nothin’/If I fall off, I turn on the oven/If you trippin’, drop a few long on the luggage/Nigga, you ball on a budget/I ain’t nothin’ to be fucked with.” T.A.

J.I.D., 'The Never Story'
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J.I.D, ‘The Never Story’

The Never Story is the most promising album to come from the roster of young rappers on J. Cole’s Dreamville Records label. J.I.D has a limber, alluringly raspy voice, the courage to not submerge his vocals beneath bunker-busting production, and the smarts to keep this album to a svelte 40 minutes. The 27-year-old Atlantan largely ignores the style of production that dominates his city’s hip-hop scene at the moment, reaching back instead to older sounds: live basslines, snapping drums and Rhodes-like keyboard sounds. The exception is “Never,” a nasty, buzzing Childish Major-produced outlier which deserved to be a ubiquitous radio hit. Halfway through the track, though, the beat suddenly morphs into something closer to mid-1990s New York boom-bap. “Down comes the boogie and up jumps the funk,” J.I.D raps. “This beat takin’ a beating, I hand out the lumps.” E.L.

8. Playboi Carti, 'Playboi Carti'
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Playboi Carti, ‘Playboi Carti’

Perhaps the most improbable achievement of the most unexpectedly great rap project of the year is that even old heads who moaned about “mumble rappers” seemed to like it. Yes, that was Jay-Z in the video for Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia,” his brief non-vocal cameo serving as a cosign for Carti and producer Pi’erre Bourne’s rhythmic masterwork. The Atlanta rapper’s debut mixtape (since re-released by Interscope) offers more gems (“Other Shit,” “Wokeuplikethis”) that underline his talent for turning trap chants and vocal cues into post-millennial funk. The record has an ephemeral quality – Carti rarely sounds like he’s grasping for words that match or fit a theme, which is an essential part of the improvisational magic. “This is not pop, this some rock, aye,” he says on “Half & Half,” repeating the phrase three times. Then, “Came in that bitch with the Glock, yeah,” repeating that three times. Who knows why it sounds brilliant? M.R.

7. Residente, 'Residente'
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Residente, ‘Residente’

Whatever Calle 13 fans expected of their conscious rap hero Residente, it probably wasn’t this self-titled debut. Residente is a statement of global solidarity, co-starring a madcap assortment of collaborators from 10 different parts of the world, to which the Puerto Rican icon traced back his DNA from a saliva test. Each song is its own new genre, assembled from regional sounds: The Latin Grammy-winning “Somos Anormales” draws hip-hop from Central Asian Tuvan throat singing; featuring French it-girl SoKo, “Desencuentro” is a transatlantic chanson. “I wasn’t trying to make a world-music album, but you know,” Residente told Rolling Stone. “The radio right now, I’m in shock, everyone sounds the same. It’s like junk food. You need to eat better, otherwise [you’re] going to die a slow, cultural death.” S.E.

6. Open Mike Eagle, 'Brick Body Kids Still Daydream'
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Open Mike Eagle, ‘Brick Body Kids Still Daydream’

Part journalist, part fiction writer, part diarist, Open Mike Eagle is in a league of his own with an easy, effortless flow. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream pays tribute to a housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes, which existed on Chicago’s South Side until it was demolished in 2007. While the building is itself an important part of the story, it is the tale of a kid and his wild imagination that reaches far past the concrete into the surreal. B.S.

Vince Staples, 'Big Fish Theory'
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Vince Staples, ‘Big Fish Theory’

If Vince Staples’ album title suggested a life of fish-bowl containment and observation, his music outlined a break-out strategy. The Long Beach rapper drew on house, electro and U.K. garage for a shifting set of thumpers more fitting for a festival dance tent than a Rap Caviar playlist. “Yeah Right” critiqued hip-hop’s material fixations from the inside out, with a verse from Kendrick Lamar to “twilight the zeitgeist” and production from EDM experimentalists Sophie and Flume. “SAMO” nodded at Jean-Michel Basquiat, while Staples flexed his cold-bloodedness, and Sophie demonstrated how trap could be an even more skeletal terror trip. Big Fish Theory was a throwback to hip-hop’s heyday, when the only rules were for breaking. J.L.

Drake, ‘More Life’
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Drake, ‘More Life’

Part grime-experiment, part-trop house rendezvous, Drake explored a “playlist” with his expansive, blissfully voyeuristic More Life. On this 22-song project, we see many of Drake’s sides: the piña colada-sipping partier shines on “Passionfruit,” the nostalgic heartbreak kid emerges on “Teenage Fever” and the boastful jetsetter traps on “Gyalchester.” A variety of friends – old and new, local and global – shine with solo interludes and features, including Giggs, Skepta, Young Thug, Partynextdoor, Sampha, Jorja Smith, and even Kanye West, who made one of his very few musical appearances on the sweet, simple standout “Glow.” Following the gaudiness of last year’s Views and 2015’s back-to-back chart-topping mixtapes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Lateand What a Time to Be Alive, hearing Drake take a step back makes this project a no-frills victory lap. B.S.

Jay-Z, '4:44'
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Jay-Z, ‘4:44’

As young, self-examining artists like Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTentacion ushered in hip-hop’s emo stage, a 47-year-old multi-millionaire dropped the year’s best self-lacerating Bugatti-dashboard confessional. Utilizing rap’s unique ability to convey deep and vivid truths, Jay confronts his own failings, excoriating himself as an unfaithful husband (“4:44”) and egocentric public figure (“Kill Jay Z”). With multiple samples from Sixties firebrand Nina Simone and a chopped-up flip of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Jay and producer No I.D. ease into an explicitly conscious tack as well, giving his own wealth – and the one his daughter will inherit – a political importance. C.W.

Migos, 'Culture'
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Migos, ‘Culture’

As trap has become pop’s lingua franca, no one can better celebrate the triumph than Migos. The smoked-out slow roll of their music connects studio maximalism with the D.I.Y. instantaneity of iPhone and YouTube auteurs. Anyone can do it, but no one else can do it like this. The sound-effect hooks come from keyboards and their own mouths, each bwah, skrrrt, brrrup signifying their ability to transform nothing into something, and back again, in a blink. Their flows changed up moment to moment, presenting an authority at once casual and complete, and working pop music’s greatest trick: turning the transitory into the eternal. J.L.

Kendrick Lamar, 'Damn'
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Kendrick Lamar, ‘Damn.’

Rap’s most powerful voice at the absolute top of his game, with nothing left to prove but his staying power. Where 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and 2016’s Untitled Unmastered exploded rap formally with disparate flows, kaleidoscopic Flying Lotus beats and Afro-delic Kamasi Washington jazz-funk jams, Damn. shows how dazzling the man can be simply spitting verses. On “Feel,” he unloads his head over a trippy Sounwave slow jam, going roughly 50 lines without break on one stretch, a virtuoso synaptic display echoed across the set. Lamar’s political conscience hasn’t flagged, but he’s more about self-examination here. On the fearless “Fear,” one of his deepest moments, he chronicles a lifetime of anxieties and cites his “fear of losin’ creativity.” It’s a sentiment easy to relate to – but based on the evidence, one imagines he’s got little to worry about. W.H.

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