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.
From her vivid spray of hair and platform boots to her hyper-energetic, rascally sweetness, Rico Nasty is a technicolor character like the cartoons she loves and references. Her two projects in 2017, Tales of Tacobella and Sugar Trap 2, are full of irreverent humor balanced by a never-too-cute earnestness. It’s Sugar Trap 2 that leaves you completely convinced of her talents, though, as she takes the winning bubblegum eccentricity of Lil Yachty (who jumped on the remix of her single “Hey Arnold”) and builds a wave all her own that flashes a variety of moods and attitudes. At times, Sugar Trap 2 sounds like you’re inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – everything seems made out of candy and the vocals are coated in Auto-Tune. Yet there are also hints of sinister grime in the margins. Above all, Rico raps with a very human-sounding charm and every facet of the production bursts with life. I.D.
Mike Will Made It reached new career pinnacles on either side of Ransom 2‘s release: When Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” (on his Interscope imprint EarDrummers) hit Number One at the end of 2016, it gave the producer his first ever Hot 100 chart-topper; just months later, he accomplished the feat again with Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” But let’s not overlook the producer’s dream-team mixtape just because it didn’t spawn a global hit. “Gucci on My,” featuring 21 Savage and YG, is squealing, minimal and riveting; the otherworldly “Aries (YuGo)” was one of Pharrell’s most vital moments on record this year. And few producers have the clout to organize a hip-hop summit like “Perfect Pint”; even fewer have the nerve or savvy to integrate Kendrick Lamar’s technical expertise, Gucci Mane’s slurry drawls and Swae Lee’s falsetto warbles on a woozy, synth-dappled ballad. “Ah, man,” Lamar proclaims, “Mike Will Made It!” E.L.
Hailing from a lineage of Memphis bad men who unapologetically celebrate thug life, Dolph efficiently bludgeons his tracks with a deep, inflexible, matter-of-fact voice that suggests unimpeachable hardness and an imposing power base. In 2017, he released three mixtapes/albums, plus a full-length collaboration with Bay Area rapper Berner, but Gelato trumps the rest due to pairings with Migos (over Zaytoven’s cascading keyboards on “Drop It Off”) and Lil Yachty (on TM88-produced single “Bagg”), plus bangers like “Run It Up.” It also concludes with “Play Wit Yo Bitch,” where Dolph takes aim at Memphis street king Yo Gotti, who he believes inspired a series of violent incidents that culminated in Dolph being shot in September. M.R.
Meek Mill‘s third major-label album opens with motivational speaker Eric Thomas declaring that, when it comes to dreams, you have to “see it when no one else sees it … feel it when it’s not tangible.” It’s an apt message for a particularly bleak chapter of Meek’s life – he was released from house arrest in 2016, he broke up with Nicki Minaj in January of 2017 and now he’s locked up again due to a disputed probation violation.
Unsurprisingly, Wins and Losses brims with psychic pain, brightened only by tiny bits of pride that he’s achieved a certain level of fame and financial security. “Fuck That Check Up” and “Ball Player” bang hard, but can’t erase the dark reality contained in cold-eyed tracks like “Heavy Heart,” “Young Black America” or “We Ball.” Meek remains haunted by his past and this recent controversial incarceration – he was arrested, then cleared, yet still went to jail for violating parole – smacks his fans in the face with the harsh truth that maybe Meek’s lyrical paranoia is justified. It’s a unique album, uneasily freighted with dread. After chasing and reaching his rap dream, Meek realizes that success can’t save him. It might be his most important statement yet. B.Y.
After years of cultivated yet deserved hype built off promising mixtapes and EPs, a florid personality, notable political activism and a Jay-Z co-sign, Vic Mensa arrives with his ambitiously named major-label debut, featuring an extensive, varied roster of friends and influences, including Weezer, Syd, Pharrell, Chief Keef, The-Dream, Saul Williams and executive producer/Kanye whisperer No ID. Following in the path of Chance the Rapper, the MC wants to uplift damn near everybody – his Chicago home, family, label (Roc Nation), etc. – but with a told-you-so edge (“Tootin’ my own horn like Coltrane”). Rapping, singing, chanting and emoting like a punk-rock striver, Mensa creates strikingly detailed big-screen confessionals over beats that synthesize his past explorations with trap, rap-rock, EDM and pop. The result is a winningly conscious free-for-all, with the would-be star sincerely sprawling toward his truth. B.S.
Rap Album Two is a major leap forward for Jonwayne, a Los Angeles beat scene veteran who has long insisted his lyrical talents are equivalent to his top-shelf production skills. But it took bottoming out and going to rehab to add a deeper honesty and meaning to his clever cipher raps. In haunting, spiritual terms, he discusses his emergence from an alcoholic abyss. With introspective, deadpan approach, he gives tracks like “Human Condition” and “City Lights” a melancholic yearning. He pushes aside an ex-friend on “Paper” with hurtful gibes; even jokey moments like “Live from the Fuck You” have a cutting quality. In short, Rap Album Two is the work of a “man who has traveled through these sands in the hourglass.” And while Jonwayne’s seriousness can be suffocating, it feels necessary to understand his working class hip-hop struggle. M.R.
There’s been a deluge of Nineties Los Angeles gangsta-rap revivalism in recent years, but gang life isn’t a nostalgia-driven, one-dimensional meme. Here, 03 Greedo breaks out with his unpretentious, unfiltered perspective on the subject over 30 remarkably consistent tracks. His sheer versatility is unmatched by most rappers and his personality is smartly reflected not just in his stylistic choices, but in every expressive, quotidian lyrical detail. Greedo’s unique ability is how what he believes, what he does, who he is and how he chooses to express himself feel inseparable, each magnifying the other. Whether crooning, rapping, writing hooks, passionately storytelling, joking or sending a message to his daughter – as on the moving highlight “Mei Mei” – 03 Greedo’s work is fingerprint-distinct. D.D.
Seven years ago, when Odd Future mania first swept the Internet, we were collectively transfixed by the crew’s gravel-voiced ringleader, Tyler, the Creator. In the years since, Odd Future has disbanded and its members and affiliates have evolved into some of pop music’s most important artists (see: Frank Ocean, Syd, Vince Staples). Tyler has evolved too; he’s released three increasingly mature albums which have shown him growing as a man and a musician. But Flower Boy is the first true testament to his talent. Sonically and thematically, it’s Tyler at his best – as a producer, composer, arranger and songwriter – and at his most sincere. “They said the loudest in the room is weak/That’s what they assume, but I disagree/I say the loudest in the room is probably the loneliest in the room,” he raps on the two-part stunner, “911/Mr. Lonely,” which poignantly asserts the album’s recurring theme: the price of success is isolation. He laments absent friends on “Boredom” and longs for a romantic partner on “See You Again,” but ironically, Flower Boy reaches great heights because it’s such a group effort. Tyler enlists Steve Lacy, Rex Orange County, Anna of the North, Corinne Bailey Rae, Frank Ocean and Estelle, using the array of voices to add texture to already lush instrumental arrangements. T.A.
An earnestly personal bedroom-pop album about the death of a grandparent is not exactly the type of project that grabs attention in the hip-hop world. But We Think We Alone is assembled with such gentle brilliance that its appeal is universally undeniable. Deem Spencer sings and raps, murmurs and mumbles, with a slight, breathily likable style, recording quietly as if trying to avoid disturbing anyone. The lo-fi production often scrapes and distorts, but Spencer’s intuitive knack for textures and his off-handed sense of songcraft, especially melodically, allows the loose flotsam of recording to cohere into an album that’s far greater than the sum of its parts. We Think We Alone makes an impression – Mos Def’s “Umi Says” comes to mind, at times – with its singular, unassuming grace. D.D.
On Mozzy’s second album of 2017, the self-proclaimed Sacramento gangsta rapper reflects, in compelling detail and with palpable intensity, on the trials he’s endured to get here. The residue of loss is splattered all across 1 Up Top Ahk, as he grieves loved ones, menaces those who still pose a threat and flaunts the fearlessness with which he moves through the world. While today’s most visible underground rappers generally employ trap production for crossover-friendly familiarity, Mozzy spits his picaresque stories – full of brutal truths and traumas suffered – within the deep spaciousness of classic West Coast production. He commands the platform with an easy authority. His gruff, insistent voice heightens the lyrics’ gravity, pulling you into the narrative as he shines a light on societal blindspots and tells the stories of those who can’t speak for themselves. As a result, Mozzy makes 1 Up Top Ahk feel urgently necessary. B.Y.
Neither employing a typewriter-staccato Migos flow nor the slurred mumble rap of Lil Yachty, Tay-K’s immediately refreshing “The Race” burst through YouTube this summer. The California-born, Dallas-based MC, with his clear tone and precisely enunciated cadence shows the Chicago influence of Young Pappy more than Chief Keef (though he also shouts out Eazy-E). Bluntly assertive and charismatic, Tay’s music is as electric as his story is tragic: He was charged with murder during a 2016 home invasion and made the video for “The Race” while he was on the run from police. No doubt his alleged crimes helped his career acquire a certain notoriety, but Tay-K is no gangster cipher. Based on #SantanaWorld, he has an uncommonly gripping delivery and gift of gab, from the rude-and-lewd, onomatopoeiac chorus of “Murder She Wrote” to the uncut thump of “I <3 My Choppa” to the somber menace of “Mega Man.” D.D.
Atlanta’s 21 Savage burst on the scene a couple of years ago as a sexy sociopath with a syrup-y drawl, playing out deadpan horror-movie scenes over intoxicatingly spooky low-end beats from go-to producer Metro Boomin. His debut major-label album cracks the shades on his sound, welcoming non-ATL producers (DJ Mustard, Jake One, “Magnolia” mastermind Pi’erre Bourne), but remains grim and trimmed of excess. “Dead People,” a taut collaboration between Jake One and Southside, has a minimal boom that’s both mechanical and warm, as 21 muses cleverly over the losses and gains he’s experienced via the title’s multiple meanings. Thematically, he’s still issuing non-stop threats, but now it’s to defend his money or newly notorious name, and at times, his voice bounces with newfound verve (“Famous,” “Numb,” “Bad Business”). But the definitive step forward is smash single “Bank Account,” produced with a bare-bones delicacy by 21 himself, and featuring one of the year’s most infectious choruses, comparing his millions to the number of shooters he’s got protecting him. B.S.
When Tennessee MCs Don Trip and Starlito dropped their acclaimed first Step Brothers mixtape in 2011, it was assumed to be a one-off, just two major-label refugees trading bars and boundless personality. Their second installment in 2013 was just as captivating, emphasizing the duo’s pensive side – “Caesar and Brutus,” a cinematic tale of betrayal, was an underground hit. Step Brothers Three bridges the best of both worlds. On “Yeah 5x” and “Boomshakalaka,” the synergy between their two distinctive voices – Starlito’s got a deeper drawl, Trip a nasal rasp – is otherworldly, seemingly anticipating each other in an infinite call-and-response. A complex sort of duality rules their world: sometimes it’s hero-villain, but mostly they’re two sides of the same troubled coin, drawing parallel lines of ups and downs. The honesty is palpable, and they challenge each other to go deeper, to dig further and leave it all on the track. Don Trip sums up their relationship: “All I know is the truth, and I pour it all in my lines/Looking for more of my kind, Lito was all I could find.” B.Y.
Though Kodak Black is certainly problematic – the 20-year-old Florida rapper has pleaded no contest to arrests for robbery and battery, and he’s been indicted this year on charges of sexual assault against a teenage girl – he’s also a talent with a hit single and a compelling album. Painting Pictures is a wild ride through the contradictory psyche of a self-destructive young man who is experienced beyond his years. Whether he’s talking about the power dynamics of street life (“U Ain’t Never”) or making a vulnerable romantic plea (“Save You”), Kodak’s passion always comes with a dash of poison. On “Side Nigga” he is the other man, begging for a commitment from an older woman who won’t leave her boyfriend. But it’s on his biggest hit, “Tunnel Vision” (which went to Number Six on the Hot 100), that Kodak’s dilemma gets its most powerful depiction. As he raps, hums and spits in a circular, sing-song flow over somber Chilean guitar and pan flute, you feel the toxic mix of paranoia, expectation and disappointment swirling in his mind. T.A.
All Future projects – there were two others in addition to this self-titled collection in 2017 – are fueled by the same basic elements: Hard-nosed beats from Metro Boomin, Zaytoven and assorted members of 808 Mafia, plus a stream of triumphant, brusque, relentlessly hooky vocals. But here Future steps out of his comfort zone in several ways. He ends “Zoom” with a hilarious skit seemingly aimed at young rappers stealing Future’s style – an unusual moment of levity from an artist whose favorite tone is somberly stoned.
On the streaming version of the album, he teams up with YG for “Extra Luv,” which points toward the dancefloor. And on “Mask Off,” the rapper discards his usual battering-ram trap approach for a beat that samples Tommy Butler’s flute-trill-heavy “Prison Song.” Future‘s sequel Hndrxx featured radio catnip like “Selfish” with Rihanna, but it was “Mask Off” that gave the rapper the biggest hit of his career. E.L.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.