Best Rap Albums of 2016 So Far
Thus far, 2016 looks like the first year that the center of the rap universe might not be New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta.
The two most celebrated, critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of the year both came from Chicago rappers. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book was the climax of a four-year rise for the streaming-and-mixtape-only grassroots hero. He used the opportunity to create a completely new strain of hip-hop, informed by beaming gospel choirs which, as we wrote, are “rocketing skyward in the background the same way soul samples did on Kanye records, James Brown breaks did on Public Enemy records or disco interpolations did in the Sugar Hill catalog.” His vision is personal and local and spiritual, as his voice careens in melodic anguish and his words tumble in brilliant clusters.
Similarly, parts of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo were informed by gospel music, but the messy, ever-updating 20-track album is more like a variety show and music blog cobbled together by rap’s most gifted curator. Inside, you get the first Frank Ocean performance in three years, a huge chunk of Desiigner’s Number One hit “Panda,” the year’s best Chance verse, the Weeknd, Kirk Franklin, El DeBarge, a Numero Group reissue, a Factory Records art-punk rarity and a gospel choir. The best Kanye performance is a spoken word track.
The shooting death of 17-year-old Chicagoan Laquan McDonald looms largest for Vic Mensa, who, on his EP There’s Alot Going On, counters Black Lives Matter sentiment like Kendrick Lamar’s “We’re gonna be all right” with old-fashioned fuck-the-police boil-over: “Ready for the war, we got our boots strapped/100 deep on State Street, where the troops at?” On “Shades of Blue,” he details the Detroit water crisis using the sad, synthy avant-blues that propels Future, but for bigger picture issues (“Now you’ve got toddlers drinking toxic waste/While the people responsible still ain’t caught no case”). The title track is the traditional recap of a burgeoning rapper’s career, but the twist is that it’s deathly personal: Adderall, depression, drunken fights with his girlfriend, amphetamines, jealousy, ecstasy, writer’s block and suicidal thoughts. Chance crewmate Joey Purp’s iiiDrops is more street-level, with album centerpiece “Cornerstore” delivering a litany of vivid expressions of struggle — talking to his brother on the prison phone, finding a gun while looking for his remote control car charger, paying college tuition by flipping drugs, and condominiums gentrifying the neighborhood.
Of course, Drake’s Views and Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered are the two “surprise” releases that hip-hop fans will stream with the same fervor as West and Chance. But both will likely end up slightly underheralded for being quality continuations of an existing formula: Drake adding some slightly polyglot tastes to his woozy emo woes-and-“woes” sing-song; Kendrick following the ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly with some sketches and B-sides raided from the archives.