What a year for hip-hop music. In the era of strategically planned sneak attack release dates and a growing number of conceptual albums that lack single spin permeability, it should not be surprising that we are dropping this list after the year actually came to a close. Consider that Childish Gambino, Gucci Mane, Kid Cudi, J. Cole, Dom Kennedy, Roy Wood$, Ab-Soul, Post Malone and many others dropped albums in just the closing weeks of December. Remember that the prophetic Killer Mike and El-P haymaker of a collaboration didn’t let go of their trilogy completing Run The Jewels 3 until Christmas Eve. Beyond that, dozens and dozens of other attention-worthy projects came across our desks this year, making it seem more and more like we may have had to rush this out to keep up with the pacing of the music churn around us. Yet we understand these published time capsules of our personal selections are important in the present, both to us and to you, so as a result we syphoned through hundreds of hours of dope music this year and attempted to whittle them down to our personal top five albums of the year.
1. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
With Kendrick Lamar leading TDE, it looks like Isaiah Rashad finally took the much-needed step towards becoming a household name within hip-hop. The Sun’s Tirade is filled with a mixture of “boom bap” inspired instrumentals, with a subtle mix of today’s flare. Definitely excited to see what 2017 brings for Isaiah Rashad.
2. Frank Ocean – Blond(e)
After waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, Frank Ocean finally delivered his long-awaited album Blonde. Jam packed with top-notch lyricism, Frank Ocean’s approach with Blonde was nothing short than a masterpiece. Hopefully he surprises us with another one in 2017.
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
I know this is a cliche pick, but as a Kanye West stan I was extremely happy with this album. Chance the Rapper kicked off the album with possibly the best intro in modern hip-hop, and Kanye West once again proved that he’s the single greatest executive producer of all time. I still miss the old Kanye, though.
4. Trapo – Shade Trees
Wisconsin artist Trapo is seriously one of my favorite artists that exist today. He reminds me of a mixture of Raury and Kid Cudi. His new project Shade Trees was nothing short of perfection although the kid only sits at 17-years-old. With 2016 now closed, look for Trapo to have a MAJOR year in 2017.
5. Denzel Curry – Imperial
If you’re a South Florida hip-hop fan, Denzel Curry’s Nostalgic 64 was probably played through your speakers at one time or another. On Imperial, though, Denzel Curry seemed to finally sharpened up his sound, utilizing punchy production and a gritty rap style.
HM: Quentin Miller – Gunmetal Gray
Although this project was released very recently, I have not been able to put it down. One of Quentin Miller’s biggest flaws to the critics was that his records never seemed to “pop” – but that ended yesterday. Gunmetal Grey is packed with hits including “Gold” and “Expression 3.” As a QM fan boy, I’m extremely excited to see what 2017 has in store for Quentin.
1. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Aesop climbed a mountain with no features. In the ultimate era of old school is uncool, and repetitious delusions of grandeur are the lyrical status quo, the vocabularic record holder of rap is combative towards his genre by flexing pristine song craft, seven layer deep penmanship and a refreshing take on the maturing artist that still has a fuck ton to say over the best stream of production I heard the entire year of 2016. You can at me, but not until you are a couple dozen spins deep into just the god damn drums, and can then still somehow refute the notion that spitting genius level narratives of familial nostalgia or the minute details of daily existence with such wordy dexterity doesn’t position Aes as the literal best attempt at making a rap album in its truest sense this year. This isn’t boxed in conscious rap, and this certainly isn’t anything resembling white boy rap or boom bap. This is poetry running naked for its fucking life while the reality around it burns, and you can feel it in every meaningfully placed line, scratch, synth, snare and cadence shift. “Party over here, I’ll be over there”…and he was.
2. Cousin Stizz – Monda
The dreaded follow up album has been a make or break scenario for many of those making a run for household name recognition in the 2010s, yet Cousin Stizz is a rare type that took everything raw and visceral on his Suffolk County debut and was able to polish it up, add a few more crucial literary details and then shine on a handful of expectation surpassing moments. Less a plotted concept akin to his peer’s recent attempts, and more a stream of conscious conversation relating seemingly truthful life details over the course of its runtime, Monda is the balance between necessary heavy bangers and the enigmatic intrigue of storytelling. Proverb-like one liners inserted into contagious melodies are cleverly masked by a keen ear for bass rolling production and atmospheric textures galore. Stizz is a sonic illusionist that isn’t now just two for two. He is 27 for 27, and this patient-yet-methodically moving voice of Boston gives no reason to suggest he won’t keep the flawless streak alive.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Countless spins, many of them in a streak of two to three in a row, has proven to be not nearly enough to properly absorb the magnanimous nature of A Tribe Called Quest’s gift to the rap world. Pages could be drafted on the production offerings alone, but above all serves as an obvious reminder of just how much Tribe’s blood runs through the subgenre veins of modern hip-hop music. Making sonic anomalies look way too easy, the crew’s timeless vocal chemistry and unrelentingly exploratory nature weaves an audible benchmark that skyrockets past a nostalgia record in the first act, and take on a kinetic nature encouraging awe and unavoidable head bobs. The repeat button was literally created for this album.
4. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love”
No, it is not a rap album. No, Childish Gambino didn’t do something that had not been done before in music. But did he unexpectedly channel a potent level of creative energy and show total disregard for perceptive risk – fuck yes he did. Donald Glover has never shied away from the challenge of embracing live instrumentation in his production and live performances, and has been one of the trailblazers of both with his partner Ludwig, but Awaken is an unprecedented jump into the historical lineage of vintage soul and progressive funk unlike anything ever seen in crossover attempts. Most impressive is the shedding of anything resembling a typical rap delivery, and instead we are left with head turning singing and a special pedigree of melodic genius. Plus, he shamelessly wrote a carbon copy Steely Dan song metaphorically and kind of literally about zombies that is somehow very acceptable.
5. Mick Jenkins – The Healing Component
All of the industry production and studio tampering and compensating features in LA will never replace the appeal of a truly unique, baritone voice capable of morphing through varied deliveries and cadence shifts. Add in the fact that Mick Jenkins is a supremely gifted wordsmith that sees the world perspectively different than most, and the outcome of The Healing Component being a tour de force of auditory magic comes as no surprise. Yet the album is filled with numerous moments of intrigue, fluidly moving between delicate R&B songwriting and firm rap vocalization that shouldn’t work, but do so with ease. Not that he was ever misstepping on The Water[s], or even Wave[s], but it now seems Mick has fully hit his stride and is commanding his art in a way most knew he could.
HM: De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…
If you know what went into crafting their triumphant 9th studio album, it pretty much explains everything you need to know about this piece of art. If you don’t know, read up and listen to it as many times as you can before you die because it is a De La Soul album in 2016 with features from David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Little Dragon Pete Rock and Roc Marciano.
1. Fat Nick – When The Lean Runs Out
When The Lean Runs Out was an iconic project for this year for a few reasons. It featured only underground artists, which is a factor that we cherish deeply. The whole project had one common theme, and it’s that drugs abuse is an upward battle. Lastly, the whole entire project was a breath of fresh air for me, and strayed away from what the average hip-hop album sounds like.
2. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Easily one of the best projects by Chance, Coloring Book explores genre bending in a very aesthetically pleasing way. Mixing Lil Wayne’s vocals in with a Chicago church choir beat is iconic. Although a lot of the things that Chance did with this album in theory wouldn’t work very well, he somehow pulled off one of the best projects of 2016.
3. Post Malone – Stoney
Post Malone was definitely geared to have a big year this year, and his release of Stoney right at the cusp of the new year proved that. He combined country, indie, electronic, and hip-hop music into one beautiful cohesive project. Not to mention, his voice is absolutely flawless, too.
4. Saba – Bucket List Project
Saba has had a big year this year, being featured in Chance’s new project and also releasing his own beautiful masterpiece in Bucket List Project. Chicago has had an amazing year this year for music, and Saba celebrated that with multiple Chicago top-tier talents featured on Bucket List Project.
5. Lil Peep – Crybaby
Lil Peep is pushing boundaries in hip-hop/pop punk/alt-rock music. His release of Crybaby inspired the mo hip-hop head to give their go’s at crossing the lines of what hip-hop is. Lil Peep created an entire brand centered around himself just baed off of this project.
HM: Trapo – Shade Trees
Wisconsin’s Trapo used his beautiful deep rapper voice in such a melodic way this year in Shade Trees. This release only made honorable mention for me because some of the tracks lost me a little bit, with a little too much going on. Altogether, however, it was an extremely well done project that I think everyone should take a couple hours out of their day to listen to, and really appreciate. The artistic value in this project is high as hell, and Trapo really killed it in Shade Trees.
1. Lucki – Son Of Sam
By far my favorite project from this year. Lucki gave us so much variety in just 7 songs. He was heavily off the shits during this time and gave us a pretty dark vibe. We also don’t get many features on Lucki songs, but both ASAP Ant and Da$h hopped on this project with some fire.
2. A$AP Mob – Cozy Tapes
Bruh, Telephone Calls. Name another project with as many raw people on it as this one. ASAP Mob really gave their fans something special with this project and just had hits all over it.
3. Nessly – Still Finessin
One of the only projects I consistently listened to front to back this year. Every song on the project was super dope. Nessly just gave us some super smooth and clean tracks on this one. Plus he might’ve gotten the hottest Yachty feature of the year on it.
4. Pollari – Lil Llari World
Llari just can’t do wrong. Changed up his style on all the tracks and showed us he can really murder any sound. Every song off this project was a hit and this project definitely has everyone really excited for his upcoming album.
5. Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
I don’t give a flying fuck what anyone says; this album is hot. Anyone saying it’s not is just a hater or “old Kanye” dick rider. Kanye gave us so many amazing different sounds on this and some of the hottest features of the year. “Ultralight Beam” is on this project; no more words are needed.
HM: ATL SMOOK – Rude Religion
ATL SMOOK really surprised me on this project and brought some fire. Two of my favorite songs of the year, “Finesser” and “ICFWU,” came off this project as well. Overall, Smook did a great job of showing us what he is capable of on this mixtape.
1. 21 Savage – Savage Mode
21 Savage has quickly become one of the most well known rappers of this era. Savage Mode played a key role in what I feel pushed 21 into the spotlight. With only one feature from Future the tape is some of 21’s best work to date. Since Savage Mode dropped 21 has gone on to work with Drake and tour with Thug. This was one of the most highly anticipated projects of 2016 and has helped further 21’s career significantly.
2. Kodak Black – Little BIG Pac
Kodak Black has been a rap game favorite for all of 2016 despite being locked up for nearly half the year. Little BIG Pac dropped right as Kodak fell into legal trouble and was not out to promote the project or tour as heavily as he could of. Even while being locked up the tape was a large success and helped keep Kodak relevant. This was Kodak’s first project since becoming signed and he was also able to lock down some major features on this including Gucci Mane, PNB Rock, and Boosie Badazz.
3. NBA Youngboy – 38 Baby
38 Baby was essentially Youngboy’s breakout project that really put him on the map. This project was highly anticipated and received a lot of attention in just a short amount of time. This project was put together in a more strategic manner compared to his other projects that he would sporadically drop with less than a week’s notice. This project has some of his most popular songs and video including 38 Baby, Down Chick, I Ain’t Hiding, & What I Was Taught. Youngboy was looking like one of the most promising up and comers as neared the end of 2016. We wish him the best and hope he’ll be back home soon.
4. 6LACK – FREE 6LACK
6LACK had one the best projects of late 2016 that was highly slept on. He is one of the hottest up and comers out of the Atlanta. I was surprised this project didn’t received more attention. I was projecting 6LACK to have a much bigger year that he did. I am a big fan of this project and and excited to see what 6LACK has in store for 2017.
5. Lil Uzi Vert – Lil Uzi Vert vs The World
Lil Uzi Vert had a very year and has become of well known rappers of this new generation. This project has some of his most popular tracks and helped really solidified his place in the rap game. This tape has some catchy songs that caught on and became crowd favorites for his live shows. This tape is in the top 5 because of the success that came from the tracks on this tape. This tape gave us Money Longer, You Was Right, and P’s & Q’s.
1. Frank Ocean – Blond(e)
2. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
4. Francis and the Lights – Farewell, Starlite!
5. Jon Bellion – The Human Condition
HM: Lil Uzi Vert – Lil Uzi vs. The World
I hate doing this. Picking at top 5 is always difficult. There’s so many great albums that came out this year and there are a whole handful that I don’t want to exclude. But, I think this list sums up my 2016 pretty accurately. I listened to at least one of these albums almost every day this year. From vibing to Frank’s Blond(e), to turning up to Lil Uzi vs. The World, to praising God with Coloring Book. There’s an album here for almost any situation and I think that’s why these albums made the cut.