What an incredible year for music. There have been a number of projects that have either pushed the boundaries of genres or simply been wonderful additions to them. While my list IS admittedly hip-hop biased (the Bjork & Tame Impala albums were GREAT though), there are several projects on here that blur that definition and a few that aren’t hip-hop at all. Anyway, let’s get’s started!
15. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf
Chance the Rapper has been on a incredible run since the release of his Acid Rap mixtape in 2013. His unique voice, flow and wordplay have helped put a spotlight back on the Chicago rap scene. On this album, he teamed up with Donnie Trumpet to craft the feel good hip-hop album of the year. Featuring a variety of talented artists, including veterans Erykah Badu and Busta Rhymes, and upstarts like Raury and D.R.A.M., this album mixes hip-hop, soul, jazz and dance in a way that exemplifies the exciting collaborations found in this generation of artists. Given the constant barrage of negativity in the world today, this album should be in everybody’s shuffle.
14. Lil Ugly Mane – Oblivion Access
Releasing close to Christmas, right after most mainstream sites published their “Best Of” lists, came Oblivion Access from eccentric and elusive Virginian Travis Miller AKA Lil Ugly Mane. This man has been prolific this year with several beat tapes and collaboration with Nickelus F. With this self-produced album, he shows us the calm, chaos and confusion in his mind through both his beats and rhymes. The lyrics appeal to the anxiety many Millennials like him may be facing for the future and themselves. On “Columns” he posits “Life throws a lot of questions, but I never ask’em; Facts are human arrogance, we barely know a fraction.” The end of “Collapse and Appear” is one of the best (and darkest, be warned) verses of the year.
The production is downtempo but layered. It gets you in the zone to really absorb the lyrics, but every now and then it interrupts itself unexpectedly with another train of thought personified by a completely different instrumental, turntable scratches or chaotic noise. This is dark and not for everyone, but genius rarely is. Anyone who misses the glory days of the underground hip-hop label Definitive Jux, should definitely give this a spin.
13. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
At only 21 years old, Earl Sweatshirt is one of the sharpest MCs in the game. He returns with his third release, and as the title suggests, it won’t be for everyone. And he does NOT care. Earl is not chasing mainstream success. On his lead single, “Grief”, he lampoons pop rappers when he says, “Fishy niggas think they eatin’ off of hooks”. He’s lost the monotone voice that he’s known for in exchange for a more energetic and aggressive one. The beats (almost exclusively done by Sweatshirt himself) and rhymes truly feels like they’ve been brewed in a dungeon basement. Despite the aggressive tone, like his prior release, a couple of the songs are more personal. Peep part of the hook on “Faucet”: “I don’t know whose house to call home lately. I hope my phone breaks; let it ring…”. The features are great with the closer “Wool”, featuring rising star, Vince Staples, being the highlight of the whole album. Coming in at about 30 minutes, this is a short and sweet journey into the mind of a brilliant yet troubled, young MC.
12. Oddisee – The Good Fight
DC native Oddisee is a lesser known powerhouse of talent. He’s a very sharp but down to Earth MC who’s equally talented behind the boards. Adding to his already impressive discography is the The Good Fight, which is, as he worded it, “a meditation on our capacity to love and the bonds binding us together. It’s our ambition and greed warring with our sense of propriety – a list of paradoxes we all face when living and striving.” You can just feel the genuine emotion he tries to convey through his conscious yet easy to relate to lyrics. As a producer, he continues to elevate as he mixes samples and live instrumentation. Check this out.
11. L’Orange & Jeremiah Jae – The Night Took Us In Like Family
The Night is a perfect union of MC and producer. North Carolina beatsmith L’Orange provides the jazzy, downtempo backdrops for Jeremiah Jae to detail his calm, mafioso narratives. Despite his monotone voice, this man is clever and fun with this rhymes (“Pull out the toolbox and reach for the pliers; make a Baritone sing like Mariah.”). Features are few, but they’re excellent contributions from west coast rappers Homeboy Sandman and Gift of Gab. The project is one of the most consistent on the list, back to back smooth beats and rhymes.
10. Logic – The Incredible True Story
Releasing projects on a yearly basis, Logic has been one of the most consistent MCs in the last few years, and he’s continuously progressing. On this album, he raises the bar in nearly every way: flow, song-writing and production. This man can rap his ass off. While he does seem like a mix between Kendrick and Drake, his versatility is undeniable. There are smoother jams like “Paradise”; “I Am Greatest” is reminiscent of a Drake club banger; “Young Jesus” sounds like an old school Wu-Tang banger. It’s obvious that Logic is a student of hip-hop.
Between the tracks, there’s a story, played out in short skits, of people in the future in search of a new planet called “Paradise”. While skits are usually something I steer away from, these are done fairly well, with Cowboy Bebop voice actor Steve Blum in the lead. Pick this up!
9. Mac Miller – GO:OD A.M.
Mac Miller has blessed us with a fantastic follow up to his major label debut after two years of mixtapes under his own name and alias, Delusional Thomas. On this effort, he balances the challenges of sobering up, facing his demons and letting go while still giving us fun tracks, like “Brand Name”, “Weekend” feat. Miguel and “Clubhouse”. The production is excellent here, with contributions from TDE’s Sounwave, ID Labs, Thundercat and more. The features are also well-placed with the Little Dragon closer, “Festival”, being my personal favorite.
8. ASAP Rocky – At Long Last ASAP
One of the leading figures in the “cloud rap” genre, ASAP Rocky returns with his most complete (and best) body of work yet. ASAP really stepped his rap game up – and I say this as a person who wasn’t a big fan until now. Staying in his lane, his flow mixes very well over the spaced out yet surprisingly organic production. There’s something for everyone here: songs to smoke, dance and ride to. The features are also well used, with my favorite being “Fine Whine” with MIA and Future (OMG, he made Future listena-ble!). At 18 tracks, this holds together unexpectedly well.
7. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
After several very impressive mixtapes and one EP, former Crip member Vince Staples finally released a fantastic debut – a double album at that. Focusing on a summer that was a pivotal part of his life, Vince’s lyrics paint visuals of the gritty streets of Long Beach, California from a fresh perspective. Songs like “Señorita” (which has one of the best videos of the year) bang hard, describing the violence of gang life, while “Like It Is” finds him questioning what he does and where he and his kind fit in the big picture of his com-munity and country. His voice is never angry or sad, always calm. Rare for most albums of this kind, the lyrics don’t feel like they’re glorifying or exaggerating, merely stating how life was and is for him. The off-kilter production, chiefly handled by No I.D., fits the energy of a young man struggling to maintain and hold onto life in a world that would end it in a heartbeat.
6. Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
Australian “future soul” group, Hiatus Kaiyote, delivered a tremendous album with Choose Your Weapon. Front woman Nia Palm invokes the best of the pioneering soul singers who preceded her. What’s refreshing here is the diversity in subject matter. She pays homage to Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki on “Laputa” and reflects on her orphaned childhood on “Fingerprints”. Even on conventional subjects like love, she represents them in intriguing ways like on the Grammy-nominated “Breathing Underwater”. If you’re looking for an invigorating soul album, look no further.
5. Archy Marshall – A New Place 2 Drown
Don’t let the name fool you: you’ll wanna dive head first into this. The laid-back beats are an immersive mix of hip-hop and trip-hop – perfect for winter – though I use that definition loosely. Although the moody soundscapes ARE the focus, Marshall’s freestyles come in and out of the tracks, talking about family, women and whatever else he wants to get off his chest (though his voice won’t be for everyone). That being said, the album isn’t depressing as the title suggests. At only 20 years old, this is a fantastic effort from the London native. Keep your eye on – and ear out for – him.
4. Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth
After a tumultuous relationship with both his record label and fans, hurting the Golden Child image given to him nearly ten years ago, Lupe Fiasco has returned to produce arguably his best album yet. It has everything you’d expect from him: cerebral wordplay, smooth flow and thought-provoking concepts. The most interesting aspect of the album is the tone that changes after each interlude, which are named after the seasons. Summer starts the album with lighter (even a little poppy) songs; whereas Fall and Winter, which take up the majority of the album, becoming increasingly aggressive and heavier in subject matter. It ends on Spring, leaving the listener to wonder what’s next to blossom from the mind of the Chicago MC. If this album is any indication, it’s gonna be awesome.
3. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Signed under Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, Kamasi Washington is the reincarnation of jazz legend John Coltrane. The energy throughout this debut album is incredible. Assisted by a full string orchestra and choir, this 3-hour project truly lives up to its name. Wait, 3 HOURS?! Yes, 3 hours. The Epic is like those long classics that may not be viewed (or in this case listened to) often, but are something everyone should experience: a true testament to musical mastery, passion and execution.
2. The Internet – Ego Death
From the jump, Ego Death immediately tells you what it’s all about: 100% GROOVE. The group blends soul, hip-hop and funk into refreshing sounds so lush that the album earned a Grammy nomination. Syd Tha Kid is exceptionally lovely on this as the lead vocalist. At a perfect length, this 12-track album can be put on at house parties, lounges or simply to vibe to alone. Alt-hough this isn’t my number 1, if there’s an album I can recommend to anyone this year, it’d be this.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Given the last two amazing works by the Compton native, I won’t say that this is his best project – though I certainly could – but it’s undoubtedly his most important. Arriving in the midst of protests against racism in the U.S., no other album has come close to this level of afro-centrism in years.
Listening to the single, “Blacker the Berry”, one could argue that this is “too Black” and hard to relate to. However, look at it from a movie perspective. Do you need to be an Italian gangster to appreciate The Godfather? Do you need to be Jewish to appreciate Schindler’s List? A toy or child to appreciate Toy Story? No. At their core, they touch on character traits and situations that most to all people can understand – for “Berry”, pride in the face of unfair and constant persecution.
Butterfly speaks on issues that many, regardless of race, age or gender have gone or are going through: the arrogance that comes with intelligence and/or success, the guilt of leaving behind loved ones on your path to success, addiction, shaken morals, depression, learning humility and loving yourself again. While these issues have been covered in hip-hop in the past, it’s fascinating to watch how this new generation of rappers, like Earl Sweatshirt or Chance the Rapper, tackle them in new ways.
To Pimp A Butterfly helps further Kendrick’s legacy, like Me Against the World did for 2Pac. I’m not only excited about his next project but also the next generation of rappers that he’s surely inspired with this.