I’m a hip-hop head at heart, so that’s what you’ll find making up my list for 2017. I can argue for a Father John Misty or a Grizzly Bear to be counted among the year’s highlights, but my most impassioned and informed opinions belong to a culture obsessed with the most skillful emcees, the biggest club bangers, and the everyday struggles both internal and external. Hip-hop saw its stranger side take a huge leap into the spotlight thanks to alternative champions such as Tyler, the Creator, Vince Staples, and some guy named Kendrick Lamar, while its more traditional roots were represented by two rapper-producer pairs in Rapsody/9th Wonder and Jay-Z/No I.D. I based my choices on the albums I listened to over and over again on my prehistoric iPod Classic, the ones that front to back kept on giving, from those first listens lying on my bed to late-night revisitations on the bus or in the car several months later. Unexpectedly, at least if we’re going by this preamble, my number one isn’t hip-hop by definition, but nonetheless an album that wouldn’t exist without it.
10. ‘CTRL’ – SZA
It was a long time coming, but TDE’s best kept secret became one of music’s biggest sensations with her debut studio album. A more stripped-down affair than SZA’s previous endeavors, ‘CTRL’ presents a future star at her clearest and most vulnerable. The songwriting is sharp as ever and ready for primetime, featuring smash hits like ‘Love Galore’ and ‘The Weekend’, heartbreakers-with-bite in ‘Normal Girl’ and ‘Supermodel’, and even a song dedicated solely to… uh, just listen to ‘Doves in the Wind’ when you get a chance.
9. ‘Rap Album Two’ – Jonwayne
Jonwayne deserves to be on your radar, and his latest is the strongest case yet for paying him attention. ‘Rap Album Two’ is a product of personal trauma, with insights into alcoholism, loneliness, and self-care that achieve their full potency due to conservative and haunting 8-bit beats (mostly produced by Jonwayne himself), vessels for a booming voice to air out his demons. He tells off an overstepping fan, relives a near-death experience, and struggles with the pressure of making a hit all in fresh ways, a pretty remarkable feat in a landscape filled with artists hawking their stories to make a quick buck.
8. ‘Laila’s Wisdom’ – Rapsody
Rapsody has been making a name as one of the most talented lyricists in hip-hop for the past few years, and it’s with her second studio album that she breaks the particularly rigid glass ceiling of the genre, rapping circles around her contemporaries and holding her own alongside greats like Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar, and Busta Rhymes (a clear influence). 9th Wonder, who handles the bulk of the LP’s production, dazzles behind the boards, creating picture-perfect scenes for Rapsody‘s stories of insecurities, love, and an attempt to make an impact through sheer skill rather than spectacle.
7. ‘4:44’ – Jay-Z
Arguably the greatest rapper of all time, Jay-Z had himself an inarguable dud in 2013’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’. His 2017 follow-up, released with minimal promotion (unless you count ‘Lemonade’), manages to be his most personal work yet, more Shawn Carter than Jay-Z. It’s an incredible and incredibly intimate journey, made all the more remarkable by this being the rapper’s 13th studio album, something the album cover makes sure to communicate to you. The address-it-all ‘Kill Jay-Z’ comes out guns blazing, foregoing the introductory flourishes of Jay-Z albums past; it catches the listener off guard and doesn’t let up, offering a crisp mix full of some of the year’s brightest beats and intelligent bars. If ‘The Story of O.J.’ doesn’t win ‘Record of the Year’ at The Grammys… well, then it’ll be a reminder we’re watching The Grammys.
6. ‘DAMN.’ – Kendrick Lamar
I personally didn’t expect Kendrick Lamar to drop a proper successor to magnum opus ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in only two years’ time, and I definitely didn’t expect the product to be nearly as compelling. DAMN. is worth the analysis and the praise it’s received, with many heralding it as 2017’s ‘top dog’ (I’m here all week). It dips its toes into pop rap in ways that would make ‘Swimming Pools’ and ‘Poetic Justice’ blush, but the meme-fueling ‘HUMBLE.’ and Rihanna-featuring ‘LOYALTY.’ fight their way into the album’s narrative, a tale of morality that invites its listener to navigate through its distortions, beat switches, and triple-time flows for a meaning and a verdict. It has its missteps (‘GOD.’ might have the most grating hook this side of Eminem‘s new album), and doesn’t flow as well as his previous efforts (yes, even when played backwards), though these are minor jabs at an album that has tracks like ‘PRIDE.’, ‘FEAR.’, and the blow-your-mind-every-time ‘DUCKWORTH’.
5. ‘Freudian’ – Daniel Caesar
While we still were gifted with Frank Ocean than most years, 2017 was without a full project from the critical darling of R&B. In steps Daniel Caesar, a relative unknown from Canada whose style is very much in debt to Ocean. Over the course of only ten songs, Caesar doesn’t shy away from that comparison, while also mining from 90’s R&B (‘Neu Roses’), gospel (‘Hold Me Down’, ‘We Find Love’), and the wave of trip-hop-R&B done best by The Internet (whose Syd can be found on ‘Take Me Away’). ‘Freudian’ is entangled in influences. It also is earnest, insightful, and poetic, led by a beautiful and multifaceted voice, making for one breathtaking debut.
4. ‘SATURATION II’ – BROCKHAMPTON
It’s great to watch a hip-hop group have a year like BROCKHAMPTON had. Ascending from Reddit heroes to indie rap paradigm-shifters, this well-equipped collective of uniquely zany vocalists and dynamic producers has made three of the year’s most original and rewarding LPs. The first ‘SATURATION’ is the guys finding their groove, while the third is too fresh to avoid recency bias, so my pick for this fourth spot is the middle child in the series. ‘SATURATION II’ shares the spotlight with all of its players: JOBA proves he deserves more airtime on ‘TOKYO’, Ameer Vann demands and destroys his own solo track with ‘TEETH’, and mastermind Kevin Abstract gives one of the year’s most incendiary and show-stopping verses on ‘JUNKY’ (between this album and ‘DAMN.’, having all caps in your titles is becoming synonymous with putting out great music).
3. ‘Big Fish Theory’ – Vince Staples
I’m going to take a gamble and say that this is the most dominant hip-hop album on critics’ year-end lists, second only to ‘DAMN.’. Much like ‘4:44’, part of the appeal of ‘Big Fish’ lies in its brevity, thirty-six minutes of quality over quantity, cohesive in its grand design to move your spirit as much as your body. Unlike Jay-Z, however, Staples moves away from the musical mentorship of No I.D. (the primary producer on his last full-length) and puts his faith in the young elite of electronic music. The result is 2017’s most surprisingly wonderful hip-hop, a project that expands its author’s creative range and proves he can be as daring, unpredictable, and enjoyable as anyone in the game.
2. ‘Flower Boy’ – Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator has made for himself a complex discography, to say the least. The same guy who burst onto the scene by eating a cockroach in his video spent 2017 harnessing a musical palette of horrorcore stylings, N*E*R*D worship, and colorful arrangements into his most focused and mature album to date. It’s as free and fun as it is reflective and somber, eliminating the more embarrassing aspects of Tyler’s past projects while embracing his quirky genius as a musician (Tyler is credited as the primary songwriter and sole producer on Flower Boy‘s fourteen tracks). On the lyrics side, it’s shocking without being childish, and intricate without being disturbing. The raps are better because they’re no longer mired in fantasy, generating career-best performances from Tyler in ‘Boredom’ and the gut-wrenching ‘November’. The last song is almost entirely instrumental, its title a message to the fans, old and new: ‘Enjoy Right Now, Today.’ Tyler’s got his act together, and it’s elevated him to an upper echelon of artists.
1. ‘Drunk’ – Thundercat
Call me crazy, but at least I’m being honest when I say that this oddball, twenty-three-track-long odyssey is my most played album, favorite album, and pick for the best of 2017. The songs involve everything from masturbation to meowing (see: ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Suite II)’, which features the line ‘Everybody wants to be a cat’), which can on first listen obscure the deeper machinations at work, including several suites that reflect on death, question the sanity of their composer, and reject social trends, as well as society in general. Thundercat, a virtuoso at the bass (a six-string one, at that), commandeers this self-described ‘space ride‘, welcoming contributions from Flying Lotus, Pharrell, Wiz Khalifa (!), Michael McDonald (!!!), and Kendrick Lamar, who I might as well mention one more time on this list. ‘Drunk’ is the perfect representation of 2017, chaotic and unreserved in its execution, and an endorsement of the introspection, humor, and sociopolitical awareness necessary for dealing with today’s sober realities.