In no particular order, these are the hip-hop projects I ended up revisiting the most after their release hype died down. They are projects that went beyond the moods they created and became albums I could throw on at any time and enjoy outside of the context of their content.
This album has to be regarded as one of the best albums of the year, regardless of genre. Negus is polemic, it’s relevant, and it’s a pleasure to listen to. Kemba uses samples from an old documentary to help develop the narrative of the album; it’s one of the freshest storytelling endeavors of the year. From the beats to the hooks to the bars, Kemba has an undeniable mastery of craft and you’ve never heard a style quite like his. Kemba takes the revivalist lane in hip-hop, takes an exit, and uses Negus to carve his own sound.
This project quickly became my comfort album. Noname is a wordsmith, and she can make any topic sound honey-sweet without trivializing it. The production on the album is distinctly summer, but as we head into the coldest part of the year, those pastel sounds feel more and more like a welcome hug. Telefone is one my favorite projects to get lost in down the letter of a bar.
Coloring Book was not Acid Rap 2.0, and for that I’m grateful. This project shows Chance maturing in his content and his production, but still putting up this contagious sense of wonder. Like Telefone, as it gets colder and darker, this project is a welcome pop of optimism in my daily rotation.
The Sun’s Tirade wins the award for slow-burner of the year. When I first heard this project I thought it was objectively good, and walked away. The more time I spent with TST, the more I found myself falling for the project. Rashad’s genuine delivery and drawl made me want to sit down and dissect this album, made me want to experience it more than just “music for the vibers.” I can listen to this album for the mood, for the lyrics, for the beats. I put on The Sun’s Tirade and just lose myself in the best way. This is the album from 2016 that I have to stop myself from throwing on, because I’ve listened to it three times already that day.
This album is mean. Q comes out with some of his best rapping, some of the grittiest beats, a slew of great features, and just a drop of filler. Q brings some aggressive bars, some gripping and violent images, and a mood that is best described by the album’s cover art. Every time I listen to Blank Face, I can hear a fresh energy to Q. This was a project he loved making front to back. Blank Face is one of those albums where I can catch the drawbacks, but I still love the album on the whole. One of my favorite nighttime projects of the year.
Do What Thou Wilt – Ab-Soul
Do What Thou Wilt is wonderful in how self-aware it is. The project sounds like the “brightest silver lining,” and I’ve got a thing for Soulo’s voice as he packs together his signature dense bars. I love this album for how weird it is, in the very best ways. When it comes to lyricism, Soulo never holds back his personality. This project is addictive because of how confident we can hear Ab-Soul sounding on every bar. Some of Soulo’s best songs are on this project, and despite the moody tones, this album fits every hour of the day. It’s another project I have to stop myself from listening to so I can give other albums a chance.
One of Mac’s most polarizing albums, I fell in love with this project immediately. The neo-soul mixed with the funk, mixed with some of the best features of the year, mixed with Mac pushing himself as an artist and singing just did it for me. I love every beat, every lyric, every crooning note. Sometimes you run across an album that just clicks, as if it was made for you, and this year that album was The Divine Feminine This project sounds like the album Mac was always working towards making. I have no problem enjoying the project outside of its sexual and romantic overtones. Not for nothing, it’s always great to see an artist continually evolve who they are despite possible commercial backlash.
Oh shit! This is not the sound I was expecting from the trio, but after revisiting Live From the Dentist’s Office, Floss is the perfect upgrade to their jazzy beginnings. Parker Corey is a genius producer. Each beat on this project is well placed, mean, and technically immaculate. Ritchie and Groggs bring the bars, they bring emotion, and they bring some of my favorite hooks of the year. Special shout to Cakes Da Killa for one of the best features of the year as well. If you like a little aggression with your jazz percussion, this is the project for you.
This project has a special place in my heart. Beyond the LGBT themes, I love the ambition on this thing. Kevin Abstract is indie, he’s grunge, he’s dream pop, he’s hip-hop, he’s so unabashed in who he is as an artist. Much like Soul, that unapologetic personality makes this project infectious. There have to be more LGBT artists in the genre that aren’t Frank Ocean, plain and simple. I am enthralled by Kevin Abstract’s narrative and all the creative potential he has, pushing the boundaries of genre on each and every song.
Everything Aes talks about I can relate to, but The Impossible Kid really takes his accessibility to a new level. Aesop Rock finds himself more upfront, more self-aware, and all-around crisper on this album. Aes knows who he is, and the Impossible Kid showcases him polishing up his artistic self, turning him into that more into that anytime artist. It’s not the ear-candy that Labor Days was, but The Impossible Kid sounds like poetic story-time with your favorite rap legend. Each cut on this album has a greater and ubiquitous theme that every listener can carry with them. This project also has one of my favorite songs of the year on it: “Rings.”
Nat Love – Kweku Collins
One of my favorite finds of the year, Nat Love is a distinctly Chicago project. Kweku Collins sprinkles wisdom and political activism across this project without sounding pretentious. The personal content sounds polished, nothing close to a glorified journal entry. For all his prowess as a rapper, Collins has an endearing singing voice. He tackles bright synth leads, acoustic ballads, and gets experimental with some woozy, almost industrial crooning. This project is the anytime album of anytime albums this year. There’s no instance where a cut off this project wouldn’t fit the mood. Nat Love sounds like the first warm spring day. Nat Love sounds like landing your first ollie off a curb. Nat Love sounds like a must-listen.
Maybe I’ve got a thing for dad rap. Slug and Ant come back to do some self-exploration on Fishing Blues. Yes, their age shows on this project. Yes, there’s some cringe. But that doesn’t stop this album from sounding friendly, from sounding secure. Slug isn’t passed out in the back of a van anymore, but he still has great range and his delivery is as invested as ever. Ant does an incredible job keeping up the main image of the album with his luxurious aqua beats. Fishing Blues is not Atmosphere’s best work, but this project ended up being an album that felt comforting to return to, like coming home.
Vic made one of my favorite EPs of the year with There’s Alot Going On. Somewhere between his unshakable flow, his rock-influenced ballads, and his intensely personal closing track, I found myself so invested in this project and Vic as an artist. Every song on this project is my favorite song of the project. A solid three months went by where I would start my day with this EP. Vic Mensa really set himself up for stardom with this EP, and I’m excited to see where he goes with his debut album.
Man, I love Danny Brown. This project sounds like a bad trip that you can’t escape. The best part of this project is how Danny Brown forces you into his head. He does not ease you in, he shoves you into the middle of this mental cacophony and by the end of the project you have no desire to leave. My favorite beat of the year is on this thing: “Ain’t it Funny.” An homage to progressive rock, drugs, depression, and sex, Atrocity Exhibition is a hair shy of perfect. Despite its very distinct sound, Atrocity Exhibition is so musically sharp it becomes an anytime album.
G-funk is alive and well on Still Brazy. YG really deserves a most-improved rapper award, tracking his career from jump to this latest release. YG brings his blunt bars, his West Coast style, and that intoxicating G-funk bass line. Still Brazy also has some potent political tracks to close out the album. YG doesn’t hold back when it comes to politics, which makes the album all the more relevant.
It’s good to have Mr. Lif back after a seven year hiatus. Don’t Look Down is a solid concept album with Mr. Lif showing off that a seven year break only made him a sharper rapper. Everything checks out with this project. The beats are varied, but all allude to that grainy noir sound. The story flows seamlessly from one track to the next, and Lif still has one of the best voices in hip-hop. This album is the definition of good hip-hop and has been in rotation since release.
Note: Awaken, My Love! is not on here because Gambino did not make a hip-hop album. The project is a velvety funk album that everyone should listen to, but it’s not hip-hop. The same goes for Yes Lawd! An incredible project, but not hip-hop in genre.