2017 has been an interesting year for rap music. Observing rappers’ interactions with everything from the current political climate to SoundCloud rappers having provided us with some of the most intriguing storylines of the year.
#10. Saturation II – BROCKHAMPTON
In five short months, BROCKHAMPTON has ascended from relatively unknown, to one of the most interesting, creative young groups in the game today with the release of Saturation II.
While the group has still failed to become more than the sum of their parts lyrically, the collaborative approach to production has added a magnetic element of unpredictability to the music. Lyrically, the group could benefit from more studio time and development but the talent is evident throughout Saturation II.
On “JUNKY”, Kevin Abstract ferociously raps about embracing his sexuality and empowering the LGBTQ+ community. On “FIGHT”, Ameer Vann relates his experiences in his early years to the systemic issues that largely contribute to the cyclical nature of crime in the black community. All of that adds up to an incredibly interesting album that solidify BROCKHAMPTON as the up-and-coming group in hip-hop.
#9. Run the Jewels 3 – Run the Jewels
In their third EP, Run the Jewels explore and reflect upon the limits of their social justice activism behind chaotic production and through the lens of anarchism. At first glance the album sounds like one of the most hardcore rap albums of the last decade in terms of production, but when you dig deeper the substance is there.
RTJ3 is a rich tapestry of complex ideas about social issues and incredible beats and even if you don’t agree with the anarchist tone the album takes, the lyricism is sharp and precise. Killer Mike and LP complement each other to an eerie degree on this project lyrically, almost constantly feeding off of the energy of one another while still maintaining the strengths that make them great.
Not everything is so rosy, however. They haven’t quite figure out when to tone down the chaotic energy when they’ve wanted to, and the album can feel a little repetitive because of that. The project is incredible, but it can leave the listener with something to be desired.
#8. Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples
Big Fish Theory serves as an introspective look into the underlying dynamics of hip-hop culture and society while pushing the envelope with wildly creative production. This is one of the most thoroughly innovative albums of the year, constantly taking creative risks and not really caring about the cost. Some of those risks hit (the watery-style production) and some miss (“Crabs in a Bucket”), but Staples’ willingness to try something new is promising.
The sound of this album is really unlike any other project on this list and any other project from the last year. What has made Vince so interesting, is his complete confidence in what he says and that shines through on this project.
While “Big Fish” at first glance seems like a meaningless song, within the context of the album it takes on a completely different meaning. Staples ponders how big of a ‘fish’ a rapper can be outside of hip-hop culture and even though one may feel like the biggest fish in the pond of rap, that success may not translate to mainstream culture. The complexity of this album cannot be overstated.
#7. The Never Story – JID
J.I.D showcases a level of maturity and innovation behind the mike beyond his years and proves that he’s going to be around for a long time in his debut EP. The sound of this album is one of the most intoxicating sounds of the last year. J.I.D combines the Atlanta-influenced production with a complex, California-style flow to produce The Never Story.
His flow is the most interesting part of the project, even though he’s not lyrically developed yet, he is the most gifted rapper to come out of that region in a few years. His rhyming scheme is complex and smooth, while his delivery and timing are impeccable. This is easily the most promising project to come out of Atlanta since Young Thug was coming up.
#6. 4:44 – Jay Z
4:44 is the most personal and revealing look at Hov yet, covering everything from his marital struggles to his regret of the actions of his younger. For years, the biggest complaint about Jay was that he repeatedly came back to his drug-dealing days lyrically and never was able to really overcome that.
But 4:44 goes beyond that surface level, and in songs like “Family Feud” and “4:44”, you hear a man who not only wants to move on from his past immaturity, but wants to forget about it entirely. The voice of regret, shame and maturity was never really heard from him until this album and it creates the most genuine record of 2017.
#5. Laila’s Wisdom – Rapsody
Rapsody’s words cuts right through the noise to paint the image of a complicated person trying to navigate the obstacles of society and love in the 21st century in Laila’s Wisdom. What stands out about this project in particular, is the rapper’s Kanye-esque ability to bring out the best in her features to create awesome tracks.
She repeatedly collaborates with Anderson .Paak and BJ the Chicago Kid to create a number of tracks that contemplate and reflect on modern love and desire. There are a number of other stellar features on the album but Rapsody really shines solo. On solo songs like “Sassy” and “Pay Up”, the prodction gives off vibes of TPAB while her flow is inventive and different.
Laila’s Wisdom is one of the most revealing and deepest records of the year, but not quite enough to rise in the rankings.
#4. The Iceberg – Oddisee
The Iceberg applies the same Iceberg theory for which it was named to create a deeply complex EP which hopes to offer a look into Oddisee’s personal life, while also adding incredible insight into police brutality and radicalism. Oddisee steps up as a producer once again on The Iceberg, but the lyricism he displays is the real headliner.
“You Grew Up” is the most insightful song of the year, covering how the seeds for racially motivated police brutality and Islamicradicalism are planted at a young age. While “Rain Dance” deals with Oddisee’s personal shortcomings in life and love. Meanwhile, he continues to improve his flow and delivery.
What makes Oddisee so unique is that every track is self-produced and almost entirely instrumental. He is unlike any other artist in the game, and while he may not be the biggest draw, The Iceberg solidifies him as a premier voice in hip-hop.
#3. 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time – Big K.R.I.T
Big K.R.I.T perfectly balances an LP subsisting of club tracks and dope production with an intensely personal window into his faith, struggles, and personal life in 4eva is a Mighty Long Time. The two sides (Big K.R.I.T and Justin Scott) sound radically different from each other and that both of the sound euqally superb is a testament to the skill level of Big K.R.I.T.
The first side sounds like the most well produced album of the year while the second side is lyrically devestating, combining observations about faith, material objects and personal struggles into am incredible record. “Bury Me in Gold” is a denunciation of the importance of material objects, burying the common belief that material objects determine ones value in life. “Keep the Devil Off” is a testament to faith and religion in the world. The album is completely complex and borders on classic with its obvious versatility.
#2. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle
Fueled by frustration over gentrification and institutional racism, Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream serves as a rebellion against the system and stereotypes that impact millions of Americans nationwide. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is the most conscious album of the year lyrically, production-wise, and in topic.
This project deals with three topics almost exclusively– racism, gentrification and oppression. Tracks like “Brick Body Complex” and “My Auntie’s Building”, combined with the cover art, attempt to humanize those forced out of their homes by gentrification. Rather than solely focusing on impacts on the masses, he humanizes them. Eagle wants to identify them not as a building with residents, but a tight knit community of human beings who are being forced out of their homes.
Identified as art rap, the production is incredibly unique, and does not sound like your average rap album but is great nonetheless. That, combined with the flow and lyricism, creates the second best album of the year.
#1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
In the Compton kid’s fifth EP, Lamar takes on his alter ego, Kung-fu Kenny, to confide in the listener and discuss the trappings and pitfalls of his newfound fame behind incredible production. After the wildly successful releases of good kid, m.a.a.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar was being anointed as the savior of rap.
Multiple times on this project, he fights back against that annointment. On “XXX.” he admits he can’t rise to the god-like expectations placed upon him in the event of tragedy. On “YAH.” he claims he’s not “A politician/Not bout your religion” after he was said to be the most woke rapper in the game following TPAB.
While this is a huge step lyrically, production-wise it’s unlike anything we’ve seen from Lamar to date. This album sets out to prove KDOT can follow mainstream trends in music, but he can dominate in those fields. His past projects were filled with experimental beats, flows, and rhythms but DAMN. uses fairly conventional production to get his point across. All of this culminates into producing the best album of 2017 and adds to Lamar’s already legendary resume.