10. Mick Jenkins – Pieces of Man
Jenkins makes an honest and respectful tribute to legendary Gil Scott Heron’s Pieces of Man from 1971. Much like Heron’s record, Jenkins’ is simultaneously entertaining, engaging and introspective. The production quality is high and the beats gesture to early/mid-90’s De La Soul type sounds.
9. Pusha T – Daytona
In his unique mid-tempo battle rapper style, Pusha T ruthlessly takes down Lil’ Wayne, Birdman, Weinstein, Trump, and the biggest clown of them all, Drake. One of the better produced albums of Kanye’s five he cranked out last spring. This album is Pusha T in fully realized form.
8. Mac Miller – Swimming
Considering how Miller started as a teenage party rapper singing about blunts, beer, Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza, and ended as a producing craftsman filling albums with his most personal experiences with depression, addiction and the ups and downs of life, this was an impressive album. You have to appreciate the growth Miller made and the risks he took as an artist to improve every step of the way.
7. Buddy – Harlan & Alondra
“Real Life Shit” and “Trouble On Central” are perfect examples of music that you really feel deep down. The music makes your head nod, it makes you think, and it’s authentic to the quintessential Los Angeles picture of an old school baby-blue convertible driving down the street blasting smooth R&B influenced hip-hop. The lyrical content comments on the struggle to live and survive and as a Black man in the inner city. The album could have been higher on the list but there are a few weak filler tracks. Buddy an artist to follow moving forward.
6. Saba – Care For Me
The album is an amazingly creative way to process grief and tragedy. Saba tells intimate and personal yet universal stories about his personal loss in his Chicago upbringing. The use of strings on this album is unlike any other project of the genre. Almost every song has a bending or plucking of a string or strings as a leading character of the beat. Sometimes jazzy horns or piano phrases take their turn but the sound is never too crowded to leave a lot of space for Saba to modulate his rapping around the instruments. Very promising sophomore album.
5. Noname – Room 25
This is 35 minutes of intensely genius insights in spoken word flavor over mellow, smooth neo-soul sounds. Noname embodies the vulnerability and suredness from Erykah Badu along with Kendrick Lamar’s ability to pack several ideas densely into quick verses. She covers existential anxiety in “Don’t Forget About Me,” America’s corrupt political system in “Blaxploitation” and heartbreak in “Window” and “Montego Bay,” all while being funny and thoughtful yet highly productive.
4. KOD – J Cole
In our day and time, it’s rare and refreshing to find an album – especially a mainstream hip-hop album – where all the tracks puzzle-piece-fit into articulable themes. In other words, an actual “concept album.” KOD’s content covers the different ways we choose to deal with life’s pain – through various addictions or seeking peace. There are sadder and personal songs like “Once An Addict” about his processing his mother’s addiction and sillier parody songs like “ATM.” The final song “1985” was an Internet sensation. It was perhaps the most precise and mature diss-track ever. If telling a six-year-old to eat the vegetables on their plate is a diss-track, then so is this.
The album’s sound is much more filled in and head-nodding compared to Cole’s previous album For Your Eyez Only, which was so bare it might as well have been considered spoken word. In a few songs, he combines old-school hip-hop drums with modern synths and melodies. Cole features himself, as kiLL Edward, for hooks and singing solos to at least mock the formula of a traditional hip-hop album. It may be a gimmick, but it’s a good one.
3. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
The singing rapping drumming, producing polymath might be the most talented in the game right now. Paak took huge steps forward from his last album in his approach to the project. However, it’s easy to tell Dr Dre had his hands all over the production with constant musical styling referencing the 90’s G-Funk era. R&B and Funk are embedded throughout the album with Dre’s unique atmosphere setting samples. “Anywhere” (featuring Snoop Dogg) samples One Way’s ’82 R&B hit “Cutie Pie” that makes you hallucinate streaming neon pink lights.
“Being the same man in a brand new car” is the theme of Paak’s third album. He talks about dealing with new fame, new riches, and new responsibilities while still having the same flaws and impulses. Some songs are raunchy and misogynistic (“Headlow” is a childish song about road-head), some songs are sobering, thoughtful and conscious, while some are all of the above in one. In “6 Summers” he takes on the President with the chorus “Trump’s got a love child and I hope that bitch is buck wild.” He proceeds to describe Trump’s real-life love child with imaginary characteristics that are all the things that would infuriate Trump. The track is also a commentary on mass shootings and gun reform, saying that while Trump may be in the White House three more summers, gun reform will probably be an ongoing issue for much longer. It was nice to see Paak add to his range of content and taking a risk by putting a personally held political belief out there.
2. Shad – A Short Story About A War
This is a science-fiction graphic novel in the form of a hip-hop album. It’s a creative concept album exploring the question, “If we were to disarm ourselves…be more open and loving – would we be crushed by the world or would we be more free?” in a world where violence and fear underpin so much. It starts with a boy who wakes up on a barren desert floor in a world with a void of courage and spirituality. With an almost opera-esque format, the album explores this question as Shad embodies the perspectives of five characters that all represent different angles within our own psyche. The album is a unique and imaginative way to process greed, spirituality, fear and faith in our era of endless global economic and physical violence.
1. Streams of Thought Vol. 1 and 2 – Black Thought
This is kind of cheating because it’s technically two albums, but there are no parents no rules on Planet FOMO. Black Thought described his first solo EP was “distinctively mature,” Unlike artist’s who rely on past accomplishments, Black Thought builds upon and hones his rapping technique like an athlete obsessively repeats drills just to get a half a step ahead of their opponent. Over grimy, old school beats, Thought spits wild internal rhyme schemes under perfect control. The album is full of contorted word pronunciations and manipulated syllables. He references go from contemporary pop culture celebrities to pan-Africanist political-theorists to classic Russian novelist in the same stanza.
- The Carters – Everything Is Love was so obviously a coldly calculated P.R move exploiting the public’s market demand for details and rumor-confirmation on their relationship’s ups and downs.
- Scorpion – Drake strategically put out a kazillion songs to inflate his streaming numbers and flood the charts. He shallowly, or too casually uses different musical genres as if they’re instruments giving his songs that cheap off-brand feeling. He rarely has anything interesting to say, even when he’s trying. His singing, rapping, and sing-rapping often don’t seem to actually be a part of the same composition as the music it is recorded over.
- Logic – YSIV Artificial intelligence can make classical music compositions and now they can make hip-hop albums under the pseudonym Logic. The album meets all the items on the checklist for a classic hip-hop album, but too forcefully and intentionally. Logic contrives tricks of the hip-hop trade enough to convince himself throughout the album that the Young Sinatra anthology is parallel to hip-hop’s greatest ever. Unfortunately, it’s not, and at times his self-congratulations come off as undeserved and pretentious without any of hip-hop’s necessary authenticity, soul and rebellious braggadocio.
- Vince Staples’ FM! was a total ego move by Staples to show everyone he can rap over gross factory machine sounds. He successfully proved it and his rapping is on point but the overall sound was not it, chief. Hip-Hop is still music after all.