Since we are only in the infancy of 2017, I thought I’d post a list of my top 10 favorite hip-hop albums of 2016. While many of these also appeared on the Top 40 Albums of 2016 list and the Top 10 Favorite Songs of 2016 podcast, I wanted to focus in on a genre that had a really great year in terms of creative output. As you will see, my taste in hip-hop leans toward the more experimental and alternative, but if you’re interested in reading about some of the most innovative, thought-provoking hip-hop albums of 2016, this is the list for you. For some of these posts I used excerpts from past write-ups (I hope you don’t mind!).
Asphalt for Eden
Hip-hip may have become a mainstream entity in the past couple decades, but Dälek continued to refused to conform to the masses on their 2016 album, Asphalt for Eden. On the album, the band combine combustible pieces to result in an album that can be both confounding and enthralling at the same time.
9. Kanye West
The Life of Pablo
Let’s be clear: Life of Pablo is a flawed album. At times I hate its randomness, and at other times I relish the spontaneity that went into a project that refuses to follow the norms. Kanye West’s controversial Twitter rants leading up to the release of the album might give more insight into the unfocused mindset that went into an album thats moments of brilliance outweigh its blemishes. Instead of obsessing over tracks in the studio like he has in the past, Kanye has throw them all against the wall, imperfections and all. Maybe the album should be called “The Life of Pollock”.
8. Yoni & Geti
On their second effort together, Yoni and Geti created a concept album from the perspective of a famed musician, losing touch with reality and his love ones over the course of the album. This talented twosome unravel a tale of bizarre and unexpected imagery over watery backing tracks that create a lucid, dream-like listening experience.
7. Swet Shop Boys
Swet Shop Boys, a hip-hop duo comprised of Heems and Riz MC (both of Muslim descent), might just be the soundtrack of angst and hope that we have all been looking for in these trying times. Heems, formerly of Das Racist, teamed up with actor and MC, Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of” and “Star Wars: Rogue One”) to create Cashmere, an album with an even measured dose of angst and hilarity. Instead of responding to the imminent future of oppression with aggression, Heems and Rez MC show us all how we should be dealing with our fear: with humor, intelligence, and a positive energy to fight for the rights of all our brothers and sisters.
6. Aesop Rock
The Impossible Kid
Over the course of his 20-year career, Aesop Rock has gained a following built on his fun wordplay, his extensive vocabulary (named the largest in hip-hop by a study), and his ability to create complex puzzle pieces that the listener must assemble through repeated listens. His 2016 release, Impossible Kid, is just as bookish and playful, but his word tapestries are much more candid and confessional. As a 40-year old MC, Aesop Rock focuses in large part on the perils of growing old. Impossible Kid is a traditional Aesop Rock effort, but this time around, a beating heart can be found beneath all of his intricate, interlocking lyrics.
Honor Killed the Samurai
Earlier this year, the New York Post ran a front-page story about New York Fire Department Captain Kaseem Ryan, revealing that he is also the underground hip-hop artist known as Ka. In what would seem to be a celebration of a protector moonlighting as a starving artist, the Post instead opted to highlight his lyrics out of context and boil them down to simplistic nonsense “peppered with the N-word, drugs, violence and anti-cop lyrics.” What the misguided article failed to mention were the lyrics of wisdom and hope found on Honor Killed the Samurai, a Wu-Tang inspired slow-burner that came out just days before the Post’s hatchet job. Ka’s cerebral, low-key approach isn’t for everyone – clearly it requires more focus and attention than the New York Post has time to offer.
“Mourn at Night”:
Listening to YG’s 2016 release, Still Brazy, it’s easy to be reminded of Tupac Shakur with its classic g-funk grooves and his aggressive delivery, but the similarities with the legend go beyond just the album’s obvious nod. Much in the same way Shakur used his real life drama to guide his lyrics, YG has used tragedy to add depth and realism to his 2016 effort. Last year, YG was shot at his Los Angeles recording studio by an unknown assailant. Instead of nursing his wounds and going into hiding, he left the hospital that night and returned to the studio the next day, reinvigorated and inspired to tell his rags to riches story (along with all the drama that has come with it). They say that facing death can change a man, and based of Still Brazy, YG’s brush with death has focused his verbal assaults on targets worthy of his disdain.
“Who Shot Me”:
3. A Tribe Called Quest
We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service
We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service was recorded over a year ago but is the most politically poignant hip-hop album of 2016. The album opens with “The Space Program”, a song that mirrors their classic soulful sound all while taking on the exclusionary rhetoric of Donald Trump in a way that is quintessentially A Tribe Called Quest – imagining a future where black people aren’t allowed to go to space. “We the People…” continues to mock the Alt-Right, listing all the subgroups that Q-Tip coyly commands, “you must go.” The album’s only drawback might be its one hour run time, but it’s hard to complain when it has been 18-years since we’ve last been graced by these legends of hip-hop.
“We the People…”:
2. Miles Davis & Robert Glasper
The world of hip-hop has borrowed from the works of Miles Davis for decades now, ranging from Ganstarr to Queen Latifah to Notorious B.I.G. In the late 80s, sampling became a major issue of contention in the music business (similar to the current predicament with streaming services), but Miles Davis embraced the new movement near the end of his life. In fact, the last album he was working on before his death, Doo-Bop, was a hip-hop/jazz mash-up that contained samples from Kool and the Gang, KC & the Sunshine Band, and Slick Rick. It’s likely Davis would have enjoyed what producer/pianist Robert Glasper has done with some of his older work. Everything’s Beautiful is an album that takes sampling to another level, using snippets of piano, trumpets, and even Mile’s talking to create a new mix of alluring hip-hop jazz. The album is jam-packed with underground artists who live off the same boundary expanding muse as Miles did throughout his 50 year run as a game changer (some highlight appearances: Erykah Badu, Bilal, Illa J, and KING).
1. Danny Brown
Atrocity Exhibition opens with imagery reminiscent of Howard Hughes with Danny Brown shouting in his distinctive, nasally voice “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/ Been in this room for three days/ Think I’m hearing voices/ Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghost-es.” This bleak description sets the scene for an album that is one man’s struggle with drug addiction and his own sanity. The album’s production often mirrors this disorienting paranoia, brooding synths lurking around each plodding beat, psychedelic flourishes arising sporadically throughout. The samples are unpredictable, the beats stilted and awkward, and the instrumentation discomforting, but Danny is able to surf the wave of confusion and somehow make it all work together. By the end of this otherworldly, addiction-fueled expedition, Danny is still confused and lost, but his last verse is an assertion that music remains his northern star: “I just wanna make music/ Fuck being a celebrity/ Cause these songs that I write/ Leave behind my legacy.”
“Ain’t It Funny”: