Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top 10 Rap Albums of 2016

10. T.I. - Us or Else: Letter to the System

The full album version of T.I.'s near-perfect EP Us or Else doesn't quite live up to the earlier, but it also has a different goal. The format and the subtitle make that clear; instead of talking directly to his people, Us or Else: Letter to the System broadens T.I.'s audience to include people he feels like he needs to persuade, or at least confront.

9. Tachyon Ghetto Blaster - Heaven on Earth

NB: I went back and forth re: posting this in a forthcoming list because I've chatted with Kaigen a few times, and the artist bio he uses is still the one I wrote for him a few years back. I opted for this instead because 1) I like the fuck out of this album and 2) why not, I hardly know him (or Orko Eloheim at all).

Heaven on Earth is Kaigen and Orko Eloheim's debut EP, rapped in English and Japanese, and full of the kind of shitkicking bass and revolutionary lyrics that Death Grips and Run The Jewels only gesture toward unconvincingly. It rules.

8. K-Rino - The Big Seven

Houston went in this year. Two solid Z-Ro albums, two releases from Trae the Truth, two from Riff Raff and two from Slim Thug. And then there's 7 in one day from K-Rino.

The most remarkable thing about The Big Seven is just how consistent it is; Rino apparently wrote and recorded the albums over the course of about a year, and while there are definitely songs that suck, none of them are because he lets his standards drop. That's six and a half straight hours where K-Rino doesn't choose a single beat he can't quite ride, or write lazy in a way he can't deliver. And even though little of The Big Seven rises above that level of consistency to be something truly special, when it does it's pretty cool.

The most obvious example is when K-Rino is rapping about the Wizard and the Sorcerer; he goes into full storytelling mode, and his ability to consistently weave words gets complimented by a focus that takes him to a higher level. K-Rino also seems especially comfortable over Anno Domini beats (who are, as far as I can tell, a beat farm) that lean toward almost drill-style oppressive bells. In the right elements, his consistency becomes not a faint praise but a real asset.

On the other hand, K-Rino's got some shit he feels strongly about, and talks about so often, that makes it hard to go all in for him. These range from your run of the mill conspiracist tendencies like fluoride and chemtrails to complaining about how he gets labeled anti-Semitic because he likes to point out how Jews run the world or whatever. In a lot of ways its less disappointing than it should be, as in line as it is with a lot of rap that trends conscious. On the other hand, it's enough to put a damper on the whole project. Let's do a quick album by album:

  • Universal Curriculum is an album that reaches and explores styles, with a slight focus on sentimentality.
  • Conception of Concept has some hard shit on it, and some fun shit too.
  • Enter the Iron Trap is K-Rino's polemical album, from the pedantic "T.B.E." to the political "Exposing the Motive" and the historical "Elijah," and "Keepin' Your Name Alive," so much of it is an argument.
  • Wizard's Ransom is, appropriately, a speculative album, in the obvious way -- there's another story of a magical battle in the title track -- but also in the way that "If I Had" and "Game for Your Daughter" are of the genre of pretending K-Rino has children to pass advice on to.
  • American Heroes is a weird one, focused on broader America: BLM songs like "Administrative Leave," alternative histories (not in the speculative fiction sense) like "American Heroes," and paeans to straight cops like "Good Cop." God dammit "Translation" is probably the epitome of his -- and most -- conscious rap shit, full of good shit and then also lines like "question Jewish lies? that's anti-Semitism" and whatever that shit was about vaccines.
  • Welcome to Life is the advice album, and is significantly more confusing than it appears at first blush. Especially "Same Old Same," track 5 of album 6 of 7 that's about how rap tends to repeat its themes that is somehow not unironic, and "Abortion Song," which I assumed was just going to be gross but has a little more nuance to it.
  • Intervention is somehow the most consistent album of all seven, and includes the Wizard's final battle and a pretty decent thirteen minute posse cut.

7. Sasha Go Hard - Nutty World 3

Sasha Go Hard has been a staple, as far as I'm concerned, for the last three or four years. Of her two mixtapes this year, The Realest I Know has more straightforward hits, but Nutty World 3's consistent production that hits hard as fuck makes for a better whole.

6. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition

The fucked up thing about Atrocity Exhibition is that it kind of falls flat as an album. If you take it as a sorta conceptual whole with a unified aesthetic, at least. For something that seems like it ought to live or die on the appreciation of an aesthetic concept, that should be a death sentence; but the actual thing about Atrocity Exhibition is that its insistence is less about crafting a whole, and more about carving out space for some incredibly dope shit. "Really Doe," "Ain't It Funny," "Pneumonia" and "When It Rain" are all such incredibly good songs that absolutely wouldn't work without the rest of the album not quite working. Atrocity Exhibition is a controlled crash that serves up some beautiful shots, and those shots end up standing head and shoulders above most things that came out this year, including albums that were better than it.

5. Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book

The degree to which Coloring Book is about faith is something that I think has been talked about a lot, and it is good and true. The reason I really, really love it, though, is because it is a collection of people who really fucking love rapping. There's Chance the Rapper first and foremost, but then D.R.A.M. and Thug and Yachty, T-Pain and Noname and 2 Chainz and fucking Weezy, who is the best of all time. At rapping, of course, but especially at being happy to be rapping, because he so clearly is, no matter how he's doing it. And I don't really know that I can give something higher praise than that.

4. TT the Artist - Queen of the Beat

Baltimore came through in 2016, and TT the Artist is exemplary of that. A massive Baltimore Club showpiece, Queen of the Beat almost has a Trina meets Big Freedia vibe. More than anything, really, it's just a bunch of really dope music, with a dope rapper going in over it.

3. D.R.A.M. - Big Baby D.R.A.M.

There are big chunks of Big Baby D.R.A.M. that I'll likely skip whenever I listen to it in the future -- much of the album trends R&B more than I personally care for -- but the stuff it does well is such a celebration of rap and such a fun thing to listen to that I can't help but adore it. ""Broccoli"" with Lil Yachty is the breakout single, but ""Cash Machine"" is the best fucking single of 2016 without a close second, period.

There's also just some shit on this record that I enjoy. The bonus track ""Workaholic"" is a good example; it's pretty whatever in a lot of ways, except that it sounds like swagger at a sprint. Or the fact that "Sweet Va Breeze" feels genuinely weird with its cuts and whole vibe. It's the kind of closing song that makes how uneven the whole album leading to it was feel, if not intentional, at least acknowledged and ignored.

2. DJ Khaled - Major Key

If Coloring Book is a mixtape that works so well on its merits as a love of the act of rapping, Major Key is an album from the man who has made a career of it without really doing it himself. I've largely not seen Khaled's social media resurgence from the last year or two, but he's been instrumental in bringing together people who do the goddamn thing well and with love for a decade or more. He's a key figure in the '08 renaissance, when pop rap moved on from the circle of interchangeable, technically competent dudes to become the thing that it is today; Lil B may be the father to too many styles, but Khaled's the uncle who rounded up those kids and made sure they played and grew together.

Khaled's uncle-status is important because it gives him an in with so many people; he's never really had to inherit beef the same way peers or the head of a master-apprentice relationship has to. He's always been a bridge builder, for better and worse (I blame the entirety of Rick Ross' success on the man). So when he says "another one," you better fucking listen.

A lot of what makes Major Key so incredible is the way it pushes its participants. Take Kendrick's verse on "Holy Key," which starts out pretty sub-par until it ratchets up and becomes one of his best features in a year full of pretty strong appearances. Or take the fucking Final Fantasy arpeggiation for Travis Scott and Lil Wayne on "Tourist," which gives both opportunities to switch their shit up in ways they're both very good at. Or, the most obvious and outstanding, the way that "Nas Album Done" is a fucking Nas song with a contemporary beat that the dude goes fucking in over. Being completely frank, "Nas Album Done" is good enough that it alone is enough to push this whole album near the top of the list; the fact that he pushes people to new levels -- including a fucking track with Wiz Khalifa, Wale, and Meghan Trainor that isn't unlistenable -- adds to that, as does the album cover and the goofy, fun insistence on the theme. But fuck, man, "Nas Album Done."

1. 2 Chainz - ColleGrove

I've promised in the past that I wouldn't publish the 5,000 words I wrote about Wayne's 2015, so I'll keep the embarrassing shit to myself here, too. I'll leave it at the fact that Wayne's split from Cash Money has seen him alternately killing it and doing really important base (re)building in a way he has been doing all along, but hasn't had to do actively in like a decade. It's fucking great and inspiring and he just loves skating and hates cops and he's the best.

ColleGrove is 2 Chainz' album because of that split, but the collaboration is super important. The first song is basically just tity telling everyone how much he loves Wayne, and the rest is Weezy making sure 2 Chainz does his absolute best. It's such a fun, expressive thing, so focused on building together and enjoying and rematerializing history in the present to keep moving forward. It's a love of rapping that is situated and storied and there's a music video where Wayne and 2 Chainz are rap battling like its 8 Mile and it's the cutest thing I've ever seen.

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