Disclaimer: All of this music contains cuss words and inappropriate subject matters. So if for some reason you are reading this and listening to the music with children then… don’t, I guess?
It’s been a pretty garbage year in almost every possible sense, but at least we got some good music. I’d like to state right off the bat that I have done a bad job of listening to non hip-hop albums this year so this list will be solely rap music (also I have yet to listen to Atrocity Exhibition, so that is likely a glaring omission from this list).
Before I get into the actual list, I’d like to give an honourable mention to Watsky’s album X Infinity at the risk of losing all my credibility as a hip-hop fan. The album was fairly mediocre and typical for a Watsky album, but the “Lovely Thing Suite” series of songs from Conversations to Theories is incredibly powerful. Hopefully it can be a precursor for him further moving beyond the “White Kid Raps Fast” label. Now, onto the real list.
5. Do What Thou Wilt by Ab-Soul
This album likely would have been placed at 3rd or 4th had I had more time to listen to it, but unfortunately it only hit Canadian Spotify this Monday. DWTW is everything I wanted from a new Ab-Soul album: slurred flow, wacky lyrics, and lots of third-eye conspiracy talk.
Corny lines like “way too wavy for your sandcastle” would be insufferable from any other artist, but Soul manages to sell the lines with the perfect balance of seriousness and goofiness. This album also easily has some of the catchiest hooks of the year on tracks like Huey Knew THEN, The Law, and D.R.U.G.S. The latter track is some quintessential Soul, a love ballad to drugs where he ends his verse telling kids that they don’t need to do drugs.
Listen to: D.R.U.G.S.
4. Bottomless Pit by Death Grips
Death Grips is an acquired taste, to say the least. Bottomless Pit makes this very clear, taking less than 1o seconds on its opening track to descend into a complete storm of sound. No other group is doing experimental hip-hop to such an extreme and as well as Death Grips, and Bottomless Pit is a testament to that fact.
If this is your first exposure to Death Grips, it likely just seems like noise. But just as important as the chaotic noise is the breaks from that action. The contrast between the two is very well executed on this album, and MC Ride shows incredible range as he goes from almost incomprehensible shouting to smooth monotone rapping. This focus on negative space does make this probably their most accessible album since The Money Store, though I would still recommend starting there if you wanted to get into Death Grips.
Listen to: Eh (warning: video is nightmare fuel)
3. Hella Personal Film Festival by Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle is a comedian’s rapper. That is not to say that he’s a comedy rapper, just that his diction and flow is evocative of the way a stand-up comedian tells story. This leads to him outputting exceptional music which is, well, “hella personal”. As the title suggests, Hella Personal Film Festival is a series of musical vignettes telling stories from Eagle’s own experiences. Producer Paul White enhances this aspect of Eagle’s performance with incredibly dreamy and whimsical production throughout the album.
Concepts of anxiety, addiction, and feeling like an outcast are all here, and displayed in an extremely relatable form. The album’s greatest accomplishment is despite each of these songs tackling individual situations, it still manages to be incredibly cohesive and not just a collection of signals (unlike some albums this year, looking at you Kanye). Also, this album is just incredibly catchy and full of ear worms.
Listen to: Admitting the Endorphin Addiction
2. Splendor & Misery by clipping.
Concept albums are hard, many either rely too much on secondary material (i.e. Because the Internet) or just cannot fully commit to the concept (i.e. The Incredible True Story). clipping manages to knock their attempt at a concept album out of the park. Essentially, Splendor & Misery is an experimental hip-hop version of Kubrick’s 2001, focusing largely on the ideas of oppression and being an outsider.
The groups front man, Daveed Diggs (yes, that is the guy from Hamilton) is in peak performance both lyrically and with his flow. On the second track The Breach his breakneck pace not only sets up the exposition for the story of the album incredibly fast but also evokes a real sense of urgency. Many tracks on this album, like Wake Up and Baby Don’t Sleep, are legitimately chilling in the context of the album. I would say more but this is one of the few albums where I don’t want to give spoilers. This is easily the most slept on album of 2016.
Listen to: Air ‘Em Out
1. We Got It from Here by A Tribe Called Quest
This isn’t just a good album, it’s important. Coming out two days after the election of Donald Trump, it became 10 times more powerful as a form of rebellion for the oppressed. Nowhere is this theme more prevalent than the track We the People, an anthem for all of those who will likely be on the short end of Trump’s stick. ATCQ’s political messages are poignant and elegantly spoken all throughout the album.
One side of the album that is hard to ignore when talking about it is the passing of original member Phife Dawg, and the songs dedicated to Phife are indeed incredibly powerful. But I wanted to be sure to mention that this album has been pretty much my first exposure to ATCQ. Despite being both a comeback, farewell, and memorial album it isn’t difficult for a new fan to enjoy. This album is simply amazing hip-hop music, and I am going to go out on a limb and say that this album is an instant classic. Listen to this album if you only listen to one album for the rest of the year, it is just a straight up great album. Even if you are not a fan of rap, listen to this album.
Listen to: We the People
Song of the year is Ballad of Safety James, though.