By Andre Grant and Michael Stover
What a year it has been. Anything that could have happened, did, and it feels like we're all just sitting here licking our wounds. But let's not look forward just yet. This past year was an incredible one for music. Old stars and new joined together to make amazing records — all of them telling a story, all of them desperate and unique. Below, we take a look at the ones we thought moved the needle.
Nolan the Ninja
Detroit emcee Nolan the Ninja crushed it on his debut album, Left Of Center. A proper mix of sharp lyricism mixed with beats influenced by the old-school will have Nolan on your radar. But it’s when he slows down and speaks to you, artist-to-listener, that we understand where Nolan’s “he[art]” is.
It finally happened, we got a Frank Ocean album that — in my opinion — was 500% worth the hype and worth the wait. Frank Ocean reminded us why we love him while still bringing something completely different from his previous releases.
Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin'
Cudi's year has been a bit of a rollercoaster. From his feature on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1," one of the most highly-regarded tracks from Kanye's TLOP, to having a mild beef with 'Ye, Drake and more, he eventually took time off to focus on his mental health and wellness. He came out on top, serving as an example for self-care and releasing this album, which boasts the classic Cudi sound with new flavor and features from Andre 3000, Willow Smith, Pharrell Williams and more.
Chance The Rapper
Chance the Rapper makes one of the strongest arguments for Person of the Year, and it all started with his third mixtape Coloring Book. He brought guests from all over the rap universe together and snagged his first Grammy nomination, so we’re all rooting for Chance.
In my opinion, Atrocity Exhibition is the most Danny Brown album we’ve gotten since his inception. The Detroit rapper holds nothing back. Handling the majority of the lyrics himself, Brown opens himself to us in the only way Danny Brown could.
I waited pretty much a whole year for this album. Malibu from Anderson .Paak was a great album in its own right, but he sounds perfect when combined with the vintage soulful samples of Knxwledge. Channeling the '70s, NxWorries came through with one of the best releases this year.
Rapsody has proven herself time and time again, and yet she still comes with the fire. Her latest EP, Crown, which came at the tail-end of the year, has us excited for her Roc Nation debut.
Beyoncé. Her name alone should suffice for an explanation. The number one pick to pretty much sweep the Grammys, Beyoncé dropped what I believe is her best work to date, challenging the listener and still making the turn-up music we love.
A Seat At The Table
Now some of us are a bit new to Solange’s music. But for others, this is a long time coming. She’s been making consistently groovy music for years, and its all come to a head with A Seat At The Table. This album makes a strong case for Album of the Year. If you haven’t heard it yet, what are you doing?
Black America Again
Common dropped Black America Again at the perfect time, and he uplifts us, teaches us and challenges us all in the same album. Karriem Riggins' heavy jazz influenced production brings it all together. Did I mention there’s a remix of a track featuring Gucci Mane and Pusha T?
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service
A Tribe Called Quest came back to save us from 2016. Right after the terrible election cycle, Q-Tip, Phife, Ali, along with Busta Rhymes and Consequence gave us a lot of hope as we close out 2016. RIP Phife Dawg.
Drake continues his streak of being in the conversation for Best Rapper in the rap game right now. Views celebrated going quadruple platinum last week, and with his next release right around the corner it’s no surprise Drake is seen as one of the best.
After dropping his classic sophomore album To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick proved that even the “throwaways” were both genius and important. Lacking proper engineering, Kendrick gave us rough drafts from the TPAB session.
The Life of Pablo
The Life of Pablo was discombobulated, all over the place and random, from the marketing campaign to everything that’s gone down afterward. However, 'Ye showed flashes of his days in school, he gave us some of the first vocals we heard from Frank in a while and dropped one of the best songs of the year in “Ultralight Beam.”
Rihanna continues her reign. Truth be told, I’d put her impact along with that of Beyoncé, Solange, NoName and more. And I’m sorry, but “Work” will be in my turn-up mix for years to come.
Boasting influences from soul, hip-hop and more, Jamila Woods gave us something that’s been missing a bit this year — and that’s love. Jamila’s heavenly voice matches the production. This is that feel good music.
I don’t know about you, but ever since I heard NoName I knew I needed to hear a solo release from her. From working with Chance, Lil B, Saba and more, Telefone is NoName’s story. Get hip now, because the Chicago emcee is getting set to tour in 2017.
Awaken, My Love!
We had no idea what we were going to get from Childish Gambino this year. This time, however, the Atlanta star threw rapping out the window in exchange for funkadelic instrumentals and singing we didn’t know he had in him.
Dreamville emcee/singer Ari Lennox came out with a short EP titled Pho. She shows her versatility on it and honestly has my ears perked for whenever she decides to drop a full-length.
Bucket List Project
I mentioned Saba alongside NoName because of their work together, but Saba’s Bucket List Project holds its own. Channeling his confidence and environment, we get a lot of diverse music from this project.
I can’t front, I slept on this project at first. But the combination of spacey instrumentals combined with Richard’s peaceful yet still commanding voice won me over. Everything from her aesthetic to her voice and choice in production made Redemption one of the year’s best.
H.E.R Volume 1
H.E.R dropped her EP H.E.R Volume 1 in September and the production and laid back flow and voice fit the mood of fall perfectly. Channeling more vintage R&B and neo-soul, we're chomping at the bit waiting for a full-length from her.
The Cozy Tapes Volume 1
I have been waiting for A$AP Mob to drop something as a collective since their inception, and this year we finally got that. Let’s just pray that Volume 1 means there’s a guaranteed Volume 2 from the New York collective.
21 Savage & Metroboomin’
What better way to introduce yourself as an artist than to have one of hip-hop’s best producers provide the soundscape. That’s what 21 Savage got with his Metro Boomin’-produced Savage Mode. Thus boosting 21 to potentially lock down the Best New Artist spot.
Alicia Keys answered the call this year with Here. Covering a diversity of topics with jazzy production in the background, Here was an eye-opening yet hopeful listen.
Corinne Bailey Rae
The Hearts Speaks In Whispers
Heartbroken and grieving on her last LP, Corinne Bailey Rae went into exile. Now, she returns to her honey-wisped roots, crafting touching songs filled with a lightness that overflows.
De La Soul
The Anonymous Nobody
12 years ago De La Soul -- rap's original alt-left -- dropped The Grind Date and promptly bounced. Now in 2016, after a Kickstarter campaign and label troubles, they return. What's sweetest about Soul is their penchant for making art they like. The result is a string of disparate sounds colliding in a Large Hadron rap collider. Also, no trap drums, which is nice.
Big Baby D.R.A.M
This year was a trash fire of rhetoric, death, nonsense and dread. But a lot of music was mostly the opposite, hopeful and triumphant. D.R.A.M's debut was its own secret room of mood boards and I-gotta-make-it aphorisms laced with deep soul and his infectious tenor.
Jay IDK is criminally underrated. Empty Bank was a comic book noir featuring shady banksters, conspiracy theories, black angst and Jay's own alter-ego vying for control over his higher self.
YG's still on top of his game. He's one of the only artists to make it from the West Coast without a direct Dr. Dre co-sign, and he continues to make provocatively introspective gangsta music. Plus, "Fuck Donald Trump" has (unfortunately) proven to be ahead of its time.
We Are King
The triumvirate, King, dropped a Minnie Riperton LP in 2016. It's sweet and gentle as it echoes in your mind after every listen. It's the kind of music that pops into your mind when love happens.
Negus is one part negro spiritual and one part cotton candy, and the through line that bifurcates these two nexuses is Kemba's voice. It's as if a ghost is singing you its tales of woe filled with warnings, insinuations, malice, and, ultimately, love.
This album soars. Then, when you're miles from earth, looking at that blue marble sitting in that pitch black basket, it ascends further in all directions. The jazz album of our time.
Josiah Wise and Haxan Cloak form the duo serpentwithfeet, whose exploration of minority, queer life is as beautiful as Moonlight and equally as tender. At 20 minutes, the songs feel fragile in your ears. Young and full of hope.
Vic Spencer & Chris Crack
Who The Fuck Is Chris Spencer
Bars on bars on bars. Vic Spencer and Chris Crack are true rap believers. This is their revival pamphlet — the kind of rap that knocks on your door and asks you if you have some time for our lord and savior The Notorious B.I.G.
Blank Face LP
Capital H for Hoover and this album held you close to Q's chest, smelling of malt liquor, weed and ambivalence. Beyond the outstanding features, this is Q’s finest hour because he finally mixes the narrative of his inner world with his party leanings.
Dev Hynes was bullied in school. They'd surround him on the walk home, squawking, their path to mediocrity unfolding in silence before them. Dev didn't let his light go out. And after several iterations, Blood Orange has become an archivist of '80s synth. He molds careful homage while adding new age flourishes to make deeply resonant soul-pop music. And Freetown Sound is transcendent, as though Prince came and executive produced the album himself.
4 Your Eyez Only
J.Cole took us all by surprise this month when a mysterious album was listed on Apple Music, and the project dropped shortly after. Although it wasn't the Kendrick/Cole collab many are still waiting for, Jermaine brought us an album that tells a story about love, growth pain. It's a commentary on our world as much as it is an ode to his fallen friend.
If Nas has an heir apparent, it's Joey Purp. He's rap’s newest watcher, an emcee that sees in ordinary things extraordinary worlds teeming with life. And has the vocal dexterity and creativity to communicate it.
Like few others, dvsn is primarily a stylist. The work is muted pop tied together with his intractable ability to be appealing. His voice sits just right, making the flourishes of signature songwriting feel that much more special.
A Good Night In The Ghetto
Rap is delightful right now because so many players are doing so many different things. A case in point is Kamaiyah, with her throwback G-Funk sounds lit under the fire of her chill tomboyish charm. She's the girl-next-door but nowhere near average, and she's hilarious to boot.
Kevin Gates's success is at once ordained and baffling. Islah really does simmer with stability — An energy that's no doubt been brought to the forefront because of certain life choices he's chosen. I mean, "I Don't Get Tired" is at once a play for Nike dollars and a hood anthem. Go figure.
Sremm Life 2
The most fun group in hip-hop, Ear Drummers spelled backward returned with future crunk, radio-ready anthems to get you dancing nasty in your chair. And we can't forget the smash hit “Black Beatles.”
If you can believe it, Vince Staples has grown even more serious on this new EP. It's a slight departure from his look at street tales from an insider's view, but it shimmers with taut lyrics and beats that are experimental for the Long Beach emcee.
There’s A lot Going On
In a sane world, "16 Shots" is the song of the year. In ours, it's a footnote. But Vic Mensa refuses to give up, crafting art house records for the blood-and-gore crowd.
In The Fader, Kaytranada came out. With 99% he's done that again. It felt like a sudden leap, as though he'd been crafting his album in a hyperbolic time chamber. It was future jazz, and it was so warm that it glowed.
BJ The Chicago Kid
In My Mind
BJ's enormous potential finally showed out on In My Mind, letting his golden voice do the talking.
Bruno Mars made one of the most fun projects of the year. It's so ridiculously catchy it makes you want to concoct a conspiracy theory. But it's also careful -- the rare homage that tastefully updates new jack swing while keeping its raucous, lusty soul.
Telana makes the sort of sultry, bonafide R&B that singles her out for greatness. This free project flew mostly under the radar, but it sizzled.
Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight
Travis Scott left his raver past behind with this one, and it was still fine. The songs are complex, life-affirming odes to self-expression. We needed that more than ever this year.
What did we miss? Let us know your favorite albums of the year in the comments below!
Andre Grant is a writer and editor from Elmont, New York.
Michael Stover writes for Blavity and is the Managing Editor for DeadEndHipHop.....loves bacon over everything.
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