Saturday, January 07, 2017

Best Rap Albums of 2016

(originally posted at rapreviews)

2016 offered many reminders of how hard and unfair life can be, and how quickly things can fall apart. In a year when internet trolls took over national governments, overt racism and anti-semitism become politically acceptable, and civilians in Syria were publicly bombed to death while the rest of the world stood by, music helped me connect with the rest of the world in a powerful way. I’m disappointed and fearful of how the internet has divided and radicalized people instead of bringing them together, of how it has created echo-chambers that reflect back the reality we want to believe in rather than how things actually are. The one outlier in all this is music. Music has remained an honest voice in the wilderness, reflecting back people’s actual experiences rather than outrage porn, regurgitated talking points, and blatant misinformation. It is is especially true of hip-hop, which has long given voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized. Whether it was  the street poetry from a gifted craftsman like Ka, or YG trying to figure out how reconcile his gangsta persona with being a grown up, or Vic Mensa calling out police brutality, or Danny Brown wrestling with addiction and depression, 2016 offered many opportunities to listen to people who don’t normally get a voice in the world.

Here are ten albums I liked the best from this year, in order:

10. Kate Tempest, “Let Them Eat Chaos” An album about trying to connect in post-Brexit London and the things we do to distract ourselves.

9. Aesop Rock, “The Impossible Kid” Aesop’s most personal album yet, and one of his best.

8. ScHoolboy Q, “Blank Face” I can’t really defend this on an intellectual level, but this ish bangs.

7. Ka, “Honor Killed the Samurai” One of the most skilled and exacting MCs in the game makes another great album.

6. Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exhibition” A druggy party album about the downside of being a druggy party rapper.

5. Frank Ocean, “Blonde” “It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire/In hell in hell there’s heaven.”

4. YG, “Still Brazy” An unapologetic gangsta rap album.

3. A Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service” I had no reason to hope that another Tribe album would be released, and even less hope that it would be this good. R.I.P. Phife Dawg.

2. Anderson.Paak, “Malibu” He’s a rapper! He’s a singer! He’s a drummer! He’s like a less annoying Bruno Mars!

1. Solange, “A Seat at the Table” This is a fierce, beautiful album, and the album I listened to the most this year.

Disappointments of the year:
De La Soul, “and the anonymous Nobody…” This isn’t a bad album, but as a lifelong De La Soul fan (and backer of their Kickstarter), it wasn’t the comeback album I wanted. I found it to be a little lifeless and I had a hard time with the casual misogyny. Why are a bunch of men in their 40s rapping about sexy bitches and trainwrecks?

Atmosphere, “Fishing Blues,” I love Atmosphere’s brand of confessional story rap, but they have become almost a self-parody at this point. Slug can still unleash when he wants to, but too much of “Fishing Blues” is territory that Atmosphere has tread to death.

Kanye West, “Life of Pablo” I sincerely hope Kanye gets the help he so clearly needs, and I do not want to pile on the circus that surrounds him, but I do not understand what people see in his work. At this point he could release an album of himself burping the alphabet and Pitchfork would give it a 9.4.

Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book.” I loved “Acid Rap,” but I couldn’t handle this album. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I lost my ability to put up with Chance mumbling in a baby voice. Maybe it’s because I live with a three-year-old.  

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