2016 was a strange year.
Looking back at my Top 100 records of 2015 is a reminder that there simply weren’t as many excellent releases this year. With Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Lupe Fiasco’s “Tetsuo & Youth”, Joey Bada$$’s “B4Da$$’ and Oddisee’s “The Good Fight”, you had a varied, very complete picture of modern Hip-Hop, but 2016 never really saw that. Amidst the arguments between traditionalists and the new generation of so-called mumble rappers, there was an increasing divide between the heavyweight rappers. Just look at the numbers Drake did on his album “Views” (over 1 million in the first week). That’s 42% of the Top 10 first week sales data (2,470,000). When you look at 2015 (which Drake topped again with “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”), Drake’s slice drops to 21%. In 2016, the Canadian crooner doubled his first week sales’ dominance with J Cole doing almost half that, and then Kendrick’s “untitled” did half of what “To Pimp a Butterfly” did, with 178,000 in the first week. These numbers are skewed by including streams, but it highlights how big Drake’s star is, and how fans just aren’t buying first week like they used to. If any predictions are to be made on 2017, it’s that the gap between the commercial, radio-friendly label artists and the more traditional emcees (“who got bars” as Funkmaster Flex puts it) is going to get bigger and bigger given how streams and YouTube hits are becoming more important than ‘buys’. That’s not necessarily a bad thing given how much money independent artists such as Nipsey Hussle and the aforementioned Oddisee are earning.
While 2016 hasn’t been the most memorable musically, I’ve enjoyed what it has offered. This is the first year I’ve properly delved in to Grime, spending countless hours on YouTube channels such as JDZMedia and GRMDaily. There’s a wealth of raw talent all across the UK and it’s often those not from London who sound a little different, that I’ve taken a shine to. Leicester’s Kamakaze, Nottingham’s J Dot, Northampton’s Izzie Gibbs – these guys are pushing the genre forward in exciting ways. There weren’t too many albums that stood out due to the nature of Grime’s sound – polished studio-recorded LPs just aren’t as common as they are in Hip-Hop. Nonetheless, I played a lot of Bugzy Malone’s “Facing Time” and Frisco’s “System Killer”. Izzie Gibbs’ “Jutsu EP” delivered some brilliant singles that didn’t garner as much attention as they perhaps should have. Skepta released his third LP “Konnichiwa” which was essentially a selection of older singles combined with Americanised (or should that be Americanized) production that went down well with a lot of critics but was underwhelming to some.
But as far as Hip-Hop goes, I’m not going to drop a Top 100 this time around as it was hugely time-consuming and the first half consists of decent-to-good entries anyway. So I’ll list some records I enjoyed this year, ignore the ones I was disappointed in, and then share my 10 favourite records from the past twelve months.
10 Records I enjoyed (honorable mentions)
Vinnie Paz delivered his best solo material yet with “Cornerstone of the Corner Store”. It’s harsh, it’s politically incorrect at points, and it’s not going to convert those that aren’t in to Vinnie or his Jedi Mind Tricks work, but if you’ve taken a break from Vinnie’s music or want something more aggressive than 99% of what’s out there, this record will scratch that itch. If “The Void”, “Philo: Metatron Wisdom” and “Herringbone” don’t move you, I’m not sure what will.
Perhaps the most slept on record this year is Havoc and Alchemist’s “Silent Partner”, an album that took me by surprise given Havoc full-lengths tend to have a few bangers (“Be There” on “The Kush” for instance) and then a bunch of mediocrity. Every beat here knocks, clearly an Alchemist influence rubbing off on the Mobb Deep producer, having come off of a good run of Gangrene records with Oh No. Songs like “Seize Power” and “Throw in the Towel” have that classic Havoc morbidness, and I would be all for hearing a new Mobb Deep record on that vibe.
A Tribe Called Quest’s “We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service“ was a refreshing blast from the
past, reminding us all how much rap music misses the group dynamic, particularly the mic-passing chemistry that these guys have. Tip and Phife (RIP) sound as if they enjoy their craft more than ever, something you can’t say for many emcees nowadays. Given the sad circumstances surrounding this record, it’s full of fun moments – Busta Rhymes sounds like he’s grown back the dreadlocks and rolled back the years with his wild guest spots while heavyweight guests ranging from Talib Kweli, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar all contribute in a more effective manner than how guests did on De La Soul’s album.
Torae’s “Entitled” was another strong addition to the Brooklyn emcee’s discography highlighting he’s more than the stereotypical New York boom bap rapper. Even the predictable DJ Premier feature on “Saturday Night” is a funny tale of how ordering a Chinese takeaway quickly turns sweet then, err, sour. Track after track knocks hard, whether it’s “Clap Sh*t Up”, “Get Down” or “Crown” featuring the nasty 3d Na’tee (one to watch). Let’s just ignore the 11 minute “Shoutro” because it’s only worth one listen.
Marq Spekt (along with Has-Lo) is another unsung underground emcee who keeps putting out great music, “Keep Playin'” being his second collaborative LP with Blockhead. When you start off with the lines “I took a long walk off a short pier, just to get my thoughts clear”, you know it’s going to be full of gems, and Marq’s vicious delivery is massively refreshing in a genre that so often sees emcees rhyming half-asleep. There was another Marq Spekt album released this year with Mobonix called “Bionic Jazz” that’s more soulful, but I’m a sucker for those block-rocking Blockhead head-knockers (stick that on your album cover, lads).
It’s been a great year for R&B so I’m going to throw Yuna’s “Chapters” in to the mix, especially with Big Sean & Jhene Aiko’s “TWENTY88” project largely disappointing. Yuna is a Malaysian vocalist and her latest record is similar to Jhene Aiko’s work (but without the sleepier songs). Usher lends star credence to the single “Crush”, DJ Premier’s “Places To Go” is something you used to hear Guru dropping verses to (RIP) and then “Used To Love You” features the goddess herself. It’s an impressive, smooth listening experience that is up there with the likes of Solange, Alicia Keys and Fantasia.
Gensu Dean and Denmark Vessey’s “Whole Food” is just that, complete, digestible and incredibly moreish. When I said that every beat on the Havoc and Alchemist record is good, it’s because “Whole Food” is on another level – two overlooked Hip-Hop artists that have crafted greatness. The first six tracks’ are set back a bit by the underwhelming “Gun Emoji” but it quickly picks up again. I’ve not enjoyed as much of Mello Music Group’s output this year as I did in 2015 but this one is definitely a must-listen.
Westside Gunn’s “FLYGOD” is guaranteed to grab your ears (as well as your eyes judging by the memorable artwork), with the likes of “Shower Shoe Lords” and “Chine Gun” capturing that dusty alleyway rap of yesteryear without the faintest hint of forced nostalgia. Drawing on New York influences (Gunn is vocally somewhere between Action Bronson and Shyheim, yet stylistically closer to Hus Kingpin and Roc Marciano) Westside Gunn’s youthful sound adds extra menace to his imposing block tales, with Daringer’s atmospheric backdrops outshining bigger names such Alchemist, Statik Selektah and Apollo Brown.
Your Old Droog seems to have shaken off the Nas comparisons and he’s all the better for it; “The Nicest” showing he’s clearly a more ruthless persona, immediately noting he “doesn’t make music for mass consumption” on the opener “We Don’t Know You”. At six songs long, this EP flies by with Droog sounding like an angry veteran, proudly reeling off 90s wrestling references on “Listen” and belittling rappers jumping on hot trends to remain relevant with “Wave Rider”.
Izzie Gibbs’ “Jutsu EP” is a potent, often aggressive piece of polished Grime that I really enjoyed. Dominated by “Mandem” and “My Life” it nonetheless remains a high-point for the genre in a year that saw numerous strong releases. One to watch in 2017.
My 10 Favorite Records of 2016
10. Aesop Rock’s “The Impossible Kid”
I’m the last person to like an Aesop Rock record, having struggled with everything he’s released outside of the single “None Shall Pass”. His rhymes are often impenetrable, his beats are largely unconventional – and yet “The Impossible Kid” boasts neither of those complaints. Granted, it’s still a lyrically complex record, but Aesop’s opted for a more accessible set of instrumentals that slap and slam harder than I ever thought they would. “Lotta Years”, “Dorks”, “Rings” – all of these tracks are fire, especially if you like the Run the Jewels records.
9. YG’s “Still Brazy”
YG’s “Still Brazy” is further proof that the Compton rapper has overtaken Game as the West Coast’s gangsta rap figurehead, making a record that’s a whole heap of fun to listen to (although somebody needs to do a drive-by on them skits). He boldly claims to “be the only one to make it out the West without Dre” which may not be completely accurate, but it’s a statement of intent – the current West Coast gangsta rap scene isn’t reliant on Dr. Dre any more. It’s also got “FDT”, an unabashed response to the Donald Trump insanity going on in the States, which many emcees haven’t really talked about on record. “Still Brazy” may suffer from some contradictions (pleas for racial equality while the record is full of homophobic and sexist messages – “She Wish She Was” especially) but the uncensored nature of YG’s raps lend the party-friendly, wistful production a darker sense of reality.
8. Classified’s “Greatful”
Probably the most accessible record on this list, “Greatful” is Classified’s best album and it’s a shame that it was largely overlooked this year. The guy had Snoop Dogg and DJ Premier on the first two tracks for God’s sake, but it’s the thematic approach to rap that had me hooked. Some may not be keen on the variety of production here, but Classified has always toyed with a more mainstream sound whilst maintaining his authenticity. “Having Kids Is Easy” is full of funny on-the-money moments, as is “Work Away”, while “Heavy Head” mentions how the industry wanted to force him to work with pop groups like Simple Plan. There’s an amicability to Classified’s rhymes that many can relate to– especially any fathers with young children. Responsibility isn’t the most fashionable thing for an emcee to talk about, but it’s as real as it gets, and Classified’s digestible, often humorous delivery is executed to perfection throughout much of “Greatful”.
7. Ugly Heroes’ “Everything in Between”
Red Pill and Verbal Kent, otherwise known as Ugly Heroes (alongside producer Apollo Brown), managed to recreate the chemistry and range of emotions they captured so perfectly on their self-titled work from 2013. It doesn’t quite have the scathing impact of their earlier work, but three years later it means Red Pill has sharpened his teeth, quickly developing in to one of the nicest emcees on the microphone. If you found his solo effort “Instinctive Drinking” a bit too depressive and morose (which unfortunately I did), “Everything in Between” is the perfect alternative.
6. Skyzoo’s “The Easy Truth”
Skyzoo’s latest may as well have been called “The Easy Choice” because year after year, he’s banging out great albums. Having Apollo Brown on production ensures consistency throughout, yet these beats aren’t your traditional Apollo sounds. There’s melancholy, there’s head-slammers, there’s infectious horns, violins, pianos, you name it! I don’t think people realise how diverse Apollo Brown’s skills are behind the boards, but “The Easy Truth” showcases this. Skyzoo sounds at home over these instrumentals too, holding the torch for New York with songs like “Jordans & a Gold Chain”, the solemn Joell Ortiz collaboration “A Couple Dollars” and “The Flyest Essence” even makes reference to the Nas & AZ collaborations from the Big Apple’s heyday. There’s certainly a renaissance going on in New York right now, and Skyzoo is at the forefront of it.
5. Kano’s “Made in the Manor”
It’s a shame that Skepta’s “Konnichiwa” won the Mercury Music Prize over Kano’s “Made in the Manor”. There I said it. Kano’s “Made in the Manor” is a rare example of modern British rap music done right. It feels British without pandering to the sentimentality that British Hip-Hop often suffers from, in turn feeling earthier and grimier. This should come as no surprise to regular listeners of Kano, but “Made in the Manor” is his most complete record, showcasing an emcee who can successfully bridge the Grime/Hip-Hop divide. The fact he does it so effortlessly confirms that British rappers can hold down a decade-long career without “doing a Dizzee”, and Kano’s legacy could well become one of the greatest in Britain. The flawless flow on “New Banger” and bonus track “GarageSkankFreestyle”, the warts-and-all honesty running throughout “Endz” and “Little Sis”, the sheer variety of the production reaching outside of the realms of just beats and rhymes. It’s got the lot – check out Matt Jost’s excellent review if you don’t believe me.
4. Lecrae’s “Church Clothes 3”
It’s often easier to pick records that were released earlier in the year, because they’ve had a chance to be played more. Well, you know what, I listened to this mixtape a lot this year because it was released in January and was open to regular plays working both as a piece you’d play in the background, or something you could listen to more carefully. Lecrae’s often overlooked and I really don’t know why. He’s an animal on the mic, his beats are fire, and he isn’t cursing every other bar. Production comes mostly from frequent collaborator S1 and a lot of these beats have etched themselves in to my brain – “Deja Vu” and the haunting “Forever” are hard to resist. I know it’s customary to mention Lecrae’s heritage as a Christian rapper but you wouldn’t know it if you were new to his music. It’s just nice to hear someone rapping about aspiration without mentioning materialistic excess – only in Hip-Hop is lateral thinking considered a criticism. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked – go buy “Church Clothes 3”!
3. Rapsody’s “Crown”
A lot of pressure has fallen on Rapsody’s shoulders this year. I always feel odd comparing female rappers but in such a male-dominant genre, it’s hard not to. But hey, I’m not going to! The fact remains, few men, women or extra terrestial are touching Rapsody when she’s in full flow. “Crown” is so confidently executed (even busting out some notes on “Tina Turner”) that it feels Rapsody is on the cusp of dropping a classic LP. “Crown” isn’t quite that moment, but its gems are plentiful. “Take It Slow” encourages young women to not jump in to bed with men and has the lady treating the man on a date. This womanliness is crucial and is a middle-finger to the YGs spewing their misogyny. “Through With Him” again makes men claiming to be ‘players’ sound like children reliant on their mother, further reminding us men that we are nothing without our women. If “Crown” tells us anything it’s that Rapsody is the Queen of Rap right now.
2. Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu”
Purists may scoff at the genre-stretching nature of Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu” not being a rap album, but it may as well be. It’s got more soul and flow than 90% of rap music released this year and to me, it felt like the album Dr. Dre should have made with “Compton”. It sounds so God-damned gangsta, effortlessly so, reminding me of a young Bilal. With names like Madlib, Hi-Tek and DJ Khalil involved, it’s no surprise that we’re looking at a sonically supreme experience, but its Anderson .Paak who steals the show with his distinct mix of harmony and rap. .
1. Elzhi’s “Lead Poison”
HipHopDX recently compared J Cole to Nas, but the true heir to Queensbridge’s finest is Detroit’s own Elzhi. His clarity, flow, wordplay, concepts and choice of production are all top-tier – arguably better than Nas’ have been. He even re-did “Illmatic” putting his own spin on it with live instrumentation – can you imagine having the audacity to re-do “It Takes A Nation” or “”Ready to Die”? Now, some aren’t too keen on “Lead Poison”’s beats but they purposefully complement Elzhi’s rhymes – the opposite to how many rap albums work. The undertones of drear showcase Elzhi’s depressive mind state and as the album title suggests, this record can be heavy. There’s a desolate mood throughout “Lead Poison” that adds to the loneliness – as if you are a guest in Elzhi’s head (because hey, there are no guests). The insane depth to the lyrics rewards repeated listens, with some songs pushing the very boundaries of song writing – “Egocentric” is a classic example.
It’s my favourite album from the 2010s – a masterful performance that cements Elzhi’s status as one of the best lyricists.