The larger societal events of the past year had an interesting effect on rap music. Even more than usual, black Americans had to insist, as loudly and as often as they could, that they are human beings and should be treated as such. Rap being a black American art form, that came through in the music. There wasn’t a whole lot of straight-up rap protest music in 2016 — though there was certainly some — but there were so many ways in which the music sought to push that idea home, whether consciously or not.
More than ever, the best rappers working today are depicting themselves as flawed and recognizable humans, not as larger-than-life money-piling overlords. Rappers also seem to be beefing with one another less than they have been in recent years. Instead, we’re seeing twin revivals of uplift and anger. Even someone like the great and troubled Kanye West is continuing to highlight his own personal problems and making music that feels community-minded, drawing on support from his peers and his admirers. For once, it feels like we are — in one way or another — all in this together. And that’s made for some great music.
In past years, I’ve made sure the top of this list corresponds exactly with what’s in Stereogum’s list of the 50 best albums of the year. If there were six rap albums on that list, as there were last year, those six albums appeared, in the same order, at the top of this list. This year, largely because I can’t support the idea that Kanye West made a better rap album than YG, I’ve abandoned that. This year’s picks are my own personal favorites — though, of course, there’s still plenty of crossover with the Stereogum staff list.
40 clipping. – Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop)
39 Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade (TDE)
38 Dalek – Asphalt For Eden (Profound Lore)
37 Flatbush Zombies – 3001: A Laced Odyssey (Glorious Dead Recordings)
36 Travis Scott – Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (Grand Hustle/Epic)
35 Payroll Giovanni – Big Bossin’ Vol. 1 (Self-Released)
34 Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere (Customs)
33 Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (1017 Records/Atlantic)
32 Kweku Collins – Nat Love (Closed Sessions)
31 Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
30 Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman – Lice Two: Still Buggin’ (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
29 Young Thug – Slime Season 3 (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
28 Boosie Badazz – Out My Feelings (In My Past) (Lil Boosie Music)
27 Future – Evol
26 Kevin Gates – Islah
(Bread Winners’ Association/Atlantic )
25 DJ Quik & Problem – Rosecrans (Diamond Lane Music Group/Blake Enterprises.)
24 G Perico – Shit Don’t Stop (So Way Out Entertainment)
23 Young Thug – I’m Up (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
22 Joey Purp – iiiDrops
21 Future – Purple Reign (Freebandz)
20 Westside Gunn – Flygod (Griselda)
Terse and splintered hardnosed boom-bap from an upstate New York kid with a voice like what might’ve happened if Lil Boosie had grown up in Queensbridge instead of Baton Rouge. Westside Gunn and his older brother Conway are the next great hopes of East Coast ’90s revivalism, their murky style drawing on the forbidding spirit of those hallowed texts but avoiding pastiche by being hazier and weirder than any of their influences.
19 Saba – Bucket List Project (Self-Released)
It’s an epidemic: All these kids from Chicago coming with all these musically lush, lyrically incisive, fully realized, and genuinely moving full-length mixtapes. Saba’s story — a nerdy brainiac kid from a tough neighborhood, with an absent musician father — is a compelling one, and on Bucket List Project, he paints it with an impressionistic grace. And the production, much of it from Saba himself, is weightless and lovely.
18 AD & Sorry Jaynari – By The Way (Self-Released)
Those of us who aren’t from there like to imagine that West Coast rap is defined by its smoothness — chords, strings, we brings melodies, etc. But California has always had its share of hardasses, and AD, from Compton, is an absolute battering ram, a bellowing brutalist in the Freddie Foxxx mode. The contrast between his subtlety-allergic fuck-you-up delivery and producer Sorry Jaynari’s crisp sparsity is a lot of fun, and many of the Coast’s greatest hitmakers show up to help out.
17 Cam & China – Cam & China (Self-Released)
These two twin sisters started out with Pink Dollaz, probably the best group that the Los Angeles jerk scene produced. And now that that scene is dead, they’ve kept its brutally catchy efficiency alive while transitioning into hard-snapping fuck-you-up raps. They don’t sound anything like Diamond and Princess did on that first Crime Mob album; they don’t have that twang, and they’re a whole lot more technically skilled. But they have that same overwhelmingly brash attitude, and their debut EP promises great things to come.
16 Kodak Black – Lil B.I.G. Pac (Dollaz N Dealz Entertainment)
Kodak spent most of 2016 in jail, and he’s now facing some truly heinous sexual-assault charges that could (and, if they’re true, should) put him away for a lot longer. But the mixtape that he released just before going to jail shows a rap talent with enormous potential, a kid who can hang alongside his idols, drawling enormously endearing hard-life tails without compromising his hooks or his swagger.
15 Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Def Jam)
Rap’s greatest wiseass comes half short and twice strong, sneering beautifully over beats even weirder than the ones that ended up on Summertime ’06. Honestly, there’s a decent chance that this EP exists so that Staples had a chance to make a (great) long-form music video with Nabil. But on its own terms, this is still a searing piece of rap music and 2016’s best rap EP during a year when the format, at least within rap, is enjoying a long-overdue resurgence.
14 Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife 2 (Ear Drummer/Interscope)
“Black Beatles” is the obvious main attraction here — the hypnotic crossover banger that launched a million frozen-in-place Twitter videos and saved Rae Sremmurd from one-album wonder status. But the whole album goes heavy on that glue-y synth-rap sound, transforming Rae Sremmurd into something like a turn-up rap equivalent of Music For The Masses-era Depeche Mode. This one sneaks up on you.
13 Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
A couple of Dizzee Rascal albums and maybe Kano’s Home Sweet Home aside, grime is primarily a singles genre. It’s just not very easy to maintain that relentless, bugged-out energy over the course of a full LP. But after Skepta scored a handful of leftfield hits and became a globally vital name, he responded to all the pressure by just coming with banger after banger, switching them up enough to keep the sound from getting monotonous but hitting hard throughout. And he did it without a whole lot of famous guests, which is even more impressive, especially when you think how easy it would’ve been for him to go full Drake.
12 Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar is in such a great place that he can release an album of outtakes and it’ll still be one of the best rap albums of the year. As it turns out, the songs that didn’t make To Pimp A Butterfly are, at least compared to what’s on the album, straightforward neckbreakers, and it’s an absolute treat to hear Kendrick back in rappity-rap mode, if only temporarily. And now that he’s showed us he can still do this better than just about anyone, it’ll be fascinating to see where he goes next.
11 21 Savage & Metro Boomin – Savage Mode (Self-Released)
Savage talks about committing unspeakable acts and sounds absolutely bored doing it; he’d be a great film noir character. Meanwhile, Metro’s beats crackle and drift like the best ambient music, creating a subtle but forbidding backdrop. Thanks to those beats, Savage basically already is a film noir characters.
10 Noname – Telefone (Self-Released)
Noname has been throwing dazzling verses on her peers’ Chicago rap mixtapes for years, but it wasn’t until now that she really got to open up and show what she can do. In its melodic warmth and its inward-looking generosity, Telefone recalls some of the great neo-soul records of the late ’90s. But she’s also one hell of a rapper, making her complicated and revealing lyrics sound effortless by delivering them in a lilting, conversational singsong. There are moments on Telefone that will just break your heart.
9 Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo (GOOD Music)
A messy work of psychosis and bad faith and delusion and anxiety and defensiveness and uncertainty — and also a collection of really, really good rap music. More than ever, Kanye West is hell of a curator, and with this one, he turned Desiigner into a thing, transformed Young Thug into gospel, summoned transcendent beauty when he crashed a Nina Simone sample into a Sister Nancy sample, and helped push Chance The Rapper toward paradise. With all its great moments, it’s also a seamy, incomplete piece of work — something that makes it all the more fascinating while preventing it from reaching the classic status that is always Kanye West’s goal.
8 Ka – Honor Killed The Samurai (Iron Works)
It was almost funny when the New York Post tried to make a cover-story controversy out of Ka’s lyrics and his day job as a fire chief. The tabloid tried to portray the Brooklyn rap veteran as some sort of degenerate rabble-rouser, and it couldn’t have been more wrong. As a musician, he’s a dark, meditative voice. He mutters cryptic aphorisms over ambient sample-flickers that he produces himself, and he releases and distributes his oddly monastic records on his own. On his latest, he finds common ground with the warriors of feudal Japan, seeing beauty in their ritualistic pride and self-sacrifice. He is, in so many ways, an inspiration, and the thought that a guy like that is pulling people from burning buildings should make us all feel safer.
7 Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
For the past few years, Young Thug has cranked out so much frantic, disorienting music so quickly that individual albums or mixtapes have had a tough time standing out. But with Jeffery, he’s pulled together everything he does well — the gibbering vocal tics, the singular twisting language, the wild inventiveness, the sneaky melodic craftsmanship — and turned it into one dizzy, inviting body of work. From its oddly beautiful cover art on down, Jeffery is a complete package.
6 Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
Danny Brown is one of our most exciting rappers and, when he wants to be, one of our heaviest. Both qualities are on full display on this album, on which Brown rips through a tangled and splintered web of instrumentals, most of which come from the great UK producer Paul White. On Atrocity Exhibition, Brown is in feverish real-talk form, ripping to shreds the idea of himself as a turn-up party monster. And yet these songs, when played loud enough, have the sort of urgent energy that can make for great party music.
5 A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
The mere existence of this album is a small miracle. This year, we mourned the unfathomable loss of Phife Dawg for months before learning that, before dying, he had reunited with his old group, rebuilt all his burned bridges, and recorded a brand-new comeback album. We learned that the group recorded the whole album in Q-Tip’s home studio and that some of Tribe’s greatest admirers would be on it. And impossibly enough, the album lived up to any possible expectations, bringing an aged wisdom while keeping the relentless cleverness, the sonic experimentation, the slaphappy silliness, and the poetic social awareness of the group’s heyday. Phife’s loss was a tragedy, but he got a beautiful sendoff.
4 ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP (TDE/Interscope)
ScHoolboy Q came up with a crew of free-thinking expressionists, and he’s got that side to him. But he’s also an absolute G-rap hammerhead, a force of erratic and destructive energy. The tension between those two sides has always been what’s driven his music, and they’ve never come together better than they do on Blank Face. The album is all scattered, bloodshot intensity, and it finds Q rapping so hard that even legends like Jadakiss and E-40 have to push themselves to keep up with him.
3 Kamaiyah – A Good Night In The Ghetto (Self-Released)
There’s nothing revolutionary about this one other than how fucking good it is. With her debut mixtape, Oakland’s Kamaiyah has given us an unbroken string of backyard-barbecue slaps, riding the rolling basslines and funky synth-twinkles of classic Bay Area rap while showing a whole lot of personality. There’s a breezy, conversational joy to her music, but there’s also an undertow of real struggle and sadness. And the heavy songs — like the one about missing a dead friend, or the one about wondering what it’s like to be rich — make the triumphant party-rockers that much sweeter.
2 YG – Still Brazy (Def Jam)
This bellowing Compton street-rap knucklehead may not have been the political rapper we wanted, but he turned out to be the one we needed. For most of his sophomore LP, YG made crisp, hard, endlessly catchy rider music, music that nodded to the G-funk of his city’s past while maintaining a brutal efficiency that kept it sounding vital. He was able to dig deep into charisma and bad faith, especially when talking about his 2015 shooting, without compromising his boundless swagger. But it’s the focused, fiery set of political tracks — most importantly, the anthemic and ever-more vital “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” — that put Still Brazy over the top. Nobody has fused G-rap immediacy with anti-racist rage this perfectly since early-’90s Ice Cube.
1 Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book (Self-Released)
In a year when radical positivity feels somehow defiant, you will find no better example than the buoyant joy that Chance brings to this, his third solo mixtape. He sings with gospel choirs and raps alongside his heroes. He celebrates the birth of his daughter, the strength of her mother, and the benevolence of his God. He lets his voice crack with exuberance. And he puts together a bouncy, lively, organic musical tapestry that feels like a Sunday-afternoon block party in the best possible way. Days after Coloring Book arrived, I was still stuck in a smiley cornball funk because of the idea that something this beautiful could exist. And months later, the buzz is only just starting to wear off. If Chance could conquer the world with a record like this, there may yet be hope for the world.