Streaming changed things. 2017 was the year that rap once again reaffirmed its stranglehold on the collective imagination of America’s youth. Like the moment when Billboard first started using Soundscan and inadvertently proved the massive popularity of N.W.A, the streaming services of the world showed just how powerful this music remains. Rap dominated streaming charts. Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B and Migos and Post Malone and DJ Khaled scored #1 singles. Chance The Rapper headlined practically every festival this summer and then hosted SNL. A new wave of raw, scrappy, lo-fi SoundCloud rappers rose up, and even they managed to score pop hits. And a few rappers even made some really, really good albums.
The best rap albums of the year were sometimes sprawling and sometimes concise. They came from all different corners of the rap world, from Atlanta’s still-thriving trap scene to the murkiest corners of the underground. The albums on this list might not have much in common, but they’re all complete visions, and they all showcase rappers at or near the peak of their powers — or, in the case of someone like Jay-Z, finding whole new ways to showcase their voices.
A couple of quick notes. First: This is my personal list, which means it’s got some inconsistencies with Stereogum’s list of the year’s best albums. And I made the decision, this year, to leave off any artists who have been accused of assaulting women or of sexual predation. Whatever its strengths, in the current climate, it’s impossible to judge an album like Kodak Black’s Painting Pictures without considering the fucked-up stories about the person who made it.
40 Don Q – Corner Stories (Highbridge/Atlantic)
39 Your Old Droog – Packs (Droog Recordings)
38 Big KRIT – 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time (BMG)
37 Juicy J – Highly Intoxicated (Self-Release)
36 Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers 3 (Grind Hard)
35 Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom (Def Jam)
34 Future & Young Thug – Super Slimey (Epic/300/Atlantic)
33 Mach-Hommy – Dump Gawd (Self-Release)
32 Freddie Gibbs – You Only Live 2wice (ESGN)
31 Young Dolph – Thinking Out Loud (Paper Route Empire)
30 Mozzy – 1 Up Top Ahk (EMPIRE)
29 Quelle Chris – Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often (Mello Music Group)
28 Armand Hammer – Rome (Backwoodz Studioz)
27 Chief Keef – Thot Breaker (RBC Recordings)
26 Ghostemane – Hexada (Self-Release)
25 Brockhampton – Saturation (QUESTION EVERYTHING INC./EMPIRE)
24 Jonwayne – Rap Album Two (Authors/The Other Label)
23 Wiki – No Mountains In Manhattan (XL)
22 Cardi B – Gangsta Bitch Music Vol.
21 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music (Universal)
20 Oddisee – The Iceberg (Mello Music Group)
I’ve always valued this DC rapper/producer more as a producer than a rapper; his mostly-instrumental 2011 album Rock Creek Park remains his greatest work. That holds true on the new The Iceberg, too, with its splashing cymbals and lush synths and subtle, percolating house-music undertones. But as a black American Muslim staring at a fucked-up new America, Oddisee has a whole lot to say here: “What is there to fear? / I’m from black America, this is just another year.”
19 Future – Future (Epic/Freebandz/A1)
Future no longer comes off like the man who lives at the heart of rap’s angry, lean-addled darkness. But when he’s his bleary-eyed best self, he’s still capable of powerful things. The self-titled album Future released early in the year — the first of two released seven days apart — is Future in his zone-out zone, muttering meditatively over muted trap production, coming up with helf-realized hooks in his almost-literal sleep. And the album includes “Mask Off,” a staggering, flute-laced opiate binge that immediately became Future’s biggest-ever hit, and one of his best.
18 Tee Grizzley – My Moment (300 Entertainment)
Late last year, Tee Grizzley, then 22, got out of prison after serving two and a half years for a series of robberies. Immediately upon his release, he recorded “First Day Out,” a bracing and emotional piece of post-Meek Mill street-rap fundamentalism. “First Day Out” was the sort of song that quickens your pulse the second it kicks in, and it announced a major talent. My Moment, Tee Grizzley’s first mixtape, is spotty and uneven, but at its best, it shows more of that same rigorous fire. Since he released it, he’s only gotten better. He’s going to be a problem.
17 milo – who told you to think (Ruby Yacht)
Calisthenic Scribble Jam battle-rap morphed into art-rock around the time Themselves first started putting out records, but it may have found its purest art-rock expression in the latest from this Maine rapper. Milo makes twisty, internally focused, atmospheric rap music, music as drowned in nostalgia for an older backpack-rap era as it is reminiscent of it. To fully hear an album like this, you have to immerse yourself in it and zone out. And Milo is talented and observant and thoughtful enough to make it worth the effort.
16 Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group)
There’s a lot going on on the latest from Open Mike Eagle, a longtime habitue of the Los Angeles smart-kid underground. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is, at least in part, a concept album about the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes, a Chicago housing project with a long history. But it’s also full of family anecdotes, pro-wrestling references, and vignettes about a made-up superhero called Iron Hood. That sounds messy and ambitious, and it’s both of those things. But thanks to Open Mike Eagle’s easy confidence and relaxed delivery, it’s also a warm and thoughtful look at a changing works.
15 Payroll Giovanni – Payface (Self-Release)
As the leading face of the long-running Detroit street-rap crew Doughboyz Cashout, Payroll Giovanni has been doing dark, heavy, cold-blooded street-talk for years, and he still seems to get better at it all the time. Payface is a lean and hard and disgusted piece of music, with Payroll laying out the thrills and heartbreaks of illicit business while mercilessly shitting on anyone who does it wrong. And it can be funny, too; there’s a Montell Jordan parody called “This Is How We Move It.” And producer Helluva keeps everything moving at a clipped, efficient pase, with absolutely no time for bullshit.
14 Princess Nokia – 1992 Deluxe (Self-Release)
On the first track of 1992 Deluxe, an expanded version of a 2016 mixtape, Princess Nokia is already talking about her eczema. She’s a fearless rapper, one who’s fully willing to talk about shortcomings and self-image issues and the sorts of granular, personal problems that don’t often find their way into rap music. But she’s also a tough, in-control snarler, a classic New York type. And on 1992 Deluxe, the vision of her hometown that she projects is one that will never quite lose its personality to gentrification. Shortly after the album’s release, a video of Princess Nokia throwing hot soup at a subway racist went viral, and that same sense of defiant strength is all over her music.
13 21 Savage, Offset, & Metro Boomin – Without Warning (Epic/Sony)
Here we have a quickie collaborative album with a vague horror-movie theme, thrown out into the world on Halloween and not necessarily meant to be heard long after. And yet this one has legs, largely thanks to the muted, eerie intensity of those Metro Boomin beats. Right now, nobody is doing red-sky dying-world rap music like that guy. And while 21 Savage’s chilly menace is fun, this ends up being the Offset show; the athletic flair he bring to “Ric Flair Drip” is the sort of thing that every trap rapper should study.
12 Kamaiyah – Before I Wake (Self-Release)
Rap music is a fluid, constantly-evolving art form, but some things will always be true. And this is one of them: Sometimes, rappers are great because they sound really cool when they talk shit. Kamaiyah sounds really cool when she talks shit: “400, who y’all don’t wanna fonk with / Fuck around with the gang, you get stomped in.” The Before I Wake mixtape comes after months of false starts and album-release delays, and Kamaiyah presented it as something that could simply tide audiences over. It’s not. It’s more than that. It’s one of the coolest rap records of the year.
11 Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls (Atlantic)
After years of pushing his voice in a million different exploding fractal directions, Young Thug did something truly insane: He relaxed. Beautiful Thugger Girls still has plenty of unpredictable vocal turns, but they’re all in service of a greater vibe. This is contemplative, contented sigh of an album, with Thug seeking and sometimes even finding actual straight-up beauty. Over warm, restrained beats, he lets himself wander, easing off into a sort of sunset bliss. He deserves it.
10 Goldlink – At What Cost (RCA)
For most of the past few decades, Washington, DC’s primary black-music exports have been soul and go-go, the riotously percussive tribal funk that never really took hold elsewhere. Now that DC rap is coming up in the world, GoldLink has done his best to take his city’s entire black-music history, from its soul and go-go past to its secret underground-rap tributaries to the street-rap it’s currently producing. He’s taken those strains (as well as the twitchy house influence he’d already shown), and he’s made a lush, thoughtful, organic statement of local pride and defiance in the face of gentrification. And along the way, he’s made “Crew,” quite possibly the year’s most smoothly self-assured open-windows banger.
9 Jay-Z – 4:44 (ROC Nation)
A total midlife-crisis movie: Aging superstar talks infidelity and business regrets and how much he hates when these new kids hold money-stacks up to their ears and pretend they’re talking on the phone. He shells out for a pile of Nina Simone samples and put the whole thing up on his own vanity streaming service. In the prospect, he gets nominated for a huge pile of Grammys. But because the aging superstar in question is one of the greatest rappers ever to do it, it’s still plenty compelling, full of quiet revelations and even quieter darts. And because all the production comes from Chicago legend and onetime Kanye West mentor No I.D., the whole thing has a smoothly cluttered bounce that’s unlike any past Jay album.
8 G Perico – All Blue (Self-Release)
G Perico is a man out of time, an old-school West Coast head-buster with a head full of curls, an easy way with gang references, and a nasal, DJ Quik-esque sneer. But while his sensibility is pure mid-’90s, he makes perfect sense in the current moment, as he rides smooth and streamlined beats and cranks out three albums’ worth of music in just over a year. The best of them is All Blue, Perico’s official debut. There’s nothing showy of it, but it’s just ridiculously solid and satisfying — a quick and efficient 35 minutes of sticky hooks and brutal threats.
7 Amine – Good For You (Motown)
It would’ve been so easy for this Portland newcomer to turn into a one-hit wonder; his exuberantly horny viral smash “Caroline” was, after all, a hard act to follow. Instead, he put together a good-natured pan-genre party, one where Metro Boomin and Disclosure get production credits, where the guest list somehow includes both Offset and Girlpool. Amine’s persona is about as relatable as it gets. He’s a broke, stoned, girl-crazy everyman type, and he’s the only one of this year’s XXL Freshmen to rap about going to Costco to buy a smoothie. He still doesn’t have a second hit, really, but he has something more important. He has a personality.
6 Drake – More Life (Republic)
Drake seemed a little lost in Kendrick Lamar’s big year — no world-conquering hits, no statements of dominance, no jumping on remixes of blowing-up songs and then immediately overshadowing those songs with his mere presence. But with More Life, he shook off everything about the commercially massive, artistically dead Views. Rather than a passive-aggressive, self-indulgent, feelings-first opus, he gave us a long, meandering piece of globally-inclined party music, with trap and grime and dancehall and house all getting moments to shine. There are intricate subliminals, deft flexes, big guest-verses, and quietly assured pivots from one genre to the next. It’s everything a Drake album needs to be. And if that wasn’t enough for the man to absolutely dominate the year, as he has in so many years past, fair enough. Maybe it’s just somebody else’s turn.
5 Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)
2015’s Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples full-length debut, is an absolute classic of headslap rap music, a hard and minimal and uncompromising double album that shows equal amounts swagger and pathos. In following it, Staples didn’t try to outdo it. Instead, he went left, riding a succession of futuristic, Detroit techno-indebted beats from visionary producers like Zack Sekoff and SOPHIE, with luminaries like Justin Vernon and Damon Albarn on hand to add barely-audible contributions. It’s a daring, far-sighted approach, and it works, creating a whole new context for Staples’ merciless monotone shrug and showing updating the late-’80s hip-house sound for a post-EDM era.
4 Brockhampton – Saturation II (QUESTION EVERYTHING, INC./EMPIRE)
Kevin Abstract likes to refer to his anarchic young LA-based rap collective as a “boy band.” And while Brockhampton are not performing synchronized chair-humps onstage — or not yet, anyway — you can see what he means. As with all the classic boy bands, Brockhampton are a collection of outsized personalities, and it’s fun to pick your favorite. (I’m partial to the dextrous, winningly grizzled Ameer Vann.) And as a boy band, the fun in Brockhampton is in hearing them all together, in getting to hear the sense of joyous young-man giddiness from all of them coming together. The better of the two albums that the group released thus far this year, Saturation II is messy and slapdash and all-over-the-place, and it’s also an explosion of energy and ideas and charisma.
3 Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge (Marci Enterprises)
Right now, much of the rap underground owes its sound to a crusty veteran of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad. In 2010, Roc Marciano, then a largely forgotten figure, released the self-produced Marcberg, a flickering, meditative album that reimagined the classic sound of ‘90s New York boom-bap as internal, ominous, psychedelic mood music. Plenty are still following his example, but with the possible exception of regular collaborator Ka, Roc Marci still laps all of them. Rosebudd’s Revenge is crammed with dazed and crackling beats, side-of-the-mouth film-noir mutters, and perfectly crafted crime talk: “Olive oil-colored horses is the spoils of war / Ten bricks of raw under the floorboards.”
2 Migos – Culture (Quality Control/300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
At the tail end of last year, a video went viral: A huge crowd in Lagos going absolutely bugshit to “Bad & Boujee,” the curiously downbeat Migos banger that would go on to fire people up everywhere else as well. It was a portent of things to come. 2017 was the year that Migos’ tricky triplet flows and odd and sticky elocutions fully crossed over, that the North Atlanta trio became the monster stars that they always deserved to be. And they did it with Culture, the album where their bent and curious sensibility found its greatest expression yet. On Culture, we hear the pure joy of three truly gifted rappers bouncing words and cadences and ideas off of one another, each one vying to sound the flyest, all of them somehow winning.
1 Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (TDE/Interscope)
Right now, Kendrick Lamar is in his imperial phase — that magical space where everything he does feels like some new world-conquering statement. Case in point: With DAMN., Kendrick rediscovered his swagger, fusing his searching and splenetic internal workouts with sneering, cinematic bravado. He reduced U2 to a mere soundbite and wrecked a few choice Mike Will beats in ways that Mike Will beats have never been wrecked before. In the process, he took over festivals and arenas, lodged himself in the Billboard top 10 for months, and embarked on the greatest music-video run that anyone’s had since prime Missy Elliott. Kendrick is a weird, intense, strenuous rapper, and he’s also one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Even in a time as corroded and dispiriting as this one, miracles happen.