After much deliberation, I’ve narrowed down my top 10 albums of 2016. The albums that follow, apart from the top spot, surpass the need for ranking as they’ve each earned a number of replays throughout the year. For organizational purposes I’ll number each project, but take those with a grain of salt. If you missed the honorable mentions, check them out here.
- Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade: Despite signing to the Los Angeles based TDE, Isaiah Rashad keeps much of his lazy Chattanooga flow on his debut album. Rashad’s 2016 offering is very reminiscent of that of his Tennessee confidant TUT, who released Preacher’s Son in 2015. Dealings with the temptations that accompany his new found fame are portrayed against a backdrop of smooth, complementary productions. Sparse snare drums pops against the warm melody on “Free Lunch”. Neither sounds though, limit Rashad’s raspy delivery, fading in and out similar to a drifting stream of consciousness. Despite the hip-hop stylings, The Sun’s Tirade has undertones of the Blues, as Rashad continually convinces himself, or at least attempts to, of who he is and how he’s grown since Cilvia Demo. And while he presents a very personal album, the features Rashad brings along never outshine his compositions, apart from one Kendrick Lamar verse on “Wat’s Wrong”. Notable Tracks: “Stuck in the Mud”, “Free Lunch” & “Tity & Dolla”.
- Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition: A critique commonly referred to about Brown’s fourth studio album was its departure, or evolution, from his past offerings. Despite being familiar with his name and outlandish voice, I lacked any such preconceptions going into my first plays of AE. That said, Atrocity Exhibition fills a much needed void in the rap genre. At its best, Danny Brown’s album evades any genre-locking descriptions, taking more nods from a grungier, chaotic rock sound than any of his rap contemporaries. AE’s production is heavily tailored to Brown’s delivery; tracks like “Pneumonia” accentuate his voice with carefully placed percussion despite sounding improvised, at least to an extent. As confidently as Brown presents AE, themes of paranoia accompany the all-out drug rush he explores throughout. Notable Tracks: “Dance in the Water”, “Downward Spiral” & “Rolling Stone”.
- ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP: Excluding TDE’s questionable artist promotion and album release strategies concerning SZA and SiR, the label responsible for a trio of Black Hippy releases in 2016 definitely had no shortage of press coverage. Hoova Q’s fourth effort released exactly three weeks following the critically acclaimed Still Brazy to an outpouring of critical support despite drawing similarities to YG’s project. The lyrical similarities, caused a deal of consternation in determining where to place Blank Face. However, Q’s commitment to varied production, ranging from trippy and psychedelic sounds on “Torch” to his bass-backed soliloquy on “Blank Face” lend themselves to greater effect than the G-Funk vibes of Still Brazy. The maturity of Q’s sound from a typical gangsta rapper from L.A. to that of a more experimental artist highlight the sonic growth that TDE embodies of late. While “Overtime” feels like the requisite love song, and “Str8 Ballin” doesn’t stray too far from your average rapper’s diatribes, the remainder of the album is cohesive and Q and his feature artists complement each other well, though E-40 may have had one of the most remarkable verses of the year on “Dope Dealer”. TDE also introduces another signee on Blank Face in Lance Skiiiwalker, whose soulful melodies play well with an ever appreciated sample of Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness”. Alongside tracks with SZA, Jadakiss, Vince Staples and the uncredited Kendrick Lamar (among others) Blank Face LP oozes the sound of an artist who had a hand in the total composition of his product. Notable Tracks: “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”, “Kno Ya Wrong” & “Ride Out”.
- Saba – Bucket List Project: If TDE was the best rap label of the year the Chicago was definitely the best city of 2016. Releases from rising stars Mick Jenkins, Vic Mensa, Alex Wiley and Noname (and plenty more) coupled with drops from Kanye and Common (still waiting on Lupe) kept the Chi as a staple in the hip-hop community, emphasizing a sound that doesn’t fall into the trappings of popular East, West or Southern artists. One such artist, Saba emerged with his debut album Bucket List Project. The Save Money affiliate presents listeners with 13 tracks that ooze the enthusiastic optimism of a college freshman. Saba very clearly has big dreams – if the title wasn’t enough, each track ends with one of his colleagues listing off something on their bucket list. While some wish list items are much easier said than done (particularly Will Fountain’s at the end of “In Loving Memory”) the inclusion of his cohorts with whom he’s collaborated and toured, creates a positive painting of a city that suffered from one of the nation’s highest murder rates last year. Additionally, the up tempo production suits Saba’s energetic delivery throughout verses that highlight growing up in Chicago’s west side. Memories of his grandmother’s house, his first car and the bevy of funeral homes, churches and liquor stores make for an earnest project by one of Chicago’s up and coming stars. Notable Tracks: “Westside Bound”, “GPS” & “World In My Hands”.
- Domo Genesis – Genesis: The disbandment of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, one of hip-hop’s alt-rap collectives, could have spelled trouble for any and all of the OF artists. While Syd and Matt Martians managed to break off into their own group, The Internet, with moderate success, it seemed fateful that most of the group would fade into obscurity as Tyler, the Creator continued to emerge as the only major solo artist. In 2016, however, Tyler has instead focused on growing his Golf brand, seldom releasing music (check out his video to Kanye’s “Freestyle 4”) and a number of OF artists have released new projects. And while none outshine the four-year wait for Blonde, Domo Genesis organized very cohesive debut album. Despite being his first full length studio album, Domo avoids an overly bright and cheery outlook. Instead he examines the path he took to his growth as an independent artist, and his motivations to continue along this pursuit. The weeded raps of Domo’s past are no longer the forefront, with the L.A. rapper taking audio clips of his supportive mother and jailed uncle to supplement his more faith driven narrative. His hazy production choices harken back to the late 90s and early 00s of looped and pitched up samples against dense but never overbearing bass, allowing Domo to flow effortlessly along all 42 minutes of his debut. Notable Tracks: “Dapper”, “One Below”, & “Questions”.
- Lance Skiiiwalker – Introverted Intuition: Lance Skiiiwalker, the first of TDE’s 2016 mystery men, dropped his debut album after contributing to a couple of soulful cuts from Blank Face and 90059. Skiiiwalker manages to disrupt any and all stylistic preconceptions throughout the album. As the active DJ of the fictitious INFJ/Skiiiwalker radio, Lance plays with a multitude of personalities while solidifying the impression that all of his musings are occurring in his mind’s depths. His persona’s schizophrenia pairs with his track production choices, with most tracks composed at least in part under his pseudonym Johnny Rocket. Where Skiiiwalker excels is in his ability to make the listener question his aural path, utilizing vocal filters and delivery choices that cause for a disjointed experience. From the muddled ramblings on “Forbidden Fruit” to the reverb heavy first half of “Stockholm”, Skiiiwalker exemplifies his mental recording studio where experimentation is king. Skiiiwalker isn’t so much as attempting to find a style as he is cementing his lack thereof. When a caller (Skiiiwalker as “Rebecca”) calls in to voice her disinterest in the DJ’s choices, he disregards her opinion in favor of playing more “hits.” Skiiiwalker’s auditory landscape, lasting a mere 34 minutes is less of a conceptual presentation as it is a showcase of his sonic capabilities, from the acoustic guitar on “Sound” to the more recognizable melodies of “Reality.” Notable Tracks: “Toaster”, “Could It Be”, & “Advantage”.
- Smoke Dza & Pete Rock – Don’t Smoke Rock: Seeing any name before Pete Rock that isn’t C.L. Smooth could be troubling for some hip-hop purists, but Smoke Dza assuredly holds his own against Soul Brother #1’s compositions. The biggest takeaway from this collaboration is Dza’s ability to seamlessly conform to the stylings of both the featured artists and Rock’s production. Dave East prefers a regal and impending beat, and Rock obliges. Rick Ross flows best on a looping string based funk sample and Rock delivers. Even BJ the Chicago Kid features alongside a piano based track that doesn’t stray from his comfort zone. But amidst the variety in production Smoke Dza is delivering his street savvy ways and hustler’s motivation with little effort. Dza and Rock manage to combine for an album that emphasizes both their roots in the gangly NY sound as well as their appreciation for the nationwide rap differences. Notable Tracks: “Dusk 2 Dusk”, “Last Name” & “Black Superhero Car”.
- Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!: Donald Glover had a whirlwind of a year, with his FX Television Series Atlanta receiving major acclaim and his casting as Lando Calrissian in the 2018 Star Wars spin-off. Glover continued to turn heads with the release of his take on 70s Funk on his third studio album. Echoing the sounds of Bootsy Collins, Funkadelic among others, Glover’s production credits only one other major contributor: Ludwig Göransson. The duo craft 11 tracks that move between racial tension and black empowerment, love and family, and life amidst his growing success. Their ability to authentically transition to a sound that underpins modern rap is a success story of its own accord. Notable Tracks: “California”, “Zombies” & “Terrified”.
- Kaytranada – 99.9%: Just as he adorns the album cover with 3 sets of eyes, Kaytranada and his debut offering deserve a few extra looks. The 24-year-old Hatian producer delivered a 15 track (Bonus track available on his website by beating a Kaytra themed Flappy Bird) collection of cuts best described as warm and bulbous. Despite residing in Canada, his island roots are apparent, through his incorporation of bells and chimes amidst filling bass. And while the cover art might have you expecting a sound closer to, say Flying Lotus or Tokimonsta, Kaytranada grounds himself in an contagious mixture of R&B, and Dance, with the occasional harder-hitting rap song. Contributing to his uniquely layered production are a number of features, including fellow Canadian modern jazz troupe BadBadNotGood, Chicago Rapper Vic Mensa, Syd of The Internet, and, maybe unsurprisingly, Anderson .Paak. Despite being his debut, even in the midst of a collection of well-known artists, Kaytranada stays true to his sonic preferences from start to finish. Notable Tracks: “Got it Good”, “Drive Me Crazy”, & “Vivid Dreams”.
- Anderson .Paak – Malibu: In this age of overnight internet stardom the path to national visibility seems to have never been easier. Despite the bevy of artists making music for the “Hustle,” seeing someone make a conscious and continual effort toward his goals stands apart from the masses. Brandon Paak Anderson, better known as Anderson .Paak released what many might think was his debut album at the start of 2016. However, the Oxnard native has been steadily laying his trademark raspy, sultry even, vocals on a mixture of hip-hop and neo-soul beats since 2012. After dropping a couple of Extended Plays under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy, .Paak released his debut Venice that largely went unnoticed, featuring only one other artist (SiR) and having production by some less notable talent. Following a call to contribute to Dr. Dre’s final album Compton, .Paak’s musical credibility flourished, and Malibu was soon to follow. Since its release .Paak has been virtually unstoppable, featuring beside bands as obscure as the future-soul Hiatus Kaiyote to the legendary A Tribe Called Quest, and preparing for contributions to the Free Nationals debut project in 2017. With Malibu, .Paak finally found his footing, using his unique voice to recount his life’s hardship through a series of vignettes. Despite the at times depressive but honest subject matter as he recalls his youth, .Paak’s infectious delivery (aboard production from giants Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, Madlib and more) provides for an album worth innumerable replays. Notable Tracks: “”Am I Wrong”, “Without You” & “Room in Here” might be my favorites, but you can’t go wrong with anything on this project. Keep an ear out for the Yoshi sample on “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance”, and the motivational anthem “The Dreamer”.
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