The most widely discussed story of the 2016 rap season so far has been the hastily assembled “unfinished” project.
Kendrick Lamar issued Untitled Unmastered while Future released Purple Reign and EVOL. All three went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200Albums chart. In the past, these ad-hoc rap joints would have been posted for free on the Internet, and summarily termed mixtapes. But now that these things are being made for retail consumption, we’ve been forced to reconsider our terminology, especially since the artists themselves tend to resist labeling them as “official” albums. Are they demos? Or perhaps they should be called compilations, or audio sketchbooks? Or maybe, like Kanye West’s love-it-or-hate-it The Life of Pablo, they’re just software updates that turn our favorite stars into digital apps?
Meanwhile, much of what’s come out so far this year fits snugly into established trends, whether it’s Kevin Gates’ latest collection of Dirty South blue-collar raps, Islah, or Flatbush Zombies’ 3001: A Laced Odyssey, the latest entry in the retro-minded Beast Coast catalog. The real story so far, however, is that we’ve yet to see a new movement on the scale of 2015’s rise in activist-minded, black consciousness raps, led by Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As the year continues to unfold, we’ll see if a game-changing release, and not just marketing and sales initiatives, resets our expectations of hip-hop as an art form. Perhaps it will be Drake’s Views from the 6? While we wait, here are 10 albums worth checking out.
Kendrick Lamar, Untitled/Unmastered
This collection of tracks from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly sessions and beyond is a minor statement by design. It has value as a supplement, though, whether he’s teasing out his views on mental and physical poverty on “Untitled 02,” or trading verses with Top Dawg president Terrence “Punch” Henderson and Jay Rock about the reasons why some men gangbang on “Untitled 05.” At this point, anything Lamar releases deserves our attention.
Kevin Gates, Islah
Anyone who has followed Kevin Gates’ career shouldn’t be surprised that he finally broke into the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with “2 Phones,” which sounds like a throwback to the “ringtone rap” era (no pun intended). He enjoys a rep as a consistently impressive entertainer. Islah isn’t better or worse than his prior Atlantic/WMG projects, and that’s the beauty of it.
Flatbush Zombies, 3001: A Laced Odyssey
For a group that seemed to drop out of view after their 2013 mixtape BetterOffDead, this is a terrific reminder of Flatbush Zombies’ uncanny ability to summon the brawling, rah-rah spirit of golden era rap collectives like Goodie Mob and Cella Dwellas. The boom-bap tracks and 16-bar raps are purposely cartoonish, mystical and boastful, as if the trio aspire to be heroes in a Marvel comic book co-sponsored by High Times magazine.
Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival
Despite Paul White’s blurry sunshine-pop melodies and Open Mike Eagle’s reimagining of his songs as short films from his neurosis-driven life, this sounds like a sequel to the latter’s 2014 indie gem Dark Comedy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, This Unruly Mess I Made
The duo’s follow-up to their 2012 breakthrough The Heist has underwhelmed on the charts so far. (Perhaps a marketing push for their “Dance Off” single will change that.) But perhaps its modest success will engender some appreciation for Macklemore, who isn’t given enough credit for his incisive and self-critical lyrics and socio-political themes, and Ryan Lewis’ growth into an accomplished, underrated pop-rap producer.
Domo Genesis, Genesis
With appearances from Anderson .Paak, Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, this is a surprisingly robust album from a rapper who often seemed like one of the now-defunct Odd Future crew’s lesser members. Sonically, it reflects a To Pimp a Butterfly-inspired trend toward live musicianship and breezy jazz and soul. Domo Genesis’ lyrics about “promising God never to work a 9 to 5” and struggling to transcend his Inglewood origins animate this attempt at post-Odd Future relevance.
WestSide Gunn, Flygod
Pittsburgh rapper Westside Gunn fits snugly into the ongoing nostalgia for mid-’90s street hop. Thug heroes like Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren, and Roc Marciano guest on Flygod, while producers bless him with some fantastic beats, including Daringer’s drunk trumpet loop of “Chine Gun,” and Apollo Brown’s crackly girl-group soul on “Mr. T.” With so much star power, Westside Gunn sometimes struggles to stand out, and acts more like a high-pitched host than a central figure. In this case, that may be all he needs.
Young Thug, Slime Season 3
Young Thug fans tend to overstate his talent for creating bizarre melodic lines and weird vocal tics, while his detractors tend to underplay those same qualities and groan at how little he enunciates his words. There’s a funny Internet meme centered over whether Young Thug, who is from Atlanta,knows how to speak plain English. His latest doesn’t settle that debate, though it is better produced and more inspired than his previous 2016 release, I’m Up. Slime finds him continuing to fuss around in the studio, rapping and harmonizing for the sake of pure personal expression.
Lil Boosie, Thug Talk
Thug Talk is Lil Boosie’s third project in four months, and his anticipated mixtape with C-Murder is due later this month. These releases may be interchangeable, but they’re full of highlights, as the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, rapper celebrates his realness and speaks truth to power on black issues with a kind of aggression and power that seems nearly extinct in the wake of Kevin Gates, Young Thug, and countless other Southern “singrappers.”
There are so few live albums in rap history that J. Cole’s entry to this category seems worthy of mention. This document of a homecoming concert filmed for an HBO special captures the essence of his stage performances, as well as an alternate take on his 2014 Forest Hills Drive.