Unlike 2015, when Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly landed on hip-hop fans like a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, this year brought a surfeit of good-to-great albums and little consensus as to which was the best. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo may not have been the best of the lot according to this listener, but it seemed to capture the Zeitgeist: both buoyed and weighed down by pop ambition, ears more open than ever to outside influences, and searching in vain for a spiritual epiphany. This Top 10 list of albums only skims the surface of the year’s many trends and highlights, but it’s a great starting point.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Rap music with religious themes was a minor trend in 2016 (see Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo), but no one communicated the ecstatic sensation of being “Blessed” by Christ quite like Chance the Rapper. His Coloring Book brims with positive messages, whether it’s his assertion of independence from major labels on “No Problem,” or calling out Chicago’s homegrown juke dance scene on “Juke Joint,” while the music simmered with a surplus of post-millennial sounds like gospel, house, R&B and trap. Chance may claim that Coloring Book is a “Mixtape” and not a full-fledged album, but few if any rap projects had as much impact or creativity as this Chicago optimist’s launch into international superstardom.
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank U for Your Service
In a year when surprise releases became standard marketing practice, this final album from one of the greatest combos in hip-hop history counts as a true revelation. No one expected We Got It From Here, especially considering that group member Phife Dawg tragically passed away from diabetes complications this spring during the making of the album. Even more remarkable is that ATCQ’s first release since 1998’s The Love Movement is hardly a nostalgia trip. Q-Tip’s production is grungier and less elegant than their classic ‘90s releases, and he, Phife and Jarobi sound the alarm on socio-political crises with incisiveness. Numerous guests show up to pay tribute, from Andre 3000 and Kanye West to Jack White and Elton John.
YG, Still Brazy
YG may warn, “Don’t come to L.A.,” but that proves to just be bluster, as the Compton rapper takes listeners on a ride through his city with thrillingly detailed raps, brushing off freeloaders on “Bool, Balm & Bollective,” and relating a near-death experience on “Who Shot Me?” Although 2014’s My Krazy Life arguably had better production, thanks to former collaborator DJ Mustard, this is his strongest vocal performance to date and one that can’t be reduced to gangsta clichés. From his infamous criticism of a certain presidential candidate on “FDT” to celebrating unity with the Mexican community on “Blacks and Browns,” YG proves that his perspective isn’t limited to his “Bompton” hood.
Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife 2
Until a few imaginative teenagers created the #mannequinchallenge meme and used “Black Beatles” as its soundtrack, leading to the track topping the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, it appeared like Rae Sremmurd’s follow-up to their 2015 debut would be a flop. On first listen, SremmLife 2 seemed less accessible than its predecessor. Mike Will Made It’s Eardrummers team produced synth-based tracks that hearkened to the horrorcore murk of classic Three 6 Mafia, while brothers Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee shout and sing hooks that don’t stand out as clearly as past hits like “No Flex Zone” and “No Type.” It takes a few listens to realize that, despite the intriguingly off-kilter sound of “Look Alive” and “Swang,” this is the same party-starting duo we’ve come to know and love. The worldwide success of “Black Beatles” is proof of that.
Young Thug, No, My Name is JEFFERY
Young Thug releases a lot of music — this year alone brought three projects along with an assortment of cameos and other ephemera. However, No, My Name is JEFFERY finds him at his most exciting and consistent. The ATL iconoclast has grown into one of the most imaginative rappers in the business, and it’s fun to hear him strike odd vocal tones over the reggae-tinged beat of “Wyclef Jean,” trade grunts with Quavo and Offset of Migos on “Guwop,” and bellow in an infectious growl on “Harambe.”
Death Grips, Bottomless Pit
On their fifth full-length, the Sacramento trio displays its usual ferociousness, creating a digital punk squall unlike any other. “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” is an industrial metal excursion that Ministry would have loved, “Warping” mashes a sludgecore tempo with electronic effects and “Eh,” perhaps the album’s best track, is a spacey groove that amounts to a musical shrug. No matter how abrasive or experimental the group gets, lead vocalist, rapper and barker Stefan Burnett holds this Bottomless Pit together.
Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition
Since ascending to stardom five years ago with XXX, Danny Brown has marked himself as post-millennial rap’s all-welcoming hedonist, the man just as comfortable at the rave as he is in the trap. But Atrocity Exhibition, which takes its inspiration from the first track on Joy Division’s post-punk watermark Closer, finds that party hearty identity fraying at the seams. U.K. producer Paul White’s beats on “Ain’t That Funny” and “When It Rain” sound more like a bad acid trip than the elbow-waving EDM that marked his 2013 hit Old. Brown’s lyrics have long depicted the downside of chemical dependency, but coupled with Atrocity Exhibition’s astringent tracks, his warnings seem more urgent.
Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered
True to its title, untitled unmastered consists of demos from Lamar’s widely hailed To Pimp a Butterfly sessions. Decades ago, these sessions might have been parsed out as B-sides on 7-inch singles; here, they offer more subtext to one of the most critically acclaimed albums in recent memory. Track 5 is a languid but purposeful cipher with Jay Rock and TDE executive Punch, Track 07 and 02 are warning shots at rival rappers, and Track 08 is the kind of hydraulics-lifted ride that has made Lamar a new school innovator of old school G-funk.
Schoolboy Q, Blank Face
This is a solidly entertaining release from a rapper who is often overshadowed by his more famous labelmate, Kendrick Lamar. But Schoolboy Q has a talent for making bangers with sharp-eyed effectiveness. “That Part” is buoyed by an odd but memorable Kanye West cameo, while “John Muir” rumbles along like a blaxploitation flick. “Groovy Tony” finds him blustering alongside Jadakiss, while he recounts growing up in South Central Los Angeles over “Lord Have Mercy” and a hook from Swizz Beats. Guests may abound, but Schoolboy Q’s appealing gangsta persona dominates.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Despite a career that has branded Kanye West as a brilliant hip-hop artist that fans either embrace or reject, The Life of Pablo managed to create his messiest and most divisive work to date. But set aside his provocative public image as well as news stories of a mental breakdown in November, and there is much to appreciate here. “No More Parties in L.A.” is a rhyme session with Kendrick Lamar that’s as furious as anything he’s made, “Ultralight Beam” is an uplifting gospel aria, and “Real Friends” is a depressingly honest look at the downside of celebrity. Throughout, West struggles to figure out what to say, and he often nails it.