Finally, we’re approaching 2016’s end. 2016. Ah, 2016, you son of a bitch. A dark vacuum of bad news compounded by worse events dominated this year, leaving us empty, heartbroken, confused and sad. 2016 was a schoolyard bully, we were its nerd, and our hope was its lunch money. There’s only so many shots we can take before asking the question, “What did we ever do to you?” But, according to that guy who founded gravity, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. 2016 was an atrocious action—this year’s albums were a necessary, albeit nowhere close to equal, opposite reaction.
We saw some incredible drops from industry mainstays, like Kendrick and Drake, to the reemergence of Frank Ocean, all the way to the reawakening of the legendary group, A Tribe Called Quest. They knew we were hurting; they knew we needed their help. Today’s musical superheroes answered our prayers.
I think we’d all like to say that 2017 will be our year—a similar sentiment we probably felt heading into 2016. We can only hope that this year’s atrocious events won’t be repeated in the new year, but all we can do is hope. Hope, and enjoy one of music’s most exciting years in recent memory.
Check out my top-25 2016 albums below.
25. The Sun’s Tirade by Isaiah Rashad
- Favorite Tracks: "Wat’s Wrong," "Tity and Dolla," "Dressed Like Rappers"
- Release Date: 9/2
Emerging from his near four-year disappearance, Chattanooga’s Isaiah Rashad returns with The Sun’s Tirade. This comeback album is Isaiah’s “long, hot ass rant” (quote from his Hot 97 interview) about his life during his two-year addiction-riddled hiatus. He thought he was ready to leave Tennessee for Los Angeles, but Tinsel Town's elements melted life into one long continuous cycle, making it impossible for him to discern between the days.
Creating this album was cathartic for Rashad for a number of reasons, but most importantly for self-discovery. He was running from his country boy roots, but during that escape he realized he was running from himself, and embraced his identity. This 17-track album features TDE label mates, Jay Rock, SZA and Kendrick, amongst others, and production from Mike Will Made It, Digi+Phonic’s Dave Free, D. Sanders and more.
The Sun’s Tirade was an intriguing experience and I know Isaiah has a bright future, but I was a little underwhelmed by it. I don't know, maybe my expectations were just unrealistic. However, I love Isaiah and although I was underwhelmed, I thought The Sun’s Tirade was an impressive project.
24. 99.9% by Kaytranada
- Favorite Tracks: "Glowed Up," "Together," "Leave Me Alone"
- Release Date: 5/6
99.9% is a diverse 15-track exploration. Kaytranada enlists a medley of sounds and vibes to highlight his unique artistry and palatable musical taste, converging to create a funk - psychedelic fusion. Each track retains a different texture while maintaining Kaytranada’s unmistakable soul, making 99.9% a varied collection of songs whose differences form a cohesive entity.
Much like the songs themselves, Kaytranada’s featured artist roster is as differentiated as it is talented, signifying the 24-year-old Canadian’s heightened musical acumen and admirable knowledge breadth. From Anderson .Paak to BadBadNotGood, 99.9% finds comfort in being different, walking its own path and adhering to its own guidelines. If you’re sick of genre strict music, this album is for you. If you’re not sick of genre strict music, then this album is still for you. 99.9% is a must listen and re-listen.
23. Still Brazy by YG
- Favorite Tracks: "Who Shot Me?," "Bool, Balm and Bollective," "Why You Always Hatin’?"
- Release Date: 6/17
YG is fully dressed in red on his blood-rich project, Still Brazy. The Compton rapper delivers a chilling West Coast mafioso tale, flowing extremely well over primarily G-Funk-inspired production. A true ode to his Gangsta’ rap background, Still Brazy draws a stark parallel to ‘90s Left Coast Hip Hop, akin to Snoop’s Doggystyle.
YG pays homage to his roots through recounting street stories and painful memories, all doused in blood, while wielding a not so subtle middle finger pointed at certain individuals (*cough, Donald Trump, cough*). If there was ever any question as to which bandana hangs from YG’s pants, Still Brazy answers that very frankly. This 17-track album harbors an interesting feature collection: from superstar Drake to up and comer Kamaiyah, YG concocted a proper guest artist mix to extend the album’s reach without robbing its integrity. Still Brazy will pick you up out of your seat, and plant you in the middle of Compton’s infamous streets.
22. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown
- Favorite Tracks: "Really Doe," "Pneumonia," "Downward Spiral"
- Release Date: 9/27
For just over 46-minutes, Danny Brown goes on a lyrical tirade. Atrocity Exhibition finds Danny siding with the angel on his shoulder by making music on his own terms, instead of faltering to its devilish commercial counterpart. While he certainly has the fans’ ears in mind, he uses this album to express his mind, and speak on issues important to him.
Danny Brown loves drugs. If you’ve listened to him since his 2002 arrival, then you’re more than familiar with that fact. In an extended Complex interview, while gulping Don Julio, Danny discusses his desire to not only speak on his drug adoration, but to balance out the perspective through offering the adversities. He uses Atrocity Exhibition, specifically the opening track, “Downward Spiral,” to discuss the dichotomy of fun highs and their resulting brutal hangovers, not only to paint a realistic picture, but to be honest with the listener—drugs are not all fun and games.
Atrocity Exhibition is one of Danny’s best projects to date, evidenced by his crisp lyricism, all-star-studded “Really Doe” track, and apt storytelling.
21. Anti by Rihanna
- Favorite Tracks: "Needed Me," "Yeah, I Said It," "Woo"
- Release Date: 1/28
I’ve always respected Rihanna’s incredible talent, but she’s never been my go to artist—I typically enjoyed her more in a feature capacity. With her January 28th release, Anti, my desire to absorb her in limited quantities was quickly supplanted with wanting to consume her album, digest, and repeat. I can often be found bumping “Needed Me” despite being past its expiration date.
Balancing singing, reggaeton and rapping, Anti is an astute demonstration of Rihanna’s diverse skill set. She walks the balance beam of all these musical styles without so much as stumbling—by the album’s end, it’s clear that she sticks the landing. Her beautiful voice coupled with the superb production creates an enticing product that forces continued listens. Names like DJ Mustard, Boi-1da, and Timbaland, to name some, populate the production credits, suggesting a diverse, yet potent, beat collection. Anti is easily one of the year’s best and brightest projects.
20. Everybody Looking by Gucci Mane
- Favorite Tracks: "No Sleep - Intro," "1st Day Out The Feds," "At Least A M"
- Release Date: 7/22
It’s Wizop! Gucci! His first studio album since his three-year jail stint, Everybody Looking demonstrates Gucci’s newfound sobriety and increased health regimen. He’s flowing more methodically, delivering crisper punchlines, and conveying more intelligent lyricism than ever. Still the game’s hardest worker and one of its most respected ambassadors, this album reclaims Gucci’s rightful place amongst Hip Hop’s big dogs.
The album’s first single, “1st Day Out Tha Feds,” sets up the album perfectly. Mike WiLL’s classic trap beat welcomes Gucci home with wide open arms, and provides a sturdy stage to hold Gucci’s weight. Wop talks about life outside bars, enjoying his Atlanta residence, being envied by the rest, and how he’s ready to take back what’s his.
Gucci fans weren’t the only ones ecstatic for his release; fellow rappers were standing outside his house holding up “Welcome home, Gucci!” signs (Drake held back tears). Awarding the sole three features to Kanye, Drake, and Young Thug, Guwop proves that he still has one of the biggest Hip Hop draws despite his absence. In case Everybody Looking didn’t fill your Gucci void, it’s okay—he’s released two other studio albums and two collaborative mixtape as well this year. Welcome home, Gucci.
19. Awaken, My Love! by Childish Gambino
- Favorite Tracks: "Me and Your Mama," "Redbone," "Have Some Love"
- Release Date: 12/2
I’m not even sure if it’s appropriate to call Donald Glover Childish Gambino anymore—that moniker should be reserved for his rap alter-ego. Awaken, My Love! is anything but rap, and that’s not a bad thing—at all. In fact, it’s pretty amazing.
Donald Glover is having quite the year. His new FX show Atlanta has received a surplus of commercial and critical acclaim, evidencing Glover’s expansive abilities. Awaken, My Love! strengthens this sentiment, as we see Donald operating in a musical realm outside of his norm. This is a funk album à la George Clinton. Donald demonstrates his singing chops and voice manipulation ability by stepping out of his comfort zone and into the ‘70s. My first reaction when I heard this project was that it could be the pseudo Remember The Titans soundtrack.
Anchored by its two singles (“Me And Your Mama” and “Redbone”), the first half of the project follows the former song’s suit while the second portion heeds the latter single’s direction. Donald is a modern-day renaissance man; Awaken, My Love! is further proof of his deep and wide artistry.
18. Malibu by Anderson .Paak
- Favorite Tracks: "Room in Here," "The Dreamer," "Your Prime"
- Release Date: 1/15
One of music’s brightest stars and jack of all trades, Anderson .Paak delivers a 2016 standout in his sophomore release, Malibu. The 16-track album has a funk and R&B soul, existing in a Hip Hop body—truly a sound example of genre-bending. .Paak’s smooth yet raspy voice beautifully carries his dynamic presence across the bed of chill, relaxed instrumentals, composed by Anderson himself.
Receiving widespread acclaim, Malibu is .Paak’s consensus best album to date, thanks to his unafraid diversified approach. This album harbors a heightened musical sense that extends past conventional talent markers, representing his superior musicality. Andersen dances between funk elements, like on “Am I Wrong,” to soulful ballads on “The Waters,” and converges these styles while instituting a Hip Hop aesthetic on “Silicon Valley.” The latter track also has one of the best openers I’ve ever heard: “All of that ass you carrying / You gotta be shittin’ me.” Can’t help but crack a smile.
As if fusing together every ostensible genre wasn’t impressive enough, .Paak uses his eclectic knowledge to implement unconventional samples, like using the Israeli National Anthem on the opening for “Come Down.” It’s a microcosm of his overall intelligence, which helped shape one of 2016’s best albums.
17. Jeffery by Young Thug
- Favorite Tracks: "Wyclef Jean," "Webbie," "Harambe"
- Release Date: 8/26
I’ll be upfront: I used to hate Young Thug. I couldn’t understand how people tolerated him, let alone enjoyed him. Without much exposure to Thugger, I based my opinion exclusively on close-minded judgements. After I listened to Barter 6, I was hooked. His third 2016 project, Jeffery, might be just as addicting.
Thug retains an unmatched ability to contort his voice to sonic extremes. His raspy, horse, light-speed flow is mesmerizing and hypnotically intoxicating—it gives hope to mumble rap. Thugger combines these sounds to formulate his distinct texture, which he heavily employs on Jeffery. Naming each song after an individual, this album is an homage to all of Thug’s idols: Gucci, Yeezy, Wyclef, and more. He employs classic trap elements, like on “Future Swag” (shocking), but dilutes the trap sound to a more encompassing pallet on tracks like “Webbie” and “Kanye West,” forming an enticing project that begs for multiple plays.
16. 22, A Million by Bon Iver
- Favorite Tracks: "22 (Over S∞∞N)," "33 'GOD'," "666t"
- Release Date: 9/30
Never in a million years did I expect to include a non Hip-Hop project on my top-25 album list. Well, I guess that’s not technically true considering Awaken, My Love! claims the 20th spot, but 22, A Million? Bon Iver? On the surface, there’s seemingly zero Hip Hop connection. Once I learned about Bon Iver’s influence on Kanye West, a tangible line was drawn between the folk group and Hip Hop.
22, A Million is a revealing journey. The experimental and abstract melodies reflect Justin Vernon’s abstract lyricism, which ironically contain a very concrete soul. He cerebrally explores feelings of doubt, insecurity, aggression and confusion—all emotions that have contributed to his continuous growth and maturation. This album finds Vernon at a life crossroads, unsure of which path to pursue, but this perplexed mindset increases Vernon’s self-awareness, facilitating the album’s destination of clarity.
15. Cozy Tapes Vol. 1: Friends by ASAP Mob
- Favorite Tracks: "Telephone Calls," "Crazy Brazy," "Young Nigga Living"
- Release Date: 10/31
When the majority of us die, we’re honored by a funeral, a eulogy and an obituary. When A$AP Yams passed away, his friends exceeded these standards by paying the ASAP Mob founder tribute through creating the collective Mob project, Cozy Tapes Vol. 1: Friends. The group of dudes from Harlem did their fallen brother justice.
ASAP Mob’s debut album is a cohesive celebration of the group’s success and growing reputation. As the leader and guide, Yams felt responsible to position the members, and group, to win. Cozy Tapes is proof that the Mob general provided them with the necessary tools for victory. The album pays Yams homage by discussing everything that he architected: their strong group dynamic, love for Harlem, plush lifestyles, and indisputable swagger.
Although Rocky takes the reigns on Cozy Tapes, it’s a collaborative effort that showcases some of the group’s lesser known spitters, like Ant, Nast and Twelvyy, verifies the Mob’s tight bond, while remembering the guy who started it all.
14. 3001: A Laced Odyssey by Flatbush Zombies
- Favorite Tracks: "R.I.P.C.D.," "This Is It," "Trade-Off"
- Release Date: 3/11
It’s reprehensible that this album doesn’t get more recognition. Maybe it’s my New York loyalty, but I thought Flatbush Zombies conceived a thoughtful, psychedelic, jarring expression of painfully honest introspection. 3001: A Laced Odyssey dichotomizes their mindset: a confident—borderline hubristic—presence, evidenced by “Trade-Off” and “Ascension,” that simultaneously is confused and petrified, materialized as Meechy’s desperate escape on the somber solo track, “Fly Away.”
They are a self-assured idiosyncratic trio who carefully cater to their strengths of bizzaro ‘90s-styled lyricism and gripping production. I can understand the argument against their commercial appeal, given their lack of catchy hooks and surplus of eccentricity, but that differing aesthetic is what powers them. That’s what makes them standout and be bold: the fact that Erick The Architect self-produced the entire album; that they are proudly independent; that they embrace their strangeness. The last part rings the most true: their fearlessness to be strange, to be themselves—it produces the most honest music.
As one leg of New York’s Beast Coast tripod, Flatbush Zombies are making their city proud by regurgitating its 90s soul into a sonically ulterior dimension.
13. The Divine Feminine by Mac Miller
- Favorite Tracks: "Stay," "Cinderella," "We"
- Release Date: 9/16
Mac Miller has gone through an emotional whirlwind since his 2007 arrival. He’s continuously battled an inner struggle of depression and happiness, and for a while, it’d been unclear which side was winning. After sobering up and reprioritizing his life, the world offered something that’d escaped Mac for the better part of his career: clarity. Winning was starting to grip the rope tighter. That clearer thinking increased his positivity and capacity to love, which he channeled into his fourth studio album, The Divine Feminine.
A 10-track project, The Divine Feminine is the antithesis of his sophomore album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, by trading self-deprecation for happiness, and appreciating the women in his life—the divine feminines. This is the first project since his 2011 mixtape, Best Day Ever, that finds Mac back securely in an uplifted atmosphere—a place where we enjoy watching the Pittsburgh boy flourish.
With features from Ty Dolla $ign, girlfriend Ariana Grande, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick and more, this album is collectively some of Mac’s best and most polished work. He’s still as emotional as ever, but those emotions are filtered through a positive lens, making The Divine Feminine an enjoyable listening experience.
12. Views by Drake
- Favorite Tracks: "Still Here," "With You," "Redemption"
- Release Date: 4/29
Drake is enjoying one of his most successful musical years. Owning the charts, being the inaugural artist to exceed 1-billion Spotify streams (“One Dance”—ironic considering his Apple Music partnership), and most recently, tying his mentor, Lil Wayne, for most Billboard Hot 100 tracks, with 132 (second to the Glee cast at 207). Known for generating hits, Drake’s fourth studio album, Views, is a collection of radio-friendly songs that awarded the album its quadruple platinum status.
While the record clearly retains bright spots, I think he could’ve cut the album by 40% to increase efficiency by decreasing distractions. But amidst the noise, lies some of Drake’s most potent hits, evidenced by the numbers, sure, but also by adhering to his proven winning formula: a mix of emotional songs, pop tracks, bars, and innovation. “Redemption” is a classic Drizzy soulful ballad showing Aubrey’s consistent struggle of finding the right words to say to a girl; “One Dance” is Drake at his poppiest; he kind of spits on “Still Here;” and the remainder of the album has a dancehall, reggaeton vibe that takes Drake out of his traditional musical confines.
This album is hardly his best work, but its sheer replayability makes it one of 2016’s best.
11. 4 Your Eyez Only by J. Cole
- Favorite Tracks: "Change," "Neighbors," "Deja Vu"
- Release Date: 12/9
J. Cole made a late arrival into the best 2016 album discussion through his surprise 4 Your Eyez Only December 2nd announcement, revealing its December 9th drop. The Hip Hop community rejoiced in his return. Two years passed between 4 Your Eyez and 2014 Forest Hills Drive, leaving a gaping musical void that Jermaine effectively filled with this 10-track project.
One of the most conceptual albums in recency, 4 Your Eyez paints a clear duality: Cole escaping poverty, maturing, finding love and peace dominate the first listen; through successive consumptions, it’s clear that he’s speaking through the perspective of his deceased friend to the late companion’s daughter, making this album for her eyes only. However, the secondary plot line has holes. There are clearly points where J. Cole is speaking from his vantage point, like on “Neighbors,” which recounts the unfortunate story of Cole’s neighbors calling the cops on him and his friends due to drug selling suspicions. But despite this, the almost iron-tight vicarious narrative perpetuates Jermaine’s heightened lyrical and conceptual abilities.
Receiving production assistance from Boi-1da, Nico Segal and others, this album harbors a gentler texture than its predecessor, on tracks like “She’s Mine (Pt. 1 and 2)” and “Ville Mentality,” but he redeems his thumping beats on tracks, “Deja Vu,” “Immortal,” and “Neighbors.” Although it was surprisingly polarizing, 4 Your Eyez Only adequately answered our prayers for a 2016 Cole album.
10. FREE 6LACK by 6LACK
- Favorite Tracks: "Gettin’ Old," "Ex Calling," "Learn Ya"
- Release Date: 11/18
Relatively new on the scene, Atlanta’s 6LACK is making noise with his debut studio album, FREE 6LACK. His story trends more interesting than most: signed to an independent label in 2011 (undisclosed entity), 6LACK was forced into making music that aligned with the figurehead’s vision, which severely countered his own. After finally escaping the clutches of this label, 6LACK was free to make his music his way. Welcome to FREE 6LACK.
An interesting combination of R&B, soul and trap, this album harbors differing sounds that converge to create a pleasing product. Similar to Bryson Tiller’s Trapsoul, this album’s unique texture offers a new spin on foundational musical elements, creating a fiercely honorable product. The soulful sonics convey the album’s essence of love, freedom, and self-exploration, clarifying this newcomer’s persona. Lead by single, “PRBLMS,” FREE 6LACK offers an intriguing perspective on integrity that will make you reconsider settling.
9. Late Nights: Europe by Jeremih
- Favorite Tracks: "Oslow, Norway," "Paris (Who Taught You)," "Berlin (She Wit It)"
- Release Date: 8/24
Continuing his nighttime adventures theme from his 2015 album, Late Nights, this mixtape is a fun, vicarious exploration into Jeremih’s European excursions. Leave your passports at home because Jeremih introduces us to a genuine European vacation, exchanging tours, mundane activities, and forced family pictures for enviable sexual exploit tales.
Naming each song after different European cities (excluding “Dubai” and “The Crib”), Jeremih uses the towns to paint a vibrant image of navigating the continent’s female variety. Jeremih’s smooth flow carries the project’s melodic vibe, and is supplemented by star-studded features, including: The Game, Ty Dolla $ign, K CAMP, and more. Similar to Drake’s Views, Late Nights: Europe is a collection of hits with rare misses, demonstrating Jeremih’s efficient ability to produce enticing projects. While Late Nights: Europe doesn’t retain the deepest content, it certainly has the most fun.
8. Blank Face LP by ScHoolboy Q
- Favorite Tracks: "Neva CHange," "Dope Dealer," "THat Part"
- Release Date: 7/18
ScHoolboy Q is a special talent. Playing Scottie Pippen to Kendrick’s MJ is no easy feat, but Q takes it in stride and doesn’t let it interfere with his ambition and thirst for victory; TDE relies on his impressive output just as much as they rely on K. Dot’s. His fourth studio album, Blank Face LP, might be his most impressive body of work yet.
Q retains the distinct ability to create new projects without recycling his sound—each of his projects have a distinguished finish, getting shinier by the release. Blank Face is an homage to Q’s chilling Hoover Street Crip upbringing—one that exposed him to drugs, hustling, gangs and violence—his perception, and life in general. No, he’s not reinventing the thematic Hip Hop wheel, far from it, but how he delivers these topics separates him from Hip Hop’s competitive landscape.
This project retains quintessential rap braggadocio, like on “THat Part” featuring Kanye, but he softens this tough exterior with realistic concerns. On “Neva CHange,” ScHoolboy explores the ghetto’s cyclical violent, drug engorged nature that continuously rob kids of their fathers, and supplies them with fear, doubt, and anger. However, no matter how much people talk about these well-known realities, nothing changes. Q digs deep to put a compelling, sonically excelling album that requires your attention.
7. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight by Travis Scott
- Favorite Tracks: "the ends," "coordinate," "goosebumps"
- Release Date: 9/2
Man, did Travie connect on Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. From the opening track “The Ends” to the closing “Wonderful”, my head was bopping back and forth, giving me whiplash and one of 2016's best albums.
Following up 2015’s Rodeo, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (originally named Tina) is a 14-track sophomore release dedicated to Travis’ Texan friends caught in a societal trap. In a Billboard interview, Travis said, "I'm not saying that it's a trap--we not in the fucking projects but it's like a social trap…I feel like everyone just gets constricted by their parents or just life." BITTSM is a masterful reveal of Travis' complete immersion in the trappings of success, and the pain and beauty associated with the rapper lifestyle. Fame and money might have elevated his social standing, but his Missouri City roots bleed into his utopic life with lines like: "I can't get no rest / I fall asleep with a Tec / Stashin' all the pills in my desk / Wearin every chain on my neck" off "Way Back."
Travis enlisted all-star features from Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Bryson Tiller, 21 Savage, Kid Cudi (his idol), and many more. The album's honest yet chilling content is illuminated by the energizing and ominous production--a staple of Scott’s. Travis concocted a highly addictive project with Birds—I can’t seem to stay sober.
6. Untitled, Unmastered by Kendrick Lamar
- Favorite Tracks: "untitled 02 | 06.23.2014," "untitled 07 | 2014-2016," "untitled 03 | 05.28.2013"
- Release Date: 3/4
Leave it to Kendrick to compile one of the year’s best albums based off cuts that didn’t make his 2015 record, To Pimp A Butterfly. Untitled, Unmastered is just that—an unnamed collection of songs that Kendrick didn’t deem worthy of his TPAB masterpiece. Ironically, I enjoy this project more than its decorated, groundbreaking predecessor. But if they weren’t good enough for one album, why did he release them?
We can thank LeBron James for that. After Kenny’s stunning February ’16 Grammy performance, The King tweeted at TDE’s CEO, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, imploring him to drop the unreleased tracks. Tiffith had been previously bombarded to share them, but it was LBJ’s tweet that broke the camel’s back, resulting in one of 2016’s best albums.
Untitled, Unmastered follows TPAB’s socially conscious, perplexed narrative, layered over coffeehouse-styled production: jazzy, soulful instrumentals, accented by light piano keys and rhythmic snaps. Kendrick’s lyrical tenacity continues to outshine the competition, justifying his near unanimous consensus top MC status. In typical Kendrick fashion, he discusses hot-button issues of racial inequality, violence and drug use plaguing his community, and encourages people to be proactive instead of passively advocating.
Untitled, Unmastered combines elements of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City with TPAB, making it one 2016’s best.
5. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest
- Favorite Tracks: "The Space Program," "Solid Wall of Sound," "Black Spasmodic"
- Release Date: 11/11
18 years. We waited 18 years for A Tribe Called Quest’s successor to The Love Movement. A lot has transpired during that period: the internet’s explosive growth, social media’s genesis, three Kim Kardashian marriages, and an evolving Hip Hop landscape. Fads have blown up and washed out, but genuine talent prevails. Throughout it all, Tribe has prevailed. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service proves the legendary group’s eternal relevancy.
Despite this reunion’s magnitude and joy, we listen with heavy hearts knowing that the group’s Five-Foot Assassin, Phife Dawg, didn’t live to see its release. Fighting an ongoing battle with diabetes, the disease unfortunately defeated Phife far too early. He was 45. However, Phife ducked diabetes’ punches long enough to assist in the recording process’ majority, giving the album an authentic Tribe texture. They say the harshest pain produces the best art. Losing Phife was devastating; We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is incredible.
Given their 18-year absence, I managed my expectations for my inaugural listen knowing that they might not be as jazzy as they once were, or that their vibrance might have dulled. The album’s opening track, “The Space Program,” extinguished these fears. A precursor to the album’s politically charged aesthetic, the instrumental is an intricate progression of dynamic sounds that simultaneously welcomes Tribe back while reminding us of what we’ve been missing. They discuss suffocating limitations on the Black community that were relevant 200 years ago, when the group released their debut album in 1990, and when they reunited 18-years later. They continue this sentiment throughout the album’s duration, especially on the successive track, “We The People,” whose hook reads: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.” These songs are necessary vices to weather our country’s turbulent storm.
Tribe ends the album on “The Donald”—an overt Phife Dawg tribute, whose lesser known nickname was “Don Juice.” Frequent crew collaborator, Busta Rhymes, and Q-Tip sandwich Phife’s verse, demonstrating their support and love for the late MC, while showcasing his brilliant lyricism.
There won’t ever be another Phife Dawg, just like there won’t ever be another A Tribe Called Quest album. But don’t let that sadden you—let it incentivize you to consume the greatness of We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service.
4. Too High To Riot by Bas
- Favorite Tracks: "Housewives," "Clouds Never Get Old," "Night Job"
- Release Date: 3/4
If Flatbush Zombies’ 3001: A Laced Odyssey lacking recognition is reprehensible, then Bas’ forgone exposure and praise on Too High To Riot is criminal.
Too High to Riot is Bas’ confrontation with fame’s reality. After enjoying success’ trappings from his debut album release, Last Winter, overexposure to this lifestyle rendered him jaded. Anchored by singles “Night Job,” “Housewives” and “Methylone,” Too High To Riot reveals fame’s initial sheen dulling into desensitization.
The 12-song project highlights Bas’ integration into celebrity culture. The opening and title track, “Too High To Riot,” elicits contentment from his intoxicating new way of life. But he’s not suppressing his intensity into complacency; he’s fixated on the prize; he’s fixated on winning. At the song’s core, he’s imploring competitors to remain vigilant, as he’s quickly eclipsing rappers while establishing his name. His perpetual life high isn’t his destination—it’s motivation to achieve more. “Too High To Riot” transitions Bas’ novel euphoria on Last Winter into a seasoned, mature perspective.
The track “Methylone” is amongst the album’s most sobering pockets. It’s a dually layered song, paralleling the drug’s harm literally and figuratively. Bas expresses frustrations with dealers supplying users methylone when promising them MDMA; burning customers with an imitation product. As Bas gets more famous, “friends” have become imitation products as well, evidenced by his bars: “Last week I bought a testing kit, I wish they made em for people / The way these nigga's be actin they should be cast in a sequel.” It’s a sad caveat of fame: people acting allegiant to further their own agenda—it’s a sad lesson to learn. Bas has grown wise.
Bas steps outside his and Hip Hop’s comfort zone on Too High To Riot. He displays an unadulterated maturity usually reserved for industry veterans by courageously exploring topics that most emerging artists shy away from, in fear of hindering their commercial viability. Bas isn’t one of those musicians. He understands his talent and knows that he is supposed to be here. After all, 2016 has been an incredible year musically, and Bas is proudly holding one of the year’s best albums.
3. Coloring Book by Chance The Rapper
- Favorite Tracks: "No Problem," "Summer Friends," "Blessings (Reprise)"
- Release Date: 5/13
Chance The Rapper might always be Lil Chano from 79th at heart, but with his May release, Coloring Book, he’s soaring towards superstardom. Listening to Coloring Book will incite conflicting feelings: you’ll experience a dichotomy of joy and sorrow; you’ll feel guilty for your poor Church attendance; you’ll give thanks for your blessings, and prioritize your values. This album will make your mother proud, have your homies dancing, and will be stuck on repeat.
Conquering the difficult feat of melding Gospel with Hip Hop, Chance returns from his three-year hiatus with a bounce in his step and a refurbished outlook. Recently fathering his first child, watching his value skyrocket, and dodging labels to fasten his independence, Coloring Book finds Chance making snow angles in his euphoria. The kid from Chicago who used to pass out music is still passing out music, with solace and an electric smile.
Following his first two mixtapes, Coloring Book’s cover was created by Chicago-based artist, Brandon Breaux, and features Chance looking down, smiling at his new baby girl (below frame). Contrasting his drug-soaked, youthfully exuberant sophomore release, Acid Rap, Coloring Book comes off the heels of his daughter’s birth, aiding Chance’s matured perspective. “Blessings,” which premiered on The Tonight Show, praises God for bestowing numerous gifts in his lap, illuminated in his second verse: “I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions / Like my ex girl getting pregnant / And her becoming my everything.” Despite the overwhelming joyous emotions, Chance reserves parts of the album for melancholic vibes.
On “Same Drugs,” he nostalgically speaks on a female childhood relationship that dissipated with age. The same “drugs” he refers to are metaphoric for their lost mutual interests that once structured their symbiotic relationship. It appears that Chance sullied the album’s positive vibe to express a well-rounded life perspective—losing relationships unfortunately comes with age, but that doesn’t stop Chano from counting his blessings.
Coloring Book is Chance at his most comfortable. He exudes an infectious confidence that doesn’t trend cocky, offers some of his most technically sound raps, and validates his escape from major labels. I think his blessings have only started to descend.
2. Blonde by Frank Ocean
- Favorite Tracks: "Nikes," "Self Control," "Nights"
- Release Date: 8/20
After countless album delays, date changes, substituting the longstanding Boys Don’t Cry title for the terse Blonde, Frank Ocean finally emerged from his deafening four-year silence with not one, but two projects: Endless and Blonde. We were starting to wonder if Ocean was trolling us, and if there would ever be a Channel Orange successor; we were left questioning if we even wanted it at this point. Had we placed so much weight on his comeback that the reality would be crushed under the expectations? I wanted to hate Frank. I did. But with Blonde, all I can do is stand and applaud.
Blonde’s simplistic, yet serene, instrumentals convey the album’s honest, somewhat despairing life perspective that doubles as an introspective reflection, showing Frank interacting with a confusing world. Frank welcomes us back through Blonde’s single and music video, “Nikes”—a surveillance of our hollow hedonic culture, shadowing important world events, like Trayvon Martin’s death. The materialistic nature manifests by Frank talking from a female’s perspective on their shallow relationship that shows glimmers of depth, “He don't care for me / But he cares for me / And that's good enough / We don't talk much or nothin’ / But when we talkin' about something / We have good discussion.”
The album continues observing Frank’s world as he takes positions on relationships, loss, hope, self-growth and maturation; a soberingly honest portrayal of his surroundings. On “Self Control,” Frank cathartically speaks on a past relationship whose future was defeated by poor timing—the two were never on the same page, in different stages of life at different times, impeding a realistic shot at love. It’s Frank at his best—unapologetic and real.
This album stares life in the face from multiple vantage points, to attempt configuring solutions to its madness. But we’re left with an unresolved answer—and that’s okay. At points Frank is discussing melancholic subjects, like death and breakups, but he counters this to reflect on his accomplishments, like on Futura’s first verse, “Now I'm making 400, 600, 800K momma / To stand on my feet momma / Play these songs, it's therapy momma.” It mirrors life’s stock-like trajectory of peaks and valleys, to shed light on its uncertainty, but to illuminate its hope.
1. The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
- Favorite Tracks: "Ultralight Beam," "Real Friends," "30 Hours"
- Release Date: 2/14
Kanye West presents a bold, confident exterior. He come off as arrogant, self-indulged, dismissive and at times, immature. When we look deeper though, Kanye is just as, if not more, insecure than you or me—he’s terrified by rejection, and relies on adoration to bolster his security. On one of his earliest tracks, “All Falls Down,” he recites: “Man, I promise, I'm so self-conscious / That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.” He didn’t concoct these words to create a clever rhyme scheme—he’s being vulnerable.
As we’ve watched Ye evolve, the struggle between insecurity and arrogance has risen, the “crazy” claims have increased, but music’s gravitating force allows Kanye to be, Kanye: the insecure, arrogant, musical genius—the man we constantly find ourselves defending and celebrating. His most recent album, and my favorite of the year, The Life of Pablo, is Kanye at his most Kanye, for all the right reasons.
The title itself lends perfectly to Yeezy’s insecure - confident complex. “Pablo” is a combination of Escobar, Picasso, and Paul from the Bible (Pablo in Spanish), and how he sees himself as a melded extension of these individuals—he sells dope art that will take us to church. This is his life story.
The album’s opening track, “Ultralight Beam,” is a religious ode that parallels his life with Saint Paul the Apostle through being “blinded,” demonstrating his iron-plated faith in God. Kanye returns to typical Kanye fashion on the short, yet impactful “I Love Kanye” skit—a rare example of Kanye making fun of himself. By owning the aspersions casted upon him, he devalues their sting by illustrating their pettiness, signifying a resounding confidence. This track closes the album’s first half, and transitions the positivity into Ye’s tirade.
“FML” directly calls out everyone taking his name in vain. He’s aware that he succumbs to self-sabotage, but that’s his issue, not ours. Kanye’s tired of being the focus of blogs, paparazzi, and seemingly every water cooler conversation. He’s tired of having his life dissected and analyzed, despite being fully aware how fucked up it can be. But like I said, that’s his issue, not ours. The successive track and promotional single, “Real Friends,” questions the fakes that have dwarfed Kanye’s confidence through robbing his ability to discern between valid relationships. From leeches to abhorrent cousins (“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fuckin' bitches on / Paid that nigga 250 thousand just to get it from him”), Ye has seen his “friends” grow proportionally with his popularity and money, placing him at the epicenter of insecurity. Tracks “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in LA” heed this direction, showing Kanye unafraid of vulnerability. He needs the world to understand his side, outside the obscured perception perpetuated by the media.
During a Breakfast Club interview, Kanye told them, “…this album’s just embracing the music, embracing joy, and being of service to the people. I just hope that people like it and enjoy it, you know? That’s it.” He cares what we think. He is a passionate artist, whose emotions sometimes drive him towards questionable decisions, but it’s all love. At the end of the day, Kanye is a man who craves the world to perceive him as we do everyone else: as a human, thorns and all. This is his life story.