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The Year 2016 in Review
Author: Sy Shackleford

2016 was a year of unexpected celebrity deaths and an even more unexpected outcome for the United States presidential election. The world's events in 2016 had the year looking like a cruel mistress in a tragicomedy. For me personally, however, 2016 has been a year of breaking out. I've gone to more hip-hop events in this year alone than I ever did when I was in my 20s. I've broken out of my comfort zone in hip-hop and expanded my capacities as both a fan and a music journalist, meeting several artists all across the spectrum and establishing many professional contacts along the way. As for the music, hip-hop was more exciting in 2016 than it was in the previous year. For everything I've written reviews on, for everything I've listened to this year, I can honestly say that I was sincerely WOWED by several releases (though disappointed by some) and ecstatic about the triumphant return of seminal hip-hop groups after a decade-plus long absence. Despite its outwardly mutable nature, hip-hop always finds a way to surprise me every year in some form and to varying extents.

As a testament to this year's unexpected events, people who know my tastes and stances in hip-hop may be taken aback by some of my choices for this year's best albums for the genre. If it's any consolation to them, so was I. there were perhaps one or two albums listed and described below that I ended up enjoying more than I originally imagined. I'm likening my listening experience with those albums to my lifelong palate for Brussels sprouts: While conventional childhood wisdom sent me the memo that I shouldn't like them, I tried them nonetheless and found them to be quite enjoyable in the end. And just to clarify: I'm not talking about the odious phenomenon of mumble rap. I can assure that's one rap sub-genre whose creations will never secure a spot on any dedicated hip-hop fan's 'best of' list. However, even popular hip-hop albums have found their way into my past annual write-ups, no doubt due in part to me being cognizant that their poppy elements do not automatically have a deleterious impact on the album's hip-hop core.

With my top 10 hip-hop albums of 2016, I've included pop-sounding albums, hardcore hip-hop, lyrical, avant-garde, unconventional, soulful, and the progressive/concept albums that challenge the listener musically and have a narrative all the way through. the albums described and listed herein each represent a fraction of where I am as hip-hop fan for this year. though lists like these don't accurately reflect the various perspectives that a hip-hop album can contain/create and the purposes it can and was intended to serve, creating and sharing them still qualifies as an exercise in fun. Some of these I reviewed earlier in the year, but subsequent and repeated listening sessions for them have compelled me to amplify my original assessments. But in any case, here are my top 10 2016 hip-hop albums from the best to the BEST. Slainte!

Artist: J-Zone
Album Title: Fish-N-Grits
Label: Old Maid Entertainment
Release Date: March 31st, 2016
Producers: J-Zone

Queens producer J-Zone is like the Paul Mooney of hip-hop: An ironic-humored comedian who doesn't hesitate to tell unflinching truths in ways that are both cutting and hilarious at the same time. Armed with comedic lyrics and a knack for utilizing both obscure break beats and movie lines, J-Zone leaves no hip-hop stone unturned on his latest outing. Naming his album "Fish-N-Grits" is a nice touch of irony: A southern American classic dish against the backdrop of Zone mercilessly clowning wannabe '90s hipsters who champion the classic hip-hop Golden era despite either not being part of it or not being of age to fully remember it, if at all. Like his 2013 album, "Peter Pan Syndrome", J-Zone continues to take scathing aim at both the current state of hip-hop and pretty much anything that annoys him.

With song titles like "I'm Sick of Rap"; "Go Back to Selllin' Weed"; and "Rap Is A Circus... And We Hope the Elephants Trample Everybody", it's clear to see where Zone stands. Venting his frustration at everyone from fans to the generic mixtape street rapper, he even skewers aging rappers who are more concerned with their image as it appears to today's youth. It's not all verbal tirades either. Zone's a multi-instrumentalist who lends his skills to funk-jam/sampled instrumental tracks like "Funky" and "Seoul Power". Adding these tracks to the album is also a shot at production purists who hold sample-based hip-hop on a pedestal. Zone also once again includes his alter-egos Swagmaster Bacon and the pimp Chief Chinchilla to contribute to the album's satire.

One would think that if hip-hop wasn't rife with its current multi-faceted absurdity, then J-Zone wouldn't have the ammunition to make albums like "Fish-N-Grits". But a mind like his is possessed of a gift for mockery, so I'd venture to say that he'd find something about the music to throw barbs at even if its current state was exponentially better. Holding nothing sacred, "Fish-N-Grits" may give listeners the impression that Zone is a cantankerous old man complaining to anyone who will lend him their ears. But his analysis of hip-hop as it stands now cannot be denied when summed up by this one line: "Rap needs to get its Luke on: Pop that pussy behavior and move on."

Artist: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Album Title: This Unruly Mess I've Made
Label: Macklemore LLC
Release Date: February 26th, 2016
Producers: Ryan Lewis

From a lyrical standpoint, Macklemore tends to receive more attention for his choice topics rather than his actual skills as an emcee. Not many rappers would have the courage to go balls-out by making songs in which they rap about gay marriage, thrift shopping, moped purchases, or even junk food. For everything Macklemore lacks when it comes to multi-syllabic rhymes, he makes up for it with flow and thoughtfulness. Ryan Lewis has been honing his skills behind-the-boards for some time now, creating for this album his most diverse set of beats yet. From the nostalgia of hip-hop's yesteryears on tracks like "Downtown" and "Buckshot" to the hook-laden pop sounds of "Growing Up" and "Dance Off", Mr. Lewis is a hip-hop producer who should be watched closely and more sought after. Together, the Seattle duo have created a sophomore album that smooths the edges from their commercial breakthrough and exhales more maturity.

Introspection with a pop sensibility is what drives several parts of this album. their analysis of racial advantage in America is given form on the 8-minute sequel titled "White Privilege II" while "Growing Up" is Mack's 'With Arms Wide Open' song dedicated to his daughter and the apprehension that comes with being a parent-to-be. "this Unruly Mess I've Made" is Macklemore's chance to strike back and prove his naysayers wrong. Are he and Ryan Lewis not hip-hop simply because they're White and have achieved significant success in the genre? On this album, they proved that they are indeed.

Yes, this is the main hip-hop album with pop written all over it that I alluded to in my introduction. On "Brad Pitt's Cousin", Mack raps "I'm eating chicken wings and onions rings/If you're wondering, yes, I does my thing." though meant in jest, this album is all about Professor Macklemore and Mr. Lewis doing exactly that: their thing, namely making good hip-hop music. Are there cookie-cutter aspects on this album? Yes. Does it take away from my listening experience? Not at all. In this case, songs drenched in pop are not detractors. In fact, for me, they actually provide enhancement to the experience.

Artist: Anderson .Paak
Album Title: Malibu
Label: Steel Wool Records
Release Date: January 15th, 2016
Producers: Madlib, 9th Wonder, DJ Hi-Tek, DJ Khalil, Anderson .Paak, POMO, et. al.

Rapper, singer, and producer Anderson .Paak crafted perhaps the most relaxed album of the year. "Malibu" personifies the laid-back vibe that the west coast is known for. the musical vibe is provided by a diverse line-up of producers, giving an oceanic psychedelic atmosphere to go with Anderson's raspy voice and flow, both of which draw favorable comparisons to Kendrick Lamar. this is other album that I didn't think I'd end up liking as much as I did. In fact, I bought the album off of the strength of a fellow RapReviews writer's review on it. Also, it's not just the west coast that are among Anderson .Paak's influences. Close to the end of the album, the track "Silicon Valley" (a double entendre-laden ode to mammary glands) sounds like a syrupy version of "Spottieottiedopaliscious" by OutKast.

The album's opening track, "the Bird", set the tone for the album. With its horns, wistful piano riffs, and .Paak's crooning, it's the kind of song I envision hearing when waking up to a beautiful sunrise on a California beach. Despite .Paak's skill in different vocal areas, this remains a hip-hop album through and through. Considering the sonic uniformity throughout the album, it's clear that he had a vision for how this album was going to sound musically. Getting super-producers like Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, and Madlib to tailor their beats into velvet-sounding backdrops couldn't have been an easy task, but it was accomplished. 9th Wonder even brings his protege Rapsody along for the ride on the song "Without You". But the producers aren't the only part of the diversity.

The guest appearances also helped out in a substantial way. Fellow Cali artists like ScHoolboy Q and the Game lended their rap voices on two of the album's best tracks: "Am I Wrong" and "Room in Here", respectively. On the whole, "Malibu" is the most chill album I've heard all year. the music contains nuance and subtleties that are laced with so much cool that Johnny Unflappable would blush. Albums like "Malibu" show that hip-hop doesn't always require an aggression with violence sprinkled on top of it. the smooth, aware, peaceful vibe also suffices, more than it's given credit for.

Artist: Mac Lethal
Album Title: Congratulations
Label: Black Clover Records
Release Date: September 13th, 2016
Producers: Michael "Seven" Summers, the X-Traordinair$, Danny Grooves, et. al.

With titles like "Weed & Coffee"; "Burgundy"; "Weekly Wage"; and "Cousin Tiffany's Wedding", you'd think these were songs left on the cutting floor of Everlast's 2004 album "White Trash Beautiful". But these titles are part of an album that takes the ugly and cynical and turns it into something relatable to this listener's ears. "Congratulations" is the brain child of Kansas City, MO's Mac Lethal. the album's a musing on the experiences one has in their mid-30's, complete with Mac's sardonic humor and fast flow. But what distinguishes this album from his previous releases is that he's grown in maturity and makes more use of autobiographical information for his lyrical anecdotes. As with 2011's "Irish Goodbye", Mac has enlisted Strange Music's Michael "Seven" Summers to produce several tracks for the album, creating soulful backdrops reminiscent of Mac's days at Rhymesayers.

He still retains the fast flow that he was known for early in his career, and it works best when he wants to spaz out lyrically. "Angel of Death" is a good example of this. Seven makes use of a mandolin sample for the beat and furthers the Strange Music-Mac Lethal connection with the inclusion of Tech N9ne. the long-awaited collaboration between both fellow K.C. emcees pits their fast, choppy flows against one another with tongue-twisting rhymes and thought-provoking lines. Among the aforementioned tracks above, "Burgundy" has a dramatic backdrop pitting his cynical experiences in emotional adulthood with his view of today's young adults. "Cousin Tiffany's Wedding" is Mac's celebratory autobiographical ode to his family, his Irish lineage, and the problems that come with them.

"Congratulations" secured a spot on this list because of Mac challenging his own lyrical game and for making songs crafted from life experiences that I can relate to at my age. A balanced lyrical hodgepodge of humor, tragedy, hardcore, it's an album of what life is for Mac in the here & now. Given that Mac has surprised me with different lyrical feats on albums and guest verses over the years, I knew to expect something different going in. But "Congratulations" was better than just 'different'.

Artist: Statik KXNG
Album Title: Statik KXNG
Label: Showoff/Penalty Ent.
Release Date: February 12th, 2016
Producers: Statik Selektah

Statik Selektah has a talent for crafting dusty, hard-hitting vintage street sounds that bring out the best in the emcees he teams up with on collaborative efforts. From Action Bronson to Termanology to Mac Miller, it's becoming clear why his name has been appearing so frequently in the liner notes of numerous rappers' albums: the man's a good producer. Seeing his name in those liner notes as a producer is synonymous with the sentence "that's a track to listen to." the man stays busy, releasing collaborative and compilation albums annually and 2016 was no different. Combined with west coast emcee KXNG Crooked from the lyrical foursome Slaughterhouse as Statik KXNG, they didn't just come swinging fists from right of the gate. they showed that a lot can happen in just 33 minutes, with 10 tracks, and 1 guest spot. Just sayin'.

Crooked himself is the kind of emcee who's well-fed, but still shows up to dinner and eats like he hasn't been fed all day. Even when working with emcees who are possessed of the same work ethic (fellow Slaughterhouse members, Eminem, Copywrite, Styles P., et. al.), he eats up every crumb of food as well as the plate it's placed on. He's an emcee who hasn't lost his hunger and employs some of his best lyrical traits on this album. With internal rhymes, different flows, free-wheeling multi's, a pop-culture lexicon, and wordplay, Crooked keeps it fresh without any redundancy. the opening track, "I Hear Voices" is among the best tracks and left me wanting more. "Stop Playing" is a track demonstrative of both Statik's ability to flip dope samples and Crooked being proficient with punchlines.

Termanology provides the album's sole guest verse on the RZA-sounding "Let's Go". Don't get me wrong, capable emcees who enlist several guest appearances is fine, but the same caliber of emcee who holds down an entire album with little to no guest emcees is better. Statik Selektah frequently chooses quality emcees to work with and "Statik KXNG" is no exception. He could do a record with Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole and I'll still give it a listen just on the strength of his production game. Crooked's ferocity over the Massachusetts producer's beats can be summed by this line "And after I did that everything just became clearer/Grab the sharpie marker and wrote, 'I'm Unstoppable' on my mirror."

Artist: Masta Ace
Album Title: The Falling Season
Label: M3/HHV.DE
Release Date: May 13th, 2016
Producers: KIC Beats

Progressive rock albums from the 1970's challenged listeners with complex musical compositions coupled with lyrical tales of fiction that fit cohesively in the album's narrative on the whole. Albums like "Brain Salad Surgery" (1973) by Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well as "the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" (1974) by Genesis are two celebrated works of this genre. Later, progressive rock found its way into hip-hop, and not just via sampling. Elements that defined that genre, particularly the aspect of it that results in concept albums, became applicable to rap as well. Prince Paul's "A Prince Among thieves" (1999) was among the first hip-hop concept albums, telling a cinematic narrative all the way through. Brooklyn's Masta Ace releases albums that take it further. From "Disposable Arts" (2001) to "A Long Hot Summer" (2004) to "the Falling Season", he's created a trilogy of lauded semi-autobiographical narrative hip-hop albums that serve as prequels to one another. the former followed an Ace as an ex-con just released from jail. the middle album showed how he went to prison in the first place. the latter goes way back to Ace's high school career.

He goes through the details of his adolescence with a fine-toothed comb. He describes the insecurities, fears, and goals of Black teenage high school freshman starting on "Young Black Intelligent (Y.B.I.)" with a supporting cast consisting of Chuck D., Pav Bundy, & the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Considering Ace's high school days were around the time that hip-hop was being born, the album draws some parallels to Netflix's dramatized hip-hop mini-series "the Get Down". Cormega, Queen Herawin of the Juggaknots, Stricklin, and A.G. all have guest verses portraying supporting characters in this epic high school drama. It also chronicles the first meeting of a young Ace with Fatz Belvedere. the album recounts Ace's rise from freshman to senior, with KIC Beats producing the entirety of the album with a melding of music and storytelling reminiscent of Martin Scorsese.

"The Falling Season" is another feather in Ace's cap. Here, he's created an album where if you just listen, you'll see the whole picture.

Artist: Sadistik
Album Title: Salo Sessions
Label: Clockwork Grey Music
Release Date: January 13th, 2016
Producers: Kid Called Computer, Eric G., S.A.T., SPVCE & BK Beats, Sxmplelife, and Mike Device

This is the only EP on the list, but it's noteworthy in that it's had a spot in my rotation for nearly all of 2016. Why? Because this mournful Seattle rhymesayer delivered a big gift in a small package. though this is only an EP that closes out just shy of a half-hour, it sounded more like a well-planned LP. Every project that Sadistik releases is an enhancement over the last one in some way, be it in production or his lyrical prowess. "Salo Sessions" is indicative of Sadistik's lack of compunctions when it comes to going against the grain as a hip-hop artist. Even his look reflects this: On first glance, he looks like a grungy Scandinavian death metal artist with his tall stature, long blond hair and beard, tattoos, and penchant for dark-colored clothing and sometimes flannel shirts. then when you see him rock a mic with meaningful well-crafted lyrics, that furthers the interest in his dichotomy while dispelling its negative notions at the same time.

"Salo Sessions" was the first hip-hop record of 2016 that I copped. It was certainly a surprise in that Sadistik announced it just out of the blue and released it online for free. But the bigger surprise was the unexpected turns he's taken in experimenting as an artist. He collaborated with fellow Seattle emcee Nacho Picasso and NYC's Mr. MFN eXquire on "You Dead" and took his flow to double-time on it, ripping apart the song's dark, industrial trap production with alliterative internal rhymes and breath control that many of his contemporary rap counterparts don't have a prayer of demonstrating. Reuniting with his "the Art of Dying" partner Kid Called Computer on "Videodrome" not only renewed my interest in the eponymous film, but left me eager for what Sadistik can do next after he just lyrically applied the film's concept to hip-hop.

Though "Salo Sessions" was intended as just the love tap prior to his completed and still-untitled upcoming LP, it still hits with the expressiveness that Sadistik is adept at and known for. Opening with the psychedelic "Waves" and closing with the despondent, yet complex "Mourning Glory", Sad Vicious takes the listener on a journey for where is now and where he intends to go. He's stated that his new LP will challenge and piss people off. Well, this EP is laced with the challenge for listeners and rappers alike to get rid of their worry when it comes to expanding themselves.

Artist: A Tribe Called Quest
Album Title: We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
Label: Epic Records
Release Date: November 11th, 2016
Producers: Q-Tip

I was a high school sophomore when A Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998. I was a post-college desk jockey when I saw them live, reunited and headlining the Rock the Bells tour in 2008. I was, and still am, a desk jockey when they released their sixth and final album over one month ago. With the dramatically divisive shift our country has taken since Donald Trump was elected to president, there were two things that proved to be catharsis for me during that tumultuous week: Dave Chappelle's hilarious appearance on Saturday Night Live as its host and the Tribe performances that went with it. that, and the studio album that was released just a day prior. Though Phife Dawg passed away earlier in the year, his contributions were in place prior to his death. Even original member Jarobi White returned to the group for this album. Given America's social and political climate in recent years, "We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service" is a much-needed hip-hop album.

ATCQ showed that they haven't lost a step in the 18 years since they split. Produced entirely by Q-Tip, the group's jazz-tinged trademark beats still sound fresh. the nimble lyrics denote their Native Tongues beginnings, but with the wisdom of older men. While some songs take you back ("We the People", "the Space Program", and "Ego"), this Tribe isn't the 20-something-year-olds sporting college gear from their peak era. the remaining members are nearly at a half-a-century in age now, but this album proves their relevancy and how missed they've been. they recruited familiar faces for the album (Busta Rhymes, Consequence, and Talib Kweli), newer ones (Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and Kanye West to a lesser extent), and unlikely ones (Elton John, Jack White, Marsha Ambrosius). With these additions, ATCQ have grown in eclecticism.

It was a challenge deciding between this album and the De La Soul album released months prior and which of them would be included in my annual review. While the latter group is still together and therefore consistent, the former group has been greatly missed. So much so, that even the mere prospect of a release from them would leave ardent hip-hop fans salivating. With this being Tribe's official final album, I'm glad it came out when it did. While some may disagree with my perceived low placement of the album here, I'm not biased. though this album is extremely dope, I'm not including it at number one simply because of ATCQ's seminal status. But on the upside, it comes close.

Artist: eLZhi
Album Title: Lead Poison
Label: GLOW365, LLC
Release Date: March 11th, 2016
Producers: Bombay, Oh No, Karriem Riggins, 14 KT, Joself, Nick Speed, et. al.

Detroit emcee eLZhi may be "INTROverted", but he ain't a shy guy. this album's title makes Shyne's line ("Every line, I live it, I write it with a pencil so niggaz die of lead poison if they bite it, hate it but recite it") more poignant. Writing songs with pensive lyrics, humorous anecdotes, and conceptual rhymes over soulful Motown beats makes "Lead Poison" an album that can't be bitten. Many say that J. Cole is now the lyrical heir to Nas. I say that title belongs to eLZhi, and not because he created tribute album to Nas hailed debut, "Illmatic". It's actually because of Esco's influence on eLZhi in terms of flow, rhyme style and the imagination they share in crafting lyrics. For example, "HELLO!!!" (produced by Soledad Brother) is an extended metaphor song in the same vein as "I Gave You Power". Only here, eLZhi is rapping from the first-person point-of-view of a music composition (yes, a song), utilizing musical terms as wordplay and commentary on the level of attention that complex hip-hop doesn't get from some listeners.

For eLZhi, this whole album is a therapy session. An affliction with depression delayed the long-awaited release of this album, but better late than never, I say. though him dealing with his depression seems to be the theme of the album, it's not a dreary listen. He copes with it in different ways. In some parts, he tells narratives. One's a relatable story about a drug conviction on "WEEDipedia" and the other is about him falling in love with a vampire and becoming one himself on the horror movie-esque "SHE SUCKs". He's pensive and introspective on "cloud", "FEBruary", and "ALIENated". "EGOcentric" is him spitting some customary hip-hop battle rhymes, complete with sick punchlines, multis, and wordplay. Also, the stylized capitalizations in the song titles punctuates what each song emphasizes.

The beats are soulful with vinyl crackling samples and live instruments. Among the beatmakers, Bombay crafted some of the best. Perhaps being in a depressed state amplified his creativity on "Lead Poison". If so, the way he rapped over these beats and turned concepts on their heads (listen to "TWO 16's") made this album one of the best releases of 2016.

Artist: Aesop Rock
Album Title: The Impossible Kid
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Release Date: April 29th, 2016
Producers: Aesop Rock

Disagree all you want, but this was the best hip-hop album of the year. A total Aesop Rock affair with him at his most captivatingly abstract, "the Impossible Kid" is all him sonically and lyrically. I don't know what it is about self-imposed isolation, but it seems to give hip-hop artists serious boosts in their creative processes. there's very few emcees who could even conceive of establishing a correlation between dendrochronology and faded artistic aspirations as Aesop did on the lead single "Rings". A self-described "very voluntarily persona non-grata", his seclusion in making this album can also be interpreted as him distancing himself from his hip-hop contemporaries, both literally and artistically. He knows he's different and purposefully makes himself an outsider. He flipped the idea of self-isolation on its head, showing he's got many ways to skin a cat. Speaking of which, he has a song on here named "Kirby" dedicated to his eponymous pet feline.

Aesop's production sounds influenced by his years at Def Jux and the last few years he's spent at Rhymesayers. It's synth-heavy funk with a skillful mastery of drum programming. the addition of keyboard sounds as well as samples enhance the futuristic atmosphere of the beats. though he remains lyrically abstract, he uses that to modify even simple, though emotive concepts. On "Blood Sandwich", he spits two anecdotes about both his younger and older brothers, exhibiting a fraternal bond with them that goes beyond the strange, but fitting title of the song.

The Netflix series "Stranger Things" was one of the most acclaimed shows of the year for its throwback reverence and atmosphere full of dark portents. Likewise, "the Impossible Kid" itself is rife with stranger things and portents, including the album cover, the menacing countenance of some of the beats, and Aesop's uncommon command of the English language. But the fact that it's atypical all around peaks interest and poses a challenge to the listener. He writes rhymes littered with experience, concepts, and obscure references all tangled together into an abstract metaphor that the listener needs to decipher. He creates beats that give swag to even the most withdrawn intelligent b-boy. With this album, the Long Island native has accomplished both, creating this masterpiece in the process. Not so impossible anymore, now is it?

Originally posted: January 3, 2017

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