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The Year 2017 in Review
Author: Zach 'Goose' Gase

Musically 2017 was among the best years in recent memory, with top-notch releases from legends who were close to falling off, high-minded artists reaching their full potential and exciting fresh faces ready to push the boundaries of hip-hop and R&B.

In years past, I've included only rap-driven releases, but as has slowly incorporated R&B releases into its coverage, I decided to include soul and R&B albums. In addition to the top 25 albums and honorable mentions, I included some of my favorite local Chicago projects of 2017, the most disappointing albums of 2017 and albums I need to listen to in early 2018.

Top 25 albums of 2017:

* Open Mike Eagle - "Brick Body Kids Still Daydream"

Open Mike Eagle has worked his way up my personal list of favorite rappers over the past three years. "Brick Body Kids Still Daydream" removes the comedic guise of his previous work, but it shows the Chicago native at his most vulnerable, as he tells tales about his childhood and the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes. Open Mike does a superb job of taking the listener through different parts of his childhood with flawless production, intricate but easily digestible raps and his emotive vocals. "95 Radios" feels like a warm August day on the South Side of Chicago, while the chilling "Brick Body Complex" gives you the feeling of an intense feeling of a brutal winter evening. In a year of politics-heavy music, "Happy Wasteland Day" is among the most effective critiques of the Trump administration.

* Jonwayne - "Rap Album Two"

Jonwayne is a name I've seen around for years but never took seriously, partly because his saltine cracker album cover made me think he was comedic rapper. In actuality Jonwayne has been one of Los Angeles underground hip-hop's sharpest rappers and beatmakers of the past few years. "Rap Album Two" was my introduction to Jonwayne, and "Two" peels back the layers of his battle rap demeanor from his previous releases. On the record, Jonwayne gives an honest account of his alcoholism caused by his social anxiety, rigorous touring schedule and fear of flying. Jonwayne debates if his pursuit of a hip-hop career is worth his debilitating relationships and health, but he ultimately finds that "words are my only thing" on the thrilling finale "These Words Are Everything" - my favorite song of the year.

* Jay-Z - "4:44"

Jay-Z redeemed himself on his 13th LP in many ways. Jay-Z scaled back the rhymes, flash and production and gave his most honest and vulnerable performance of his 25-year career.

* Big K.R.I.T. - "4eva is a Mighty Long Time"

2016 was the first time Big K.R.I.T. went a calendar year without releasing a project. After getting dropped from Def Jam, Big K.R.I.T. kept a low profile crafting his best album to date. The double disc project was ambitious and a bit risky, but he fully executed it by showcasing his talents in a creative and palatable way - one disc dedicated to trunk-rattling, southern bangers and the other focused on soulful, introspective musings.

* Billy Woods - "Known Unknowns"

Billy Woods is one of New York City's most promising underground talents, and he has an undeniable chemistry with innovative beatmaker Blockhead. Throughout the year, I felt compelled to revisit "Known Unknowns," and with each listen, I would uncover something new I hadn't noticed before. I suspect if I keep listening to this album in the next few months, I will regret slotting "Known Unknowns" so low.

* Rapsody - "Laila's Wisdom"

In 2012, Rapsody released her overlooked debut LP, "The Idea of Beautiful." Since then she hopped on a record with Kendrick, released a string of well-received EPs and signed with Roc Nation. I had high expectations for the 9th Wonder protege, and Rapsody exceeded them with "Laila's Wisdom."

* Joey Badass - "All-Amerikkkan Badass"

Before 2017, I was never a huge Joey Badass fan. I thought he was a skilled rapper, who carved out a nice spot for himself within the ‘90s throwback lane, but he never moved me much. "All-Amerikkkan Badass" is Joey's most focused and meaningful record to date. While his political raps don't necessarily have the nuance of some of the greatest conscious rappers, his passion and vulnerability on songs such as "For My People" and "Land of the Free" make for some of his best and most moving songs in his catalog.

* Sampha - "Process"

Sampha's long-awaited debut full length was one of the best R&B/soul records. His unique, sultry vocals matched with thoughtful writing and boundary-pushing production make his record stand out in a year full of excellent releases in the genre.

* Kendrick Lamar - "DAMN."

While I felt "DAMN." was lacking in a lot of ways (more on that later), Kendrick Lamar returned with another solid LP to add to his already legend status discog. "DAMN." is Kendrick's poppiest record to date and is a little lighter than the perfect, but bleak, "To Pimp a Butterfly."

* Kelela - "Take Me Apart"

I wasn't familiar with Kelela until the the Washington, D.C. native's debut LP, "Take Me Apart," received nearly unanimous critical acclaim in early October. I was skeptical at first, but after a few spins, "Take Me Apart" quickly became one of my favorite R&B records of the year.

* Danny Watts - "Black Boy Meets World"

* Tyler, the Creator - "Flower Boy"

* Rick Ross - "Rather You Than Me"

* milo - "Who Told You to Think?!!?!!!"

* Big Sean - "I Decided."

* CunninLynguists - "Rose Azura Njano"

* AIR CREDITS - "Omega Virus/ĹV"

* MC Eiht - "Which Way Iz West"

* Drake - "More Life"

* SZA - "Ctrl"

* Vince Staples - "Big Fish Theory"

* Rich Jones - "Vegas"

* Smino - "blkswn"

* P.O.S. - "Chill, Dummy"

* 2 Chainz - "Pretty Girls Like Trap Music"

Honorable mentions:

These albums just missed the mark. This list includes some of my favorite lesser-known releases of 2017 that you should keep an eye on in 2018. Brother Ali's first album in five years also appears on this list. While "All the Beauty in This Whole Life" features some of the Rhymesayers vet's most politically engaging work of his career ("Before They Called You White," "Uncle Usi Taught Me" and "Dear Black Boy"), it still feels like a step back from his earlier, more dynamic works. Tanya Morgan's "YGWY$4" is a no-nonsense approach to underground hip-hop with dope beats and rhymes, perfect for a late summer soundtrack. "YGWY$4" would likely find its way into my top 25 on most years.

- L.A. VanGogh - "Everything Is Subjective (part 1)"
- Hannah - "Blossom"
- Oddisee - "The Iceberg"
- Ano Ba - "Mayari"
- Brother Ali - "All the Beauty in This Whole Life"
- Tanya Morgan - "YGWY$4"

Best Chicago albums you overlooked:

This was a year where I spent more time attending local shows and listening to Chicago-based artists than nationally known rappers. Chicago has consistently been one of the most exciting places for hip-hop since 2012, and in 2017 the next wave of exciting artists emerged in the local scene are are ready to prove Chicago has even more to offer.

- AIR CREDITS - "Omega Virus/ĹV"
- Rich Jones - "Vegas" and "Light Work"
- LA VanGogh - "Everything Is Subjective (part 1)"
- Ano Ba - "Mayari"
- Qari & Mulatto Beats - "Space Jam"
- Mykele Deville - "Peace, Fam"
- CupcakKe - "Queen Elizabitch"
- Chief Keef - "Thot Breaker"
- Nnamdi Ogbonnaya - "DROOL"
- Joseph Chilliams - "Henry Church"
- YomĒ - "#ThatHarpist"
- Ravyn Lenae - "Midnight Moonlight"
- Daryn Alexus - "Wild Flower"
- Jovan - "Growth"

Albums I need to catch up on:

A lot of these albums are great, but I wanted to listen to them a few more times before I ranked them. Unfortunately I ran out of time, so they appear on this list.

- The Cool Kids - "Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe"
- Armand Hammer - "Rome"
- G Herbo - "Humble Beast"
- CyHi Da Prynce - "No Dope On Sundays"
- Supa Bwe - "Finally Dead"

Most disappointing albums:

These are albums that failed to meet expectations, no matter how high or low.

- Eminem - "Revival"

I didn't expect Eminem to fully return to his prime, but it was still a shock to see how far Mr. Mathers had fallen with "Revival. His ear for production has always been bad, but this is probably the worst beat selection he's ever had. He has no chemistry with Rick Rubin, who has no creativity when it comes to sample selection. On top of lazy, uninspired production, is a rapper still cramming too many rhymes in his bars, in which he's doing too much and sounding terrible while doing it.

- Vic Mensa - "The Autobiography"

Vic Mensa's long-awaited debut LP was finally released in 2017, and it was mostly a dud. On his 2014 mixtape "INNANETAPE" and his earlier work with Kids These Days, Mensa was a multifaceted talent, capable of weaving in and out of a wide range of experimental beats. On "The Autobiography," Mensa's intentions are mostly good, but his ideas too often fall flat due to forced punchlines and strained flows.

- Big Sean & Metro Boomin - "Double or Nothing"

Big Sean released his best work to date with "I Decided." So when he announced a collaborative project with red-hot Metro Boomin, I had very high expectations. Instead, we got a half-baked project that had some bangers but also indulged in Big Sean's worst tendencies as a rapper: sloppy flows and corny wordplay.

- T-Pain - "Oblivion"

"Oblivion" isn't a horrible project, but after several years away, I had high expectations for T-Pain's first LP since 2011. This project has a few jams, but it has too many misses on the 16-track project.

- Kendrick Lamar - "DAMN."

This is probably the most controversial take on this list, but I wasn't a huge fan of what many consider to be the best album of 2017. Similar to Chance the Rapper's "Coloring Book" in 2016, Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN." was a solid record that fell well short of my personal expectations. "DAMN." was Kendrick's (successful) pop-facing album, which is fine. I've always been skeptical of Kendrick's pop song writing ability, and he proved me wrong with hits such as "HUMBLE." "LOYALTY." "YAH." and others. While "DAMN." is still a good record, it misses the mark for me because it also feels like his most aimless project and is a noticeable step back from his first three LPs.

- Kidz in the Hall - "Free Nights & Weekends"

- Grieves - "Running Wild"

- Macklemore - "Gemini"

Originally posted: January 9, 2018

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