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The Year 2017 in Review
Author: Grant Jones

20. Raw Cuts 2 [Various]

The term "Soundcloud Rapper" took off in 2017 but spare a thought for the Soundcloud producers - Chillhop Records are a Dutch label that have pulled together another sweet selection of laid back soundscapes from the world's finest. Twenty one instrumentals with more of a kick (and snare) than their seasonal compilations, "Raw Cuts 2" is going for only a penny so there's no excuse not to check it out.

19. Anchovies [Planet Asia, Apollo Brown]

Just as Apollo Brown had his style locked down, he flips it by releasing an album without snares. Granted, albums like Smoovth's "Medellin" and Roc Marciano's "Rosebudd's Revenge" deliver a soulful, minimalist approach to spitting slick, but Planet Asia's unique twang hits harder than the sleepier deliveries offered on the East Coast.

18. DAMN. [Kendrick Lamar]

Probably my least favourite Kendrick release, "DAMN." remains a quality listen whether you listen to it forwards, backwards or upside down. I could have done without the U2 and Rihanna collaborations as they knock the momentum built by Kendrick's scathing performances on "YAH" and "ELEMENT". There's a trippy, zombified feel to some of the songs that can more challenging on the ears, but "DUCKWORTH" may be my most played song this year.

17. The Past is Always Present in the Future [Substantial]

Released initially in 4 EPs as "The Past", "Always", "The Present" and "The Future", Substantial's latest is an organic, soulful piece of hip-hop showcasing his precise flow. With production from the likes of Algorythm, The Other Guys and Oddisee, there's little to criticise other than much of the material isn't new. Time is clearly on Substantial's mind, with "No Better Time" and "No Turning Back 2.0" talking about seizing the moment and not to overthink what feels natural. Insightful, satisfying and inherently lyrical, Substantial remains one of the shining stars of underground hip-hop.

16. Return of the Cool [Nick Grant]

Atlanta rapper Nick Grant delivers a strong debut album that's more than a little reminiscent of Nas and Lupe Fiasco. The latter is clearly a reference in the album title, but there's a polished, classy feel to Nick Grant's flow that stands out and confirms he's an emcee raised on lyricism but without any of the boom bap tags attached to similar generation-straddling artists. "Return of the Cool" may have snuck out in early 2017, but it deserves more shine as it's definitely one of the better albums of the year.

15. YGWY$4 [Tanya Morgan]

"You Get What You Pay For" is Tanya Morgan's fourth LP, following 2013's critically acclaimed "Rubber Souls". It's not quite as memorable as their previous effort but there's more deviation from the group's typical style (namely "Trunk Shit" and "Finish Line"). Von Pea's vocals continue to dominate (check out his dope EP with The Other Guys) and there's a cohesion despite each track having different producers. Slow-burner it may be, but Tanya Morgan are one of the reliable names in rap and "YGWY$4" only bolsters their catalog.

14. Dopp Hopp [Doppelgangaz]

Gully Orange County (NY) duo comprising Matter Ov Fact and EP who have established their own cult-like following and unique style of cloak-wearing, slang-heavy hip-hop. "Dopp Hopp" is their fifth album or 13th release if you include their instrumental work, which shows just how much music they've put out. "Dopp Hopp", in my opinion, is their best album as it's just more consistent than records like "HARK" or "Peace Kehd".

13. Manna [Fashawn]

One of the best emcees of the past decade, Fashawn delivered the superb "Manna" to little fanfare. Not even a Snoop Dogg feature had this record buzzing, yet it's up there with either 2009's "Boy Meets World" or 2015's "The Ecology". Race, faith and fear are all strong themes throughout, and it culminates in the haunting "Mother AmeriKKKa", which questions if Fashawn could ever love his country again now that the ugly underbelly of the United States has revealed its true colours under Trump's administration.

12. Rosecrans [DJ Quik, Problem]

Gangsta rap has had a tough time of it in recent years, with YG and Nipsey Hussle finding success but few have garnered the international superstardom that Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg or The Game achieved in years gone by. DJ Quik has been a mainstay throughout the last thirty years but even "Rosecrans" caught me off guard. With Problem, he's found an emcee who plays the thug role straight-faced allowing the production to take centre stage. "Bad Azz" is absolute filth, the song "Rosecrans" with The Game is rider music to piss off the neighbourhood with and beef is squashed on "Central Ave" as Eiht teams with Quik on the last two tracks. But it's the mammoth ten minute "A New Nite/Rosecrans Groove" which has Quik showing off his brand of West Coast G-funk best. "Rosecrans" may be fairly generic lyrically, but it will please anyone who grew up listening to funky ass beats.

11. Daydreaming [Kid Abstrakt, The Deli]

Kid Abstrakt sounds like a mix of Andy Cooper, Intuition and Professor P, all artists with throwback sensibilities and a desire to craft smooth, traditional hip hop. The decision to sample Brazilian records pays off as "Daydreaming" possesses a sweet, delicate sound complemented by the slapping drums and occasional DJ scratch. A duo to keep an eye on.

10. Confessions [Jinsang]

Albums like Jinsang's "Confessions" are why I continue to regularly check Bandcamp. Instrumental projects are able to shine on the platform and from start to finish, there's a late-night drive vibe sure to draw out goosebumps on the back of your neck. Pianos feature heavily but it's the subtle flutes of "Time's Movin' Fast", the thick kicks of "2004" and the bass and accompanying drops of "Flow On" that stand out. After last year's excellent "Solitude", Jinsang is a name to watch in 2018.

9. Peddler Themes [Skyzoo]

Yeeesh, Skyzoo done did it again. Last year's "The Easy Truth" is a future classic and this 8-track EP may be little more than a stopgap between LPs, but "Peddler Themes" shows the Brooklyn representative carving out tracks that are distinct and actually feel like a bunch of Skyzoo tracks. "Bamboo" feels like 2015's "Suicide Doors", while that nostalgic struggle of surviving your early adult life fills the likes of "Doing Something" and "For Real(er)" - the latter utilising the Subway Theme from Wildstyle (famously the Intro from Nas' "Illmatic"). Other than maybe Joey Bada$$, Skyzoo showcases the best of the New York sound for the modern era and "Peddler Themes" is as essential as any of his previous work.

8. Which Way Iz West [MC Eiht]

Brenk Sinatra smashed it in 2013 when he produced MC Eiht's EP "Keep It Hood" but few expected their latest to be as excellent as it turned out to be. Notable for being executive-produced by DJ Premier, "Which Way Iz West" is a perfect example of ‘less is more' demonstrating the wild charisma and unmatched lyrical displays from some of the great figures to have come from Los Angeles hip hop. The Lady of Rage murders "Heart Cold" but it's the Xzibit verse on "Medicate" that blows me away each time. JEEAAAHHH.

7. Life Sketches Vol. 3 [Mecca.83]

Mecca 83 is a British hip-hop producer who has recently been working with the UK's venerable Scorzayzee. This is the third instalment in the Life Sketches series of instrumental mixtapes and boasts . The mere presence of Grap Luva on "Let's Get It" evokes memories of Pete Rock but Mecca has delivered pure heat regardless of who's joined him. "Alpha Channel" could be a Dilla beat and "So Fine" is begging for an AZ remix - jazzier moments aside this is pure hip-hop nirvana.

6. Perestroika [Apathy, O.C.]

Perestroika literally means to restructure, and the traditional New York sound represented here by Apathy and O.C. could be interpreted as an uprising to make this the dominant sound once again. As Apathy's sixth studio album and O.C.'s twelfth, the chemistry between the two is impressive given how different their styles are. The Cold War aesthetic and Russian terminology build an atmosphere of tough, urban environments that suit both emcees perfectly and thankfully guests are kept to a minimum.

5. Rap Album Two [Jonwayne]

Jonwayne is a California MC/producer with an unconventional appearance and a conversational, tongue-in-cheek style of storytelling. His cleverly named second full-length record is compelling despite the inane content - "Out of Sight" sounds like a ticking clock with Jonwayne doubting his progress as both an artist and a person while the opener "TED Talk" is like asking the shy kid at school to drop a rhyme and he decides to tear apart a hot Beatminerz beat from 1995. Lighter moments come courtesy of "The Single", a funny track where Jonwayne keeps messing up his verse on a tough, organ-driven instrumental.

4. Tuxedo II [Mayer Hawthorne, Jake One]

The first Tuxedo record blew me away with just how damn funky a record from Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One could be. Being more familiar with Jake One's work, particularly the "White Van Music" and "Stimulus Package" albums, I was impressed at just how authentic they made the songs feel. "Rotational" is up there with Bruno Mars' "24k Magic" in terms of catchy pop-funk and "U Like It" is the type of beat I want to hear Snoop and Daz spit game to.

3. 4:44 [Jay-Z, !llmind]

It took me a while to appreciate the direction Jay had gone in with this album, especially after discovering the physical version doesn't have a freakin' tracklist. It's a good job that it doesn't really matter then, as throughout Jay's thirteenth album he captivates the listener with unusually personal stories and confessions of regret to his attitude of the past. The first track "Kill Jay-Z" is a clear message - becoming a father has changed Jay and the misogyny (namely tracks like "Girls, Girls, Girls") is part of his history that perhaps he is now embarassed by. His struggle for acceptance as a billionnaire because of his race, the ignorant misogyny he won't stand for now he's a father and the wisdom shared surrounding looking after your finances and your family - this is a welcome change from the gloating "Magna Carta" Jay from a few years ago.

2. All the Beauty in This Whole Life [Brother Ali]

Brother Ali reunites with Atmosphere's Ant to deliver his best album yet. I'm so glad to have this Ali back - he lost me for a minute with 2009's Us after that triple threat of 2003's Shadows on the Sun, 2005's "Champion EP" and 2007's "Undisputed Truth". They all showcased a precise, unrepentant emcee who tackled untouched topics with the ease of a veteran. The scathing intro on that album ("Room With A View") isn't too dissimilar to the jaw-dropping "Pen To Paper" here - as soon as those horns come in you know you're in for a special ride. And that's not even considering rap song of the year in "Dear Black Son"; Ali addressing his son on the racism he's about to receive in life and explaining why it happens. The struggles of being bullied as a kid for being albino ("Pray For Me") or the eye-opening explanation to why Ali is marked by the US government and nearly banned from flying forever ("Uncle Usi Taught Me"). There's more going on in "ATBITWL" than some rapper's get up to in their whole career and you owe it to yourself not to miss a moment of it.

1. The Iceberg [Oddisee]

Pedestal-raising indie emcee/producer from the DMV who boasts a stellar catalog consisting of classic group efforts (as Diamond District), superb instrumental offerings and also this year's live album "—-". "The Iceberg" is Oddisee's ninth solo-LP and more politically-charged follow-up to 2015's "The Good Fight". Having received an incredible amount of acclaim across his lengthy career, and with a catalog that is unmatched, his live shows are some of the best you'll ever experience and his record label is as strong as ever. The fact he produces everything he makes continues to astound me and all while spitting innovative, lyrically complex songs about a variety of topics. Racial tension and how it is taught through adult life experiences ("You Grew Up"), gender inequality and the pay gap ("Hold It Back") and how mental illness is taboo in the black community ("Waiting Outside").

"The Iceberg" reminds me of all four Kendrick Lamar albums if they were thrown in to a blender and the resulting concoction was injected with a dose of live instrumentation. Simply phenomenal.

Originally posted: January 16, 2018

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