The Year 2017 in Review
Author: Sy Shackleford
2017 has been a tumultuous year, to say the least. America's had a record number of deaths from domestic mass shootings, open rallies for White supremacy, and a celebrity sex scandal that's reminiscent of the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. The internet has increasingly become a so-called "safe space" where healthy discourse is shamed and strongly discouraged by those who claim to be societal progressives. To top it off, we have a man-baby in the White House with some very strong Twitter fingers. Thankfully, music continues to be a welcome distraction from the woes of the world and being able to write my annual top ten hip-hop albums is one of my favorite tasks for the end of the year. Upon skimming through or thoroughly reading this list, my expectation is that I'll get more complaints about why I didn't include "4:44: by Jay-Z or "DAMN." by Kendrick Lamar. But maybe my expectation can be defied with that healthy discourse I mentioned earlier instead. And if any militant hip-hop heads take offense to this list in anyway, good. It just means more publicity for me. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
10.) Artist: Joey Bada$$
Album Title: All-Amerikkkan Bada$$
Label: Pro Era/Cinematic
Release Date: April 7th, 2017
Producers: DJ Khalil, 1-900, Statik Selektah, Kirk Knight, & Chuck Strangers
The cover of Joey Badass' sophomore album reminded me of the 1969 film, "Easy Rider". A watershed moment in filmmaking, the main character was nicknamed "Captain America" and the plot concerned bikers being drug traffickers. More than the plot, the film put a microscope on America itself. The 1960s were a socially turbulent period marked by pivotal events in America that forced it to change. 2017 has been a new era in America as well, with racial issues and tensions being exacerbated by an administration that's more Ringling Brothers than it is presidential. Brooklyn's Joey Badass noticed this change as well and took a cue from Ice Cube's 1990 debut album, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted", to make a statement about where America is in its current state and where it's going. Some think that any political statements from Joey ring hollow considering his catalogue and him being 22 years old. Personally, I welcome the shift he's made on his sophomore album. He hasn't made a complete transition from mainstream rapper to political rapper, but there's no reason that there can't be something of a balancing act.
The single, "Land of the Free", garnered significant attention for its trolling release date (on Donald Trump's inauguration) and scathing declarations of Trump not being fit for public office. "Devastated" is the other single, but deviates from a message on politics and heads more towards self-empowerment. At a total of 12 tracks, "All-Amerikkkan Bada$$" begins as a solo affair until the guest stars roll in halfway through, which breaks the lyrical monotony. Rapper Schoolboy Q is the first guest appearance for the album and appears on "Rockabye Baby" with an occasional reggae cadence and fiery anti-Trump lyrics. Yonkers' Styles P. has a guest verse on the smooth jazz-tinged "Super Predator", produced by Statik Selektah. Joey starts off the track and his voice curiously sounds similar to Prodigy circa 1995. Statik also lends more jazz on the production for "Legendary", which features J. Cole. Joey himself closes out his album in the form of "An Amerikkkan Idol", a six-minute long coda comprised of a mix of politics and braggadocio: "Sorry White America, but I'm about to black out!".
While Joey's sociopolitical commentary doesn't provide any insights that are particularly unique, "All-Amerikkkan Bada$$" doesn't come off as a muddled album at all. In the hands of social justice warrior/hashtag social media activist rapper, it would've been. Joey had a newfound focus for this album given the time in which it was conceived. However, if he went full-blown political, he'd be a one-dimensional. The various facets of an artist need to be expressed through their work since life can rarely be explained without contradictions. If "All-Amerikkkan Bada$$" is indeed a new direction for Joey, then I'm eager to see how he progresses.
9.) Artist: MC Eiht
Album Title: Which Way Iz West
Label: Year Round/Blue Stamp
Release Date: June 30th, 2017
Producers: Brenk Sinatra, DJ Premier
MC Eiht was almost unrecognizable to me on this album. Having 12 solo albums, up to and including this one, in the span of over 20 years is bound to be marked by some change, yes. However, the one thing I found that's changed was his voice. It reminds me of how Rakim's voice transitioned from smooth & velvet and into gruff and grimy from 1987 to 1991. Granted, it's an indication of age, but I've often contended that age is irrelevant in hip-hop if you still have talent and understand the necessity of adaptation. The Compton's Most Wanted co-founder who was born Aaron Tyler shows no signs of slowing down despite "Which Way Iz West" being his first solo album in 11 years. Though executive produced by DJ Premier, this album is an entirely west coast affair, from its cover, album artists, music, to its guest features. On the surface, it looks like a compilation album considering the abundance of west coast artists included. It could even be considered a concept album about hip-hop from the west. Possible resemblances notwithstanding, "Which Way Iz West" is pure west coast gangsta rap from a wizened emcee.
Though Austrian producer Brenk Sinatra does the lion's share of the beats, DJ Premier put his E.P. duties for the album aside and produced the remaining 3 tracks. Sinatra's melodies range from smooth G-Funk grooves to menacing bass-driven beats. The opening track, "Shut Em Down" featuring the Outlawz, is emblematic of the latter. Sinatra's G-Funk influence is evident on the 6-minute long "Gangsta, Gangsta" featuring Kurupt. The guest appearances are copious and expected, but "Heart Cold" was the one track that caught me by surprise. Led by a looped horn sample, the music is blessed with a murderous verse from The Lady of Rage. Her 2002 track, 'Unfucwitable', was a prime example of her skill set and her verse on this album was perhaps the best guest rap appearance this year. The three tracks helmed by Primo consist of "4 Tha OG'z" with Bumpy Knuckles, "Last Ones Left" featuring C.M.W., and "Run the Blocc" featuring Maylay, which was the best of the three with its dusty metal-assisted snares. MC Eiht may get outshined by some of his guests, but throughout the album, he remains a lyrical threat in his own right.
Admittedly, I'm primarily a fan of east coast hip-hop, but there have been a good number of albums from Cali hip-hop artists that have made significant blips on my musical radar in recent years. What initially pulled me into "Which Way Iz West" was the fact that DJ Premier was overseeing it. Come to think of it, it's the only album from a west coast Cali rapper that actually found its way onto this list. West coast gangsta rap may not have the same selling power it had more than 20 years ago, but the music is still very much alive. MC Eiht is one of its proudest torchbearers, a pioneer in the genre who's seen many of its changes as he has experienced them.
8.) Artist: Big Boi
Album Title: Boomiverse
Label: Epic Records
Release Date: June 16th, 2017
Producers: Organized Noize, Scott Storch, Mannie Fresh, Ian Kirkpatrick, DJ Dahi, DJ Khalil, et. al.
Certainly the most pop-accessible album in this list, "Boomiverse" is the third brainchild from Big Boi of OutKast. Though his partner-in-rhyme, Andre 3000, seems to have hung up his microphone, Big Boi shows no signs of following suit. The ATL emcee has help from his Dungeon Family brethren, particularly multiple tracks featuring Killer Mike and production from Organized Noize. The album's opener, "Da Next Day", has Organized Noize written all over it: Interesting drum patterns over layered instruments. Big Boi's boastful rhymes on that track are laced with wordplay and are juxtaposed with a spoken word poem from Big Rube. The music on the entire album fits comfortably at any venue, especially ones during the summer. The two lead singles, "Mic Jack" and "Freakanomics", are the best examples of this.
The former features Maroon 5's Adam Levine on the hook as well as production from both DJ Dahi and DJ Khalil. It's the kind of track perfect for drop-top cruising in the summer, day or night. The latter, with Sleepy Brown on the hook, its playful bounce, and seductive opening saxophone riff, is suited for two kinds of clubs: Night and strip. The song "Get Wit It" also fits that bill. Featuring a verse from Snoop Dogg, both he and Big Boi flow effortlessly over an Organized Noize production built off of some pretty atmospheric vocals. "In the South" is an ode to the region Big Boi represents, with a verse from Gucci Mane and a posthumous hook courtesy of Pimp C. Another track that had commercial potential is "Overthunk", due to its video game samples and a smooth hook from Eric Bellinger.
On "Boomiverse", Big Boi's a supreme hedonist who has braggadocio rap broken down to a science. He doesn't spit any out-of-this-world punchlines or layered polysyllabic rhyme schemes, but he's definitely smooth with his. He doesn't veer too far away from OutKast's formula of balancing real hip-hop with mainstream appeal, and it shows. Even the cover, with Big Boi's face superimposed in outer space containing stars and a cosmic cube, is a parallel to OutKast's most heralded album, "ATLiens". However, even if that isn't the case, "Boomiverse" is a wondrous sonic universe unto itself.
7.) Artist: Brother Ali
Album Title: All the Beauty in This Whole Life
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Release Date: May 5th, 2017
His first album in five years, "All the Beauty in This Whole Life" is another tour de force from the Minnesota emcee. A return to musical form, this album marks Ali's reunion with Atmosphere member/Rhymesayers in-house producer Ant for the first time since 2009's "Us". No stranger to issues of politics, race, and religion, Brother Ali once again tackles those seemingly insurmountable topics and then some. Among the more soulful hip-hop releases of 2017, Ali recounts his own personal experiences in life over Ant's sampled production combined with live instruments to make the music all-the-more organic. Despite all of the album's soul and confessionals, Ali has not lost any of his intensity. The opening track, "Pen to Paper", has Ali spitting his rhymes with such intense determination that you'd think he was speaking from a preacher's pulpit. Ali's maintained that cadence for most of his career: A street preacher's voice inspired by the rhymes of KRS-ONE, Gil Scott-Heron, and Public Enemy's Chuck D.
Ali tends to keep his guests to a minimum and this album is no different. On "Special Effects", he enlists fellow Minnesota rapper deM atlaS on the hook for the song's message about how technology is replacing humanity's face-to-face interactions. He retains guest support on another track that tackles an unusual topic in hip-hop head-on without use of metaphor or allegory: "The Bitten Apple" has an assist from crooner Idris Philips in providing a second-person narrative about an individual with a harrowing addiction to internet pornography. In some of White America, hip-hop music is still viewed upon with a level apprehension. The blues guitar-laden "Uncle Usi Taught Me" is about that apprehension, but in another country. In the song, Ali recalls a time when he was held up from his flight and interrogated for an extended period in Iran after performing there. As stated earlier, the issue of race does not go untouched. On "Dear Black Son", Ali pens a letter to his mixed-race son about the harsh realities he will have to face being a person of color. By contrast, "Before They Called You White" angrily examines the history of systematic White supremacy.
"All the Beauty in This Whole Life" has a certain positivity in it despite the tough topics it examines. The music and the lyrics are filled with life despite all of hurdles and tragedy that come with it. Ali doesn't make any effort to shy away from putting it all on the table. One thing I've always liked about Brother Ali is that he creates raps that challenges Americans to think. This album represents that same challenge, and also to not be afraid to look at or explain away the ugly, and to become the change they wish would happen. If that's his aim, then he's truly a progressive artist.
6.) Artist: Sadistik
Album Title: Altars
Label: Equal Vision Records
Release Date: April 14th, 2017
Producers: Ryu Alexy & Jimmy Kelso, Eric G., S.A.T., Andy McMann, Graham O'Brien, Fameless, et. al.
When Sadistik himself clarified the extent of his fourth album's dark tones during a promotional interview, the man wasn't joking for the most part. The Seattle wordsmith took his patented expressive rhymes and melded them with a production heavy with an industrial aesthetic. The result? A man raging against the machines which emphasize control. "Let's put the 'cult' in 'culture'" from "Free Spirits" wasn't just wordplay. It was a call-to-arms to rail against establishments which control the masses through sedation. In the case of "Altars", religion is the establishment most frequently targeted. Armed with allegory, alliteration, and densely literate rhymes, Sadistik has taken aim and fired a two-fold message: "I don't bow down to their idols, I won't kowtow 'til I'm idle" and "sacrifice your gods before your gods sacrifice you".
Though "Altars" is not my favorite album of his, the skill he demonstrates in using imagery, obscure references, and crafting layered multisyllabic rhyme schemes should not be ignored. The production is mostly industrial and, considering the angry tone, is appropriately lacking the gloom and psychedelic introspection of his previous releases. As stated, his words are his weapons and though he uses them for attack, he disguises them with allegory. "Roaches" and "Honeycomb" both make use of insect imagery to describe resilience even after everything's gone to Hell and Sadistik's ready-mode mind state, respectively. "Salem Witches", with its eerie horror-movie cowbell snares, is a clear reference to the Salem witch trials and how mass hysteria creates distortion.
The single "God Complex" is among the most intense songs on the album. Also, Sadistik kept the guest appearances from fellow rappers sparse, as usual. P.O.S. appears on "Molecules" and Kristoff Krane lends a hand on "Water", which has an ambient atmospheric backdrop with S.A.T. providing the production. "Altars" is most certainly not for everyone, but its audio treatise on free thought and the man behind it have more than enough strength to warrant frequent discussion in hip-hop circles.
5.) Artist: Statik Selektah
Album Title: 8 (Eight)
Label: Showoff/Duck Down Music
Release Date: December 8th, 2017
Producers: Statik Selektah, The Alchemist
Statik Selektah found his niche in being a DJ/producer who specializes in creating beats from jazz/soul/gospel-tinged samples. If listeners believe that his style is "too '90s" and should remain in that era, then I advise them to take a look at the man's catalogue. If those assessments rang with any decibel of truth, then Stat wouldn't have as prolific a career as he has. Nor would his beats attract rappers from all areas of the hip-hop spectrum. In addition to the rappers with whom he's produced full-length collaborative albums (Action Bronson, Termanology, Slaine, KXNG Crooked, and Freeway), the talent readily available for him when he does collaborative projects are often welcome surprises. The one thing about a Statik Selektah album that can't be denied at this point is that his guests make it a point to not spit any hot garbage over his sounds. With his aptly-titled eighth studio album, "8", his guest rappers all came correct. Having learned of the art of the compilation album from DJ Clue, DJ Khaled, and mixtape DJs of yesteryear, Statik Selektah's work preserves the practice of showcasing hip-hop talent.
I never thought I'd be listening to an album of myriad exclusives that included artists like Wale and Everlast... until now. Though the two don't collaborate here, their presence on the album was a big surprise. Acclaimed duo Run the Jewels step outside of their comfort zone and make an appearance here as well, proving they can rap well over vintage boom-bap as well as its futuristic variation typical of El-P's productions. Fellow Massachusetts hip-hop artist Joyner Lucas, currently known for his provocative single "I'm Not Racist", makes an appearance with a double-time flow on "Don't Run". Lil' Fame lends his aggressive flow for the street-anthem "Everything (Show Me Love)" with an assist from PnB Rock. Another notable track is the reggae-tinged, dusty-drummed "Nobody Move", featuring Raekwon and Royce da 5'9". As for the artists mentioned initially in this paragraph, Wale comes through with a surprising and focused flow over "Get Down", and Everlast teams up with B-Real on the throwback-sounding "Shakem Up".
From Stat's daughter inspiring the intro to Juelz Santana and JFK closing with the outro, "8" is a good mix for ardent hip-hop listeners. Having been released in the last month of the year, it is also appropriately the last album I've purchased for the year. Music is a fun and comforting outlet for many people, myself included. Considering everything that's happened this year, I'd hate for my final musical purchase of 2017 to be a complete dud. It's been said for some artists that they enlist so many guest appearances for their projects that they ultimately end up making a cameo on their own album. That applies if you're a rapper. But when you're the producer, the music speaks for itself and the artists merely have to speak correctly over them.
4.) Artist: Logic
Album Title: Everybody
Label: Visionary/Def Jam
Release Date: May 5th, 2017
Producers: Logic, 6ix, DJ Khalil, & C-Sick
Apart from the obvious skill factor, one other thing that stands out about Logic is his cinematic bent. This album and his last have utilized themes from epic films to make commentary on humanity and human nature. On "Everybody", the Maryland native has an all-race inclusive Sistine Chapel-like portrait for the album cover and begins with a seven-and-a-half minute intro titled "Hallelujah". Despite its great length, it set the tone for the album's concept: Despite differences, everybody is everyone (as contrary as that may sound). Being of mixed-race heritage has given Logic a unique insight into racism from both sides of the fence. He uses ideas of reincarnation, circular time, and a supreme being to illustrate his point that differences shouldn't exist if we're all connected.
As far as the rapping goes, his sole comparison would be to Tech N9ne. He doesn't have the same "choppa flow", but he comes close. The best example of this is on the title track and "Black SpiderMan", the latter of which garnered more attention for its message of self-love and self-acceptance. "Anziety" and "1-800-273-8255" serve as both social commentary and a lyrical exorcism of Logic's own personal issues. The first track is a confessional song about his own affliction with anxiety while the second tackles suicide from the perspective of both the suicidal and a call center counselor. In between songs and sometimes at the end of them, Neil deGrasse Tyson plays the role of God and radio personality Big Von plays a recently deceased human named Atom. The skits with Atom and God serve as expository dialogue meant to explain the album's overarching theme.
As a hip-hop artist, Logic is a double-threat: He's got skills behind both the mic and the boards. Though he's had a hand in the album's production, most of the beats were done by his longtime collaborator, 6ix. The guest appearances on "Everybody" include Killer Mike, J. Cole, Black Thought, and even Chuck D. The acclaim of the song "1-800-273-8255" was sufficient to snatch a Grammy nomination for song of the year. Even if it loses out to another song, its message is in-tune with the album's life affirming message: To live.
3.) Artist: CunninLynguists
Album Title: Rose Azura Njano
Label: RBC Records
Release Date: October 6th, 2017
Producers: Kno, Deacon the Villain
America changed following the inauguration of Donald Trump as our Commander-in-Chief. Having such an ignorant and inept man who is so obviously a White supremacist in charge of the country gave dangerous articulation to his base's irrational fear of being replaced by people of color. Yes, color has become a polarizing issue once more, specifically skin pigmentations and the feelings they evoke. Southern rap trio CunninLynguists are fully aware of these racist trends and created an album that's not only a sign of the times, but made use of imagery, multiple entendres, and personification to show the emotional facets of the Black experience in America as expressed in the music built from that perilous and strange journey. "Rose Azura Njano" is not just the name of the album, but also the name of the woman on the cover.
The rappers' concept is that Rose is the sum totality of Black music in America and suffers from chromesthesia, a sensory affliction in which sounds evoke experiences of color. With her name literally translating to the primary colors on a color wheel (red, blue, and yellow), the group skillfully uses the feelings associated with those colors in their songs. In some of the songs, some colors blend with each other and achieve the desired effect, such as the "Violet (The Upper Room)" and "Earth to Venus (Tiny Orange Star)". But when all of the colors blend together, it's black. As in, "Black music".
Though the album didn't pull me in as quickly as the group's 2011 concept album, "Oneirology", it's still just as imaginative. Both Deacon the Villain's and Natti's vivid lyrics have always fit well over Kno's radiant walls of sound. I think the album's concept is best represented on the tracks "Mr. Morganfield & Ms. Waters (A-Side)" and "Jimi & Andre (B-Side)". The titles collectively are representational of double vinyl, with four different incredibly well-sampled beats and detailed lyrics about Black musical pioneers. My favorite track has to be "Honey", which is probably the one song with a title that's in tune with the primary color of the album cover. It sports a bouncy beat, a hypnotic hook from Farah Elle, and lyrics from all three members marveling at a Black female beauty. With "Rose Azura Njano", the CunninLynguists continue to stand out in southern hip-hop as one of its most unconventional, creating music that's equal parts socio-political, playful, celebratory, and creative.
2.) Artist: Rapsody
Album Title: Laila's Wisdom
Label: Jamla/Roc Nation Records
Release Date: September 22nd, 2017
Producers: 9th Wonder, Khrysis, Nottz, and Eric G.
North Carolina's Marlanna "Rapsody" Evans is among a certain echelon of emcees. Not simply because she's female, but rather because she's among the few female emcees (such as Jean Grae or Northern State) who don't incorporate sex into their image and music to garner attention. She's an everywoman with relatable tales expressed via an undeniable devotion to her hip-hop craft. Hearing her verse on "Black Swan" from Statik Selektah's 2011 album, "Population Control", piqued my curiosity about her. Having a co-sign from fellow N.C. native 9th Wonder was of tremendous help and gained Rapsody wider exposure, including her 2012 debut, "The Idea of Beautiful", and later a guest feature on "Complexion (A Zulu Love)" from Kendrick Lamar's acclaimed 2015 album, "To Pimp a Butterfly". Having done songs with other lyrical champs like Talib Kweli, Murs, Styles P., and Chris Rivers is additional proof that she can rock a mic. Her sophomore album, "Laila's Wisdom", is like a collection of diary confessionals brought to life.
Produced mostly by 9th Wonder, "Laila's Wisdom" is just dripping with soul. Producer Nottz Raw is no slouch in that department either, having laced the gospel-sampling introductory title-track where Rapsody shines through with a skill designed to show you "the difference between McDonald's, Burger King, and Whole Foods". The single, "Pay Up", has a Khrysis-laced beat filled with bouncy funk and serves as something of an answer-record to all those "Goldigger"-esque tracks by showing that parasites in relationships have no gender. Her guest appearances on here vary with R&B and hip-hop artists included, among them are Black Thought, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, and B.J. the Chicago Kid. The latter guest provides the hook on the soulful "Black & Ugly", a personal song about Rapsody embracing her Blackness and not letting anyone use that to limit her. The De La Soul-inspired "A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love" shows a vulnerable side of Rapsody, a first-person narrative examining the aspects of courtship. "Knock on My Door" follows a similar theme: Wanting a man without coming off as thirsty.
One of the things I like about "Laila's Wisdom" is that it's contemplative without being preachy. Rapsody has laid various facets of her being in this album and is self-aware of her own contradictions. Also, she's shown that she doesn't need to use sex to sell nor does she need to masculinize herself to fit in a male-dominated arena like hip-hop. With Rapsody's gift for wordplay and thoughtful lyrics, the one emcee I can compare her to is Cormega (minus the street tales). Securing a Grammy-nomination for best rap album, "Laila's Wisdom" has the potential for even larger attention from the masses if it wins. But in either case, the album is a good helping of soul food for hip-hop listeners.
1.) Artist: Sean Price
Album Title: Imperius Rex
Label: Duck Down Music
Release Date: August 18th, 2017
Producers: The Alchemist, Crummiebeats, Nottz, DJ Skizz, Marco Polo, Stu Bangas, et. al.
Sean Price may have died, but made sure to leave plenty of ghosts in the machine. Among the most anticipated hip-hop albums of 2017, "Imperius Rex" was a reminder that, even in death, the Brownsville emcee still possessed some of the sharpest bars in rap. His entire catalogue is celebrated by a fanbase which has grown since his unfortunate passing. As dope as his albums are, even a cameo verse from him is the equivalent of Eric Roberts or Christopher Walken making an appearance in a film for only a few minutes worth of screen time: A fan-favorite who made the most with what he had. Thematically, "Imperius Rex" is no different than any of his previous works: Grimy New York City beats coupled with a crass sense of humor inside of polysyllabic rhymes. However, it holds more weight as it is a posthumously released album. Though its production is nothing avant-garde and the rhymes pose no kind of sociological commentary, "Imperius Rex" is a musical example of an old adage from former Def Jam boss, Lyor Cohen: "If you're a rapper, then RAP motherf&@$er!". And that's exactly what Sean Price did.
The production on the album veered away from any of the usual in-house Duck Down beatsmiths and turned to outside collaborators. Which is fine since they provide audio backdrops that fit with Price's style. Nottz Raw provides the soundscape for the massive posse cut "Clans & Cliks", with chopped samples and lo-fi snares that members of the Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik simply demolish. The lead single, "Rap Professor", is laced with a familiar sampled funk courtesy of DJ Skizz and Sean shows a lyrical skill that makes him worthy of the song's title. The guest raps are just as varied as the production. The Harry Fraud-produced "The 3 Lyrical P's" features Styles P. and Prodigy. Considering the title and the fact that two out of three of the featured emcees are dead, the song would've also worked if Styles' verse was replaced by a Pumpkinhead verse. One of the beats I really enjoyed was from Stu Bangas on "Definition of a God". It has an arena feel to it and Sean's ad-libs at the end are hilarious.
From front to back, "Imperius Rex" was the one album that spent the most time in my music rotation this year. Though CunninLynguists is my favorite hip-hop act, it was Sean Price who delivered the rap album of 2017 that held my attention the most. The man was a hardcore bully on the mic and knew how to rap with the sense of humor of a class clown cut-up. There's no narrative or progressive production on this album, and there doesn't have to be either. However, if the album can be said to have any concept, then look at the cover: An underrated rap gorilla sitting on his throne. That said, all "bow down to the world-renowned Brownsville Jesus".
Originally posted: January 9, 2018