2016 was monumental for black culture. The year featured high-quality releases from the industry’s brightest stars, impactful strides in black film, and the long-awaited return of the elusive Frank Ocean. Beyoncé and Rihanna released their best offerings to date; A Tribe Called Quest gave us one last masterpiece; films, such as Fences and Moonlight, sparked race conversation and took the box office by storm; and a kid from Akron, Ohio ascended to basketball immortality by ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought. And yet, 2017 has pushed the culture to even higher heights. With SZA’s highly anticipated CTRL fresh out of the oven and Nas’ follow-up to Life is Good set to arrive later this year, let’s check out 2017’s best albums at the halfway point.
10 | Rather You Than Me, Rick Ross
Rick Ross has always been more than what he seems. He’s never been the most skilled rapper, but he’s remained relevant in hip hop for the last decade. He’s often overshadowed by other MMG artists on posse cuts, but manages to hold his own against legends like Kanye, Jay-Z and Nas when the beat drops. Rick Ross is cerebral and calculated—as we see again on Rather You Than Me. Rebounding from his last effort Black Market, Ross sticks to his formula of beats that could be enjoyed on a yacht sipping champagne or in the club drinking Hennessy. This is the soundtrack for a boss. On the most revealing track, “Idols Become Rivals,” Rozay airs out Birdman over a dope sample of Jay-Z’s “Where Have You Been.” He calls the leader of Cash Money out for his financial exploitation of artists like Lil Wayne and for sporting a fake watch. That’s brutal honesty for you.
9 | DropTopWop, Gucci Mane
Gucci returned home last year with a renewed sense of purpose and hasn’t slowed down since. This mixtape arrived on the one-year anniversary of Guwop’s release from prison—which looms over his most cohesive offering since then. Just like the Atlanta-based rapper, DropTopWop is dripping in diamonds and gold watches—but ever paranoid about the Fed’s watching. The tape highlights the braggadocio and flexing we’ve come to expect, but with more thought and introspection. Gucci experiments with new flows and lets his humor and self awareness shine through on his rhymes. On the bass-heavy “Met Gala,” Offset delivers a blistering verse—but doesn’t steal the show thanks to Guwop’s assured flow. Thanks to Metro Boomin’s head slapping production and Gucci’s infectious hooks throughout, the Trap God doesn’t disappoint.
8 | More Life, Drake
Although Views remains the most streamed album of all-time and earned him a record 13 Billboard Awards, it was not especially well-received critically or by the streets. It contained some of Drake’s darkest music, but still revealed little about the artist himself. Although this self-described “playlist” has a more upbeat tone, the Toronto rapper fails to cover new ground. Still present is the paranoia about those surrounding him (“Mabida Riddim” and “Fake Love”) and his enemies (“Free Smoke” and “Lose You”), but there’s not too much depth in his exploration of these themes. Perhaps the album’s strongest tracks are the euphoric “Passionfruit” and club-ready “Gyalchester.” Even more than on Views, Drake experiments with black music from around the world—especially dancehall and grime. The OVO rapper has received criticism from legends such as Sean Paul for profiting off of dancehall without paying homage to its creators. Whether or not you agree with Drake’s methods, he’s once again provided a platform for new artists to shine and solidified himself as one of the best hit-makers of all-time.
7 | Fin, Syd
Rap group Odd Future introduced the world to two of the best songwriters of this decade; one of them is already well-known (Frank Ocean), the other is gradually gaining the attention she deserves. Syd, lead singer of The Internet, ventured into neo-soul with the group’s 2015 effort Ego Death. On her solo debut, she revives R&B with a futuristic spin. Although her vocals are impressive, earning her Aaliyah and Janet Jackson comparisons, Syd’s cool persona is what makes her music compelling. She move from love ballads ("She Got Her Own") to steamy sexcapades ("Know" and "Smile More") to “rags to riches” brags ("No Complaints") at the drop of a dime. Syd, one of few openly homosexual artists, says she hopes to give young, non-straight fans the music industry representation she lacked growing up. With her immense talent and keen awareness, this versatile artist will be a forced to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
6 | Future, Future
For all the mumble-rap and auto-tune skeptics, you might want to get used to Future. The Atlanta rapper has influenced the Lil Yachtys and 21 Savages of the world, but continues to reign supreme in trap. Future made history when he released two Billboard chart-topping albums in consecutive weeks. FUTURE has the smash hits and savagery we’ve come to expect, but with a twist. Future experiments with skits and transitions that aim for more cohesion than his albums have had in the past. The album’s biggest hit, “Mask Off”, uses flutes to add a new dimension—resulting in one of the year’s hottest beats.
5 | All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey Bada$$
Joey Bada$$ received backlash for calling himself a better rapper than 2Pac, hip hop’s most iconic artist, ahead of this release. However, the social consciousness and black power sewed into this album remind us of the debt artists like Joey must pay to the late Machiavelli. It is evident that the Pro Era rapper approached this project with a laser focus on politics and song making. The rhymes here do not rival 2012’s brilliant 1999, but the production and cohesiveness reveal maturation in one of this generation’s most important artists. Donald Trump’s America casts a shadow over the album, as evidenced by its central theme of institutional racism. Many Joey fans were dismayed by the pop-leaning sound of lead single “Devastated”, but gritty cuts such as “Rockabye Baby” and “Ring The Alarm” provide the perfect contrast. At 22, Joey is already one of the best technical rappers in the game. This album proves he’s ready to become one of the best artists as well.
4 | Drunk, Thundercat
On this dazzling display, Thundercat steps out of the shadow of collaborators such as Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus—proving he’s a creative force in his own right. The bass guitarist fuses soulful vocals with electronic beats, subtle bass and jazz strings to craft a soundscape that would thrive in any era of music. On his third studio album, Thundercat proves that his best attributes as an artist are his versatility and keen attention to detail. On the sensual “Show You the Way,” he expertly executes a Sonic the Hedgehog sample. Yup, you heard that right. Although Drunk has 23 tracks, it clocks in at just over 52 minutes—displaying this artist’s surgical ability to trim filler. Thundercat commissions features that seem world’s apart (such Michael McDonald and Wiz Khalifa), but these artists are united by a common thread that runs through the entire project: soul.
3 | Culture, Migos
Migos has come a long way since 2013’s “Versace.” The trio has taken the industry by storm—producing many of the club’s staple bangers over the past three years. Migos’ ear for hooks and entertaining flows have made them the genre’s most commercially successful group. This album’s no different. The Metro Boomin-produced “Bad and Boujee” was 2016’s best song; it’s replay value ensures that it will continue to make an impact this summer. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff each bring unique talents and flows to the party—making for an entertaining ride. Never has their collective synergy been this high. As evidenced by the fact that nearly every track on CULTURE is a banger, Migos will likely outlast many of its trap music contemporaries.
2 | Process, Sampha
There are often two ways to impress as a vocalist. One way is to display pure vocal ability and range; the other is to have a rare, distinctive voice. Sampha is undoubtedly the latter. His breathy vocals allow his every inflection to pierce at the core. Process is full of intimate, honest ballads that are both painful and beautiful. Every piece of this album is stitched together with care; every word is urgent and every concept fully developed. The British singer first appeared in the mainstream in 2013, offering a stirring hook to Drake’s “Too Much.” Since then, he’s collaborated with high profile artists such as Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”) and Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”). On this self defining work, Sampha proves he was more than worthy of these A-list features. Truthfully, he already deserves a seat at their table.
1 | DAMN., Kendrick Lamar
This album features Kendrick’s most accessible music to date. In general, the songs have well-crafted hooks and more melodies, but K Dot doesn’t sacrifice substance. Religion and race are the biggest influences on this album. Songs such as “Feel” and “Pride” dive deep into the conscious of an artist who feels trapped on Earth. On the hypnotic "Lust," the Compton rapper acknowledges human weakness and limitations—cautioning listeners to "just make it count" regardless of whether they succumb to their vices. Lamar gets away from the chronological structure that defined good kid, M.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly. This creates more stream of consciousness than narrative rap—with great results. For the first time, Kendrick has made an album that’s as commercially successful as it is critically acclaimed. What makes him the best rapper of his generation is an immense attention to detail and execution. There are lyrical marvels and visceral rhymes laced throughout, but Kendrick flexes more on standout track "Element" than on his past works combined. This album is multilayered and multifaceted enough to hold K Dot fans over till his next release. Until then, fans will debate whether DAMN. places him on hip hop’s Mt. Rushmore. It’s just that damn good.