Rap is often a singles genre. Hence, this list skews towards rappers who made singles with videos that played on the YouTube Rap City of your imagination. In the interest of including as many deserving artists as possible and for the sake of variety, album-oriented rappers (Isaiah Rashad, Ka, Kendrick, Aesop Rock) appear on the albums list, but not here. Before our top 50 songs of the year, we’ve included a standout song from each of POW Recordings’ rap or rap-adjacent artists. If we didn’t believe they deserved a spot on the regular list, we wouldn’t be putting out their music in the first place.
In case you disagree, I recently spoke to the ghost of Big L and he applauded us for leaving off everyone we left off. Especially that person you’re thinking of.
Honorable POW Recordings Mention: T.Y.E, “La La Land”
With all due respect to the duo of Gosling and Stone, “La La Land” from T.Y.E is the only “La La Land” we acknowledge. It plays out like the “Codeine Crazy” video crossed with Don Giovanni crossed with Z-Ro. If you read Jon Tanners’ excellent profile of the Dallas rapper, you can learn the background of the psychological breakdown that led to its creation. It documents the 22-year old, ex-basketball star-turned-opera-scholarship-singer turned psychedelic suicide street rap ascendant, spiting in double-time, searching for his soul while clutching a semi-automatic. Someone who’s aware that if you reveal a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the third.
What could easily become histrionic instead becomes harrowing. Authenticity is overrated, but if you’re going to buy into an artist, you need to believe the character. Beyond the AK-47 rap chops and the haunted devil baritone singing, there’s that intangible quality. The thing that makes you unsure what Tye will do next — unload the clip on the audience or himself. —JEFF WEISS
Honorable POW Recordings Mention: Chester Watson & Kent Loon, “Khaki Loafers”
Limitations can boost creativity. With their brushes dipped in only a few colors, Chester Watson and Kent Loon paint one of the most menacing and astute distortions of 2016. The bonus track on the hallucinatory Spring Mirage, “Khaki Loafers” might sound eerily similar to a ton of rap beats. But the orchestral, pendulum-swinging stabs in the distance cloak the atmosphere in uncertainty. Promoters get the abridged rider, and the fast pace of Chester’s nascent career bleeds in between snare crashes: “Should be on a flight out to Belgium, but missed it fucking with this chick back in Berlin, I’m slipping, room swirling, I’m sippin still.”
There’s the uneasiness of being too high while sitting still for too long. Nü Age brethren Kent Loon feigns dizziness, bending corners, and careens towards destructive pleasure. Fat blunts and dirty Fanta supplant any semblance of a conscience. Sometimes, hypnosis happens simply through the repetition of a strange phrase. — EVAN GABRIEL
Honorable POW Recordings Mention: Ness Nite (feat. Nick Jordan), “Yes”
If Ness Nite didn’t exist, only the future could have created her. She coined the phrase “bra-less music” to describe her sound, and it’s far more accurate than any trite adjective or narrowly defined genre tag. Ness raps but this isn’t exactly hip-hop. She sings in an opiated liminal state, but it’s not quite R&B. The beats slink somewhere in the constellation next to electronic, but it’s not dance music.
It’s like a cosmic tundra float hovering between FKA Twigs, The Internet, and Princess Nokia, but located entirely on its own evolutionary coordinate. It’s braless music, which sounds a little strange to type, but not when you watch the video and understand that it’s intended to conjure it’s own sense of freedom — apart from arbitrary delineations of past perceptions or previous lines in the sand. When she played at the POW Festival, at least four people went up to me mildly perplexed and blown away, asking who she was and what’s her story. To be honest, I couldn’t quite articulate it because some people are irreducible to easy summaries. I just said that she lives in Minneapolis and that she’s what I imagined music and culture would sound like in 2024. It’s cool that she arrived early.— Jeff Weiss
Honorable POW Recordings Mention: Gabe Nandez, “Scumbag”
The opening seconds of Gabe Nandez’ “Scumbag” telegraphs what makes it so exciting: just when you’re lulled into the MTV Unplugged guitar, a harsh glitch smacks you upside the head and all bets are off. From there, the effect is narcotic, doubling down on boom bap’s lurching head nod before transmuting into hypnagogic psychedelia.
Lyrically—and yes, Nandez is properly lyrical—lines trend towards free association and THC-laced introspection, synthesizing classic influences without sounding imitative. If this is what Gabe Nandez sounds like now, wait until Montreal gets its weed dispensary situation sorted out in 2017. — SON RAW
Honorable POW Recordings Mention: Natia, “Watch Your 6”
Natia traffics in gaudy Nautica and Hilton room keys, Pharcyde cassettes and standby flights to Austin, stolen Denalis and planted burner phones. He dreams about Bugattis and half-hears Al Sharpton TV appearances; he watches a girl talk into the microphone on her collar and barters to get his Lyft paid for. In reality, Natia has a half-dozen original styles: depressive firebrand, cheesing ladies man, true-school technician, et al. But on “Watch Your 6,” the Inglewood native doubles down on the kind of knotty, detail-rich storytelling that would make everyone short of Ghostface blush. — PAUL THOMPSON
50. Dreezy, “We Gon Ride (Feat. Gucci Mane)”
The temptation to Get Serious is strong. Kendrick Lamar made a classic in 2012, but the President and NPR didn’t come calling until he wrapped his stories around free jazz and spoken-word interludes. The Oscars ignore comedies. Larry David is conspicuously Pulitzer Prize-free. In reality, tonal restraint is often much harder than Making a Statement. Keeping things light without making them seem disposable is as tricky as cooking perfect scrambled eggs. (Use water instead of milk.)
Sure, folks in her retinue stay strapped, but Dreezy compares their skills with the tool to Elmer Fudd. Her friends pop yoppas, but their habits don’t merit a trip to rehab (like Amy). “We Gon Ride” recognizes the violence of the same Chicago landscape that gave birth to Chief Keef and Lil Durk, but Dreezy doesn’t let context prescribed by outsiders weigh her down.
2016 sucked harder than Travis Scott, but if Dreezy can look past the bussin and party with East Atlanta’s most affable son of a con, surely the rest of us don’t have to live our lives one melodramatic post-election Facebook post at a time. — JORDAN PEDERSEN
49. MC Eiht & Spice-1, “Real Life”
In the late ‘90s and early aughts, Alchemist forged a glowing reputation as the go-to deep cut guy for New York’s hardest street rappers. In the years following, slowly but surely, he reinvented himself as the go-to full-length album guy for the Curren$ys and Action Bronsons of the world. This year, he came full circle with Craft Singles, a limited edition set of 7-inch vinyl from the likes of Blu, Schoolboy Q, and Roc Marciano. “Supply” is the most unlikely and maybe the most interesting of the bunch. It features MC Eiht and Spice-1, a pair of unsung pioneers of West Coast gangster rap. And for the first time this decade, at nearly 50 years old, they finally sound reinvigorated, if not by each other, then by Alchemist’s sparse, psychedelic take on their own seminal works. — HAROLD STALLWORTH
48. Joey Fatts, “Dallas (Feat. Playboi Carti)”
Nowadays, if a rapper isn’t forged in the Atlanta trap-rap cauldron, predicting said rapper’s odds of success tends to be a tad more difficult than it used to be. So as always, it’s best to devote your energy to determining how many potential hits a rapper’s style lends itself to—or better yet, how many hits or near-hits the rapper has already released. Joey Fatts checks boxes ranging from solid rapper to underrated producer but he’s yet to make THE song that’ll move his career to the next level.
That said, Fatts came closer than ever to that breakthrough in 2016 with “Dallas.” In a different year, it might have done the trick anyway but you know, 2016. In theory, “Dallas” could be about any number of random cities with a ‘galleria’ mall but Fatts has an inexplicable affinity for the Desiigner of American cities (to Atlanta’s Future), as well as a more explainable love for life on tour.
Speaking of the Atlanta trap-rap scene, Fatts’ fellow A$AP Mob affiliate, Playboi Carti, shows up for a relatively subdued verse that suggests he might have a future beyond turn-up anthems. Then again, that might just be Fatts’ excellent ear for production and collaborators. In any case, Joey Fatts’ might eventually get around to making that hit if he devotes his admittedly impressive instincts to a song of equal or superior quality that isn’t devoted to Houston’s shitty sibling. — MOBB DEEN
47. Young Dolph, “Real Life”
The rich go broke, and vice versa. Young Dolph followed the latter financial trajectory. He used to not have shit, now he’s got a whole lot of everything. Along the way, he witnessed people doing a lot of wicked shit to stay afloat. He’s seen young men rob each other, college girls turn scandalous, and old folks pimping past 60. Dolph’s own method of attaining financial security on the streets of Memphis may have been as morally questionable as the aforementioned scenarios, which he lists in the first verse of “Real Life.” But if money is the ultimate necessity, there’s nothing necessarily wrong about doing whatever it takes to obtain it. That’s just life in America.
Because Dolph got his money before ever stepping in a recording booth, he has the artistic freedom to do whatever he wants. “Real Life” is the last song on his so-called “debut studio album,” King of Memphis. Qualifier and quotation marks emphasized, because the album is barely different from the many mixtapes Dolph has churned out on his own Paper Route Empire, other than the lack of features and the more succinct runtime. The thematic structure of “Real Life” and the rest of the LP is typical Dolph: mostly just talk about getting money. But isn’t that the underlying theme of most conversations in modern America, anyways?
“Real Life” is the anthem that should unite us. Its chorus rings true for 100% of citizens in modern America, who, out of either necessity or insatiable greed, NEVER WANTED NOTHING IN THEIR WHOLE LIVES BUT SOME FUCKING MONEY. — WILL HAGLE
46. Lushlife, “Earl Sweatshirt Give Me a Hug (Feat. Zilla Rocca)”
It’s getting pretty hard to distinguish yourself in the rap underground. Everyone on Earth has got the production tools, and fewer than ever are making a living. A name-dropping R. Stevie Moore sample for a hook is one way to do it; spitting extremely bizarre but relatable shit is another. Lushlife does both. He’s making the music that someone of his generation should, but too often isn’t: no pandering, no nostalgia raps, just where he’s at right now.
In scrambling to stay up with the times, it’s too often forgotten that there’s a lot to capture about the experience of growing up, of hitting a peak and one day realizing that it’s in the rearview. The Moore sample is remarkably fitting: who better than Earl to reach out on behalf of the new cats to remind Lushlife that he’s still out here contributing to the culture?
POTW’s own Zilla Rocca appears to flip the coin a little bit: being old enough to talk about a new generation while still rapping professionally is a hell of an achievement. These dudes have rap woven into their DNA, and making it this far is something to be lauded. Even if you fall short of Grey Goose, most motherfuckers didn’t last past Pinnacle. — CORRIGAN BLANCHFIELD
45. Clipping., “Shooter”
At first glance, “Shooter” is what comes out when the brainiacs let loose for a minute. A straightforward sequence of hashtag flows over a hyphy hybrid backed by one of the oldest tricks in the rap instrumental playbook: percussive gunshots.
But Clipping. wouldn’t be the Hamilton-starring, Tony-winning, genre fiction-devouring, LA art noise meets fast rap-geeks they are if there weren’t any more layers to this shit.
“Shooter”, the standout track from the Wriggle EP, was released right after MC Daveed Diggs scored the stage craft industries’ highest award for his role in Hamilton. Instead of conveniently googling “Best of The Lox gunshot libraries,” Diggs, Snipes and Hutson went through their friend’s Dad’s private arsenal to fire off and sample 15+ different guns to build the track’s foundation.
Over that, Diggs maps out three acts of different shooter scenarios, at least one apparently ending tragically for some well-balanced morale. And just to make it that much more ambitious, the hashtag craze of the early decade is followed to an extreme, with not a single filler line throughout the track.
What sounds like a pretty sterile set-up is actually great fun to listen to. For some, this might still be too heady, but for a band consistently paired with Dälek and Death Grips, “Shooter” finds the perfect balance between conceptual and fresh. — JULIAN BRIMMERS
44. Warm Brew, “The Mission”
The number of rappers with fan bases firmly entrenched in their hometown dwindles with every stream. Fortunately, L.A. still supports their own. For years, outside of Evidence, Venice was bereft of rappers worth their weight in pipes, skateboards, and drug rug ponchos. Now, Warm Brew have tagged their names on the boardwalk.
From packed local shows throughout the late-aughts to this summer’s sold-out show at the Roxy, Ray Wright, Manu Li, and Serk Spliff know the benefits of keeping your hood pass intact. The OPM-affiliated Dogtown trio signed with Red Bull Records this year, but they’ve released increasingly auspicious, left(coast)-leaning music since they graduated high school together in 2008. Their first Red Bull release, Diagnosis, also happens to be the best L.A. rap EP from an artist not signed to Def Jam.
Swiff D-produced lead single, “The Mission,” is a contemplative, bittersweet turning of the page as much as it is a fitting reintroduction for those outside the 90291. Over plaintive keys and a melancholic bassline, Wright reprises his role as Nate Dogg reincarnate and croons his allegiance to his city. When he raps about the money he owes his homie for the ’79 (Impala?) they once built together, he cements his place as the most versatile and promising L.A. rapper in recent memory. Spliff glides in deft double-time, recounting the lessons, lumps, and years it took to get here. And the anchor verse goes to Li, who remains the group’s most poignant writer. When he laments the dissolution of a childhood friendship, he reifies the song’s ethos: you can always go back to your hometown, but you can never truly go home again. — MAX BELL
43. The Outfit, TX, “Type Shit”
This woefully underrated Dallas trio has been working on the underground for a few years now, and “Type Shit”—off this year’s Green Lights: Everythang Goin’—is the closest they’ve come to a proper radio single. On previous albums they summoned some of the murkiest touchstones of Southern rap, balancing between the hazy groove of DJ Screw and the demonic lo-fi production quality of early Three 6 Mafia, all while looking forward with a futuristic funk point of view. On “Type Shit” the production is cleaner, the voices more prominent in the mix, the themes less dark and political than on last year’s Down by the Trinity.
But Dorian, Mel and Jayhawk are still being themselves. Trap hi-hats are submerged under an enormous, woozy bass-line. Synth lines plink and shimmer eerily as Mel describes the dinner date from hell: “She introduced me to her folks and I said, sorry daddy I ain’t wit that bitch.” When Jayhawk talks about getting time, the music video cuts to him dancing inside a narrow garage surrounded by rusted metal. As far as trap bangers go, this one is not the catchiest or the most politically correct. But that also seems like the point, as the Outfit welcomes in the listener only to push back with brute force. — PETER HOLSLIN
42. Young M.A, “OOOUUU”
It happens every weekend as late Friday night bleeds into early Saturday morning and the streets of Brooklyn are just beginning to wind down. At first, it blends in. A sound coming from my neighbor’s speakers across the way—a dark, downtempo synth followed by some inebriated mumbling. This carries on for a good twenty seconds, carefully shifting my block’s sleepy mood and alerting the ears of those still awake that something’s yet to come. And then, without further warning, the beat drops and bounces from one row house to the next, letting the borough know that its native MC has arrived with a few vowels and then some.
This year, Young M.A kept many a block awake with her let-the-haters-hate anthem “OOOUUU.” Here, M.A calls out her lady lovers (“why she keep calling my phone speaking sexually?”) and keeps her foes in check (“why they testing me like I don’t keep the hammer next to me?”) as she flips the finger right back and invites us to join—preferably with some Hennessy in hand. With “OOOUUU,” M.A leaves us feeling both empowered and in awe, proving that she really is a woman of her word: “I can never lose, what you thought?” — PALEY MARTIN
41. Joey Purp, “Girls @ (Feat. Chance the Rapper)”
With production as sparse and taut as Skateboard P’s best, Joey Purp’s “Girls @” does precisely what he claims: “When they hear this jam, they can’t sit still.” The Savemoney crew members (Purp plus Chance the Rapper) come through with verses that match the economy and rubber-band snap of Knox Fortune’s beat. Purp has tightened his belt a notch or two since 2012’s Texas tea-sipping The Purple Tape—in the second half of his second verse, he cracks with the insistence of a stiletto-heeled girl running late across a hardwood floor—but traces of that old wooziness remain elsewhere, as he stretches out the tail-end of words.
Still, Chance steals the show here not for bouncing on the beat with a clear-eyed flow but for conjuring the perfect dream girl for the late aughts, socially conscious and sonically sophisticated. Extra credit for namedropping The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates alongside an Outkast reference. — REBECCA HAITHCOAT
40. Dumbfoundead, “SAFE”
“SAFE” is a dangerous song in Trump’s America simply because it has the balls to demand an entire race of people’s rightful space within it. Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead had been at it for over a decade, both on wax and as an integral member of the battle circuit before frustrations with Asian-Americans lack of representation in greater pop culture inspired him to write the blistering anti-whitewashing anthem “SAFE.” The catalyst was a particularly Caucasian affair at last year’s Academy Awards. The resulting song is a spooky, caustic banger that trades in Dumbfoundead’s personal alienation with being ignored by greater society and the desire to break the “Bamboo Ceiling”—by force if things don’t change. In the dystopic apocalypse about to fall on all of us when President Burrito Mussolini seizes power, songs that demand acknowledgement of a forgotten people’s full humanity will be more vital than ever. Nobody will be safe. — DOC ZEUS
39. Freddie Gibbs, “Money, Cash, Hoes / Cocaine Parties in LA”
I usually think of rap as a conversation: shared themes, samples, lines, passed from one MC to the next. “Hustlers, that’s if you’re still livin’/get on down.” Kanye’s “Good Morning” samples Jay’s “The Ruler’s Black,” which itself nicks its hook from Slick Rick’s song of the same name. 2007 to 2001, back to 1988, in two lines.
Really though, a lot of times rap is a stick-up. Ideas aren’t borrowed; they’re taken by force. Freddie Gibbs started 2016 by hitting back-to-back licks. First he bodies “No Parties in LA” so hard that Kanye leaves it off the initial tracklist for Pablo. Next up: Jay’s left his heater in a drawer next to his check for Marina Abramović, so why not jack a few classic Jigga titles for some Soundcloud-onlys? To add insult to injury, Gibbs swipes the titles but not the beats for “Money, Cash, Hoes” and “Dead Presidents.” It’s like somebody broke into your place, stole all your family photos, but left the jewelry: Freddie Gibbs doesn’t steal because he needs to. He does it just because he can.
Conversations are all well and good, but then you remember that rap never would have been born if the lights hadn’t gone out in New York in 1977, and a generation of DJs hadn’t stolen their equipment from hock. Turns out Freddie Gibbs knows more about rap than I do. Shocking. — JORDAN PEDERSEN
38. Jimmy Wopo, “Elm Street”
Pittsburgh has never been a haven for rap. Wiz Khalifa’s anthem, “Black and Yellow,” is the Steel City’s great claim to hip-hop fame. Suffice it to say, Yinz won’t find locally sourced rap music blasting from cars riding up and down the Strip District…Until now. Jimmy Wopo, the 19-year-old Taylor Gang affiliate, has made a name for himself crafting money and weed jams with enough personality to stand far from the crowd.
“Elm Street” is his best song to date, a deranged schoolyard jam less slasher flick than molasses slow street trip. Wopo’s mixtape, Woponese, is a sturdy if not wholly consistent release, but “Elm Street” is definitively the record’s go-to track. The piano line is more elementary than Zaytoven’s key-driven tracks, yet the simplicity fits Wopo’s method. “Elm Street” is an extremely well-crafted performance, with Wopo’s voice somehow both distinct and familiar. “Elm Street” may not be the horror film from which its title derives, but it’s the sound of Pittsburgh’s future; a nightmare for anyone not on his bandwagon. Grab yourself an Iron City brew and yell at the jagoffs until they hop aboard. — WILL SCHUBE
37. Princess Nokia, “Tomboy”
The cool romanticism of Princess Nokia’s raps recall none other than the New York School poets: chain-smoking, over-caffeinated creatives who share an offbeat brilliance, a way with words and a soft spot for the five boroughs. The Nuyorican rapper, born Destiny Frasqueri, is coming up with that kind of singularity, writing for her family, her city, and herself with a blunt between her teeth.
In a 1964 poem called “A Step Away from Them,” Frank O’Hara describes the sights of a lunch break in Manhattan: helmet-clad construction workers inhaling sandwiches and cokes, skirts blown up by the steam of subway grates, all traveling in tandem with “hum-colored” taxis. He daydreams of deceased friends who once worked within the same circle. He savors the 60-minute escape into chaos.
Both artists find solace in the city. New York makes the perfect backdrop for “Tomboy,” Princess Nokia’s collage of self-love and scenery that would have left O’Hara taking note. “Little titties, I’m so damn pretty/Staircase and a cracked Philly/Little titties and a fat kitty/Big pants and some scuffed shoes”—it’s not necessarily a song about learning to love yourself. Frasqueri already knows she’s hot, sharp, and worthy of attention regardless of what she wears, making “Tomboy” a welcome reprieve from the toxic trend of self-deprecation. — CORY LOMBERG
36. Boogie, “Nigga Needs”
Boogie might be writing the West Coast’s most bitter diary-page rhymes right now, but that doesn’t mean he won’t hit a block party or go down in the DMs from time to time. His third mixtape, Thirst 48 Pt. 2 saw the Comptonite bask in the fine weather, writing the kind of bright Cali anthems his regional forefathers always found time to cut. When you’re parent to a black son in America, though, it’s all just a temporary distraction.
On “Nigga Needs,” Boogie retreats to the shadows. Engaging in a bitter period of self-reflection, his voice sounds lonely and isolated. This is analysis best achieved by standing solo in the dead center of an abandoned airplane hanger. As the synth stabs echo off the four walls, Boogie ponders his faults (“I need to learn commitment, woah/I need to quit my joking, yeah”) before falling to them (“I need a boat of bitches, uh/I swear my mind been floating”). Thoughts of poverty stalk the deep-thinking emcee. Dealing proves a tempting quick-fix alternative to being an up-and-coming artist.
Hip-hop has engaged with these problems before. Boogie’s gift is packaging them in a way that’s bitter, raw, and immediate. In a year when he displayed more sides of his artistry than ever before, the rapper’s pen again proves to be one of the West’s most cutting. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN
35. Denzel Curry, “ULT”
“ULT” is a proper appetizer for Denzel Curry’s breakout Imperial, which packages drug-induced epiphanies, the looming specter of violence, and adolescent wisdom into a concise record.
Owing to a deep understanding of the genre—as well as the psychedelia-by-osmosis that came from being in Raider Klan at16—Curry has been rapping his ass off for years. His bars here are a call to arms, to “all religions, no races, Black to Asian we the nation of ULT.” It’s a rallying cry born in Curry’s overtly and overly policed hometown of Carol City, Fla.
In 2014, Curry’s older brother, Treon Johnson, died from injuries after being arrested and tasered by Miami Gardens police officers. 2Pac’s intended message for his Thug Life tat was “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.” “ULT” isn’t encouraging indiscriminate violence. He’s fed up as fuck with the status quo, and is stoking a fire that’s already been roaring for years. — EVAN GABRIEL
34. Russ, “What They Want”
The 23-year-old Atlantan DIY pioneer is already a decade into his career, having sung, produced, engineered, rapped, and promoted his first 11 albums before ever accepting a dime from a label. The investment paid off well with the Atlanta native inking a 50/50 partner deal with Columbia Records, rumored to be worth more than almost any deal given this year.
The chords on “What They Want” are calm and inviting. Russ’s sing-song rapping is infectious; slow enough to understand, even though you don’t need to unpack every line to enjoy the tune. His voice carries a ring reminiscent of 50 Cent, but more “Wanna Get To Know You” than “Baby By Me.” It’s easy to get lost in those grooves, so he keeps his message concise:
“It ain’t nothing personal, it’s business and I’m a commodity/but honestly, Pop Pop would be turning in his grave, the day I let someone else become the boss of me.”
Despite all the business banter, he makes sure you know he’s still fighting the good fight. Russ has been the dude locked in his basement for so long, now that he has an audience, he’s not scrambling for subject matter. In a time when industry plants are flooding the market, it’s refreshing to hear the victory cry of a true underdog. — EVAN GABRIEL
33. Jonwayne, “Wonka”
To answer our MC’s opening inquiry—”Who dares disturb me from my sleep?”—let’s turn to Mickey Rourke in his rendition of dirty old man Charles Bukowski’s literary alter-ego Henry Chinaski. When his quasi-girlfriend asks what, exactly, about her new man symbolizes everything that disgusts him, Chinaski responds, “Obviousness, unoriginal macho energy, ladies man.” Who knew alcoholic dating circles in 1987 East Hollywood had so much in common with 2016’s TIDAL subscribers? No wonder Wayne awoke.
Releasing Rap Album 1 in 2013, the Wayniac had diligently retraced the footsteps of America’s lowlife laureate as doyen of L.A.’s rap doldrums, then packed his rucksack with blank pages for his tour stories. After his full descent into a discarnate rap road dog, he’d roused to grace his share of stages until he’d stacked together enough back-to-back benders for a lifetime and called it quits. Easy for Bukowski to rage all night when all he had to do every morning was sort the mail—Jonwayne endured the unholy life of an Adult Rapper. How do you square that circle? You Willy Wonka that shit, sans Fizzy Lifting Drinks. The last time these digital pages heard from him was like…two years ago. Barfly no more, the twenty-six-year-old Gene Wilder stands at the gates of his compound, having fully digested Bowser, Bukowski, and releasing his own poetry book to boot. Sorry, Nestlé, these bars aren’t for sale. I thought you knew that by now. — ALEX DWYER
32. Divine Council, “Decemba (Remix Feat. $ilkmoney & Andre 3000)”
“Decemba” is far from smooth shit. There’s no posing, no eyeroll-inducing statements of sexual prowess. The strongest claims scan more bizarre than fantastical (“dick up in her like an enema), plus any attempt at hardness would be totally undermined by the Dunder Mifflin reference a minute in.
Instead, $ilkmoney brings a sixty second manifesto of being a dude with a dirty daydream: no details on how he got to your house when you’re not home, but he’s there with your girl and he’ll empty the fridge on the way out. $ilk’s a bad motherfucker, but mostly in situations that remain hypothetical. Regardless, he hits the trifecta for today’s rap youth: obscure cartoon references, oddly specific sexual fantasies, hundreds of thousands of plays on Soundcloud.
That’s all well and good, and makes for a nice regional hit for the up-and-comer. And then Andre 3000 shows up. Laying out a bizarre screenplay pitch, his verse is at once undeniably Three Stacks and unrecognizable as the elder statesman of “Pink Matter.” Couched similarly in fantasy, there’s no particular reason that his verse should work. And yet it does, and well; turns out there’s still nothing better than two weird dudes spittin’ without a filter. — CORRIGAN BLANCHFIELD
31. DJ Khaled, “Nas Album Done (Feat. Nas)”
Forget the song’s 8-minute video featuring Khaled in different brightly colored satin shirts—here’s the real major key: Nas’ agelessly nimble tongue and the track’s underpinning “Fu-Gee-La” sample. Here, Nasir sounds like he just finished a Gandhi marathon, successfully tricking his wisdom with the system that imprisoned his son. He’s on fire, backed by bombastic drums and a voice that’s gracefully aged like an Argentinian malbec; textured, smooth yet robust.
In an era where dexterous bars are seldom celebrated, this has enough energy to keep both the millennial and aging classicist happy. Both self-referential and forward moving. Says Nas, “To every baby on the album cover existing/This trend I was setting came to fruition.” Seemingly full circle for the MC who at 16 boasted about kidnapping the president’s wife without a plan.
The minimalist production knocks while Nas himself even proves a bit clairvoyant, touching on our now president-elect’s cheap pursuits while shouting out the marginalized: “Celebrity Apprentice a devil show/Big up to Africa, Mexico.” So when exactly will Nas’ album actually be done? He’s recently had fire moments and for whatever reason seems reinvigorated. Dismissing any new hip-hop that came after you is decidedly very non-hip-hop, but there’s nothing wrong in relishing older cats whom are shockingly spry. The song title itself is at worst inaccurate, and at best premature, but it shows why we still owe the prodigious one our due patience. — DAVID MA
30. Earl Sweatshirt, “Wind in My Sails”
If Earl Sweatshirt is forever defined by his weird internet hype-era child pseudo-stardom, it’ll be because we were never afforded the opportunity to watch him grow up in real time. Instead, we only had the periodic signposts of his music with which to form leaping deductions. “Wind in My Sails,” a rough sketch of a loosie, finds Earl drawn into the Alchemist’s realm of patented lethargy over a tough little sample of Eugene McDaniels by-way-of Madlib by-way-of Flying Lotus. His mostly un-rhymed verse contains oblique references to his parents, his city, and his God, all of which, evidently, still exert their respectively incalculable weights in his continued effort to connect the dots.
Earl never had time for—or perhaps was propitiously shielded from—Odd Future’s headline-demanding flamboyance, and it’s impossible as ever to discern which parts of his craft are effortlessly natural and which are painstakingly calibrated. Where most rappers fall victim to delusions of grandeur, Earl remains compelling—and tantalizing—for his tacit suggestion that he just might have better things to do, and that there’s far more to his evolving person than his art might ever allow. — PETE TOSIELLO
29. DJ Quik & Problem, “A New Nite/Rosecrans Grove”
The wiry, babyfaced 19 year old who announced himself in 1991 on “Tonite” gets to make its sequel from the other side of youth. On the original, his chief concern was remembering to put his 40 in the freezer, but 25 years later, Quik has more on his mind. He relishes achievements like having his own record label and he pauses to reminisce on a street corner with personal history. Problem doles out axioms and older brother admonishments. Consciously or not, they often rap in the past tense. They might sound curmudgeonly if the track wasn’t so alive and funky. Live keys and a talk box were once G-funk staples, but they’re indulgences on “A New Nite / Rosecrans Grove,” where Quik flaunts them, having what sounds like more fun than ever in the twilight of his career. The six and a half minute instrumental coda makes a point of Quik’s musical bonafides and growth. If he once mimicked the musicians in his record collection, he can now identify with them. — EVAN NABAVIAN
28. Cupcakke, “LGBT”
Writing cum into a song doesn’t make it interesting. And no disrespect to Jeremih, but I’m all the more likely to put my faith into a woman’s graphic ode to orgasm. Unflinching lyrics can push perception of female sex lives beyond the metaphorical. Sexualization feels inevitable, but here, female-identifying artists can set the terms of their own sexualization. Liz Phair’s 2003 song “H.W.C.” literally stands for Hot White Cum, but the melody is ALT 98.7-ready. On “Angels of Porn II,” Nicole Dollanganger warbles on about a bedroom that stinks of rotten food and stale sex before slipping in her vision of “great lakes full of cum.”
CupcakKe aims for another degree of dirtiness. Her intent to “blow bubbles with sperm” on “Deepthroat” would strike creativity points from Khia, the mastermind behind “My Neck, My Back.” There’s definitely something to be said (though I’m not entirely sure what) about a 19 year-old who sensationalizes her sexual preferences so much, nothing seems shocking anymore.
Though CupcakKe is best known for body-positive tracks that compare the color of her clit to deli meats, sexual explicitness is only one dimension of her work. She covers child molestation, self-harm, warped body image, and racist police officers on Audacious, her self-released record. “LGBT” is the stand-out anthem of inclusivity, where she speaks to the special strength of the LGBTQ+ community and cautions against discrimination over a caffeinated beat. “Judge one of my drags, catch a heel up yo’ ass,” she warns in uncompromising style, vowing to protect her fanbase and friends. Honestly, forget the cum bubbles. This is why we need CupcakKe. — CORY LOMBERG
27. Run the Jewels, “2100”
When things are shitty, Run the Jewels is the band that’s there to make life better. Case in point, who else would remix an entire album with cat sounds to put the punchline on a fan joke? Sometimes, though, levity is not what the fans (or the world) needs. Following the election of President-Suspect Drumpf, Killer Mike and El-P decided to drop another advance gem from their soon-to-be-released RTJ3 called “2100.”
In their own words: “for our friends. for our family. for everyone who is hurting or scared right now. here is a song we wrote months ago. we weren’t planning on releasing it yet but… well it feels right, now. its about fear and its about love and its about wanting more for all of us. its called 2100. we hope it finds you well.”
Over El-P’s trademark paranoid beats, the two trade bars about the sorry state of the world today, but still manage to infuse a cautiously optimistic outlook. Boots (aka Jordan Asher) returns into the guest mix from RTJ2, adding world weary vocals. We still have to wait and see what the effect of electorate hubris will have on ourselves and the rest of the planet, but at the very least, we can rest assured that RTJ will likely provide the soundtrack for the ride to and/or from hell. — CHRIS DALY
26. Nef the Pharaoh, “Put You On (Feat. Juvenile)”
Two days after the election, as I was contemplating joining Greenpeace, moving to Canada, or simply walking into the woods never to return, I heard Nef The Pharaoh’s “Put You On.” By the time the opening synth riff—a sound that recalls yoga mats and singing bowls—had rattled its way through my bones, I was no longer thinking of the horrors to come. Instead, I was basking in Nef’s light. Sound escapist? Sue me. I needed some escape, and Nef’s sunny-sided banger was exactly the kind of optimism I needed. I inhaled “Put You On” with the desperation of a drowning man.
“Put You On” is at once a victory lap and a pledge to faithful friends who’ve stood by Nef since day one: he’s made it, and they’re coming with him. The Bay takes care of its own, and this loyalty is something I love about the Bay Area hip hop ethos. In the video, Nef’s exuberance and gratitude shines from him, and he’s enlisted his idol, Juvenile, who spits his best verse in over a decade (or at least since Beast Mode). It’s so good, in fact, that we’re willing to forgive his sartorial choices; he wears a shirt that looks like something a recently-divorced dentist from Milwaukee might wear on a Tinder date after binge watching Sons of Anarchy. The gold-plated shirt, silly as it is, has an effect: it shines.
The brightest light of the song is the optimism in its hook: “Imma beat the system/Imma spread some light.” The years ahead of us may seem futile and hellish, but this song spurs us to keep fighting. This year poisoned me; “Put You On” is a much-needed antidote. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN
25. Kamaiyah, “Fuck it Up (Feat. YG)”
I get a banana from the kitchen at work and make my way back to my desk, but I don’t smash the framed growth chart hanging opposite the bathroom, I don’t hit my boss in the face with a wad of c-notes, and I don’t tell my co-worker that I would tear her fine ass up. I temper these impulses. I don’t fuck it up. It’s tempting and not unfair to reduce party songs to simple declaratives. It bangs. It knocks. It slaps. “Fuck It Up” offers release. Kamaiyah shakes off her mom, her ex-boyfriend, her haters, and probably a lot of other stuff she doesn’t talk about (listen to the last song on A Good Night in the Ghetto) and instead cruises down High Street with wanton disregard for traffic safety. YG is standing up in the Impala, throwing elbows, perhaps momentarily free from the anxiety that might come with getting shot a year ago. We don’t have to think about that right now, or much at all. — EVAN NABAVIAN
24. NBA Youngboy, “38 Baby” / Scotty Cain, “NBA Smoke (Youngboy Diss)”
Baton Rouge almost turned into Aleppo this summer. Alton Sterling’s murder, the subsequent protests, and the toxic martial response was beamed onto nightly news and computer screens. When I visited a few months later, everyone I spoke with matter-of-factly intoned, “oh, we all thought the race war was about to begin.”
That dysfunctional city-state has so much violence and raw talent that only Compton and Queensbridge can historically match it per capita. With Kevin Gates incarcerated and mostly re-settled in California, Youngboy became boy king, A 16 year old father of two, newly rich and constantly strapped, cocky, and paranoid.
The threats on his life were real and still would be—if not for the fact that he’s languishing in parish prison awaiting bail on attempted murder charges. They’re trying him as an adult because that’s how they do it in the bottom.
Outside of the 225, it seemed like the “38 Baby” broke out of nowhere, but it only happened after an initial boost from a collaboration with Scotty Cain, who himself ascended to royalty after his estranged cousin Mista Cain got locked up a few years ago. Explaining the particulars requires a Game of Thrones style map, but let’s just say that stardom, money, envy, drugs, youth, talent, ego, and enough guns to start a state militia don’t mix well.
Brush fire became inferno and Instagram stories became state’s evidence. Youngboy dropped “38 Baby,” haunted with alluvial drawl, twanging Japanese guitars, and death threats, a blues dirge in rap form. Crossing the lethal teenage angst of the Boosie of “Youngest of the Camp” with Gates’ hyper-melodic croak, Youngboy slurs that he doesn’t give a fuck, ad-libs “gang” like a young Keef, smokes dope with the demon, and sips codeine like candy.
This is all Youngboy knows, but he already knows it too well. If Boosie grew up on Garfield, a street named after an assassinated president. Youngboy was raised on 38th, the same numerals as the revolver. It’s only fitting that his biggest hit would be named after his block. There’s nothing to glamorize, only rotgut Bayou realities: kids neglected from birth, a regressive educational system, and systematic racism leading to this bloody cul-de-sac. It’s as addictive listening as the substances taken to anesthetize the trauma.
On Scotty Cain’s “NBA Smoke,” the 22-year old delivers the hardest diss since Sauce Walka demolished Drake. But whereas that had a layer of humor, this doesn’t even have time for jokes. He calls him a rat, mocks his thirst, threatens him with his mask on and gloves tight. Every weapon in the arsenal is deployed. He promises to fuck his girlfriend after he murders him. This isn’t rap beef; these are improvised explosions, a bounty on a rival’s head, where you fear for everyone involved and their family. Shortly after releasing this song, Scotty went back to jail. He’s out now, but charges are still pending. This is his biggest hit yet. You can pray for Baton Rouge, but it won’t help. —JEFF WEISS
23. YFN Lucci, “Key to the Streets (Feat. Migos & Trouble)”
“Tryna have a mil’ before my daughter turn three/ Tryna get a mil’ before Wish Me Well 3,” sings Atlanta’s YFN Lucci on “Destined,” the opener to his standout mixtape Wish Me Well 2. And if there’s a hip-hop striver who deserves to have a bag of gold doubloons dumped on his doorstep, it’s Lucci, a tough-talking crooner in the vein of Akon who’s quietly released two of the most polished and melodic mixtapes in recent memory. Lucci cuts against the grain of many of his contemporaries, and given that the rap internet has an accelerationist bent worthy of the Hyperbolic Time Chamber from Dragon Ball Z, you could even call him a throwback. Where other rappers might be tempted to skate over the beat like they’re prepping to kick a pop shove it, Lucci remains staid, straightforward, relying on the strength of his singing voice and ability to write songs that stick to your bones. His songs are about loyalty, love, and hunger; at their best, listening to him will make you feel inspired to propose to your girlfriend by punching through a brick wall.
As irony would have it, though, his ticket to financial stability may very well have come in the form of “Key to the Streets,” Lucci’s massive single that’s his in name only. Around the track’s three-minute mark, guests Trouble and Takeoff (Offset kicks the track off) parachute in and proceed to trade bars with the fury of men possessed. He’s in it for the long haul, though—enlisting a quorum of Migos for his big single helped him kick open the door to the mainstream, and it’s going to be exciting to watch what YFN Lucci does now that he’s got the world’s attention. — DREW MILLARD
22. Ezale, “Day Ones”
Ezale just wants to do hoodrat stuff with his friends—and as an ‘80s sax lets loose a silky blurt over one of the jazziest, most head-bobbingest tracks heard in a couple years, damn if you don’t wanna do the same. Buoyed by Hawk Beatz’s ebullient slapper, the Oakland rapper pops in and drops an airtight, deceptively simple little verse that offers a more vivid peek into his life than many rappers give with triple the bars (“And if my brothers don’t fuck with you, ‘cause you a fuck nigga? You can’t cop from us”).
The Tonite Show, the DJ Fresh collab on which “Day Ones” appears, broadcasts Dr. Feelgood’s prescriptions in Technicolor thanks to his easy charisma, and his delivery is equally as compelling. Breezy yet powered by classic Bay Area hustle, it’s a playful but don’t play with me flow, syllables sliding off his tongue and loosening you up as easily as that cocktail of pills he just sold you. Bernie ‘round your block to this one. — REBECCA HAITHCOAT
21. Curren$y, “Fat Albert (Feat. Lil Wayne)”
The inexhaustible volume of Curren$y projects—close to a dozen (!!!) original mixtapes, EPs, and compilations released in 2016 alone—makes it difficult for even the most devoted Spitta fans to follow the man’s career with anything close to 100 percent fidelity. Curren$y doesn’t play the music industry game like anybody else. He doesn’t seem to have much use for carefully-curated tent-pole albums—instead choosing to work on smaller, intimate projects with an array of interesting producers.
The cost of such productivity is that a dish worthy of savoring can be forgotten in the smoke of a busy kitchen. “Fat Albert,” a cut off his Alchemist-produced The Carrollton Heist tape, is worth remembering. Spitta and Alchemist have an underrated chemistry stemming all the way back to 2011’s Covert Coup, and “Fat Albert” is another jewel the duo have produced together. Curren$y is his usual charming his self on the cut, rapping with a stoner’s fuzz about sports cars and Suede Adidas shoes, but it’s Lil Wayne who steals the show.
Wayne sounds fresher than he has in years on the track, delivering a memorable two-minute verse filled with pop culture nods, oddball wordplay, and the occasional bits of hard-earned wisdom. He even has time to maybe throw a little shade at a certain Canadian pupil. “You know you never know your lover ’til she cheat on you/You know you never know your brother til he dethrone you,” he snarls at some (“Drake.”) unnamed (“Yeah, It’s Drake.”) figure (“It’s Drake.”). Weezy sure sounds like he’s got a few things to get off his chest about his ex-pupil’s success and who are we at the Passion of the Weiss to deny the man the right to vent? Come to Death Row, Lil Wayne. — DOC ZEUS
20. Danny Brown, “When it Rain”
Danny Brown exists in a skewered version of our world, like Back To The Future Part II but with more expensive leather. Years ago, a little-known Detroit rapper traveled back in time, fucked mad shit up and, thanks to the butterfly effect, now lives in a world where MDMA rains from the sky in a haze of purple lasers. In this dystopia, Brown is an emperor, his Bruiser Brigade prowling the alleys like a rag-tag group of sentinels.
“When It Rain” is a desperate sprint through the Dannyverse’s industrial zone. A sci-fi escape attempt in a world of ray guns, neon graffiti, and bright green lipstick. The grim synths, paranoid electronic bleeps, and tick-tock percussion rumble with a tweaked-out anxiety. Cutting through the madness comes the ruler’s voice, shooting off wild threats: “Glocks all in yo’ face, dog/No baseball, better run home.” This is a hellish vision of an alternate reality—teleported in through your headphones. Only Brown can make you dance to stuff like this. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN
19. Nocando, “El Camino”
“El Camino” is a song about your best laid plans being outsourced or passed on by radio or nicked by the cops or discontinued by Chevy. Nocando used to be a battle rapper, now he drives around L.A. in a white Bronco like O.J. He recounts his friend getting pepper-sprayed by the police in high school, he cackles at Rodney King, he remembers the Riots. There’s an extended run in the first verse where he pulls the tablecloth out from under the political left and right in the same motion. “El Camino” stitches together every shred of despair and dispossession and still doesn’t feel like a victory.
The greatest songs—the ones that seep into your bones—are the songs that articulate what you feel instinctively. In a lot of ways, “El Camino” is confounding, what with its somber, drawn-out chorus and its verses that each end in a fever pitch. But Nocan is tapping into something universal. Even if you’ve never hauled illicit packages to a cousin in San Bernardino County, you know what the Regal/Honda dichotomy feels like. It’s protest music for those who think the city might as well burn down and rebuild. — PAUL THOMPSON
18. ScHoolboy Q, “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane”
If you’ve ever tried to describe a nightmare to someone, you know the frustration involved in combing through the haze that hangs over our unpleasant dreams. ScHoolboy Q knows how to party, but his strength really lies in an ability to translate personal nightmares with painstaking detail. “Groovy Tony”—maybe the most satisfying street single of the year—doesn’t tell a story so much as throw a number of gangbanger tropes at the wall for the sake of seeing what sticks. And fortunately, everything sticks. It also helps that the beat, courtesy of Tae Beast and Dem Joints, is atmospheric and cinematic without being cluttered, a quality that’s becoming more and more rare in modern rap production. — HAROLD STALLWORTH
17. Lajan Slim, “Haitians”
You’d be forgiven for overlooking Lajan Slim. The Florida revival is overstuffed as is. And at age 22, Slim is an old-timer when put up against Kodak and Denzel Curry. Yet the Lauderhill native’s music can face off against anything out there and make it through the muck sounding strong.
On “Haitians,” sparse piano keys fly like daggers as Slim’s flow alternates between pensive and aggressive on a moment-by-moment basis. His voice hustles and his cadences vary like a young, confident Kendrick. The chorus, minimal and precise, displays a patience and willingness not often displayed in our age of hooks aplenty. “Haitians” is almost experimental in its disorienting, psychedelic simplicity.
Lajan Slim doesn’t have Kodak’s verbal hustle or Curry’s sharpened poetry. Yet his debut, Hood Olympian, is the amalgamation of a studied rapper, patient and hungry. He’s on Def Jam now, obviously eager to enhance Florida’s growing legacy. For those paying attention, he already has with “Haitians.” — WILL SCHUBE
16. RJ, “Flex”
A 2014 Pacific Standard Magazine article titled “The End of Gangs” quotes University of California, Irvine criminology professor George Tita on the last decade’s decrease in gang-related crimes in Los Angeles. His explanation? City-wide gang injunctions. “When you don’t have kids hanging out on the street, there’s no one to shoot or do the shooting,” he said.
This logic presents some backwards bullshit, to say the least. It’s this warped way of thinking that perpetuates America’s longstanding demonization of black men. But you don’t need to spell that out to RJ. He understands the stigmas that frame his neighborhood. And if the South Central rapper’s most recent work can tell us anything, it’s that he identifies, first and foremost, as a family man. He tops off his melodic Red Friday verse with the satisfaction of being able to move his mother to the suburbs. After all, rappers consistently stan for their communities harder than your average PTA members.
RJ’s video for “Flex” opens with Tita’s aforementioned quote and his slanted implication that if community members stay off their own streets, “there’s no one to shoot or do the shooting.” Except the police, RJ points out. The track documents an afternoon in which a work-out at Athens Park turns into a confrontation with police officers who assume that any gathering of black men in an urban area equates to gang activity. But RJ’s carrying a baby. He’s on the ground, doing ab work. He just wants that family flex. — CORY LOMBERG
15. Dae Dae, “Wat U Mean (Family to Feed)”
Dae Dae’s music is caught between life and death. It’s the joy of rap money boosting the net worth of your entire family, the pain of remembering all that was lost along the way. A Shakespearean tragedy in media res, the outcome undetermined. Yet Dae Dae’s willing his way to the top. Sisyphus re-written, a fresh riff on a classic.
“We got individuals out here that are depending on us. People that’s in real situations…They’re not too many like me. 23 with 5 kids.” Dae Dae’s voice-over introduction for his “Wat U Mean (Family to Feed)” video lays out the stakes. His kids didn’t ask to be here. It’s his job to make sure they don’t go hungry. “Wat U Mean” is technically a 2015 release, but it’s featured on his 2016 mixtape, 4 Reasons. The track may not be his most popular song of the year—that honor goes to the Young Thug-remixed “Spend It“—but it’s Dae Dae at his most urgent.
On “Wat U Mean,” Dae Dae takes a page out of Boosie’s book, blending street-hustling energy with a quiet corrective streak: this isn’t the way things should be, but I’m gonna change it with my music. Dae Dae’s blue-streaked dreads accent “Wat U Mean’s” black-and-white video—a classic hood tour of Atlanta’s 4th Ward. The track is an overview of 2016’s most popular rap trends: synth-patched strings, auto-tune touch-ups, an earworm of a chorus, and an overwhelming urgency. Dae Dae’s ability to synthesize rap’s most popular tropes into a desperate street anthem speaks to the 24-year-old’s quiet ascendance. — WILL SCHUBE
14. Mistah Fab, “Up Until Then (Feat. Boosie & IAMSU!)”
Until fairly recently it was virtually impossible to make a wack club track with a steel drum in it. Not entirely sure who messed that up for us, but an armada of Jamie XX epigones should be ashamed of themselves. By now the trick has become so purely referential—or, cliché—that even a few single notes can tilt a whole track toward gooey or (en)tropical greatness. Popcaan’s “(Ghetto) Tired of Crying” is a shiny example for the latter, and so is this unexpected Bay Area/Baton Rouge anthem.
There’s a twisted melancholy attached to F.A.B.’s bragging: the high hopes addressed in each verse are countered to great effect by a sense of bleakness in the hook. IAMSU! delivers a 10/10 autotune bridge ending on “I act broke, you act rich, we both lying.” And Boosie still rides on an unparalleled wave of bluntness and emotion since he’s become a free man again, spitting lines with the same conviction he serenades Marvin in Honolulu with.
These days, F.A.B. is reviving his battling career. However, the fact that he is capable of making hits like this so many moons after the Hyphy heydays has a lot to do with him approaching his songs very differently than acapella battles, a transition very few from that scene manage to pull off. His Juvenile-inspired “bruh” patterns and nods to Mac Dre nicely bounce against the elastic backdrop that stops and comes back in almost at random. The Youtube naggers might be right claiming that Juvenile should have jumped on this, but nonetheless this is a powerful look for Oakland rap 2016. — JULIAN BRIMMERS
13. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne, “MFN Right (Remix)”
The penny whistle is usually reserved for Irish Jigs, the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and old Lucky Charms commercials, but on “MFN Right,” Mike Will Made It utilizes the sound (or a highly-synthesized version of it) to charm open the doors to Magic City. This beat is spare, crisp, and addictive, and calls back to the Mike Will Made It who made the, um, polarizing hit “We Can’t Stop” for a newly-edgy Miley Cyrus. 2 Chainz mainlines the DNA of his best work: flash, style, probably some glitter you can’t shower off. Lil Wayne’s verse flows seamlessly, save for one lyrical misstep: “hot like Haagen Dazs.” (Call me a literalist, but I just can’t accept ice cream as hot. It isn’t.) He redeems himself with this line: “I’m smokin’ like Badu.” This song’s not only a swaggering sequel to “Duffle Bag Boy,” it’s a peacock fanning its feathers and then sashaying up the street to the beat. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN
12. French Montana, “Lockjaw (feat. Kodak Black)”
French Montana raps like someone from Neptune impersonating someone from Harlem. He laughs like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but he takes syllables you or I might spit out quickly and turns them over with his jaw, again and again, until they come out sounding like a new phrase all together. What’s more: French Montana got famous friends and then pulled them all into his orbit. (Some of them unwittingly—remember when Kanye didn’t know who Max B was?) Wave Gods was a woozy rabbit hole of pet tigers and Moroccan gold, melted down and distilled for DatPiff. “Lockjaw” was its crown jewel.
Watch the video again. There are Haitian flags, young kids with earbuds dangling, younger kids with middle fingers graciously blurred out. There’s Kodak Black, rapping with one arm confined to a sling (read: tied behind his back). The sharpest part of the song is when a girl wonders if her drink might be laced and Kodak, sensing this, snaps at her—nah, bitch, I’m 1K—an exchange that, in light of recent legal proceedings, takes on an admittedly somber subtext. “Lockjaw” itself sounds like a party slowly dissolving, friends alternately vomiting or cleaning up, nobody touching the sound system. — PAUL THOMPSON
11. Open Mike Eagle, “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)”
There’s this startling misconception about black men in America—that those of us whose general archetype exists outside of the stereotypes which haunt the dreams of white people (read: what they see as “thugs,” a word which pitifully obscures the racial epithet they’d rather use) are trying to assimilate to white culture, that white people like us better. The truth is, no matter how a black man presents himself, he’s still regarded in the same way most black men are: with fear and contempt. Few if any rappers are better equipped to articulate this constant nerve-pinching micro-aggression than Open Mike Eagle, who has made a career woefully undervalued by mainstream pop culture media (even its current, identity-politics-obsessed iteration), delivering trenchant social commentary with a watchful eye and dry wit.
It doesn’t matter if you dress like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog model, a member of the Strokes, or like Mike Eagle—who at first glance you’d think was a cool undergrad professor instead of a rapper—most people judge the book by its cover as soon as they see the color of your skin. “Today I saw a lady say hi to a stranger,” he raps on the first verse, “then avoid my eyes like I’m a white-person-strangler.” Over Paul White’s easygoing-but-odd instrumental, which sounds like chipmunk-blues fighting over sonic space with the light screech of brake pads, Eagle laments white people who self-identify as “liberal” being automatically reminded by the sight of a black man to double-check the locks on their car doors. He rolls his eyes at the white dudes in flip-flops and the upward tilt of their heads to acknowledge a black man’s presence, unaware they’re being condescending instead of friendly.
Rooted in the struggle to be taken at face value as a human being, Eagle admits he’s trying to get through the frustration to hopefully guide his son to a society of meritocracy, “so the first time if ever his reputation slid, it could actually be for something that he did.” But even as he says it, Open Mike Eagle knows his son will eventually grow up to be a black man and treated with the same disregard by the bulk of people he interacts with, collecting his own pouch of micro-aggressions levied against him. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
10. Migos, “Cocoon (Remix Feat. Young Thug)”
Migos and Young Thug have critics, and arguing with them feels like shouting into a thunderstorm, or bargaining with a brick wall. These are the same people who railed against bebop quintets, booed Bob Dylan for going electric, or called The Stooges stupid. Were these atavists at Monterey Pop Festival, they would’ve rushed Jimi Hendrix with a fire extinguisher. The critiques of rap change skeptics are manifold: the dreadlocked Atlantans can’t rap; their lyrics have no substance and are too mumbled to comprehend; their music is for children; their jewelry is a symbol of greater (and indefinable) moral failure; and, in Young Thug’s case, because he subverts the most facile gender norms, he is a homosexual and thus his work is to be discounted. These are all conclusions from a Choose Your Own Adventure that begins with the fear of change.
It’s not enough to say Migos and Thug are great because they’re good–that type of rhetoric belongs in losing presidential campaigns–but there is an ineffable, indescribable unlogic to them. Why, in the twelve-bar blues, do the initial two lines of a stanza repeat? Why, in the “Cocoon” remix, does Quavo repeat “Twin choppers, Sonic and Tails?” Probably because A-A rhymes impart the delivery of the B with added oomph, and because, like their musical forebearers, Migos and Thug are constantly testing the boundaries of accepted form. They want to improvise, to go electric, to set their guitars ablaze. (They probably don’t want to fling peanut butter at Cincinnatians.) They are change, discomfiting and unusual. Some will be left behind. — TORII MACADAMS
9. Kolyon, “Gooked Out (Remix Feat. Kodak Black and Boosie Badazz)”
The appreciation of art requires moral suspension, if not outright moral abdication. This a duh-no-shit bromide for anyone who’s listened to R. Kelly, read Céline, or watched a Roman Polanski film (or ever thought about art at all, really). Still, it’s a duh-no-shit bromide worth repeating when discussing the remix to Kolyon’s “Gooked Out,” which features Kodak Black and Lil Boosie.
In 2012, Boosie was found not guilty in a murder-for-hire case which alleged that, two years prior, he’d paid 17 year-old Michael “Marlo Mike” Louding $2800 to murder Terrence Boyd. It still beggars belief that Boosie is a free man. Phone records tied Louding to the rapper’s recording studio before and after the murder, Louding confessed to the crime and cooperated with the prosecution until the trial, and, in a moment better fit for a Dick Wolf procedural, the shackled teenager was forced to show jurors a tattoo he’d received two weeks after the murder that depicted an AK-47 with the caption “Yo Boosie. Who’s Next?”
Boosie’s defense successfully argued that Louding’s confession was coerced, and that the lyrics recorded the night of Boyd’s murder were nothing more than innocent artistic expression. (“Yo Marlo/He drive a Monte Carlo/That bitch gray/I want that nigga dead today.”) In 2013, Louding, who is said to have committed five other murders, some at the behest of Boosie, was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Boyd case.
Kodak Black, too, is overly familiar with the judicial system. Most of his crimes are fairly benign–“cannabis possession” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in many states–but he’s currently awaiting trial on his most serious charge yet, having been accused of criminal sexual conduct in Florence, South Carolina. A sexual assault kit seems to confirm his accuser’s account that, over a roughly two hour period on the night of February 6th, he held her down, penetrated her, and left bite marks on her chest and neck. Currently free on a $100,000 bond, Kodak Black will stand trial in 2017.
Kolyon, like childhood friend Kodak and mentor Boosie, is an excellent rapper, and the “Gooked Out” remix is worthy of the ninth spot on our Top 50 Rap Songs list. But, considering his co-stars’ criminality, these opinions probably deserve to be muted. What is the correct method for celebrating the work of a man currently prohibited from entering an entire state because he, in all likelihood, sexually assaulted a high school girl? Or the work of a man who, were it not for the naïveté of the Baton Rouge Police Department and Louding’s shocking recantation under oath, might have been forced to take responsibility for his role in multiple homicides? Crime makes for great entertainment and greater moral conundrums.
The crux of the issue is that we crave authenticity from gangster rappers, but we don’t want to consider the ramifications of rappers’ actions, and worse, we rarely confront the societal and governmental failures that foment crime. (How many profiles of rappers have you read where individual crimes have been written about in lurid detail, but salient and acute systemic issues go unmentioned?) Journalists, readers, listeners, and members of the music industry, are all complicit in lionizing and enabling artists who commit abhorrent crimes. (I, too, am extremely complicit.) These concomitant groups compartmentalize the fluid relationships between inspiration, art, and consequence and still have the temerity to moralize when it’s expedient. It is an inevitability: art makes hypocrites of us all. — TORII MACADAMS
8. Kevin Gates, “2 Phones”
There wasn’t a much brighter moment this year than Kevin Gates’ ode to his burner phones. One for the plug, one for the load, possibly and third and fourth for the bitches and dough (though that remains unclear—in the video for “2 Phones” Gates has at least six different cell phones, one of which he drowns in a wine glass). The phones are both a status symbol and a nuisance, a problem worth humble-bragging about. And they never stop ringing. “Phone be interrupting me while I’m recordin’ / Phone be making women feel they unimportant.”
Some of Gates’ phone calls are extremely lucrative; most of them are ignored. But Gates’ back catalog is too rich to reduce the calls to punchlines. You don’t have to think back too far to remember when, on “4:30 a.m.,” a single iPhone ringing turned into a story of death and bullet wounds and unsavory track coaches. And in that way, the Baton Rouge star’s technical chops mirror his writing style: he can turn on a dime, from one phrase to another, from celebration to steely threats. — HALEY POTIKER
7. Yo Gotti, “Down in the DM”
Technically, this catchy ode to modern aintshittery dropped in late 2015 but scumbaggery spans time and space so here we are in 2016. If we’re being completely honest, there’s no reason why this song should have worked as well as it did for Yo Gotti at this stage of his career, given how cringeworthy 30+ rappers’ references to social media tend to be. However, when the topic at hand is as buzzworthy as sliding in DMs, the source probably doesn’t matter to the masses and Yo Gotti managed to parlay a clever idea into the first top 40 hit of his long career.
So why did “Down in the DM” dominate a good chunk of the year? Maybe we all just really enjoy songs with melodies perfectly calibrated for hittin’ dem folk but not everyone, including this writer, can hit dem folk, so let’s discuss the likelier answer: people just love not being shit. In other words, we all love being kinda awful—sometimes. Sure, there’s lots of excitement to garner from making a romantic connection with someone via their Instagram or Twitter DMs (that you’ll probably regret down the line but Yo Gotti ain’t with the dour shit), but my innate cynicism leads me to the conclusion that it’s really the more salacious portions of “Down in the DM” that tickle our collective fancies.
I might be projecting a bit but there’s a running thread of infidelity and disloyalty strung through the song that really does the trick. After all, what’s the point in making a love connection in 2016 if someone else doesn’t get hurt or betrayed in the process? I can’t speak for any other places on the planet right now but life in America is a largely zero-sum game and Yo Gotti captures that sentiment perfectly on this jingle. Apologies if you got triggered there; its been a dark 12 months for the planet.
But hey! Things aren’t all bad. Yo Gotti was nice and smart enough to endorse the rapidly eroding concept of discretion AND he put new verses plus a lucid/filthy Nicki Minaj on official remix! The only way we could have come out better in this deal is if Yo Gotti asked Treach from Naughty By Nature for some remix bars because the real know that O.P.P. is eternal, whether those DMs are open or not. — MOBB DEEN
6. A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People”
You don’t need another music writer recounting the horrors, tragedies, and atrocities of 2016. Lamenting the year past is an old hat, a trope employed even in years that don’t inspire levels of rage and ennui so high that nothing, including writing about music, feels right. You need A Tribe Called Quest.
“We the People” is the overtly political track you might expect from ’90s-peers Public Enemy (they made an album last year that you probably didn’t listen to). Fortunately, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (RIP) are not Chuck D and Flavor Flav. The weight of D’s voice would’ve been too much to bear; Flav’s antics would’ve been untoward. Instead, Q-Tip uses his poignant, measured delivery to illustrate the inherent denial of our shared humanity with every police shooting, the greed to which few are immune, and the ironies of gentrification. On the hook, we’re forced to face the sad parallels between racism/xenophobia and the physical displacement of those who once lived on the boulevard of Linden. The late Phife follows to bemoan poptimism with his trademark wit and his inexhaustible bag of sports metaphors. Just over five feet and now six feet under, nobody will ever move him off the block.
Ultimately, you need a song that addresses so many of the year’s wrongs with concision and empathy. You need to be reminded that broken fences can be mended, that the marks we leave on our closest kin are indelible. You need to be reminded that age doesn’t bar you from making great rap music. You need to be reminded that your heroes can, sometimes, still be your heroes. We the people need it more than we ever could’ve imagined. — MAX BELL
5. Future, “Perky’s Calling”
One of my best friends died in April. I’m hesitant to write that phrase because it’s what you’d use when you were a kid, but we were friends when we were kids, and those are usually the best ones you ever have, so it’ll just have to suffice. You don’t really have best friends as an adult because people get married, move away, change up on you in counter-clockwise ways, or just don’t return a call or two and fade into Facebook oblivion. The next thing you know, you’ve spoken to them twice in a decade, but liked all their important photos.
That’s what happened with Simon and I. We were college baseball teammates, bong rip connoisseurs, and saw Dark Side of Oz enough to embody stoner cliché. Then he went and got his JD/MBA, stopped smoking, got married, had a baby, and became a future partner in a prestigious Atlanta law firm. He became respectable and I kept growing my hair out, maintained a healthy narcotics regimen, and found myself drinking “The King of Bling” Hennessey cocktail this weekend at TV Johnny’s Xmas Party in Houston, watching 100 fully grown folk do the Mannequin Challenge while waiting for Paul Wall to show up. He never showed up.
The last time Simon and I spoke was shortly after the birth of his son three years ago. I was in ATL for a few days, and we tried to find time to link, but he was a newborn dad and it just didn’t happen. Over the past few years, I kept meaning to call to catch up, but you know how that goes. He was working 90 hours a week at a law firm, being a father and husband, and enjoying the benefits of Atlanta condo ownership and a home in Athens, where his wife taught. They were living the American dream in a way that seems alien to most of us. He deserved it as much as anyone I’ve ever known.
Then one day, I got a phone call that he was near death. Colon cancer stage four. It metastasized faster than anyone could’ve possibly foreseen, and he was cremated before I got the chance to say goodbye.
Suddenly, I found myself crying in coach, sandwiched on a plane headed east to attend his memorial service. Amidst coffee spills and slobs cranking their seat back, I wrote a letter to his son, far too young to understand the finality of death, let alone how good of a man his father was. I scrawled a few stories that exemplified Simon’s courage and intelligence, his fundamental decency as a human being, and tried to ignore the gnawing acidity of the guilt I felt for not keeping in better touch when I had the chance.
All funerals are a waking nightmare. Everyone is always at a loss for words and instead we mumble platitudes and condolences to the even more bereaved—hoping to convey an adequate grief. Nothing helps but no other options exist. I ended up drunk off Jack Daniels and Chick-Fil-A nuggets (apparently, Simon’s favorite), talking with people I hadn’t considered since college, exchanging banal summaries of the last decade, and numbly sleepwalking in circles—disconsolate but grateful that our ticket hadn’t been punched.
I’m sure people wiser than I would argue otherwise, but there’s only one real lesson to take from death. All I know is that we need to commemorate those departed too soon and try to make every day matter, even in some small way. That’s it.
I’m not sure how that epiphany caused me to lead several people from the memorial to Magic City, but it made perfect drunken sense at the time. If you love rap, it’s a necessary pilgrimage, as ultimately influential as Project Blowed or The Screw shop in Houston, but with a superior aesthetic. I’m not much of a strip club guy but I’d never been and was in Atlanta, and there was suddenly the looming possibility that my plane might crash on the way home and then what? I’d get remembered for a few weeks via blog posts and Tweets? Then everyone would go on with life because that’s just about the only thing you can do.
That night was mostly a depressive blur or a movie, depending on your angle. I didn’t get any dances or do anything remotely wild. I mostly leaned by the bar, self-medicated and dazed, listening to the best trap booming at obscene volume in front of women who all deserved scholarships.
Future’s “Perkys Calling” came on and everything skulked in slow motion. The beat and vocal dripped as languidly as mud in Styrofoam, a doomed savage’s lament, a drugged out requiem for everyone you’ve even known, particularly your own self, steady ticking towards that final puff.
Ballers in the VIP nonchalantly manifested green rain clouds while strippers casually twerked. Future moaned about Xans, Perkys and the calling streets, the futility of a 9-to-5, the need for better doctors and better advice. It matched this plagued mood as well as any song ever has before or since. It was consolation and public mourning—life in absurd totality, a tragic folly and a beautiful fantasia, always with a bittersweet ending. It was what music can do at its best.
None of this makes sense—most of all how a 34-year old man can suddenly die in three months, his ostensibly healthy body swallowing itself alive, leaving behind a young son to grow up without a dad, a widow who lost her most profound love. For whatever reason on that hexed night, “Perkys Calling” captured that feeling of sorrow, the immensity of this train wreck, the fleeting beauty of those few moments we get together before you have to answer the call. —JEFF WEISS
4. Kanye West, “Real Friends”
This is the Kanye that we voted for. The insecure arrogant dork and introspective loner who made five beats a day for three summers. Who became a married father of two, who knew better than to admit to a $250,000 blackmail scheme from his cousin, but whose Tourettic addiction to shout out the truth always won out.
I don’t miss the chopping up the soul Kanye, I miss the Kanye whose soul seemed inviolate. The one who made his own beats that compensated for the clunky flow because they matched his idiosyncrasies. The Kanye of 808s too broken to pretend otherwise, too unfiltered to undercut the real. The one capable of blaming others as much as he blamed himself, who still had a sense of humor, who was self-aware and specific, armed a list of vendettas and a terrible sense of guilt.
The Kanye who felt uncomfortably human, who hadn’t lapsed into South Park caricature. Who intuitively understood how to bring the best of his collaborators, conscripting Ty Dolla Sign to amplify the minor tragedy and contribute the best cameo on a Kanye song since Pusha T on “Runaway.” While Kanye repeated old Whodini lines and Havoc laid down granite drums. The one who vainly attempted to resist those demons and missed his mom and his friends and that innocence of old family reunions, aware that he’d never have them again—even if that’s what he wanted. The Kanye who wasn’t afraid to be sentimental because he couldn’t help but be raw. The Kanye of this song, the one that felt like the real Kanye. —JEFF WEISS
3. YG, “Fuck Donald Trump (Feat. Nipsey Hussle)”
Will he build the wall? Is he gonna get smoked?
After two terms and a few cubic centimeters of extra grey hairs, Obama’s run in the Oval Office ends with the sound of flames engulfing a cross on the White House lawn. A new era starts, the Audacity of Hopelessness. Somehow, a used-car salesman hiding behind the veneer of big business and a wild trust fund went from the captain of a dangerous, violently hateful ship of fools to the leader of our nation.
He rose through the ranks on a campaign of bigotry and fear, possessing the deliciously tone-deaf superciliousness to undermine the people whose ancestors—both immediate and distant—were the backs America was built on, whose blood has been painted over with a fresh white coat of the image of the American flag over and over again for the past 240 years. He was openly endorsed by David Duke, lost the popular vote, and still won the seat.
“Fuck Donald Trump” wasn’t supposed to be representative of this failure of democracy, it was supposed to be the triumphant rallying cry of a united front, a clarion call from the front lines of economic disparity and police brutality. It was supposed to galvanize us at the polls. It was supposed to be the soundtrack to people dancing on the ashes of Trump Tower on the eve of inducting America’s first woman president.
Over the unmistakably American genre of art affectionately referred to as G-funk, YG and Hussle speak from and for a community ravaged by Reaganomics, threaten to dig holes to burrow underneath The Wall, repurpose Tupac’s assertion of, “it wouldn’t be L.A. without Mexicans” to fit the whole of America, and strike back at being alienated by a man who is supposed to be leading all of us to prosperity, not just a long-privileged subset of us.
If last year’s “Alright” was the “We Shall Overcome” of the Spotify Generation, “Fuck Donald Trump” was what we needed more, a protest song with sharp teeth; “Fight the Power” and “Fuck the Police” with an ever-present, specific target. With very few exceptions, punk rock was remarkably toothless in fighting the encroaching fascism of the Trump regime. It took two noted Los Angeles gang members and a beat that slaps to provide the feeling the supposedly revolutionary genre of punk lacked, using those sharp teeth to bite the hand that starves you.
As we emerge from a very dark year only to slide into the pitch-black uncertainty of Donald Trump’s America, “Fuck Donald Trump” serves as a bold reminder that the fight we could have won is only just beginning, and it’s going to take all of us standing together to win.
And while I’m at it, fuck Mike Pence too. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
2. Young Thug & Travis Scott, “Pick Up the Phone (Feat. Quavo)”
Young Thug isn’t the underdog anymore. Which seems entirely unreal considering how much of his 2015 appeal was wrapped up in the way he grated against the rap mainstream. But he’s weathered that storm and numerous others, including label shifts, disappointing first week sales, multiple album delays, and unhelpful Alaska Airlines employees. Yet through it all he’s seemed to persevere due in part to how well defined his vision is, even when the same can’t be said for his catalogue. Nevertheless, Thug’s strange cadences and melodies are at the epicenter of rap now. The new normal for an audience that was reticent to accept him even a year ago.
“Pick Up The Phone” is probably the best representation of how ubiquitous Young Thug’s sound has become. The song is a behemoth even when you consider that it’s a Travis Scott single that was originally a Young Thug single, penned by Delaware rapper Starrah, featuring Quavo Ratatouille. “Pick Up The Phone” was destined to be such a hit that Drake enlisted Starrah to pen him almost exactly the same song, with two of the original producers, which is probably the most 2016 thing that could’ve happened for all parties involved. (Sidenote: It only took 3 years from the time Drake said “That’s why every song sound like Drake featuring Drake,” for a rapper to make the Torontonian so envious that he had to hire a songwriter and two producers just to sound like him. 2016 is weird :/.)
“Pick Up the Phone Baby, I know you’re home baby” is such a dead-on, obvious hook that it’s almost embarrassing no one thought of it before. Starrah’s lyrics always tend to lean towards refreshingly sincere and often times fall on simplistic genius. “I thought I was right then had to man up I was wrong,” is one of the most romantic lines of 2016. The fact that it’s sung by Quavo Knowles is only confirmation that the pop world is better off with Quavo and Thug soundtracking every broken heart.
Even Travis plays his part, despite how you might feel about how he came into possession of the song. Travis has a pretty strong platform and tends to push for hits harder than Thug and Quavo. If it wasn’t for Travis leaking the song, there’s no telling if we ever would have heard it, especially in its superior Starrah demo version.
“Pick Up the Phone” is the best Young Thug posse cut post-Rich Gang, and equal to Thugger’s Jamie XX collaboration, “Good Times,” before it. The best Young Thug songs seem to exist outside his official catalogue almost as a rule of law. Moving into 2017 there’s really no telling where Thug’s career is going to go. Hip-hop fought him for so long and now the radio begrudgingly sounds exactly like him, even if radio still refuses to give his records solo airplay in exchange for imitation rappers with larger budgets. Young Thug is at the forefront of his generation, without a debut album out and with half the chart accolades of some of his peers. But the fact that he was able to shift so much of popular music in such a short span of time proves how indelible Young Thug’s mark really is. — DAN FROM THE INTERNET
1. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (Feat. Gucci Mane)”
“Black Beatles” is above all else, an incredibly fun rap song. That alone makes the tune exceptional enough to name it track of the year, considering most artists tripped over themselves in attempts to make serious and oft-overwrought protest music that failed to help anybody. Fun requires little to no analysis, you know it when you hear it, so instead indulge me while I demonstrate that Rae Sremmurd are actually the Black Beatles.
For one, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi rescued the Beatles brand from its slow descent into the decrepitude of “old shit”—word to Migos’ superiority. Bouncing with the same youthful intensity as John and Paul in the ’60s and none of the portentous self-importance their image has been weighed down with since, Rae Sremmurd flipped bratty punk rock yelping with the same innocent flair that the Liverpool lads did Motown R&B in the ’60s. Making pop punk hooks palatable to rap fans has got to be harder than selling a Marvelettes classic to Motown doubters.
They did this with the help of Mike Will Made It—surely the George Martin of our time—a man wise enough to let his charges grow with their audience much as The Beatles’ handlers did decades ago. Early reviews for Sremmlife 2 criticized the lack of turn up tracks, but like the White Beatles (as they’ll hereafter be known), Rae Sremmurd proved that there’s a depth behind that youthful charm, and “Black Beatles'” minor chord arps are the perfect opportunity to temper their exuberance with a touch of darkness. Then there’s the rhythm, which showed that while Ringo might win out on personality, he never really could fuck with an 808 sample pack on the beats. You know “Yellow Submarine” would have bumped even harder with sub-frequencies on the kick.
I’ll admit, I’m not exactly certain how Gucci Mane equates to George Harrison, but do we know for certain that Guwop hasn’t done LSD with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? Or that George never brought a money machine to the club? I’m not willing to bet on either, and Harrison would have looked brilliant with an ice cream tat.
Ultimately, “Black Beatles” reminds us that rap is above all, youth music, and that even as the old world order crumbles, there will always be kids making songs about girls, clothes, and money, pissing off old people who insist that we live in serious times, and that the kids act accordingly. They won’t: they’ll be saving the world one Mannequin Challenge at a time and reminding us that the only antidote to stagnation is new ideas and new people. That’s infinitely more comforting than any self-serious boilerplate protest song could ever be. — SON RAW