25. J Hus – Common Sense [Black Butter Records]
J Hus is a boy from the ends come good: a product of dematerializing cultural and musical boundaries amidst hardening borders, and perhaps the most authentic ideogram for a generation that is both regionless and remarkably stratified. This spills out in his music, which is diasporic and intently local, stitching together disparate and related styles in a tenuous and sticky act of synthesis. His debut album, Common Sense, shifts modes with little sense of pantomime and indulges in so many tastes it could be a Drake album if it weren’t so deliciously earnest.
You get the sense J Hus is too young for contrivance, and rather that this collage is a consequence of overexposure and grandiose ambition—the as yet unspoiled idealism of twenty-one. Afrobeats, grime, dancehall, and early aughts rap all bubble up and simmer in his slippery baritone, which sometimes flickers into slushy sing song and at others hews serrated.
Hus colors each mode with a thick stroke of East London slang and side-eyed glances at a riveting coming of age—related in East London slang and with class jester humor. The album’s title number, “Common Sense,” is glossy to a shine and is home to some of Hus’ most possessed rapping, while follow-up “Bouff daddy” is luxuriant, unbuttoned silk shirt swagger tempered with afrobeat inflections. Just adjacent, “Clartin” is guttural and scummy. A few numbers later “Spirit” worms its way in, resolute and tarred by over-vigilance.
At the end of seventeen tracks there’s less cohesion and more viscid connection, as splayed and interconnected as any child of the internet, and of any city of many that neglects many of its own. — LUKE BENJAMIN
24. Drakeo – So Cold I Do Em [Stinc Team]
Drakeo The Ruler spent the majority of 2017 incarcerated, leaving only two mixtapes as bookends on what could’ve otherwise been a formative year in the rising young LA rapper’s career. While Cold Devil is slated for a December 23 release, the only things the Stink Team and their fans had to get through the year without their figurehead was #FreeDrakeo hashtag and January’s So Cold I Do Em.
The mixtape is a continuation of Drakeo’s work over the past few years, a collection of mumbling lyrics about uchies and crashing foreign cars over Mustard-inspired production. Drakeo even raps over a couple of RJ beats, recorded just after a brief Twitter spat with the rapper who helped him find fame in the first place by sharing time on DJ Mustard’s “Mr. Get Dough.” Drakeo brings the exact opposite energy of RJ to the mic, employing a laid-back, off-kilter, almost-whispered flow that somehow ends up sounding significantly more menacing.
The best part of So Cold I Do Em is that it proves Drakeo is unlike anyone, even if he employs a slang dictionary on par with E-40 and has a comparable propensity for saying “ugh.” He also looks like a young Gucci Mane, if only for the pink-tinted Sprite permanently affixed to his hand. Aside from that, Drakeo’s brought an entirely unique vocabulary, delivery, and aesthetic to his city. 2017 would have been better if he was out. 2018 will be better now that he’s back. — WILL HAGLE
23. Mach-Hommy – Collected
If you had legitimately listened to all the music we filed here under “collected,” you’d be dead broke. You’d have spent thousands of dollars on deliberately lo-fi sounding rap CDs, 45s, digi downloads and the occasional custom made artwork. It would have been worth every penny.
Mach Hommy, a skilled visual artist in his own right, charges top dollar for his projects because he regards them as singular pieces of art. They’re not, of course, as most of his stuff gets pirated quickly. Interestingly enough, his promo plan goes diametrically against his insanely dense release schedule. So far, he has decided to appear on only one podcast and given only one written and one radio interview (I was lucky enough to conduct the latter), which collectively revealed not only a broad musical knowledge but a willingness to divulge deeper feelings about his upbringing between Haiti and Newark than most others would dare to share.
Whatever you think of his approach to art and commerce, Hommy’s skills and incredible voice control are undeniable. How else would he go from Griselda Gang-affiliate to underground cult hero in merely a year? So if you’re new to the world of Hommy, start with the Alchemist-produced “Brand Name” single, before you dig into his most complete full-length to date, HBO — Haitian Body Odor. Then listen to his EPs produced by Knxwledge and Earl Sweatshirt respectively, and by the time you’re done, watch yourself frantically checking your Paypal each time there’s a new thumbnail on his Bandcamp. — JULIAN BRIMMERS
22. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two [Authors / The Order Label]
Imagine spending years obsessed with cultivating a singular talent, only to find yourself turning your obsession toward drowning the demons inside of you with Irish whiskey and cognac. Imagine having dreams of greatness, only to wake up with your sheets stained with vomit. (“If I was sleeping on my back, I would have died,” Jonwayne raps on “Blue Green,” his throat and eyes burning, both desolate and sort of relieved he wasn’t bequeathed the same fate of Jimi Hendrix.) Rap Album Two is a collection of literary grade dispatches from the green bottom of a Jameson bottle, its author wracked with the sort of anxiety and depression that’s par for the course when wading through the muck of alcoholism.
The fear of your singular talent being the only thing of real value your character possesses (“These Words Are Everything”). Being regarded as an unlikely hero in the making while some rando asks you to perform like you’re a primate holding a pair of cymbals (“Live From the Fuck You”). Continuously flubbing the first few bars of a verse until it frustrates you enough to scrap it entirely (“The Single”).
Rap Album Two is the moment where this gifted rapper and beatmaker imbues the all-important emotional current into his work, opening the vein and letting a river run through it. Being mesmerized by Donuts at a Borders listening station, smiling at a teething nephew, stumbling along the boundary of what most of us learned in high school literature as the tragic flaw. At the center of all profound art is an unshakable emotional connection between creation and creator. This is deeply—sometimes agonizingly—personal work, which is exactly what Jonwayne needed to achieve the greatness he has strived for. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
21. Wiki – No Mountains in Manhattan [XL Recordings]
On his solo debut, Wiki puts his gritty, lyrical descriptions to work in a loving reinterpretation of his native borough. Over the course of the project, the 24-year-old rapper drawls about every facet of the city, from shit-talking drunk nights on “Chinatown Swang” to bagels and lox on “Islander.” The city he conjures is not just rats, shadowy figures, and bodegas (although he does induct himself into the “deli hall of fame”), but also an island paradise, a mountainous wilderness, a place that provides Wiki with all he needs.
The MC dances across beats, letting his lines spill from one bar to another while maintaining a fluidity that would make the Hudson jealous. The rhythms are mostly on the slower end of the spectrum, underlying a broad array of sounds from the dramatic vocal samples on “Made for This” to the spastic free jazz on “Litt 15,” a track on which Wiki says he’s “high, putting meaning to things that don’t mean a thing.” It’s a sentiment that permeates the whole project. Play this album at 11:00am while smoking a blunt on the roof of your apartment complex. — MAX HARRISON-CALDWELL
20. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory [Def Jam Recordings]
Following the loose, largely still-unexplored path of Yeezus’s lurch towards industrial sounds and higher BPMs, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory constructs a cohesive, otherworldly sonic landscape without sounding like a high-brow attempt at experimentation or shedding his vital perspective.
There are no skippable songs. From the UK Garage-tinged opener “Crabs in the Bucket,” to the Black Panther soundtracking “BagBak,” to the album-closing Ty Dolla $ign-assisted single, Staples clenches your throat for twelve tracks. Pounding bass drives GTA-produced “Love Can Be,” which manages to stitch together Gorillaz/Blur singer Damon Albarn, Staples-staple Kilo Kish, and Ray J into something you could equally imagine thumping from a low-riding Lincoln crawling down Long Beach or smearing faces of teenage ravers in some Berlin warehouse. Flume and SOPHIE construct a sword-sharpening, bombshell beat on “Yeah Right” that sweeps out into a sneering Vince and Kendrick’s best feature of the year.
Though Staples flipped out the crackling density of No I.D. from Summertime ‘06 for the uptempo trappings of these electronic producers (including young phenom Zack Sekoff), his nihilist deadpan remains intact, perhaps even more biting: “Riding in a droptop, son, where I think/ I might get JFK’d, hope not I pray/ If so, ain’t no thang to a G,” he raps on his single. “Off the rail, might off myself/ Bored with life as I board this plane/ Stewardess ask if I need help/ Maybe baby, what’s your last name/ Hopefully it still ain’t been changed,” Staples rips on a track called “Party People,” which Alphonse Pierre correctly noted “may be both the most morbid and festival ready song on Big Fish Theory.”
This duality of danceable grit is a niche within which the Long Beach kid thrives. Even with Detroit techno, garage, and house beat backing, Staples lands deep and hard on his “r” sounds like any West Coast rapper worth his salt, biting off a big hunk of 2017 American societal rot and spitting it out into something aptly barbed, hopeless, and neck-snapping. — LAWRENCE NEIL
19. Kelela – Take Me Apart [Warp Records]
I was in the parking lot of a Jamaican restaurant listening to Kelela’s Take Me Apart. It was raining and I had just gotten out of the theater from my second viewing of Blade Runner 2049, a movie I watched repeatedly because it helped ease my anxiety. It was in this moment that I realized Kelela was the true soundtrack of the future.
Take Me Apart has all the sounds and production of a movie like Blade Runner: dystopic, brooding, bleak, and yet, it is also the sexiest album I’ve ever listened to. I’m almost positive that I’m truly in love with her after each listen; Take Me Apart feels out of this world even as it tackles the universal themes of romantic involvement and sexual desire.
Take Me Apart is like a religious experience: an event you can only find the words to talk about with other people who’ve listened. How an album that sounds so dark and cold could be so loving and alluring is the type of thing that can only exist in 2017 without a real answer. Sex and love have never felt as important as they feel on this record. In an era where the dystopia feels like our current reality, Take Me Apart gets at what we all really want and need which is intimate human interaction and having our deepest desires met. A moment to feel joy in the midst of chaos. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
18. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins [RCA]
Years from now, when high school students open their textbooks to study the blog revolution, the systematic destruction of alt-weeklies by corporate overlords, and Pitchfork’s still peculiar scoring system, they’ll laugh at us. They’ll laugh because our silly generation of critics and fans alike took advantage of the unrelenting master craftsmanship that is a Grizzly Bear album. Since the band evolved from Ed Droste’s solo project into one of Brooklyn’s most exciting bands back in 2006, the foursome have yet to release anything close to a bad record—let alone a bad song. From Yellow House (and Friend, their b-side release from 2007) to Veckatimest to Shields, Droste, Chris’ Bear and Taylor, and Daniel Rossen have been an emblem of consistency. Consistency doesn’t attract headlines, but it’s a helluva lot more satisfying than inconsistency; just ask literally any band that grew up around them as Brooklyn became a musical hotbed in the mid-2000s. After five years off, the group returns with Painted Ruins, their most dense, most complete, most rewarding listen to date.
The opening notes of first track “Wasted Acres” sound like a tuning orchestra, slowly slipping into form while Rossen’s lilting, mesmerizing voice introduces a shuffling, electronically-tinged drum kit and a bassline so in the pocket you’d swear you left it on the kitchen counter instead. Painted Ruins finds the band at their most musically adventurous, but these more left-field ideas don’t come at the expense of Grizzly Bear’s inherent gift for songwriting. “Three Rings” is impossibly lush, a cascading, Burial-esque drum pattern ushering in a swaying guitar line and hypnotic harmonies. Painted Ruins is the risk every band takes after years of unanimous acclaim. It’s adventurous, far reaching, and complex. Some would crumple under the weight of heightened ambition. Grizzly Bear only grows stronger. — WILL SCHUBE
17. Rocks FOE – Fight the Good? Fight [Black Acre]
Listening to Rocks FOE’s Fight The Good? Fight is like squeezing sand among golden towering dunes or cupping your hands beneath a grey torrential downpour–what you apprehend feels offset by the seepage that returns, unaffected, to a greater, wider whole. The album is rap–and grime. It’s furious–and dolorous. It’s bombastic–and sparse. On the hammering “First Stone (Sin City)” the Croydon-born artist promises to return any stones cast in his direction until there’s no land; over the slow, thumping bass and whistle-in-the-wind of “Red Hand of Ulster” he does his best to stave off self-doubt. It’s an album that begins with hellfire and ends with brimstone, but its fieriness bookends an affecting anxiety and mindfulness.
Fight The Good? Fight is an unapologetically ambitious album, but it’s also a highly listenable one. Rocks FOE has grand ideas and executes them with aplomb–no small feat for an artist with only two EP’s to his name. He does discordant jazz samples, ominous grime, and barely-there instrumentals for moments that approach spoken word–and, because the album was self-produced, each song, and the interstices within songs, fits like a hand-in-glove. In a year filled with excellent albums by Londoners–Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Manga St. Hilaire, and Blay Vision foremost among them–Rocks FOE bested all comers. — TORII MACADAMS
16. Armand Hammer – Rome [Backwoodz Studioz]
Early indicators that their empire is crumbling would likely go unnoticed by the class inhabiting the upper stratum. A capitalist society necessarily cannibalizes itself in an effort to insulate the fed from those that feed; but long before esteem of status or wealth dissipate, the lowly likely notice the ouroboros of greed confusing want for need. #ListensToRomeOnce
On Rome, NY rap duo Armand Hammer (Elucid and billy woods) concentrate and dispense that sort of keenness to cast macrocosmic perspective from nooks and crannies. Intrigue lies partly in how fluidly the two occupy both local and global slants. “Pergamum” opens with a soliloquy on Russian rockets shooting down orbiting satellites to knock out power grids; elsewhere there’s a line about kids at the playground nearby being a substitute for an alarm clock. It’s a dense listen that when considered on its own terms rewards listeners for peeling back it’s layers. Rome is a lot of things, really: unabashedly realistic, dark, empowering without gimmicky emotion, history lesson, and cultural critique without a trace of patronization.
Some time ago, Busdriver tweeted , “some of the best American writing is locked in these dense rap songs no one likes.” Rome’s production could scare away a purist and Armand Hammer’s lyrics could keep spoon-fed rap radio fans starving. How widespread the appeal for such songs could be is a question I don’t really care about; that it’s easily some of the best contemporary American writing matters. It requires full attention even among its niche audience, but in return offers up the code for the wifi (it’s “Assata is safe here”). — ALLEN POE
15. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference [Young Turks]
Further dispelling the pernicious rumor that jazz is in its death throes yet again, Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference EP is a gloriously uplifting work of near spiritual proportions. To even characterize it as a mere EP seems almost profane for a work of this magnitude. Sure, it comes in at a scant six tracks and just over half an hour of playtime, but surely this is the sweetest suite to grace one’s gramophone of choice this year. Once again, the saxophonist with the most-ist gathers his co-conspirators in the West Coast Get Down to create a musical series that highlights each individual member’s skills while proving that it’s in communion that the band truly thrives.
For anyone who has seen Washington and the troupe live, the bandleader is gracious almost to a fault, showcasing his fellow players’—at least as much as his own—technical prowess. This humility and sense of sharing embodies the album, from Miles Mosley’s smooth bass intro on “Desire,” to Cameron Graves’ glorious piano run on “Humility,” to the strings and choir culminating on “Truth.” However, it is the combined, communal sound of the artists working together in unison that truly stands out here.
Originally conceived as the musical score to an art installation with his sister—the acclaimed visual artist Amani Washington—the music was intended to demonstrate that seemingly different things are capable of coming together to create things of great beauty. Whereas most music featuring a political bent of late has focused on anger and pain, Washington bucks the trend to strive towards coming together to heal and grow, perhaps the most revolutionary of all philosophies today. — CHRIS DALY
14. 03 Greedo – Collected
“Never Bend” is one of the most striking songs in 03 Greedo’s catalog. It is a heartbreaking portrait of all the traumas he’s suffered as a result of the choices he’s made. It is the type of song you play for someone when you are trying to spread the good word about an artist you’re recommending.
It’s followed by “Paranoid Pt 2,” a melodic plea to a new lover to ditch the weed salesmen and get with someone a little higher up on the food chain, i.e. him. The simple two song transition on Money Changes Everything demonstrates his type of unique versatility that few rappers could ever hope to match.
The “Rude/Zoning” video (off his shortest and most recent release First Night Out) also serves as a fitting snapshot of Greedo’s gift for easily accessible pop and R&B that maintains every ounce of the appeal he builds over the course of his more traditional music.
Greedo’s style cannot be pigeonholed, allowing the listener to remain fully invested for the entire duration of his five projects, four of which clock in at 30 songs or more. He’s equally at home over traditional west coast production, southern sounds that draw favorably from Zaytoven and Mannie Fresh, and lean soaked R&B.
On Purple Summer 03, he’s quick to let us know that he might freestyle the whole album because he hates the pen. He also shares a piercing aside about conversing with his (rightfully) concerned mother and telling her not to worry because he’s just as quick to shoot as any of his adversaries.
This side of Greedo serves as a stark contrast from the lovelorn ballads that are sprinkled throughout Money Changes Everything. “Closer” is built around a relatable pop hook about wanting to live closer to a flame. Greedo still encourages his love interest to forget about him as quickly as possible.
Greedo’s attention to detail and ability to tackle any production style give him a batting average that will stun even the most seasoned listener. At 149 songs and 5 projects, this makes for a year few artists could could ever hope to match. — HAROLD BINGO
13. G Perico – Collected
West Coast rap has had more than a few good years of late. After we suffered through a post-The Chronic 2001 era that featured Game as the only viable mainstream rap star from the region, things have rebounded nicely with Kendrick, Schoolboy Q and the rest of the TDE crew, alongside Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future, and YG with and without DJ Mustard. So we haven’t exactly been starving for West Coast rap.
Nonetheless, while each of the aforementioned have all genuflected to classic West Coast rap tropes and sonics on occasion, to rap fans of a certain age range, none of them feel truly indebted to the biggest icons of classic West Coast Rap. If anything, the Hierogylphics crew, Ant Banks, and complete outsiders like Outkast, The Neptunes, and assorted East Coast lyrical geniuses seem to have a more obvious footprint on the biggest West Coast artists active today.
G Perico is the one true exception to that observation. Everything about himm from his wardrobe to his voice to his appearance scream “WEST COAST,” even if the man never raises his voice beyond his natural whine. Somehow, he manages to come across a genuine original and not at all regressive through his obsession with sounds of his (and my) youth, a matter-of-fact attention to detail, and playful charisma that helps blunt the edge on some of the more anti-social aspects of his worldview.
In 2017, G Perico dropped two solo projects (All Blue and 2 Tha Left) and an additional one in a trio with Jay Worth and Cardo (G-Worthy). The obvious conclusion would be that G grew as a rapper from project to project and while that’s true to an extent, the real takeaway from all three projects is how he expanded his range in just one calendar year. All Blue was almost exclusively a G-Funk influenced project with one or two minor detours to the Bay. G-Worthy saw him collaborate with a fellow rap newbie in Jay Worthy, and for my money, the best and most versatile producer in rap today, Cardo, for a flawless and endlessly listenable EP. Finally, his most recent release, 2 Tha Left, contains some of G’s most blatantly political efforts nestled next to unabashed raunch reminiscent of every version of N.W.A. In short, when it comes to that West Coast rap shit, G Perico did it all in 2017.
So yeah, all that other shit cool too but G Perico is the real West WEST shit. If you consider yourself a West Coast rap aficionado of any era, do yourself a favor and dig into G’s work this year—proof positive that there’s still room for some traditional provincialism in rap in 2017 and beyond. — MOBB DEEN
12. Equiknoxx – Colón Man [DDS]
How do you follow up a mindboggling debut compilation that blew every other instrumental project of 2016 out of the water, culled from years of carefully crafted material? Why, by dropping a proper debut that’s just as good the very next year, of course. Equiknoxx stick to the script on Colón Man, delivering another album’s worth of futuristic instrumental dancehall, but sticking to the script can lead to some bizarre places when said script is seemingly written by the future ghosts of Lee ‘Scratch Perry’s spiritual children from an alternate timeline where benevolent robots have taken over.
Armed with a woke album title and years of experience touring the world, Equiknoxx have lost none of their distinctiveness, micro-chopping everything from Addis Pablo’s melodica to crystalline heart plucks over the course of 47 minutes. There’s plenty of dub darkness here, but it’s refracted through a freewheeling sense of fun that eschews rootsy tradition for contemporary innovation, while reminding everyone of just how sparse dancehall can be without a lead vocalist. Better yet, at a time when vocalists are still opting for tranced out beats with an eye on crossover radio, Colón Man doubles down on weirdness, feeling like nothing less than Jamaica’s answer to the post-Dilla beat tape explosion, had the beat scene been eyeing the club instead of your headphones.
When asked to comment on this blurb, one half of the group replied: “Just buy it, it’s actually 11 tunes but comes with 1 free one so that’s 12. I don’t see why you shouldn’t buy it.”
The album is 13 tracks. — SON RAW
11. Ty Dolla $ign – Beach House 3 [Atlantic Records]
In a lot of ways, Beach House 3 is the Ty Dolla $ign album I’ve been waiting years for. In 2013, when Beach House 2 dropped, Dolla $ign became an instant guilty pleasure. With his oozy, greaseball lyrics sung with the druggy, drowsy cadence of a VIP club hopper at three in the morning, Ty made irresistible music that used to make me feel both uncomfortable and envious. Yet as Ty Dolla $ign continued to develop as a musician, writer, and human, telling his story of growing up in LA and wanting freedom for his brother TC, I began to appreciate the man which allowed me to zero in on what made his music so perfect.
Ty Dolla $ign is incredible with melody and writing, capable of making the sweetest love song and the sleaziest sex jam. He’s the life of the party and full of thoughtful, quiet moments and Beach House 3 finally showcases this in the best way possible. Save for the interludes, Beach House 3 feels and sounds like the best house party you’ve been invited to. “Love U Better” and “Ex” are incredibly fun, “Droptop In The Rain” is that classic combination of sexy and ridiculous that has made for so many classic Dolla $ign songs, while “All The Time” and “Lil Favorite” are must-haves in your rotation when Valentine’s Day comes up.
Dolla $ign has a problem with trying to prove himself to be super versatile as an artist, but on Beach House 3, he found the right formula. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
10. LA Witch – LA Witch [Suicide Squeeze Records]
Mystique is a difficult quality to counterfeit. Some artists conflate vagueness for mystique, others try to cloak their deficiencies in reverb and pass it off as this characteristic. It’s one of those things that can’t be manufactured—either it’s there or it’s not. The eponymous debut full-length from L.A. Witch contains mystique in spades; it exists as a dark fog floating along the undercurrent of its nine cooly dark songs. The band’s spiritual location is split evenly between Nashville dive bars, wherever Joan Jett and Micki Steele would run away to, and the darkest corners of Phil Spector’s mansion.
Opener “Kill My Baby Tonight” is a ballad which shimmers like broken glass, a devotional number rife with the sort of possessiveness practically inextricable from being engrossed in love. On “Get Lost,” frontwoman Sade Sanchez practically begs to be saved from herself, to be taken away to “where you go.” “You Love Nothing” is both a sober character assessment and a statement of loving and wanting something that doesn’t want you back.
“Drive Your Car” is exactly what a song called “Drive Your Car” should sound like: 70 miles-per-hour on an unlit mountainside parkway, foreboding and dangerous and thrilling because of it, a post-punk sprint on four wheels. There is an image of badassery in the song which feels part and parcel to the band’s identity. It helps that L.A. Witch is the kind of band that sounds like they know their way around a switchblade.
These are songs that reveal a panorama of complex emotions while still shrouded beneath a veil, the album’s cavernous production makes the instruments and emotions seem simultaneously very close and far away. Mystique is the most natural default setting for a band called L.A. Witch. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
9. DJ Quik & Problem – Rosecrans LP [Diamond Lane / Blake Enterprises]
DJ Quik loves where he’s from and wants you to love it too. Rosecrans may be 2017’s most visual album, a landscape and a soundtrack comprised of all the sounds we’ve come to identify as distinctly Angeleno, which, considering Quik came up with most of those sounds in the first place, effectively makes it a tribute to himself. And while Mr. Blake has yet to release an even moderately subpar effort over three decades, Rosecrans cements itself within the major Quik canon as his loosest and most animated composition to date.
These aren’t songs so much as movements and suites, replete with full-scale changes in key, tempo, structure, and orchestration. It moves like a living, breathing document, the more so because it evolved from a mere EP last year. Even Quik’s lightest affectations are masterstrokes: on “Rosecrans Groove,” the keyboard solo is thrown askew with an application of the Doppler shift, an ambulance screaming past gridlock on the freeway shoulder.
If Quik’s defining characteristic is his precision, Rosecrans embraces spontaneity. It’s an album with rapping that’s not always a rap album, and those raps are far more conversational than authoritative. Problem is deployed like yet another instrument, a complement to the time-tested drums and vocoder. He’s a younger rapper with a fairly everyman quality; he doesn’t have any hot takes or big ideas. They execute viable club tracks and slow jams which flow into one another at their own pace.
The guests make for a neighborhood Greek chorus, stock characters who impel the narrative with the briefest of screen time. Knowing Quik, this is, I’m sure, exactingly calibrated, but the effect is as natural and organic as anything in his oeuvre. And if Quik, MC Eiht, AMG, and Suga Free could put aside their differences to make great music together in their late forties, it makes me think that the rest of us might be able to…well, hold that thought. — PETE TOSIELLO
8. Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson [Mexican Summer]
Is there a better representational persona of Los Angeles than Ariel Pink? He’s Angelyne and The Doors, The Apple Pan and strip mall sushi, the Lakers and the Dodgers. He’s the sleaze of Hollywood Boulevard and the shimmer of a perfect coastal sunset. He’s glam and filth, fame and anonymity. No wonder, then, that his latest album is a dedication to the mysterious musical provocateur Bobby Jameson.
A bit of history: Bobby Jameson was a pegged star turned comet, a musician chosen to be a success who never settled into the industry definition attached to him. He found notoriety as a cult figure, eventually leaving the music industry altogether, all the while battling addiction and homelessness. His breakout record, 1965’s Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest re-emerged in 2002 unbeknownst to Jameson, who many assumed had died years before the re-issue. To protest these uncertified records, Jameson took to Youtube, compiling a series of videos he did from ‘07 until he died in 2015.
With Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, Pink builds on and ponders Jameson’s legacy as an artist on the fringes, existing as a totem as much as a man. In many ways, Ariel Pink’s career suggests similarities. We know Pink as many things: unpredictable, eccentric, opaque, and mysterious. His music is always presented through the prism of Ariel Pink the artist, because Ariel Pink the person has always been obscured from the foreground. In some sort of meta-evaluation, Pink puts his own persona up against Jameson’s to see what fits. While the record doesn’t follow a particular narrative arc mirroring Jameson’s life or career, viewing the entire thing as an ode to the musician helps suggest some of what Pink is searching for on his finest album yet.
Dedicated to Bobby Jameson presents all of Pink’s go-to styles from albums past and smashes them together into an ecstatically weird and wondrous collection; it’s a Rorschach test of an album, both in the shapes it creates and the world it presents for its listener to interpret. The album’s early moments blend bubblegum pop with the morose curiosity of The Cure and stadium-ready drum sounds (“Feels Like Heaven”). “Time to Live” sounds like “Video Killed the Radio Star” filtered through Pink’s early days as a no-fi tape manipulator, while “Another Weekend” is a shimmering piece of folk pop—achingly infectious and heartbroken. The Dam-Funk assisted “Acting” is a slice of funk heaven, a teasing collaboration that begs for a full-length between the two.
Above all, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson displays an artist fully in control of their vision, even if that vision dances around from style to style at a moment’s notice. Pink has mastered his warped take on pop music to such a dazzling degree that these tropes now open up and allow his twisted psychedelic vision to bend them at will. It’s a masterclass in avant-pop, John Waters for the iPod generation, but really, it’s just Ariel Pink—not quite known, yet vaguely familiar. He’s the perfect purveyor of Los Angeles in all its ugliness and beauty. To Ariel Pink, it’s all the same thing. — WILL SCHUBE
7. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls [Atlantic Records]
I was late to turn this blurb in, just how I’m late to turn most everything these days, due both to my mage-level procrastination habits as well as the fact that it’s incredibly fucking hard to be concise when it comes to writing about Young Thug. One of the conventions of blurb-writing is to isolate one element of a project or its creator and blow it up, explaining why the detail is an appropriate stand-in for the whole. You can’t do that with Young Thug; he combines the left-field, anything-goes charisma of James-Franco-As-Tommy-Wiseau with a talent and technical precision that eclipses the combined virtues of every favorite rapper of every favorite person who once said that Young Thug ruined hip-hop. He is all things at all times, and woe be unto any instrumental that stands in his mercurial path.
Initially teased as his “singing album,” there definitely is a lot of what some people might consider “singing” on Beautiful Thugger Girls, but that doesn’t necessarily do what’s going on here justice within the context of Thugger’s larger body of work. Over the past few years, Thug has played a significant role in eradicating the perennially porous line between rapping and singing, tailoring his flows to melt into the beat with the same jazzline precision that Rakim once deployed back when he was getting paid in full. If last year’s Jeffery, whose cover famously depicted him wearing a piece from Alessandro Trincone’s gender-rejecting Annodami collection, was Thug’s punk statement—those guitars on “Wyclef Jean” don’t sound like a quantized lick from “London Calling” for nothing—then Beautiful Thugger Girls is an attempt to beat convention at its own game, inserting some much-needed personality and panache into the tropical house and lithe guitar-pop that passed for radio music in 2017.
The album’s opener, “Family Don’t Matter,” its standout, is also its wild card—the song’s 54th word is “YEE-HAW!”—and it rumbles along with desolate allure, like a shot of Clint Eastwood driving a rickety wagon in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Towards the end of the record, Thug again swerves into unexpected territory, drawing from such unfashionable vibes as Lounge (“Oh Yeah”), Early Ben Harper (“Me or Us”), and A Carlos Santana Salsa Song But Without Carlos Santana (“For Y’all”), creating songs all the more impressive considering how much other songs that kinda sound like those songs suck. In the lead-up to Beautiful Thugger Girls’ release, Thug’s engineer Alex Tumay tweeted, “I’m convinced @youngthug could make a death metal album and it’d be fire at this point.” He wasn’t wrong. — DREW MILLARD
6. Jlin – Black Origami [Planet Mu]
In a year where the underground music media force-fed listeners way too many vaguely political IDM albums that were more fun to pontificate on than listen to, Jlin’s post-footwork opus Black Origami was a brilliant exception to that sad glut of mediocrity. Yes, there’s enough conceptual heft here to justify the boutique festival bookings alongside art world darlings, but unlike far too many of her peers, Jlin’s tracks don’t need an instruction manual and a primer on Deleuze to get you moving.
Intensely percussive and physical, Black Origami collides everything from high art abstraction to organic African rhythms into subatomic particles before reassembling them into demented new forms. From the second the title track’s digital plucks collide with one of her trademark high speed rhythms, you’re thrown headfirst into a sonic world that’s equal parts Afro-futurist second line and complex mathematical equation, and the energy doesn’t let up for a second throughout.
It all adds up to a war record that only slightly nods to the hyper-competitive juke and footwork scene that inspired Jlin’s previous work, as she prefers to build upon its ideas in a more personal, idiosyncratic way. Thankfully, that doesn’t make for a more delicate record—if anything, Black Origami is one of the more confrontational pieces of art you’re liable to hear all year, with practically every second on the album being filled with a fragment of digital percussion coming at you from an unexpected angle. It’s to Jlin’s credit that she found a way to make what should be an exhaustive listen so invigorating—by the time the distorted digital synths on “1%” come in, most listeners should be just about ready to start a riot.
Standing head and shoulders above both the clubbing mainstream pumping out house-by-numbers and an art scene disconnected from the listening public, Jlin’s Black Origami was the record we needed in 2017: different, angry, black, feminine, but also compulsively listenable and incredibly inviting. — SON RAW
5. Future – HNDRXX [Epic Records / A1 / Freebandz]
You know the routine after a bad break up: brood on your sweat-weathered couch all afternoon, stumble to the stove to fire up some Ragu & ziti, check your feed, blend whichever liquor is on hand with whatever else is on hand, ping a potential rebound, stare out the window, call your most trusted sibling, repeat.
At the end of February, Future showed us that even he could suffer from such a basic affliction. Recording in the aftermath of a nasty breakup, child support case, and tweets-that-almost-launched-eight-figure-lawsuits, HNDRXX offers a chilly, serrated, emotional holding pattern, a parallel universe in which Future’s usually buoyant repetitions sounded like resigned mantras, and the warping, technicolor bounce of Metro Boomin go melancholy. It’s also Future’s most complete, resonant album.
He transforms a whole album riddled with typical dude breakup symptoms into a blend of matte tones. His desires lurch between Superfund toxic masculinity (“Hit you once, you part of my collection”) and queasy, lord-I-need-this clinging (“Can you be the one who love me all the time?”). He tries getting out of dodge (“Fresh Air”) and tries to psyche himself up for someone new (“Lookin Exotic”). He’s never sounded sadder.
Smoking and drinking have always been an escape for Future—as they are for, well, everyone—but he’s never sounded so desperate to escape the rules of earth: “When you get high enough, you can dodge raindrops.” Drums and basslines feel muted, like things sequestered behind glass or dulled by SSRIs. Give HNDRXX to anyone whose exposure to Future consisted of “Mask Off” and choice guest verses and gauge their reaction. I myself kept searching for comparisons: John Martyn’s “Sweet Little Mystery” produced by Dre Moon? Smoky Robinson in a Tetris-piece house on stilts in the hills, channeling Bjork on Homogenic as the last seams of the sunset vanish?
HNDRXX’s understated centerpiece might be “Turn On Me.” The song takes the last decade’s arsenal of rap instrumentals and drains them of all bravado: splash cymbals skitter like mice and the horn section sounds like a dying MIDI loop. The chorus tell us all we might want to know about Future’s sense of fault, loss, and looking oneself in the mirror after another ragged night out: “I been away too much, I know you gon’ turn on me/ We smoked so much, the ashes startin’ to burn on me/ I smoked so much, the ashes startin’ to burn on me.” — EVAN MCGARVEY
4. Migos – CULTURE [Quality Control Music]
The following is a list of ad-libs from the first two songs on Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff’s kingmaking second studio album Culture: skrrt skrrt, boon, coon, room, June, ‘cún, skrrt skrrt, skrrt skrrt, chips, where, where, lot, pot, pot, knot, whoa, cops, uhh, snatched, ride, time, yeah, pew pew pew, yeah, gas, uhh, stock, twelve, mud, frrt, quarter K, whole K, dolphin, Perky, uh uh, ay, mama, white, ay, mama, yeah, ay, ay, skrrt skrrt, grraoh, whoa, whoa, ekh, ekh, hockey, rocky, huh, no one, bitch, ‘sace, grraoh, flrrrt, cookie, uh uh, whew, yup, family, show, grraoh, north side, nineties, two-thousands, seen it, dope, mob, frog, whoa, high, culture, vultures, skrrt skrrt, gas, twelve, no, whoo, bao, dah, mama, whoo, whirr.
In crevices placed between bars, the Migos wield onomotapeia, parentheticals, echos, and outbursts like salt, ever-present, accentuating every flavor. If the revelation on the trio’s breakout 2013 mixtape Y.R.N. was the perfection of triplet flows, Culture manifests between-lyric exclamations developed in Atlanta and Chicago as some new, advanced form. Shrieking punctuations in the reliably open 1/8 notes at the end of measures take the shape of words, syllables, phonemes, and sound effects—conjuring the action and motion of comic books, and the paranoid feeling of internal monologues, while somehow disassociating language from itself.
Of Y.R.N., Craig Jenkins wrote that the exuberant repetition of brand names “hit the ear like something other than English,” and this project takes that notion to its logical endpoint: a loop of staccato cadences that present as call-and-response, joke-and-punchline, statement-and-footnote, threat-and-attack, squawk-and-spasm. In rapid succession, it becomes its own dialect. This is how nouns like “rain drop” and “drop top” became endlessly memeable pure sounds, and why when simple words cut through—Takeoff clearly enunciating fa-mi-ly on “T-Shirt”—it dents your soul. (Not for nothing, this approach to verse is also why guests on Migos songs can sound like dead air, but why Lil Uzi Vert’s primal outburst here makes sense; why “Gucci Gang” kinda works; and why Griselda’s ad-lib-filled Roc Marciano tributes sound fresh to the kids.)
Crucially, Culture’s production, more than previous Migos projects, leaves ample negative space, mixes ad-libs as loudly as the “actual lyrics,” and layers these second and third tracks of vocals with additional sheets of background melodies, at times almost Gregorian, like some abstract doo-wop. Maybe they’re the Beatles. Maybe they’re a boy band. Over slinky piano beats from Zaytoven and his impersonators, they sound like a Wild West chorus in a saloon filled with strippers. The Migos have always been good at writing, but never this great at structural design, and never so in sync. They flooded the market in 2017—Quavo had two singles as big as “Bad and Boujee”; Offset dropped a separate project that’s arguably just as good—but it was their group technique that cemented their stardom. Whether they stay in step to repeat on the sequel in January, or ever again, Culture is a singular piece of pop. — TOSTEN BURKS
3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. [TDE]
We were wandering the desert, caked in dusk and choking through cotton masks. This was Easter. This was Indio, Coachella, Lyft drivers perched in motel rooms, weird barbecues in the middle of the night in second-rate country club parking lots. Walking in and out of the fairgrounds, DAMN out of cell phones and those tinny Beats speakers. It had come out that Friday, and Kendrick played on Sunday night, grinning at the hammy kung-fu skits he filmed in advance, skipping across the stage when he brought out Future. People knew the words already.
I thought DAMN would be the biggest thing in back in L.A. all summer. It wasn’t––not really. You’d hear “LOVE” and “LOYALTY” every few times you were in the car, maybe “DNA” when you went out at night. “GOD” is good, but it’s sort of Thug karaoke. “HUMBLE” is that Jimmy Wopo song. It’s difficult to argue for DAMN as the broadly important watershed that both good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly were made to be. (The PR copy that comes with holiday reissues is not admissible here.) No matter how many times you spin it backwards or how many message board posts you burn trying to stitch together a convoluted storyline, Kendrick’s third Aftermath album has to live and die pound-for-pound, blow-by-blow.
Fortunately, it lives, thrives. Lately I’ve been thinking about DAMN in the context of Overly Dedicated. Try to remember the first time you heard “The Heart, Pt. 2.” Kendrick’s trying to pin down some heady things, to be sure. He’s even parroting an incarcerated uncle who implored him to “rap about life, not rap niggas.” But that song is all about the performance, how he leans and careens and wheezes to catch his breath. That’s what I love about this record, too: the extended runs in “FEEL,” the tired, taunting “YAH,” the Juvenile bit in “ELEMENT.” “FEAR” sells its conceit well; even if it didn’t, Kendrick’s clicking and you’ll let him bully you into finishing your Pizza King. It can be a joy to hear him rap, period.
DAMN foregrounds questions about salvation and worthiness, but Kendrick is sharp––or human––enough to dirty it up with chance and circumstance and grease-soaked chicken. — PAUL THOMPSON
2. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream [Mello Music Group]
There is no more room in Hell and the should-be-dead have prayer circles for congressmen accused of sexual improprieties. C.H.U.D.s who live in planned suburbs with thin walls police unwarmed people of color and kill them on camera. The new-age Gestapo in alphabet soup windbreakers imprisons children accused of nothing more than having the wrong passport. Our president is a glowing Superfund site that demands a daily sacrifice of three McFlurries–one with M&M’s, one with Snickers, one with Oreos. I assume that, after I get airholed by goons working for Clean Coal, my bones will be used be used as fine china by Senator Milo Yiannopoulos Jr., heir to the NAMBLr fortune. (It’s the app that connects men and boys.) Open Mike Eagle is the rapper best capable of elucidating the humor, mortification, and fear of the horrors-there-were, the horrors-that-are, and the horrors-to-be.
A horror-that-is: the South Side, Chicago nullity that used to be the Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing complex in the United States, and the home to thousands of black people, Eagle and his family among them. Because there’s no physical commemoration of the 28 mostly uniform buildings and their inhabitants, Eagle was inspired to make Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, a testimony of the mythology and mores which developed in the towers’ caged breezeways and littered streets. And Eagle’s testimony is undoubtedly his. He has a remarkable gift for simultaneously conveying sadness, wonderment, cynicism, and comedy–and it’s a gift well-suited for describing a place where everyday humanity was regularly interrupted by injudicious brutality.
For the last few years, I’ve nurtured the belief that Eagle’s a near-perfect artist for our gnashing inferno. He’s exceedingly human in an essential, self-effacing way: angry without self-righteousness, fallible without dire consequences, vulnerable without being helpless. He’s not the bright golden messiah, but a man with a self-proclaimed dumb agenda, legs tired from running things, and a hand burnt from a pen full of flames. On Brick Body Kids, he doesn’t pretend to see the world with perfect clarity, but the Robert Taylor Homes as a microcosm of greater social ills. — TORII MACADAMS
1. Thundercat – Drunk [Brainfeeder]
“From the minute I wake up I’m staring at the screen/Watching the world go insane.” Other contenders exist, but Thundercat wrote the most relatable lyric of 2017. Is this the plague of modern existence? To be blessed with the technology and capacity to see all corners of the globe, absorb information from a panoply of sources, and instead spend it scrolling glowing orbs that dispense an all-you-can-eat arsenic buffet of bad news.
You don’t need me to catalogue the snuff film of horrors that was 2017. I don’t think Thundercat would want it that way either. As with much of the best art and artists, Stephen Bruner is dedicated to discovering the light without averting his eyes from the darkness. Drunk is the album of the year because it encompasses everything we love and hate, the duality of nature, sin and salvation, laughter, addiction, cats, Mortal Kombat and masturbation, leaving your wallet at the club, Dragon Ball Z, and getting sick from fish in Tokyo. Existence in all its folly and absurdity, all too aware of the adage that life’ll kill ya.
Drunk confirms what locals long knew: Stephen Bruner is one of the last originals lurking. So it goes when you grew up floating around South Central in the ’90s in cartoon tees and moon boots, slapping the jazz bass at Locke High, thrashing artfully with Suicidal Tendencies and levitating with Erykah Badu. No pre-existing archetype makes sense or even exists. He’s an heir to George, Bernie and Bootsy, raised in Boyz In the Hood era as the virtuosic son of a jazzman, a progeny from the most gifted family since Salinger’s Glass clan.
If Drunk is his best album, it’s because Tron Cat’s father figured out how to reconcile every strand of his influences, inspirations, and original ideas. No one else could bring Kendrick Lamar alongside Kenny Loggins. A strange ambrosia that alchemizes Wiz Khalifa with Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus with Michael McDonald. You get flashbacks to the kid growing up on ’70s AOR and Stanley Clarke, Grover Washington, Steely Dan, Jaco Pistorius, jazz fusion, Low End Theory experimentalism, hip-hop, and sci-fi voices. Add a falsetto that sounds like the molly just hit and your only impulse is to roll six spliffs, hijack a yacht, a bottle of Jim Beam and hoist yourself naked on the mast letting the wind slap your face like a six string bass—and then turn the whole thing into a gif that he’d tweet to Zack Fox.
The 23 tracks float like a sparkling malt liquor-filled cloud—or as Thundercat says, “nothing is real, I’d rather be out of my mind.” Despite the prog-density, Thundercat elides pretension at every angle. His lines are like goofy but dark Zen Koans mocking the paradoxes we constantly find ourselves in: “you’re so drunk you’re missing out/just make sure you have the right Jordans on or be left behind to ride and die/face down in the gutter.”
In his sinistral and psychedelic way, Thundercat made one of the most gorgeous sounding records in recent memory—one that somehow doubled as a harrowing meditation on substance abuse and the slow creep of sepulchral reality. It’s a reminder why we self-medicate, engaging the ludicrous disaster of modernity and the beauty we can still create if we search ourselves correctly. This is what we want: peace without pacifism, calm without apathy, a space ride without the crash. The ability to transcend our personal and political hells and uncover the right path, even though the perfect answers will forever elude us. — JEFF WEISS