Like we always do about this time. Same rules apply. Great singles were favored over great songs. In the interest of broader inclusiveness, tiebreakers went to artists who didn’t make the best albums list. One song per artist. There are actually 51 songs because #nothingmatters. As always, everything is 100 percent correct, and if you disagree with this list, you’ll never get into Harvard like Lil Pump.
50. Lil Pump – “Gucci Gang”
The Earth spins, the seasons change, time marches on, and history repeats itself. Old heads bemoan the rise of whatever faddish new type of rap that involves some teenager saying the same words over and over again, and so on and so forth. In the current generation—Z? Xan? Ozymandias (look on it and despair, etc.)?—that means the Soundcloud Set a.k.a. the Gangbangers of Guccidom a.k.a. Lil Pump and friends, whose movement was inevitably going to coalesce around a song about doing meds with your grandma.
“Gucci Gang” is the platonic ideal of faddish new rap that involves a teenager saying the same words over and over again. You will sooner find Lil Pump buying a wedding ring or flying WestJet than you will be able to get this song out of your head. Is Lil Pump going to change the world for the better? Absolutely not, even if he did go to Harvard and achieve a hundred other legendary feats of strength. But did Lil Pump make a song that perfectly captures what it sounds like to smash a hammer through your skull in the year of our lord 2017? You can fucking bet your last Percocet on it. — KYLE KRAMER
49.5. G Herbo – “Crown (Feat. Bump J)”
G Herbo has always been haunted, focusing stories on fallen friends, juxtaposing upward movement with locations in his past. “Crown,” the best song on his best project to date, Humble Beast, stands out by aiming the lens inside Herb’s home. His mom is washing clothes in the kitchen sink. Super Donuts are warming up in the microwave. His sister is late for school. He demands crowns. The bass drums drop out, and swelling gospel paves way for Chicago legend Bump J, released from prison in April, to dish his own family memories, bagging drugs on his mother’s dinner plates to pay for food. He demands crowns. Herb returns for a second verse about missing school to post on the block with his tool, then allows himself a moment to celebrate progress, only a moment. “Now I’m getting dividends, all about them Benjamins / Feds in the islands, Gilligans, Philippines / Free my niggas in the pen, I just spoke to Gill again.” Near the end, he admits, “Shit’s amazing,” then talks for a minute over the choir about the first time he saw Bump J on the street and was starstruck. He demands crowns.
Throughout the album, Herb uses soul loops and drums that don’t thunder like 2012 as an opportunity to dole intimate yarns. “Crown” cut the deepest. Bump jumped on several tracks with next-gen Chicago rappers since he earned his freedom, but only one passed the torch. — TOSTEN BURKS
49. Lil Peep – “Benz Truck”
When an artist dies there’s a temporary, internet-wide moratorium on performing irony at their expense. We affect solemnity where there was once cynicism, empathy when we once would have thrown them down a flight of stairs for a twelve-pack of Twitter favs. Their work suddenly takes on a newfound importance, as if the most charitable interpretation possible automatically becomes the correct one. The internet has made us myopic while gamifying social interaction, and so in death, we will all get our 15 minutes of unironic appreciation. We will have been said to have been onto something, and if it wasn’t your particular thing or even if it made you actively uncomfortable, you must acknowledge that we did the thing, and that it mattered and was perfect in its own way. However, Lil Peep, who died in November at the age of 21, should be mourned not for what he was, but for what he was very clearly becoming, a songwriter par excellence who was a genuine product of both hip-hop and emo who synthesized while forging ahead. To do anything otherwise would be disingenuous.
Here, we have “Benz Truck,” the Lil Peep song off Come Over When You’re Sober, Vol. 1 that most resembles a conventional rap track. While most of the EP traffics in poppy trap-punk so expertly written it eclipses most of the Warped Tour bands he drew inspiration from–seriously, Good Charlotte’s cover of Peep’s “Awful Things” is better than anything the Madden brothers ever came up with on their own–“Benz Truck” finds Peep affecting a paranoid drill flow, doubting the new people around him trying to take advantage of the trappings of a talent he had just begun to comprehend. It’s a mission statement, a dedication to his craft, the sound of the kid everybody wrote off as a joke steeling himself to take this music shit seriously. He was on the cusp of discovering himself, and that unrealized potential is one of the many reasons his death is so tragic.
48. Lor Choc – “Fast Life”
Lor Choc’s “Fast Life” is the summer anthem that could have, probably should have, been. and sort of was. With a melody composed of glistening arpeggiated bells that the beat lets take the spotlight, and Lor Choc’s melodic R&B/rap flow that’s able to find the latent harmony just about the melody, the song, about both the need to make money any way you can, and the joy in flaunting it in defiance of a system that wants you dead, should have been playing outside in parks, out of cars, and on loudspeakers across the country, not just in Choc’s hometown of Baltimore. It has to be said that Choc’s voice, and the way that she approaches the cadence, flow, and melodic ideas of her own sing-raps takes a lot of inspiration from “Try Me” era Dej Loaf, but even though Choc has seemingly only been working professionally since last year, she’s already put up a pretty coherent and diverse set of singles, including “Run Up On Me,” a kind of lo-fi EDM rap song, and “2016,” a sweet and infectious pop trap dedication to Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police department in 2015, but “Fast Life” is deservedly the track that got her noticed.— SAM RIBAKOFF
47. Lil Yee – “War”
Bay Area’s Lil Yee’s reedy, auto-tuned voice makes him sound younger than his age. The way the anxiety and violence in his music embody the political feels classic. The combination of the two feel just right for 2017: “We gon’ smash on everything/ Call it corruption.” The video for “War” reaches for more, too: children dressed up as child soldiers, archival footage of American riots, images of the Black Panthers, walls plastered with newspaper clippings, quick shots of his crew looking as stoic as a group of dudes in a Vermeer painting. But a stripped down set of gloomy synths and claps better matches Yee’s chilly lines.
The overall affect is millennial-subdued, but Yee’s punch lines probe the lines where state violence and street violence blur: “it’s a domino effect, we serve and protect.” There’s plenty that’s earnest, urgent, and unflinching about “War,” and nothing glib. This year, that’s as close to the truth as you’re likely to get. — EVAN MCGARVEY
46. Ski Mask the Slump God – “Catch Me Outside”
“Catch Me Outside” is the best bit of rap nerdom since that video of Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt meeting DOOM. A self-proclaimed disciple of Busta Rhymes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and other nineties virtuosos, Ski Mask The Slump God has separated himself from the South Florida wave with a sharp, slinky delivery as technically precise as the quantized drums it complements. His eccentric flow and knowledge of rap history lend themselves to random homage, this time to “She’s a Bitch,” Missy Elliott’s catchy, Timbaland-produced hit that came out two days after Ski Mask’s third birthday. The result, “Catch Me Outside,” is a mesmerizing couple minutes of Ski Mask messing around on that wonky Timbaland beat with every permutation of rhythm and meter imaginable.
This song accomplished a lot of things. Its Chucky-inspired music video, directed by wunderkind Cole Bennett, takes the cake for most GIF-worthy video of the year. It sparked actual collaboration between Ski Mask and Timbaland, which yielded footage of their studio time in which Timbaland was back to making ridiculous stank faces to his own beats. (Important storyline this year: Timbaland’s recovery from a near-fatal drug addiction and resurgence as an active producer. Long Live Timbo.) Most importantly, “Catch Me Outside” revealed to the world the genius and potential of Ski Mask The Slump God, the only rapper on earth who can make references to Bow Wow, King Julian from Madagascar, and 360 quick-scoping in the same verse. — MANO SUNDARESAN
45. Rico Nasty – “Poppin”
“Poppin” feels like the world’s prettiest horror movie. The bright Whoismike beat sets up a scene where the grass is creepily too green, the air is breathable, and there is not a piece of litter to be found. But here comes Rico Nasty with a voice that only gets more hoarse as the two minutes and 52 seconds continue, sounding possessed as she shouts to her doubters that they don’t have shit on her. It’s uplifting to see overconfidence justified like this, because it puts you in the same mindset as Rico. And by the end nobody can tell you shit either. — ALPHONSE PIERRE
44. Sherwood Marty – “Sherwood Baby”
Baton Rouge has always provided a steady pipeline of honest and evocative writers. From Lil Boosie to Kevin Gates to NBA Youngboy, there’s a forthcoming nature to the city’s music. The best songs are also vividly drawn with an unwavering commitment to aesthetic.
In other non $10 words: a Baton Rouge song usually sounds like Baton Rouge. Sherwood Marty is of a similar ilk and “Sherwood Baby” is the early standout of his burgeoning catalog. Of course, the specificity plays a major role in the appeal. The bluesy groove & earworm hook provide a stark contrast to the the urgency and determination within the verses.
“Sherwood Baby” couldn’t have come from any other place at any other time. When Sherwood Marty says that all of his trust has been placed in his 32 shot clip, it doesn’t scan as posturing. It sounds like a sad acknowledgement of his reality, the lyrical equivalent of an exaggerated sigh. By the time Marty tells us to ask around the city about him, it hardly seems necessary. The song serves as a living document. — HAROLD BINGO
43. P-Lo – “Put Me On Something (Feat. E-40)”
HBK Gang co-founder P-Lo is perhaps the most optimistic rapper on the planet. He believes in the healing qualities of positivity, the vibrant authenticity of the Bay, and the unstoppable power of attraction. While these themes are prevalent throughout 2017’s More Than Anything, “Put Me On Somethin’” is a full-on celebration of P-Lo’s home sweet home. This song, which features a funkified, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly-inspired synth lick, is a song that sticks out its tongue at anyone who’s made a joke at the expense of the Bay. “Put Me On Somethin’” is a victory lap for everyone in the Bay Area, and a reassurance that when people make jabs at the Warriors, or question the Bay’s realness, they only do so because they come from less cool, less beautiful parts of the country.
To add to the celebration, E-40 spits at least three phrases you’ve never heard before in your life. As always, E-40’s verse proves that he’s a.) infinitely cool and always relevant b.) has deserved to be the Poet Laureate of California since ’93.
Sure, the Raiders are leaving Oakland, homelessness surges at heartbreaking levels each year, erasure by way of gentrification continues to claim historically diverse, working-class neighborhoods, and the Tech Bros plucked the Warriors out of the East Bay as soon as they got good. But you can’t strip away the authenticity, hustle, or beauty of the Bay, no matter how many low-rise condos they erect. — JUSTIN CAROLL-ALLAN
42. Sheff G — “No Suburban”
Everyone says New York is changing and it’s true. The sad part about that is it becomes tougher to distinguish what’s true to the city and what instead is presented as New York. Sheff G’s “No Suburban” embodies Brooklyn, but a Brooklyn the city wants to hide from you. The second you hear Sheff’s gruff voice on the track you’re hurled into a world where little matters outside of your status in the neighborhood and who has the cleanest “Brooklyn” hoodie from Vinnies on Flatbush—which is worn like it’s a uniform.
“No Suburban” is more than a church bell filled New York anthem. It’s a lane opener for a wave of teenagers realizing that for the first time since “Hot Nigga” people want to hear what they have to say. So why not take advantage of it and show the fuck out? — ALPHONSE PIERRE
41. ASAP Ferg – “Plain Jane”
It feels like a disservice to see New York rappers through the lens of New York rap ca. 2017: we talk in circles about the weight of tradition and rattle off commercial misfires and sigh about cultural exchange. Look at Rocky, look at Yams and Houston and Memphis and oh my God, he’s named after Rakim.
When Ferg came out, he was pitched half-heartedly as the A$AP Mob’s full concession to the moment—the album was called Trap Lord. But “Plain Jane” is about risking lives at Harlem picnics, familial squabbles in tenement bathrooms, the arthritis in Grandma’s hands. “Mama see me on BET and start tearing up” is “Smiles every time my face is up in The Source.” It’s New York. The Three 6 interpolation on the hook is recontextualized into something raucous that rattles around train platforms. Rather than fealty to whichever city owns the moment, this is the sort of omnivorous pastiche that the genre’s built on. It fucking knocks. Album cover of the year, too. — PAUL THOMPSON
40. Shoreline Mafia – “Musty”
Hollywood’s glamour is mostly confined to its hillsides, whose winding, narrow streets are lined with forbidding security gates, smooth, high walls free of foot- and hand-holds, and dense, verdant shrubbery. The real Hollywood–the Hollywood full of smoke shops, no-tell motels, and feathered boas–is in the flatlands. Craftsman homes sit between elegant Spanish-style condos and rectangular apartment complexes with ugly metal facades; Mexicans live next to Armenians who live next to Guatemalans who live next to Thai; mini-malls have check cashing spots, all-night donuts, and liquor stores that sell pints with scorpions inside. My stance on Hollywood: The Big Lebowski is the film that best captures its spiraling weirdness.
Shoreline Mafia are from the real Hollywood. And, in appropriately Hollywood fashion, their first hit was the result of some low-level griminess: using an MP3 converter, founding duo Fenix and Ohgeesy downloaded an instrumental from producer RonRon’s Soundcloud. The result was “Musty,” a celebration of purple lean, pink Percocets, and black firearms that helped catapult the group from small-time graffiti scene notoriety to a spot on the Rolling Loud lineup. With the aid of RonRon’s hammering, sparse instrumentals–and his permission to use them–this year’s ShorelineDoDatShit solidified the group’s role in an ascendant L.A. rap scene. They’re the Stinc Team for kids who rack spray paint, the Odd Future for kids who ditch class to pop pills. — TORII MACADAMS
39. Quelle Chris – “Calm Before (Feat. Cavalier & Suzi Analogue)”
It’s no coincidence that Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often is both Quelle Chris’ best, and his most inward-facing record to date. Even as his career continues to blossom, Quelle’s artistic trajectory has been less of an explosion than a coalescence. With each subsequent LP, the Detroit rapper/producer has reeled in the radius of his attention span—whittling away at the observational bars of earlier releases in favor of ever-deepening introspection—until, by his 2017 effort, that radius is not much longer than the extension of Quelle’s own arm. But this is neither myopia, nor a retreat from a confounding world. It’s a rapper doing what a shrink would call “The Emotional Work”—cultivating one’s relationship to his or herself, forging an inner confidence that nothing external can strip away.
If tracks like “Buddies,” and “Birthday,” are the kilns of Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, in which self-acceptance, self-exploration, self-hatred and self-affirmation melt to form the armor of Quelle’s identity, “Calm Before,” is the satisfying hiss of metal quenched in cool water. It’s the album’s understated and beautiful pivot point, where Quelle brings himself out into the world, testing fruits of his mental smithing. Produced by Q himself, the beat is an aural yin yang glyph. Staccato, treble-heavy percussion exists in harmony with rich and ponderous keys, mimicking the emotional balance the lyrics extol. A “private reserve,” of inner-calm allows both compliments and disappoints to roll off of Quelle as effortlessly as his rhymes dance over the production. Fellow-rapper Cavalier echoes these sentiments in his excellent feature, delivering the thesis for an album in which the road to happiness starts with a journey of inward refinement: “If you wanna see it full, gotta show up with your cup.” — BEN GRENROCK
38. Peewee Longway – “Rerocc”
Everyone learned to cut their crack this year, even white Soundcloud rappers who wouldn’t know creatine from acetone. It was a grotesque and cynical trend (what wasn’t grotesque and cynical in 2017?) started by this song, but who can blame rappers for trying to be as cool as Peewee Longway?
For Peewee, re-rocking crack and sipping Wockhardt isn’t a trend, it’s just another day in the world of a mid-major rapper taking drugs, shutting down clubs, and trying his best to finalize a divorce from the streets. The man who brought us Young Thug recorded this to bring you there and succeeded, more than he even intended to. The song sounds bored, not in a playful way, but in its unflappable demeanor. He’s so deep in the spectacle of Atlanta’s flashing cameras and ‘stendos that nothing excites him anymore—not even making the most believable trap hit of the last year. — LUCAS FOSTER
37. Chris $pencer – “Shark Wrestling”
The superb tandem of Chris Crack and Vic Spencer works because although their very different personalities shine in their work as a duo, they’re cut from the same cloth. Whether Wallabees or Jordans are on their feet, their rhymes burst at the seams with a thought, a reference, a turn of phrase which inspires a deep dive. Over a beat that sounds like Rainbow Road on weed time or if Bikini Bottom had a smoker’s lounge, Spencer and Crack pack their verses tighter than a gram of weed inside of a Swisher. Riding bears through the woods, the memory of Sean Price, thrift store shopping in the middle of a crowd of women, captaining ships without training, Street Fighter, MF DOOM, Faizon Love, rappers who stay in the house, stealing Black & Milds from the store (“The bitches thought we was getting high, they hypnotized”). On songs like “Shark Wrestling,” the Chicago-bred antiheroes stay the course with their modus operandi — the plainspoken density of their verses — consistently proving they’re two of rap’s top-shelf writers. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
36. FrostyDaSnowMann – “Oh My Gawd”
I am writing this in bed on Christmas day while suffering from the flu. Perhaps this is the Nyquil talking, but I imagine Inglewood’s FrostyDaSnowmann spending his Christmas a bit differently, likely taking part in one or all of the following: thumbing through hundred dollar bills, dressing head-to-toe in something lavish, and shouting “Gurb Nation” at every opportunity.
At least, this is the picture he paints on “Oh My Gawd (OMG),” one of the best singles from his 2017 tape Xtraordinary. On it, Frosty’s flow is so in command that it sounds like he’s lyrically dancing over the drum loop, filling each pocket with his nasally delivery. It’s fitting, considering the song’s structure meets his formula for simplicity: a hypnotic keyboard melody that runs uninterrupted from beginning to end, 8-bar verses that get straight to the point, and a frighteningly catchy hook in the center. This all seems a modest complement to Frosty’s unapologetically boastful lyrics, where he celebrates his penchant for fashion, women, money, and weed. Which, if you really think about it, is probably the truest essence of the holiday spirit. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE
35. Playboi Carti – “Magnolia”
Rappers getting by on some mixture of sonics and charisma alone isn’t a new phenomenon, but on his breakout hit, Playboi Carti took that concept to what I can only imagine is its logical conclusion in 2017. Carti ostensibly raps about hiding drugs in his sock, selling said drugs and Milly-Rocking in New York right before embarking on a shootout, but most listeners would be hard pressed to identify any cogent thoughts beyond the ones in the hook.
That said, focusing on what Playboi Carti says or doesn’t say on “Magnolia” defeats the point of listening to any of his music at all. The man has a formula based on minimalism, charisma, and in “Magnolia’s” case, Pierre Bourne’s sprightly video game soundtrack masquerading as a trap rap production. As a matter of fact, for a certain kind of rap fan, there’s more substance in Pierre Bourne’s producer tag from the beginning of the song than Carti’s vocals, but again, that isn’t really the point.
As best as this listener can tell, the point of “Magnolia” was inadvertently capturing the zeitgeist in an era in which minimalist nothingness stands on near-equal footing with dense thought. In other words, there’s no point to “Magnolia” beyond the shared joy millions of rap fans derived from non-expressions of a new rap star while mindlessly Milly-Rockin’. Sometimes, that’s more than enough and “Magnolia” was one of those times. — MOBB DEEN
34. Young Dolph – “100 Shots”
Young Dolph almost died twice in 2017. The first time, in February, someone fired at his vehicle more than 100 times while he was on tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unscathed, he performed onstage as planned that night. In September, Dolph ended up in a Los Angeles hospital with “multiple wounds” after someone shot him in broad daylight on Hollywood Blvd. He emerged healthy and a few weeks later released Thinking Out Loud, his fourth album of the year.
“100 Shots,” the lead single from Bulletproof, Dolph’s appropriately-titled mixtape recorded after the February shooting, is the song that best sums up his prolific 2017. Aside from the hook, which is, “How the fuck you miss a whole 100 shots?”, the song, like Thinking Out Loud later, barely references Dolph’s near-death experience. It’s another ode to Dolph’s favorite subjects—money, girls, drugs, and getting money—instead. When asked if he knows who fired those 100 shots, Dolph has said, “I got no clue. I really don’t even give a damn.” “100 Shots” shows Dolph fearless in the face of death, but not overthinking it too much, and just making another hit for us to enjoy instead. — WILL HAGLE
33.Action Bronson – “Chop Chop Chop”
Over the past half a decade, the cult of personality that is Action Bronson has afforded the Queens native transcendence beyond esoteric East Coast rap, and many of his best-known songs are built around a combination of skill and larger than life charisma to the point where you’re bludgeoned with his blunt force presence. Though this approach has made him a star, what makes him a stellar rap artist is the variety of moods he displays in his work. Case in point: The vibe-heavy but evocative “Chop Chop Chop,” a midnight ride through the city soundtracked by a bluesy Daringer beat (arguably his best since “Rex Ryan” and his standouts on Flygod). Bronson gets in a moody sixteen, noting being devastated by things undisclosed here, being on a wave “those dudes from The Endless Summer” could only dream of, comparing his nasal cavity to that of Daryl Strawberry. Bronson doesn’t overpower the beat with his inimitable character, he reaches inside of himself and lets it flow, creating a song perfect for rims which slice through the air as efficiently kitchen knives through a tomato. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
32.Tyson Crookmind – “Keep It Cherry (Feat. Joe Moses)”
Unless they’re Dee Dee Ramone, people don’t release their first rap song in their mid-30’s. Tyson Crookmind isn’t most people. Imprisoned on robbery and kidnapping charges at 18, the South Central rapper spent the next 16 years in California penitentiaries. After a purifying breakdown in solitary confinement, Crookmind found a renewed sense of purpose, reading voraciously and preparing for his eventual release. And, in 2015, it happened: the Blood who’d survived prison, who’d missed his father’s funeral, set foot in the 21st century.
Crookmind and Joe Moses’ “Keep It Cherry” is excellent–and its excellence defies every rap industry dictate. It’s like someone wandering into an N.B.A. game and catching an alley-oop, or a passenger executing an emergency landing of a commercial airliner, or an openly racist real estate mogul winning the presidency. It’s Hustle & Flow meets Blood In Blood Out, a combination too melodramatic, too unbelievable.
Still, while Crookmind’s music is a delight, it’s a delight with an indelible filigree of tragedy. What could’ve been a decade-and-a-half of art was a decade-and-a-half of hiding shanks in his cell, prison yard workouts, and watching each delicate California sunset grace an accelerating world beyond his concertina wire fiefdom. His is a life hard-lived, and his freedom is a freedom hard-earned. — TORII MACADAMS
31. Chief Keef – “Can You Be My Friend”
The defining characteristic of Chief Keef’s artistry is that it answers to no one. By the time he was 18, Keef had scored a handful of hits and a legion of fans and punched his ticket out—of Chicago, of traditional label deals, of any discernible commercial strategy beyond making exactly the music that he wanted. That’s what made “Can You Be My Friend’s” full embrace of pop so surprising: Keef’s crossover appeal has always seemed somewhat incidental to his natural creative urges, and such a head-on turn into 2017’s Caribbean influences du jour couldn’t possibly have been anticipated. It goes without saying that he killed it, and also that he promptly moved on.
The downside of Keef’s unpredictability is that no new sound is ever dwelled upon for long, no matter the potential; resisting blanket description, his style is instead the sum of its experiments. Beholden to no one, dancehall Keef came out of nowhere—how could we possibly expect to convince him to stay? In that sense, “Can You Be My Friend” is quintessential Chief Keef, just one waypoint of many along the man’s journey through every assemblage of sounds imaginable. The track is a friendly reminder that he hasn’t lost his way, and that—should it interest him—he could conquer the world of more conventional rap stardom tomorrow. — CORRIGAN BLANCHFIELD
30. JAY-Z – “The Story of O.J.”
The thing about 4:44 is that the narrator is unreliable. Jay overcame abject poverty and Reagan and etc. with transcendent talent, sure, but also with unreplicable luck: you run the simulation a hundred times, and in ninety-nine lives the series of Jaz deals and near-misses with bullets and Turnpike police simply don’t line up like this. That’s not how Jay sees it. And so he says things like “Blood diamonds dripping with guilt, I ain’t trippin / That’s life: winners and losers” and grins and guzzles unpronounceable champagne and gestures at black economic nationalism and buys paintings that Blue can point to lazily while she shows her college friends to the seven guest rooms they can choose from.
For most of the album, Jay’s successful navigation of capitalism is allowed to order the world. (Even the diaristic title track is paid off by “Family Feud,” where he and Bey revel in their net worth.) “The Story of O.J.” is about the frayed edges of that worldview. It’s also the album’s sharpest performance: his quipped “Okay” for Simpson is the middle-aged version of “look at him––still sleeping;” No I.D. chops Nina Simone beautifully, and Jay ambles through the beat in a hard-bottomed redux of the acrobatic late-’90s stuff. And that hook is the sort of succinct magic that’s so often seemed just out of reach for him this decade.
It’s easy to roll your eyes when Jay exhorts rappers to stop buying coupes and going to strip clubs so they can buy drap office buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods, or when he underscores his point with “I mean, look at the Jews.” But the song doesn’t need to work as a compelling self-help seminar, or even really as a treatise on American racism. It’s the first half of a therapy session, the time when your id pokes through. He gasps—”financial freedom my only hope—”and you believe him, i.e., you believe that he really believes that. And maybe, in his way, he’s right. That’s not the point. — PAUL THOMPSON
29. G Perico – “All Blue”
Rap’s regionalism is a source of bleeding pride for many. Few artists arise who, in spite of being fully developed themselves, continue to improve their craft through substantial releases. L.A.’s G Perico brings you to his neck of the woods, likening itself similar to the immersive tales from guys like Ice Cube and DJ Quik.
As one of L.A.’s most prominent new street rappers, G Perico renders steady praise from authenticity purists; the same listeners who may also be singing the praises of artists like Traffic, 03 Greedo, or F.T. Hop Out. But calling Perico the blue YG feels trite at this point. Since his 2016 breakout project, Shit Don’t Stop, Perico’s narratives have only sharpened in their chilling details. On “All Blue,” the title track from his 2017 album, Perico provides a field manual for survival in the Broadway Gangster Crip turf around 111th and San Pedro. Like “6 ‘n the Mornin’” or “Boyz N The Hood,” this South Central saga starts in the A.M. The single opens as a typical morning for Perico as he makes his way down the back alley, shaking up with homies and always avoiding perils.
Perico isn’t cagey about providing the relevant minutia of the section of South Central he hails from. It’s the same area where “a nice sunny blue day can change in the blink of an eye,” as a message reads in the first shot of the visual. The lure of spoils and the smell of danger constantly mesh in the air. Turkish links and a Glock 40 are imperative to leaving the house. What shouldn’t go ignored are the episodes of brute defiance, like the night Perico got shot below the hip and still managed to perform at The Roxy despite blood dripping down his leg. Or, that even after various unwarranted raids from police, Perico continues to own and operate his own store, So Way Out, located on South Broadway.
“All Blue” closes with a cacophony of block banter, complete with the sort of sneak dissing followed by ass kissing that stems from jealousy. It’s telling of Perico’s experience with this sort of malice that further prods at the problems that come for someone who achieves success against the odds. While L.A. has arguably the richest history of gangster rap, G Perico is the refreshing voice of an underdog that doesn’t miss in an otherwise oversaturated genre. — EVAN GABRIEL
28. Sahbabii – “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick (Feat. Loso Loaded)”
I hated “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” for a long time. To me, it represented the worst attributes of post-Young Thug Soundloud rap. The production is sugary and playful like a Saturday Morning Cartoon and the song feels like bait made by someone desperate for a hit.
The thing about a great song though: it sinks its teeth into you and doesn’t let go. I might’ve heard the song 20 times before I realized I loved it. And “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” is a good song, don’t let anyone lie to you and say differently. It’s bounciness infected me and SahBabii’s delicate melody rap and bird noises were just as infectious. “Thought she was dancin’ on the dick, that’s the clip” might be one of the best lines of the year. This song about murder and gang ties couldn’t sound any more like a candy store; it is kinda amazing to witness. Sahbabii’s cutesy “throwaway” record undersells itself for the formulaic radio and club recipe that’s an A&R’s wet dream. And you know what, that’s okay because the reason a formula exists is because it is shown to work and is that not commendable on its own merits?
The wrap on SahBabii as C-grade Young Thug, isn’t totally out of bounds but it does miss an opportunity to explore what happens when a rapper uses Thug’s strangeness and sing-song machinations to crank out calculated, overworked and labored pop songs instead of indulging Thug’s constant need to freestyle and break off into abstract art creation for the sake of his genius. Sometimes all you want is a good song. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
27. Freddie Gibbs – “20 Karat Jesus”
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Freddie Gibbs correctly surmised his artistic appeal: “I don’t think nobody wanna hear to talk about how great you are all day. I think you have to show those flaws, insecurities, things of that nature. You gotta be a fucking human being.” Beside him his wife Erica holds his daughter Irie as she picks away at avocado rolls.
The best part of Freddie Gibbs—the pusherman cum vanguard Indianan who makes a strong case for most proficient pure rapper of his generation—is his Snapchat. Since her birth, Gibbs’s account has provided a heart rendering catalogue of Irie’s toddler years. This summer, Gibbs and Irie were separated by an ocean, two foreign jail cells, +50k bail, and a wrongful sexual assault case.
“20 Karat Jesus” feels like both bookends to Freddie’s trial. The first half is the labored, redemptive underbelly of his former day job; the latter a symphonic, OJ Da Juiceman-quoting triumph rapped with unmatched ferocity. Gibbs, whose flow defies signature, sounds gnarled from his pan-Atlantic ordeal. He raps desperately, like a new father detained from his daughter should. I could listen to him transcendently self-congratulate for days; few MC’s can tear through a beat with commensurate breakneck precision. But the 20 Karat Jesus has higher concerns. Why cook real good dope when you can chef up that boysenberry crème brûlée? — THOMAS JOHNSON
26. Shabazz Palaces – “Shine a Light”
Shabazz Palaces fully own their lane: they’re one of the only rap groups on Sub Pop and have always sounded like it. For their opening salvo of 2017 however, they make a welcome swerve towards reconciling their avant-guard leanings with accessibility, as “Shine a Light” substitutes noise-caked synth workouts for soulful strings and uplifting hooks. Of course, this being Shabazz, the results are still more Drexcya than Rocafella, with the words sounding beamed in from 20,000 leagues under the sea and the sample bleached within an inch of its life. “Shine a Light’s” two steps forward and one step back from the mainstream was never going to be a real radio gambit, but it’s a reminder that keeping an eye on pop never hurts. — SON RAW
25. Valee – “Shell”
There aren’t many interviews with Valee Taylor, nor is there an exhaustive body of music for the 28 year old Chicago rapper. What exists however, are seemingly unrelated strands he touches on in his music that come together to create an iconoclastic intrigue. Valee was born in ’88 and came up on a diet of Project Pat and Kanye. His largest single to date, “Shell,” is a simple and instantly appealing track about finding his way out of high end designer stores and into a gas station (Shell); in Margiela shoes but out of Swishers.
Initially released in October of 2016, “Shell” was included on Valee’s April 2017 project 1988, which is a variation of trap commingled with the popular gangsta rap sounds from his birth year. It is the familiar meshing with the current in hopes to produce the future. His flow is something you can’t place, but it’s inviting; traipsing on the edge of “I’ve heard this” and “What in the hell is this??!” He is giving his next album to G.O.O.D. music for release. He had to eat…Fuck it. — ALLEN POE
24. Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow”
My coworker Mely is one of the sweetest people I know. Mely’s desk is directly across from mine, so I’m privy to all of the happenings in her life, from the last time her dog Luna went to the bathroom to her constant indecision over what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I thought that, after six months and countless forty-hour work weeks spent together, it was safe to say that I had a good grasp on who she was. But things changed one day. The day that Cardi B came on over the loudspeakers and I looked up from my laptop to see the vision of innocence lost. Right then and there, Cardi B was saying “little bitch” and so was Mely, arms flung outwards ready for a fight, face scrunched into a whole new breed of modern day mean mug. From that moment on, her sweet disposition shifted, and she, like anyone else who’d heard even those first few seconds of “Bodak Yellow,” became wholly intoxicated by the beast that is Cardi B.
“Bodak Yellow” was suddenly everywhere, spreading like a virus, and before anyone could do anything about it, Ms. B had already slid into her red bottoms and made her bloody moves to the top. Women were gleefully corrupted. Men were scared shitless. And “Bodak Yellow,” initially inspired by Kodak Black’s flow on “No Flockin,” had become something of an off-kilter feminist rapture or patriarchal apocalypse.
B, a Bronx, NY-bred Trinidadian-Dominicana whose career had taken her from stripper to social media personality, from VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: New York favorite to chart-topping, Atlantic Records-signed rapper (she was the first solo female to have a rap song reach number one on the Billboard 100 since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” in 1998), had now earned herself a place in history—and, not to mention, a ring from Migos rapper Offset.
Despite being an unconventional mainstream hit, “Bodak Yellow” went on to earn nominations for the 2017 BET Awards’ Best New Artist and Best Female Hip-hop Artist, Grammy 2018 nominations for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, and change popular culture and my office space as I once knew it. The streets would never be the same, and neither would Mely. — PALEY MARTIN
23. SOB x RBE – “I Could Never (Feat. Drakeo The Ruler)
Mr. Big Bank Budda, The Stinkmeaner, The Head-Bopper, The Spring Cleaner, Mr. Pops On My Knots, The Foreign Whip Crasher, Mr. Get Dough, Mr. Everything–Drakeo The Ruler by any other name is Los Angeles’ most original gangster rapper since Suga Free. Like those of the permed Pomona pimp, every Drakeo verse is an atomized universe created by an eccentric god. He’s a man of boundless temerity–he repeatedly live Instagrammed during his 2017 county jail stint–and boundless vocabulary–his enemies are dismissed as “silly billies,” his extended clips are “Shanaynays,” and his stacks of money are “uchies,” “chili boba,” or, I think, “bald-head Caillous.”
With Slimmy B and Yhung T.O., of SOB x RBE, the man of many monikers made the irresistible “I Could Never.” Released during Drakeo’s incarceration, it’s an uncut loosie–there’s no chorus, no super-producer, and it wasn’t included on Yhung T.O.’s Before The Fame EP, Slimmy B’s Problem Child, or Drakeo’s recent Cold Devil. Still, there’s a humming, crackling electricity between two of the Bay’s ascendant goonies and L.A.’s new slanguage maven; while Drakeo and T.O. are silken–the latter sing-raps in baritone–Slimmy B lisps bitter-ass invective: “I don’t fuck with niggas like a redneck/Catch an opp slipping, flip his whip like a Tech Deck.” This is intra-California cultural exchange: the Vallejo boys rap over post-Mustard beats and Drakeo’s E-40-like gift for lingo is at home in Vallejo’s Hillside or Country Club Crest. — TORII MACADAMS
22. Mike WiLL Made-It – “Gucci On My (Feat. 21 Savage, YG, and Migos)
When I interviewed Mike Will Made-It in April, he was elated to talk about Ransom 2, his first official studio album (and the sequel to his 2014 mixtape Ransom). Unfortunately (but understandably), my editors asked that I center the discussion around the trio of beats he’d crafted for DAMN. If I interview him again, I’ll spend the majority of the time discussing “Gucci On My,” the best song on Ransom 2 and 2017’s best song exalting rap’s favorite Italian designer (sorry I’m not sorry, Lil Pump).
Like many excellent Mike beats (e.g., “Bandz a Make Her Dance”), “Gucci on My” weds the luxurious and the ominous, the sexy and the seedy. Beneath a sparse, glinting melody, water drips from a grotto somewhere on an Atlanta estate. Both are bolstered by foundation-cracking low-end and crisp, clipping hi-hats. This is the sound of VIP at Magic City, and I’d listen to it sans vocals. That said, the track wouldn’t feel complete without 21 Savage’s dead-eyed rasp, YG’s exaggerated west-coast drawl, and the three wise Migos delivering distinct yet equally captivating verses. Only Mike Will could gather a starting-five of this caliber, and only for Mike Will would that feat feel like a minor achievement. I’m almost positive he was wearing Gucci glasses when we met. — MAX BELL
21. Meek Mill – “We Ball (Feat. Young Thug)
Wins & Losses is a very good rap album in a year full of very good rap albums. It was easy to lose track of Meek’s latest LP during the weekly deluge of quality releases. Part of this had to do with the songs that were chosen to raise awareness of the general public.
“Whatever You Need” is perfectly anodyne. It rolled off the same Ty Dolla $ign/Chris Brown assembly line that many major label rappers rely upon for radio airplay. “Glow Up” is a classic Meek banger that sounds like the natural progression from “House Party” and “Tupac Back.” It didn’t seem to strike the same chord with the general public.
The well worn Al Green sample on “Young Black America” provided the backdrop for some of the sharpest rapping on a project full of sharp rapping. And yet, “We Ball” is the true crown jewel of Wins & Losses. Meek’s melodic delivery serves as a momentary and (well earned) break from the staccato bursts that tend to punctuate his relatable open wound venting.
“Backboard,” “Homie,” and “Offended” are prime examples of Thug and Meek’s chemistry at work. On “We Ball,” Thug’s innate shapeshifting ability is what allows the collaboration to become more than the sum of its already considerable parts. The background harmonizing is the sort of flourish that isn’t immediately noticeable until the melody rattles around your brain days later.
This is the type of song that slips through the cracks in the moment and becomes a cult classic. Let’s just hope we still have social media by the time everyone else comes around. Until then? Fuck it, we ball. — HAROLD BINGO
20. C Struggs – “Go To Jesus”
I could say that C Struggs’ gospel-infused, chipmunk souled-out “Go To Jesus” is the kind of song that could tempt me into being a believer. But that wouldn’t just be trite, it’d be untrue. There’s no channeling of the supernatural in the Texan’s gruff larynx, no direct line to a higher power. He might be reaching out to another spiritual plane, but this is the kind of song that encapsulates this doomed, distressing thing we can life. A sincere, open-book depiction of the everyday desperation that makes good folks hoping for a better existence seek out a presence their five senses can’t detect.
On the cusp of 30, an age when you start to realize it’s not all in front of you anymore, Struggs puts his life through a lens, laying out the struggle of growing up in poverty, living under the specter of a violent death, and the chasm in his relationship with his mother. “I wonder why she act like that, man, I don’t know this lady”, he sighs in what must be rap’s most moving depiction of the complications that can exist between a son and his mom since 50 Cent admitted being a young boy confused by his mother’s romances with other women.” That so much weariness is embedded Struggs’ husky voice makes the song all the more empathetic.
I’ll never hang a cross on my wall, but I might frame a C Struggs quote. “Go To Jesus” is what happens when hundreds of preachers’ sermons are cut with real life. It’s a solemn hymn that has to find the lows of this man’s existence to give him renewed hope. And in doing so, offers a sermon we could all do with in our lives. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN
19. OMB Peezy – “Lay Down”
In December of 2015, OMB Peezy, the young California-based, Alabama-bred rapper, posted a screenshot of his meager Soundcloud plays with the caption: “I jus want da top. Bn at da bottom too long.” About a year later, Peezy dropped the surging, snarling “Lay Down,” and it cracked the world open like an egg. Within a few months, he’d get a shout out on Twitter from Wiz Khalifa, become fast friends with Nef the Pharaoh, and be the freshest name on E-40’s Sick Wid It roster.
“Lay Down” is the kind of song that could only be made by a Southerner living in the Bay Area. With its clean piano riff laced over the top of a bombastic bass line, the beat sounds like something from two decades ago, a song you might hear bombing out of a ’94 Buick Skylark in Richmond, CA, right after Brotha Lynch Hung’s “Rest in Piss” but before Mac Mall’s “Ghetto Theme.”
The song is a real chest-beater, a feather-strutter, a song you play when you need to pump yourself up for a fight, or, in my case, a trip to Trader Joe’s on a Tuesday evening. But what makes this song isn’t its retro beat, or even its bravado. It’s Peezy’s unique flow, which combines the venom of Lil Boosie and the slickness of BG. “Lay Down” marks the beginning of a promising career for the Southern Transplant. Peezy may not have the top yet, but he’s on his way. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN
18. Kodak Black – “Codeine Dreaming (Feat. Lil Wayne)
“Codeine Dreaming” is hypnotic intergalactica from real-life extraterrestrials, a brain-frying anthem from two guys with certifiably deep-fried cortexes, four-and-a-half minutes of space puns. In one corner we have Kodak, the Florida Teen who somehow managed to fuse 2Pac’s stoic fatalism with the majestic brain farts of Gucci Mane. In the other corner stands tragic hero Weezy, resurfacing to extol the virtues of mind alteration in what might optimistically be seen as a baton-passing moment between Weezy F. Baby and Project Baby.
While separated by fifteen years and about three generations of Gulf Coast rap, there’s an uncanny likeness in the rappers’ timbre and pronunciation; the drums simmer pretty firmly in Carter III territory. Like virtually all of Kodak’s output from the glorious fourteen months spanning Lil B.I.G. Pac through Project Baby 2, it’s more complex than it initially seems, a grown man playing with child’s toys or vice versa. It is, as they say, a bop. — PETE TOSIELLO
17. Vince Staples – “Big Fish”
Vince Staples isn’t an emblem. He’s not a gangster gone good, a story of rags to riches. He’s not reformed, he’s not stuck between the corner and the recording booth. In a pursuit to shape Vince’s rise into something teachable, tellable, and marketable—Summertime ’06 is extremely susceptible to armchair philosophizing and analyzing—we kind of forgot what got Vince Staples to this level of stardom to begin with: he’s a world class songwriter, a novelist with an otherworldly sense for melody, not paragraph breaks. In this sense, “Big Fish” and Big Fish Theory is a blatant and obvious correction; Vince poking and prodding at the critical masses ready to anoint him the woke leader of rap music. That Juicy J’s “I was up late night ballin'” chorus still works—bangs, in fact—is a testament to Vince’s peerless skill as a wordsmith, no matter what, where, or who he’s rapping about.
Big Fish Theory’s is a manifestation of Vince’s stubbornness. He refuses to be boxed into rap’s world, and as a result embraced UK club, jungle, and dance music to help usher in an altered sonic identity. This sort of shift is often intriguing—especially because Vince’s rapping is as stellar as ever—but the music he’s picked to rap over isn’t always engaging. The beats can’t keep up with his words. “Big Fish” is the logical counterpoint to this argument.
It’s no surprise that “Big Fish” is the first single from Big Fish Theory. It’s like Lupe Fiasco’s “Dumb It Down” told cleverly enough that the listener doesn’t feel like a bookworm with a hammer smashed their forehead in. It’s a subversion of everything we thought Vince was. The bass is thumping—equal parts bottle service and g-funk lowriding—and Vince is both perceptive and playful as a lyricist. He raps, “Took the smart route, never been marked out/ Shoulda been dead broke, shoulda been chalked out/ But it didn’t happen, now it’s time to get it cracking.” With “Big Fish,” Vince Staples has moved on from whatever he’s been made to represent. It’s about time we did the same. — WILL SCHUBE
16. Rae Sremmurd – “Perplexing Pegasus”
What is a perplexing Pegasus anyway? The “Pegasus” is probably an exotic car with winged doors, something that is perplexing in its own right. The perplexing Pegasus could be the concept of stardom and how it is a complex mythological beast in itself. Or, Swae and Jxmmi could have recently watched Hercules and were in awe of the Pegasus, so they worked out their revelations through song.
It’s mostly about the cars and fame, but “Perplexing Pegasus” features hard-hitting Mike Will bass that feels like a Herculean beast. It’s the only Rae Sremmurd single released this year, and without the back-and-forth of Swae and Jxmmi at least once in 2017 I’d be on Elon Musk’s rocket to Mars since nothing on this planet would make sense anymore.
This is truly a Rae Sremmurd song, in that it has fueled more college parties than Four Loko, but also because the subtle flexing is more impressive than the blatant boasts. Average heighted vehicles aren’t worth the mention, forcing Swae to rap about lowering his Aston Martin and putting a lift kit on the G-Wagon. Not to be outdone, Jxmmi makes a fucking Major Payne reference before yawping about putting his name on his chain so people quit misspelling it. It’s beautiful.
Allegedly 2 Chainz had a verse on the song before it was released, but we did without. With SremmLife 3 announced for January, this is the song to hold us over. “Perplexing Pegasus” is the Rae Sremmurd song made for flashy brags and Greco-Roman fantasies. It’s the one to remind us that their music isn’t human, and neither are they. — ETHAN DAVENPORT
15. Tee Grizzley – “First Day Out”
Like the Diwali Riddim craze that spawned three smashes with identical drums (Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” Lumidee’s “Never Leave You,” Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go”), “First Day Out” picks up the baton on the somber, three-piano-chord-plus-ellipsis substrate that Future crafted into the captivating “Perkys Calling” and 6LACK flipped into “Ex Calling” last year. By the time producer Helluva interpolated it last winter, we were Pavlovian primed for the sound.
Recorded the day he was released from a three-year prison sentence, the previously anonymous Tee Grizzley slots into the recent canon of post-penitentiary ‘First Day Out’ opuses, from Guwop’s in ‘09 through Jimmy Wopo’s this summer. Lebron growled along to it while chronicling his post-NBA-’ship-loss workout as Tee’s star rose, signing to 300, dropping bangers with Lil Yachty, touring with 21 Savage.
All these narrative benchmarks, of course, don’t mean shit if the song doesn’t slap.
Grizzley’s true crime tale cascades out of his baby-faced grill, soft chords swelling into a neck-snapping, hookless tirade as Three 6 Mafia-esque saws and 808s combust over urgent synth arpeggios.
His flow expands and buckles, jam-packing bars with raw, cellblock-scrawled lyrics. As fellow POWer Paul Thompson wrote in the Pitchfork review, it’s deeply personal “to the point where quoting its lyrics feels invasive.” But despite the searing specificity, the end product ends up supremely yellable—you don’t have to be a recently paroled Detroiter to bellow “JOY ROAD, BITCH, BUT THE MONEY LONG AS SIX MILE” with abandon at the beat drop. — LAWRENCE NEIL
14. Nef The Pharaoh – “Bling Blaow (Feat. Slimmy B)”
Nef The Pharoah makes the kind of funky street rap that could make his regional forefathers get up to thizzle dance. This is the Vallejo, California of Mac Mall, E-40, and the late Mac Dre—popping beats, unalloyed self-assurance, and madcap hustlerdoms. Neffy’s swaggering superpowers are fully unleashed on “Bling Blaow,” a playalistic ode to his majestic collection of jewels. There’s a solid assist from Slimmy B, who knows better than to ride around in a Honda Civic when you’ve got diamonds in every color of the gecko. But there’s no doubt who is the star here.
In a burst of pure confidence, Neffy compares his chain to the ice that sunk the Titanic, questions the cut of his rivals’ gems, and drops world class braggadocio one-liners like, “Chang the barber, bitch, I cut every line.” This is music for curb strutting—exhibit A on why Neffy has become the Bay Area’s posturer supreme. In a year when Lil B’s retro revivalism was on-point—his swaggering opus Black Ken beautifully distilling 30 years of west coast rap history—Nef The Pharoah was out there sounding like the heir apparent. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN
13. Future – “Mask Off”
The sad robot owes his biggest song to a woodwind call and response melody, not klaxon keyboards. Digital detritus and synthetic drugs marked his descent into narcotic malaise and, sealing the Faustian pact, ushered him into the pantheon of rockstars. Three years after the opus that first showed us the monster, he emerges gleaming in 33 chains. The song suits any hour of triumph, its power free to wield. You graft its motivational paean to your mundane adversities. Small wonder that it permeated life like an ancient pathogen. Mere catchiness can’t do that. This is succor you can stream to your phone. The author’s catalog of misery gives gravity to the whiplash tonal shift and analog instrumentation feint. Maybe this hymnal flute alights on his redemption.
Not so fast. Imagine the Scarface “Push It to the Limit” montage except our hero knows what the drugs are doing to him. Are they the accoutrements of a kingpin lifestyle, riding shotgun in the coupe down Biscayne Boulevard? A brutal and explicit self-awareness rare among pop stars keeps him from mentioning gaudy luxuries without the substances he needs to enjoy them. His greatest chart success—the brightest jewel in his crown—offers an injection of heady audacity, not absolution. Even in his call to arms, the woebegone crooner doesn’t wear a mask. — EVAN NABAVIAN
12. Boosie Badazz – “Webbie I Remember”
Consider the odyssey of Boosie: born into poverty in Southside Baton Rouge, the wrong side of Garfield, across the tracks, where everyone knows what happened that night on the levee. As Torrence Hatch enters his teens, the streets snatch away his father. Channeling ceaseless nuclear pain, he procures some bricks, a pistol, and a notebook. Sets it off. Weathering the downfall of his first mentor, C-Loc, he signs to Trill Entertainment under the erroneous belief that it belonged to Pimp C. In a half-decade, he’s the 2Pac of the new South, a stress-racked nerve bundle of insane rage, profane joy, and undeniable talent. At the height of his powers, a vengeful district attorney and racist criminal justice system indict him on murder charges, ship him to Angola’s Death Row, and tack an extra eight years onto his sentence for attempting to smuggle in ecstasy and codeine.
By divine miracle and masterful attorneys, Boosie beats the case and becomes the first dead man walking who lives to rap his story. Almost immediately, cancer threatens to finish the job that a thousand strapped enemies couldn’t. But conventional weapons or bodily reprisal cannot kill Boosie. He is our Job, if God sought to punish him for “They Dykin.” There are those who believe that Boosie fell off, but as long as he can write a song like “Webbie I Remember,” he’ll eternally be one of the most crucial voices croaking, a conduit for sorrow and celebration, an inflamed vessel for emotion capable of transporting you from heaven to hell in two bars.
Maybe you first saw the acappella on Instagram. Boosie, barely 35, with forehead wrinkles indented like death valleys, drooping eye pouches that made him seem as ancient as Mississippi mud. Memorializing Webbie, his kinfolk from Ghetto Stories, the 2003 classic that anointed them the Pimp and Bun of their generation. Paired together on the hunch of Trill’s CEOs, hailing from different hoods, serendipitously bonded together to squabble like brothers and rap like trauma haunted Gods.
Over a reimagined “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” piano line, “Webbie I Remember” chronicles their story, the E pills and Henny, the coded inside memories of wars in Baltimore and at home in the bottom, the endless nights worrying about their moms, tangled nostalgia of being young, skinny, and fucked up in the head. Walking through the mall heavily armed just in case, because this is BR where you can get jacked at any time. It’s that moment where Boosie tells Webbie about going to the can and Webbie lacks the vocabulary to properly respond, but Boosie intuitively, brotherly, grasps the depth of his feeling through a hug and handshake. This is the source of Boosie’s power—the mystical communion of strength and obscene feeling. Alluvial blues, the rage of the systematically oppressed, and the indomitable strength to transcend. The drums don’t need to drop.
This is why Post Malone’s comments enraged everyone earlier this year. If you can’t feel the struggle, you must’ve been dragged to the bottom of the river. This is that pain music, the wounded fury that could make a killer cry, a requiem for the glories of the past, and the faint hope that maybe it can be rekindled. — JEFF WEISS
11. Tay-K – “The Race”
Blame the breakdown of morality, the nihilism of modern youth, the cold thirst of social media, the white supremacist demagogue, a corrupt system, and sensationalizing vultures exploiting corpses for clicks. Blame guns, drugs, gangs, late Capitalism, and any ailment that feels accurate. They’re all bullet holes in a carcass that somehow keeps having nightmares. But the saga of Tay-K is as old as the outlaw myth.
You can be horrified by the lurid attention bestowed on an alleged murderer or the gruesome callousness of the double killings that the state of Texas pins on 17-year old, Taymor McIntyre—not to ignore the senior citizen that he supposedly robbed and beat as a fugitive from the law. But the fascination with Tay-K traces back to Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and any other natural born killer that smirked at the authorities, burnished a myth, and understood that the only thing this country worships as much as money is violence.
Maybe Tay-K never would’ve been famous without turning a pair of bodies cold (should you believe the case), but that wouldn’t alter the blood simple brilliance of “The Race.” Off sheer rapping alone, Tay-K warrants high praise, slicing through the Pierre Bourne imitation beat like the furious sprint implied in the title, as though imaginary ghosts and lethal attackers are hellhounds on his trail. He spits a sinister zigzag, stopping and starting with startling agility, borrowing Migos and Keef ad-libs, too young to know the creative rules he’s breaking, old enough to understand the biblical testament he’s taunting.
The video is what made him: waving a pistol next to his own Wanted Poster, the nauseating contrast of innocent youth and the undertaker glint in his eye, half-devil, half-cherub, inspiring pity and propulsion. One minutes and forty-four seconds can launch a career, and it takes even less than that to end a life. This is the crucible we’re forced to confront, as he demonically waggles a gun like a cell phone, the weapon practically the size of his scrawny teenage frame. It almost looks comical, a child trying on his father’s suit, but should you laugh, it could be your last mistake.
The cataract of words tumbles. He’s a shooter like Chicago’s Young Pappy, himself doomed to a pine box by 20. The Arlington rapper sneers, you want action, you get turned into past tense. He’s robbing shoes and laces but doodling in his notebook like any other high school kid, except when this one wakes up moody he loads his nine. It would seem as vaguely unreal as any other teenage boast, except you can read the indictment. Seemingly everyone remixed or freestyled over this song, but we’ll only remember the original, written by a troubled kid whose life may be over before it could begin. A great rap song and a tragic story, where there’s so much blame to go around that it’s hard not to feel a little guilty. — JEFF WEISS
10. 03 Greedo – “Mafia Business”
If there was an award for LA rapper of the year, 2017’s would go to 03 Greedo. Consider the prolific output alone: Greedo released three full-length self-produced projects this year, two of which spanned 30 songs or more and another that was fully recorded in the night he was released from jail. Each of these showcase Greedo’s versatility and affirm his music as the epitome of street gospel: Throughout, he balances the anthemic sounds of LA street rap with the inherent pain of someone who’s both lost and been betrayed by his closest family and friends, nearly lost a leg to a suicide attempt, and seen the worst effects institutionalized racism.
“Mafia Business”—a subdued eulogy for Watts legend Mafia Ray and one of Greedo’s biggest hits to date—sounds like the Grape Street legend’s most stripped down attempt at mending these scars. The practice isn’t new, but how Greedo captures the emptiness of grief here is uniquely chilling. His mumbled delivery lies in the backdrop of the music, reminiscent of the muddied emotions felt in the wake of a loved one’s death. And the vocal recording alone sounds like Greedo willfully fighting back tears. It is spiritual, really. “Mafia Business'” tangible agony asserts Greedo as a wholly distinct force in LA hip-hop and—so long as a few outstanding legal battles go his way—will be a timeless hallmark along his path to becoming one of the city’s greatest. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE
9. Maxo Kream – “Grannies”
Despite the zealotry of Travis $cott fans, and the small community of YouTube vloggers and Gen-Xers who think Post Malone is the pre-eminent rapper in the history of Texas, Maxo Kream was the Lone Star State’s most potent rap export in 2017. Maxo’s baritone can be a menace, scowling if a voice can be that, but on his best effort from this year hits differently. “Grannies” is fizzy, light on its feet for the weight it carries, something that seemingly couldn’t hold the burden of the most salient and hard-knuckled writing of the year without its center caving in.
Maxo for his part is nimble and commanding, unpacking his life image by image and discarding it into narration, never breaking cadence or showing his hand. Everything is delivered in a tumbling monotone—particulars that are no biographical flourishes, more an everyday parceled apart. The steady twinkle of the production gives an almost lullaby sweet texture to the proceedings, Maxo’s opening salvo instantly upending this comfortable equilibrium “Wake up in the morning, load my pistol, can’t leave home without it.”
From here the details spill in dense snapshots and blunt recollection, every successive move trying to reconcile the last, all of this, how traumas become normal when repeated day-by-day. Family is gnarled, capricious, and still loved, homes untenable but lived in, tensions doubled down then released. It’s postmodern naturalism, sordid, twisted, bleak, and just a little sentimental around the frayed edges.
Maxo is at his unsparing and uncompromising best, clinical in his dissection but never unfeeling, the scowl easing off for just a few minutes. — LUKE BENJAMIN
8. Young Thug – “Relationship (Feat. Future)
Future is a show off. He’s prolific, not just in terms of how many songs he releases, but within the songs themselves. A Fewtch track is a barrage of brilliant melodic and lyrical ideas, one after the other after the other. He packs into a single song what most artists would be grateful to do across an album. Maybe even across a career.
But the upshot of moving weight is that you can hide things in the package. Future first presented himself as a pop stylist, then a Ciara-abetted tryhard, then a Monster, and then he went back to pop. But he was never a Lyricist, no, not in public at least. His secret identity has allowed him to hide brilliant lyrical ideas in plain sight, like gold flecks in the stream. On “Perky’s Calling,” he rocks Balmain’s like they Levi’s so you don’t notice that he’s paying all his tithes but receiving bad news.
“I’m in a relationship with all my bitches yeah/I need to cut some of ‘em off I need help.” Fewtch opts to bury that last bit at the end of the phrase. It’s a thesis concealed as an afterthought. Humble bragging about how many women you have is straight from rap central casting. But admitting that it’s hard, that you’ve grown fond of them and don’t want to let go, that’s something else altogether. It’s slimy, it’s paternalistic and regressive. But it’s sincere and a little sweet—even sweeter because Future lets himself be pulled into Thugger’s persistent state of bliss. You can practically hear them grinning through the autotune.
These two don’t fuck their women. They’re in relationships. They can try to hide their feelings among Audemars and yachts. But it’s right there in the title. — JORDAN PEDERSEN
7. Migos – “T-Shirt”
Migos are triple-handedly invalidating 90% of established rap criticism and high art. Fuck analyzing lyrics, they demand you consider their harmonies and vocal filters. Processing their voices like demented robots and then adlibbing BITCH at full volume to remind you that this is street shit, “T-Shirt” is light years away from their humble, triplet-dependent early work. Every part intersects like a Patek watch: Quavo providing the melodic underpinning, Offset the most memorable lyrics, and low key MVP Takeoff with a show stealing first verse. They’re outlaw banditos on the track, the perfect avatars for gangsta rap listeners trying to survive in an era of police shootings and overwrought pretension. They might have blown up, but the pop world still doesn’t get it. — SON RAW
6. 21 Savage – “Bank Account”
A couple of years ago, an exchange of more than a couple syllables with 21 Savage might have been stretching his patience. These days, the stretching and the syllables are more likely from an exchange in Neiman Marcus: 7500 on the Saint Laurennnnnnnnt jacket! Listen to the way he says it, matter of fact and glamorous and somehow condescending to your broke ass. It’s really all you need to convince you of the brilliance of the moment, which is more than could have been said for the monotone lyrics that first made 21 Savage such a sensation. Now that he’s trod the well-worn path of viral star and presumed criminal to trendy fashion world darling, 21 Savage has added a few modes of expression to his repertoire to go along with the 1-2-3 Ms in his bank account.
He can do the dead-eyed horror movie villain thing better than ever (i.e. Without Warning), and he can even get poppy and sentimental (e.g. “FaceTime”). But where he’s best is walking the lines between ideas, counting off to reveal either millions of dollars or numbers of shooters ready to gun you down, counting on you to catch the implicit joke in the whole tone of it. The tension in “Bank Account” dances along a knife’s edge, and whether issa celebration or a bloodbath depends on what you come looking for. — KYLE KRAMER
5. NBA YoungBoy – “No Smoke”
NBA YoungBoy is nearly mythological. He’s the boy-king-in-waiting from a violent province; he’s the impoverished orphan of unusual talents; he’s the scarred survivor discovering his path toward righteousness–or, if not righteousness, something like uneasy probity. He’s a prodigious 18 year-old rapper from Baton Rouge, a combination so fraught with pitfalls that his city’s patron saint, Boosie the Unbowed, delivered a simple Instagram jeremiad: “leave BR asap.” Rappers get murdered over beef in the Louisiana capital–and YoungBoy has beef.
The partnership between two of B.R.’s most promising, Scotty Cain and YoungBoy, should’ve borne more fruit than a lone regional hit, “Homicide.” Instead, for reasons unknown, a month after “Homicide” Cain released “NBA Smoke,” less a diss than a recitation of threats of bodily harm. YoungBoy’s rejoinder: the devastating “No Smoke.” It’s the most effective kind of riposte: a catchy one that inspires otherwise non-partisans to–from the safety of their bedrooms and cars–promise a complete stranger a hail of bullets. It’s “No Vaseline” for B.R. urchins, “Ether” for a small, impoverished city, and, hopefully, “Hit ‘Em Up” without its tragic final chapter.
Over a radiant DJ Chose instrumental, YoungBoy simplifies the stakes: someone will leave their mama lonely, and it won’t be him. — TORII MACADAMS
4. Creek Boyz – “With My Team”
Nothing is organic. Organic can be gamed—manipulated by moneyed hands or flagrant interpretation. Grassroots means finding your way onto the right Spotify playlists, or onto the Snapchat stories of the same influencers that traded in their La Croix stock for a Fyre Festival VIP pass and then were absent from the fall out. A veil of authenticity will bring with it a blank check and a well placed wink from an A&R guy who definitely isn’t (but is) using an invisible palm to guide the nascent talents of a codeine slugging teen.
Through this, because of this, or despite this, Baltimore rap quartet Creek Boyz managed to ring true, buoyed by a regional push and an endearingly un-retouched song and video that is affirming and tragic in successive breaths. Even after the seersucker tendrils of 300 Entertainment wrapped themselves around the record in question and tried to squeeze the life from it, the bleary joy of the original still glistered somewhere to the side of whatever deal was struck. “With My Team” is from the first elliptical and plaintive, cut quickly by the collective voices of the Creek Boyz who sync as effortlessly and subconsciously as the best Migos records, their interplay as natural as inside jokes that almost become vocal tics they’re said so often.
The chorus is group catharsis, woundingly mortal and wary even when flanked by brothers. Celebrations are stained by t-shirts worn of lost friends, and every soaring melisma soured by seen and unseen enemies, the central thread of “With My Team” both resoundingly sincere and dire at the same time—the only real comfort in brutal times is in the company of those who are closest.
As the song whirs to a close, a simple refrain is left tarrying. “It’s gon’ be fine, it’s gon’ be fine,” as vital and lifting as the similar mantra from Kendrick’s “Alright,” perhaps even more so in a year that gave us less light. — LUKE BENJAMIN
3. Kendrick Lamar – “ELEMENT.”
Rap is rife with exceptions, but the lives of its stars follow a similar arc: broke and unknown to wealthy and worldwide. Kendrick Lamar, the biggest L.A. rapper since people forgot that Tupac grew up in New York and went to high school in the Bay Area, is no different.
On GKMC, Lamar chronicled the poverty and perils of life in Compton. While TPAB and its abridged companion, untitled unmastered, brilliantly examined race and race relations in America both contemporarily and historically, some lyrics hinted at the costs of Lamar’s mounting fame. In this light, and especially after the canonizing acclaim for TPAB, a song like “Element,” was inevitable.
Fortunately, “Element” doesn’t traipse into the fame-is-so-hard self-pity that has afforded a certain Canadian a Calabasas estate. Instead, Lamar goes left and, well, hard. “Element” is partly about preserving his wealth by any means necessary, whether that’s slapping a bitch, going hard on a bitch, or killing one. It’s also about evolving with the hazards of fame, whether that’s using encrypted messaging apps (i.e., Telegram), exercising extra caution when hanging at Tam’s, or surveying real estate in Cuba. Ultimately, “Element” and DAMN are treatises on remaining capital-T True. If you look at Lamar’s Instagram, there are no photos to prove that authenticity. He doesn’t need to take them. In that regard and many others, he is the exception.— MAX BELL
2. Goldlink – “Crew (Feat. Shy Glizzy & Brent Faiyaz)
Historically, Washington D.C. (and I suppose the DMV if you exclude Virginia Beach) has had a tenuous relationship with the rap industry. To date, Wale is probably the most successful rapper from the area and Oddissee has done well on a smaller scale. I don’t know that “Crew” will elevate Goldlink beyond either of those two in long term but it’s almost certainly the best rap single to ever come out of the D.C. area. The aptly named song essentially launched two “new” careers (Goldlink and Brent Faiyaz’s) and resurrected Shy Glizzy’s national profile. That simply doesn’t happen often, especially not for artists out of D.C.
At the risk of sounding a bit curmudgeonly, Goldlink is the weakest part of the formula that makes “Crew,” given that Brent Faiyaz’s memorable and austere hook is the star of the show, with Teddy Walton’s twinkling beat and Shy Glizzy’s barnstormer verse competing for second place. Nonetheless, “Crew” rang off everywhere, from clubs to BBQs, and almost instantly joined the canon of rap songs EVERYONE likes and intends to make their kids listen to two decades from now.
Ultimately, “Crew” is a slightly petty celebration of success that succeeded beyond a level that I suspect even Goldlink imagined. Finding and flaunting success will always be a sentiment folks relate to, particularly in difficult times, and there’s no better way to celebrate success than with your mandem—even if they aren’t around anymore. — MOBB DEEN
1. Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3
Fifty-one weeks ago, a man named Esteban Santiago-Ruiz, who had done a tour of duty in Iraq before he started hearing voices, shot eleven people at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Five of them died. Two months earlier, Santiago had visited an FBI office in Anchorage, where he lived, and told officials that the American government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch ISIS recruitment videos. After a short investigation, the authorities in Alaska had given him back his handgun.
One terminal over from the gunfire, the producer TM88 was waiting to catch a flight back to Atlanta. He’d been in Miami working with Future and Gucci Mane. After a ten-hour lockdown, he was finally allowed to leave, along with other travelers—but in the chaos, he’d lost his laptop charger. He drove back to Miami, slipped onto another plane, and rushed back to his Atlanta studio, itchy and Macbookless, armed with only a Beats Pill. He sat down and made something that sounded like death.
At first there were grainy cell phone videos, off-white tents full of sun-withered teenagers shouting about dead friends. Thousands of them. This was exactly two months after the song popped up online: a couple variations, one on Soundcloud and a new arrangement for the legitimate platforms. Lil Uzi Vert finally had a song that was not only worthy of his promise, but one that exceeded it. It wasn’t “Money Longer” on steroids, it was “Money Longer” with a four-figure hotel bill and a dozen unreturned text messages and a god complex and post-nasal drip. It was defiant, depressing, a cry for help, an anthem.
And that’s why the shoddily-cropped videos look the way they do. “XO Tour Llif3” is an almost incomprehensibly dark song: Uzi taunts his lover for teetering near suicide and begs to be pushed out onto the ledge, next to her; he says a prayer to his Xanax to make the pain go away. “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead” is the sort of couplet that will be repurposed in countless ways by countless rappers until DatPiff crumbles into the oceans, and it will never find a vein the way it does here.
But none of that is enough to escape the grotesque and extremely profitable afterlife of popular American art. Over the summer, Weiss and I were in Vegas, and we heard “XO Tour Llif3” in every DJ set at every hour of the day. Sometimes people looked desperate and lost their self-awareness and shouted into the void—that’s what we had expected. But then there were scenes like the pool party where the song was slotted neatly between “Antidote” and “Humble.” Men with creaseless foreheads and the women on their shoulders bobbed and smiled and ordered $19 vodka-sodas, and they were rapping along to the hook, happily.
After that party, we started noticing the song everywhere else—on clock radios and in elevators and on casino floors. It was wallpaper. It made me feel strange and displaced and angry: how could something so pained be made to feel so comfortable, so ordinary? That indignation stayed with me for months, reupping whenever I heard the song again. But I didn’t remember that a man killed five people at an airport in Florida until I had to double-check its publishing splits. — PAUL THOMPSON