Abe Beame is for the children.
Music writing is a young man’s game, particularly when it’s a matter of unpaid passion under an assumed name. The beautiful machinery that propels this website is greased and powered by youthful vigor and enthusiasm and that’s why it remains a vital hub for new culture and the hot takes said culture is filtered through. Still, the veterans of these hallowed halls, mostly contented to watch from the sideline, are not without ears, minds, and hearts. 2017 was a particularly fascinating year for hip hop. Much like the current state of basketball, it feels like one of those moments where the coffers of youthful talent are in overwhelming abundance. I really enjoyed the year and in brief, here are a few stories I didn’t get the opportunity to actually write, from the perspective of an old man living out his obsolescence in the northeast.
10. Young Thug is the Next Link on the Evolutionary Chart
If Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane are the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit of where pop rap has gone, the body and the blood is Jeffery Lamar Williams. Rising to prominence in their wake, there is no artist that personifies the musicality, the weirdness, the scatter brained dumb brilliant punchline dropping like Thugger. For years now he’s been elevating on everything he touches, impossibly prolific without sacrificing an ounce of quality. What’s left to do for a rapper who has done it all?
The answer is a nuts on the table singer/songwriter heat check. When Beautiful Thugger Girls was announced it was something of a let down. Other, more classically accomplished artists like Mos Def, Andre 3000, and Lil Wayne have attempted this before at the peak of their powers and failed. It’s the military equivalent of marching east into a Russian winter or trying to change culture in Afghanistan. A boondoggle and a folly, the product is often masturbatory and boring. It took me a while to get around to so much as perusing it on my phone.
So it should come as no surprise that Thugger is simply fucking levitating all over this thing. Rather than making you wish he’d go back to being weird on hooks and spazzing all over guest verses, it makes you wonder why he wasted all that time partaking in the aforementioned activities, like why not just reset your career now and become lean Willie Nelson?
Beautiful Thugger Girls is a staggering accomplishment. Throw out the degree of difficulty and the history of failure that others have met trying to similarly rebrand. What is it? Is it a rap album? No, not really. Not alt-R&B, not trap soul or whatever the kids have settled on. It’s a genre of exactly one album and I’m pretty sure it will stay that way forever unless he wants to make a follow up. I kind of hope he never does because this seems impossible to top. It turns out by stripping away the sheer word volume that rapping lends an artist, leaving Thugger to make these spare, minimal song skeletons, we are able to hear him in his primal form and appreciate his talent with the clearest view of what it is he’s great at.
“Take Care” for instance, the album’s closing argument. There’s a moment late in the song where the beat drops out and Thug sings “Bill Gates I’m your stepson/I’m so proud to share your genes on your backbone/Thank you God 2017, new G-Wagon/I play “Ring Around the Rosie with your stepson.” Now I have a few theories as to what some moments of those bars mean (only being reasonably confident that the transcription I’ve transferred from Rap Genius is accurate) but the point is that it doesn’t really matter.
Not since Rae and Ghost’s crack haikus has an artist done more benefit to the English language by pointing out how inessential it is. It’s a song about desire and it’s never MORE about that than in that moment, not in what he says but in how Thug’s line delivery is soaked in the idea. Professors will never teach Thug verse in core poetry lectures because “Thinking about masturbating to your nudes” doesn’t reflect any of the core principles of accomplished Western composition or canonical beauty, but if non verbal aliens landed in Prospect Park tomorrow and wanted to understand what it was like to be an imperfect sweaty infatuated human male I would play this song for them.
It’s an atom bomb dropped in the war of post-lyrical rap vs. orthodox boom bap shit. It’s not about our nightmarish political landscape, fraught race relations or corroded gender dynamics but it’s my favorite song on the best album I listened to this year.
9. The “World Fete” Riddim is the Song of the Year
When someone makes a great beat in Jamaica a mini Euro Pop gauntlet ensues for who can make the most indelible mark on it. Usually there’s a clear winner. Someone puts a definitive stamp on the beat and that’s the version that goes out into the world. Every once in a while there’s a dark horse contender, two guys catch lightning in a bottle. A good example would be Gyptian’s interpretation of the Jambe-An riddim vs. Charly Black’s. They’re both great songs, but one went on to be “Jiggle Jiggle” and the other went on to be “Gyal you a party animal”.
The case of “World Fete” is unique because it would be hard to pick a consensus winner for “who wore it best.” It’s unsurprising the riddim has produced so many great songs. The music box wind was designed in a lab to simultaneously elicit emotion and move asses, but the sheer quantity of great takes here is borderline black swan. Since no end of the year piece would be complete without a list, here’s a top 4 ranking of my favorite mixes.
4. Masicka – “Brace on You”
The fun of Masica’s mix is the breathless cadence. The bars descend and ascend on top of one another and it’s hard not to get sucked into his flow. Points off because the hook is basically an extension of the verse, there isn’t any of the bigger show-stoppers we’ll see at the top of the list.
3. Konshens – “Turn Me On”
Konshens’ take is almost the complete opposite of Masicka’s, it’s all sung around a breezy hook with little to no rapping. Still, it’s catchy as fuck and should come with a stupid vacation hat, a frozen drink studded with parasol, a parque open air dance floor surrounded by sand situated a football field away from an ocean, and a girl with a nice smile who has spent serious time sculpting with a waist trainer.
2. Vybz Kartel and Wizkid – “Wine to Di Top”
A somewhat surprising collaboration between a guy who has theoretically been incarcerated and not recording for going on four years and the break-out star of Afro-Beat. This mix nails the balance eluding the first two on the list. Vybz and Wiz trade verses with very different but complementary cadences, and in the middle there’s a fucking a monster hook the duo both chip in on. The only reason it isn’t at number one is because in this environment there are only so many times a song can emphatically remark “Your pussy fat” and here it’s the phrase that punctuates everything throughout.
1. Charly Black – “You’re Perfect”
I just really love Charly Black. He’s a reggae artist from another time. Vybz is known as dynamic because he can seamlessly toggle between beautifully saccharine love songs and the grinding pum pum spit showcases that Dancehall is currently primarily composed of. What’s incredible is Black can do both of those things at the same time. He’s spitting hard here but injecting real emotion into every bar. The cadence is great, there’s an actual bridge, and the hook is a mushroom cloud. Perfect indeed.
8. Bad Bunny is Urbano Trap and J Balvin Crosses Over
One could forgive an ‘English As A First Language’ pop music loving simp for mistaking “Despacito” as the Latin music story of the year. Released almost a year ago today, the song was the unquestionable song of the summer, and as it closes in on five billion views—of the year in popular American music—an unheard of feat (Imagine Elle putting up Avengers numbers).
While Luis Fonsi may very well go on to have a career like Daddy Yankee, the mainstream emergence of Colombian J. Balvin, his collaborator on the song/phenomenon, may end up being the most important development in Latin music. Emergence would be a poor choice of words, as Balvin has been on the radar since 2014. 2016’s Energia was full of hits and featured production from Pharrell, cementing Balvin’s place at the top of a promising crop of ambitious, talented young Reggaetone artists including Nicky Jam, Farruko, Ozuna, and Maluma, among others.
Over the summer, Balvin found a semi-obscure world music hit called “Voodoo Song” by a French artist/producer named Willy Williams and put a Reggaetone accent on it. The song is currently at one and a half billion views with a Beyonce remix to boot. What’s significant here isn’t necessarily the popularity of these songs—throughout the history of American pop music there have been plenty of Latin moments and Spanish pop songs that get a confectioner’s sugared English language remix for terrestrial radio. What feels unique is the success of these songs on their own terms, and of the emergence of a Latino artist who works primarily in his native language with no apparent desire to cross over for us. “Mi Gente” and Balvin himself are no longer niche, the Beyonces of the world are rolling their “Rs” and jumping on his shit rather than vice versa.
And as we’re being influenced by Spanish Language artists and Reggaetone, the Latin music world recently found influence from the American South and its trap music. Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny, a former grocery clerk turned charting artist, has made his bones in a genre known by some as Urbano Trap.
It isn’t anything more complicated than a Latin version of trap music, but what’s stunning is how fully artists like Bunny have internalized the genre and understand its bolts and gears. I’ve always felt barriers of language and culture have made it difficult for our European brethren to really “get” Hip-Hop and what makes it work. They’ve hit on their own mutations and, you know, good on them. Bunny and his young crop of emerging Latino artists understand the tone, the energy, the weirdness and fun of Trap and are doing more than just spitting it in Spanish.
One of my favorite songs of the year was Bunny’s “Blockia”, a duet with singer Farruko about blocking a girl’s number. Farruko sings a version of the song that probably would’ve been what it sounded like a year or two ago, a maudlin ballad. Bunny counters with his staccato trap cadence patter, a monotone that has the humanity drained out of it with a robotic filter (and thus re-injected, feeling via lack thereof). It would be hard to imagine a working trap artist—a Bryson Tiller jumping on his or her shit and attack the beat with such bald sentimentality—but it works here, and potentially advances the idea of what a trap song is and what it can be.
Recently, Bunny addressed a minor controversy by attempting to enlist his Puerto Rican paisano and hero Residente to jump on a trap song with him. Residente has been vocally opposed to Urbano Trap. His argument is it’s a less pure, less Latin genre, that Latin Trap artists need to find their own, authentically Latinx voice and make their own music. Residente is forwarding a fogey’s idea of authenticity and self reliance.
Increasingly, the most exciting music in the world is coming out of the Caribbean. Guys like American/Dominican/Puerto Rican Nicky Jam are reaching across the Caribbean isle to collaborate with dancehall artists like Jamaica’s Rvssian. Pharrell is producing Reggaetone, kids in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are finding inspiration in Migos, Luis Fonsi is shutting down the pool at the Wynn and Trini/Dominican Bronx born Cardi B is just as comfortable rapping in English as she is in Spanish. The barriers of language, genre, and culture are falling away. The Globalists are winning and I couldn’t be more excited.
7. Future Returns to Form
I’m not sure if there is a better example of an artist learning the wrong things from success than the case of “Move That Dope.” 2014’s Honest made an awkward compromise between hardline proto-trap and Future’s more emotional/confessional work that his debut Pluto accomplished seamlessly. Honest more or less bricked and was seen as a disappointing follow up, aside from “Move That Dope,” a trap anthem with Pharrell that was thrilling, club-pausing dark matter that entire year.
For the next two years Future would chase the dragon. He released one Proper album (DS2), a snoozer collab with Drake (What a Time to be Alive), and four mixtapes. With the exception of the Drake collab there was very little to distinguish these efforts from one another save the occasional great beat or inspired hook [ed. note: I assume Abe Beame is not including 56 Nights & Beast Mode on this list or I will play “March Madness” outside his apartment at an insane volume for the duration of March] . Future is a great artist and rapper. As a singer, as an evolutionary hybrid, he’s compelling regardless of what angle he chooses. But over this two year stretch it was often the same angle: a narcotized nihilist numb from prescription drugs and money poisoning.
That’s why 2017’s HNDRXX was such a breath of fresh air for Future fans like me. There was nary a trap record to be found (Not that the year was wanting for trap-Future. The self titled mixtape released a week before HNDRXX was shit talking materialist Gatsby Future at his best). But this wasn’t a rote rehash of his personal/sentimental work featured on Pluto and Honest. Future displayed growth and real craft in his creation of what was ostensibly an R&B album and I got the sense that the work was long gestating, the album he’d wanted to make for sometime. If that softer side of early period Future saw him as a trap Ne-Yo, this was Future maturing into what is perhaps a more comfortable fit as R. Kelly for the lean and Xanax set. It was my second favorite R&B record of the year.
6. Offset is the Best Migo
Twenty odd years later, Migos’ Offset is doing something just as—if not more—formally radical as Hov, taking this theory of casual minimalism to its logical conclusion. It makes sense that Quavo has made more of a splash in the mainstream. He makes for a stark, melodic, nasal presence and for the casual fan it’s much easier to understand what he does well and why he’s entertaining.
But Offset, with what is basically a spoken delivery in monotone, is appointment listening right now. To be able to stay in the pocket while practicing his unhurried dead eyed delivery is remarkable and each verse is its own kind of high wire act. It’s a shame his tabloid relationship will turn a lot of potential fans off what he’s doing because on Culture, Without Warning, and 2017 hits like “Too Hotty,” “Um Yeah,” and “Met Gala,” you can hear a young artist entering his prime.
5. KJ Balla Makes the Song of the Summer that Wasn’t
New York as a movement is bubbling. Bobby Shmurda was the Lexington and Concord of a bid for Brooklyn to get back on the grid and a small army of deranged, drill leaning, assault rifle toting, digital Youtube video making goons from Crown Heights and East Flatbush has risen in his wake.
Perhaps because he sounds the least like them and has made the very best song of the bunch, my cliff notes version of this movement for those pressed for time is young KJ Balla’s “Cookin Up.” “Cookin Up” is a poor man’s version of “Magnolia” if you buy the premise that a poor man can have more fun and actually somehow have more money than his rich counterpart.
I dare you to throw it on loud with a few drinks in you and resist doing an old man’s stationary millie rock. Over pleasantly raw production featuring a thin flute loop, KJ spits with a polish and dexterity his young Brooklyn counterparts lack. Throughout this summer, “Cookin Up” was a favorite of kids cruising the streets of Flatbush with vape pens on hoverboards. I don’t know if Billboard hands out plaques for that distinction but they should.
4. A$AP Ferg Becomes King of the North
A secret any New York DJ worth his salt has long recognized is if you want to trap a party out without pissing off the Northface and Tims contingent in the back staring at girl’s asses like they did something offensive, the best option isn’t to be found in Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, or Atlanta, but in Harlem, where A$AP Ferg has become the most consistent rapper in the five boroughs by any metric.
Since his mainstream beginnings with “Shabba” and the remix to “Work,” Ferg has excelled at a brand of intensely masculine trap-adjacent New York rap that could play in an under 18 club, the Tunnel in ’98 or a stripclub in Atlanta.
Ferg has been producing solid projects at a steady clip, but his versatility has been something of a detriment, making him a hard act to easily define. He can be lyrical on his album cuts, an energy guy on his club singles, menacing when the production calls for it. He’s well rounded in a way that doesn’t exactly fit into our hyper niche and genre specific times.
But this year with Still Striving, while his more famous and better dressed A$AP counterpart has spun his wheels on the mic and largely used music to forward his fashion career, Ferg cemented his place as the best working rapper in New York. The competition is lean with New York’s internet rap scene dormant, the boom bap old head rap on cruise control, and I’ll leave the 4:44 fans of the world to drown their feelings in artisanal herbal tea blends; with “Rubberband Man” and “Plain Jane,” Ferg leveled up.
“Plain Jane” is the current banger guaranteed, ironically, to tear a club up. Over a DJ Paul sample Ferg articulates his appeal perfectly. He tackles the hook with the sticky, dark energy his Memphis counterparts may have 20 years ago, but punches his consonants with an East Coast crisp and works the Nation of Islam into a standard rowdy club hook. The Harlem union with Cam on “Rubberband Man” was a juicy piece of fan service, rooting Ferg in his native hood in a way much of the A$AP body of work rarely does and served as a baton pass of sorts. Ferg’s is a very New York specific, Heavy Hitters, Max Fish, Irving Plaza type of fame but for now, New York’s crown belongs to Ferg and I couldn’t think of a rapper more deserving.
3. NBA Youngboy Goes Pro
Kentrell Gaulden picks up the mantle from a proud lineage of heart on their sleeve confessional southern rappers. The booth is a pulpit for guys like Kevin Gates, David Banner, Z-Ro, Trae the Truth, and Lil Boosie, among others. What Youngboy has managed to do is meld these traditions of hard earned street wisdom with a talent for melody and hooks that comes just shy of Young Thug as one of the brightest in the business. AI Youngboy got all the attention this summer but it was October’s own EP, Ain’t Too Long, that was chockfull of jaw dropping hellfire sermons paired with gorgeous hooks. He had no shortage of great moments this year but the desperate, aching “You the One” is my favorite.
2. Travis and Quavo Solve the Fantasy Collab Project
Ever since Jay-Z jacked Biggie’s concept and made a high profile collaboration album with R. Kelly, the fanboy’s fantasy collab project has been sitting there, tantalizing us with possibility. Most often these albums tend to disappoint. Drake and Future bring out the worst in each other because both have to compromise their individual visions to come together and the result is neutered and harmless at best, boring and disposable at its worst, which it often is. The production is usually tossed off, the song concepts are half sketched; these albums suck because there’s a lack of commitment. The idea of simply hearing Offset with 21 Savage or Young Thug with Future for an hour takes the place of what a real version of those marriages could be with proper time, thought, and care placed in the project in question.
What is remarkable about Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho is not how it subverts these tropes of the high profile collab album, but how it succeeds in spite of them. This isn’t some inspired conceptual piece with a steady hand on the boards. It feels much like two talented athletes fucking around in the gym, Chris Paul and Clint Capella negotiating oop rhythm. Quavo and Travis delivered a 40 minute adrenaline shot to the heart, which does feature a lot of credible production but owes its greatest debt to the brilliance of Travis Scott.
Quavo isn’t quite at the William Carlos Williams height that he reaches with Take Off and Offset—nerding out on cadence and circuitous insular word jumble—but he’s close. The credit goes to Travis, who takes the sad boy edge off his bleary eyed ennui and just has a blast meeting Quavo on his level, who tonally sounds like an adenoidal-robotic-cartoon-ninja-turtle-with-a-head-cold persona Travis might effect on one of his own tracks (Listen to the one man/two man “Gimme the Loot” routine Travis employs here on “A Man.” You will begin doubting whether Quavo is a worthy collaborator or a sentient higher tone that crawled out of a primordial stew of Travis’ saliva, Sprite 6 Mix and liquid codeine in a booth one night).
With its dashed off songs and Hunter S. Thompson inspired artwork that fits the inebriated vibe and half sketched ideas, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho is way better than it has any right to be. There are many worthy highlights: The ranting over Michael Mann inspired coke synths on the title track, the concept-y push and pull of “Black and Chinese,” the casual brilliance of “Saint.” But for my money, the epitome of why the album works so well is “Motorcycle Patches.”
Quavo comes on and he’s fine. I could listen to him rap-singing the ingredients off the back of a box of cereal with Travis adlibs, but Travis follows up by simply turning the propulsive marimba beat into NBA Jam Tournament Edition. It’s without structure, he’s Euro stepping and juking all over the place between double time and half time whenever the moment suits him and it’s fucking Mozart. Content wise it’s basically a shopping list. He’s making a Travis Scott version of a Migos song and draining the pathos that is so vital to his work and it’s still endlessly fascinating and listenable because at the moment the kid can do anything regardless of degree of difficulty.
1. The Ascension of Travis Scott
I was fortunate enough to see Kendrick Lamar with Travis “opening” at Barclays this summer. I could point to shallow signifiers like the fact that Travis sold Kendrick under the table on merch 4 to 1. But it was sometime in the middle of a set that saw Travis rapping on top of a flying, fire breathing mechanical bird swooping around Barclays that it occurred to me that every generation gets the Lou Reed it deserves, and Travis is ours [ed. note: I don’t follow but I’ll let Abe Beame Be Abe Beame].
In contrast to Kendrick’s monastic, joyless, low T flow clinic, I was struck by how unlikely Kendrick’s superstar reign at the top of our genre is and the inevitability of Travis eventually coming for his spot.
Travis’ jump from a codeine drenched Alt R&B crooning curio to Vince Carter over the 2000 All Star Weekend is about as startling as any leap I’ve seen since Lil Wayne went from a Hot Boy also-ran to the most vital voice in artist driven mixtapes. I predict Travis’ increasingly influential Birds Sing Brian Mcknight in the Trap from the fall of 2016 will end up as this generation’s 808s & Heartbreaks.
It is absolutely stunning that a kid from Houston managed to perfectly articulate the POC hipster dirtbag Molly and Bud Light culture of the Lower Eastside, and made it a thralling—even exciting—listen. Travis pinpointed that moment between 5 and 6 AM when the gates are down but the bar stays open and everyone is smoking cigarettes inside and the drugs are wearing off and you both want and don’t want more of everything. It’s beautiful and sad but above all else compulsively accessible. His inescapability on his randomly released tracks (as well as one very big collaboration at the end of the year), his breaking through to mainstream stardom, and his ascension to the top of the game was the story of the year.