The first half of 2017 has provided numerous rap and R&B albums already, with the likes of Young Thug (done), Quavo & Travis Scott, Eminem and Nas still expected to drop. It hasn’t been as impressive as the 2016 offerings but it’s off to a good start and I’ve been enjoying a limited but impressive selection. Wrote this mostly a few weeks ago, but I waited before publishing so I could listen to June projects, some of which managed to make the list. This list is ordered based on albums that I enjoy listening to start to finish. There may be songs off an album that is low in the list that I listen to a lot individually, but not the whole album as a whole (e.g. number 14). My personal top 15 favourite albums of 2017 so far:
15. Charli XCX, Number 1 Angel
Unexpectedly good. Never been a fan of Charli XCX, who’s voice made me think that she wanted to be Gwen Stefani 2.0, but she delivered the best pop project of the year. Even though it should have been an album, there’s infectious hits all across the board like the bouncy “Roll With Me” and sentimental “ILY2”; plus a really surprising trap opener (“Dreamer”). The hooks are there and that’s all I really ask for.
Favourite tracks: “Dreamer”, “Roll With Me”, “ILY2”, “3AM (Pull Up)”, “White Roses”
14. Drake, More Life
More Life has highlights all across the board. It’s split directly in the middle between pop-dancehall and hip hop, the former of which I do not care for now that I’ve had a good number of months to sit with the album. While most of the material has quickly expired, cuts like “Sacrifices” and “KMT” are bound to be some of my favourite songs of the year, but that’s mainly credit to the producers and the guest appearances, whom consistently outshine Drake on his own songs. There’s 22 tracks, but I could easily cut out a fat chunk of filler and whittle down my “playlist” to 14 tracks. The good songs are good, but there’s too much unnecessary material to earn a higher spot.
Favourite tracks: “Sacrifices”, “Portland”, “KMT”, “Free Smoke”, “Do Not Disturb”, “No Long Talk”, “Gyalchester”, “Ice Melts”
13. J Hus, Common Sense
J Hus continues to do what he does best. His slightly-pop angle to afrobeat-rap is original and he pulls it off successfully. For the most part it’s not about the raps that draws you in. Common Sense is full of memorable melodies, one-liners and hooks – 3 important elements that UK artists are rapidly getting better at delivering. It’s pop to a certain degree, but not Dizzee Rascal or Tinie Tempah level of pop, so J Hus manages to keep his credibility. JAE5’s production is unique from start to finish and although it could have done without a couple songs it’s one of the most impressive UK offerings in recent times.
Favourite tracks: “Fisherman”, “Mash Up”, “Did You See”, “Spirit”, “Friendly”, “Leave Me”, “Like Your Style”
12. SZA, CTRL
SZA stepped it up a notch on the enjoyment scale on CTRL in comparison to her boring EPs. On CTRL she’s good at creative lyrical narratives, such as being the sidepiece in a relationship, which is enhanced by her strong vocal performances over the cotton-smooth production. It’s still fresh to my ears so it will most likely grow more on me by the end of the year.
Favourite tracks: “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”, “Prom”, “Normal Girl”, “Anything”, “Pretty Little Birds”, “The Weekend”, “Drew Barrymore”
11. Migos, Culture
Album Migos is in full effect on Culture. There’s no mixtape-quality songs, it’s full of hits start to finish. Takeoff runs the show with the flow on the title track, Quavo’s harmonies and chemistry with Travis Scott on “Kelly Price” makes you crave their collab album even more, and Offset continues to come the hardest out the three. “Bad and Boujee” aside there’s an abundance of memorable Migos tracks like “Deadz”, “T-Shirt” and “What the Price”. Every adlib is ‘libb’d with charisma, and that’s the best way to describe Culture. It’s full of personality and has taken Migos deservedly to the next level.
Favourite tracks: “Kelly Price”, “Deadz”, “T-Shirt”, “What the Price”, “Culture”, “Call Casting”
10. THEY., Nü Religion: Hyena
Still not sure who these guys are but they’ve came out of nowhere to deliver the best “R&B” album of the year. Weird title name aside, it’s hard to describe their sound because the production sounds like something totally new. Every song is incredibly memorable and melodic, particularly the upbeat selections “Motley Crew” and “Deep End”, which is then balanced by the more downbeat ballads like “Truth Be Told”. This one’s gone under the radar in the mainstream but that takes nothing away from it’s undeniable quality.
Favourite tracks: “Motley Crew”, “Back Around”, “Bad Habits”, “Africa”, “Deep End”, “Truth Be Told”
9. Nines, One Foot Out
Laidback Nines is the best beat picker in the UK. Nearly all of these beats are, although American-inspired, very good. They practically carry One Foot Out and enable you to ignore its distracting flaws (e.g. the unnecessary singing hooks). While at times it’s hard to tell what Nines is really talking about, his calm, lazy delivery is very smooth across the production. The mellow sound of the album is at times quite soothing, making you acknowledge it’s a style that Nines owns and carries out very successfully.
Favourite tracks: “Trapper of the Year”, “Love 2 the Game”, “Stacey Adams”, “Break Away”, “Trap Music”, “Intro”
8. Wiley, Godfather
Undoubtedly the best grime album to come out in recent years, let alone in 2017. Wiley’s a forgotten hero in the current UK rap scene now that kids only pay attention to the new acts like Stormzy and the drill collectives. But he comes through on Godfather with intent. The level of consistency is amazing. I can’t remember a Wiley album that was this good. Every song is a banger apart from the R&B-styled “U Were Always, Pt. 2”. It’s so loud in your ears that it’s a non-stop enjoyable experience. The skippy grime flows are ever-present and the pace never stops. There’s memorable song concepts and hooks like on “Name Brand” and “Laptop” and lyrical highlights as Wiley bounces from one flow to another. Godfather is criminally slept on.
Favourite tracks: “Holy Grime”, “Back with a Banger”, “Pattern Up Properly”, “Speakerbox”, “Can’t Go Wrong”, “Name Brand”
7. Future, FUTURE
Super Few delivers the goods. Though at first, I weren’t a fan of this album. Initially it felt like there were far too many forgettable songs, but then many of them grew on me. My list of favourite songs from FUTURE could well go into the double figures as Future delivers what we want; loud melodic trap bangers. It begins on an explosive note with “Rent Money” (“Got the money coming in, it ain’t no issue”) and keeps the explosion going on “Poppin’ Tags” and “POA”, then giving you time to breathe on the annoyingly good “I’m So Groovy” (“Perks n molly, mmm hmm”) and the tear-inducing “Feds Did a Sweep”. There’s only 5 songs that I wouldn’t have minded being cut off the tracklist, so for a 17 track album Future delivers well above the target, leaving out as much trap filler as possible. What else can I say, Future did his thing on this one.
Favourite tracks: “Flip”, “Rent Money”, “Zoom”, “Massage in My Room”, “Super Trapper”, “POA”, “I’m So Groovy”, “Poppin’ Tags”, “Feds Did a Sweep”
6. Joey Bada$$, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
While FUTURE has many songs that I listen to a daily basis (more than the amount of songs that I’ll listen regularly from ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$), it’s a spot higher because it’s got that “album” feel that FUTURE doesn’t possess. Joey Bada$$’s second album makes you want to listen to it in full from beginning to end, something that a “best album” has to achieve.
Justification aside, AABA is the best conscious rap album since To Pimp a Butterfly. The jazz-influenced production is calming as Joey gives us substantial verses, flows and melodic hooks from track to track to track. The “Fuck America” theme is rarely forgotten and is particularly present on “Land of the Free” and “Amerikkkan Idol”, despite not being as aggressively delivered as some hoped. On “Amerikkkan Idol”, Joey delivers one of the best verses of the year at the end which sums up the entire album and state of America in 2017. It’s informing yet isn’t trying to push its viewpoint onto you. The tempo picks up only on “Ring the Alarm” and “Rockabye Baby” to give a relieving change of pace. “For My People” feels close to being the new black power anthem that “Alright” has seemed to have vacated and is the poster song for the album’s theme of black pride.
AABA has nothing weak about it. It’s thematic, lyrical, sonically stellar, cohesive and melodic. Hopefully it will go down in modern rap history.
Favourite tracks: “Super Predator”, “For My People”, “Temptation”, “Amerikkkan Idol”, “Good Morning Amerikkka”
5. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
The highly underrated Vince Staples delivered the most experimental hip hop project of the year so far, creeping easily into my favourite top 5 albums. The Yeezus feel to the album is refreshing amongst all the trap-orientated projects coming out recently. Big Fish Theory mixes complexity with simplicity, particularly on tracks like the bouncy “Big Fish” and “Party People”, “BagBak” and “Yeah Right”. It’s not an album to play all the time, but it has its own special place and a unique listening experience.
Favourite tracks: “Big Fish”, “Party People”, “BagBak”, “Rain Come Down”, “Homage”, “Crabs in a Bucket”, “Yeah Right”
4. Young Thug, Beautiful Thugger Girls
Young Thug continues on his streak of pushing artistic boundaries on my fourth favourite album of the year so far. Beautiful Thugger Girls cleverly mixes trap with acoustic and pop in a better way than Future’s HNDRXX was able to do. Along with the uniquely fitting production, Young Thug expands the absurdity in his vocal performance and delivery with his yodelling. He sounds stupid but its what makes his songs so enjoyable and entertaining. “For Y’all” might end up being one of my favourite songs of the year; Jacquees should have had a bigger presence, along with the opener “Family Don’t Matter”. the It’s perhaps Thug’s most consistent album from a musical and enjoyable standpoint.
Favourite tracks: “For Y’all”, “Family Don’t Matter”, “Relationship”, “Do U Love Me”, “Oh Yeah”, “Feel It”
3. JAY-Z, 4:44
Waiting to publish this post until 4:44 came out ended up being a wise choice. 4:44 filled the gap in 2017 hip hop that’s been created by the trap trends. It’s an album that doesn’t conform to the current music scene, it’s unapologetically Jay-Z. There’s nothing trendy about No I.D.’s production, it’s all sample-based with chopped up soulful vocals. It’s what rap truly sounds like at its core. While Jay-Z’s always given an insight into his business mind, it is elevated to a new level on 4:44, aided by the amazing lyricism and how personal he gets on nearly every song. “Kill Jay Z” set the tone incredibly well, “Bam” is a banger and “4:44” is one of the most serious songs he’s ever put out. 4:44 could have solely been my third favourite album due to its lyricism, but there ends up being more to it than that.
Favourite tracks: “Bam”, “Kill Jay Z”, “4:44”, “The Story of O.J.”, “Family Feud”, “Moonlight”
2. Sampha, Process
Right in the feels, this one. Process is the best non-rap album of the year. There’s only 10 tracks but every song is saying something. Process manages to speak to me emotionally in a way that only a couple albums are able to do. The blend of electronica and alternative R&B is uniquely mediated as it merges with Sampha’s incredible voice. The minimal “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is luscious to the ear as is the tingling harp sounds on “Plastic 100°C”. Lyrically Sampha makes you want to shed a tear as the songs are dedications to his late mother, particularly relevant on “Kora Sings” and “Timmy’s Prayer” on which contain some of the best lyrical moments on the album (“If heaven’s a prison, then I am your prisoner”).
“What Shouldn’t I Be?” is the most minimalistic of the collection, a song that you could easily fall asleep to or listen to just to install a sense of serenity to your mind. When Sampha’s not being minimal and emotional you get the powerful and dramatic “Blood on Me”, including the upbeat “Kora Sings”, neither of which are short of their emotional lyrics when you pay close attention past the production (“You’ve been with me since the cradle, / You’ve been with me, you’re my angel / Please don’t you disappear”).
Overall the level of peace and relaxation Process creates is something special. You can feel every word Sampha sings, and sonically there is no other album quite like it. Process is an artistic milestone that few have reached so far this year.
Favourite tracks: “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, “Reverse Faults”, “Plastic 100°C”, “Kora Sings”, “Blood on Me”, “Timmy’s Prayer”
1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
With four albums under his belt it’s safe to say that Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive, delivering another Album of the Year which transcends hip hop. Although it may not be a classic like good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN. is its own entity and simplifies his body of work while simultaneously setting the bar high for his peers to better. While the concept (if there even is one) is still a blur to me, the recurring themes are clear – religion, self-worth and fame, but particularly religion as he tackles the subtopics of sin, serving God and punishment. It results into DAMN. being the most introspective album of Kendrick’s career.
DAMN. introduced a new side to himself as he tackled trap beats head-on with “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.”, as well as delving into pop with Rihanna on “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.”. The lyrical masterpieces arise on “FEAR.”, the 8 minute breakdown of what he has feared throughout his life, and “DUCKWORTH.”, showcasing his lyrical talent for storytelling that makes you ponder the importance of the life choices we make. Though some songs aren’t as memorable (“YAH.”, “PRIDE.”) they go well with the collection during the course of a full listen.
With DAMN., Kendrick also showed that he can compete with Drake on a commercial level, a component of his status as Best Rapper Alive which he arguably lacked.
It may be his ‘worst’ album to date, but even his simplistic work is able to earn Best Album of the Year so far. Though we’ll see if it’s still at the pole position come December.
Favourite tracks: “FEAR.”, “DNA.”, “DUCKWORTH.”, “ELEMENT.”, “LOVE.”, “HUMBLE.”, “BLOOD.”