Like last year, hip-hop made an amazing showing in 2016, better than we’ve seen in a long time actually… just as long as one looked in the right places. Of course there were projects from artists that either rap very poorly or rap about all the wrong things, or both, but there were just as many, if not more, from ladies and gents that know their stuff and apply it well. All anyone had to do was dig a little deeper below the mainstream to find them.
By far, the vast majority of the best (and I mean the best) hip-hop albums of the year were either self-released (a good handful) or released on independent record labels (most cases), not connected or affiliated with the “majors.” Catching on yet? The cream-of-the-crop LPs, EPs and mixtapes are usually from the underground and not under the guise of any heavy commercial overseer. Anyway, you’re probably getting hungry for some music by now so let’s dig in. Here are the top twenty hip-hop albums of 2016…
A real solid up-comer from the Strange Music camp, Rittz (Jonathan McCollum) is as much a product of his Southern Georgia roots as he is a student of the most multidimensional lyrical legends of rap’s past. Not only does he come out swinging on his third LP, Top of the Line, but he also breaks away from the mold of his last two projects with more songs in a very personal light, making the case that he’s now one of the deepest, most distinguished voices in the game.
Stocked with wondrous productions from Seven, Heartbeatz, Matic Lee and Kato and highlighted by spots from Strange leader Tech N9ne, Krizz Kaliko and down South greats Devin The Dude and MJG, Top of the Line has marathon momentum through all of its fresh new material. Rittz destroys clown rappers and bullying, gives a leg-up to Black/All Lives Matter and fights to overcome obstacles in love, the ghetto and loss, all the while maintaining a very heartfelt comportment. The rest is spent kicked back to some cool vibes, and why not? Top of the Line is the best project of Rittz’s career so far. Don’t sleep on this man. (Read the original review here.)
Former Definitive Juxter Mr. Lif’s second album with golden era honoring Mello Music Group is a collaboration with the talented sampling wizard L’Orange, but more than that, it is an album-spanned rap-movie that foretells of humankind’s bland, joyless fate if we keep down our current path and what we must do to turn the tide.
In a future without music or books, there rises a savior known as The Scribe (Mr. Lif) – who with the help of his close friends portrayed by Akrobatik, Chester Watson, Gonjasufi and Insight – organizes, educates and rallies the people of the dismal new world order to rebel against the wickedly soulless king and his manipulated, cornball radio-announcer, voiced by actor Wyatt Cenac from The Daily Show.
The movement succeeds, the king’s kingdom vanishes and life goes on. Vivid fairy tale scenarios are what Mr. Lif and his guests spin so well here and enchanting new beat creations are what L’Orange fills in the gaps with in this story that is medieval in its regressive setting and mood yet inspiring and uplifting with its finale. (Read the original review here.)
Marylander turned California angel Michael “Wax” Jones’ fantastic phenomenon and authentic success in the rap game are attributed to his lovable personality, his sharp creative rhyme-writing that he delivers so carefully, and his musical, I repeat, musical beats. Over the years, he has regularly sought assistance from the just-as-phenomenal producer EOM (Elements of Music), and together they’ve made some of the best soundtracks hip-hop has ever heard.
Wax, who started out in the band Macgregor, is responsible for beautiful albums like Liquid Courage, Eviction Notice, Scrublife, Continue, Livin Foul and now The Cookout Chronicles, where his new age mind-state, his top-tier lyrical bars and his penchant for cool melodic music are as bright and nourishing as the sun. Never one to take himself too serious, Wax has fun with his verbal aerobics, but how he has structured the love concept in Chronicles is a stroke of brilliance and a sign of hope.
He goes from being disasterously unlucky in romance (“First Love” and “Love Will Make You Do Dumb Sh*t”) to finding it again in the end (“Never Thought I’d Be In Love Again”). The cap-off to a shaky yet exciting summer, the venturous Cookout Chronicles is another fabulous, fruitful get-together by Wax and his artist-friends. (Read the original review here.)
In the past, Houston underground legend K-Rino never received all the attention he so deserved for his crafty, conscious, hardcore lyricism and explosive projects, but after releasing in November, seven brand new quality LPs all at once, which took him and his associates less than a year to create, he’s bound to receive much more attention than usual for the world record-setting accomplishment AND for the gifts within the albums.
Each of The Big Seven is extraordinary, but album number two, Conception of Concept, makes The Top 20 for its standout bravery and character. In addition to setting off this string of albums’ entry in K’s Sorcerer vs Wizard tales, in a vividly action-packed meeting-scene that could only be narrated by K-Rino, he starts in on the verbal slayings and courageous concept pieces. He calls out on wax those needing a good kick-start in the rear in “Triflin,” cripples the one percent’s tight grip on America’s economy and politics in “Listen Up,” demonstrates a healthy platonic guy/girl connection in “One Nite Stand” and lampoons garbage rappers in “T-Rash.”
Confidently moving tooth and nail into territory artists are traditionally steered away from, K-Rino challenges himself to be fearless and to confront the corrupt system more so here than in any other part of The Seven, despite the fact that they all question society in great ways. Conception of Concept is for fans willing to face their demons and tackle them head-on. (Read the original review here.)
L.A.-raised emcee and activist Bambu (Jonah Deocampo) has been doing his thing as an individual act for a good chunk of time now, since 2003 in fact, the year of his debut LP, Self Untitled. Going forward from that point, he has left nothing but a trail of deep indelible footprints for all to follow on the path of life. The husband, father, organizer and of course sociopolitical rap-hurdler marked 2016 for the release of his eighth album, Prey For The Devil, and came through on his word in September with material that is no less classic than all his previous masterclasses.
Conscious to the max, rocking with a cool sway and tough but not too tough, Bambu raps on racism, income-based divisions in society, police brutality and how to avoid meddlesome cops with the utmost concern for everyone. Most of all though, the album is put in place as a reminder that when people anywhere are oppressed in any way, there is a point at which they’ll no longer take it sitting down and rise up to defend themselves and fight the wicked powers over them. Bambu doesn’t just make music that excites. He also makes music that empowers. (Read the original review here.)
There is no one in hip-hop more under-appreciated than the ultra-ambitious emcee and multi-instrumentalist known as O’hene Savánt. The fine independent rapper and musician has a worldly conscious outlook on life (as a teenager, he spent significant time living in Accra, Ghana) plus several close industry contacts in rap, soul, jazz and other genres. And with more than a dozen amazing albums of enlightenment and stunning musicality under his belt, he is already a multi-field legend in dire need of more notice, recognition and respect.
His 2016 album A Lack of Convention easily makes it into the list of this year’s best because over a magnificent score once again, he confidently handles love struggles, the deliberate dumbing down of entertainment by the majors, healthy values, strength in numbers and progress in the black community, like second nature. Past collaborators E Snipe and Sheda B are on the manifest, but it is O’hene’s genius, talents and sense of responsibility that keep A Lack of Convention in the air. O’hene knows he’s the bomb and shows us in this grand masterwork from a real grandmaster. (Read the original review here.)
Political rappers with heat, Blak Madeen (Al-J and Yusuf Abdul-Mateen) from Boston perform a complete examination of world affairs in their masterful third LP, Supreme Aftermath. They alert us to wars in third world countries (many times started, provoked and sustained by the super rich and powerful), climate change, domestic terrorism, disharmony across religions and the economic burdens placed on the poor.
These two brilliant emcees are activists and good-intentioned workers for awareness and global justice, justice that threatens the greedy elitist lifestyle. And to show that they have their backers, many respect-keeping underground hip-hop artists have helped them out in the album’s construction. Main producer Skin Ced is aided by beatmakers Teddy Roxpin, Sicknature, The Arcitype and Divine Styler for a hard-pressing, ironclad production set.
On the guest side, Blacastan, Gift of Gab, Planet Asia, Shabazz The Disciple and Krumb Snatcha all stand up and fight side by side with the honorable Muslim men of Blak Madeen. These guys use their words as weapons and aim them at the forces of evil. It may hurt a little to hear about all the atrocities happening on earth here, but from this very doable pain comes pleasure, pleasure in knowing the truth and moving forward henceforth. (Read the original review here.)
13. Mood Swings by Lady Paradox & Gadget (Sept. 9, Millennium Jazz Music)
If hip-hop has to go out of its way, or across the pond, to find amazing jazz-rap, it shouldn’t mind if it involves getting to know the sweet smart Lady Paradox, a Leicester, UK resident emcee who has been paying her dues in the game for over a decade. She used to collaborate often with producer Pat D, but for her 2016 Mood Swings LP (her third), she linked up with friend and equally proficient jazzman Gadget.
Their chemistry on the project is instantly felt and irresistible to witness. He brings the incredibly soothing soul sounds, and she, because the music pleases her just right, dives headfirst into her flutey yet clear raps on topics like the freedom-restricting ways of the modern world, trust issues, loneliness, media manipulation, contradictions in society involving race for example, work focus and lastly warm smile-making appreciation for life. Gadget is equally bright here, and he is a pioneer for hooking up with Lady Paradox, a rare form of rapper whose verses are simply gorgeous every time. Mood Swings is an absolute must-know and an absolute must-listen that just might bring tears of joy to your eyes. (Read the original review here.)
A followup as lovely as their debut, Everything in Between by The Ugly Heroes softens the shock of hearing the truth from emcees Red Pill and Verbal Kent with the sedative effects of Apollo Brown’s serene soul-beats, a winning formula they created in their eponymously titled first LP from 2013. The steady yet advanced lyricism is positively out of this world and to die for. Red Pill and Verbal Kent deliver their enriching messages in situational anecdotes and by cutting right to the chase without sounding offensive or high and mighty, but either way, their words weigh heavily on the mind long after the end. The storied two-parter “Unforgiven” is without a doubt the most unique track, but everything in between in this flawless Everything in Betweenalbum succeeds because of its cool beats and sure-shot wisdom. (Read the original review here.)
Sometimes the best and usually first way to deal with a problem is to get it out in the open, and that’s just what Detroit emcee and Slum Village alum Elzhi does with many of his in Lead Poison, his second studio album. Do you know the type of rap in which romanticized violence, extravagant jollies, money-worshipping and material possessiveness are the only foci? Lead Poison is not that type of rap at all. Elzhi brings outstanding rhyme-poetics to this long-awaited followup and raps on relevant topics such as relationships, poverty, lonesomeness and despair, all over soul-strengthening instruments courtesy of Bombay, Quelle Chris, Karriem Riggins, Oh No and several others. Elzhi’s return is a supremely excellent one here, as he waves the flag high for real intelligent hip-hop, in this case brought by a stable grassroots outfit, El’s very own GLOW365 imprint. (Read the original review here.)
10. Layers by Royce Da 5’9” (April 15, Bad Half Ent)
Prior to 2010, pundits might have been inclined to assume that Detroit fixture Royce Da 5’9’’ would forever remain a rhyme-maniacal backpack emcee rapping about typically mainstream subject matter, but after that year, his tone started to shift and he began making serious power moves with his peers. His 2011 Success Is Certain album gave off a uniquely upbeat air, he reconciled with Eminem to release their Hell: The Sequel collabo EP, he and Slaughterhouse dropped their sophomore LP and in 2014, he hopped on Shady XV and joined the venerable DJ Premier for PRhyme.
This year saw another classic from the Midwesterner who was born to spit: Layers, his sixth and best solo album so far. In addition to featuring professional level production from Mr. Porter, Jake One, Nottz, DJ Khalil and DJ Pain 1 as well as nice guest work from Pusha T, Melanie Rutherford and Mr. Porter again, Royce is brilliant with his bars and wiser and more mature than ever, rapping on the income gap, the problem with avarice and overconsumption plus layers upon layers of other important topics. (Read the original review here.)
In Congratulations, big Mac Lethal of Kansas City, Missouri and Black Clover Records sounds like he’s been dying to release the in-depth LP for quite some time now. Tackling religion, family dysfunction and relationship hurdles, the spitting pro talks about what it’s like coming up as a white, middle class Midwesterner in America, and later in, he’s incredibly caring when he questions the capitalistic snares of the music business and life, encourages healthy living through good diet and exercise, and says getting out of one’s comfort zone is essential to personal growth.
Mac is a dedicated, devoted husband and father, but in tracks like the bonus “Go To Sleep,” he shows that the life can sometimes be a bummer. He’s technically masterful, emotionally arresting and completely adult. Tech N9ne of Strange Music joins the order in “Angel of Death” and Michael “Seven” Summers lays the heart-stealing musical foundation in this breathtaking work of art. (Read the original review here.)
The Southern rapper (Atlanta) with the Northeastern tongue and tons of underground heart and heat, Jarren Benton, surprised all his fans midsummer with the ambush-release of his sophomore LP Slow Motion Vol. 2, the followup to his debut album, My Grandma’s Basement(2013). Having been thrown off the capsized Funk Volume flagship at the start of the year, Jarren made the very wise decision to go independent for this raucous yet also reasoning renegade-affair that will have you locked in your seat until such point when Jarren and Jarren alone decides to let you go.
His messages command full attention though. He doubles-down on his commitment to live purely, and although the jarring rapper is rough and rugged, he also gets in touch with his gentle side, rapping on the love he has that roars ceaselessly for his children and his disgust for violence and the tolerance of violence against the weak and vulnerable. A party that fights for the good in life and an album that definitely makes you feel alive, Slow Motion 2 knows when and where to apply pressure or ease up. (Read the original review here.)
To help balance the playing field and exercise the mind simultaneously, Ithaca, New York emcee, producer and academic Sammus (Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) treated us to her intrepid third LP, Pieces in Space, at the end of October, just in time to kick off the holiday season. The sweet escape side of the album celebrates the wonders of being a child (“Childhood”), perseverance and positivity (“Cubicle”), beautiful nonconformity (“Weirdo”) and the art of rap-wordplay as Sammus dazzles us with her intricate rhyme-flow of varied cadences and voluptuous vocabulary blended to perfection. On the other hand, Sammus is constructively critical of nuisances elsewhere, taking slacking rappers, trolls and the savage business world to task in “100 Percent,” “Comments Disabled” and “Nighttime,” respectively.
The magnum opera of the project however are found in the new black feminist statements of “Perfect, Dark,” in the emphasis on body AND mind in relationships in “Song About Sex” and finally in Sammus’s therapeutic outpouring of bothersome emotions in “1080p” and “Qualified.” On top of all that, these pieces in Space are brilliantly lit up furthermore by the woman’s diverse, electric production-score and by the ravishing Latasha Alcindor, Homeboy Sandman, Jean Grae and Open Mike Eagle among others. Get to know Sammus, who has obviously learned from the finest rappers and producers before her. (Read the original review here.)
Rhythmatic king Reks from Lawrence, Massachusetts really was one of the greatest unknown rappers in the game, but with all the exceptional work he has put into his tenth studio album The Greatest X and with the positive results that have come from it, he’s about to become one of the greatest known rappers in the industry true enough. A double disc featuring a dream roster of underground guest-emcees plus gold-standard East Coast boom-bap, TGX doesn’t stop there with its generous offerings.
The genuine intelligence and awareness Reks exhibits will make any hip-hop head jump (or bob) for joy, as he blitzes police and politician corruption as well as the incessant crime and violence tormenting the ghetto, and upholds keeping an unbiased mind-frame, free of toxic influences. Also in the mix are Reks’s stable thoughts on his past, love, the changing culture of hip-hop, and the new kids coming up today. He is an incredible elder with the chops of a young buck and the knockout punch of a champ in this sure-to-be hip-hop classic. (Read the original review here.)
5. Nihilismo by Sole & DJ Pain 1 (April 22, Black Box Tapes)
In addition to co-founding label Anticon, veteran emcee Sole (Tim Holland) is also a past or current member of numerous groups (Deep Puddle Dynamics, Sole & The Skyrider Band, etc), but recently he’s been cutting it up with the well-connected DJ Pain 1 (Pacal Bayley). Their 2014 album Death Drive has a sweltering conscious-climate thanks to Sole’s ripping expository lyrics and a stunning new age music-scape courtesy of Pain 1. Their second collaboration, the Nihilismo LP, regenerates all the excitement of their first and goes further, analyzing just about every way the earth-controlling economies of the first world are diseased.
Sole keeps his raps about self down to a bare minimum and only to make a relatable point, and he spends the rest of his time discussing the finer points of race-relations, agribusiness, work/life balance and spades more. His closing emphasis on our shared values as people brings all his previous topics, and us, together at last. Sole’s vocal impressiveness is the topping, layered generously upon DJ Pain 1’s experimental creations of pop, drill, dancehall and rock, a just as impressive set of varied sound-scapades. Get ready to turn your nihilism into a purpose for living with this rich revelatory album. (Read the original review here.)
Packed with better samples and better messages of understanding than its precursor, Chris Webby’s Webster’s Laboratory 2 is the Connecticut emcee’s best project yet in nearly a decade in the field. Recycling records that will dazzle people of all ages, producers JP, Juice, Jitta, Teddy Roxpin, C-Lance and Kato give Webby plenty of musical support to fulfill his mission of spreading knowledge and wisdom to all.
With a super positive mind-frame, the highly conscious rhyme-prodigy is grateful and sagely as he knocks down the vices of humankind, has some fun of course, upholds good as opposed to evil and approaches drugs from a very evaluative analytical station. Don’t be misled by its cartoony cover art. WL2 is real grownup rap, technically superb and carefully orchestrated. Chris Webby may be twenty-eight now, but he has the sharp mind of a cutting edge linguistic lab tech, the values and morals of Confucius and all the spunk of a healthy “teenage mutant ninja rapper” in this game-changing foray into magnanimus mixtape majesty. (Read the original review here.)
If the path to success requires a long arduous journey, some will turn back or lie down, but not Carson, Cali emcee Bishop Lamont. In a career that goes back well over a decade, Bishop certainly had his share of disappointments. Trying to get signed in the first place was of course a beast, and once he got a deal, with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, it too fell through, but he remained persistent, holding onto his contacts and staying busy. The man’s mixtape discography is impressive, but since his 2016 LP, The Reformation: G.D.N.I.A.F.T, is a product of years of learning from trial and error, it’s easily the centerpiece of his catalog at this point in time.
Excoriating American doctrine, the greed and bloodlust of capitalism, media antics, industry buffoonery and more, Bishop Lamont lays the problems out on the table, but he also has an answer, and it’s not complicated; he says it’s to love and come together, and to show he’s right, a plethora of fabulous vocal and musical guests stand behind him all the way. If Bishop Lamont is critical of the system, it’s because he cares. The Reformation is here to reform the rap game and worldview from an “I don’t give a f*ck” culture into one where sometimes it’s okay to say, “I give a f*ck.” (Read the original review here.)
2. The Regime by 3D Na’Tee (Aug. 29, self-released)
Queen of New Orleans, 3D Na’Tee, light years ahead of many contemporary rappers, is currently the best pound for pound strong-woman in American hip-hop not to mention a tough opponent for any man who claims to have bars, but besides being a steely force to be reckoned with, she also has a compassionate side that comes out when she reveals the vastness of her enlightened mind. This respect-commanding rap-administrator exudes both likenesses and more in her independent debut album, The Regime.
In this hefty heartfelt LP, Na’Tee champions the intellect and human soul and spirit over riches, material wealth and superficial short-lasting fads with her arresting stories, sound personal philosophy and of course, a torrential tidal wave of incredible lyrical rhymes that carry these honorable messages. Involved in rap and hip-hop from an early age and a judicious project-maker (The Regime is so far her only non-mixtape release despite dropping gems at a regular rate over the last decade), she is just getting started and hopefully her reign will continue long into the future. 3D Na’Tee has got it all. (Read the original review here.)
When you consider all the writing occupations besides rapper held by South London native Kate Tempest, it’s all the more jaw-dropping how fluent she is at the craft of hip-hop emceeing alone, but when you have a love for literature and composition and a will to share your ideas and creations with the world like she has, it comes with the territory. The talented, brilliant and super skilled playwright, novelist and performance poet, with help from the unmatchable Dan Carey on producer duties, has birthed a bigger, badder and ultimately more beautiful album than her first (the likewise extraordinary Everybody Down) with Let Them Eat Chaos.
A comprehensive tale based in modern day London, Let Them Eat Chaos (wordplay on the infamous phrase meaning “let them eat cake,” an insensitive, out-of-touch response to the pleas of the poor) pits seven down-and-out neighbors against a society where urban decay, gentrification, extreme mental woes, fleeting material distractions and a general lack of hope rule the day. The only way out is for them to find each other before it’s too late, and Kate gets us going in that direction before the curtain falls.
It is absolutely marvelous and superbly creative how Kate creates scenes and situations, and so is the way she relates to her audience the feelings of the disenchanted in script format, with characters like you and me put in real life-like situations. Her rhythmic spoken word is clever and rhyme-loaded and sinks in so deeply. This selfless lionhearted woman is exactly the kind of person hip-hop needs more of, and Let Them Eat Chaos is nothing short of a wonderful tour de force that refuses harmful things and toxic habits and champions coming together and loving. It is more than worthy of the title of best hip-hop album of 2016. (Read the original review here.)
As you can see, the diversity and consciousness in the game these days are exceptional, and that’s not about to end. If this keeps up and if artists build off of what’s in these albums, then we’re likely to see another golden era of hip-hop no doubt. In short, the best results are seen when all of quality crafted lyricism (delivered neatly and tightly), good new messages, and original innovative beats are under the same roof, or CD cover, or playlist name, but you get the gist.
With highly anticipated issues already slated for release in 2017, albums like David Banner’s Godbox, GOOD Music’s Cruel Winter, Logic’s AfricAryaN, Wiley’s Godfather and Joey Badass’s A.A.B.A., that is also bound to be another awesome year so keep your eyes and ears open and always, make sure you’re equipped with the knowledge and presence of mind to tell the difference between a hip-hop travesty and a hip-hop masterpiece. Until this time next year, happy listening!
Highly Honorable Mentions (most recommended towards top):