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Full Clip: The Best Hip Hop Of 2016 With Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez , December 19th, 2016 12:43

For the final installment ever of his monthly column, our esteemed American rap critic and delivers his picks for the finest projects of the past year

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With the twin sinister movements of Brexit and MAGA all but guaranteed to bring an especially putrid brand of right-wing hellishness to our lives, some hopeful souls have posited the boon it will usher in with regard to the creative arts. This perverse, well-intentioned logic makes assumptions of the ability of protest music not only to prosper in a toxic climate but to even exist. Historians can tell you that’s not how nascent fascism works, yet we only need look at the last twelve months in hip hop to get a glimpse of the next few years ahead.

As the fundamental falsehoods of Trumpism became convenient counterpoint to the radical decency of Black Lives Matter, much of rap stayed out of the contentious American presidential election, rightfully wary of the fairweather nature of political organisations and authorities. Sure, there were plenty of formal and informal Clinton endorsements by the likes of Big Sean, Chance The Rapper, and Jay Z, but none seemed particularly full-throated. YG and Nipsey Hussle’s ‘‘FDT’ didn’t exactly send people to their polling stations back in November. Kanye at least had the decency to keep his thoughts on Trump to himself until a week or so after all was said and done.

Expecting entertainers to play meaningful roles in swaying the voting public towards one candidate or another feels cynical and patronising. Furthermore, it is unfair to put demands on rappers to make a difference without any assurance that their endorsement or opposition will actually make one. Politicians have the obligation to do right by the electorate, and gathering a coterie of celebrities is, at best, extracurricular. If anything, compelling us to care whom Jay Z or Kid Rock would vote for distracts rather than informs.

Even as those who voted against Trump voice their continued opposition, the Billboard Hot 100 didn’t seem to notice. The vapid king Drake still dominates, his megalomaniacal self-pity not unlike that of the president-elect. Despite appropriating some of Donald’s orange glow on their 2015 debut, the apolitical Rae Sremmurd topped the charts post-election by swiping a dumb Migos meme about The Beatles and somehow parlaying it into an even dumber meme about standing perfectly still. Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty celebrate escapism and self-interest, values that are dear to the young Americans in their constituency. 21 Savage and Young M.A. put some grit into the mix, but the vast majority of the hip hop making waves right now has little to do with real world woes.

None of this is meant to conclude that rap lacks meaning or purpose now. For many, it remains the voice of the disenfranchised, imbued both with aspirations and dream fulfilment born of tough times. Whether through the inherent joyousness of Chance The Rapper or the ecstatic eccentricity of Young Thug, rap speaks to people on levels that politics can’t. We love these stories of drug dealer success and narcotic narratives of decadence because they offer not merely respite but optimism. There’s a feeling that courses through us when these individualistic lyrics connect, especially when experiencing self-doubt or personal lows, and, on the flip, a relatability to our hardships.

Rap music does so much for its devotees already that adding the burden of curing our political traumas is unreasonable and even cruel. African-American voices and bodies take some of the harshest dismissals and abuse in American society, and in the wake of Trump’s win a gross anti-black sentiment emerged on the Left that it was somehow their fault, be it for staying at home or somehow not supporting Clinton enough. If we’re being honest with ourselves, it will take a lot more convincing to turn hip hop into the fresh, vibrant sound of protest after November’s brazen repudiation of the legitimate concerns of non-whites.

Ten. Yo Gotti - The Art Of Hustle
(Epic)

Memphis has had its share of rap heroes and local boosters over the years, including 8Ball & MJG and the many voices of Three 6 Mafia. Yet on The Art Of Hustle, native Yo Gotti brings us deeper into the city's complications, tribulations, and celebrations through the personal lens of someone born into and, at least to some extent, living that thug life. Whether slanging that white or stripping at King Of Diamonds, hustlers and their respective hustles get their due or their comeuppance. That's the unvarnished world Gotti so vividly presents. Far too often, Southern rappers get knocked for deficient or insufficient lyricism compared with the seriousness of the coasts. But listening to 'My City' and 'Momma' one hears more than mere echoes of Nas and Pac narratives. On 'Law,' one of several examples of street codification on this tome of a record, Gotti delivers a postmodern 'Ten Crack Commandments' with a hoarse twang.

Nine. Ras G & The Koreatown Oddity - 5 Chuckles: In The Wrld
(Leaving)

The Koreatown Oddity got jokes for ya. Like Dick Gregory or Paul Mooney before him, the Californian rapper’s humor comes from a painful understanding of the racial vexations of American life. His penchant for wearing a wolfman mask live connects him to alternative comedy, but a serious streak runs throughout this project with the always underrated beat genius Ras G. Though disguised behind laughter and sketch work, the poignant ‘Da Po-Lice’ threatens the legitimacy of law enforcement, peaking with an NWA interpolation arguably more memorable than some of the performances in last year’s Hollywood biopic. Drugs loom large here, teetering at times between recreation and vocation as befits the pair. Ras applies his Afrocentric space aesthetic across these dozen tracks, keeping things trippy and atmospheric on ‘Burfday’ and ‘Mist Of The Blunts.’ Open Mike Eagle joins in the fun on ‘Diz Nee Land,’ a theme park acid test of backwards masking and potty-mouthed, sophomoric sentiments.

Eight. Ka - Honor Killed The Samurai
(Iron Works)

Long before some New York tabloid schmuck decided to make an example of him, Ka was already exemplary. One of our greatest living rappers, he has toiled heroically in relative obscurity from the criminal infamy of Brownsville, a would-be Ghost Dog on the mic and a firefighter by trade. Not since GZA's Liquid Swords has the juxtaposition of hood values and samurai codes been so effectively accomplished as it is on his latest album, an epic poem of concrete and smog peppered with cinematic ronin samples. With production skewing towards a minimal, Eastern-informed soul, Ka concerns himself with both philosophical and real world quandaries on ‘Mourn At Night’ and ‘Destined'. More grounded in the here-and-now than last year’s claustrophobic masterpiece Days With Dr. Yen Lo, grimly delivered songs like ‘Conflicted’ and ‘I Wish (Death Poem)’ seize the throat and set the heart shuddering.

Seven. ILoveMakonnen - Drink More Water 6
(Warner Bros.)

Formally freed from the fuzzy pink shackles of Drake’s OVO Sound, this rapper/singer finally had the opportunity to operate outside of the hype that came when the Canadian hip hop sensation co-opted his track ‘Tuesday.’ Despite his resulting reputation as a leftfield R&B popster, Drink More Water 6 brings Makonnen closer to the sensibilities of the Atlanta trap set. With beats big and squiggly enough for a Migos or Thugger tape, 'Big Gucci' and 'Sellin' reconnect him with the hustle without betraying his inherent arty weirdness. One of the tape's strongest cuts, 'Live For Real' goes harder than most of the year’s biggest rap hits while still dropping obscure Hanna-Barbera references. When it comes to asserting dominance, 'UWONTEVA' is both Kanye-level cocky and Kanye-level good. Naturally, Makonnen hasn't forsaken his romantic side, playing both hot and cold on cuts like 'Back Again' and 'Turn Off The Lies'.

Six. Travis Scott - Birds In The Trap Sing Mcknight
(Epic)

In wrestling terms, Travis Scott is what one would call a heel, a perpetual baddie designed to rile up the crowd. Yet in a troubling time when true villainy appears to be legitimately claiming some of the highest positions in our governments, his hedonistic hypebeast persona proves something of a relief. Much like The Weeknd, Scott’s youthful nihilism may very well be a branded put-on, but with narcotized lifestyles now so very en vogue he speaks both to and for more people than his stubborn detractors realise. Tracks like ‘Beibs In The Trap’ and ‘Goosebumps’ immerse listeners into a virtual world populated by warped sonics and honeyed vocals. Simple yet effective, ‘SDP Interlude’ makes his ethos clear. On the referential and essential ‘Through The Late Night,’ fellow rap crooner Kid Cudi comes through with his blessing. More cohesive than Rodeo, this record makes it harder to accuse Scott of lacking a musical identity.

Five. Gucci Mane - Everybody Looking
(Atlantic)

In the weeks prior to his incarceration, Radric Davis publicly spiralled downwards as his bitter feuds and addictions spiked. While the hard lessons of the past few years solidified his status as one of the most revered figures in rap music, the Gucci Mane that emerged from federal prison some months back seemed deeply not only informed by them but outright transformed. Physically fitter and visibly happier, he had embraced sober living and a positive mental attitude. Though his studio prolificacy prior to his arrest led to a string of mixtape releases during his time inside, Everybody Looking marked his first truly new material in years. With beats by trap lords Mike Will Made It and Zaytoven, Gucci unleashes waves of honesty on ‘No Sleep’ and ‘Pick Up The Pieces.’ Fully cognisant of his influence on the thriving Atlanta scene that exploded on the charts in his absence, he looks on with paternal satisfaction on ‘All My Children.’ On the guest front, mentee Young Thug yawps with relief on ‘Guwop Home,’ while 'Back On Road' features a Views-emboldened Drake paying homage.

Four. Lil Yachty - Lil Boat
(Quality Control Music/Capitol/Motown)

Rap music always appears to move forward, regardless of the conservative wishes of oldheads and the perennially washed. No exception to this trend, 2016 gave us a wave of upbeat upstarts continuing along the path of 2015 paradigm shifters Rae Sremmurd. Yet as that duo suffered a seeming sophomore slump, one offset later by the miraculous virality of ‘Black Beatles,’ Lil Yachty took the reins of this bubblegum trap movement, earning himself the tongue-in-cheek moniker ‘King Of The Teens’ in the process. His is a kinder, gentler drill, a sound only the cold-hearted could withstand the inherent euphoria of celebratory tracks like ‘Good Day’ and ‘We Did It.’ Stripping back the gloss of the beats and his aggressively Auto-Tuned vocals, Yachty’s world reflects that of generations of rappers, with many of the same concerns and preoccupations. He’s an unbothered pleasure seeker on ‘1 Night’ and a deceptively subtle menace alongside Quavo and Thugger on ‘Minnesota’.

Three. Kamaiyah - A Good Night In The Ghetto
(self-released)

Before Interscope got formally involved in her artist development, this Oakland rapper appeared to arrive fully formed on her own. Mixtape debuts rarely have the consistency and quality of A Good Night In The Ghetto, which might lead some to suspect her independence a front. But that sort of wanton conspiracy theorising whiffs of misogyny, an attempt to rationalise by undermining. To these ears, there’s little doubt of the immensely talented Kamaiyah’s creative ownership of this project. Musically, there are elements of Compton classics, DJ Mustard, and her city’s hyphy tradition. One expects E-40 to pop up randomly and exuberantly. Yet apart from a few features, this is Kamaiyah’s show, and she commands the mic with precision on bassbin rattler ‘Out The Bottle’ and achingly honest ballads ‘Break You Down.’ An 808 anthem, ‘How Does It Feel’ rolls along with neck-snapping snares and a rewarding hook, while ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ applies an ‘80s Isleys smoothness to her cool multitrack monotone.

Two. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin - Savage Mode
(Slaughter Gang)

As trap settles into its templates and tropes, the role of its leading producers becomes all the more critical to the subgenre’s survival. Complacency is not an option when this vital music by its very definition serves to capture a way of life that many in America see as the stuff of fantasy. Metro Boomin’s invaluable contributions to the evolution of trap and, in tandem with Future, its applications to commercial hip hop made him the ideal collaborator for 21 Savage, whose credibility on these matters scarcely warrants question. When the Atlanta rapper mumbles about murder, we believe him to be the shooter other rappers only threaten us with. 21’s raison d’etre rings out on ‘No Heart,’ an ingeniously modern application of the Socratic method. Young Metro’s measured, ominous beats present an ideal platform for 21 on cuts like ‘Mad High’ and ‘X.’ This could very well be the future of trap.

One. Kemba - Negus
(self-released)

At a time when Yeezus himself appears to have abandoned his black revolutionary principles in the maddening service of those twin Hamptons mistresses celebrity and vanity, rap needs young blood in the fight. His generational peers and forebears aren’t the sociopolitical forces they once were. Though still as conscious as ever, Talib Kweli frequently bogs himself down in the daily stinking mire of social media, while Public Enemy’s Chuck D travels the world with Prophets Of Rage, a touring suburban sideshow catering to afternoon liberals ageing against the machine. South African courts left Yasiin Bey tenuous and reclusive for most of the year, his retirement now announced and imminent.

The dearth of reliable heroes among rap’s old guard leaves room for Kemba, the young Bronx native formerly known to some as YC The Cynic. Now more than ever we need this self-described mix of Huey P. and Master P. Even rechristened, the phenomenal emcee doesn’t get the sort of shine Kendrick Lamar has grown accustomed to, but as we see on Negus it only makes him hungrier for truth. Loping along at a similar pace as Ye’s ‘New Slaves,’ he tells it like it is on ‘The New Black Theory,’ more concerned with health care premiums than couture traps. Trainspotters might smirk at the Real Life sample on ‘Hallelujah,’ but it’s what Kemba does over the angelic choir that counts. He channels empowering messages of black nationalism and a soul-shaking militant dread into cuts like ‘Brown Skin Jesus’ and the trembling ‘Greed.’ Every single person who fawned over To Pimp A Butterfly should cop this one.

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Dr. Dunks
Dec 19, 2016 5:18pm

FIRST DAY OUT THA FEDS

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No Refugee
Dec 19, 2016 6:37pm

LULZ BUTTS WTF IS I LOVE MCKONNEN

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Dec 19, 2016 8:19pm

Kemba's Negus is easily one of the best of the year. Thanks for the recommendation Gary!

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Aguy
Dec 19, 2016 10:59pm

I hope you keep writing about rap somewhere else. Good selection of records here. Looking forward to checking out the ones I haven't heard, even if I couldn't get into that Dr Yen Lo record you put as #1 last year.

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Alexupthestreet
Dec 20, 2016 11:14am

No word on the last Aesop Rock CD?

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James H
Dec 28, 2016 5:24pm

Here we go again...."With [Brexit] all but guaranteed to bring an especially putrid brand of right-wing hellishness to our lives". Really? How so? Wasn't the great liberal fear pre-Brexit of a Boris Johnson led Tories who were going to be even more nasty and neo-liberal than Cameron and Osborne (as if that were possible). So what happened to that? The great crime post-Brexit is that 170 right wing Labour MPs favour clinging on to their posts and taking the Labour party ship down with them rather than having the decency to either support their left wing leader (who has enormous support from the grass roots membership who elected them in the first place) or alternatively to leave and form their own party. All this against the backdrop of a shattered Tory party lacking even the confidence to call an early GE and defeat such a divided Labour party. Yes there is “right-wing hellishness” but it is less the fascist uprising that you keep predicting at tQ and more the fact that our entire political landscape is now right wing. A load of half-arsed liberal posturing and bizarre framing of the EU as some kind of socialist shield from Trump-evil (which it was essentially the exact opposite of) isn’t going to change that is it? 24% of voters voted Tory at the last GE. And Brexit – whatever the reasoning behind its victory – is a positive result for the left wing (but not liberals for some reason....hmm). Come on tQ – enough of this weak stuff. Y’all need to have more faith in the British working class yo (ahem).

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James H
Dec 28, 2016 5:48pm

Also....”At a time when Yeezus himself appears to have abandoned his black revolutionary principles.” WTF? I love Kanye but pray tell which revolutionary principles were these? The ones where he gloated about having more money than his listeners or the ones based on his self-publicity and general megalomania? Please! Hip hop has many virtues but it is increasingly the least “revolutionary” of all modern art forms – essentially brutal capitalism in musical form. Even the likes of Public Enemy stopped well short of challenging “the system” save for their demand that it feature a wider high-ranking black membership. Increasingly I think that hip hop’s continued (and ever escalating IMHO) materialist outlook represents both an ironic mirroring of Trump-ism and the greatest barrier to genuine left wing activity across the black youth of America. There is a great debate to be had around that viewpoint I think but I doubt tQ with its depressing liberal hand-wringing approach to politics is best placed to make it. Oh well. This Kemba dude does sound quite interesting but it seems from this review to be yet more (commendable enough, admittedly) black empowerment as opposed to the all-embracing assault on capitalism that the genre – as the genuine “voice of the streets” of the US inner cities – has for so long strangely not yielded.

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