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Full Clip: 2017’s Best Hip Hop
Tara Joshi , December 15th, 2017 16:37

After a rich year of introspective bars, and production that’s veered between glossy cloud rap and dark trap, Tara Joshi considers the best hip hop of 2017.

Vince Staples

To try and distil all of this year’s hip hop into one list is actually remarkably difficult. With fiery trap tracks, glossily produced tapes and new albums from some of the genre’s best, there were so many incredible releases this year – and that’s just looking at the States.

It’s indicative of a really fecund period in hip hop, with so many different scenes and sounds flourishing across the world. I can only recommend so much, but it’s worth saying that the UK had some amazing releases – just not that many full-lengths, and so my top 10 is in fact comprised of North American music.

At the start of the year it felt safe to assume that politics would be a big part of the 2017 hip hop agenda but, largely, the biggest rap releases of the year dealt with introspection and personal frustrations. Yes, there was RTJ3, and to an extent the work of Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, and there were more location-specific political considerations (Dave’s ‘Question Time’, Open Mike Eagle’s album, etc), but the dominating themes were far more inward-looking. Loneliness (Tyler), family (Loyle Carner), insecurity (Kamaiyah), infidelity (Jay Z), addiction (Lil Uzi Vert), teenaged sadness (Lil Yachty), general autobiographies (Vic Mensa, Wiki), all seemed to take the mainstage.

Sure, there was still plenty standard bragging and nonchalance (Denzel Curry, Young Dolph), and rising female MCs especially seemed bent on exuberant and glorious self-assurance (truly, this was Cardi B’s year), but in a time when sad Soundcloud rap has dominated, and the song of the summer had the refrain “All my friends are dead / push me to the edge”, US hip hop’s narrative especially has felt extremely personal.

At the same time, artists like Playboi Carti (and, to an extent, Migos) pushed the style-over-substance route in a really impressive way – you barely listen to what he’s talking about on his self-titled tape from this year because the delivery and the intensely polished production are so delicious.

Again, trying to explore all these facets of the genre in such a rich year was hard, but it’s also sincerely exciting to know so much is going on. Here are ten of my favourite hip hop full-lengths of 2017, picked via consultation with fellow tQ writers.

10. Open Mike Eagle - Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group)

The Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, on the southside of Chicago, was originally planned for 11,000 inhabitants – though at one time it was thought to actually house around 27,000 - 95% percent of whom were unemployed and 96% African-American. It was demolished with the false promise of replacement units, forcing families who had lived on the project for decades to disperse. Open Mike Eagle grew up in Chicago, and often visited his great aunt and cousins in Robert Taylor Homes; this album, his first as a solo artist since 2014, is inspired by their home. With rich melodic production from an array of producers (Exile and Kenny Segal among others), and dreamy lyrics imagining kids playing at fighting dragons, it’s a beautifully realised concept album, putting a much-needed face on too-easily dehumanised terms like ‘projects’ and ‘ghettos’.

9. GoldLink - At What Cost

Lush, bright and woozy sounds have become GoldLink’s speciality since he emerged with his first mixtape back in 2014. His debut album is no exception. On At What Cost, the DC rapper has made a breezy record that recalls Anderson .Paak’s sound - as much hip hop as dance statement (a feeling emphasised with gorgeous features from the likes of Jazmine Sullivan and KAYTRANADA). A standout is ‘Herside Story’, a really sweet little number with the refrain, “Baby, I’m down for you”, taken from a track by Ireland’s best R&B group, Hare Squead. ‘Roll Call’, a track with oft-overlooked R&B royalty Mya, is also particularly euphoric, while ‘Crew’ has rightly made a lot of Tracks Of The Year lists. Uplifting strings, bright production and smooth-as-fuck bars: there’s a lot to be said for this record being compulsory summer listening.

8. 21 Savage, Offset, Metro Boomin - Without Warning (Slaughter Gang)

I would be remiss to not include a release involving at least one of these men, and this collaborative Halloween special with all three perhaps best summarises their outstanding output this year. This was not a novelty release so much as a masterclass in menacing, echoey trap, really highlighting young Metro’s midas touch. In a time when we’ve become somewhat desensitised to certain tropes, there’s something about the matter-of-fact nature of lines like “she took a xanny / then she fainted”, on ‘Rap Saved Me’ that reminds us that, actually, drugs and guns and gangbanging can be as ominous as any horror film. 21 Savage’s laidback, threatening flow complements Offset’s brasher, choppier showmanship surprisingly well, and the fun and eerie theatrics (lots of Freddie Krueger references) are given a subtle, spooky playground from Metro Boomin. If this has been trap’s biggest year to date, this is the one of the best showcases of what trap can do.

7. Leikeli47 - Wash & Set (Hardcover LLC)

The mask-wearing Brooklyn rapper/singer came back after a string of hot tapes and a Jay-Z co-sign, but in reaching her debut album, she’s aware that she’s made it: “My dreams give me wings, I reached the stars last night / My imagination is now real life, no more stressin’ just successin’,” she explains in nonchalant, collected flow on Wash & Set’s opening track ‘2nd fiddle’. This is not to say that the album finds her complacent: this is the work of someone truly excited to find themselves in this position. Her versatility as both a playful and potent performer stands out – across 14 tracks, there are no features. It’s largely high-energy and distinctly her, though there are occasional explorations of styles somewhat outside of her comfort zone: the dancehall-inflected ‘Bubblegum’ and the schmaltzy 00s strings of ‘Elian’s Revenge’ (both of which do pretty much work). Aplomb with attitude, confidence, and what seems to be anti-Nicki sentiment (“flick dumb bitches off your back like Remy”), Wash & Set is full of bangers to strut to.

6. Drake - More Life (Young Money)

Aubrey’s love of distilling his favourite zeitgeist sounds has never worked so well as on More Life, his ‘playlist’ (which, as ever, showcases an understanding of streaming culture). Channelling not only the most on point sounds in current hip hop and trap, but also factoring in dancehall influences and a satisfying showcase of the UK scene, this is easily one of Drake’s best long format works, embellished fittingly with a huge number of incredible features (Young Thug, Kanye, Skepta, Quavo, Sampha, Jorja Smith). While ‘No Long Talk’ (with Giggs) can feel a little derivative of grime - like he’s watering down its essence - it’s hard to doubt Drake’s sincere affection for the genre. Meanwhile ‘Passionfruit’ sees him take his love for island sounds and pour them into a veritable cocktail of smooth house; indeed, for all the grime and hip hop pastiches, some of the strongest moments come from his playing with dance music: ‘Get It Together’ and ‘Madiba Riddim’ are both gorgeous, relaxed and lush pop songs, while ‘Teenage Fever’ is all flustered with lusty nostalgia (of course featuring classic JLo lyrics). Perhaps the weakest moment is when he briefly returns to sincere and self-pitying Drake on ‘Lose You’ - “How they go from not wantin' me at all / to wantin' to see me lose it all?”. But for the most part there’s a positive energy.

5. BROCKHAMPTON - SATURATION II (QUESTION EVERYTHING, INC)

After sleeping on their debut, finally listening to “the first boy band of the internet” (the majority of whom met via a Kanye West fan forum) has been a glorious revelation. Kevin Abstract and his Texan cohorts make tunes that bang while subverting hip hop’s braggadocio norms: “Shouldn't you have a real big-ass ego? (no) / Shouldn't these girls be flockin' just like seagulls? (eh),” Matt Champion raps wryly over the mesmerising snakecharmer vibes of ‘SWEET’. SATURATION II is the middle part of what will be a trilogy of albums, and it’s a pretty logical continuation of June’s SATURATION: a refreshingly breezy, melodic take on hip hop-meets-R&B. It’s still early days, but tracks like ‘QUEER’ show their ability to twist expectations – rather than talking Abstract’s sexuality as they have in the past, the track plays on the word as a synonym for “weird”, pounding with Romil Hemnani’s unpredictable, cartoon-y production. Believe the hype, SATURATION II marks BROCKHAMPTON out as one of the genre’s most forward-thinking, exciting collectives.

4. Princess Nokia - 1992 Deluxe (Rough Trade)

Puerto-Rican New Yorker Princess Nokia has been surrounded by buzz since about 2014, and that rose sharply last year with the release of mixtape 1992, which found the nonchalant MC spitting over boisterous beats both old-school and new. 1992 Deluxe, her debut album on Rough Trade, revisits those tracks with remastered versions and adds seven new songs. The producers aren’t especially well-known and there's maybe a handful of standout tracks (‘ABCs of New York’ and ‘Receipts’ included); it's her voice and bars that make Princess Nokia’s output such an impressive, thrilling listen. “I am the real deal,” she brags, with visceral but languid confidence, and it’s true: every line is delivered with searing conviction. In the way she seizes the narrative of her body (“my little titties and my phat belly!”) and her hair (“it’s mine, I bought it”), the way she’s comfortable in her weirdness (referencing her love of goth cartoon Emily The Strange) - at its best this is a call to arms for women of colour, gloriously subverting every poppy expectation you might have of a female MC.

3. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN (TDE)

In truth, this album took me a long time to ‘get’. With Kendrick releases especially, the immediate fervour with which they are received can be a little frustrating: online review culture with someone as hallowed as the Compton rapper means that everything he does is immediately a masterpiece, and trying to listen to and engage with something in the midst of all the noise can be a bit thankless. But returning to it some months after its release, there’s no doubt this is an exquisite, powerful album packed with internal conflict pertaining to faith (the “ain’t nobody praying for me” refrain floats past many times over) and confronting his fears. Laden with rich production and moments of sweet choral delicacy and dreamy guitars that jar beautifully with clashing sirens of synth, it’s pleasant if not innovative to listen to: as ever, it is his lyrical prowess and delivery that marks Kendrick apart: he can’t fake humble just ’cos your ass is insecure.

2. Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy (Columbia)

Much of the discourse surrounding this release ended up being about the Odd Future man’s sexuality (“next line’s gonna have ‘em like ‘whoa’ / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”), but to reduce Tyler’s album to a possible coming out - or, indeed, a trolling of the music news media - somewhat misses the point and ignores how gorgeous an LP this is. Flower Boy is a deft, emotionally intelligent record with a sunshine-laced warmth and intimacy, and - though it’s not unfair to question his sincerity given his propensity for trolling and controversy - Tyler’s gruff ruminations on dreamy romance and modern loneliness are some of the most poignant put to music this year. On ‘See You Again’, he joins forces with Kali Uchis to ponder infatuation (“You exist behind my eyelids, I don’t want to wake up”), while the extraordinary ‘911 / Mr Lonely’ gains extra resonance not just through stark lyrics (“I can’t even lie, I been lonely as fuck”), but through smooth vocals from Anna Of The North, Steve Lacy and Frank Ocean. Though imbued with emotion it’s not as angsty as Cherry Bomb, and Flower Boy retains that in-your-face, tongue-in-cheek spit that Tyler excels at. Be it the glorious ‘Groove is in the Heart’-sampling ‘I Ain’t Got Time!’ or the hot minute of Lil’ Wayne-featuring ‘Droppin’ Seeds’, this is an excellent record.

1. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)

There is so much to unpack here, particularly for an album that clocks in at 36 minutes. North Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has a lot to say - perhaps unsurprising given the urgency of America’s race problem and his relatively recent rise to fame - but what’s especially impressive is how he conveys his messages so succinctly, imbuing short phrases with such overarching meaning in his delivery and his symbolism. Staples proves that music can be ‘important’ as well as being really banging, with exquisite, genre-diving production (‘Crabs In A Bucket’ owes so much to ‘A Little Bit Of Luck’, in a very good way). He doesn’t care for being labelled a rapper, perhaps, but in just being himself he has created one of the finest exponents of the genre this year. Hip hop is punk, it’s poetry, but also it’s party music – Big Fish Theory is an outstanding album that shows all of these exquisite possibilities, and Staples makes it seem like the easiest thing in the world.

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