The 50 Best Hip Hop and R&B Songs of 2016 (So Far)

High profile releases from the likes of Kanye, Drake, and Beyoncé, plus show-stealers from Chance the Rapper, Skepta, Anderson .Paak and dvsn have fleshed out what has been a very strong six months for hip hop and R&B.

We’ve also seen emerging talents like Gallant and Joyner Lucas, comebacks from Fat Joe and Maxwell, and some homegrown heaters by Baro, Manu Crook$, and A.B Original – the duo of Briggs and Trials.

Now that we’re into the second half of 2016, it’s time to reflect on the best…

Note that we’ve tried to ensure no artist appears more than twice (unless a featuring artist).

50. PARTYNEXTDOOR Feat Drake – Come and See Me (Remix)

Album: TBA
Further Listening: “Like Dat (Feat Jeremih & Lil’ Wayne)”

Who knew that behind all those vocal effects hid a superb voice that drips with the kind of poignancy many singers could only dream of. I was ready to write PND straight off when I heard the horrendous “With You” from Drake’s Views, but “Come and See Me” is proving difficult to resist. The sparse, skittering jam has a dark, moody vibe which proves perfect for PND and guest Drake to navigate with sincere laments on the space between two lovers, effective and lonely over the twinkling keys and faint, eery jazz that hold the production together.

49. Vic Mensa – 16 Shots

Album: There’s A Lot Going On
Further Listening: “There’s A Lot Going On”, “Dynasty”

Vic Mensa needed something like this. Personal troubles have stunted the young Chicago rapper’s potential in previous years and even though “U Mad?” made a sizable impact, Mensa could never quite capitalise on any success. It seems the hip hop world almost counted him out until he dropped his latest mixtape, coming out swinging by channeling brutal introspection and frustration, best heard on the tape’s eyebrow-raising title track.

It’s the impassioned “16 Shots” that is the superior track here though, a necessary showing of a young, hungry emcee that is determined to rise above mediocrity and really make his mark on the game, navigating his way around a track that settles for a happy medium between substance and style. This is a step in the right direction.

48. Ngaiire – I Wear Black

Album: Blastoma
Further Listening: “I Can’t Hear God Anymore”

Sydney artist Ngaiire is at her best when she’s given ample room to let that gorgeous voice soar. On “I Wear Black”, her vocals drip over a simple, addictive pattern, keeping electronics restrained in the background but still kicking enough the give the beat some colour. Her excellent, emotional album Blastoma is full of quality moments like this, but this high-flying soulful number is most definitely a highlight, fitting nicely onto an R&B playlist, though stretching far beyond genre.

Ngaiire plays Splendour in the Grass this month – find out where you can be seeing her gig, HERE.

47. Rihanna – Kiss It Better

Album: ANTI
Further Listening: “Needed Me”, “Work”, “Consideration (Feat SZA)”

ANTI may not be Rihanna’s absolute best offering, but “Kiss It Better” is certainly one of her most well-rounded singles to date. The blissful pop is loud and Rihanna’s performance packs a punch, performing a duet with a screeching guitar that is soft and sensual but full of a forceful energy, showing off the strength behind that stunning voice which only seems to get better with age.

46. Clams Casino Feat. Vince Staples – All Nite

Album: 32 Levels
Further Listening: “A Breathe Away (Feat. Kelela)”

If Clams Casino gave this fast-flowing, cloudy beat to anyone but Vince Staples it would have never had the explosive energy which the young Long Beach emcee brings. Staples is always exciting to listen to, and his elastic flow sounds right at home over this production, matching the tone with a furious urgency that, although not really reaching the depth of Summertime ’06, is another solid collaboration from the two artists.

45. Baro Feat. Nasty Mars & Marcus – wdubi

Album: Just Problems You Need To Know EP

Melbourne rapper Baro was clearly so inspired by Chance the Rapper that he went and made the best Chance the Rapper track that doesn’t feature Chance the Rapper. It’s soulful with a lot of jazz in the structure, a love song of sorts with a gospel lean from producer Nic Martin who throws in waves of horns that bounce off handclaps and soft skittering drums for Baro and his guests to play around with. This is a fun one, and if Baro keeps pumping out quality like this then his forthcoming EP will be an essential release for the hip hop scene in Australia this year.

Find out when you can be catching Baro at Splendour in the Grass this month, HERE.

44. Denzel Curry Feat Lofty305 – Flying Nimbus

Album: Unreleased
Further Listening: “ULT”, “Pure Enough”

This dark, energetic trap beat proves perfect for Denzel’s breathless steam-of-consciousness flow. It’s pure, ferocious chaos on the surface – as most of his tracks are – but this young Miami emcee is clearly emerging as one of the most exciting voices in new-gen hip hop. He has made the XXL Freshmen list this year, and honestly he is one of only three or four (including Anderson .Paak, Dave East, and Lil’ Dicky) who actually deserve to be there.

43. Fat Joe & Remy Martin Feat. Jay Z, Infrared & French Montana – All The Way Up (Remix)

Album: Platas o Plomo
Further Listening: “All The Way Up (Westside Remix) Feat Snoop Dogg, E-40 & The Game”

It’s a Terror Squad comeback of sorts – even Cool & Dre are in the picture – and both Fat Joe and Remy Martin make the most of it over this anthemic beat. It’s also the first song with French Montana I’ve ever been able to listen to all the way through, and so that alone earns it’s spot on this list. Bringing in Hov was a clever move, as was his headline-generating verse referencing Beyoncé‘s Lemonade while at the same time nodding to the late, great Guru (of Gang Starr).

42. Joyner Lucas – Say Hello To Adele

Further Listening: “Kill The Panda”

My main issue with this year’s XXL Freshman list isn’t that it includes some of the most boring rappers around, but that it doesn’t include Joyner Lucas. Last year’s “Ross Capicchioni” highlighted his prodigious ability to turn a creative two-sided story into a compelling hip hop track, but since then he’s been showing off more of his dexterity as an emcee, most notably with a jaw-dropping remix of Desiigner‘s “Panda”, but most impressively with the curiously titled “Say Hello to Adele”. After his group Film Skool Rejekts disbanded a few years ago, Lucas has been quietly showing the world how hungry for that number one spot he is, and if this is any indication, Lucas should be well on his way to chomping the top of the charts soon enough.

41. Tank – So Cold

Album: Sex Love & Pain II
Further Listening: “Fucking With Me”, “You Don’t Know (Feat. Wale)”

Tank has never quite reached the peak that was the original Sex Love & Pain and sadly the album’s long-awaited sequel isn’t doing the stalwart R&B vocalist too many favours. As a whole, the album lacks the excitement of the original, save for a few tracks, like “So Cold”. The rough and smooth textures in his voice has always made for a winning combination, and this sex-hungry plea fully highlights that. Now if he just focuses in on this style for his next project, we’ll stop waiting for another TGT album.

40. Snakehips Feat. Anderson .Paak – Money On Me

Album: All My Friends EP
Further Listening: “All My Friends (Feat Chance the Rapper & Tinashe)”

Anderson .Paak is clearly in high demand for features, his style could make even the blandest production sound like a winner. Luckily, Snakehips don’t take their work lightly, and for “Money On Me”, the UK producers have chiseled a beat suit to .Paak’s experimental flow, turning in a breezy mid-tempo beat that’s infectious and warm enough to bring the L.A singer to a more commercial audience.

Snakehips play Splendour in the Grass this month – check out their sideshows if you can’t make the Byron festival, HERE.

39. Nipsey Hussle Feat Snoop Dogg – Question #1

Album: Victory Lap
Further Listening: “Ocean Views” “I Do This (Feat. Young Thug & Mozzy)”

Nipsey Hussle has been going from strength to strength with his “Marathon Mondays” series, releasing a constant stream of cuts highlighting his classic West Coast style, and bringing in a few guests to bounce it off of. It’s Snoop that brings the best out of Nipsey though and it feels like the Doggfather is passing the torch, both sounding charged-up over the G-funky Myguymars & Mike & Keys production.

38. ScHoolboy Q Feat Kanye West – THat Part

Album: Blank Face
Further Listening: “Groovy Tony, Eddie Kane (Feat. Jadakiss)”, “Tookie Knows II”

ScHoolboy Q and Kanye bring a dark, woozy atmosphere for “THat Part”, claustrophobic like the music video which sits in the middle of hyper-bright and hyper-dark. Kanye surprisingly steals the entire track from Q, refusing to actually make sense and just melting into the hypnotic trunk-rattler offered by production duo Cardo and Sounwave. Like the best Q tracks, it’s got that quiet storm appeal, brooding but bright enough to lend itself to ‘Ye’s half-goofy, half-serious contribution.

Find out where you can catch ScHoolboy Q in Australia this year HERE

37. 2 Chainz & Lil’ Wayne – Bounce

Album: ColleGrove
Further Listening: “Blue C-Note”

It’s frantic and off-the-wall, a dizzying club anthem that’s tied together with monstrous rolling 808’s to build a wave of bass on which both Weezy and 2 Cheezy sound most comfortable. Wayne has been borderline intolerable post-Carter II (so, for a long time now) but he comes through here, and while neither emcee are saying much, their infectious back and forth smacks you with a big hit of energy.

36. Remi Feat. Sampa The Great – For Good

Album: Divas and Demons
Further Listening: “Substance Therapy”

Producer Sensible J is MVP on “For Good”, despite fantastic chemistry from Remi and Sampa the Great. For Remi’s lead single from the forthcoming follow-up to his awarded Raw x Infinity, the producer has turned in an ethereal package of disco-funk that sounds like it came out of a Soulquarians session, a light and airy platform for Remi and Sampa to wax on relationships with a serious dose of chill.

35. A.B Original – 2 Black 2 Strong

Album: Self-Titled
Further Listening: “Firing Squad (Feat Hau)”

Briggs and Trials came out hard with their latest joint project A.B Original, and it’s no wonder they chose this punchy cut for the lead single. Briggs in particular has that really forceful, in-your-face delivery and witty style that syncs up perfectly with the beat’s aggressive hit, leading with the blend of irreverence humour and blunt social awareness that makes his raps so appealing. Trials is by no means falling behind here though, keeping perfect pace with the beat and bringing a bit of melody to Briggs’ bass, both elevating the beat with an obvious determination to make the words “2 Black 2 Strong” more than just the name of the song.

34. YG – Still Brazy

Album: Still Brazy
Further Listening: “Twist My Fingaz”

Who knew Ty Dolla $ign was that competent on the boards? Along with DJ Swish, the rapper-singer-producer has given YG a monster with “Still Brazy”, the title track from the Compton rapper’s recently released sophomore. It’s minimalist G-funk with the non-stop energy of hyphy, marrying the streets of L.A with the Bay Area while YG showcases a deeper, more vulnerable style that addresses fame and the paranoia he understandably feels following his unfortunate shooting incident last year.

The sound and style is perfectly in-line with what made My Krazy Life such a compelling listen, but trims the radio-friendly fat to bring YG closer to classic West Coast. Daz and Kurupt need to jump on a remix of this asap.

33. Spark Master Tape – Tenkkeys

Album: Silhouette of a Sunkken City
Further Listening: “Livin’ Lavish”

With a syrupy chopped and screwed sound, elusive rapper Spark Master Tape hits hard with “Tenkkeys”, delivering a banger that sounds like something Slim Thug could only dream of. Producer Paper Platoon has handed Spark a mix of Houston and Memphis hip hop, possibly dropping some much needed clues about the emcee’s origins, but most importantly crafting what is undeniably the best homage to DJ Screw this year.

32. Skepta – Detox

Album: Konnichiwa
Further Listening: “Man”, “Crime Riddim”

Skepta has brought UK hip hop back into the global spotlight with his dark, in-your-face style and absolutely no bullshit approach to blending trap and grime. Konnichiwa met all those high expectations he worked on last year, and tracks like “Detox” completely justify the hype that continues to surround the emcee and put him in high demand for live shows around world.

Skepta is touring Australia and New Zealand later this year, suss the dates HERE.

31. Konan – Last Night in L.A

Album: TBA
Further Listening: “Falling” (Krept & Konan)

Konan is a beast on the grime scene, storming right to the frontlines with the solid slap of lyrical fury that makes up “Last Night in L.A”. The beat is but a negligible pile of scraps once the emcee is done chopping it up, inflamed with a word play that puts him far ahead of more than just handful of his peers.

30. T.I Feat Marsha Ambrosius – Dope

Album: The Dime Trap
Further Listening: “Money Talk”

Dr Dre has worked with Tip a few times in the past, but it’s always resulted in unreleased material. “Dope” is their first official single together, and Dre isn’t taking it lightly, ambitiously sampling Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” to give the King of the South a smooth, soulful single lifted

even higher by Marsha Ambrosius’ valuable contribution. T.I may be at his strongest with “street singles” like “U Don’t Know Me” and “What You Know”, but “Dope” is primed to go down as one of his best in recent years. It may not be the “Trap Muzik” tip that his fans always demand whenever he releases new material, but for a single “Dope” does just fine.

29. Stormzy – Scary

Album: TBA

It’s clear Stormzy is pulling no punches in the lead up to his debut full-length, menacing those who dare oppose him with “Scary”. The track is a powerful assertion from one of the dominant emcees championing the wide-spread resurgence of Grime, highlighting his heavyweight rhymes to make “Scary” much more than just the gassed-up beat. If the album – whenever it does actually come out – is full of heady material like this then we could be looking at the grime release of the year.

Stormzy hits Australia for the Listen Out tour this year! Suss the dates, HERE.

28. Kevin Gates – Really Really

Album: Islah
Further Listening: “La Familia”, “Jam (Feat. Trey Songz, Ty Dolla $ign & Jamie Foxx)”

I could easily listen to Kevin Gates rap all day – which isn’t hard, since he has a ridiculous amount of material for someone who only really emerged as a force in hip hop over the past few years – with his raps often as interesting and revealing as his always colourful interviews.

Charismatic and croaky, Gates’ voice has commitment embedded in every note, really staying true to his “I don’t get tired” motto, and “Really Really” is one of the best examples of that. Sure, the man says some questionable things every now and then, but when your spitting with this much passion and sounding this good, all is forgiven.

27. Tory Lanez – L.A Confidential

Album: I Told You*
Further Listening: “Luv”

Tory Lanez is on track to become a big name in the commercial music industry and “L.A Confidential” is a worthy follow up to keep the ball rolling from smash “Say It”. It’s springy, vast R&B, co-written by Miguel and produced by Cashmere Cat, Benny Blanco, and Pop Wansel, obviously targeted towards some well deserved mainstream success. Lanez’ breathy tone and background as an equally capable rapper lends well to his style here, and he focuses on the strengths to bring the most out of the meandering production.

26. Yo Gotti – Pay the Price

Album: The Art of Hustle
Further Listening: “Down in the DM”m “Momma”

20 years later and Yo Gotti continues to be one of the loudest and most consistent voices coming from the south, and if Art of the Hustle is anything to go by, the emcee is realising that the more he opens up about his life, the better off his music is. “Momma” is one of his most revealing songs to date, but it’s “Pay the Price” that straddles that sensitive line between dope and real, with chilling strings that sound like they’ve been lifted from an old black-and-white gangster film.

25. Isaiah Rashad – Smile

Album: TBA
Further Listening: “Nelly”

Top Dawg Entertainment are looking to build up Isaiah to the same level as ScHool, Ab, SZA, Kendrick and Jay Rock, but it’s the rapper himself that’ll make it all possible. Isaiah Rashad is just as lyrical and adaptable than his better known label mates, and “Smile” is a great showing of that. It’s not as dark and tough as ScHoolboy, not as socially charged as Kendrick, not as mellow and spaced out as Ab-Soul, or not as rugged as Jay; rather Isaiah is bringing a necessary personality that draws from each, floating over a slow swaying beat that’s alive with a Brazilian soul sample and a groovy bassline, coloured with a dynamic flow and murmured singing.

24. Desiigner – Panda

Album: New English
Further Listening: “Overnight”

Desiigner may sound like a carbon copy of Future at times, but he also represents a progression of that style, one that moves away from the hyper-repetitive noise Young Hendrix frequently indulges in (What a Time to Be Alive got stale, fast) and towards something that channels the sound into a more complex flow. Sure, the hook is what it’s all about here, but that verse is killer; it’s just a shame that his mixtape isn’t.

23. dvsn – The Line

Album: Sept. 5th
Further Listening: “Too Deep”, “Do It Well”, “Angela”

Canadian R&B duo dvsn have a brilliant album in their hands with Sept. 5th, presenting spacious soul music that flows and throbs with genuine emotion thanks to vocalist Daniel Daley‘s silky, strong, gospel-like tones and Paul Jefferies‘ swathing, velvety production. “The Line” was released in the final week of December, slowly but surely making it’s way across the digital world and trumpeting a new force in “Alt-R&B”, tiding us over nicely while Frank Ocean takes his sweet time.

22. A-F-R-O & Marco Polo – Long Time Coming

Album: A-F-R-O Polo

This is a lesson in technical rapping, the words bouncing off each other with A-F-R-O’s rubbery flow set over Marco Polo’s tough drums and simple piano loop. The 18 year old L.A based emcee is set to make mentor R.A The Rugged Man proud, with all those years of rapping (dude has been going at it since the age of 11) paying off on his album A-F-R-O Polo, best showcased by this excellent lead single.

21. Sampha – Timmy’s Prayer

Further Listening: “Saint Pablo (Kanye West Feat. Sampha)”

Sampha’s charming “Timmy’s Prayer” is fragile and desperate, reminiscent of his valuable contribution to Drake’s excellent “Too Much”. The Brit blends electronica and R&B so perfectly on this standout single, building patiently towards a warm, quiet explosion of effects and drums that take his vocal performance to another level before the muffled end softly brings it back to earth.

20. Manu Crook$ – Everyday

Album: TBA
Further Listening: “Blowin Up (Feat. Miracle)”

On first listen to the hook, it’s easy to dismiss Manu Crook$ as another paint-by-numbers rapper trying to appeal to the style of hip hop most popular with millennials, but that would be a foolish assessment. The young Sydney emcee clearly has sense of structure often lost on lesser artists, not indulging in autotune but using it to add a crunchy texture to his vocals in between rhythmic, relaxed bars that are confident and full of a swagger, bouncing off Dopamine’s on-off carnival chimes and rolling over the bass like a well-traveled, well-rehearsed rhymer, poised to be the next ‘big’ thing in Australia’s hip hop scene.

19. Gallant – Bourbon

Album: Ology
Further Listening: “Open Up”, “Episode”

The conviction in Gallant’s tender tones beautify the slinky vintage production in a similar fashion to Solange on her breakout 2012 EP True. There’s no Blood Orange here though, with L.A producer STiNT emerging as a valuable asset for Gallant’s Ology, building a melodramatic beat that could easily soundtrack the most beautiful of bitter-sweet sunsets.

18. Snoop Dogg – Super Crip

Album: CoolAid Man
Further Listening: “CoolAid Man”, “Don’t Stop (Feat Too Short)”, “What If (Feat. Suga Free)”

And the biggest surprise of the mid-year goes to Snoop Dogg. Don’t get me wrong, the iconic rapper has put out some quality cuts in previous years (7 Days of Funk, Tha Blue Carpet Treatment) but nothing has ever quite come close to Doggystyle or even Tha Last Meal for the Doggfather. While that’s still the case, we have one of Snoop’s best solo albums in years with CoolAid Man, which brings promises of a veteran who has not at all lost his way, focused without trying to play into a niche, and playing to his strengths.

While most of the album is soft, two-stepping Cali funk, “Super Crip”, the hardest track on the album, sticks out. Those hardcore snares slowly kicking in give Snoop a rough, rugged cut to flex his lyrical muscle in a similar sense to ear-shattering classics like “Murder Was the Case” and “Set It Off”.

17. Bishop Nehru – Do What You Love

Further Listening: “Cake Up”, “How It Goes”

19 year old emcee Bishop Nehru is at his best over classic 90s hip hop production, straying too far from this mostly always trips him up. Thankfully, “Do What You Love” brings him back to his element, flipping a Jazzy Jeff classic with the smoothest of flows, showcasing the young rapper’s nimble way of navigating throwback rap in a way very few rappers his age are doing right now.

16. Clipping. – Wriggle

Album: Wriggle EP
Further Listening: “Shooter”

Daveed Diggs has enjoyed a huge profile amongst the commercial world with his hit double-role in Broadway musical Hamilton, but his part in experimental rap trio clipping. remains decidedly underground. The title track from their new EP is an immediate footwork-twisted banger with the group’s sound designers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes building a harsh, minimalistic tone that’s got enough dynamism for Diggs to throw his rhythms around and really place “Wriggle” as one of the most unique rap singles so far this year.

15. Freeway – Legendary

Album: Free Will
Further Listening: “Kane & Abel”, “Hot As Ice”

Often the most exciting hip hop releases each year come from simple hook ups between accomplished lyricists and producers who are going through a creative spurt. It’s what made 2010s The Stimulus Package, a collaboration between Freeway and Jake One, such a sleeper hit – a cult album if you will – and since then it seems like a great range of beatmakers are giving their best works to the ex-Roc-a-fella emcee.

On Free Will, Freeway has tapped into Girl Talk, Tryfe, and L.E.S. & Chemist, a far cry away from Just Blaze and Bink!, for beats on which he sounds most comfortable, and which open him up to some of the best and most consistent verses of his career. The strongest case for this is “Legendary”, a confident statement from a rapper who hasn’t been in the limelight since “What We Do”, but a justified statement none the less as Freeway moves up the ranks as one of the most reliable “had a few hits now do underground shit” emcees around today.

14. Ro James – Permission

Album: El Dorado
Further Listening: “The Ride”

Ro James has that romantic mix of falsetto and baritone that’s absolutely necessary when wrapping around such an alluring beat as this, pulling the best song his career and the best choice for El Dorado’s lead single. It’s gritty and soft, rolling that simple chord over a slick, sexed-up performance. Unfortunately the full album doesn’t quite hit this high mark (except the incredible “The Ride”), but it speaks to a potential that reaches into the ranks of the current R&B elite, where Frank Ocean and Miguel reside.

13. Drake – Hype

Album: Views
Further Listening: “Keep the Family Close”, “U With Me?”, “Weston Road Flows”

Views is a good album, but it’s not an excellent one, not even a great one; Views is nowhere near the level of Take Care and Nothing Was The Same, but it still has more than a few high points, with “Hype” being the apex. Aside from the emotionally indulgent intro of “Keep The Family Close”, “Hype” is the best turn for Drake in 2016, mixing paranoia and arrogance into a potent pot of righteous fury that attacks the very hype machine that affords him the luxury of having his most disappointing album stay at the top of the charts for weeks. Industry fakes remain in Drizzy’s sight throughout the album, but he really only hits them with this one.

12. Logic Feat Pusha T – Wrist

Album: Bobby Tarantino
Further Listening: “The Jam”, “Flexicution”

The “two lyrical heavy-hitters going in over a dope beat” track of the year was supposed to go to Pusha T’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous” with Jay Z but – and Jay is the G.O.A.T to me – Hov’s verse was disappointing and unfortunately dragged the otherwise massive single down a few notches. That leaves space for “Wrist” to go down as a memorable meeting of two highly skilled emcees, and while the beat isn’t as unique as “Drug Dealers Anonymous”, Logic and King Push are hard as they move around this frantic production. The breaks and builds make for a dynamic beat, perfect for a rapid, action-packed drug lord narrative. It’s not as deep as something like “Tree of Life” but it makes another strong case for Logic being mentioned in the same breathe as the biggest players in the industry right now.

11. Chance the Rapper Feat T-Pain, Kirk Franklin Noname & Eryn Allen Kane – Finish Line/Drown

Album: Coloring Book
Further Listening: “All We Got (Feat Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir)”, “All Night (Feat Knox Fortune)”

Coloring Book is a huge achievement for Chance the Rapper, a logical, focused next step from last year’s Surf and his stunning contribution to Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”. It’s a versatile, brilliantly structured project that ends with “Finish Line/Drown”, the albums longest track and one of its best.

Chance’s energising faith is bellied with a soaring gospel choir and his equally weighty guests, all of whom colour the song without overwhelming it, using the track’s length and character to beam their own blessings with a confidence and optimism that’s defiantly opposing the darker side of popular hip hop. Even if you don’t share in Chance’s faith, trying to resist the charm of this song is near impossible.

10. Oddisee – Brea

Album: The Odd Tape
Further Listening: “Born Before Yesterday”

Underrated rapper-producer Oddisee has been giving us these instrumental hip hop gems for awhile now, but “Brea” may just be his most beautiful work yet. Rusty hip hop drums and a beautiful line of twinkling keys run through, lush and moody but wide-reaching with a grand core of cymbals and horns. You don’t need lyrics with production this good.

9. Anderson .Paak Feat The Game & Sonyae Elise – Room In Here

Album: Malibu
Further Listening: “The Waters (Feat. BJ The Chicago Kid)” “Am I Wrong (Feat ScHoolboy Q)”

There was much backlash about this year’s XXL Freshman list, but everyone seemed to agree that the most important, and most deserving artist on that list was Anderson .Paak. The multi-talented L.A producer-singer-rapper was one of the most memorable parts of Dr Dre’s album/soundtrack Compton and while it took some time to truly capitalise on that momentum, .Paak has delivered on the promise that the world first heard on stand-out cuts “Animals” and “Deep Water”. Now we’ve got Malibu, a record that will undoubtedly go down as one of this year’s best releases, teaming .Paak up with shards of disco, funk, R&B, hip hop for an incredibly versatile and consistent album that flows from intro to end, fitting an engaging musical journey in between.

It’s hard to pick between songs, but the breathy, husky soul of “Room In Here” is surely one of the LP’s most endearing moments, even taming The Game who matches Anderson’s tender tone with a verse that, while nothing impressive lyrically, keeps that smooth texture sliding over the intimate grand piano just fine.

Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals are going to be on the Listen Out tour this year – find out where, HERE.

8. Maxwell – Lake By The Ocean

Album: blackSUMMERS’night
Further Listening: “Gods”, “Listen Here”, “Of All Kind”

Maxwell has jumped back into the game with his latest album, and evidently the man hasn’t lost his cool, lead single “Lake By the Ocean” eclipsing most R&B singles this year with its intimate, suave groove. Those stuttered, chopped up drums and classical piano anchor Maxwell’s ethereal vocals as he approaches his comeback with an earnest sense of style, wrapping it all up with that spellbinding falsetto.

Maxwell will be in Australia this August for two exclusive dates, HERE.

7. Beyoncé – Formation

Album: Lemonade
Further Listening: “Hold Up”, “Freedom (Feat Kendrick Lamar)”

The album release as an artistic statement is becoming more common among industry key players, but Beyoncé has surpassed the others with true internet-breaking dominance. Lemonade will go down as one of the most memorable releases of commercial music in recent memory, a film as much as an album that captures a wide range of emotions and exposes supposed infidelity, full of rage, empowerment, understanding, rejection, and understanding.

Add a wider social commentary to the mix and you have a complex film/album that truly captures the artistic freedom and power Beyoncé is able to express while still sitting at the very top of the music industry and pop culture at large. Still, its lead single “Formation” that is her most confident and realised turn here, Bey nimbly strutting through a politically-charged rally call and a plucky Mike WiLL Made-It production that plays under the vocals with snaps and synths.

6. Chance the Rapper Feat 2 Chainz & Lil’ Wayne – No Problem

Album: Coloring Book
Further Listening: “Mixtape (Feat Young Thug & Lil’ Yachty)”

The only reason this track isn’t ranked higher is that both 2 Chainz and Lil’ Wayne – especially Lil’ Wayne – are rather weak and dull on this otherwise brilliant cut from Coloring Book. If this was a Chance solo then this may have gone down as “Song of the Year”, but despite shortcomings the joyful bravado of “No Problem” is infectious thanks mainly to an electrifying hook and Chano’s free-floating verse. The chopped up gospel sample swirling underneath Chance speaks to the overall playful positivity that characterises Coloring Book, positioning Chance in a league of his own and furthering what he tapped into for his verse on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”.

5. Royce Da 5’9 – Tabernacle

Album: Layers
Further Listening: “Layers (Feat. Pusha T & Rick Ross)”, “Dope (Feat Lauren W. Coden)”

Royce Da 5’9 has long been a stalwart in hip hop, constantly bringing honour to Detroit’s scene, a masterful lyricist that’s also been one of the most consistent – and consistently underrated – in the entire industry. He has always been able to string together jaw-dropping verses, but on his latest album Layers he decides to channel all that into his most deeply personal and thoughtful outing to date, and “Tabernacle” is the introduction to all of that.

Some really meaty bass and a frantic, gospel like piano piece soundtrack a true story that’s designed as Royce reflecting on his come-up and the most significant day in his life. Themes of life, death, and faith come together as Royce both talks and raps about the night he met Eminem, the night his grandmother died, and the night his first son was born – all events which happened on the same night, which he calls the most significant day of his life. It also adds another layer of depth to the “5’9” in his stage name, being that his grandmother was dying in the hospital on the 5th floor, while in the same building his girlfriend was giving birth on the 9th floor.

4. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled 07|Levitate

Album: untitled. unmastered
Further Listening: “Untitled 02”, “Untitled 08”

Kendrick’s collection of from-the-cutting-room-floor sessions is best taken in as a complete package rather than any separate track, but one that does stick out over the rest is “Untitled 07”, often referred to as “Levitate” after the encouraging four-word chant that’s loosely spread throughout the track. The structure is skillfully taped together from three parts recorded over what seems like a three year period, tasking Kendrick with rapid and drastic changes in tone as he jumps from beat to beat wrestling his own conscious and confidence.

3. Kanye West Feat. Ty Dolla $ign – Real Friends

Album: The Life of Pablo
Further Listening: “No More Parties in L.A (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)”, “30 Hours”, “FML (Feat. The Weeknd)”

That dark dusty drum loop sounds like it’s been lifted from a Mobb Deep record (no surprise that Havoc has a production credit here), locking Kanye and guest Ty Dolla $ign (who I wasn’t a fan of until I heard this) into a reflective, almost sad and dreary ambiance. It’s here that we get the most human turn from Kanye in some time, conveying a vulnerability that rarely gets a peep over the most salient shots at the superstar’s ego.

‘Ye is rapping about betrayal and regret here; similarly to Drake on Views, the theme is loyalty, but rather than Drizzy’s heavy-handed and arrogant approach, we get an endearing lament from a man who is almost obsessed with analysing the good and bad of celebrity and how that has impacted his personal life. Ty Dolla bounces off Kanye’s raps and the spacious production with some much needed soul, adding his own gritty texture to shape this as one of West’s best and most humbled works to date.

2. Anderson .Paak – Come Down

Album: Malibu
Further Listening: “Without You”

As mentioned earlier on in this list, Malibu will go own as one of the most memorable albums of this year and an important, wider introduction to a fascinating talent. Veteran producer Hi-Tek handles the production on lead single “Come Down”, gifting a raspy Paak the bassline of the year, low down and dirty beneath those static drums which launch the L.A vocalist into a slick-talking celebration (or promise) of some very well deserved success.

A cosmic slopped guitar kicks in at the end to twist the beat a bit and give it some real meat, closing out a modern interpretation of James Brown level funk, the type that commands the dancefloor with razor-sharp charm that shuffles over that beat unlike anything heard in the past few years. The remix with T.I is even better, but unfortunately a recorded version is hard to come across.

Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals are going to be on the Listen Out tour this year – find out where, HERE.

1. Kanye West Feat Chance The Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream & Kelly Price – Ultralight Beam

Album: The Life of Pablo
Further Listening: “Father Stretch My Hands 1 & 2 (Feat Kid CuDi & Desiigner)”, “Famous”, “High Lights”

This is Kanye West’s most original song to date, looking back to the likes of “Family Business” and “Never Let Me Down” to continue the producer’s love of embellishing his music with the strength of theatrical gospel soul.

When Kanye first claimed that his album would be a gospel album, he was met with the usual, vapid mockery from those who are regularly upset (like so upset) by his highly publicised ego, but it soon became apparent that yes, The Life of Pablo is greatly infused with the vigor of church music, and it’s all the better for it. The influence is most apparent on “Ultralight Beam” tethered to transcendental contributions from a sugary The-Dream, powerful Kelly Price, passionate Kirk Franklin and, most memorably, a super-charged Chance the Rapper.

Chano laid the groundwork that would illustrate his own Coloring Book, giving us a career-best verse that adds his effervescent personality to the sparse production as Donny Trumpet’s brass swells behind him as if this was a track originally recorded for Surf before being transposed and transfigured by West. Meanwhile, Kanye generously plays towards the back, mostly relegated to the hook-slinger as his competency as a musical director is highlighted, expertly balancing these shapes in the lead up to a haunting choral curtain close.

I’ve read a few reviews which describe Kanye as the weakest link on his own album and point to his relative absence on “Ultralight Beams” as evidence. That would be missing the point. Kanye is and always will be primarily a producer, a composer placing form over function, bringing together disparate bits to structure his songs with an emphasis on tone and style. Through that lens, “Ultralight Beam” is a stroke of a genius, a brilliant benediction to shift the bombast of Yeezus and expose “the old Kanye” that has been behind the mask all along.

Honourable Mentions:

Joey Bada$$ – “Devastated”
Showbiz & A.G Feat M.Gage & Abless – “Toe to Toe”
Meyhem Lauren Feat. Big Body Bes – “Badmon Ting”
Elzhi – “Saturdays”
J Dilla Feat. Nas – “The Sickness”
Phife Dawg – “Nutshell”
DJ Shadow Feat Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”
Sylvan LaCue – “Heavenly”
BJ The Chicago Kid Feat Kendrick Lamar – “The New Cupid”
Rittz – “Top of the Line”
Pusha T Feat Jay Z – “Drug Dealers Anonymous”
Mistah F.A.B. Feat. Jadakiss – “What Yo Hood Like”
Havoc & The Alchemist – “Maintain (Fuck How You Feel)”

*Not confirmed to appear on the album