For Hip Hop, 2016 was the year of cosigning anything and everything. So called ‘mumble rap’ became a thing and there was a massive push back against the term ‘real Hip Hop’, championing newcomers like Lil’ Yachty and Lil’ Uzi Vert (who, like it or not, have been attached to the music and the culture) so hard that it actually became fashionable to mockingly write any dissenting views off as ‘old’ (as well as seminal emcees as ‘irrelevant’ – a term which itself, is irrelevant in Hip Hop culture).
It’s not all bad though, new-gen rappers/rhymers are bringing fresh voices to the table and while most are just vapid textures with a catchy melody, producers and more established artists are finding ways to use these to create interesting music (Metro Boomin & 21 Savage‘s “No Heart” being a good example).
R&B has seen a similar trend in recent years, regressing into homogenous territory after future-legends like Frank Ocean and Miguel added some much needed diversity. Still, some real strong voices have emerged and left all the Drake clones in the dust; Ro James, berhana and Khalid showed some massive potential, Tory Lanez released his underappreciated debut (which was overshadowed by Frank Ocean), Anderson .Paak became one of the most in-demand voices in the music industry, and we were gifted the long-awaited return of neo-soul legend Maxwell. Then you had Beyoncé, Rihanna and Solange, three very different chart-dominating artists with projects that were just as much statements are they were collections of great music.
On the home front we saw the huge debut from A.B Original, welcome material from the likes of Horrorshow and B Wise, Remi‘s worthy follow-up to his award-winning Raw x Infinity, and exciting new voices from Anfa Rose to Manu Crook$. The consistency and variety has been undeniable in Australia, furthering the country’s vitality on the U.S-dominated international stage.
Following our mid-year countdown, we reflect on the year gone by with some of very best Hip Hop and R&B songs of the past 12 months. A small caveat: we’ve attempted to keep it so no leading artist appears more than once in the list – twice at most.
50. 6LACK “Prblems”
Album: FREE 6LACK
Further Listening: “Ex Calling”, “Loving U”
This could have just as easily been the awesome “Loving U”, but the attitude on “Prblems” wedges the moody track as the finest cut from 6LACK’s underappreciated mixtape. That dark string of synth and thick thumping drums are navigated with gravelly soul, easily placing it on-trend but heralding a stronger, grittier voice than say PARTYNEXTDOOR or Roy Woods.
49. Drake “Hype”
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; Drake’s 2016 project is nowhere near the level of Take Care and Nothing Was The Same, but it still has more than a few high points. “Hype” is one such high point. Aside from the emotionally indulgent but sonically impressive intro of “Keep The Family Close”, “Hype” is the best turn for Drake. It’s a mix of 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 on weeks on weeks. Industry fakes remain in Drizzy’s sight throughout the album, but he really only hits them with this one.
48. Ngaiire – I Wear Black
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.
47. 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 lazy 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.
46. Spark Master Tape “Tennkeys”
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.
45. Tory Lanez “L.A Confidential”
Further Listening: “Luv”, “Guns & Roses”
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. Why he didn’t include this on I Told You is beyond me.
44. Anfa Rose “Drugs”
Further Listening: “Karma”, “Absurd”, “On Top”
Young Sydney rapper Anfa Rose hooked up with local goal-kicking producer Dopamine for a 12-track project titled Debauched earlier 2016. Sitting on Soundcloud and steadily racking up streams (around 70,000 for cut “On Top”) should be enough to build this up-and-comer a decent sized fanbase, one which is only set to grow with a sound like this. “Drugs” highlights the best of the style, marrying Dopamine’s very current sound with Anfa’s elastic slick sung raps. With the right amount of exposure this could burn up charts across the globe.
43. berhana “Janet”
Album: berhana EP
Further Listening: “80s”, “Brooklyn Drugs”
Who knew Fresh Prince‘s Aunt Viv (the original, played by Janet Hubert) would end up inspiring one of the 2016’s best R&B numbers 23 years after she left the show? Promising artist berhana has approached his odd homage with a gentle touch, soulfully weaving through the sharp, soft production to sing and deftly rap his way into our hearts.
42. Danny Brown Feat Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt “Really Doe”
Album: Atrocity Exhibition
Further Listening: Ain’t It Funny”, “Hell For It”
Atrocity Exhibition is a beautiful mess. Danny Brown has somehow managed to one-up his old material and turn in a collection of thoughtful, chaotic tracks that speak to the experimentation Detroit is known for. Producer Paul White is responsible for the most out-there cuts, like the intense “Ain’t It Funny”, but it’s actually fellow D native Black Milk who gives Brown his best cut. Shrill percussion and gritty street-knock come together as Brown leads a solid line up that includes Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and Ab-Soul. These are four highly disparate cadances, all used to spit ferocious bars with the spontaneous energy of a freestyle. It’s Earl that comes out on top as far as rapping goes, but turning this track into one of the best collaborative singles all year is most definitely a group effort.
41. Yo Gotti “Pay the Price”
Album: The Art of Hustle
Further Listening: “Down in the DM” “Momma”
20 or so years later and Yo Gotti continues to be one of the loudest and most consistent voices coming from the south. 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.
40. Migos Feat Lil’ Uzi Vert “Bad and Boujee”
Album: C U L T U R E
Further Listening: “Cocoon”
This is just proof that Offset should lead all of Migos’ singles. The way the 22 year old rapper jumps from word to word is hypnotic, and because he handles both the hook and the first verse here “Bad and Boujee” goes down as their best work to date. Well, almost. There is absolutely nothing good about Lil’ Uzi Vert; the self proclaimed ‘rock star;’ kills the vibe at the end, but thankfully his verse is short while Offset and Quavo both dominate. Replace Uzi with Takeoff on a remix and this track is unstoppable.
39. 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 rapid-fire 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. Whether he’s one hit or not, it’s hard to deny “Panda”.
38. A.B Original Feat Dan Sultan “January 26”
Album: A.B Original
Further Listening: “Firing Squad (Feat Hau)”, “2 Black 2 Strong”
There’s currently a push to vote this track into the Hottest 100 as a means of protest, but honestly it deserves to be there on its own merits. A.B Original have given the country a powerful record with their self-titled debut, and it’s this cut which best represents the mix of humour and anger Briggs and Trials have poured into the project. The thought-provoking single is clearly not taking the subtle approach when questioning the issue of institutionalised racism in Australia, calling attention to the matter with an accessible, funky offering that ends with Briggs taking tune from 2Pac’s “California Love” (or rather Zapp’s “Dance Floor”) with a tongue-in-cheek stab at the obsession with the Australian flag.
While critics disingenuously act like they have some kind of emotional attachment to the date, and put up inexplicable arguments against changing Australia Day from January 26, Briggs and Trials are forcing more eyes open by using hip hop in it’s most powerful form.
37. Kemba “The New Black Theory”
Further Listening: “Ceasar’s Ride”, “Greed”
A change in stage name isn’t the only obvious switch for Kemba (formerly YC the Cynic) who has clearly sharpened his pen. The young New Yorker maintains the witty socio-political raps that made him a big name on the underground circuit, but now it seems he’s been incensed by what has been a very trying year for the black communities of the U.S.A (and Geraldo Rivera‘s victim blaming). We’ve been given plenty of thoughtful, powerful tracks about what it’s like being a person of colour in 2016, but few have been as focused and inventive as “The New Black Theory”.
36. Young M.A “OOOUUU”
Further Listening: “Eat”
Jumping from punch to punch Young M.A certainly made her mark on 2016 with “OOOUUU”, filling that obligatory slot reserved for a ‘strictly for the streets’ NY anthem that somehow caught fire and now soundtracks a million fashion blogger social media videos the world over. Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Bobby Schmurda‘s “Not Nigga”, the track creeps along at a similar pace with deep drums and a hypnotic chord. It’s M.A’s playful melodic flow that stitches it all together though, filling U-Dub‘s spacious production with confident tough talk and a thick cadence that easily has her towering over her rivals. She cracked the concrete with this one, and if follow-up single “Eat” is any indication, her rise hasn’t even begun.
35. Horrorshow Feat B Wise & Omar Musa “Right Here”
Album: TBA (due early 2017)
Further Listening: “Push (Feat Taj Ralph)”, “If You Know What I Mean”
Horrorshow are one of the most consistent acts in Australian hip hop, and it seems the quality found all throughout their work to date isn’t going anywhere for their fourth full-length. The forthcoming project was first previewed with the melodic, lyrical “If You Know What I Mean”, but we’re rocking more with the party-ready “Right Here” which gets some added weight from B Wise and award-winning poet-author-rapper Omar Musa.
34. B Wise “No Questions”
Album: Semi-Pro EP
Further Listening: “Drugs & Drama”, “Risk It”
Dopamine’s vital production for B Wise on expressive EP opener “No Question” follows close as the Sydney emcee takes us through various formative moments throughout his life, the beat progressing as the artist creeps closer to where he is at in life right now. It plays like a crucial introduction to a name which has quickly risen through the ranks of home-grown hip hop and is poised to power onto the global stage in no time.
33. Vince Staples “War Ready”
Album: Prima Donna EP
Further Listening: “Prima Donna (Feat A$AP Rocky”, “All Nite” (Clams Casino Feat Vince Staples)
Vince Staples’ Prima Donna EP is excellent. Each song is a perfect example of just why the Long Beach emcee is one of the hottest on the scene right now, but it’s “War Ready” that is the most interesting. This is largely thanks to an unusual beat from James Blake and an equally off-kilter OutKast sample, both bounced off by Vince’s casual cool and anthemic hook.
32. Stormzy “Scary”
Further Listening: “Brotherhood”
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.
31. Isaiah Rashad “4r da Squaw”
Album: The Sun’s Tirade
Further Listening: “Wat’s Wrong (Feat Zacari & Kendrick Lamar”) “Free Lunch”
TDE young’n Isaiah Rashad chops it with smokey drums as he bounces along the very bright “4r da Squaw”. His The Sun’s Tirade LP has placed the 25 year old rapper as the most laid back of the crew, a vibe that suits him well as he floats over a certified head-nodder with unhurried rhymes and a gentle sense of melody for a single that’s pure silk to the ears.
30. Translee “Lost In The Sauce”
Album: MAOTP Pt. 1 EP
Further Listening: “Depends”, “Want”
One of the brightest new rappers in the south right now is Alabama born, Atlanta based emcee Translee. Though he has a style which could easily lend to such a guaranteed radio hit, Translee seems like he’s intentionally avoiding the faster, and arguably shorter, route to fame; one which is paved with generic trap bangers, instead opting for substance, in a similar way to Big K.R.I.T or Kevin Gates. That’s what you get all through his thoughtful EP MAOTP Pt. 1, a project led by “Lost in the Sauce”, which seems to blend the more soulful country sensibilities of Alabama with a sharp ATL tinge. There’s a slight gospel feel to the record too, a nice platform for him to confidently assert his ambitions. Let’s hope he stays true to himself and doesn’t water down to try appeal to hipsters (*cough* Travis Scott *cough*).
29. Kevin Gates “Really Really”
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 showings 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 it’s hard to stay mad.
28. 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.
27. Dave East “One Way”
Further Listening: “Don’t Shoot”, “The Real is Back (Feat. Beanie Sigel)”
If you were struggling to see the hype over >Dave East then give this one a listen. Production team Buda & Grandz have given East a menacing, fluid monster of a beat that’s got just enough drama to lift one of the Harlem emcee’s finest performances yet.
26. Run the Jewels “Talk to Me”
Further Listening: “Legend Has It”, “2100”
“Legend Has It” really kicked up that buzz ahead of the recently released RTJ3, but it’s “Talk to Me” that is the most distinctive and impressive single from the beastly album. Mike Bigga and El-P have perfected their blistering, mic-drop style by now so it’s unsurprising both emcees tear this beat the fuck up as plucked strings and fuzzy axes fly over an appropriately furious production. If they insist on sticking to the tried-and-true formula they established with the first album, then at least we’ve got this kind of heavy production to keep things sounding fresh.
25. Remi Feat Sampa the Great “For Good”
Album: Divas and Demons
Further Listening: “Substance Therapy” “Lose Sleep (Feat Jordan Rakei)”
Producer Sensible J is MVP on “For Good”, despite fantastic chemistry from Remi and Sampa the Great. For Remi’s lead single from Divas and Demons, his 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. “Substance Therapy” showcases Remi’s expressive talent, but the soulful textures make “For Good” the choice cut.
24. T.I Feat Quavo, Meek Mill & RaRa “Black Man”
Album: Us or Else: Letter to the System/Us Vs Them EP
Further Listening: “Warzone”, “Letter to the System (Feat London Jae & Translee)”, “40 Acres (Feat B.Rossi & Killer Mike)”
When T.I released his Us VS Them EP (which recently expanded into a 15-track LP) a few months ago it quickly became clear that the emcee, who has now reverted back to his original stage name of T.I.P, was but a handful of established rappers actually using his work to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement. Tip is always at his best when he’s being fueled by self-reflection (“Still Ain’t Forgave Myself”, “Doin’ My Job”, “No Matter What”), but not until now has he shown so much conviction as he defiantly stands against police brutality without sacrificing his successful progression into a more modern sound. Seriously, dude is one of the only established emcees who has proven adaptable enough to use the current landscape of hip hop to great effect.
“Black Man” stands as the finest on a worthy album, taking a break from Tip’s usual winning formula of street anthems and slick talk and a moving towards impassioned protest rap. Then you’ve got the soulful static of Quavo’s autotuned hook with some appropriate drama from Meek Mill and RaRa.
23. nxWorries “Link Up”
Album: Yes Lawd!
Further Listening: “Lyk Dis”, “Scared Money”, “Get Bigger / Do U Luv”
Anderson .Paak’s raspy bedroom soul has dominated as far as guest features go this year. From Mac Miller to A Tribe Called Quest, almost everyone has shown that they not only want but need the special texture this man more than capably provides. His vintage aesthetic is exciting because it adds so much to each track his on, but it’s this official project with experimental producer Knxwledge that has brought the best out of Paak. In addition to his stunning full-length Malibu, Yes Lawd! is another clear winner for the soul man, and the confident strut of “Link Up” showcases this best.
22. SAINt JHN “Roses”
Further Listening: “Reflex”, “1999”
Intensely dark, “Roses” (coupled with “Reflex” and “1999”) might be the one to bring SAINt JHN the recognition he most certainly deserves. The talented Brooklyn rap-singer flexes his vocal chops on this one, getting vivid as he comes across as a soulful counterpoint to someone like Travis Scott. The promising artist has been penning for others for way too long, with quality like this it’s clear dude should be focusing on his own music.
21. Aminé “Caroline”
Further Listening: “Baba”
Sex and Quentin Tarantino define this oddly shaped slice of experimental rap-slash-R&B. The sparse warbles and barely-there beat are enough to anchor the Portland rapper’s bright, energetic style as he bounces between stop-start and free-flowing rap. Look for this to pick up traction down under in the coming months.
20. Kamaiyah “How Does It Feel”
Album: A Good Night in the Ghetto
Further Listening: “Fuck It Up (Feat YG)”, “Out the Bottle”
This is that dancing around the house on pay day kind of music, a toast to feeling good about success that never stumbles as Kamaiyah bounces all across a tight package of west coast bounce. The beat is sharp and stinging but stripped enough to keep all that focus on Kamaiyah’s infectious melody.
19. Khalid “Location”
Further Listening: “Reasons”, “Coaster”, “Whirlwind”
This 18 year old from El Paso, Texas is poised to be a big name in 2017. He’s got the kind of old whispy soul that sounds like it should be lifted by a soft-piano driven piece, but instead his silky tones are placed over a thick slap of thumping bass and slinky percussion put together by Syk Sense, Tunji Ige, and Smash David. His gentle voice is inflected with a noticeable southern drawl, adding a clear distinction in a realm where R&B is increasingly becoming just as homogeneous as Rap.
18. Manu Crook$ “Everyday”
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-travelled, well-rehearsed rhymer, poised to be the next ‘big’ thing in Australia’s hip hop scene.
17. YG “Twist My Fingaz”
Album: Still Krazy
Further Listening: “Still Brazy”, “Why You Always Hatin”, “FDT”
Terrace Martin has been invaluable to YG this year, filling Still Krazy with a retro style of G-Funk that no one else is pulling off right now. The Compton rapper makes full use of this with his melodic gangsta rap, hot stepping from one note to the next with a summery aggression to mask all that anger and paranoia with vibrant funk.
16. Royce da 5’9 “Tabernacle”
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 full-bodied bass and a frantic, gospel like piano piece soundtrack a true story that has 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. 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.
15. Kendrick Lamar “Untitled 07”
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.
14. Ro James “The Ride”
Further Listening: “Permission”, “Last Cigarette”
“Permission” made it into our mid-year list, but over time it’s really “The Ride” that has emerged as the best showcase for Ro James’ undeniably slick R&B. It’s soulful and sultry but still feels current enough to penetrate a market obsessed with the formulaic and predictable. Even if this project isn’t the one to propel Ro into superstardom, it certainly sows the seeds of success and gives something future fans will be excited to discover.
13. Frank Ocean Feat Beyoncé “Pink + White”
Further Listening: “Ivy”, “Solo”, “Nights”
Frank Ocean’s Blonde is full of artful, well-drawn moments like “Ivy” and “Solo”, but it’s “Pink + White” that has the “it” singer giving his most stunning performance. The track gleams with summer air, twisted with Frank’s surreal imagery set against an evocative production that gets some added texture from none other than Beyoncé.
12. Rihanna “Kiss it Better”
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. This is her “Red Light Special” moment.
11. Childish Gambino “Redbone”
Album: Awaken, My Love!
Further Listening: “The Night Me and Your Mama Met”, “California”
Childish Gambino’s subversive Awaken, My Love! is oozing with Funkadelic homage, but it’s the even more eccentric solo work of Bootsy Collins that informs the album’s best moments. “Redbone” is one such moment, smartly chosen as the lead single for it’s bright, soulful sway. Childish, who surprisingly didn’t modulate his voice for this, sounds like he has just awakened the screaming, leather-pants’d funk lord lying dormant within, a sexed-up figure drawn out by endless loops of Bootsy’s “I’d Rather Be With You” (which this track is a distorted recreation of).
10. J. Cole “Neighbors”
Album: 4 Your Eyez Only
Further Listening: “Deja Vu”, “Ville Mentality”, “False Prophets”
“Deja Vu” may be the most hit-ready cut on Cole’s fourth studio album but “Neighbors” is Cole’s finest moment of 2016. A buzzy undercut of bass follows a man who can’t find respite from racism even in a nice neighborhood, though rather than lash out, the talented emcee just shapes the edges of subtle racism with detail so we’re given some insight into the harmful mentality that can keep a person of colour feeling like an outsider despite success.
9. Miguel “Cadillac”
Album: The Get Down OST
Further Listening “Come Through and Chill”
Miguel may have been relatively quiet this year following 2015’s boundless Wildheart, but Netflix series The Get Down managed to provoke one of his finest works to date. It’s a cover of an old disco classic by Hot Chocolate, allowing Miguel to spin it with his own slick sense of style, melding R&B and disco in a way that perfectly slots into the hip hop origin story’s aesthetic. The woozy instrumental towards the end, complete with muffled brass and Miguel’s distant lyrics, is testament to how beautifully nuanced his art has become. Make no mistake about it, this is one of the best covers in quite some time, from one of the most – if not the most – dynamic vocalists in the game right now.
8. Maxwell “Lake by the Ocean”
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.
7. Beyoncé “Formation”
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, 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 Lil’ Wayne & 2 Chainz “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. A Tribe Called Quest “We The People….”
Album: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Further Listening: “Solid Wall of Sound”, “Ego”, “Conrad Tokyo”
This is how you come back and leave them wanting more. A Tribe Called Quest returned for one last hurrah with we got it from Here….Thank You 4 Your Service, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad honouring Phife‘s memory by crafting something truly special, modernising Tribe’s sound without sacrificing on consistency. Even Jarobi and pretty-much-a-member Busta Rhymes stepped up the plate and made this album a family affair, pushing it along while Tip worked Phife’s recorded verses in all the right places.
This could have easily been any track on this fantastic album, but lead single “We The People….” sticks out for its hard drums, defiant flows and unique hook.
4. Solange Feat Sampha “Don’t Touch My Hair”
Album: A Seat at the Table
Further Listening: “Cranes in the Sky”, “Where Do We Go”, “Don’t You Wait”
Moving away from the retro grooves of True, Solange gave herself and the music world a supreme gift with the soulful A Seat at the Table, a project that’ll slide into 2017 near the top of plenty of year-end lists. It’s a similarly powerful statement to her big sister’s ostentatious surprise AV album Lemonade, filled with letters of self-worth and healing; a highly detailed character study of a confident voice that has now settled into herself. The highlight is a toss up between the pillow-soft “Don’t Touch My Hair” and the poignant “Cranes in the Sky”, but it’s the former finger-snapping, head-swaying hook that edges it as the winner. Oh, and Sampha is most valuable as he brings his own soulful little touch without encroaching on what is 100% Solange’s defining moment.
Solange has certainly come a long way since that terrible single with Noreaga. A very long way.
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 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 & The Free Nationals “Come Down”
Further Listening: “Without You”, “Room in Here”
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
1. Kanye West Feat Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, The-Dream & Kirk Franklin “Ultralight Beam”
Album: The Life of Pablo
Further Listening: “Father Stretch My Hands 1 & 2 (Feat Kid CuDi & Desiigner)”, “Famous (Feat Rihanna & Swizz Beatz)”, “High Lights (Feat Young Thug, The-Dream & El DeBarge)”
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 work with the drama of 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 unbelievably upset) by his highly publicised ego. Though 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. It’s 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 character. 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.
Baro Feat. Nasty Mars & Marcus “wdubi”
Dunson “Karma’s Schedule”
Tinashe “Ride Of Your Life”
O.T. Genasis Feat T.I “Get Racks”
Havoc & The Alchemist “Out the Frame”
Jeezy “Let ‘Em Know”
Sarsha Simone “Casualty”
The Cool Kids “Connect Four”
clipping. “Air Em Out”
Rae Sremmurd Feat Gucci Mane “Black Beatles”
Big Sean “Bounce Back”
Plutonic Lab Feat Guilty Simpson “The Crib”
Metro Boomin & 21 Savage “No Heart”
D.R.A.M Feat Lil’ Yachty “Broccoli”
Bankroll Mafia “No Colour”