by Phil Scarisbrick
1. Nas – Nasir
This record is probably the most vital and best work Nas has done since his era-defining debut, Illmatic. The heavy subject matter, addressing society as a whole, plays like a conflict Nas is fighting within himself against his own personal issues. This is something that most of us feel at some point. While we care about the world at large with poverty, famine, disease, inequality, war and religious tension, we also have our own personal issues we have to deal with. Sometimes it is easy to be aware of the world’s issues, but having enough of your own to deal with to be able to focus on them. This inner turmoil permeates through, and displays a stark vulnerability within him. As with Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece – To Pimp A Butterfly, you connect with the artist because of this vulnerability. Most of us can’t understand the excess of these lifestyles, but we can empathise with issues of family, anxiety, paranoia, grief and depression. They can touch everyone regardless of wealth.
2. Pusha T – DAYTONA
Kanye West’s involvement in Daytona has given Push, in reality, the perfect platform to showcase his talents both promotionally and production wise. The beats may follow a familiar construction, but they sound too fresh and exciting to simply be Yeezy-by-numbers. Being the first of several new projects West had coming out in the following months, Push more than holds his own under the weight of his involvement. It is his finest solo album and showcases his growing talents as the focussed verses ooze style and emotional range. Though its release may have been dominated by Kanye-centric stories, it is no bad thing as it will allow a much wider audience to appreciate this 21 minute thrill ride.
3. Naname – Room 25
A warts-and-all exercise in self-analysis, Noname delivers one of the year’s standout hip-hop records. Fusing elements of jazz and soul to create a subtle background to her words, there is an endearing fragility that is becoming a trait in modern hip-hop. Replacing the bravado of old with more introspection not only allows artists to connect with their audiences, but to expand them too. Taking stock of what she has in her life, her relationships, her career and everything in between, this sophomore album not only builds on its predecessor’s promise, but also steepens the Chicagoan rapper’s trajectory.
4. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Released on the final day of November, this late entry for album of the year manages to pack such a punch in its concise, twenty-three minute length that you can’t help but stand up and listen to. This abstract, avant-garde collection can, at times, make you feel slightly uncomfortable. The loops don’t always feel quite right, but you get the sense that this is a tactic that is apropos for this project. His dense words also come at you like machine gun fire, but neither the beats nor the lyrics ever feel like they miss the target. Certainly an album you’ll return to again and again.
5. Joey Purp – QUARTERTHING
Another Chicago native to make the list, the insightful and self-aware Purp has created a record that reads like a manifesto of the community that birthed him. His father sold drugs, but rather than shying away from it he displays pride in his father’s ability to provide for him, and respect for the lessons it taught him in how to find a better life for himself. Despite definite connections with 2016’s iiiDrops, Purp clearly only wants to travel forwards. The pristine beats created by the likes of RZA and Thelonious Martin only add to the sense of drama created by the world he is telling us about. QUARTERTHING is a truly exciting experience.
6. Saba – CARE FOR ME
Trying to come to terms with the loss of cousin – who was stabbed to death in Chicago – Saba used the grief to create a record that sets a theatrical scene to document the tragedy. Transitioning from hushed, understated deliveries to vicious insistence and back again adds incredible pathos. Displaying an incredibly high level of musicality and wordsmithery, the 23-year-old has created not only a fitting tribute to his cousin, but also an album that will live with its listener long after it ends.
7. J. Cole – KOD
Regularly going in the face of what is accepted as a hip-hop convention, his achievements – including the Spotify streaming, record-breaking Forest Hills Drive in 2014 – speak for themselves. KOD is just another confirmation that he is earning himself a reputation for being among the finest hip-hop artists of the modern era.
8. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
Despite announcing that the album was finished in 2014, it took four years for it to finally appear for the world to enjoy. As well as ending what you might call Wayne’s ‘wilderness years’, the nearly ninety minute behemoth also takes us back to edgy oddball that made the world fall in love with his music. Showing more quality control than he has with much shorter projects, he is able to surprise his fans even now with new nuggets of information. One of the stories fans will be aware of is when he survived a self-inflicted ‘accidental’ gunshot wound at the age of twelve. On album closer Let It All Work, we learn that it wasn’t an accident at all. This kind of reveal is one that the now thirty six year old must only feel comfortable unveiling now, and only adds to the connection his devoted fan base have with him.
9. Kendrick Lamar and Various Artists – Black Panther: The Album
Marvel’s standalone film for the King of Wakanda felt like more than just another superhero film. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya and Lupita Nyong’o, scripted by Joe Robert Cole along with director Ryan Coogler, it felt like a celebration of the rising stardom of a group of incredibly talented black artists. It was only fitting then that its soundtrack would be curated by, and feature heavily, one of the brightest black music stars of the moment: Kendrick Lamar. Alongside Top Dawg CEO and mentor, Anthony Tiffith, the resulting record is a joyous exploration of everything good that the film represents. Though at times there is a broadness to the music, the use of an array of global – and in particular African – musical influences means that it is never uninteresting. Normally, you would not expect a movie soundtrack to feature in a list such as this, but what Kendrick and the TDE roster have created is more than worthy of its place.
10. The Carters – Everything Is Love
When you think of celebrity power couples, there are none that fit that term so acutely as Jay-z and Beyonce. Both rose to stardom with rags-to-riches stories that saw them conquer the world. As a couple they have collaborated musically quite often. Their marital struggles have also been well documented, with both referencing them on their most recent solo works (Lemonade and 4:44). Here they combine for an album that seems to offer the clarity that Beyonce was searching for on her incredible soft drink-monikered record. They explore the complex, nuanced ways that being married and being parents change you, and the way your perspective is constantly shifting. Being so firmly in the spotlight is a burden they bare, but here they turn that interest in their lives into a something wonderful.