As I write this introduction, I’m in a text-message discussion with Panama regarding his piece on Black Thought, the merits (or lack thereof) of “Bodak Yellow” and what role subjectivity plays in what we consider “exciting” hip-hop.
As is the case with all nerdy, somewhat esoteric conversations between two opinionated, manila folder-complected individuals who know what they’re talking about, we weaved through what constitutes “good” hip-hop, the role of objectivity versus subjectivity in those determinations and, ultimately, how we can both be in our late-30s and raised on the same 1990s hip-hop yet still tend to have divergent tastes in 2017.
The discussion made me step back and take a wide-angle lens to the list you’re about to read. Specifically, I wonder how my tastes have evolved considering the fact that my feelings about every rapper on the Billboard Top 10 range from apathy to abhorrence (save Eminem, who should’ve taken his own advice and bowed out of the rap game years ago). I’ve determined that I’m content with my ability to embrace new hip-hop instead of being obstinately stuck in the 90s, blasting Digable Planets 45s while rocking Timbs under the baggiest Ecko Unltd. jeans I can keep on my waist.
The disparate cuts on this list showcase the range of rap that I love. “562” is by no means lyrical, but it made me feel like rolling the windows down of my Deuce-and-a-Quarter and sparking a blunt (I don’t own that car nor do I smoke). “Legendary” pushes the 10s in my trunk to the brink, while “Try My Hand” is a completely bass-free wonder. Kendrick Lamar is arguably the biggest mainstream contemporary rapper, but RSXGOLD is the epitome of underground and regional.
Even as I grow older and my tastes for hip-hop evolve (and my patience for bad rap devolves), I have no problem finding plenty of music I love every year. My best-of playlist likely looks a lot different than Panama’s would (no “Bodak Yellow,” as you could probably imagine), but I intend on scouring the Internets for great hip-hop for many years to come, and I’ve no doubt I’ll find plenty…mumble rappers be damned.
- “Legendary” – Dave East & DJ Holiday: Dave East has had a banner couple of years. He released his debut EP on Def Jam in 2017 and has continued to murder the game with loosies galore, often one-upping rappers on their own beats. You can’t truly appreciate “Legendary” without some serious low end.
- “20 Karat Jesus” – Freddie Gibbs: With his third studio album, You Only Live 2wice, Gibbs created a case-study-caliber three-track opening arc that starts off with “20 Karat Jesus.” The mid-song beat switch takes us to church and there’s black Jesus kicking knowledge at the end. What more could you want?
- “The Heart Part 4” – Kendrick Lamar: K-Dot never put any of his “Heart” series tracks on a studio album, but they’re all pretty good. This one, released as an announcement of sorts for DAMN, is my favorite. His gliding over that final beat switch demonstrates why he’s likely peerless in his generation of rappers.
- “562” – Joey Fatts (feat. Vince Staples): The windows-down, riding-est song of the year. The hook made me wish I had fuzzy dice dangling inside my Toyota Highlander. For some reason (likely sample clearance), it’s no longer available on the streaming sites, which is too damn bad since this is Fatts’ best song.
- “I’m On 3.0” – Trae tha Truth (feat. A whole lotta niggas): Houston rapper Trae never had a lot of national airplay, so it’s likely his status as a radio show host that allowed him to command 13 very diverse rappers, from T.I. to Fabolous to G-Eazy to E-40(!), to deliver roughly 16 bars apiece over Mark Morrison’s crooning. The (long) track actually works, but it’s the second most-impressive thing he accomplished in 2017, next to pushing a bullet out of his own arm.
- “DNA” – Kendrick Lamar: I didn’t love DAMN as much as it seems many people did – most of the album was out of my rotation after about three weeks. But “DNA” has the most ridiculous beat switch I’ve heard in a while, which allowed Kendrick to open up on the track like a Mustang Shelby. Come to think of it, this year was pretty much dominated by the beat switch.
- “Strapped” – A$AP Twelvyy: Twelvyy is among the more capable rappers in the A$AP Mob, but the true winner in “Strapped” is this sample of Sampha’s “Beneath the Tree,” which is itself a dope song. Some atmospheric shit for you atmosphere-loving cats.
- “Laila’s Wisdom” – Rapsody: By consequence of being a non-sexualized female lyricist in what’s still largely a man’s game, Rapsody will likely always struggle to get the respect she’s already earned. Laila’s Wisdom is her best body of work to date, and she opens it magnificently with the slowly-building title track, named after her grandmother.
- “Finesse Everything” – Skyzoo: Illmind doesn’t come up nearly enough in conversations about hip-hop’s best producers. But the Jersey-based Filipino producer has blessed the mainstream and the underground for years, and he and Skyzoo are the Justin-and-Timbaland of boom-bap duos. Let the track’s title dictate how you approach your 2018.
- “Get Away” – Big K.R.I.T.: K.R.I.T.’s 4eva is a Mighty Long Time is my favorite rap album of 2017; though it suffers from typical double-album bloat, its best tracks condensed on one disc would’ve made for a borderline classic. There are plenty of choice cuts to choose from, but “Get Away” is my favorite, likely because of the Bettye Crutcher sample that’s put on grand display at the close of the track.
- “East Coast REMIX” – A$AP Ferg (feat. Busta Rhymes, A$AP Rocky, Dave East, French Montana, Rick Ross & Snoop Dogg): Ferg is generally useless to me as an emcee, but the track is hoisted up by DJ Khalil’s beat and a star-studded list of guest rappers old and new. There’s something special about non-east-coast emcees on a track named “East Coast” that sounds like it came from a basement in Queens in 1996.
- “Marcy Me” – JAY Z: In my circles, 4:44 is pretty divisive – people either think it’s his best thing since The Black Album or view it as the audio version of the middle hour of any Quentin Tarantino film. I think it’s an impressive, if not amazing, body of work, and “Marcy Me” is a solid entry in the hood-I’m-from canon of hip-hop tracks.
- “Try My Hand” – The Alchemist (feat. Mobb Deep): Losing Prodigy in June was probably the most devastating event to occur in hip-hop in many years. Fortunately, The Alchemist happened to have this bass-free gem cocked and ready to fire on his and Budgie’s The Good Book, Vol. 2. The production is made even more haunting by P’s passing.
- “Over Your Shoulder” – RSXGLD (feat. Elzhi): A outta-left-field underground banger from the Michigan emcee/producer duo of Ro Spit and 14 KT, the latter of whom hails from the school of J. Dilla and also has a joint album with Mayer Hawthorne. As usual, the legendary Elzhi can do no wrong on a track.
- “Get Yo Money” – CyHi da Prynce: Since he caught mainstream wind on Kanye West’s “So Appalled” seven years ago, CyHi has seemingly scraped and struggled to release his debut album while dropping several dope mixtapes and remaining a completely likeable master of bars. That album, No Dope on Sundays, finally came to be, and “Get Yo Money” is a rarely-heard ode to doing dirt and getting out the game before the game gets you.
- “Drug Lord Couture” – Nick Grant: At the very top of the year, South Carolina rapper Nick Grant dropped Return of the Cool on Epic Records. I think Grant could be on Kendrick Lamar’s level with the right push, and I hope that the projects he has in the hopper for 2018 will nudge him closer to that level. The mighty Just Blaze flipped this Vicki Sue Robinson sample for the State Property album; Grant bodies an even better version of it.
BONUS: “Mask Off” Instrumental: I’d be remiss to not acknowledge what’s probably the best beat of 2017 just because it’s original owner did it entirely no justice. Salute to all the dope cats who murdered the instrumental.