There’s been no shortage of essential rap albums released in 2016. John Twells and Chris Kelly assemble the best of the bunch, from Lil Yachty and YG to 21 Savage and Kamaiyah.
The dominant narrative in rap this year was a shift from nihilism to redemption – as evidenced by Future’s diminishing returns and Chance the Rapper’s ascent with the gospel-tinged Coloring Book. But as the new generation kicked back against grumpy rap traditionalists, championing Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage and failing to acknowledge OG rap heroes – most notably The Notorious B.I.G. – the divide between old and new seemed to widen.
The truth is that in 2016, rap is many things: it’s lyrical and it’s simple; it’s slappin’ and it’s near-ambient; it’s made for the club and it’s made for the headphones; it’s jubilant and it’s savage; it’s truth and fiction; it’s old and new. If time is a flat circle, someone’s gonna press it to wax and spin it.
We’ve put together our favorite 20 rap albums this year, and don’t worry if you don’t see some of your favorites represented – it’s not a slight. There’s no A Tribe Called Quest here because they’ve been elevated to a different place at this stage – they’re the Rolling Stones of rap right now and don’t need to be shoehorned into a list like this. Danny Brown’s excellent Atrocity Exhibition was also omitted; not only was it well represented in FACT’s album list, but at this stage Brown has asserted himself as a presence that operates outside of genre – and he’s all the better for it.
20. Lil Yachty
Lil Yachty is one of 2016’s defining characters – a boogeyman that “discerning” adult rap lifers use to prove to their weary children that the genre ain’t what it used to be. “He doesn’t even respect the game,” they cry hopelessly, betraying a shocking misunderstanding of the plurality of a 40-year-old genre in 2016.
Yachty’s existence – his reliance on simple, bubbly hooks and catchy ad-libs; his vivid dress sense; his unrelenting positivity – is not an attack on rap’s lyricism or heritage. Rap can be many things, and Lil Boat, Yachty’s most defining long-form statement to date, is proof that you can experiment with a genre’s most polarizing elements and connect with a new generation of rap listener. No, Biggie isn’t Yachty’s rap GOAT – it’s free-associating cloud rap outsider Lil B.
He scored his biggest hit of the year assisting D.R.A.M. with ‘Broccoli’, but Lil Boat shows his range, with tracks like the hazy ‘Up Next 2’ and the Mario 64-sampling ‘Run:Running’ offering a deeper look into his brightly-colored world. Yachty isn’t documenting the harsh reality of street life and why should he – it’s not representative of his interests at all.
When FACT spoke to him at SXSW earlier this year, he was most animated when we chatted about video games – he connects with his fans playing Call of Duty and Halo online. This is Yachty’s reality: positivity, parties and video games. And there’s no reason why that can’t also be rap. JT
19. Dae Dae & London On Da Track
If you were watching Atlanta rap closely this year, you certainly came across Dae Dae. The 24-year-old isn’t exactly a newcomer – he’s been appearing on tracks since 2012 – but 2016 is the year people really started to take notice.
2015’s lean ‘What U Mean’ had a new lease of life this year, notching up tens of millions of plays on YouTube and even making its way into the Billboard chart. It’s a bona fide ATL anthem, and with DefAnition – a collaboration with Young Thug producer London On Tha Track – the young rapper proves that ‘What U Mean’ isn’t simply a one off.
Firstly, Dae Dae’s got range. DefAnition isn’t just a rehash of Rich Gang’s most successful London On Tha Track-produced moments – Dae Dae dips from addressing Black Lives Matter on the opener (“Is it the color of my skin / Maybe it’s how I sag my pants?”) to teaming up with 21 Savage on ‘Bullshit’ to offering his own dancehall-flavored ‘Luv’-beater with ‘Don’t You Change’.
There’s a sense that Dae Dae’s the whole package and if he can maintain the momentum, 2017 is his for the taking. JT
18. G Perico
Shit Don’t Stop
West Coast rap is the gift that keeps on giving, and in a year headlined by releases from heavyweights like YG, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, there were plenty of newcomers making names for themselves as well. One of the stars of the new class is G Perico, a Jheri-curled Los Angeleno whose piercing, nasal flow recalls Cali legends like Too $hort, DJ Quik and Eazy-E.
The title of Shit Don’t Stop is instructive: life for someone who describes himself as “a gangster, a player, a banger, a baller” isn’t just Air Maxes, rubber-banded stacks, Henny and women: it’s tough to celebrate when there’s “death in the air.” With its modern take on G-Funk and gangsta rap, Shit Don’t Stop sits nicely next to YG’s Still Brazy and Kamaiyah’s A Good Night In The Ghetto as another dispatch from the best coast. CK
17. Vince Staples
Prima Donna EP
Not many rappers have the talent to follow-up a double-sized debut album with a short-but-sweet concept record, much less in the span of little more than a year, but it’s becoming crystal clear than Vince Staples is not most rappers. After telling his coming-of-age story on the expansive Summertime ‘06, the 23-year-old Long Beach rapper explored what it means to be young, gifted and black in 2016 on Prima Donna.
Punctuated by despondent interludes that find him with a tape recorder in one hand and a .44 in the other, Prima Donna sees Staples employing his agile flow in service of OutKast-sampling salvo ‘War Ready’, N.E.R.D.y pair ‘Loco’ and ‘Pimp Hand’ and bluesy centerpiece ‘Smile’. More than just a stopgap until his next record, Prima Donna is a statement in its own right. CK
16. Gucci Mane
It’s hardly surprising that when Gucci emerged from jail with ‘1st Day Out Tha Feds’, fans were suspicious. The skinny, ripped figure that rapped “It’s a lot of people scared of me and I can’t blame ’em / They call me crazy so much, I think I’m starting to believe ’em” exhibited an unfamiliar self-awareness on top of the bangin’ bod. It was a far cry from the stout, erratic addict who’d slurred “I’m drinkin’ soda pop with purple, whippin’ coke and bakin’ soda” only three years prior.
This new Gucci was a clone, some fans surmised – a theory that the ATL veteran knowingly toyed with in the ‘1st Day…” video. But when Everybody Looking dropped, the situation was clarified and put into focus. This was a clear-headed Gucci; a positive Gucci who was regretful but hopeful – spurred on by the support of his long-term girlfriend (now fiancée) Keyshia Ka’oir. It was a rare feel-good story in a particularly difficult year, and Everybody Looking is the document of Gucci’s very personal battle for sobriety.
“Facing prison, drug addiction / It’s like I’m battling with myself / I done shook up all my demons / Now I’m back to myself,” he admits on ‘Back on Road’. His street stories are still just as vivid, but kissed with caution. Gucci is settling into his new role as an elder statesman of Atlanta rap, and finally it sounds as if he’s comfortable in the role. JT
15. Denzel Curry
Denzel Curry has come a long way from Raider Klan upstart. Last year, he added acid to his anxious energy on 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms, a combination that becomes cohesive on Imperial. Rather than the Memphis cosplay of early Raider Klan records, Imperial updates the Three 6 Mafia aesthetic for a new generation, aiming ominous trap beats and Curry’s unmistakable triplet attack on street-life realities and the police-industrial complex.
Imperial is an intense, nihilistic record, but Curry’s growth as a songwriter keeps it from becoming impenetrable: he sings his hook and recruits Rick Ross for gravitas on ‘Knotty Head’, and expands his palette on ‘Zenith’ and ‘If Tomorrow’s Not Here’. Throughout Imperial, his growth as a man and an artist is apparent, which he acknowledges on ‘This Life’: “Didn’t notice, but as of late, I think I’ve changed / Not the same since my younger days, so far I came.” For a rapper who is still just 21 years old, it’s a moment of self-awareness that bodes well for his future. CK
14. Lord Narf
After being at or near the top of FACT’s best labels list for two years running, there was bound to be some regression to the mean for Awful Records in 2016. But while some of the bloom may be off the rose, there were still highlights, including the latest full-length effort from Lord Narf.
Fittingly for a project entitled Witchcraft, Narf’s sing-song flow is hypnotic and spellbinding. And like the best Awful releases, the entire crew is part of Narf’s coven: Ethereal and Dexter Dukarus lay down left-of-center trap deconstructions that live at the triple point of moody, mellow and menacing, while Alexandria and Tommy Genesis double up the feminine energy of ‘Ex’ and ‘Take Me Home’ respectively. Like last year’s Sick, Witchcraft is more proof that Narf is one of the best rappers around – not just in Awful, and not just amid her female contemporaries. CK
13. Young Thug
It’s been a couple of years since Young Thug broke into the mainstream, wowing listeners with his post-Weezy rubber-voiced flow and androgynous look. It’s Jeffery, though, that’s taken him to the next level, both as a style icon and as a bona fide pop superstar.
The cover is already iconic – Thug is dressed provocatively in a theatrical, baby blue Alessandro Trincone dress. But it’s the music that matters, and Jeffery shows the rapper at his very best, toying with hook-laced pop (‘Wyclef Jean’, ‘Pop Man’), ATL street rap (‘Floyd Mayweather’, ‘Harambe’) and nailing the contemporary club rap sound with break-out single ‘Pick Up The Phone’.
Jeffery feels like a watershed moment for Thug – he can do anything, and as we’ve seen, he’s going to do it on his own terms. Love him or hate him, you can’t begrudge him that. JT
12. Maxo Kream
The Persona Tape
Lyrical. A big personality. Raps about drugs. These days, it seems that most rappers can manage (at most) two of these. Houston’s Maxo Kream does all three. We slept on Maxo 187 but didn’t make the same mistake on The Persona Tape, a dense, drugged-out slab of street rap that induces laughter and claustrophobia in equal measures. Maxo dazzles with lived-in details (perhaps a little too lived-in) and an elastic flow, finding the pocket whether the beat is by ex-Cool Kid Chuck Inglish, Awful rep Slug Christ or anonymous newcomer Wlderness – he’s even comfortable over a Wiley beat.
This versatility allows Maxo to focus on painting pictures in vibrant, codeine purples: tales of scamming with Karo corn syrup, building up a military-grade arsenal and leaving John Does in vacants – all while chewing Xans like candy and rhyming Alprazolam and Alpharma. “Texas country ranger sipping dirty out the teaspoon,” he raps on the Paul Wall-featuring ‘Smash’, “Swanging, banging, pop the trunk like ‘Hi it’s nice to meet you’.” If The Persona Tape is your introduction to Maxo Kream, it’s one hell of a first impression. CK
11. Young Dolph
King of Memphis
(Paper Route Empire)
After years grinding on the mixtape circuit, Memphis kingpin Young Dolph finally released a proper album this year, and it didn’t disappoint. King of Memphis is that rarest of rap full-lengths – all killer, no filler. It’s 11 tracks – a mere 35 minutes long – and shits on most other rap albums released this year.
Dolph excels with a well-trained ear for beats and a confidence that only comes from experience. When he croaks “before I learned my ABCs / I learned how to hustle” on album highlight ‘Fuck It’ he sounds completely effortless; when he chants “fuck it”, you’re left with no doubt that he means it.
As rap was gripped by gospel-flecked jubilance in 2016, it was refreshing to hear Dolph sticking to his guns and simply coming correct with a grip of lean, grimy bangers that come into their own when played at deafening volume. Man cannot live on sunshine and rainbows alone. JT
Amid the rich and varied cast of characters that have revitalized West Coast rap for the last half decade, it is perhaps YG – not Kendrick Lamar – that stands tallest. While K. Dot has taken his music in increasingly heady directions, YG has found fertile soil while staying closer to the earth. After recounting the day-in-the-life of a Compton gangbanger on My Krazy Life, YG looks inward and steps out on Still Brazy, letting his real-life anxiety and paranoia fuel his ever-sharpening lyricism. And while DJ Mustard loomed large on My Krazy Life, YG and company use Still Brazy to write a love letter to the entirety of West Coast rap (basically, the laser-focused version of what Lamar did for black music writ large on To Pimp A Butterfly).
Still Brazy is cohesive but contains multitudes: gangsta rap shit-talkers, BBQ party starters and – perhaps most surprisingly – political rally rockers. Post-election, ‘FDT’ has gone from campaign season one-off to four-year anthem, and ‘Police Get Away Wit Murder’ and ‘Blacks & Browns’ continue the political traditions started by NWA and 2Pac that have been largely missing from mainstream rap. So fuck Donald Trump, and long live YG. CK
9. Cam & China
Cam & China
For a genre that few people outside of LA got to clap their ears around, jerkin’ has had an outsized influence on rap in the last few years. DJ Mustard’s self-styled “ratchet” sound is a direct descendent, and that still dominates not only LA’s rap scene but the wider world. Put it this way: if you spun YG’s Still Brazy this year, you were listening to jerkin’s run-off.
As part of five-piece Pink Dollaz, twin sisters Cam & China cut their teeth in the LA-centric scene back in 2009, and this year they returned with their debut release as a duo – one of the year’s very best EPs. There’s none of the dancefloor and radio friendly snap of Mustard here, but the stark minimalism that characterized a scene that regarded the kick drum as optional is present in tracks like stand-out ‘In My Feelings’ and the stark ‘Low Low’.
When the duo allow their back-and-forth to bubble into something more pop-friendly – for instance on the early Kendrick-esque finale ‘We Gon Make It’ – it’s very clear that the reason they’re still around is that they possess what others are missing: dextrous lyrical skills, a talent for memorable hooks and a rapport only twins can nurture. Seven tracks ain’t nearly enough. JT
8. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin
As we look for end-of-the-year superlatives, there’s a case to be made for “savage” as the word of 2016, a year marked by musical legends falling like dominoes, successive waves of online outrage and – most significantly – the global trend towards reactionary politics. Similarly, there’s a case to be made for 21 Savage as the rapper of the year: not by traditional metrics, but as the rapper best suited for our coming (or increasingly current) dystopia.
Over the starkest beats Metro Boomin has ever composed – and without the shellac of Auto-Tune to soften his blunt edges – 21 Savage whispers, chants and otherwise grunts his lyrics, which are often as casually spoken as they are caustically sinister. Percs and syrup don’t just fuel parties – they’re consumed to kidney-fucking levels. Guns aren’t just fired at enemies – they’re aimed at mothers and grandmothers until the neighborhood is lit up like the Fourth of July. And how else to describe a lyric like “hit her with no condom, had to make her eat a plan B” than savage? Make no mistake: 21 Savage is a “fuckin’ bad guy.” But in 2016, Savage Mode often seemed like the soundtrack most apropos for an apocalypse. CK
7. Payroll Giovanni & Cardo
Big Bossin Vol. 1
Despite producing high-profile tracks since 2010, Cardo had arguably his biggest year yet in 2016. The Colorado-based producer produced two of the albums in this top ten list alone, and his glossy blend of G-Funk and early-‘00s pop rap has proven to be one of the year’s best surprises.
On Big Bossin’ Vol.1 Cardo teams up with Detroit’s Payroll Giovanni, one of Detroit’s Doughboyz Cashout crew, and finds a kindred spirit. Despite not being from South Central, Payroll has no problem spinning together complex, lyrical street rhymes over talkbox croons on ‘Big Bossin’ and recounting his lifelong struggle over funk loops on ‘Real Plug’.
There’s a nostalgia element to the record, that’s for sure – but Payroll and Cardo don’t mine the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to play on acclaimed totems of hip-hop’s golden era. Instead they attempt to master a more maligned sound, and they occasionally better it. It’s one of the most enjoyable rap albums of the year. JT
Sacramento’s Mozzy had had a more prolific year than most of his peers. He’s on a Gucci Mane-style roll, dropping new full-lengths at a faster rate than Donald Trump farts out petty tweets. Of the umpteen albums Mozzy dropped in 2016, Mandatory Check is the most coherent and the most focused.
Mozzy’s unique selling point is his ability to vocalize not only the ugliest part of gang life, but the dread and depression it informs. His rhymes are dipped in regret and remorse – he doesn’t falter for a minute, but he’s horrifyingly aware of the mental price he’s paying for his actions.
“I’m on these pain killers tryin’ not to feel it,” Mozzy opines on ‘Pain Killers’, blocking his most gruelling experiences while diving into new ones. It’s not always an easy listen, but Mandatory Check is as raw and genuinely melancholy as rap got in 2016.
5. Cousin Stizz
Before Cousin Stizz, Boston inhabited an awkward place in the rap landscape. It had its successes, sure, but the boom bap runs deep – in Boston, even the backpacks wear backpacks. It took Stizz – and a few of his like-minded associates – to wake the city up to a fresh, innovative generation that were ready for change.
MONDA is a confident second outing for the Dorchester rapper, outlining both his lyrical skill and rare attention to detail. He goes deeper and darker here than he did on his excellent debut Suffolk County, and isn’t afraid to approach subjects most rappers take years to address.
But Stizz’s real skill is in fusing the old with the new. He doesn’t simply jump on Atlanta beats and label himself an innovator – Stizz has teamed with producers that understand a balance between freshness and heritage, and his sound reflects that better than anyone on the East Coast right now. JT
4. The Outfit, TX
Green Lights (Everythang Goin)
After blowing us away with last year’s gothic opus Down By The Trinity, The Outfit, TX returned this summer with Green Lights (Everythang Goin). This time around, the Dallas trio took trap tropes down home to Texas – the part of the rap map best known for sludgy, chopped-and-screwed menace.
On Green Lights, rapper-producers Dorian, JayHawk, and Mel fixate on money, women and power over sinister nightmares made of gut-rumbling bass and horror-movie ambience (Stunt N Dozier, the Dallas duo behind underground hits by Dorrough and Gangsta Boo, produced more than half of the mixtape). For fans looking for the spiritual successors to Southern rap powerhouses like UGK, Three 6 Mafia and 8Ball & MJG, look no further than The Outfit, TX. CK
3. Nef the Pharaoh & Cardo
Neffy Got Wings
(Sick Wid It)
California’s Bay Area has long understood that if you fold some fun into rap, the results speak for themselves. Look at E-40 – the Vallejo vet has nurtured a career that’s lasted longer than most of his peers, despite being the butt of plenty of jokes in the 1990s. By nurturing his fan base, keeping an ear to the streets and keeping the quality consistent, he’s managed the impossible. Fuck, he even owns a wine company.
He also knows how to identify young talent, and Nef the Pharaoh is his newest protégé. Nef is another Vallejo native who seems eager to pick up where his mentor left off, but he’s far from a copycat. Neffy Got Wings succeeds because where other rappers have posture and tall tales, Nef substitutes heart and home truths. Sometimes he’s aspirational (‘Michael Jackson’), sometimes confessional (‘Devil’s Team’) and sometimes throwback (‘Wake Up’) but with Cardo on the boards it’s a perfect meeting of trunk rattling beats and urgent, infectious rhymes.
2016 was the West Coast’s time to shine, and few rappers shined as brightly as Nef. JT
2. Kodak Black
Lil B.I.G. Pac
(Dollaz N Dealz Ent)
While other rappers made headlines by disavowing Biggie and Tupac, Kodak Black used 2016 to follow in their footsteps. After closing 2015 with a somber jailhouse missive (his Institution mixtape), Kodak celebrated his 19th birthday with Lil B.I.G. Pac, the South Florida rapper’s tightest, strongest effort yet.
Throughout the mixtape, it’s shocking how preternaturally gifted Kodak is at bringing vitality and personality to familiar street rap tales (despite the title, Kodak is more in the tradition of Gucci and Boosie). Often, that means opting not just for a nihilistic, me-against-the-world attitude but struggling to “do something productive for once” instead of simply finding solace on the streets, whether that’s taking time to raise his son or mourning the ones he’s lost. But he doesn’t put on airs: despite all his life experience, he’s still just 19, and that means sometimes his better angels will lose out: for every moment of self-reflection, there’s a sip of syrup or a lick to hit.
That way of life hasn’t come without consequences (he was recently released from a Florida jail only to be extradited to South Carolina on a sexual battery charge), but his lyrics at least look towards a better future. After all, as he raps on ‘Everything 1K’: “You know life ain’t tied with a bow but it’s still a gift, though… It’s a blessing just to be here.” CK
A Good Night In The Ghetto
A Good Night in the Ghetto is the rap album of the year and it’s not even close. It’s got everything you could possibly want – honest, affecting lyrics, a confident, infectious flow, great hooks, incredible beats – even the artwork is great. The fact that it’s Bay Area newcomer Kamaiyah’s debut is even more startling.
Kamaiyah sprinted out of the gate last year with the anthemic ‘How Does It Feel’, but rather than pad a lazy mixtape around one breakout hit, she managed to put together an album that’s packed with jams that are as good, if not better. It’s the depth of the album that makes it so special – it’s a record that can be played endlessly on hot summer days with the car windows cracked, but one that works equally when it gets personal.
The album’s most crucial point is the last track, ‘For My Dawg’, a dedication to a friend who died of cancer. It’s not the first rap obituary and it won’t be the last, but Kamaiyah’s wordplay and sensitivity is breathtaking. “And I can’t give a fuck about these millions / And I will give it up to see him live on / To raise his daughter up ‘cause she’s so brilliant,” she says, close to tears. It’s a poignant moment that shows that there’s far more to the Bay than parties, and far more to Kamaiyah than one big single. JT