The 20 best R&B and rap tracks of 2017

From Missy Elliott and Frank Ocean to Ski Mask the Slump God and Daniel Caesar.

Rap has been one of America’s foremost pop culture products for decades, but never has it been as varied and vibrant as it was in 2017. It dominated the Billboard charts, seeing no. 1 hits for Migos, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone and, most notably, Cardi B – ‘Bodak Yellow‘ is only the second solo performance by a female rapper ever in history to top the chart. R&B, from both sides of the pond, was as versatile as ever, as well. Romance brewed in Daniel Caesar’s and Jorja Smith’s catalogs; ’90s legends 112 made their triumphant return after going over a decade without an album; Jhené Aiko and Frank Ocean both showed us doing it your own way is best. And the underground was massive for both genres.

Absent from this list are entries from our best tracks of 2017 list – we’ve sung the praises of Cardi B’s ‘Bodak Yellow’ across multiple year-end pieces; no need to write about it again – but different tunes by Kendrick Lamar and Jorja Smith get them both representation here. These are just the songs we rinsed the hell out of this year – and probably will continue to rinse in 2018.

‘Dangerous Games’
(Entertainment One Music)

The enduring influence of mid- to late-’90s Bad Boy is not what makes 112’s comeback album Q Mike Slim Daron standout. Second single ‘Dangerous Games’ balances their tried and true, church-raised vocal style with modern production. But he skittering percussion is tranquil enough that it doesn’t reek of Old Men Try Trap Drums. Their return was anything but a novelty project. CL

(Question Everything)

California’s Brockhampton aren’t a band, they’re an industry. How else do you explain their size (at last count, they had 14 members) and their prolific work rate? In 2017, they released three albums containing a total 48 songs. Of this lot, Saturation II cut ‘FAKE’ wasn’t the most celebrated (the adrenaline-racing ‘GUMMY’ takes that prize), but it does things no other track of theirs does – nor any other rap act, for that matter. A loose, lucid blend of rich keys and pitch-shifted rhymes about learning who to trust in a music industry heralding them as the next big thing. Its energy is electric and its beat from producer Q3 a labyrinth of melodic ideas. AH

Daniel Caesar
‘Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song)’
(Golden Child Recordings)

‘Neu Roses’ begins like a Pet Sounds slice of choral calm, but before too long embarks on a D’Angelo-inspired funk adventure that ends in dreamy delirium. That soulful 22-year-old breakout star Daniel Caesar would attempt such a thing is testament to the quiet confidence he carries throughout Freudian, his debut album and one of the year’s most soulful R&B releases. “Should have left you a long time ago, all my niggas done told me so,” he sings here. “But my niggas don’t hold me tight when I’m sleeping in bed at night, only you.” The heartache is real. AH

Frank Ocean

After all the drama and frustration of our the four-year wait for new material from the elusive Frank Ocean, who dropped his Channel Orange follow-up last summer, the New Orleans native surprised everyone in 2017. No agonizing wait for more new music: instead came a flurry of singles and collabs, from the Aphex Twin-referencing ‘Provider’ to the chart-conquering  ‘Slide’ with Calvin Harris and Migos. ‘Chanel’ was the best of the bunch: Frank at his dreamiest, promising “it’s really you on my mind” over faint piano chords made me long for night time bus rides staring forlornly out of a rain-streaked window. AH

Jhené Aiko Feat. Kurupt
‘Never Call Me’
(Def Jam)

“I wrote this at the height of a very public breakup, so I was feeling a way,” Jhené Aiko told NPR earlier this year about the woozy ‘Never Call Me’. “I’d just taken some mushrooms, so it was like an exaggerated feeling.” The track comes from Trip, an album about grief and psychedelics and it is one of the most intimate on the record: she recreates a conversation she and legendary Compton rapper Kurupt had about her very public divorce from producer Dot Da Genius. “There was just a lot of negativity coming my way, and he literally had that conversation with me,” she says of the rapper she bonded with when they were both Snoop Dogg’s High Road Tour. It’s hyper-real and surreal, courtesy of production from Cashmere Cat, Frank Dukes, Benny Blanco and Amaire Johnson; a shining example of how Aiko is more than just a wispy alt-R&B performer. Her strength and creativity sings throughout Trip and this is one of its loveliest punches in the gut. CL

Jorja Smith
‘Teenage Fantasy’

Her Preditah collab ‘On My Mind’ may have won more plaudits, but ‘Teenage Fantasy’ is a better distillation of everything that makes Midlands artist Jorja Smith so exciting. “You aren’t the boy I thought I knew / Maybe I was blind / I was young / I didn’t have a clue,” she laments with typical smokiness and immaculacy, over the most tragic of wandering piano melodies and a beat both sleek and sorrowful. Smith may look back on her guest spot on Drake’s More Life as her biggest breakthrough moment of 2017, fans may remember ‘On My Mind’ as her biggest hit of the year, but with ‘Teenage Fantasy’ she proved she doesn’t need anyone else to captivate and enchant. AH


For the past two years, Kamaiyah’s knocked us out with her full-length projects. Her 2016 release A Good Night in the Ghetto and last months’s Before I Wake made it into both of our of top 10s of the year. But in between these two masterful mixtapes, the Oakland native has been in sample clearance purgatory, sweating out the release of her first proper album as her label sits on top of it. While we all wait, ‘Successful’ is a boisterous vision of what 2017 should have been like for her and a crystal ball projecting the triumph to come in her future. CL

Kendrick Lamar Feat. Rihanna

Unless you’re regularly shopping at Sephora or Harvey Nichols, the most Rihanna you could get your hands on in 2017 came via a small handful of guest vocal appearances. While she is slick on N.E.R.D’s ‘Lemon’ and unabashedly fun on DJ Khaled’s otherwise ultra-cheesy ‘Wild Thoughts’, she shined brightest on DAMN. track ‘LOYALTY.’ Hearing Rihanna rap with such control and precision was such a holy-shit moment, it even eclipsed the album appearance by U2, who blended seamlessly into Lamar’s world. Both Kendrick and Rihanna were unflappable this year and this was one place where they cruised 2017 coolly together. CL

Ladies of Beach City Feat. Snoop Dogg
‘Beach City Rollin’

Ladies of Beach City’s self-titled debut on Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle label is as gritty and tough as it is carefree and effortlessly cool. Lead single ‘Beach City Rollin’ is an expert exercise in G-Funk’s modern relevance with a guest spot from one of the sound’s foremost pioneers. It doesn’t matter if you’re hanging somewhere cold or warm this year-end season – wherever Ladies of Beach City is playing, it’s going to be hot. CL

Little Simz
(AGE 101)

There’s been a frustrating disconnect over the last years between the level of admiration for Little Simz among musicians and critics (Kendrick is just one of her famous fans), and her relatively small profile on the UK music scene. 2017 went some way to correct this: Gorillaz invited her to open for them on their European arena tour, and this loosie enjoyed some much-deserved shine (one live performance of the track has been watched over 2m times alone). It’s easy to understand why ‘Backseat’ struck a chord: its melancholy is arresting and Simz’ flow typically sharp as she navigates rhymes about life as an outsider and “black sheep”. She may not be an outsider much longer. AH

Missy Elliott Feat. Lamb
‘I’m Better’

Missy Elliott has been a discerning creator for decades and her only track of 2017 proves she’s still as original as ever – and far more patient about her new music than the rest of are. ‘I’m Better” flits between trap and Missy’s signature futurist outlook, but as the song title suggest, she can describe it best herself. She explained to FACT earlier this year why she wanted to release it, “It fits in a place of now but still has a Missy twist.” CL

‘Like Really’
(Mello Music Group)

Oddisee’s ‘Like Really’, from his cruelly overlooked The Iceberg, is the jazzy hip-hop embodiment of the thinking-face emoji: an inquisitive response to bullshit both personal and political. That includes Hollywood white-washing (“How you make a film about about Egypt but all leading roles are Caucasian?”), America’s demogogue-in-chief (“How you gonna make us great again when we never really that amazing?”) to music industry posturing (“I ain’t got a big deal but I’m still a big deal”). The hook is gloriously soulful and the track’s call-and-response structure impossible not to participate in. AH

Rapsody Feat. Kendrick Lamar & Lance Skiiiwalker
(Def Jam)

Marlanna Evans is a powerhouse, and ‘Power’ is a testament to her talents. Of course, the track benefits from Kendrick sprinkling his little star power atop 9th Wonder’s bass-driven beat, but Rapsody isn’t outshone: “bombs over Baghdad to have a flag to brag about don’t make you a big boy,” she raps with fierce energy, questioning what exactly power is, how it manifests and what can be done about toxic masculinity that often drives it. Timely and electric. AH

Rico Nasty
(Sugar Trap)

When a rapper drops a threat-filled track, it’s usually accompanied production that fits in the same menacing mold. Not for Maryland rapper Rico Nasty. On ‘Poppin’, she brings a relentless aggression to the bright Whoismike productions, at times it almost seems like she’s going to lose her voice. Sometimes a woman’s just gotta talk her shit. No wonder the song got placed on the Insecure soundtrack. AP

Rina Sawayama
‘Where U Are’
(Momoé Records)

The Blood Orange vibes are strong in Rina Sawayama, whose ‘Where U Are’ was released at the start of a year that went on to lay the foundations for a flourishing career for the Japanese-English artist. “I’m losing sight of what it means to be in this reality,” she sings breathily over a R&B beat that soon erupts into a ’80s guitar solo. The future’s bright. AH

Sheff G
‘No Suburban’

Teenage rapper Sheff G. is spearheading the Brooklyn drill movement and ‘No Suburban’ is the standout from the scene. The track’s church-bell chimes and drill drums blend perfectly with Sheff’s gruff voice and unconventional pronunciation that some mistake for a British accent – but don’t confuse this for UK drill. Although the sound is not native to New York, ‘No Suburban’ reminds that there are very few things in music as satisfying as an NYC rap anthem that stays true to the city. AP

Ski Mask the Slump God
‘Catch Me Outside’

Ski Mask the Slump God rapping over a Timbaland beat almost as old as he is – Missy Elliott’s ‘She’s a Bitch’ – shouldn’t have worked, but it resulted in him become an must-know name in the rap world. On ‘Catch Me Outside’, he is possessed, locked in a zone that makes you want to bust out your very best shoulder roll. Most rappers would have a hard time hanging on a Timbaland production in 2017, but this sounds made for Ski Mask as he flips the original dark tone into something much more luminous. AP

‘Go With the Flow’

Unotheactivist glides over breezy Krookz production with sublime Auto-tuned crooning on ‘Go With the Flow’ – a sharp left turn for the Atlanta rapper. Here he proves he has quickly become one of SoundCloud’s most polished stars with crisp mixing that usually evades artists using the platform. The most impressive thing here, though, is the range Uno is able reach: he hits high-pitched notes usually reserved for the Auto-tune Elite, like Young Thug, solidifying himself as an up-and-comer to watch. AP

Vince Staples
(ARTium Recordings/Blacksmith Records/Def Jam)

Vince Staples promised to take us into the future on his recent album Big Fish Theory: “WE IN YEAR 3230 WIT IT,” he tweeted in the run-up to its release. ‘BagBak’ is the song on that record that most viscerally drags us into the next millennium: two and a half minutes of squelchy, futurist synth squelches, industrial echoes and lightning rhymes about “racial war commotion” and a government and one percent he tells to “suck a dick.” AH

‘Pretty Bull’
(XL Recordings)

Wiki’s ‘Pretty Bull’ feels like a certain kind of New York summer: everyone has a skateboard but you and there isn’t much you can afford to do so instead linger in a park’s basketball court rotting your teeth with a 99¢ Arizona iced tea tallboy. At night, you sweat your ass off at a spot that’s definitely exceeded capacity. Sound terrible? It’s not and you can hear it in Tony Seltzer’s dreamy production. Wiki is an extremely gifted rapper and here he lets loose as he embraces the city for what it is. AP

Read next: After a turbulent 2017, can SoundCloud survive the streaming wars?



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