The most notable hip-hop albums and mixtapes from 2017 showed how truly universal and complex the genre has become: Their sounds encompassed hints of everything from Detroit techno and industrial to dancehall, Southern funk and classic East Coast boom-bap. Their lyrics contain the full spectrum of human life: sacred and profane, highbrow and lowbrow. The artists who made them are more necessary now for our culture than ever before, as is the whole rap universe.
We couldn’t decide on a clear 1 to 10 order for these records—and quickly decided we weren’t interested in one. All of them are worth your time and deserve careful consideration, so you’ll see them below in alphabetical order. And also, perhaps most importantly: All of this shit knocks.
The success of 21 Savage’s major-label debut may be proof positive that uncompromising street rap can once again hold its own on mainstream charts without crossover help. (We can quibble about specifics, but think of it this way—it’s been a long time since T.I.’s KING.) Issa Album is bleak, often violent and sometimes malevolent—the man born Shayaa Abraham-Joseph isn’t begging for forgiveness here, as “Close My Eyes” evidences. But it works due to Savage’s compelling personality and the minor-key minimalism of Metro Boomin, who produces most of the record. Savage is not a monster, but a man who developed the capacity for meanness in mean places: On “Nothin New,” he’s aware that drug slinging is now a storytelling persona for him but still reality for many friends, leading to the nihilistic spending/coke bender of “Numb.” And “FaceTime” offers levity as brief respite in its tale of intoxicated but earnest romance. I mean, who can’t relate to “I’m too drunk to text so can we FaceTime?” - LG
Good For You
Coming out of the relatively untapped Portland hip-hop scene, Aminé has found success blending R&B with his smooth hip-hop vocals. He deals in love and lust in a manner than feels more genuine than cocksure or superficial. Take, for instance, his smash hit “Caroline” that now appears on debut Good For You. He deftly melds more physical desires with the emotional infatuation that connects human beings. This theme pervades throughout Aminé’s sly first album as its tracks emphasize emotion while maintaining passion. It’s a fun trip and one that is much more than just a vehicle for one smash hit. – CW
Darold Ferguson wasn’t blind to the lukewarm reception of his good but overstuffed second album as A$AP Ferg, Always Strive and Prosper. He’s learned from the experience, as the anthemic “Trap and a Dream” immediately proves, with Ferg and Meek Mill murdering a funereal trap beat. Still Striving (technically a mixtape, but commercially released, unlike the outstanding Ferg Forever) is a nearly relentless, always thrilling hardcore rap assault. It largely eschews the crossover attempts heard on Always but doesn’t abandon the Hood Pope’s songcraft instincts. The Harlem MC sprays shit-talk like AK-47 bursts atop production often as furiously paced as the rhymes, with verbal assists from legends Cam’ron and Busta Rhymes as well as contemporaries such as Migos and Lil Uzi Vert. – LG
It’s wild that on the weekend when I’m due to briefly summarize an album with which I’m extremely familiar (I wrote its Album of the Week piece), Kendrick Lamar releases a “Collector’s Edition” of DAMN., upsetting my thought-applecart. Jeez. But seriously: Whether you listen to the original or in reverse on the Collector’s version, you’ll be undeniably moved unless you have the physical constitution of a stone or a white supremacist. From the barnburning singles “HUMBLE.” and “DNA.” to the deep psychological complexity of “FEAR.,” “DUCKWORTH.” and “XXX.,” DAMN. will keep your mind on overdrive—and, more so than prior Kendrick albums, your ears happy, thanks to a murderer’s row of maestros including Mike WiLL, Sounwave, DJ Dahi, Alchemist and 9th Wonder. – LG
Wash & Set
The female voice and perspective has been an often underutilized tool in hip-hop and rap. We’ve seen that change in a dramatic way in recent years, however, with an impressive list of women emcees entering the spotlight. Of this trailblazing class of women, Lekeli47’s sophomore album Wash & Set represents a high watermark not just for female artists but all artists. It posses a vibrancy that sharpens every track’s edges as Lekeli47 fills each verse with a passionate focus on self-confidence, attitude and personal merit. She’s worked hard to get where she is, and Wash & Set shows Lekeli47 isn’t ready to relinquish her seat at the table any time soon. - CW
It’s kind of wild that Culture is only the second “album” by Migos, seeing as they’ve dropped a long series of mixtapes since 2012. Whatever way you slice it, though, this is by far the best project the Atlanta speed-rap trio have recorded to date. The group added lyrical and thematic depth to a repertoire sometimes perceived as shallow on “T-Shirt” and “What’s The Price,” while “Call Casting,” “Slippery,” “Bad and Boujee” and “Kelly Price” upheld their affinity for goofily debauched party anthems. - LG
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is notable for his multi-instrumental abilities that led to him create more experimental hip-hop. He plays in a futuristic space creating tracks that sound both new and refreshing, often doing vocal acrobatics to accompany and mimic the musical peaks and valleys. His most endearing characteristic trait is his tendency to ladder up his vocals to a crescendoing rollercoaster that defies known tonal qualities. His tracks oscillate between subdued and methodical like standout “iVyTRA” and bangers like “dOn’t turn me Off”. 2017 may not have seen a hip-hop album as unique as DROOL and it speaks to the potential Ogbonnaya possesses. – CW
Open Mike Eagle
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Open Mike Eagle expounds on life in the housing projects of Chicago and how it’s affected his character. Taking on a concept album isn’t new to Mike as his previous albums all contain these elements, but his most recent release may be his most cohesive. There’s a raw emotional intelligence that sets his work apart from many of his compatriots as a more cerebral option. With references to all types of media and a tendency to lean on comedy to alleviate some of his deeper inclinations, Mike continues to prioritize feelings over everything with Brick Body quickly becoming the new pinnacle of his output. - CW
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 3
Killer Mike and El-P reached symbiosis on their second Run The Jewels album (RTJ2), so if its follow-up had simply been as good as that, fans would have little reason to complain. El has his production style—dystopian funk with hints of trap, industrial and H-Town bounce—down to a science, and he and Mike handle solo microphone sermons and inspired tag-team rhymes with equal, consistent dexterity. What makes the record stand out among 2017’s hip-hop is, in part, RTJ’s mastery of that unique recipe. But the chaotic urgency of RTJ3 is at a higher, more enraged fever pitch than any of the group’s previous releases. And though much of its material was recorded before the colossal goatfuck of Election Day 2016, it seems eerily predictive of the coming storm.
The surrealistic shit-talk that’s always an RTJ hallmark seems like a defense mechanism, not braggadocio, on “Legend Has It,” “Call Ticketron” and “Panther Like A Panther.” The directly political tracks have never been this excoriating: “Don’t Get Captured” features El-P indicting the stifling conformity of gentrification that often as not helps engender the violence Killer describes in apocalyptic terms. “Thieves,” “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters” and “2100” offer more hopeful messages of resistance, but never sugarcoat how hard it will be. - LG
Big Fish Theory
For the run that Vince Staples has been on of late, there’s not much more that needs to be said. He’s one of our favorites here at Treble—in fact, he earned our Album of the Year honors—and all across the critical landscape. If you haven’t yet listened to Vince or have a passing knowledge, you’ve been sleeping for some time now. Big Fish Theory continues his run of dominance, seeing the rapper twist societal issues into tracks that bang harder than a hammer on steel. Vince Staples once again proves that his voice demands to be heard, ranking up with contemporary greats such as Kendrick and Kanye. At such a young age, just 24, the scope of what he can accomplish is staggering. - CW