2017 has been a strange year for rap. With blockbuster projects from some of the biggest names in the game (and lesser-known artists) dropping seemingly weekly, it can be difficult to discern what has made a distinct mark on the game this year. Sort it all out with Halftime Leisure’s definitive (read: completely subjective) ranking of the best rap releases of the year. Note: For fairness, we allowed a maximum of two songs per artist to make the list.
- Drake – “Passionfruit”
This song could teach the entire Trump transition team how to dance if you left it on in the Kremlin and locked all the doors. Out of all the times Drake has thrown his hat in the dancehall circle, this is both his most authentic and his best attempt.
- Danny Brown & Paul White – “Lion’s Den”
Danny Brown yet again proves his ability to rap over literally any assortment of sounds on this song off his and producer Paul White’s collaborative EP Accelerator. The juxtaposition of the beat that sounds like a Disneyland ride with Danny’s depressive lyrics about his drug problems and lifestyle is as jarring as it is gripping.
- Tee Grizzley – “First Day Out”
What seems to be a soul track for the first one-and-a-half minutes quickly turns into one of the hardest songs of 2017. Even LeBron James uses this song as motivation while working out.
- Jay-Z – “The Story of OJ”
No more debates about HOV’s place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, please. We wonder how OJ reacted to this song when he got out.
- Frank Ocean – “Biking”
The first the world heard from Jay Z this year came on a folk-guitar backed Frank Ocean song, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. This song somehow manages to have spring, summer, winter, and fall vibes all at the same time.
- Goldlink – “Crew”
Goldlink bursts onto the scene with his first radio hit, aided by excellent features from Brent Faiyaz and Shy Glizzy. This song deserves to win Hook of the Year.
- Bedwetter – “Stoop Lights”
In probably the darkest song on this list, Virginia rapper Lil Ugly Mane (Bedwetter is the name of his side project) raps about his struggles with alcoholism and depression over a beat that sounds like it was taken straight from a Three 6 Mafia tape in 1994. For a song that is such a tough listen, it makes you want to run it right back at the end.
- Rick Ross – “Idols Become Rivals”
There’s a lot to unpack in this song, but we applaud Ross calling out Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman for his treatment of artists signed to the label. Listeners can clearly hear the regret in Ross’s voice as he repeatedly questions Birdman’s actions. Hopefully, the pressure Ross applies to Birdman expedites the release of Lil Wayne’s long-overdue Tha Carter V.
- Shabazz Palaces – “Shine a Light”
Seattle experimental hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces – sort of the spiritual successor to legendary jazz rap trio Digable Planets – came through this year with two albums, and “Shine a Light” was the best track off either of them. The movie-score esque beat and reverberated vocals mesh together into one of the year’s most interesting and left-field hip-hop songs.
- Billy Woods – “Gazpacho”
Underground hip-hop’s resident rambling crazy guy brought his best on this track, from Blockhead’s haunting but thumping beat to Billy’s off-kilter and hyper-dense rhyming. “Top of the world Ma, I made it to the bottom / Watching the Cotton Bowl from a coffee shop in Holland”.
- Tyler, The Creator – “November”
In a way reminiscent of Snoop Dogg’s “Imagine”, Tyler reflects on his career and wonders aloud about the consequences of coming out, how his life would be different without music, and whether or not he’s focused too much on creating controversy in his career as opposed to focusing on making songs. “November” is one of Tyler, the Creator’s most personal songs – and that’s saying something.
- Playboi Carti – “Magnolia”
Regardless of how you feel about his lyrics, Playboi Carti has definitely has “it” (hidden in his sock). We originally thought Carti was talking about hiding a gun in his sock, which made no sense unless he had a very small gun, until we saw the video and realized he meant drugs, which makes a lot more sense.
- Vince Staples – “Big Fish”
Catchy hook? Check. Abundant bass? Check. Long Beach flavor? Check. This Vince Staples track is the perfect recipe for a banger.
- Sampha – “Plastic 100 C”
Houston, we have another solid track from Sampha. The space theme captures the listener’s attention while Sampha’s smooth vocals leave the listener begging for more.
- Future – “Mask Off”
- Denzel Curry – “Bloodshed”
Why did Denzel have to make bloodshed? We’re not sure, but we’re glad he did. Curry’s flow meshes with an aggressive instrumental and rudely introduces listeners to his latest EP, 13.
- Frank Ocean – “Chanel”
Frank’s first single since the release of Blonde (2016) reminds listeners why he is one of the best artists in the world. The ethereal instrumental and Frank’s smooth vocals create an easy listen that is perfect for driving home at night.
- BROCKHAMPTON – “Star”
One of the best instrumentals of the year is coupled with verses filled with punchlines involving celebrity names to create a song that adequately lives up to its name.
- Tyler, the Creator – “911/Mr. Lonely”
A catchy hook and a fantastic beat switch-up make this song one of Tyler, the Creator’s strongest in recent years. Frank Ocean’s bridge on this song is worthy of multiple rewinds. This song has also served as the backdrop for some the funniest Twitter videos of the year.
- Vince Staples – “Yeah Right”
This is a song full of surprises, from the way the bass comes in and destroys everything in a 5 mile radius, to the metallic snare drums flying all over the song, to a feature from an unlisted Kendrick Lamar who proceeds to chew up the track and spit it right out in one of the best feature verses of his career. This is everything the world has wanted from a Vince/Kendrick collab song. It’s pretty rare to have one’s expectations blown out of the water in the way this song did, but rarer still to have the beat literally sound as though it’s blowing the listener out of the water.
- BROCKHAMPTON – “Gold”
In what amounts to essentially a Frank Ocean song with trap drums and rapping, Brockhampton serves up the heaviest dose of vibe in any hip-hop song this year. The four verses on this song each offer something different and original. These guys are about to blow up, and they deserve all the attention they’ll get.
- Kendrick Lamar – “XXX.”
“XXX” is a microcosm of DAMN. as an album. Kendrick starts the song by matter-of-factly narrating how black youth fall into a vicious cycle of violence, and then discusses the pitfalls and contradictions of pacifism in the song’s second act. After U2 inexplicably comes in on the track, Kendrick takes the longer view by critiquing the system he lives under. This rap’s the equivalent of the final battle in a superhero movie.
- Denzel Curry – “Zeltron 6 Billion”
You know it’s a crazy time for music when a 22-year-old from Florida makes the best New York hip-hop song of the year. The beat knocks, and Curry and Ugly Mane both rap like this is the last verse they’ll ever spit. If you think hip-hop died in the 90s, listen to this song, then wipe the dust off your timbs and get over yourself.
- Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3”
Uzi combines surprisingly important themes – substance abuse, relationship problems, and suicide – with upbeat production to craft his finest work to date. “XO Tour Llif3” shows that Uzi can do more than just provide a catchy single or guest verse.
- Kendrick Lamar – “DNA.”
Kendrick has released hard-hitting cuts in the past, but none have ever hit the masses with as much force (and bass) as “DNA.” Mike WiLL Made-It serves up the perfect lob pass with an incredible beat change in the middle of the song, and King Kenny delivers a captivating slam dunk with his relentless flow and angry tone. “DNA.” might just be the most speaker-knocking song Kendrick has ever released.
- Migos – Culture
After the astronomical success of “Bad and Boujee,” expectations for Migos’s second studio album were sky-high. With Culture, the group strives to meet those expectations, at times greatly exceeding the bar. Songs like “Kelly Price,” “What the Price,” and “T-Shirt” are among the best in Migos’s discography. But that is not to say that this album is infallible. Lackluster features from 2 Chainz and DJ Khaled don’t excite, and the album loses much of its steam in the final five tracks. Overall, however, the brightest moments on Culture outshine its worst, earning it the No. 10 spot on our list.
- SZA – CTRL
The long-awaited debut album from Top Dawg Entertainment’s SZA was a breath of fresh air for the R&B genre. SZA is brutally honest in her lyrics, questioning her love life, worrying about aging, and dishing out dirt on her ex-boyfriend. The album’s opening track, “Supermodel,” uses nothing more than an electric guitar to provide instrumentation that accompanies the singer’s smooth vocals. From this point on, listeners know that SZA isn’t sticking to the normal sonic confines of the R&B genre. This is later solidified with tracks like “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” and “Anything.” Fantastic guest features from numerous artists, including Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar, add a level of interest to an album that already captivates listeners. CTRL is a fantastic debut album for Top Dawg’s lone female artist.
- Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Even though this may be oversaid, it’s true: Flower Boy is the album Tyler, The Creator has been trying to make his entire career. From the sleek, off-kilter, Neptunes-inspired production, to Tyler’s matured, introspective, and illuminating lyrics, this album is a tight 46 minutes of well-done experimental west coast hip-hop. Rarely is an album simultaneously so all-over-the-place and so cohesive. Although there’s no “right” way to come out as bisexual on an album, Flower Boy nails it on the track “Garden Shed,” a heartfelt ballad that has just as many musical revelations as it does personal ones. If you think Tyler, The Creator is an obnoxious tryhard, this is the album that will change your mind.
- Billy Woods – Known Unknowns
Every bit as dark as its cover art, Billy Woods’ Known Unknowns is not only his best work to date, but also his most sonically cohesive. Woods’ music sounds like it’s being read off the walls of an abandoned prison cell, painstakingly scratched and just barely legible. Wood’s off-beat (both literally and figuratively) rapping style accentuates the dark and convoluted production from Blockhead, creating a dense, almost stream-of-consciousness musical aesthetic. Blockhead’s beats are typical Blockhead: hard bass, fun samples, and made to bounce around the MC instead of constrain them. Great guest verses from Aesop Rock and Elucid cut Woods’ monotone, making Known Unknowns more replayable than any album in its lane ought to be.
- Sampha – Process
The first of two albums on this list steeped in an obsession with the future, Sampha’s Process is this year’s spellbinding R&B record. The London singer has done songs with everyone from Kanye West to Solange to Frank Ocean to Drake before his first studio album, and Process shows that Sampha deserved every feature placement he got. The album is, in a word: beautiful, and in four: impossible to put down. There’s an addictiveness to Process‘s spacey, haunting mood that pulls the listener in song by song. If nothing else, listen to this album for the beat-switch on “Reverse Faults” – it’s one of the coolest moments in music this year.
- Death Grips – Steroids
The title tells you everything you need to know about this EP. You’ll most likely either hate it with a passion or think it’s the hardest thing you’ve heard this year. Steroids is the EP equivalent of getting hit in the face with a sledgehammer, but in the best way possible. The 22-minute journey over what feels like 43 beat-switches creates a never-ending series of “what the fuck” moments for the listener. MC Ride’s half-screamed, half-rapped lyrics are oddly poetic but still brutal. Death Grips does it again.
- Denzel Curry – 13
This album is as gritty and irate as it is short. Across the EP’s five tracks, Denzel Curry explores new sounds and does exactly what a good EP should do: generate hype for the artist’s future. Tracks like “Hate Government” and “Bloodshed” are fueled by Curry’s rage and create an intense listening atmosphere, while “Zeltron 6 Billion” utilizes an excellent feature from Lil Ugly Mane and excellent production to satisfy both longtime and new Curry listeners. While this EP is just 13 minutes long, it’s among the most enjoyable 13 consecutive minutes of rap music this year.
- BROCKHAMPTON – Saturation
BROCKHAMPTON is one of the more interesting and diverse music collectives the world has seen in years. Sounding like a combination between Migos, Odd Future, and the Beach Boys, the San Marcos, Texas group put out All American Trash last year to mixed reception. Their second album is anything but mixed as far as quality is concerned. Each song on this project is its own world, taking influences from different genres as each of the group’s different members show their specific talents. It’s so great to hear people still doing completely new takes on the hip-hop and R&B genres in 2017. Not bad for a bunch of guys who met on the internet.
- Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Long Beach bias aside, Vince Staples dropped easily one of the most sonically adventurous hip-hop albums of the year with Big Fish Theory. The album is appropriate for just about any situation, so long as the situation takes place in a futuristic setting. Drive-by with a plasma cannon? Try “SAMO.” Just blew up the Death Star and need to turn up? Put on “Big Fish.” Riding around in your hovercraft? Your future speakers will love “745.” This album’s EDM production sounds straight out of Atlantis, soaked in seawater and still has enough punch to blow your stereo out. Vince’s vocal performance complements the production aesthetic perfectly, delivering a message while riding the off-kilter beats in a way that fits both the party and the headphones. Long Beach has its next poster child, and this album proves he’s here to stay.
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Sonically speaking, this album is not at all what we were expecting from Kendrick Lamar. Jazz influences dominated Lamar’s two previous releases, untitled unmastered. (2016) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), but Lamar ditches this stance in favor of the more electronic and classic hip-hop sounds of DAMN. These sounds are combined with the compelling story of Kendrick’s personal philosophical struggles and pure emotion. Listeners can feel the potency of Lamar’s loneliness on “FEEL.” and his annoyance with the sinful lifestyles of his contemporaries on “LUST.” Yet, when listened to alone, these are just glimpses into Lamar’s consciousness. The album is stuffed wall-to-wall with contradictions, exemplified by the dualities in the project’s track titles. The juxtaposition of “HUMBLE.,” a song about pride, and “PRIDE.,” a song about humility, is just one of the many track pairs that lend thematic relevance to the rest of the album. When digested as a whole, the album reveals intense contradictions and theological implications that have no definitive answers – topics that are more provocative and difficult to tackle than any other rapper would dare to dedicate an album to. When it’s all said and done, the timeless theme and varied sounds of DAMN. may be remembered as his magnum opus.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons