The Symphony 2016 Was Just 1 Of The Truly Amazing Performances & Videos Of The Year

2016 has been a unique year. With it, Hip-Hop had a lot to say, visually. Poets new and old, independent and well-heeled, used their art to promote awareness, suggest change, and when appropriate, provide distraction. At a time when the music video largely lives online, artists made statements—about themselves, their environments, and the symptoms of a world that sadly put its fears, hatred, and differences at its feet. Whether it is a legendary group coming back to fine form on the small screen, or an artist known for Trap music brilliantly using a symbolic reversal to awaken the masses, all of them found their rightful space this year. Together, the Hip-Hop videos below show courage and vulnerability, pride and skill, and will be the ways—in the annals of digital history—that Heads can remember the year that’s been.

Anderson .Paak – “The Season” / “Carry Me” / “The Waters”

At the top of 2016, Anderson .Paak warmed up the winter lull with a convertible cliff-side tour through Malibu. Combining Hip-Hop and Soul, lush melodies and nimble wordplay, the California kid made one of the year’s hallmark albums. However, unlike so many of his contemporaries, the long-grinding musician refrained from a flood of music videos. When he dropped the first visual, months into the project, he combined three songs in a seamless sampling of what made Malibu such a captivating listen. The vid’ used mixed media, like Paak’s artwork, to show that this is an artist and man who seemingly blends in any environment. Krondon, Sa Ra Creative Partners, as well as BJ The Chicago Kid, made cameos. Anderson is something different, something refreshing. The portrait video (complete with a literally monstrous depiction of the would-be President-Elect) shows the journey and some of the unique elements that make this artist so unique and original.

Big K.R.I.T. – “Might Not Be Okay”

While Big K.R.I.T. is a fan favorite MC/producer, he has not been a frequent performer on award shows. Instead, he has always made his points through his music. That changed this October, with a BET Hip-Hop Awards performance that reverberated around the culture and industry. Now a free agent, K.R.I.T. used a TV spot at a critical juncture to be as vulnerable as he ever had. He Performed “Might Not Be Okay,” a quietly-released collaboration from earlier in the year. This on-stage rendition made that Kenneth Whalum track a moment that transcended the moment, as K.R.I.T. channeled the anger and frustration that has torn apart our nation as a seeming never-ending cycle of police killings of unarmed Black citizens has unfolded before our eyes. K.R.I.T. was moved to tears as he spit the truth: “Blood on the curb, I didn’t spill it / ‘Nother civilian, ‘nother not guilty / ‘Nother T-shirt, ‘nother Rap lyric / ‘Nother life gone, I can’t forgive it.” And, we will not forget it. This auto-play video is available at its original post.

R.A. The Rugged Man – “Bang Boogie”

Veteran MC R.A. The Rugged Man reached back to 2013 to make a video for his Legends Never Die cut “Bang Boogie.” Unlike when he recorded the linguistic clinic, the Long Island, New Yorker is now a father. Naturally, his life has changed, but his lyrical prowess has not. Thereby, when R.A. made a visual for the Nature Sounds Records track, he has his four-month-old daughter (at the time) in tow—in strollers, carriers, and changing tables. This video shows that some MCs can still be every bit as dope (as ever), while being equally dope fathers. A filmmaker and video director in his own right, R.A. made a visual that touched the heart while maintained its musical nod-factor. The love that R.A. has put into his extensive, heavily-hurdled music career is palpable in his pride, happiness, and love of family. “Bang Boogie” is a feel-good visual from an MC who was once known for antics that were anything but G-related.

Kanye West – “Fade”

While another show-stopping video from The Life of Pablo seemingly garnered more attention, “Fade” is lit. Not only did the visual bring attention to a cathartic, uptempo, Hip-House highlight from the album, it let so many see the talented Teyana Taylor. As Kanye has built G.O.O.D. Music differently than traditional labels, he has picked special spots to put his artists on the largest stages possible. Following this sweaty and literally “on-point” homage to Flashdance, Heads knew that Teyana was otherworldly with the moves. For a song that builds to a crescendo and calls back to the House music scene of Chicago (along with cut-and-paste sampling), it could be visually challenging. This West-visioned video, premiering during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, more than conquered that feat. In a year that was difficult for Kanye in a few different ways, this video is a snapshot of his brilliance, and a illustration for his latest rediscovery of self.

Common – “Black America Again” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

In the canon of 2016 music, Common’s “Black America Again” is one of the most important records. For more than a year, the MC has parsed his title track (and central theme) out, beginning with acapella renditions during interviews. The fully-produced single followed, coming to an extensive mini-movie, involving Stevie Wonder. There were high-profile remixes too, with new verses and beats. Still, the message came across the most visually when Common joined The Roots on NBC late-night in October. Looking right into the lens while working the stage with his longtime collaborators, Common drove his point home. The song is one of the most important capsules of these times. For a gifted, 25-year MC, a powerful performance can be even more effective than anything else. (This performance is now exclusively available to Hulu users).

Erykah Badu – “On & On” (2016 Newark High School Cafeteria Performance)

Nearly 20 years after she released “On & On,” Erykah Badu still carries the Motown Records hit with her. Spending time at a Newark, New Jersey high school as part of The Future Project, Erykah made an impromptu visit to the lunchroom back in April. There, the mother of a teenager (and former teacher) broke out her song—captivating the adolescent audience. This quirky moment in music embodied Badu’s sense of style, humor, and her exceptional abilities. Furthermore, the Texas native proved why one of her breakout hits is timeless, and tangible to any age group. Standing on table tops and reaching into the souls of the future, Erykah Badu made another case for why she is so important to arts and culture.

Lil Dicky – “Molly”

While Professional Rapper released in 2015, the album continued to create new points of impact well into this year. Cheltenham, Pennsylvania’s Lil Dicky has been a different kind of MC for a litany of reasons. In addition to his exceptional rapping abilities, David Burd makes his music from a place of stark realism. There is comedy and self-deprecation sprinkled in for added effect, but much of the music comes from a deep place within. The nearly six-minute “Molly,” featuring Brendon Urie, is a shining example. The video is a 2016 “Passin’ Me By,” with Dicky playing groomsman in a wedding involving the woman (the bride) he truly loves. The DIY MC made a “romantic dramedie” with an album favorite.

ScHoolboy Q – “By Any Means,” “Tookie Knows II,” “Black THougHts”

This summer, ScHoolboy Q issued a stark reminder of what true Gangsta Rap is about. Rather than a glorification of a criminal lifestyle, the genre originated as part news from the streets and part cautionary tales of the grim realities many face every day. Around the release of his Blank Face LP, Q unloaded a trilogy of visuals that felt more like a documentary than music videos. “By Any Means, Pt.1” showed Q and the homies on a quest to get theirs, no matter the methods. “Tookie Knows II, Pt.2” made it clear that every act has its consequence and showed Q’s fall from grace as his lifestyle caught up with him. It also provided an unflinching commentary on the harshness of life in the system. “Black THougHts, Pt. 3” left no uncertainty that gangsta life is more often a nightmare than a fairy tale. In addition to the crushing effects incarceration has on the spirits of those behind bars, the final chapter showed the oft-overlooked destruction of families that results, as well. Taken as a whole, the short film shows that the most compelling art is rooted in reality.

T.I. – “Warzone”

Over the last 15 years, T.I. has been far more personal than political. The Hustle Gang leader knows how to put the trials and tribulations of his life on wax, with drama and effect. In 2016, through his first Roc Nation-assisted effort, Us Or Else, Tip went to a bigger scale. “Warzone” was given a music video that is nothing short of unforgettable. The video took a White family and put them in the shoes of the circumstances lived every day by Black folks. The visual reverses the story-line in the news. Black Atlanta Police Department officers kill a White teen with a toy gun. The killing does not stop there. T.I. called for compassion, and awakened change in this EP video. An artist (and actor) who has made many anthems that transport listeners to the Trap, made a video that showed everybody that the current system is not working—and if it were happening to your kids, you might care a little bit more.

D’Angelo – “Sometimes It Snows In April” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

In the days following Prince’s April death, many musicians began paying tribute. To those who loved Prince’s music and felt the gravity in his singing and playing, so many of those covers felt unworthy, while others just seemed questionably opportunistic. D’Angelo is one who has paid homage to Prince for years. He plays songs that often show the Artist’s influence on another career tinged with mystique, sensuality, and a refusal to bow. Days after Prince passed, D’Angelo took the stage at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for a performance of “Sometimes It Snows In April” that brought the house (and many homes tuned in) down. For the Parade closer that can conjure strong emotions long before 2016, this April hurt especially. This performance mourned that loss in the finest, most polished way possible and made the moment about the man—not the artist paying tribute. (This performance is now exclusively available to Hulu users).

Nick Grant – “Get Up” / “Sing Along”

While some artists thrived on being political and socially-minded in 2016, South Carolina’s Nick Grant was welcomed escape. In 2016, he released the 88 mixtape, before going public as an Epic Records artist. With that backing, Grant released a double music video, directed by ATL‘s Brian Barber. In the “Get Up” / “Sing Along” (featuring WatchTheDuck and Ricco Barrino), Nick visits some stylized places—ranging from a Grease-era burger joint to a southern pop-tent revival. Even with the heavy production value, Nick Grant and his showmanship are front and center. This is an MC (with a blessing from Outkast) who appears to want to show depth, skill, and the art of storytelling from a new zip code in the South. Clearly, L.A. Reid and Epic have the fire-power to properly propel this new music sensation to the masses.

Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Craig G, Black Thought, Freeway, Pharoahe Monch, Royce 5’9″, Smif-n-Wessun and J. Period – “The Symphony 2016 (Live)”

The Roots Picnic expanded to New York City this fall. On Day 2, DJ J. Period got behind the turntables and assembled an all-star lineup of MC talent. Playing Marley Marl’s 1988 “The Symphony” instrumental (a song forever associated with popularizing possé cuts), Black Thought, Freeway, Royce 5’9″, Pharoahe Monch and Smif n’ Wessun lay down a foundation, with some freestyle rhymes and some ’90s classics interwoven. Then, three of the song’s originators: Craig G, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane step in to show the crowd in Bryant Park how it’s been done for 28 years and counting. Ambrosia For Heads was on hand to enjoy the moment, capture the footage, and share the concert highlight with eager fans.

Vic Mensa – “16 Shots”

Chicago, Illinois’ Vic Mensa had a very strong 2016. His There’s A Lot Going On EP seamlessly combined Mensa’s life and times with the world at large. “16 Shots” took the details surrounding the police killing of 17-year old Laquan McDonald in the same Chicago streets (literally) in which Mensa was raised. For the visual, Vic puts himself in the shoes of those beaten and shot by police. This video makes brutal art out of profiling, pain, and prejudice—with hopes of making real change. Mensa makes you care by showing what it looks like when somebody you know is the victim of senseless, extreme police violence. More than just an unforgettable video, this is a song and video that will show future generations why we protest, and present the problem with a rawness so that history can never gloss over it.

A Tribe Called Quest – “We The People” on SNL

This November, A Tribe Called Quest had their biggest television appearance since the 1990s. Sadly, Phife Dawg could not be with them. However, appearing on a Dave Chappelle-hosted episode of SNL, Q-Tip, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad made sure that their dearly missed band-mate was the real central focus of the “We The People” performance. During an election month, and a troubled year in race and class relations, A.T.C.Q. used their first single from We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service to abstractly and literally put the hearts of people in their place. Jarobi shined as much as he ever has, while Q-Tip’s incredible showmanship flourished. This moment in TV history awakened the rest of the world to one of the greatest musical groups of all time coming back together to rewrite their legacy.

dead prez, Locksmith, Oswin Benjamin, and DJ Revolution – 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher

For years, BET Hip Hop Awards cyphers have been a place to showcase the past, present, and future of raw Rap talent. In 2016, four powerful, necessary and shining voices came together while DJ Revolution played the beats. dead prez’s and M-1 made a grand return to TV, with Locksmith and Oswin Benjamin in tow. Each charged their lyrically deft verses with heat for the mind. “But everything Black ain’t white, so take ownership / Conflict existed before we were on the ship / No justice, no peace / But what’s worse, the Promethazine or the police?,” Lock’ spits. This shining example proves that regardless of era, geography, or rapping style, MCs with a message will always sound great together. What’s more, the four of these spitters are masters of their craft, who know how to move a crowd and the minds. This auto-play video is available at its original post.

Jidenna – Chief Don’t Run

In August, the “Classic Man” took a bold step with his music, both in verse and in the video for “Chief Don’t Run.” Not only did the Nigerian-American singer show off his rapping skills, but he incorporated the contemporary social climate in visually arresting ways, making it one of the most politically driven songs in the Wondaland Records catalog. Nods to his African heritage are prevalent throughout, but perhaps no more powerfully than in the closing sequence, in which Jidenna plays multiple roles – a police officer, a man being forcefully arrested, a witnessing construction worker, and himself – while a vibrantly clad, heroic tribe imbued with the powers of the ancestors appears. As the video ends, the police officer walks away from confrontation, and it’s evident Jidenna made the record as a rallying cry for the disenfranchised to embrace the powers which lie within them to fight back against oppressive systems.

What was your visual moment of 2016?