The 11 Best Hip-Hop Releases So Far In 2017 (Audio)
At 2017’s midpoint, the year has been generous in substantial art. Some artists have rallied to make the album an unbreakable sequence of songs. Others are seeking new, casual ways to keep fans gratified without the gravity of the longstanding format. Some releases have allowed us to know MCs at the deepest level, and a lot of the music has helped us better understand ourselves and times.
Today, we spotlight 11 releases that we hold in the highest regard. Join us in celebrating the art that’s impacted you, while catching up on what may have been missed, overlooked, or undervalued in the year that has been, and continues [Note: While Royce Da 5’9″ recently released the finest mixtape of the year, this list covers projects with all original music].
(in alphabetical order)
Big Sean – I Decided
Sean Don raised the bar with his album-making in 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise. The Detroit, Michigan mainstay has always had a knack for hit songs and beat selection. However, ’17’s I Decided showed a creator at the height of his powers in making a cohesive body of work. Playing with legacy, love, and approaching his 30th birthday, Sean Anderson’s fourth LP celebrates the courage to be original. The man who many credit with popularizing the style of punchline wordplay permeating the mainstream put more of himself into the record. “Bounce Back,” the highest charting solo single of Sean’s career is catchy, but also fueled by a new vulnerable side. “Jump Out The Window” sees Sean take on a singing role he historically outsourced to R&B guests. “No Favors,” the Eminem collaboration, certifies Big Sean as the Motown lyricist his fans have celebrated for years. Since his first album, Sean has never shied from making Pop-Rap that’s still cunning and technically savvy. He embraces it. I Decided is a new plateau in identity. While some of his peer class still live in singles, Sean’s artistry has aged gracefully, like Moet in his glass.
See: “Jump Out The Window”
Brother Ali – All The Beauty In This Whole Life
Twin Cities MC Brother Ali took the longest project hiatus in his celebrated career. Upon his return, Ali stepped to the mic with a series of powerful messages. Reuniting with Atmosphere producer Ant, this LP shows a world of personal growth. His overwhelming messages of love, awareness, and human spirit are ever present. “Dear Black Son” is among the most giving songs of Ali’s career. It is access to the life-or-death conversation between a father and a son in a world where young Black men are an endangered species. “Bitten Apple” tackles the larger dangers of pornography. Ali never preaches or claims to be above the forces he challenges. 2003’s Shadows On The Sun was a humanitarian MC rhyming about circumstance on Soul samples. Nearly 15 years later, the rapper and producer return to show that their message, rhythm, and melody has only refined, expanded, and blossomed. Ali Newman knows nothing is promised in some of the world’s most complicated times. His sixth album is where all of this lyricist’s themes converge.
See: “Dear Black Son”
Drake – More Life
Making the highest profile “playlist” in Hip-Hop to date, Drake claimed to be bridging gaps between albums with a less formal grouping of songs. Compared to other high profile ’17 releases, More Life lacks a weighty theme or bigger premise. However, the Canadian MC/singer succeeded in giving fans an audio documentation of his days. Like a Jazz musician, Drake and his album ensemble lay out simple ideas, things that are easy to relate to, and riff. This is illustrated in “Blem,” “4422,” and second single “Passionfruit.” Less heavy handed than last year’s The Life Of Pablo, this collection of moments is quilted together. Drake sheds the pressures of being one of music’s biggest stars, and instinctively produces groovy jams. He sprinkles in cocky raps (“Gyalchester“), reflective singing (“Fake Love“), and carefree covers (“Teenage Fever“). This is a soundtrack to go, with a dynamic dose of Pop, R&B, and Rap from one of the kings of all three.
See: “Sacrifices” featuring 2 Chainz and Young Thug
J.I.D. – The Never Story
Hailing from the same Atlanta, Georgia backwoods that cultivated Outkast’s quirk, J.I.D forged his own path and eventually formed EarthGang, only to emerge as a solo artist with one of 2017’s outstanding left-of-center debuts. From the effervescent “Somebody” to the searing brood on “All Bad,” Dreamville’s latest signee entered several lanes at once, showcasing his multiple speeds. Just over two years since he dropped his debut EP, DiCaprio, the MC/singer scored a career-defining cosign from J. Cole and sold-out shows in his rear-view as he prepares to join his boss on his worldwide 4 Your Eyez Only Tour. And his freestyles, as Ambrosia For Heads reported earlier this year, easily cast him as the reigning Prince of the South. Despite critical support from Cole, The Never Story does not rely on high profile guests or radio-tinged Pop. It is just rapping off the reels, with great consistency. Drawing comparisons to artists like Devin The Dude, Lil Wayne, and Andre 3000, J.I.D’s standout record of the year (thus far) is surely the Cole-co-produced “D/vision,” featuring his prodigious rhyming skills (“Dead ’em from every side of the spectrum / Hannibal Lector lecture / Body part bone collector / Nosy-ass h*es get punched in the septum / That’s part of the woes for throwing salt like Epsom.”)
Jidenna – The Chief
At a time when the line between Rap and R&B is often blurry, Jidenna thrives at both. His 2015 EP set the table, but full-length debut The Chief lives up to its name. The Nigerian-born, Wisconsin-raised multi-talent basks in his glory as a Stanford-educated renaissance man. From studying sound engineering to working as a teacher in Los Angeles, Jidenna’s many talents and experiences seamlessly blend in this album that knocks in beats and rhymes. Mentored by Janelle Monae (and signed to her imprint), this artist brings his back-to-the-future style with him. He refuses to be put in predictable boxes, despite finding the perfect pastiche to reach the mainstream. Pride, courage (“Chief Don’t Run“) and wisdom (“Long Live The Chief”) are central themes to The Chief, a partial homage to Jidenna’s late father. The “Classic Man” can still serenade a lady, as he does in the Calypso-tinged “Bambi.” Using many of the same producers as Drake has, Jidenna’s mood, message, and style of singing and rapping are all his own.
See: “Long Live The Chief”:
Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$
Surely one of the most gifted rappers of his class, Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$ had big shoes to fill – his own – after dropping his critically acclaimed debut album, B4.DA.$$, in 2015. With this year’s All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$, which had Kendrick Lamar’s return to contend with upon its release in April, the Pro-Era founder and politically outspoken MC lived up to his potential, and then some. He inspired ScHoolboy Q to drop one of his best verses as a featured guest, ever, on the explosive “Rockabye Baby;” held his own alongside Styles P on “Super Predator,” in which two generations of lyricism met at the intersection of political oppression; and penned a rejuvenating, nearly hymn-like anthem on his Chronixx-assisted “Babylon.” Lead single “Devastated” enjoyed a robust run since its 2016 release, but it’s undoubtedly “Land of the Free” that makes Joey one of the most important voices of his era.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
K-Dot’s fourth album is a journey in complexity. With fans still unpacking the TDE MC’s takeaways, these 14 songs deal with God, fate, sex, and codes of honor according to Kenny Duckworth. Scoring his first #1 single in “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick did not dumb down his message or tuck in his technique. This is an album that is hard to break apart or play out of sequence (with arguably two possible directions). It is a release that perhaps marks the mainstream catching up with the Compton good kid, after more than five years of incredible album-making. Kendrick uses his voice to play multiple characters, tell intricate non-fiction tales, and swing the hammer of change. DAMN. is ornately organized confusion that resonates with so many, in these confusing times. Recurring throughout the LP, Kendrick holds his world up against the cosmos, and sees how thin the line is that we all walk. While Kendrick’s style does not change, he succeeds in channeling the popular waves that his albums always have brushed. With hit provider Mike WiLL, Rihanna, and even U2, this album places the lyrics that no other MC could deliver with sounds of the now. Kendrick Lamar uses the tools of the trade to show that he may be one of the best MCs of all-time, and forces the idea of albums when the whole world is moving to singles.
Logic – Everybody
For the 2010s, Logic has lingered around the A-list of MCs. The Gaithersburg, Maryland artist has a proven commercial following, a tireless work ethic, and a knack for concept. On his third official title, seemingly “Everybody” learned that Sir Robert Bryson Hall II is the real deal. Although the LP centers around lofty concepts involving God, race, death, and transformation, it is incredibly topical. The latest Def Jam Records #1 artist uses this album to find his own identity within Hip-Hop. Notably, despite its intimacy, this work involves more guests than past releases. Black Thought, Chuck D, Killer Mike, and Juicy J appear as handpicked mentors, who fit into Logic’s circus and play key roles. The MC who leads the Visionary imprint is just that: an artist who thrives on imagination and reality at once. Moreover, Bobby is very quietly following his inspiration J. Cole (who makes an undisclosed appearance on a hidden track) as a gifted beat-maker known first for his raps. Joined by VMG’s 6ix, Logic co-produces the bulk of the album.
See: “AfricAryan” featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson
Nick Grant – Return Of The Cool
South Carolina’s Nick Grant strips away all the makeup often used to introduce major label MCs. This artist relies purely on his skills and showmanship. After impressing the masses with 2016’s ’88 mixtape, he and Epic Records led off with an album that symbolically follows some major footsteps. Cosigned by Andre 3000 and Big Boi, Nick dares not say he aims to be the “next” anything, least of all Outkast. However, working with Organized Noize, making 1930s-themed visuals with Idlewild’s Brian Barber, and benefiting from the tutelage of L.A. Reid, the ambition is clear. Return Of The Cool shows its influence from 1990s Hip-Hop as a whole. “Luxury Vintage Rap” blends the inspiration of Raekwon, Nas, Mobb Deep, and others. “Gotta Be More” is a more soulful vibe, with Grant showing a sort of southern seasoning that’s been understated in Rap. “Get Up” steps beyond Rap to show Nick as a Funkateer, able to succeed in the art of movin’ butts. There is more substance than sizzle to this MC, and at a time where people often set thirst traps to stand out, that’s a return of the cool unto itself.
See: “Get Up / The Sing Along” featuring WatchTheDuck & Ricco Barrino
Oddisee – The Iceberg
Following the strong acclaim for 2015’s The Good Fight, Oddisee proves that he is in a beautiful, creative pocket. The Iceberg is nothing like its predecessor, aside from its level of quality and care. It showcases even more personal themes. Washington, D.C. representative Amir Mohamed el Khalifa is a double threat. He creates his beats and rhymes for an album that is cohesive, exceptional everyman music. Oddisee looks within his family to tackle the challenges of pleasing immigrant parents, dealing with a xenophobic time in America, and accepting the fact that the Top 200 somehow evades him. He can carry an album, mostly free of support, and maintain rich messages and moving music. “Things” is a melodically charged release from life’s stresses. Meanwhile, “You Grew Up” is character-driven storytelling that chronicles the age-old loss of innocence with the conditions that plague the daily news. “Like Really” is the MC going for the gusto with catchiness heard on the radio, without compromising his substance in the verses. With the tools available to him, Oddisee stands as a mountain that not all eyes can see. The Iceberg is a fitting title for an artist that the luxury liners are all eyeing.
See: “Rain Dance”
Rick Ross – Rather You Than Me
On his ninth album, Rick Ross finds new ways to excite a decorated discography. One of Hip-Hop’s best ears for beats continues to thrive. From the smooth Jazz opening “Apple Of My Eye” to the Drill barrage in “Dead Presidents,” Ross brings variety without compromising momentum. The rags-to-riches tales are as glorious as ever. At 41 years old, William Roberts II beams like a beacon of street wisdom. Lyrics matter in an album that publicly outs Birdman and Cash Money Records for bad business on “Idols Become Rivals.” The Nas-assisted “Powers That Be” features quick, compound bars. “Game Ain’t Based On Sympathy” owns the fortune and fame, but still conveys gravitas to a rapper who’s life has been attacked with literal and figurative smoking guns. Rather You Than Me is a complete body of work, one of the most gratifying listens in Renzel’s arsenal.
See: “Powers That Be” featuring Nas
To hear more from these artists and other great Hip-Hop from the past year, listen and subscribe to Ambrosia For Heads’ Spotify playlist:
Additional Reporting by Amanda Mester.