11 Must-Listen To Albums, EPs & Mixtapes So Far In 2016
Approaching this year’s midpoint, there has been some incredible music that will be appreciated long beyond 2016. Like the art itself, the year that is has represented some tectonic shifts in how works are released, consumed, and ranked on the charts. Grammy Award-winning artists are dropping albums without warning—with videos ready to go. Meanwhile not-for-sale releases are competing on the charts and elsewhere with their commercial counterparts. The once antiquated EP is back in action, and as popular as it’s been since the early 1990s.
Regardless of format or even genre, Ambrosia For Heads spotlights 11 releases that we hold in the highest regard. This is music that made people think, made people dance, and made people have faith in where expression is headed. From superstar where-were-you albums to releases beneath the radars of many to freebies available right now, this is the music that we believe is ambrosia–food of the gods.
(in alphabetical order)
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Last year, releases by Dr. Dre, Game, and Blended Babies proved that feature player Anderson .Paak was someone whose music captured the zeitgeist of cool culture. This is an entertainer who could eclipse the best of them, demanding his own stage. Setting off ‘16 at its start, Malibu is beachfront real estate combining the grit of Hip-Hop, the swagger of Funk, and the machismo of Rock & Roll. At a time when great art seems to live in the cloud, Anderson’s smoky voice is a breeze of gestalt influences. Even before Dre ushered him into Aftermath, the MC/singer/drummer formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy proved he could make an incredible album without the politics in its presentation. Instead, Paak’s sophomore full-length followed a trend shared with Kendrick Lamar and Eminem as great artists finding their senses of the self under the radar long before linking with Hip-Hop’s most celebrated producer. Malibu bridges the immense hurdles Paak has climbed with the pinnacles he is currently enjoying. The refusal to adhere or conform to any genre affords the Free Nationals front-man the opportunity to go places Rap music tends to avoid, with an MC’s vernacular and chipped shoulder. Somewhere between rapping and singing, the words come out as brilliant, urgent expression. This LP is drenched in soul, story, and all things fashionable in a year that’s seems kaleidoscopically in sync with this benchmark breakthrough.
See: “Am I Wrong?” featuring ScHoolboy Q.
Bas – Too High To Riot
Rather discreetly, J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint proves to be a top tier movement in 2010s Hip-Hop. The label releases a plethora of projects, favoring substance over industrial marketing. Like record companies of yesteryear, it’s a stripped down, laissez-faire approach that appeases fans, and ignores the traditional industry benchmarks of what warrants an album, when. On his second LP with the Interscope-backed label, Bas steps up to be the artistic focal point. Too High To Riot finds the Queens, New York representative at the top of his game to date. Like his mentor, Abbas Hammad is able to hoist his raps with melody and confident turns through an oft-unconventional flow. His subject matters are very personal, ignoring the temptation to make songs for radio, or videos purely for rotation. Instead, Too High To Riot is Bas completely comfortable with himself. He appears unafraid to toast to the life he has earned through his consistency, but also deeply connected to the ills of society. As great Rap entertainers embody fully-formed characters, Bas proves to be a charismatic draw simply by being himself, flawed and flamboyant at once.
See: “Ricochet” featuring The Hics
Beyoncé – Lemonade
When Beyoncé shared her Lemonade with the world on April 23, one line was singled out, turning the social media world upside down. Once the furor about “Becky with the good hair” died down, however, what remained was the finest album, yet, of Ms. Knowles-Carter’s storied career. Reducing Lemonade to one line, or even referring to it as an “album,” does it a disservice. Rather, it is an experience that, over time, has unfolded musically, visually and sensorily with flawed perfection. The LP, the musical portion of the experience, was comprised of songs that stripped away all gloss and pageantry and laid to bare a seemingly invincible woman who was wounded, deeply, but emerged stronger, yet more compassionate. Songs like “Freedom” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” channeled rage and defiance, while “Daddy Lessons” shed light on a reluctant young woman being trained to protect her heart, no matter the cost. And, even with a list of contributors that includes artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, The Weeknd, and James Blake, the sonic texture of the album is more multilayered harmony than patchwork quilt. While the album is a tour de force on its own, its companion visuals unleash an entirely different level of visceral power. Each color and movement is choreographed such that virtually every frame is a spell-binding still. Songs like “Hold Up,” with its plucky and delicate arrangement, take on new dimensions with the juxtaposition of Bey cavalierly and joyously wreaking havoc with a baseball bat. The emotional peak of the film arrives during “All Night” when, after more than 50 minutes of exhaling, Ms. Carter-Knowles invites the world into her home to see the newly constructed but very much intact Carter family. They are unguarded and unashamed in their humanity. As powerful as the 1-2 punch of the album and film are for Lemonade, the experience comes into full formation during the live show. The largest and clearest concert screen ever assembled is coupled with the most state of the art live performance sound system constructed to render the emotional journey in epic fashion. The woman who has lived under a microscope for nearly 20 of her 34 years on Earth, regains her power by taking her vulnerabilities, and magnifying them in a way that is truly bigger than life. In doing so, she completes what may be music’s first ever true 360° album experience.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Three years removed from his last solo mixtape, Chance The Rapper released Coloring Book from a completely different stratosphere of profile. The Chicago, Illinois MC/singer has gone from sheepish obscurity to the only unsigned featured musical guest on SNL, a member of Kanye West’s studio ensemble, and a major festival mainstay. However, what this May full-length proved was how little C.T.R. had changed despite his surroundings. Yes, the not-for-sale mixtape involved Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and ‘Ye—but with Chance gripping the conductor baton. With his creative crayons, the MC filled his project with gratitude, as a young father, a fiance, and a success story surrounded by “Angels.” Following leads by Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, Chance emerges as an even more modest superstar—less concerned with materialistic riches or bragging points than artistic integrity. He celebrates his city’s vibrance above its violence. Just as he did with Acid Rap, the Social Experiment artist is able to put his thumbs on the pulse of more innocent times, and illustrates experiences that resonate far beyond the Windy City, or fellow early-twenty-somethings. From roller-rink dances to crutching painkillers for peace, the unabashed honesty of Chance’s writing, and the warmth in his delivery, are exceptionally (and most cohesively) carried out. The first stream-only work to ever make the Billboard Top 200 (in this case the Top 10) is something that appears to have themes, sounds, and attitudes that history will look back on, and understand as a sea change. Even without the “acid,” Chance The Rapper’s music still drives a psychedelic journey of self-reflection and possibility.
See: “Blessings” featuring Jamila Woods & Byron Cage
DJ Quik & Problem – Rosecrans
Just a day before the release of Rosecrans, DJ Quik and Problem announced that they had been collaborating and the results yielded a joint EP. While the project was a collective effort, for each artist it represented something different. It’s impossible to have a comeback when you’ve never left, so, for Quik, Rosecrans was more like a reminder that the CPT was home to not one but two world class producers. For Problem354, it was a statement that while he is from a different generation, he is cut from the same fine Compton cloth that produced Quik, N.W.A., Game and so many other Hub City greats. Despite their differing perspectives, the EP represents a perfect amalgamation of Problem and Quik’s shared chemistry. Songs like “Rosecrans” and “A New Nite” reflect the 2016 edition of Quik’s patented Funk, while “Take It Off One Time” and “This Is Your Moment” draw on the sounds that ushered in a new era of Compton MCs like Problem, and peers like Kendrick Lamar and YG. And, perhaps in the strongest testament to the notion that music is a living breathing spectrum that spans generations, cuts such as “You Are Everything” and “Straight To The City With It” are influenced heavily by music that predates both artists. Like the boulevard that is the EP’s namesake, Rosecrans is a glorious trip through Compton, with the windows down.
See: “This Is Your Moment” featuring Wiz Khalifa, Buddy, & JP Cali
Elzhi – Lead Poison
Entering the 2010s, Elzhi was in the elite company of Eminem and Royce 5’9” as Detroit’s finest motor-mouthed MCs. However, the former Slum Village mic wrecker since met a path of most resistance. As a solo act, Jason Powers has never been on a strong label, or had the touring, features, or social media savvy of some of his peers. Like a true purist, Elzhi’s greatness lives inside his intricate rhymes, with minimal distractions. In the half-decade since Elmatic, the compound-rhyming lyricist slowed down his output and plugged away. In releasing Lead Poison, the MC opens up on the detractors in his life, from addiction, to depression, and career missteps. Proven in the topical title, the MC is an underdog—just like his environment, economically and socially. In turn, El’s sophomore studio full-length is a therapy session without the leather couch. Just as the aforementioned tandem of Bad Meets Evil have done so much, El’ unpacks his life without guard or fear—as he comes back in 2016 to collect his props, with interest. At a time where front-running music often shape-shifts into different genres, relying on overly melodic production, Elzhi gives it raw, uncut. Lead Poison is a protein-packed buffet of bars, with more self-revelation than heard on the conceptually-driven past releases. Elzhi is anachronistic—and Heads love him for it. He keeps his commodity’s value high, living by a quality over quantity standard. Perhaps Lead Poison belongs on cassette tape, as an album filled with dense rhymes in perfect syncopation with hard beats that no lyric-lover could possibly ever fast-forward—only rewind.
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Haitian-born, Canadian-raised producer Kaytranada has spent the last five years lacing artists ranging from Mobb Deep to Talib Kweli, The Internet to GoldLink with propelling tracks. Informed by retro club vibes, especially the Hip-House movement, Kevin Celestin’s sound blends The Tunnel with Paradise Garage. His studio debut, 99.9% follows an acclaimed line of Soundcloud remix releases, into something all its own. This time, Kaytranada proves that while he’s been an a la carte producer to many, his vision is telescopic. Signed to XL (Adele, M.I.A., The xx), Kay’ makes an Electronic record that is anything but formulaic. Instead, his pulsating rhythms enlist the versatile talents of The Internet’s Syd The Kyd, Anderson .Paak, and Phonte for music that transports these artists out of their pockets. More than just a plethora of rhythm tracks, this LP carries soulful themes, with the producer/DJ proudly curating. The high-energy listen captures the tempos of 2016 life, love, and longing. As Pop music is often synthesizing Hip-Hop conveniently to its standards, Kaytranada’s artistic wake-up call grabs EDM, Pop, and R&B and holds it close by the waist for a party that is Hip-Hop at its heart. The musician who has helped so many other artists expand their perimeters proves that he’s been saving the best for himself. A world-class live performer, Kaytranada may have rapidly cemented himself the most exciting album-making producer out of Hip-Hop’s redefining new school.
See: “LITE SPOTS”
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Following nothing less than artistic dominance in 2015 with To Pimp A Butterfly, history would suggest that ‘16 would be off-season for Grammy Award-glutton Kendrick Lamar. Wrong. Instead, Compton’s “King Kunta” celebrates his liberation by the digital age. Without warning, K-Dot proved that only he owns his art, and he answers to no one—even conventional industry wisdom. He released untitled unmastered. at will, and at the push of a button—not unlike the early roll-out of T.P.A.B. Moreover, in an era where skipping songs for hot takes appears to be the norm, Lamar took titles, artwork, and videos completely out of the equation. He released a slew of cuts that did not make past albums, but had made their way into major performances. Eight songs deep, this dense lyrical offering is not merely a compilation of outtakes, but a cohesive statement works. With a jazzier lean than past LPs, this hearty album integrates themes surrounding sex, race, politics, and society. Unfettered by radio temptations, this is arguably Kendrick Lamar at his most didactic, most concentrated, and least produced. Whereas Lil Wayne, Drake, and Kanye West have experimented away from lyricism at the height of their fame, Kendrick Lamar busts a U-Turn on Rosecrans and floors it to the core of why he loves rapping.
Mistah F.A.B. – Son Of A Pimp, Pt. 2
In an era where sequels to albums are often just desperate attempts to capitalize on earlier works with lasting brand equity, Mistah F.A.B. has done the opposite. With Son Of A Pimp, Pt. 2, he has taken his 2005 original and improved upon it. When F.A.B. released the first S.O.P., he was a relative newcomer on Mac Dre’s label with only one other album under his belt. Now, 11 years later, he is a grizzled veteran, battle-tested, literally and figuratively, but steeled because of it. Joining him on the project is a virtual smorgasbord of MCs, from Raekwon and Jadakiss to Tech N9ne and Kendrick Lamar to 2 Chainz and Boosie Badazz. At absolutely no point does it feel like a random compilation or that F.A.B. gets lost in the shuffle. Rather, from start to finish, it’s his party (and everybody’s celebratin’). What’s more, while the sounds of Atlanta, L.A., Chicago and Toronto have been dominant to the point of causing other regions to bend to their whims, Son Of A Pimp, Pt. 2 defiantly sounds like the Bay. The region’s new star, G-Eazy reps for the soil on the same landscape as Too Short and E-40, the reigning O.G.s, lend their support. There are serious songs like “All Around The World” and “Survive,” and party starters like “Pretty Girls” and “What Yo Hood Like.” Miraculously, what there is not, on a 21-track effort, no less, is filler. F.A.B. shows that in a world of overwhelming information, there is such a thing as quantity and quality.
See: “Pretty Girls” featuring Raekwon, G-Eazy, & Carl Thomas
Royce 5’9” –Layers
In the 2010s, Royce 5’9”’s (as it is now stylized) character arc shifted from orphan to hero. He and Eminem proved that Bad Meets Evil may have been a dream deferred, but one that eventually came true—complete with gold certification. At the same time, Nickel Nine and his outcast cohorts planted the Slaughterhouse flag high atop the lyrical mountain, helping shepherd a Rap renaissance. As if that were not enough, Royce and early mentor DJ Premier formed PRhyme, and made their own 2014 show-stealing album, plus 2015 expanded edition. In ‘16, Royce returned to the medium that has sustained him for 15 years—solo work. Layers combines all the things that make Ryan Montgomery elite—candor, wit, honesty, self-deprecation, and commanding deliveries. Almost 15 years after Rock City, the MC made an album that feels like a true introduction—without controversy, hype, or industry pressures. No longer battling himself or his peers, this wisdom-soaked LP embraces the journey, and accepts the setbacks. The work maintains pride and bravado, but opens Royce’s world as a recovering alcoholic, a father, a grandson, and a man who is a veteran of wars inside and out. After taking three groups to their highest plateaus, this artist proved to apply those lessons and sharpened tools back to his own career, raising the standard and more than a few eyebrows. On his sixth album, 5’9” has never stood taller.
Vic Mensa – There’s A Lot Going On
For Vic Mensa’s Roc Nation breakthrough, rather than create a pop-friendly body of work designed for the masses, he chose to release an explosive and politically-charged powder keg with a cover on which he is portrayed with a target on his torso and surrounded by bullet holes. What’s more, the lead single forThere’s A Lot Going On was a searing indictment of the Chicago police department and mayor’s office for the way in which it handled the killing of 16-year old La Quan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke. For any who thought the Chicago MC would sell out when he got the big contract from Hov’, those notions were summarily dispelled. Concerned with more than what is happening in his Windy City hometown, on “Shades Of Blue,” Mensa addressed the tragic water crisis facing Flint, Michigan. As powerful as those songs are, they are not preparation for the soul-bearing diary that is the title song and closing track of the EP. The Save Money MC spares no detail in discussing his depression, struggles with substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and being driven to domestic violence in a relationship that grew toxic. It is a display of true vulnerability that is increasingly rare in art, particularly Hip-Hop. There’s A Lot Going On is not all doom and gloom, though. Tracks like “New Bae” and “Liquor Locker” showcase the diversity Mensa flexed in his band Kids These Days and on his Innanet Tape mixtape. Equally comfortable with Trap or Rock, House or Boom Bap, he paints a picture of a complex individual who is looking for himself and striving to create a better version of who he’s found so far.
See: “There’s A Lot Going On”