Skillz’s 2016 Rap Up Reminds Us Of The Year’s Highs, Lows & Reasons To Stay Woke (Audio)
2016 is coming to a close. Years from now, how will we, the people, remember such an expansive year in Hip-Hop music, news, and culture? This year, some of the biggest MCs in the genre released new albums. Several of these efforts came in short notice, challenging new distribution platforms and the notion of art ever being finished. A legendary group reunited without the secret leaking in the information age. In that deed, they rewrote their story and showed that true friendship outlasts all temporary setbacks. Other Hip-Hop mainstays fell from grace, and fell apart in the public eye. There were crumbling and comebacks, new trends and tragic ends. At a time when popular slang mainstreamed “as fuck”, 2016 was complex AF. Let’s break it down, and unpack the most memorable aspects of the year.
Anderson .Paak excited music on January 15 with an album that refused to be boxed into genre, era, or style. Following under-the-radar self-released LPs and cosigns from Dr. Dre, The Game, and DJ Premier, Malibu was the perfect body of soulful commentary at the right time. Within two weeks, Anderson told the world he was signed to Aftermath Entertainment (he has yet to release any music of his own since). The highly sought-after feature artist shut down the valve. By the end of 2016, the dues appear paid, and as he said on “The Waters,” the price is up.
Kanye West dominated the news cycle in January and February. One of the artists known for sending people to record and big box stores on Tuesday mornings tried his hand at the streaming game. Changing the name of the album formerly known as Swish (and which briefly went by Waves) at whim, The Life of Pablo was tardy. Kanye not only delivered his eighth album nearly two days after planned, he continuously edited the product well into its release—adding “Saint Pablo,” and tweaking other tracks deep into ’16. While Pablo spoke loudly, the album dwarfed in contrast to past ‘Ye releases, from a response standpoint. Other artists, from Kendrick Lamar to J. Cole, started using short-warning notice and technology to charge the market. Chance The Rapper, who worked with ‘Ye, also followed with a stream-only, not-for-sale album of his own (Coloring Book) in May. In a year when Kanye would appear to lose his stability in the gawking public eye, this album is a testament to his mood, angst, and claustrophobia as a celebrity, just look at “Famous.” Here is an artist who will do anything for his family, knows he can be his own worst enemy, and drives to the future with his past closely considered in the rear-view. Earlier in the year, leading up to Pablo, fans saw a glimpse of that when over a misinterpretation of a weed strain named “K.K.” and criticism of “Waves” as a title, West absolutely unloaded on Wiz Khalifa, Amber Rose, and even the couple’s toddler son. ‘Ye has always lived life from the edge, but 2016 made so many question his footing. This same 2016, Kid Cudi and Yelawolf proved that Kanye was not alone, to fight mental stability, and be courageous enough to treat it publicly. Another artist, and former ‘Ye label-mate, who broke down in the public eye was DMX. While X made better music in 2016 than he has in some time, at least two interviews (in both of which X cried) showed the former Rap superstar alluding to the demons getting the best of him in life. The Ruff Ryder was notably added to Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour, which showed solidarity in much of the ’90s lineup of Diddy’s label.
Perhaps the Hip-Hop moment most unforgettable about 2016 came on March 22. That was the day Phife Dawg (aka Malik Taylor) died, succumbing to his battle with diabetes and kidney disease. After organ failure, the 45-year-old Queens, New Yorker passed away—sending the culture into deep mourning. A funeral was held at The Apollo Theater, and vigils and dedications took place across New York City. While A Tribe Called Quest had assembled last year for the 25th anniversary reissue of their debut, the bond between Phife and Q-Tip remained in question. Tribe and Tip released statements, but maintained privacy throughout the tragedy—until late summer. Other Rap deaths in 2016 included P.M. Dawn’s Prince Be, Force M.D.’s Trisco Pearson, Thug Life’s Big Syke, and DTTX of A Lighter Shade of Brown. Outside of Hip-Hop, the culture deeply mourned David Bowie, Prince, Do The Right Thing actor Bill Nunn, comedian/actor Ricky Harris, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. Bowie, a massively influential Rock and Pop star, died from liver cancer January 8, two days after his 69th birthday. Prince (aka Prince Rogers Nelson) died April 21 at 57 years old. One of the true legends of popular music (and culture), Prince died of what has been reported to be an accidental overdose. From Purple Rain to Sign ‘o The Times, the Paisley Park founder left an indelible impact on music and artists’ assertion for creative freedom in the face of the modern music business. In a challenging year on many emotional levels, mortality made it no easier.
March was also the same month New Jack City turned 25 years old. The Mario Van Peebles-directed film continues to influence Hip-Hop, from Pusha T to Jay Z, and was celebrated on Ambrosia For Heads with revealing interviews from Barry Michael Cooper and Thomas Lee Wright. Together, these conversations unveiled casting details and early incarnations of the drug-dealing classic. Moreover, Heads got a deeper understanding of who “Nino Brown” really was, and Wesley Snipes’s commitment to method acting. Speaking of key anniversaries, September marked 20 years since the killing of Tupac Shakur. Among a litany of fanfare for the controversial artist, MC Eiht revealed some incredible secrets surrounding ‘Pac’s intended role in Menace II Society, before he was fired. In the midst of it all, Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mom, passed away in May. The former Black Panther reportedly left her son’s music in very capable hands, as the biopic now plans for a 2017 theatrical release.
One of Hip-Hop’s pioneers has been subject to a devastating fall from grace in the public court. Afrika Bambaataa (aka Kevin Donovan) has been a cultural leader for more than 40 years. Beginning with a Star interview with Bronx, New York politician Ronald Savage in March, allegations of Bambaataa’s molesting underage boys went public. Savage, who wrote a book using pseudonyms for public figures including Bam’ in the text, would be the first to go on record. He would not be the last, as at least three other men tied to Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation followed. While the U.Z.N. first condemned the revelations as attacks, Afrika Bambaataa eventually stepped down from his post. Aside from a brief statement of denial, the “Planet Rock” co-creator has been quiet since. Meanwhile, close friend and Zulu Nation affiliate KRS-One faced scrutiny after defending the Hip-Hop forefather, despite the allegations. Just prior to damning remarks surrounding Bambaataa, KRS-One and MC Shan reignited “The Bridge Wars” almost 30 years after they started. Shan dissed the former Boogie Down Productions front man, and naturally—KRS struck back. Although there were some cringe-worthy moments on both sides, Hip-Hop loved the competitive spirit. When the conversation changed, even Shan (a survivor of sexual abuse as a child) cited KRS’s defense of Bambaataa with outrage.
Drake released the year’s best-selling album in Views. Perhaps less acclaimed than past works, the OVO superstar was one of the most sure-handed at the top of the pack in 2016. Views debuted at #1, selling more than one-million units in the first week (based on the new calculations which include streams as sales) for the first time since Lil Wayne. Drake achieved four million in sales total, proving to be one of music’s true kings. The same artist who closed down the first decade of the 2000s at the top of the game shows no signs of letting up for the 2010s. Drake has never chased Pop. Instead, he’s been a dependable portal for popular culture to understand and embrace Hip-Hop and R&B. On the R&B side, two sisters raised the stakes both within the family and in the genre. While Hip-Hop has dominated pop culture for the better part of two decades, R&B made a big comeback, led by Beyonce and Solange. Yonce returned with the most storied album of her fairy-tale career, and she did so by blowing up stereotypes about princesses and Prince Charming’s. Whether her Lemonade experience (consisting of her album, one-hour video and blockbuster tour) was autobiographical about the troubles she endured with her husband, Jay Z, a critique on the spotlight of fame, or a mixture of the two, it was a tour de force from an artist for whom expectations are already stratospheric. Solange, long considered Beyonce’s sister, simply set out for A Seat At The Table of her own, and in the process she created a work of a lifetime, with all the Grammy accolades befitting such an accomplishment. She also let her hair down (but don’t touch it) and used good old-fashioned Soul to channel the frustration, beauty and strength of Black women everywhere. Along with The Weeknd, Dreezy, Rihanna and the hearty plates of R&B Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada and Drake brought to the table, the genre was back in full season.
The summer was long and heated, especially for Drizzy. A lingering altercation with Puff Daddy appeared to be at the base of June’s “4pm In Calabasas.” One of many songs released by Drake that would not appear on Views, the MC used a beat similar to EPMD’s “You’re A Customer” to serve subliminal jabs to his foes. Just as this took shape, a war of words heated up between Drake and former friend Joe Budden. The Slaughterhouse MC spoke his mind about Views when it dropped, expressing blunt criticism for the LP. By summer, Drake had a little fun at Budden’s expense, playing on some lyrics from the Jersey City veteran’s catalog. Both prone to picking on peers, Joe responded to Drake’s chides with a relentless stream of personal digs—all in verse. In the tussle, Joe Budden’s musical profile escalated as much as it has since the inception of Slaughterhouse (marching towards his own Rage & The Machine album). Meanwhile, Drake—who eventually spoke out care of a French Montana feature—caused many eyebrows to raise in the waiting. The same MC who obliterated Meek Mill’s battle reputation a year ago appeared to waver in defending himself against Budden. More than either MC’s verbal charges though, what may be most memorable about the tiff is when several teenage Drake fans showed up as trespassers in Budden’s New Jersey driveway. Things did not go as planned, as the MC was more than prepared for their juvenile antics. He not only chased them down, he returned the favor by showing up on their doorstep the very next day.
Speaking of Meek, he would again be in a swirl of controversy in 2016. Just as Drake and Meek went from friends to foes, so did The Game and the Dreamchasers founder. Reportedly surrounding an (undocumented) cooperative act with police surrounding a Sean Kingston robbery, Game launched into the Philly MC. “92 Bars” (the penultimate song on Game’s 1992 album) would tear into Meek as a rat, just as Game’s album was set to release. A Miami, Florida shooting transpired after, conjuring memories of 50 Cent vs. Game (who made peace at last this year). Things got even more bizarre, as Beanie Sigel appeared on Meek’s “Ooouuu” reply. Dropping only a couplet of lines, Beans (another Game collaborator of the past) warned he’d be in L.A. on behalf of Meek. By the time Game replied, swinging deep at the State Property MC, Beans had claimed it was a misunderstanding, and turned his anger toward Meek. What’s more, Beans alleged that he penned part of the “Ooouuu” reply. While Heads who care are still sifting through the evidence in this confounding development (Charlamagne Tha God later took Sigel to task on his changing positions), Beans proved he was back in Rap, if nothing else.
Summer was not just about beef and record sales. Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike proved to be instrumental to the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders. In mid-2015, the Atlanta, Georgia MC announced his support for Sanders in running for President. Late last year and early this year, Mike became part of the Sanders campaign—not only introducing his friend at public events, but conducting an interview series. To a Hip-Hop community searching for a candidate who mirrored our values, no artist made a closer connection than Mike Bigga. Meanwhile, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in the Democratic Primary, she involved Jay Z, Beyoncé, and others in her campaign. Along her path (which fell just short of the White House), Clinton made a “mighty healthy” stop on Fallon (thanks, in part to The Roots), and discussed Suge Knight memes with The Breakfast Club.
While they may not have permeated the mainstream, 2016 had some brilliant moments under the surface. Elzhi returned to the album format with the brilliantly honest Lead Poison. Whereas El’ had been a master of technical rhyming and innovative concepts, he turned the lens upon himself. The self-released LP analyzed depression, addiction, and trying to be extraordinary in a suffering region of the country. Meanwhile, another lyrical titan, Masta Ace, arguably made the best work of his 30-year career. The Falling Season, also self-released, traced the formative years of the MC who would advance the Juice Crew, Masta Ace Incorporated, and eMC over the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. Known for spoofing life, Ace blended his 1980s Brooklyn with present-day themes in a coming of age narrative that was all-inclusive. Elsewhere, Project Blowed MC Open Mike Eagle teamed with Paul White to release Hella Personal Film Festival. The Mello Music Group effort captured the spirit of trying to make sense of a weary world, for Mike and others. On “Admitting The Endorphin Addiction,” the Hannibal Buress affiliate spoke for many when he addressed life and chasing highs, “Rap music has ruined me/I always wanted to loop my favorite part.” KAYTRANADA, a Canadian DJ/producer known for his work with Vic Mensa, Freddie Gibbs, and Mick Jenkins, stepped up in a huge way in ’16. 99.9% brought the groove and beat of Hip-Hop to a Dance format. Kay’ brought in Phonte, Vic, Syd, and Anderson .Paak to show that in troubled times, people want release and carefree escape.
In addition to Ace, there were more than a few comebacks in 2016. De La Soul returned to albums after more than a dozen years away. August’s …and the Anonymous Nobody showed the everlasting innovation to Posdnuos, Dave, and Maseo. The Grammy committee also took notice, rewarding the crowd-funded LP with nominations for 2017. Cypress Hill’s B-Real joined Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord along with three-fourths of Rage Against The Machine. A new band, Prophets of Rage was born, playing catalog classics, and releasing new material. Meanwhile, R.A.T.M.’s Zack De La Rocha (who is the lone member not in Prophets) unveiled some of his solo material, produced by Run The Jewels’s El-P. Early in the year, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth were shown to be in the studio together again. By year’s end, they confirmed a third LP coming in 2017, 23 years after the last. Perhaps the most significant Hip-Hop comeback of all time arrived unthinkably, when Q-Tip and Jarobi White revealed that they had recorded a secret A Tribe Called Quest album with Phife Dawg prior to his passing. Eighteen years after The Love Movement seemed to halt in the lab’, We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service was a symbolic send-off for Phife, and a reminder that A.T.C.Q. is gifted at interpreting the times for us. The same week the Presidential election stunned much of the Hip-Hop community (and the world), Tribe was ready with a bookend of greatness, starting with “We The People” and closing with “The Donald.”
One of 2016’s most prominent story arcs centered around diversity in Hollywood. From the #OscarsSoWhite social-media campaign in the weeks leading up to February’s Academy Awards, to the December announcement that projects centered on the Black experience were nominated for Golden Globes, this year was one of the biggest for non-White television and film. In fact, in June it was announced that the Academy made history by ushering in a new group of members more diverse than any in its existence. This Fall, shows like Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey’s Queen of Sugar, Marvel’s Hip-Hop-inspired Luke Cage, Netflix’s The Get Down, Anthony Anderson’s ongoing blackish, and Issa Rae’s Insecure have brought not only Black-centered television into the mainstream, but also Black women and Latino Americans. Films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures are making headlines for portraying Black homosexuality and mold-breaking Black women, respectively. Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done as it pertains to leveling the playing field, but the monumental success found by these noteworthy 2016 projects seems to suggest, an arts and entertainment industry that truly reflects America’s growing diversity is an attainable goal (in politics, however…).
North Carolina became the battleground for the nationwide movement towards full LGBTQ rights. There, what became known as the “bathroom bill” went into effect, a law which forces men and women to use the public restroom which matches the biological sex in which they were born. This effectively criminalized transgendered men and women from using the restroom which more aptly reflected the gender by which they identify, dress, and move about the world. About as sensitive an issue as could be, North Carolina’s House Bill 2 led to a showdown with the federal government, and eventually the two sued each other. Support for trans rights swelled to an all-time-high, even resulting in popular porn site XHamster locking out its North Carolina users until the laws changed. The sports industry also stood up on LGBTQ persons’s behalf, with the NCAA pulling all games scheduled to take place in the state. In July, the NBA followed suit, moving its All Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans. And the battle is far from over. On December 21, state legislators are meeting to discuss repealing the law.
Athletes themselves also took major stands on political issues this year. In July, Michael Jordan made the boldest political statement of his career when he penned an open letter regarding race and police brutality. In it, he pledged to help find an effective fix for all parties involved, writing “we need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.” His statement came partnered with an announcement of his $2 million donation to both the “International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Legal Defense Fund.” Also in July, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul used the ESPY Awards to make an impassioned joint statement about racial injustice. Coming on the heels of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the four stars of the court went hard in the paint, arguing the need for change.
Mental health was an issue at the forefront of Hip-Hop this year, with artists sharing their struggles with addiction, depression, and other illnesses through music and in the public. At the top of 2016, Elzhi made his much-anticipated return, releasing the deeply personal Lead Poison. In an interview with Ambrosia for Heads, he discussed some of the same issues that would again pop up with artists like Kid Cudi and Kanye West towards the year’s end. Cudi made a very public statement about checking himself into rehab for “depression and suicidal urges” before releasing his Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ LP on December 16. But perhaps the biggest Hip-Hop story involving mental illness centered around Kanye West, who in November canceled his remaining dates on the Saint Pablo Tour before being hospitalized for “erratic behavior.” He was taken to UCLA Medical Center “for his own health and safety” but was eventually released and returned home. However, it was reported that he will need “ongoing psychological and medical treatment” for an undetermined length of time.
One of the figures in Hip-Hop who landed in the not-so-positive news several times was Brooklyn’s Troy Ave. The BSB Records flagship artist and founder began his year on a precarious note when he mocked the 2012 suicide of Pro Era member Capital Steez during an ongoing online tiff with Joey Bada$$. Joe would strike back, but not until after a May shooting at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza during a T.I. and Anderson .Paak concert. That backstage altercation left Troy injured from being shot, as well as detained at length as a suspect, following the release of surveillance footage. He was later charged with attempted murder, and released on bail. Troy’s close associate Ronald “Banga” McPhatter was killed. On Christmas day, while driving through his borough in a luxury sportscar, the rapper was shot again, and hospitalized. 50 Cent was among those at his bedside through an ongoing recovery.
Many of these memories and more are touched on in Skillz’s annual Rap Up, where the Virginia veteran sums up the most recent trip around the sun, in a verse. Skillz masterfully flows over the beat that anchored classics for both Audio Two and Mary J. Blige. While every year is its own, the many monumental things that occurred in 2016 seem poised to have impact for years to come.
We here at Ambrosia For Heads wish you and safe New Year and may 2017 be bigger and better.