by Sammy Smith
This year has been a great year for hip hop. With the genre being more popular than ever, fans were able to witness the rise of hip hop to America’s No. 1 choice in music. The genre and the culture dominated conversations everywhere from Cardi B’s rise to stardom to Grammy nominations.
With new artists permeating the mainstream and the genre growing to new heights, making a list of the best albums of 2017 was extremely difficult to do.
- The project must have been commercially released and classified as an album. Mixtapes and playlists are not included on this list.
- The album must have been released between the December 15, 2016 and December 15, 2017.
- In an attempt to make this list authentic but objective, it is comprised of a mixture of critical acclaim and personal preference.
15. Jaden Smith – SYRE
The son of rapper/actor Will Smith and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith has been bubbling in hip-hop’s underground for a long time, dropping singles every now and then over the past few years. It wasn’t until November when the Roc-Nation signee finally released his debut album and to much surprise, it was pretty good.
Of course, the 19-year-old rapper had his fair share of slip-ups and corny (and sometimes downright awful) bars, but the album is redeemed with its lively and unpredictable production. The four-track infusion B. L. U. E., produced by Lido, was one of the best combinations of music this year and and set the tone for a nice album.
Though the album was a little too long, it made for an interesting listen and definitely put Jaden on the path to a great career.
14. Future – HNDRXX
Atlanta rapper, Future, has attempted to crossover to a more pop sound a few times before to mixed reaction. It’s on this album, however, when he succeeds.
Coming a week after the release of his self-titled album, HNDRXX surprised many with a new, more vulnerable sound. On this album, Future, maybe for the first time, takes an introspective look at himself, self-reflecting and licking his wounds in the process. No longer rapping about the trap house and the braggadocio that he usually displays, Future uses his neverending melodies to croon about the pain of lost love.
While Dirty Sprite 2 remains his best and most complete album to date, HNDRXX is a close second.
13. Migos – Culture
This one is pretty simple: If you love Migos, you love Culture.
The second studio album from the trio plays to all of their strengths. Culture gives you the catchiest of hooks, signature flows, hit singles and chemistry between the three that is unrivaled by any collective today. Culture is very limited. It’s an album full of trap music with 808-heavy, trap beats.
Migos definitely don’t explore the parameters of artistic expression, but they do what they are capable of very well and that’s why this album works.
12. J.I.D. – The Never Story
Atlanta native Dreamville signee, J.I.D. made his debut with one of the most impressive debuts of the year.
The Never Story is as hip hop as it gets. In what seems like a call back to rap’s Golden Age, J.I.D. flexes his lyrical muscle on every track on this album over saucy, old-school boom-bap beats. On this album, the Spillage Village member uses his unique voice and delivery to glide across 12 tracks. While he may not be the storyteller that the Dreamville creator is, J.I.D. made a legitimate argument that he is the best lyricist on the label.
11. CyHi the Prynce – No Dope on Sundays
Speaking of long-awaited debuts, GOOD Music’s CyHi the Prynce has waited for years to make his commercial debut. When he finally did in November, he didn’t disappoint.
Opening up the album with this awe-inspiring “Amen,” CyHi showed fans what they’ve been missing for years. On this project, Cy reveals himself to be more than one of the best lyricists in hip hop today, but also a terrific storyteller as he crafts a cohesive album that speaks on life in the hood, religion and black power.
10. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Growing up in Chicago’s notorious and now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes inspired Open Mike Eagle to create his best work to date.
With 10 different producers on a 12-track album, Mike Eagle still manages to make Brick Body Kids Still Daydream into a cohesive, coherent album that talks about the growing up on Chicago’s South Side. Using his upbringing, he uses minimalistic production to touch on issues like violence, displacement and gentrification in a nostalgic, melancholy way.
With this album, Open Mike Eagle puts himself firmly in the discussion for the best hip hop album of the year.
9. BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II
This year the boy band/rap collective BROCKHAMPTON exploded onto the hip-hop scene with the SATURATION series. SATURATION II builds on its predecessor with fun, quirky bars and wild production.
While BROCKHAMPTON is obviously influenced by some of the best collectives in hip hop (i.e. Odd Future), the group’s sound is still new and odd enough to not distract with their influences. The band builds off the creativity of the first SATURATION and creates an even more versatile style and it pays off with songs like “GUMMY,” “QUEER,” and “SUMMER.”
8. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples has long been one of hip hop’s most undervalued artists. With his debut, Summertime ‘06, being one of the best projects released in the last half-decade, it’s pretty amazing to see him fly below the radar. He doesn’t achieve the commercial success that some on this list do, but he more than makes up for it with the quality of music on his second album, Big Fish Theory.
With a mix of traditional West Coast, electronic, and house production, Staples blurs genre lines and tests the boundaries of what hip hop is supposed to be. In the moments when he is rapping, Staples proves himself to be a capable lyricist who can experiment with his delivery.
In the mold of Kanye West’s Yeezus, Staples’ experimentation results in an album that has creative, new sounds that is somehow refreshing and pays homage to its predecessors.
7. JAY-Z – 4:44
In response to Beyonce’s famed Lemonade album, the legend, JAY-Z, came back for another album in June. Over the years, the criticism for Hov has always been that he was never personal enough, and he answered all of the questions with this cut.
On this project, JAY-Z takes a different approach to this album than he ever has before. 4:44 doesn’t feature the club hits, nor does it experiment. The album isn’t grandiose like previous Hov albums. It doesn’t push boundaries or attempt to master the waves of its time.
This album is intimate. Featuring production from famed producer No I.D., JAY-Z dives deep into his marriage on songs like “4:44,” “Family Feud,” and “Kill Jay-Z.” He looks back on his personal relationships on songs like “Smile,” and speaks on black issues on “The Story of OJ” and “Moonlight.” Frankly, JAY-Z delivered his most introspective album to date. 4:44 is a step away from the ego and character that is JAY-Z and a move towards the man that is Shawn Carter.
6. Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva is a Mighty Long Time
Double disc albums usually don’t work and for good reason. They normally drag way too long and are tedious to listen to. However, Big K.R.I.T. manages to make 4eva is a Mighty Long Time one of the easiest and most enjoyable listens of the year.
While this album isn’t as experimental as K.R.I.T.’s previous works, it still pushes the boundaries of the Southern sound. K.R.I.T. uses the opportunity of the double disks to separate his two personas: Big K.R.I.T. and Justin Scott. The first disk is full of bangers and even features a verse from T.I. that may be one of his best verses in the last five years. The second disk features a more laid back and introspective K.R.I.T. over more soulful beats with more soulful guest performances like Jill Scott on “Higher Calling.”
Regardless of the song or the disk, K.R.I.T. shows himself to be a living embodiment of traditional Southern hip hop, wearing his influences (8Ball & MJG, UGK and Outkast) on his sleeve as he solidifies himself amongst rap’s top artists.
5. Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
Early in his career, California native and Odd Future founder, Tyler the Creator showed himself to be an innovative, albeit immature voice for a young generation. However, Flower Boy shows a different side of Tyler. As he as grown and matured so has his sound and that makes this album Tyler’s best to date.
Tyler’s progression as a producer fuels this album. On this cut, Tyler achieves a more complete sound. Tyler shows off beautiful, dreamy and melodic production on songs like “Where the Flower Blooms,” “Boredom,” and “See You Again.” Coincidentally, this is when he is at his best, using these moments to self-reflect. This album isn’t without the classic, flamboyant Tyler songs, but even on his more bombastic tracks like “I Ain’t Got Time” and “Who Dat Boy,” Tyler takes moments to reveal more of himself, even hinting at his sexuality.
All things considered, Flower Boy merges the two personas of a Tyler the Creator seamlessly to shows a different side of the Odd Future rapper — a better side. And his growth as an rapper, producer and person has led to one of the best drops of the year.
4. BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION III
With their second appearance of the list, boy band BROCKHAMPTON showed why they achieved what they sought to do: saturate fans with so much music that we didn’t have a choice but to listen.
Coming just four months after SATURATION II, SATURATION III trumped its predecessors by creating a much more versatile and complete album. The group’s chemistry seems stronger than ever, as their flows are very different but play well off each other. and the album is among the most confident of the year. From the opening track (“BOOGIE”), the band displays a multi-genre, eccentric and experimental album that sounds different from anything before.
At some point, BROCKHAMPTON has to slow down, but if they continue with unorthodox compositions like these, that time will come no time soon.
3. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
Let’s put this on the record. Rapsody is one of the best rappers in the game today. Not female rappers, but rappers of any gender.
Proving that statement to be true with her second studio album, Rapsody takes her lyrical abilities to the next level, as she breaks down the gender-biases of the genre to stake her claim among the top MCs. Laila’s Wisdom shows Rapsody’s evolution as a storyteller and as a musician.
On previous projects, Rapsody possessed the lyrical talent but struggled with her deliveries and production choices. On this project, however, she uses her collaborators like Kendrick Lamar (“Power”) and Anderson. Paak (“Nobody” and “OooWee”) to her advantage, and it pays off in a big way. Being one of the most conscious rappers in hip hop, Rapsody uses soul, jazz-inspired production to speak on the issues of the black woman.
2. Run the Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
In their third album as a duo, Killer Mike and El-P still sound hungrier than most. With their previous two projects, the duo built their reputation on a hardcore hip hop sound with hard-hitting, witty lyrics. What sets this album apart is its commitment to political commentary.
Opening with the more somber “Down,” the album explodes with the second track “Talk to Me” and never lets up. The energy from Killer Mike and El-P is unparalleled. El-P’s experimental, harsh, almost alien-like production paired with the duo’s assertive lyricism makes even guests like Danny Brown step their games up (“Hey Kids”).
Lyrically, the first half of the album is more of the same Run the Jewels with amusing and funny bars. The second half, however, gets politically charged, with the duo attacking issues like corporate greed, the election of Donald Trump and police brutality. Though most political albums can come across as preachy and self-righteous, Run the Jewels finds a way to avoid such pitfalls and produce a terrific album.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
DAMN. is not the masterpiece that is To Pimp A Butterfly, and it doesn’t master the storytelling of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
DAMN. is masterful in own right, providing a friendlier listen than To Pimp A Butterfly with trendier production than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Somehow, Kendrick Lamar is able to do this without sacrificing his message or his lyrics. Kendrick shows his versatility with trap-inspired production on “HUMBLE” and Mike Will Made It’s “DNA.” His collaboration with Rihanna on “LOYALTY” showcases his ability to cross into the pop genre.
All the while, Kendrick exhibits his lyrical ability and superb storytelling throughout the album. While already possessing an all-time pen, he reaches otherworldly levels on songs like “FEAR” and “FEEL.” The Compton rapper uses the album as a way to explore the duality of human nature, bringing up ideas of wickedness vs. weakness and good vs. evil, and questioning how we define that. On its surface, DAMN. feels like a step back from the cohesion of his previous projects, but underneath, Kendrick reaches depths that other rappers don’t explore.
With this album, Kendrick is firmly entrenched as the top rapper of his era and has injected himself into all-time great conversation.