Easily one of the best releases from the first quarter of the year, J.I.D’s debut album had all eyes on J. Cole’s Dreamville Records in March, and it still knocks hard as we near the end of 2017. With his voice bearing a striking resemblance to that of Kendrick Lamar’s, J.I.D grabs your attention right away with flows and melodies that appeal to the mainstream crowd, while still delivering a rawness that underground heads can dig.
Hailing from Atlanta, it feels like it’s been a while since his city produced an emcee with the voice, flow, enunciation, and lyricism that J.I.D displays on this album. It’s one hell of a first impression, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for the young Dreamville artist.
9. Sean Price – Imperius Rex
When Sean Price passed away two years ago, the loss was definitely felt throughout the hip-hop community, and it was clear that if a posthumous album were to be made, the entire underground would unite to make it as dope as possible. Enter Imperius Rex, executive produced with care by Sean’s widow Bernadette, and featuring guest appearances from some hip-hop royalty assisting to complete the album Sean was working on before he passed.
With guest features including the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Styles P, MF DOOM, and an epic mash-up between Sean’s Boot Camp Clik and the Wu-Tang Clan, the album plays like a true tribute to the personality fans knew and loved, with respected legends making contributions that fit perfectly. Hip-hop definitely showed up to give Sean Price the send-off he deserved.
8. Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues
We can’t call this an official Wu-Tang Clan album since not all its members contributed to it, but DJ Mathematics did a commendable job delivering an enjoyable Wu-Tang experience fans have been waiting to hear. The rugged beats with the kung-fu samples are back, as Mathematics emulates the style of production RZA used for the Clan before he became a composer, and the Wu-Tang emcees flex their pen game over them.
While not all members showed up, some only contributing one or two verses for the entire project, fan-favourite Method Man carries the album with some of the sharpest rhymes spit by anyone in 2017, and guest appearances from Redman, Chris Rivers, and the late Sean Price fill in the gaps. It may feel like this project was loosely thrown together without much planning, but Wu-Tang thrives on unpredictability, and always have dope verses ready to go with the right production.
7. Snoop Dogg – Neva Left
Although it was heavily under-promoted, Snoop Dogg’s fifteenth studio album may be his best work in the past ten years. Musically, he’s spent his last few albums experimenting with different genres including funk and reggae, and here he brings everything full circle, giving a taste of every flavour of music he’s delved in over his 25-year career.
We would say this is his grand return to hip-hop, although the album’s title will tell you that he never truly left, as making dope rap records is like riding a bike for Snoop. The beats are on point, the flow is in-pocket, and there are no blatant attempts to make a radio record just to be on the charts. It feels like Snoop is now beyond experimentation, and has reached a comfort level with his various styles where he can effortlessly make any of them sound good.
6. Big Boi – Boomiverse
Sometimes you need to step away from the negativity in the political and social climate and just have some fun. That’s the zone Big Boi has been in during this solo chapter of his career, and he keeps the fun times rolling with his highly entertaining Boomiverse. This third solo album of his is his most concise one yet, and it’s jam-packed with fun party tunes, happy vibes, catchy hooks and hilarious skits.
As he’s done for more than two decades, Big Boi also raps his ass off on these verses, holding his own in lyrical sparring sessions with heavyweights like Killer Mike, Snoop Dogg, and Kurupt. In a very accessible album that has a little something for most music fans, Big Boi continues to prove false the idea that aging rappers can’t remain relevant in the party-rap scene.
5. Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$
After getting the entire hip-hop nation to take notice with his 2015 debut album, B4.DA.$$, Joey Bada$$’ sophomore effort sees him becoming a lot more focused on the message in his music. While many rappers in his age group are making party records about sex and drugs, Joey’s second album presents a strong political message of resisting hate, fighting racism, and overcoming life’s obstacles in general, while still occasionally spitting raw battle raps with 90’s vibes.
Joey Bada$$ does it in a way that doesn’t sound overly preachy, dramatic or corny, and lives up to his name with the rebellious energy he has. At just 22 years old, he continues to prove that new age rappers can be just as skilled and thoughtful as golden age emcees were when they were that young in the 1980’s & 90’s.
4. Jay-Z – 4:44
Watching Jay-Z’s career progress is like watching the progression of hip-hop as a whole. He’s taken the culture to new heights with every business deal he’s made and every album he’s released, and he’s starting to look a lot like the closest thing hip-hop has to a Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen. Probably the oldest rapper there is who’s still able to put up platinum numbers with his albums, Hov’s approach to 4:44 is unlike any previous album he’s released.
He only worked with one producer (No I.D.) for the entire project and made an intimate, condensed album with nothing but elderly advice, tales of his personal life, and big-picture thinking. There are absolutely no blatant attempts to appeal to youthful trends or make hit songs for pop radio, and while the flows and bars aren’t always catchy like they used to be, Jay’s straightforward, message-driven approach is something very few rappers can pull off.
3. Royce 5’9″ – The Bar Exam 4
We kind of cheated with this one, but if other publications are comfortable including Drake’s “playlist” in their top albums, we’re going to include the fourth installment to Royce 5’9″s critically acclaimed mixtape series in ours. In the ten years since he dropped his first Bar Exam, Royce’s career has soared, as he went on to form one of hip-hop’s most beloved underground groups with Slaughterhouse, reunited with Eminem to finally release a project as Bad Meets Evil, joined forces with DJ Premier to become PRhyme, all while adding to his solo discography and proving to be one of the greatest emcees of his time.
As with most years when he drops a new project, The Bar Exam 4 is the best display of bar-for-bar competitive lyricism by any emcee in 2017. He’s having a blast over the hour and a half mixtape, rapping over more popular rappers’ beats and completely out-rhyming them, paying tribute to old styles and flavours, and using carefully placed skits to analyze hip-hop’s impact on society as a whole. For fans who appreciate the pure art form of rapping, this mixtape definitely deserves to be on this list.
2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
Easily the most popular album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s third major-label release has earned him even more accolades, as he continues to climb towards being one of hip-hop’s greatest artists, ever. While his previous album, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly was more abstract and poetic, DAMN sees him jumping on more trendy sounds and killing pop-rappers at their own game. Kendrick showcases an insane vocal range that allows him to adapt and fit his flow into any style of rap, and the many voices of Kendrick work to keep the listener entertained throughout the entire album.
While Kendrick has been known to have a narrative or plotline going throughout his albums, this one has a more loose connection between songs with the shifting themes. The cool thing about the narrative here is the fan theory that it’s also meant to be played in reverse order, which Kendrick confirmed by recently releasing a special edition of the album with the reverse track listing. Time will tell where DAMN stands in Kendrick’s growing discography, but right now it has him at the top of mainstream hip-hop.
1. Run The Jewels – RTJ3
Once again, Killer Mike & El-P have added another masterpiece to their growing discography, further expanding their sound and delivering a well-rounded, energetic hour of fun, aggression, humour, empathy, sorrow, and everything in between. They may not be as popular as Kendrick Lamar or Jay-Z, and may not be rhyming quite as sharply as Royce 5’9″, but they definitely made the best album that keeps the listener entertained from beginning to end.
In an era where mainstream trends have rappers trying to emulate each others’ sounds, Run The Jewels put up a big middle finger to the machine, just as their music does to systems that maintain oppression and discrimination in America, and they stand out with their golden-age principle of remaining unique. El-P’s production sets Run The Jewels apart from any other artist or group, and both him and Killer Mike flow perfectly in-pocket over his unorthodox beats. They also stand out with their approach to the music business, selling the RTJ brand as opposed to the music, as their albums are always available for free download on their site, and fans support by buying physical copies, merch and concert tickets. RTJ3 has taken the duo to new heights, as Mike & El-P continue to build on their near flawless discography.
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