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808 drum machines now occupy the coveted cultural space once ruled by guitars — the top of the music charts.
In 2017, for the first time in history, hip-hop and R&B overtook rock as the most popular and most consumed music in the United States. The notable shift reveals a vast appetite for the work of mostly black and brown creators who are redefining the genres in which their music exists.
At an age when so much music feels recycled or heavily repackaged from another era, hip-hop and R&B are arguable the only genres producing something truly innovative with concrete inventions like emo-trap, grime-influenced neo R&B and so-called mumble rap.
These 15 albums represent an eclectic offering of the artists leading this new epoch of a class of music once snubbed. This is not just hip-hop, this is the new pop music of America:
15. Ibeyi, 'Ash'
French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz deliver a dazzling amalgamation of genres on their second album with XL Recordings. The twins navigate police brutality, identity and rampant misogyny while leaning heavily on their Yorùbá faith, both through use of traditional rhythms and in their lyricism (Ibeyi means “twins” in the Yorùbá language). With guests like Mala Rodríguez, Chilly Gonzales and Kamasi Washington, "Ash" expands on Ibeyi’s 2015 self-titled debut LP, with just as firm a grasp on pop-music as with their incessant experimentation.
14. Aminé, 'Good For You'
“Light-hearted Portland Trap,” might sound like a hard sell, but Aminé’s debut finds the Portland rapper, born Adam Daniel, delivering contagious cheer on top of infectious 808 beats. “Caroline” put the young rapper on the map, but album tracks like “Spice Girl” and “Wedding Crashers” (featuring Migos member and Cardi B’s fiancé Offset) feature bouncy, fun dance beats. Aminé’s gaiety has earned him criticism from other rappers who have interpreted it as a perilously cavalier attitude in dark political moments. But as his contemporaries like Lil Yachty and D.R.A.M. have shown, employing #blackboyjoy is also a powerful force that reveals their full humanity. Still, the happy bounce of Aminé’s music also recognizes the precarious times we’re living in, by addressing issues of gentrification and the appropriation of Black culture. To imply that Aminé’s jovial music trivializes the struggles of Black people would be an unfair oversimplification. He knows how dreary these times are, and maybe that’s why he’d rather focus on bringing some much needed sunshine.
13. Lil Uzi Vert, 'Luv Is Rage 2'
“Emo-rap” is a polarizing term for many. Purists of punk-derived emo struggle with wrapping their minds around young trap rappers like Lil Peep and I Love Makonnen taking the genre in an unprecedented direction. But like it or not, emo-rap is happening. On "Luv Is Rage 2," Lil Uzi Vert flexes the varied influences he grew up on, and delivers both one of the best rap, and one of the best emo albums of the year. Lines like “All my friends are dead/ Push me to the edge,” (from his devastating hit single, “XO Tour Llif3,”) resonate with a more emotionally available audience than is traditionally found in hip-hop. Uzi Vert comes from a new generation of rappers who share their feelings and expose their vulnerabilities over traditionally emo-rock melodies made new with trap beats.
12. Young Thug, 'Beautiful Thugger Girls'
This has to be an innovation old-school hip-hop heads never thought they’d hear: country music fused with rap. The more hip-hop purists push back against rap’s new generation, the better so-called mumble rappers become. Young Thug made waves with his unique flow and delivery on 2016’s mixtape "Jeffery," and on "Beautiful Thugger Girls," he continues to innovate by veering into country/folk — marking the Atlanta wordsmith as one of leaders of a crop of rappers consistently pushing the boundaries of what hip-hop can be.
11. Future, 'Future'
With thousands of recorded songs to choose from, it’s a miracle Future only released two of the year’s best hip-hop records (the other, "HNDRX," released a week after "Future"). Production by Zaytoven, DJ Khaled and frequent Future collaborator Metro Boomin’ shapes the album into a blend of party anthems, introspective tracks and an autobiographical recollection. Though the hit single “Mask Off” might immediately bring one of thousands of flute-inspired memes to mind, perhaps after the untimely death of rapper Lil Peep, lyrics like “Percocets/ Molly/ Percocets” might carry a more solemn connotation.
10. Wiki, 'No Mountains in Manhattan'
The daily story of New York life — from a morning interaction with the bodega guy, to a visit to Chinatown’s Great New York Noodletown — can seem a bit quotidian to some audiences, but Uptown rapper Wiki, (born Patrick Morales) guides the listener through a romanticized excursion of the city that no visor-wearing tour guide could ever provide. “I like the 1 train, bagel with lox, crushing the mic/ I like the sunset on the Hudson look at the light,” he raps on “Islander,” over soulful sampled beats that invoke the golden era of New York hip-hop without veering too deeply into “rappity rap” territory. Make no mistake about it -- Wiki’s got bars — but he knows how to scale it back enough to keep the record enjoyable. Guests like ACAB and Ghostface Killah show up to lend their fellow New Yorker some support, with others like Earl Sweatshirt and Kaytranada also joining the party. Wiki is undoubtedly one of the torch-bearers of New York hip-hop, and "No Mountains in Manhattan" is the perfect soundtrack to get lost in the city -- whether it be in real life, or from the comfort of home.
9. Tyler The Creator, 'Flower Boy'
Hip-hop collective Odd Future came on the scene almost a decade ago, shocking some, while causing others to roll their eyes at their incendiary themes. Alums from Odd Future’s early class included Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt. And though the latter two went on to achieve endless acclaim, Tyler The Creator has found it difficult to navigate out of his youthful defiance. Tyler’s fifth studio album finds the rapper grappling with the persona he’s created -- and growing up in the process. Despite his rampant homophobic remarks in the past (or perhaps because of) he spends a great part of the album coming out of the closet. On “Foreword,” he declares “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004,” after explaining why he led countless women on in the past. If "Flower Boy" is the beginning of Tyler The Creator’s true artistic growth, I’m here for it.
8. Migos, 'Culture'
2017 was Migos’ year for the taking -- with or without Donald Glover’s declaration of love for “Bad and Boujee” after his Golden Globe win. Tracks like “Get Right Witcha” and “T-Shirt,” scuffs with one-hit-wonder-rappers and Offset’s relationship with trap queen Cardi B kept the Atlanta trio’s name in the headlines over the course of the year. "Culture," the trio’s second proper full-length, is something of a victory lap after legal troubles threatened to derail their momentum. But as it turns out, a pesky stint in prison isn’t enough to stop the creators of the “Migos Flow” from taking their rightful place as trap’s overlords.
7. Kelela, 'Take Me Apart'
Like Jessie Ware did on her debut album "Devotion," Kelala’s full-length studio debut takes the dark and introspective sound of the underground and lays it out across a beautifully crafted declaration of heartbreak. With producers like Bok Bok, Kingdom and Jam City, among others at the helm, "Take Me Apart" avoids the formulaic pop trappings that could easily drown out a unique and angelic voice like Kelela’s. This 14-track jaunt is one she hopes her listener will lose all abandon on. As she says on album-opener “Frontline,” “Keep this feeling alive/ I fear nothing now/ Then I'm in my ride/ Anything I left behind don't mean nothing now.”
6. Nitty Scott, 'Creature!'
Nitty Scott’s new album, "Creature" tackles issues like colorism, the patriarchy and colonialism head on by imagining a journey back to pre-colonized Puerto Rico through the eyes of the character "Negrita." Indigenous Taíno and Yorùbá chants mingle with Scott’s rapid fire bars as the bass-heavy trap beats give the album a club-ready sheen. On “La Diaspora,” Scott’s having fun while taking down the patriarchy, as she playfully asserts, “Whine to remind and she twerk to resist.” Scott might be 2017’s most underrated rapper, but "Creature!’s" near perfect balance of party beats and lyricism guarantees that she won’t be looked-over for long, as others like Cardi B have begun to take notice. Expect big things from Scott in 2018.
5. Sampha, 'Process'
Sampha’s angelic voice graces records by Solange, Kanye West, SBTRKT, Jessie Ware and many others, but on "Process" -- the South London-born warbler’s debut LP -- the spotlight is all his. The resulting record is a sparse electro-soul tinged confession booth that is both crushing and comforting. As he grapples with his mother’s recent death, Sampha holds nothing back. On “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” he speaks of the emotional support a piano, which his father brought home when he was three, afforded him throughout life, particularly when his mother began to fade away. “And you dropped out of the sky/ oh you arrived when I was three years old... An angel by her side/ They said it’s her time/ No tears in sight/ I kept the feelings close,” he gently croons on the heartbreaking ballad. Even the album’s title — "Process" — offers us a glimpse of the pianist’s state of mind.
4. Princess Nokia, '1992 Deluxe'
A fresh, hot cup of butternut squash soup thrown on a racist commuter’s face may have put Destiny Nicole Frasqueri on a lot of people’s radars, but the rapper has had a cult following brewing for a few years. In 2016, she released the mixtape "1992," to much acclaim, and in 2017, with a little help from legendary label Rough Trade, added eight songs and reissued it as "1992 Deluxe." On the album, she addresses topics like the abuse she endured as a kid in foster care, bruja culture and her style of dress. On “Tomboy,” Nokia proudly flaunts her ambiguous taste in clothing as she proclaims that even with “My little ti----s and phat belly/ I could take your man if you finna let me.” Nokia takes the listener on a trek through life in New York — hers is the story of a young, queer, Latinx woman fighting to persevere in an unforgiving landscape.
3. Drake, 'More Life'
A successful follow-up to "Views" — Drake’s 2016 masterstroke — might sound like a fool’s errand, but Aubrey Drake Graham is no fool. Which is why instead of calling his next release an "album," "More Life" was marketed as a "playlist." Ranging in sound from dancehall to flute trap, bangers like “Passionfruit,” “Fake Love,” “Portland” and “Blem,” command the listener’s attention from start to finish. A follow-up to "More Life" might prove difficult, but he can always call the next release a “mixtape” to ease the pressure.
2. Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.'
From the moment the first “I got, I got…” hits on “DNA.,” Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album strangles the listener with its bold and raw power. This stripped-down and sparse album is a musical departure from the jazz and sample-heavy "To Pimp a Butterfly" -- a severe reminder that the Compton-born rapper is as good as the hype surrounding him. On the Mike Will Made It-produced “HUMBLE.,” Lamar bodies his detractors with lines like “My left stroke just went viral/ Right stroke put lil’ baby in a spiral… It’s levels to it, you and I know.” “DAMN.” is a true hip-hop storybook through and through, told by one of the greatest rappers to ever do it.
1. SZA, 'CTRL'
SZA’s crowd spilled far outside the designated field, and into the common areas at Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival earlier this year. As the lyrics to “Supermodel” reverberated across Commodore Barry Park, the crowd fell silent in awe, though she had yet to actually walk out on stage. When she did finally descend on the stage, one festival-goer exclaimed “She looks like a normal person!” Her debut album, "CTRL"(which almost never saw the light of day) teems with this kind of relatability. On “Supermodel,” she admits to cheating on her boyfriend with his friend, as she lets him know she’s finally leaving him, "Let me tell you a secret/ I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy." "Drew Barrymore" is a pop masterpiece in which SZA confronts her insecurities head on. “I'm sorry I'm not more attractive/ I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike/ I'm sorry I don't shave my legs at night/ I'm sorry I'm not your baby mama,” she candidly announces on the track. SZA made an album without any fear of showcasing her perceived lack of self-perfection, and that’s what makes her so flawless.
Eddie Cepeda is a music and culture writer living in Boston. He writes for Noisey, Remezcla, Vibe and others. Send him tips about local hip-hop, R&B and reggaeton. Follow him on Twitter at @BelBivDeVeau.
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