Saturday, December 17, 2016

Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and R&B


My Top 20 for 2016 included Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, Anderson .Paak, and Kanye West, but there was a bunch of other stuff from similar realms that entertained and intrigued. It should be noted that I use the term "R&B" loosely - in my mind I often think of some of the selections below as "left field" or " alien" R&B, which post-Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is nearly a genre all its own.

In assembling the playlist for this post I noticed a lot of one-off singles and EP's. This could mean a big year in 2017 as some of these begin to pay off into albums. Nothing is certain, but I would not be surprised to see full albums from Missy Elliott, Pusha T, Moses Sumney, Young M.a, and FKA Twigs, all of which bodes well for our ears. 2017 will also see the wide release of Prodigy's (Mobb Deep) R.I.P. Series, which finds the Queens legend collaborating with associates old and new, including some of the biggest names in contemporary hip hop.

ALBUMS & EP's

Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered Lamar can do no wrong, even delivering burning verses on disposable top 40 songs (Maroon 5? Really, dude?). This collection of leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions was remarkably nutritious, featuring expansive, lived-in grooves for Lamar to rhyme over. While it didn't hold together like the magnum opus of TPAB, it was still one of the best hip hop albums of the year. 

Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos Even if Tempest shades a little more toward spoken word on her second album, she still enthralls on this concept album about overlapping events at 4:18 AM on one particular street. She's got a large heart, which is always on the side of right, but has to check a tendency to preach. Production by Dan Carey is once again brilliant, although it calls more to contemplation than to the dance floor. 

Solange - A Seat At The Table Speaking of preaching, if this album had come out two years ago, before Trump exposed this country's slimy white underbelly, I would have thought it hopelessly out of date. But now it's messages of black pride and empowerment are a necessary corrective to the hateful rhetoric polluting our air. It helps that Solange is making the most assured music of her peripatetic career, using a deceptively light touch to deal with some heavy subjects. Unlike her sister and so many contemporaries she sounds like she's using her voice, an irresistible lighter-than-air soprano, to sing to you rather than at you. While it might lack that one killer tune, A Seat At The Table is great listen all the way through. 

Xenia Rubinos - Black Terry Cat Rubinos, a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, covers some of the same ground as Solange, but in more in-your-face style. Shades of funk-rock icon Betty Davis and Philly Soul add historical weight to a seriously musical album. 

Ka - Honor Killed The Samurai I've been digging his noirish Superfly single all year but just learned about this full length. Call it a fan's notes on Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, as Ka constructs dark, hypnotic backings for his night thoughts about art and life. His career has been a slow burn since his days in Natural Ingredients, but this self-contained album should turn some heads. 

A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service The rumors started right after Phife Dog, the heart & soul of the Tribe, died: there was a new album in the works, their first in 18 years. And it's remarkably good, with the  thoughtful lyrics and head-nodding beats that made their name back in the day. Q Tip shines throughout and you won't soon forget his haunting chorus on We The People, which puts you in the mind of a certain kind of Trump supporter: "All you black folk, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must to go/Muslims and gays/You know we hate your ways." It's hard to imagine a better tribute to Phife's legacy than this capstone album - rest in power. 

Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition I had pretty much given up on this squeaky voiced nutjob but he regained my interest by naming his latest album after a Joy Division song and a J.G. Ballard novel. Turns out by going more batshit crazy and black hole dark, he's finally put himself in a context I can get behind. There's variety to the beats, which are mostly excellent, and well-deployed guests (Lamar, again, and others), leavening his unique attack. Like The Life Of Pablo, you feel like you've entered into a slightly crazy person's head, although Brown's diagnosis is a bit different, leaning more towards the paranoid. Not for everyone, but he's on to something. 

Kaytranada - 99.9% Great showcase for the chill Haitian-born Canadian producer's tracks, with occasional guests providing vocals, either sung or rapped. Anderson .Paak is here, but even more notable is a verse by Phonte, whose excellent flow I discovered when reviewing a Little Brother album for Off Your Radar. Drummer Karriem Riggins and jazzers BadBadNotGood add some nice instrumental touches. 

Chloe X Halle - Sugar Symphony This five-song EP from YouTube sensations and Beyoncé protégés Chloe & Halle Bailey is an introduction to two fully-formed artists. They can both sing and rap beautifully and write memorable songs, and Chloe has a hand in the production of most of these songs. Drop is the featured song but Thunder may be the big tune Solange is looking for - perhaps Beyoncé can make the connection. The delicate electro-funk-pop on Sugar Symphony has a distinctly post-FKA Twigs flavor to it so here's hoping their first full-length doesn't get bogged down in "significance" like hers did. Tune in next year...

Moses Sumney - Lamentations Ever since he drifted onto my SoundCloud with Mid-City Island in 2012, I've been an avid follower. His multi-octave voice is a wonder and no one since Terry Callier has blended folk, jazz and soul with such confidence. This year's releases, which also included the Seeds single, show him incorporating more electronic sounds into the mix, even going full Justin Vernon in the overdubbed auto tune choir of Worth It. He's still one to watch - but keep a close eye because I have no idea where he's going next. 

Isiaiah Rashad - The Sun's Tirade His last album, 2014's Cilvia Demo, was fantastic, with top shelf beats and autobiographical rhymes that were a cut above. Then the pressure was on, making the follow-up nearly as anticipated as Frank Ocean's. Unfortunately, this is not nearly as good but it is a fascinating exploration of writer's block, which may be a first in hip hop. I'm pulling for the guy so remember Free Lunch when assembling your New Year's Eve party mix. 

Various Artists - Sofie's SOS Tape Don't want to make your own mix? Stones Throw to the rescue with this seamless assemblage by Sofie Fatouretchi, one of the founders of the Boiler Room. Pulling together many of the threads found on other records reviewed here, Sofia also has her ear to the ground and showcases some up and comers like Stimulator Jones and ISSUE. She also makes beautiful music with Mndsgn on Abeja and features the stunning vocals of Charlotte Dos Santos on Watching You. Great to hear Jonwayne in there as well, even if it's just a short instrumental. Next time you get an SOS text from a shipwrecked party, deploy Sofie and there will be smooth sailing. 

SONGS & SINGLES 

Ever since my vacation in hip hop nation, it's been incontrovertible that Schoolboy Q's THat Part and Young M.a.'s Ooouuu were two of the songs of the year. The first is blessed with one of Kanye West's best features and a haunting, draggy beat. Unfortunately, Q doesn't have what it takes to sustain an album so his Blank Face LP is far from essential. Young M.a. is a witty and tough-talking highlight of the current crop of NYC MC's and if she keeps coming up with songs this sticky, her album will make itself.

When I wore my Mobb Deep shirt to the Kanye West show, it was a way to represent one of the giants of NYC hip hop. I was also closing the circle: Havoc, one half of the infamous Mobb, worked on The Life of Pablo, putting his gritty stamp on both Famous and Real Friends. He also found time to make an album with the Alchemist, one of the best producers out there. He's already worked on Mobb Deep albums as well as making Return of the Mac and Albert Einstein with Prodigy, the other half of Mobb Deep. I can't say that The Silent Partner is the equal of those two earlier opuses, but the first single, Maintain (Fuck How You Feel), was an excellent song with a classic feel that had me hoping for more. As for Prodigy, while I was excited that he was chosen to work on a project related to The Black Panther comic series rebooted by Ta-Nahisi Coates, the songs have been seriously underwhelming. Part of it is the production, putting Prodigy into EDM-like contexts that don't suit his attack, and part of it is that I don't think he really likes doing work to order. However, buried in his Untitled EP is a polished marble of a song called That's What G's Do. Produced by someone called Mimosa, it's a perfect opportunity for Prodigy to do what he does best, namely talk about himself and New York City in a flow that sounds like his life depends on every word.

I'm not going to lie: I know everyone is crazy for Run The Jewels but I like Killer Mike better as a solo act. It's not as if he's lost a step, it's just that now he's giving equal time to El P, a genius behind the boards but no so much on the mic. I've also been disappointed with DJ Shadow's output since 1996's Endtroducing, one of the best albums of the last century. But put'em all together on one track - Nobody Speak - and it's pretty killer, particularly during the vicious chorus.

Missy Elliott seemed poised for something big after her 2015 Super Bowl appearance but all we got was classic-sounding W.T.F. (Where They From) and the energetic Pep Rally, both of which kept her hand in but not much more. FKA Twigs also stayed on the map with Good To Love, a spare and gorgeous ballad. 

I also thought this was going to be a big year for Pusha T - his last album was subtitled The Prelude, after all - but all we got were a couple of tracks. Drug Dealers Anonymous finds him in fine form, spitting conscious rhymes like "America’s nightmare's in Flint/Children of a lesser God when your melanin’s got a tint." I only wish he had done two verses as Jay-Z doesn't have much to say in his bars. When Jonwayne has nothing to say, at least he's honest about it: "That's O.K., my mind's blank anyway," starts That's O.K., a single he released earlier this year. But the way he says it, you're immediately hooked. The beat is one of his best, too - melancholy and soulful.

One of the undeniable grooves of the year came from the mysterious A.K. Paul, whose Landcruisin' featured a sinewy guitar loop and wonderfully insouciant vocals. Thanks to DJ Duane Harriott, master of all that moves body and spirit, for the tip. Keep an eye out for more. 

Even catchier, although somewhat indefensible, was Joey Purp's Girls @, a scientifically designed earworm with each shouted "What" burrowing deeper in your brain. It's got a light enough touch that you can listen without hating yourself in the morning. Chance The Rapper's guest spot is also a redeeming factor - he even name drops Ta-Nahisi Coates. If you haven't yet read Between The World And Me, let this be your reminder - it's one of the landmark books of our time. 

Hear tracks from all of these artists in this playlist. This year, I'm also instituting genre-based "Of Note" playlists in addition to the general one so check out Of Note In 2016: Hip Hop & R&B - you may find something that strikes your fancy more than it struck mine. 

The Top 20 for 2016 is here and the year's best electronic music is coming next. 

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