Ten years ago, acclaimed rapper Nas debuted his eighth studio album, Hip Hop is Dead. With the proliferation of subgenres including “mumble rap,” it’s a sentiment many hip hop heads tend to echo.
Yet in recent years, rap proved far from over. 2016 ushered in a bevy of strong releases. Check out the top 12 hip hop albums of 2016:
Vinnie Paz — “The Cornerstone of the Corner Store”
Vinnie Paz has been holding down the underground since his early Jedi Mind Tricks days. His latest solo album, The Cornerstone of the Corner Store may be Paz’s best of his solo LPs. Following 2015’s Jedi Mind Tricks release The Thief and The Fallen which marked Vinnie’s reunion with long-time JMT producer and friend Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind, Paz has been spitting at his best.
The Cornerstone of the Corner Store is marked by top-notch production and comes packed with amazing features. The legendary Buckwild provides hard hitting drums for “The Void” featuring up and comer Eamon. Wu-Tang Clan veteran Ghostface Killah lends his immense talents to “Herringbone.” Conway the machine bodies “Iron Tusk.”
Lyrics like “Vinnie put the E on the street like he Nils Lofgren,” and “my heart was black, it was Darth Vader then” match the stellar production. There’s a pleasant mix of punchlines and thought-provoking lyrics. “The Ghost I Used to Be” and “Writings On Disobedience and Democracy” follow in the same vein as tracks like “End of Days” and “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”
Aesop Rock — “The Impossible Kid”
Aesop Rock remains one of the most lyrical hip hoppers, with empirical data supporting his verbosity. Aes’s latest LP The Impossible Kid boasts some of his best material, and possibly the best album artwork of any 2016 release. It’s radically different from his early incarnation as heard on Music for Earthworms (which will forever be one of my favorite albums).
What makes The Impossible Kid so phenomenal is that it’s incredibly grounded. Though Aesop’s lyrics are often more abstract and evoke emotions, this album clearly shows his thoughts and they’re pretty relatable. On “Rings,” he spits “Used to draw, hard to believe that I used to draw” painting vivid pictures of his reflections on life. Touching on everything from his family (“Blood Sandwich”) to loss (“Get Out of the Car”), it’s an introspective romp.
“Lotta Years” is probably my favorite track, with its plodding, catchy beat and humorous yet poignant narrative.
A-F-R-O & Marco Polo “A-F-R-O Polo EP”
Legendary R.A. the Rugged Man discovered rapper phenom All Flows Reach Out (A-F-R-O) and in case you haven’t heard A-F-R-O, then spoiler alert: dude can kick it. His distinctive baritone and neck-snapping cadence combine with clever lyrics that will leave you diving for the rewind button.
On A-F-R-O Polo, A-F-R-O teams up with producer Marco Polo for an LP that channels a boom bap vibe. Tracks like “Nightmare on Fro Street” exhibit a mature flow, and A-F-R-O drops horrorcore-inspired verses like Trick or treat, tonight is Halloween/I commit murder and smoke collared greens/The mind of a serial killer in flow speech/Welcome to the nightmare on fro street.”
A-F-R-O Polo benefits from Polo’s masterful beats. “Swarm” which features veteran Pharoahe Monch sounds like it could be straight from Nas tour de force Illmatic.
Check out A-F-R-O hold his own with Rugged Man and Vinnie Paz on “And God Said to Cain.”
Apathy — “Handshakes With Snakes”
It’s always enjoyable when rappers and producers weigh in on the state of hip hop. Renowned emcee and producer Apathy offers an impassioned critique on rap with his 2016 record Handshakes with Snakes. It’s unique that Ap handles not only the rapping, but production as well.
In “Rap is not Pop,” Apathy fires off a slew of catchy lyrics: “Everybody recycles everybody else beats/Fifty versions of a song 30 times in a week/That everybody repeats, and everybody is weak/East Coast rappers be dick-riding Dirty South beats.” Guest features include the likes of Bun B and Twista, with Ras Kass and O.C. providing stellar verses as well.
As he notes on “Charlie Brown,” “Nowadays music sound so weird/Everybody clothes are tight, everybody got a beard.” Overall, Handshakes with Snakes finds Apathy at his best, and moreover his beef with hip hop likely resonates with many fans.
A Tribe Called Quest — “We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service”
A Tribe Called Quest unloaded on 2016 with the renowned rap group’s sixth and final album. Throughout the years, Tribe persisted in crafting groundbreaking material and evolving while still keeping a signature sound.
We Got if From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service opens with “The Space Program” which oozes a jazzy smoothness. But rather than sounding plucked from the early 90s, it’s got a contemporary aesthetic. Their latest album features that familiar balance of catchy lyrics and beats that will send you to the chiropractor.
However, this is by far Tribe’s most politically charged LP. “The Space Program” speaks on gentrification, and standout track “We the People…” features the powerful hook “All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/And all you poor folks, you must go/Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways/So all you bad folk, you must go.”
Poignant and refreshingly retro-modern, We Got is From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is a must-listen.
Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman — “Lice 2: Still Buggin'”
Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman teamed up for the highly enjoyable 2015 EP Lice. The follow up, Lice 2: Still Buggin’ is equally as entertaining. Superb production and the juxtaposition of Homeboy’s sharp lyricism and Aesop’s poetical wordplay makes Still Buggin’ a masterful EP.
On “Zilch,” Aesop raps “After dinner hit a visa with two Dobermans like Higgins,” a clever reference to “Magnum P.I.” Astute fans will note that Aesop’s current Twitter picture is an image of Tom Selleck as Magnum. Between its tight production and phenomenal lyrics, this five track album is packed with replay value.
J. Cole — “4 Your Eyez Only”
J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive went double platinum, and his 2016 follow up 4 Your Eyez Only arrives as Cole’s most ambitious material yet. It’s already cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and for good reason.
Cole creates an album that’s simultaneously an easy listen and chock full of complex themes. It’s almost like reading J. Cole’s thoughts on everything from fatherhood to the state of hip hop. “False Prophets” sees Cole bust on rappers, notably taking aim at the likes of Kanye.
De La Soul — “and the Anonymous Nobody”
Ever since I discovered 3 Feet High and Rising at my local public library back in the day, I’ve been a huge De La Soul devotee. 2016’s and the Anonymous Nobody lends De La a new yet familiar sound.
With that characteristic De La aesthetic and zany lyrics like “Us three be the omega like fish oil,” and the Anonymous Nobody is a breathe of fresh air. An unusual array of guests includes Snoop Dogg, Usher, and 2 Chainz. While it may not be De La’s most cohesive album, and the Anonymous Nobody ushers in a wave of nostalgia.
My only complaint: it’s too short.
Vince Staples — “Prima Donna EP”
Aesop Rock turned me on to Vince Staples in my 2014 interview of Aes. Since then, I’ve been a huge fan of Staples. 2016’s Prima Donna shows why Vince has achieved the critical acclaim he’s thus garnered.
Summertime ’06 exhibited his prowess as a rapper, but moreover asserted his ability to craft a gripping and coherent soundscape. Production on Prima Donna comes from DJ Dahi and No I.D., so it’s jammed with stellar beats and Vince’s unique cadence and stimulating lyrics. Lines like “I’m in the black Benz speeding with my black skin gleaming” and “You never know when you gon’ catch a case/Never know when you gon’ catch an eye” remain sharp.
With the same intensity and immersive qualities as his previous work, Prima Donna is a must cop.
KXNG Crooked and Statik Selektah — “Statik KXNG”
Once I heard the Statik Selektah-Action Bronson collaboration Well-Done I was sold on Statik’s masterful production. His sample-based boom bap sound creates a head-bobbing atmosphere. Selektah’s collab with KXNG Crooked, Statik KXNG is great for two reasons: Statik’s usual tight beats and Crooked’s boisterous lyricism.
The track “Dead Or in Jail” arrives with a jazzy style and hard lines like “Picture me debating, no time to argue with you artists/If you do a song with me I’m probably just targeting your marketing, and then I take ‘em home with me and win that argument regardless.”
When two hip hop vets, a producer (Statik) and rapper (Crooked) come together, they combine like Voltron. The result: an irresistible banger.
Kool Keith — “Feature Magnetic”
It’s impossible to confuse Kool Keith for any other rapper. His eccentric style and recognizable vocals are ever present on 2016’s Feature Magnetic. On “Super Hero,” he drops lines like “The Yankees lost but the blue and orange team amuse us/ The Yankees lost but the blue and orange team amuse us,” a roundabout way of saying he likes the Mets.
“MC Voltron” with its throwback title carries an equally throwback beat and lyrics that evoke a classic East Coast rap vibe from the early 90s. Plus, Feature Magnetic is jam packed with guest spots, the likes of which include MF Doom, Necro, and Psycho Les.
SkyBlew — “SkyBlew the Cowardly Boy”
SkyBlew is the freshest hip hop to emerge from North Carolina since Little Brother. With a wholly distinct style that’s one part jazz rap with a dash of nerdcore, and a heavy sprinkling of positivity, it’s pure rap bliss. SkyBlew the Cowardly Boy further expands SkyBlew’s impressive catalog.
You can’t help but smile listing to the slew of upbeat messages peppered with clever pop culture references. But SkyBlew doesn’t shy away from touching on heavy topics like depression, though ultimately there’s a bright outlook.