The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
Following the common hip-hop interest in self-examination, though in a more overt and brash manner, Kanye West returned in 2016 with his 7th studio album to widespread commercial and critical acclaim, and backlash. 2013’s Yeezus garnered mixed reviews, it was a dark and sparse album, with the melodical sound of previous material abandoned; in its place was minimalist production and raw vocal delivery. This tendency to reinvent and reinvigorate his style goes back to 808’s and Heartbreak, and on Pablo he not so much reinvents his trademark sample-based style, but modernises it.
Carl Wilson of Slate describes it as an “album of struggle” and this is evident both through the raw, messy and vicious composition and through West’s vocals. On ‘Ultralight Beam’, West prays for the world, and pleads with God to provide him with the strength to pull through. Then immediately after, on the first part of ‘Father Stretch My Hands’, he pleads about liberation. On ‘Famous’ he struggles with his intense relationship with fame and finally, on ‘Wolves’, he wonders what his mother would think of his behaviour since her death.
On Pablo, West is a man in crisis, and what could be perceived as the album’s flaws, its cracks and crevices, are merely signs of a man struggling to maintain. Ultimately it is a work in progress, especially as West has used its presence on streaming services as a way to update and alter the album since it’s original release, something unheard of before this record. In this sense it’s a ‘Life’, and West is the eponymous Pablo; equal parts Picasso, Escobar and Paul the Apostle. As West struggles throughout 2016, whether with Kim Kardashian’s Paris robbery, or his own mental health, the album has the capability to shift and change with him. For the first time, West has cultivated an album that is a living and breathing entity.
Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Travis Scott
Travis Scott’s breakout record Rodeo was a self-assured and mature effort from a relatively young artist and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight follows in it’s footsteps, continuing the Houston rapper and producer’s skills with both hooks and beats. Based on his lyrical content, it would be easy to assume that Travis Scott is just another Southern rapper obsessed with lean and Xanax. And while the common tropes of women, drugs and partying are heavily present, its startlingly unique, luxurious beats are interwoven with trap drums and Scott’s melodic auto-tuned vocals. There’s a beauty to the way La Flame passionately ad libs “It’s lit”, over the top of yet another verse about his love for women and drugs.
The guest vocalists are well placed, with standouts being Andre 3000 on ‘the ends’, Kendrick Lamar on ‘goosebumps’, Quavo on ‘pickup the phone’ and Bryson Tiller on ‘first take’. Overall, Scott has cultivated this character of blunt-smoking, codeine sipping, Lambo driving, Vans wearing La Flame, and he embraces it wholeheartedly. Birds is a display of glorious trap opulence, not an emotionally complex album, but an enjoyable one.
Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
‘Joyous’ is how I would describe Chance the Rapper, and on Coloring Book, the Chicago rapper and producer’s third mixtape, he isn’t just joyous, but rather revelling in the glory of life. He looks upon his hometown with beauty, sings gleefully of his young family, and reflects upon the past with nostalgia. And all of these emotions are encompassed by Gospel and choir instrumentals, beautifully accompanied by Chance’s poetic soft verses and guest vocalists such as Kirk Franklin, NoName, Francis and the Lights, Ty Dolla Sign, and others.
While the album touches on many themes from romance, fatherhood, and the racial divide and high murder rate of Chicago, the prevailing theme of the mixtape is faith. Unlike contemporary and mentor Kanye West, Chance isn’t struggling with his faith, but embracing it, in his own words; “it’s just music from me as a Christian man…I have imperfections, but there was a declaration that can be made through going through all the stuff I’ve been through the last few years.” In so many ways, this is a gospel record, and Chance ties it together beautifully with his soft and touching poetry.
Awaken, My Love!, Childish Gambino
Donald Glover is an incredibly high-achiever. He wrote for 30 Rock, had a successful career in stand-up, as well as numerous roles across film and television, wrote and starred in his own show Atlanta, became a father, and most recently was cast as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo spinoff film. Oh, and all of this is on top of his career as Childish Gambino.
His most recent album, Awaken, My Love!, is drastically different from his previous musical efforts. Gone are the anxious and introverted raps, in their place is soulful crooning over funk instrumentals. The album barely qualifies for this list, not for lack of quality, but because it’s firmly nestled within the realms of funk and soul. Apart from the occasional modern drum beat or instance of well placed autotune, the listener could assume this was a psychedelic soul record from the 70’s, nestled between There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Maggot Brain. The album is such a sharp shift in musical direction that reviews have been mixed so far, unsure of where to place it. Nonetheless, it’s a brilliant and confident record, tracks such as ‘Redbone’ and ‘Baby Boy’ and beautiful, inspired and unique.
Beyonce’s eponymous 2013 album was actually her fifth release as a solo artist, but in many ways it felt like a new beginning, not so much in musical quality, but rather in artistry. While yes, objectively, it was a stronger and more assured musical effort than her previous projects, it was a step towards Beyonce the artist. Beyonce was a visual album that was deeply personal and introspective, so in a sense the followup is something of a sophomore effort. Lemonade was another surprise release, this time however coming in the form of a HBO special – an hour long film featuring music from the album and poetic interludes. It tells the tale of a woman scorned, described on Tidal as; “every woman’s journey of knowledge and self-healing.”
Both personal and political, Beyonce delves into her own experiences as a woman and as an African-American, as the album covers her relationships with her husband and her father, as well as contemporary issues such as police brutality and racial injustice in America. With artists such as Jack White, James Blake and The Weeknd contributing, as well as inspired by the poetry of Warsan Shire, Lemonade is a painful and visceral album, but it’s also proud and empowering. Earlier this year Triple J’s Zan Rowe was criticised for playing songs off the album, she stood by her decision, and for good reason. This is a record from a pop artist that embraces her identity, using her star-status to broadcast both personal and social issues. Middle fingers up.
untitled, unmastered, Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is the biggest rapper in the world. I mean, you could argue that Drake or Kanye is, but no other rapper with this kind of global audience has such a perfect grasp on merging the political and the personal. This record, like so many others on this list, was a surprise release. It’s not even ‘technically’ an album, it’s a compilation of demos recorded during the sessions for his third album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not a mixtape because there is such a cohesion to the music, and it’s not a companion record because thematically and musically it tends to stand on it’s own. It further explores his free jazz and soul influences, and is a much rawer effort than his previous records. And it’s short, lasting just under 35 minutes.
What sets untitled, unmastered apart is just how raw and experimental it is, Kendrick’s inner demons are manifested in whispers on ‘Untitled 04’, and on ‘Untitled 07’ Lamar goes from rehearsed trap beat to studio chatter. As Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune writes; “We are all works in progress, he suggests – unstable, volatile, ever-changing. Why should a collection of songs be any different?”
Yes Lawd, NxWorries
Anderson .Paak is having a moment in 2016, coming off the release of his highly acclaimed album Malibu, Paak linked up with producer Knxwledge for Yes Lawd, a duo reminiscent of others like Jaylib and Madvillian, but with an incorporation of their own soulful sound. Paak’s vocals shift between fractured and smooth, all delivered in his usual gravelly almost talking style. And the instrumentals, from producer Knxwledge, are luscious and detailed, channelling his influences of everything from church music to J Dilla. Standout track ‘Suede’ highlights all of this, as Paak’s skill for unique melody and lyrics is bolstered by the lush instrumental. In this sense, it truly does evoke classic hip-hop collaborations such as Madvillian, two talented musicians at the height of their skill and fame, coming together to create a timeless classic.
Jeffery, Young Thug
Originally known as No, My Name is Jeffery, this mixtape is Thug’s third release of 2016, and his most detailed and mature. His rapping is divisive, filled with wheezing, rasps, yells and mumbling; it’s easy to see why a casual listener to could be turned away, especially on his strained screeching on ‘Harambe’. However this is an incredibly unique style, and it’s basic to assume that Thug and similar voiced artists are ‘bad’ because of this. Each track is named after an idol, ‘RiRi’, ‘Future Swag, ‘Guwop’, ‘Kanye West’ and so on, and it’s this excitement and joy of the craft that gives Jeffery it’s sound. Thug turns whatever he can into his own idea of a hook, especially on the smash ‘Pick Up the Phone’, which was also released on Travis Scott’s album this year. Overall, it’s an excellent and well manufactured mixtape from one of today’s strangest and most unique artists.
We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service, A Tribe Called Quest
While I’m a huge fan of hip-hop, I’ve never been able to get around most 90’s stuff. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s this fetishizing of the era (which I hate), maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always enjoyed contemporary hip-hop far more. That being said, with Tribe, I’ve found they exhibit this beautiful and timeless sound that manages to transcend the music of their contemporaries; they weren’t just revolutionary, their sound is enduring and ageless.
What’s most impressive about their sixth studio album – and first in eighteen years – is that they’ve lost none of their fire. They sound refreshed and passionate, clearly inspired to speak out against the growing racial divide in the US and the Black Lives Matter movement; they were inspired to record a new album after performing on Jimmy Fallon the same night as the Paris Attacks late last year. It’s this passion and ferocity, most evident on lead single ‘We the People…’, that in part forms this record’s timelessness, which is also formed through the album’s influences of jazz and East Coast hip-hop. The features; Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Kanye West, among others, are handled well, as Tribe manages to sidle next to acts they themselves lent a hand in creating. The album’s most remarkable trait however is its ability to rejoice, especially in the wake of Phife Dawg’s death earlier this year. As Robert Christgau wrote for Vice, the record is “…urging us to love each other as much as we can, as we achieve a happiness it’s our duty to reassess if we’re to battle as all we can be.”
The rise of Toronto hip-hop in the 2010’s, driven by the success and Drake and his OVO affiliates, has to led to Jamaican musical traits like the patois and Dancehall, to seep its way into the pop charts. The unique production of PARTYNEXTDOOR, aka PND, aka Jahron Anthony Braithwaite, has been a driving factor in shaping this sound, and his influence on both hip-hop and pop music has been impressive for someone who is only 23 years old.
His third full length effort, imaginatively titled PARTYNEXTDOOR3, merges his traditional sleek RNB sound and Jamaican influences to continue his reinvention of the OVO sound. A lot has been written on PARTY’s unique production, and perhaps we learn more from the beats he gives to other artists, in particular Drake. Tracks like ‘Legend’, ‘Preach’, and Big Sean’s ‘Deserve It’, all have an underlying dark tone. PND3 opens with the 7 minute ‘High Hopes’, a crooning and loose song that sounds equally druggy and sexy at the same time, underpinned by dark beats and hollow drums, as well as the rattle of a machine gun. The album moves between these positions; tracks like ‘Don’t Run’, ‘Not Nice’, and ‘Come and See Me’ shift between these two states of being, all encompassed with this idea of ‘Sad Boy’ made famous by acts like Drake, Yung Lean, and Frank Ocean. PND3 will definitely shape the sound of hip-hop and pop in the near future.
Honourable Mentions (Albums that exist on the fringe of Hip-Hop, but need to be recognised)
A Seat at the Table, Solange
Though she constantly draws comparisons to her more famous sister, Solange has long been carving her own niche in soul and R&B circles. In 2016 both sisters became the first artists who are sisters to both reach number one of the Billboard 200 chart in the same year. Talented families aside, A Seat at the Table explores the ideas of rage, despair and empowerment, through the lens of a black woman in America. On ‘Cranes in the Sky’, Solange sings of trying to suppress her anger, whether through drinking, sex or consumerism. ‘Mad’ utilises Lil Wayne’s drawl to coalesce on their anger and exhaustion. ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ uses a common racial micro aggression to highlight the lengths to which Solange has or will compromise her identity. The album embraces its identity, as BET wrote; “A Seat at the Table is the journal we don’t get the time to write, the conversations we don’t get to have and the exclamations we’re too tired to repeat.” It’s a soulful and smooth record that speaks to an anger within all of us.
Blonde, Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean is something of an enigma, the mysterious and quieter member of LA outfit Odd Future, he stepped out of the spotlight after the release of 2012’s Channel Orange, seemingly locking himself away, only sporadically making contact through an update to his tumblr or lending his vocals to Kanye’s The Life of Pablo. This album was so eagerly awaited, the release date was changed and rarely confirmed, fake track lists were leaked, and it was memed about endlessly, that when Blonde was finally released, there was a moment of shock.
It’s a beautiful and softly spoken work, not unlike the man himself. It draws upon diverse references, from Elliot Smith to The Carpenters and The Beatles. Blonde doesn’t necessarily abandon his RNB roots, but rather expands upon them, incorporating soft guitars and layered vocals, with production from Jamie xx, Rostam Batmanglij, and others, as well as guest vocals (though often mixed very quietly) from James Blake, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Yung Lean, among others. Overall, the album speaks to self-discovery, both for Ocean as a growing artist and as Frank, a young man. As Kyle Kramer from Noisey puts it; “Blonde is interested in the physical process of determining identities, the endless task of self-definition and self-improvement.” Very rarely does an album speak so purely and so beautifully about this task, it truly makes you reflect on your own personhood, asking you to see the person who you are and have been, making it a truly profound musical experience.