Photo: NBC (Getty Images)
Hip hop has always been in touch with humanity so it’s no surprise that both of their greatest accomplishments and failures in the Digital Age can be blamed on technology. Futurists call it “Singularity,” which basically means that technology is growing at an exponential rate that people can’t keep up with. The result is a lot of breakthroughs, but also creates a disposable culture where new is not necessarily better, but just “new.”
Hip hop has the same dilemma. The production is on another level. Technology and access have led to some of the most innovative and original music of all-time. Yet, it in many ways the rappers and lyricists can’t keep up so they talk about the same things (money, fame, power, strip clubs, sports, weed) over and over and over again in songs or create new languages where we add “-izzle” to everything.
That’s why this year marks a breakthrough for a genre in need of a tune-up not more auto-tune. The Seven Best Hip Hop albums of 2016 came from daring hip hop artists who weren’t afraid to take chances by talking about real things or doing something different, and they were mostly rewarded with sales, critical acclaim and Grammy nominations, giving us hope for a future where we will never hear “fo shizzle” again.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
In a year that saw heroes vanquished and villains prevail (then troll us on Twitter) it’s quite poetic that A Tribe Called Called Quest was there to pick us up when we had hit rock bottom. The iconic New York hip hop group, who themselves dealt with the tragic loss of core member Phife Dawg, not only proved that they could still kick it after nearly two decades away with the phenomenal “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service”, but also delivered the first great piece of activist art of the President Trump era.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Part of what makes the Windy City rapper so great is he knows he is and people can feel that authenticity in a genre that’s all about the floss and gloss. In classic Millennial fashion, Chance the Rapper, colors outside the lines. He shows his Church roots by adding gospel to his music, refuses to sign with a record major label, releases his music independently AND then makes history by becoming the first streaming-only album to receive a Grammy nomination.
Anderson Paak – Malibu
The Oxnard-rapper put an exclamation on his breakout year with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Although it’s been a slow grind for the multi-talented R&B singer-rapper-drummer-producer, Malibu established Paak as a new voice who seemed to be everywhere with song-stealing cameos on tracks from everyone from Snakehips to Mac Miller.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
What more can you say about The Life of Pablo that wasn’t said by Mr. West himself? The album was filled with drama even before it came out as Kanye first started showing the cracks that eventually would lead to his recent hospitalization. When it finally did come out, Life of Pablo didn’t quite live up to the hype, at times great, but also uneven, especially from an icon who has set his own bar so high.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Speaking of albums with constant restarts and reshuffles, Frank Ocean finally blessed his fans with his long-anticipated follow-up to his star-making Channel Orange. The enigmatic multi-hyphenate blessed us with not one, but two new releases, Blonde and Endless, which are both dense, layered, radiant works of art that solidify Ocean as a true artist who can’t be defined in terms of sexual fluidity and musical ambiguity.
Kaytranada – 99%
The hero to bedroom producers everywhere delivered one of the most underrated albums of the year bar none. Flying Lotus may get more love from audiophiles, but the Haitian-Canadian producer makes his own brand of experimental, jazz-infused hip hop/R&B that’s actually accessible.
Various Artists – Hamilton Mixtape
More hip hop Disney album than hardcore mixtape, it’s yet another way to enjoy Hamilton (especially if you like most of us have never seen the Broadway show). Produced by Roots’ Questlove, the compilation album features everyone from Nas and Sia to Chance the Rapper covering the greatest hits of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Grammy and Tony-winning phenomenon about our founding fathers.