(10) Schoolboy Q - Blank Face LP bf>sb
ScHoolboy Q's To Pimp A Butterfly? probably not, but Q's best since Habits & Contradictions? Definitely. The chaos of South Central LA through Crip-tinted glasses is displayed by Q with fascinating grit, energy and hunger through roughly 17 tracks. While it's easy to expect a theme as a story throughout this album, I think Blank Face is rather a loose concept of the faceless image of gang violence, police brutality in poor neighbourhoods, family tension, personal relationships, and the unjust institutions. He introduces the concept of Blank Face at the beginning and shows it in different situations. That aside, Schoolboy Q shows a ton of maturity on this project, the sound becomes more relatable between each track compared to Oxymoron. I will admit there are a few points where he ends that connection of uniform sound, such as THat Part, WHateva U Want, and Overtime, but they seem to act as chances for breaks to allow breathing room after the barrage of heaviness. But for the greater part, the machine gun rattling 808s, the revving bass and blood curdling background vocals at some points bring an tenacious, hard hitting, villainous, tough as nails project. Some have said this was boring, but frankly it's one of my most adrenaline pumping records this year for me.
(9) Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 3
At first I wasn't that stoked on RTJ's new sound with the first 3 singles, but I thought they were pretty solid but nothing made me anticipate this standout in their discography, or made me contemplate putting this record in my top 10 of 2016. But over the course of time I have had with this album, I have grown to love it, putting this head to head with the tireless banger album RTJ2.. I think it was once I accepted the new approach that El-P and Killer Mike were going for, I was able to enjoy this album a lot more.. Memes aside, RTJ have proven one of the most consistent groups in the rap genre right now.
The production on the album is incredibly interesting and much more sonically challenging than their previous record. I think switches it up a lot from the last album despite what a lot of people have thought about El-P's production versatility with RTJ. The production is alternative and grimey, but still brings the same energy to the album that RTJ is signature with. The lyrics are still as fiery as always, they capped off a lot of the feelings I have had this year, they captured my empathy for their troubles, and brought the passionate and braggadocios all in the same album. Killer Mike, my personal favourite of the two, I think had just as a stellar performance on this album as El-P, as the way I always hope it should be.
Also shouts to them for releasing their shit for free, even if you don't enjoy RTJ you gotta respect that.
(8) Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead's 9th LP and admittedly my 4th Radiohead album I have listened to (I will get to TKOL, Bends and Amnesiac and the rest eventually I promise), A Moon Shaped Pool, is a powerful, emotionally moving, solemn and haunting record. What I love about Radiohead is that they haven't settled with one sound in the many decades they have been around, they have constantly experimented and pushed their boundaries of their sound. And it's also a testament to them that they can produce a record like this 23 years and 8 albums later.
A Moon Shaped Pool sounds like the soundtrack to drifting in space alone, constant darkness for miles. Or perhaps laying at the seafloor at its depths, no air or sign of human comfort. The bittersweet violins, acoustic guitar work and lush keys well up and crash down with thunderous emotion, somberness intact. Thom Yorke's singing brings so much to the shrill tone and weight of the album, adding a human struggle and personal feeling to the spacey and isolated sound underneath him, making each track feel like there is an anchor tied to your stomach. However it is not just a depressing record, it is a morbidly beautiful record, it quintessentially sums up these weighty human emotions into a clear, concise record. They don't say they are depressed and troubled, they show it. Radiohead’s ability to convey the depressive state through song is beautiful and brilliant rather than a drawback on LP9 for sure, and makes it one of the best records of the year.
Also I wanna point out that the tracks are title sequenced alphabetically if you didn't notice, I thought that was neat. And shout out for having a sick ass cover, just the whole album is incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Probably my favourite Radiohead cover.
(7) Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love!
Disclaimer: No, I will not address California.
Awaken, My Love! has to be the most fun I have ever had listening to an album for the first time in a long while to be completely honest. The roller coaster of shock when the climax of Me and Your Momma first hearing the single in the middle of class (probably not the greatest place for a first listen of that track), to just going through the first run from Have Some Love to Boogieman to Zombies to Riot was off the wall crazy, and the sheer amazement of what I just heard as I slid down the tracklisting to Redbone, Terrified, Baby Boy, The Night Me And Your Momma Met and Stand Tall. His ability to be astonishingly versatile in his music is bar none one of the best right now, his options in talent are limitless as he has shown here. Hell I wouldn’t be surprised if he fucking went and made a punk album (although that would be hard to take seriously, I’d still give it a shot lmao)
I am a sucker for most incorporation of jazz, funk and soul into modern styles, so upon inclination I was bound to like this album unless his singing wasn’t very good. But Gambino’s voice is the star on this album and is far from any conventional modern smooth funk vocals on something like a Thundercat record or a Vulfpeck record (I love both of those acts fyi). It is catalytic and demanding, haunting and joyful. It diligently follows the blueprint to the near irreplaceable voices of Funkadelic and Prince.
The production felt monstrous and dramatic when the energy gets to a high - crashing drums, ripping guitars, swiping keyboards and thunderous back choirs. When the energy simmers down for Gambino’s solemn moments, the production becomes lush and dreamy, with twinkling xylophones and keys, somber drum work and baritonal choir singing. All of the backing elements of the album collide and settle like waves that Gambino’s vocals ride.
As for the meanings and themes of this album, they vary in quality of explanation or substance but the sheer momentum and power of the production and vocals of this album alone have it at least top 10. But I love some of the messages in the lyrics, which I think are some of Gambino most insightful and resonant, such as on Boogieman:
Every boy and girl all around the world
Knows my nigga's words
But if he's scared of me
How can we be free?
Simplistic on first listen, these are sort of anthemic and thought provoking when processed for a bit. It is a blatant point of hypocrisy in how it is popular in our culture to want to be able to embrace the artistry of the black community and even say the N word with no strings attached, yet the culture of white America largely looks at the black community as the “boogieman” or criminals.
This fear and assumption of criminality towards the black community almost sets them in stone as never being able to escape discrimination and racial injustice, effectively creating a mental slavery.
These lines are so eloquently put that even me, a person who is far removed from this mindset portrayed here, a person who lives in a community where blacks, whites and peoples of all colour are comfortable in the same neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces, this made me question my mentality concerning the hardships faced by the black community almost fundamentally. It is messages like this, and on tracks like Baby Boy, Zombies, Terrified and others that I think push this album to 7th in my favourites this year.
Also, it’s cool to jam to.
(6) Skepta - Konnichiwa
Spring, winter, fall or summer, this album still fucking slaps. Skepta finds his stride on Konnichiwa; using passionate, jumpy and punchy flows that ride flawlessly over bassy yet airy riddims filled with kick ass 808s. Skepta has a polarizing presence throughout the album, his charisma almost demands attention. It gives me a sense almost like he represents a revolt, a movement against traditionalism and the societal standards set in the UK for years despite the many eras of revolutionary music there, however this time it is the actual urban scene that is largely ignored and disrespected in the UK that is now musically rising to their respected and deserved representation, and taking on his metaphorical leadership in the grime scene.
All of the features on here are all play their part to create the tone of the album, no space is wasted, except maybe Ladies Hit Squad but that we don't talk about . What I appreciate is that he brought on the greats and new generation of artists of grime to feature, such as Wiley, JME and the rest of BBK, D Double E, Chip, and Novelist, while also bringing on American artists such as Young Lord and Nast of A$AP, and Pharrell. This shows again that Skepta is putting grime at the forefront of his project here and trying to lead it into a more influential direction - to get people to notice the scene in the UK and abroad and to pay attention to what they have been doing, repping who they are and who they can be. I think in some ways, this shows as much maturity as the Kano record I wrote about above.
The album itself is probably the most replayable album for me this year - I haven't gotten bored of this album in the 9 months this thing has been available, I can play it at any moment without feeling out of the mood or anything (My Last.fm is a clear indicator of this lol). Skepta has had an amazing year this year, and I can't wait to see where he takes himself and the genre in the near future. Stormzy and Novelist’s group The Square may have been my first grime acts I had ever heard, but Konnichiwa is the first record that made me love grime through and through.
(5) Kaytranada - 99.9%
2 months after the release of 99.9%, I had taken a trip to Montreal - home to incredible Old French architecture, beautiful recreational spaces and historical sites, greasy and enjoyable food, plenty of cultural diversity, and most importantly: a booming dance/house/rave scene. This is where the exciting young producer Kaytranada shined, making his way up producing airy and club shaking beats in this scene that have a signature sound that set him apart from a standard EDM DJ or the likes, his bubbly synths that swell and deflate mark his name on his work as if he is a painter writing his name in the left hand corner of the canvas. He draws from his Haitian background with Caribbean meringue and African percussion and rhythms that is common in Haitian music. And his mindset for coalescing talent and sounds together to create a boundary pushing body of work is one of the more poignant of the roster of today’s producers. I had already enjoyed and rated this album when it released and I gave it a fair amount of spins. But taking the trip to Montreal, it dominated my earbuds and soundtracked the entire week I was there, and I since forth appreciated it so much more. “Track Uno” reminds me of the bustling trains and graffiti on them in the tunnels, “Bus Ride” reminds me of lying on the couch after the day of walking and looking out over the city from my hotel. “One Too Many” reminds me of walking down the street and seeing the incredible nightlife. “Weight Off” reminds me of the view from the top of Mount Royal, “Got it Good” reminds me of the trek up the hill, and so on. Not to say you have to listen to it in Montreal to “get it”, but it’s symbiotic relationship to the aspects in that area made it so much better for me, otherwise I think I would’ve put this somewhere further down this list.
His production work does what many producers overlook when making a solo project - making each piece have their own personality. Every track displays a feeling, vibe or emotion, a landscape or social situation. And that is something that is quite unique to Kaytranada’s style. Despite the incredible additions of vocals from Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, Goldlink, Little Dragon, River Tiber, Craig David and others, the beats have life and can operate independent of the person on the track, and speak for themselves. On Vivid Dreams for example, the keys move along with the shifting bass and snapping snares, they peak and drop that portray an eerie, spirituous, and heady feeling. As the title suggests, the instrumental is so vividly created that it depicts a scene as if you are swimming through dark purple clouds in a dream. River Tiber’s voice is used as merely another instrument in Kaytranada’s grander scheme in the evocation of a feeling. His visionary talent reminds me of some of the production greats in DJ Shadow and J Dilla, except a more updated, internet-ish quality is added.
Kaytranada’s meticulous work at the producers table to synthesize these influences and scenery of his life into enjoyable grooves and loops that each have a personality of their own is a skill of mastery. I enjoy every one of his collaborations and solo works, and frankly hasn’t let me down yet. He seems to have a limitless arsenal of artistic inspirational spaces to draw from. Much like the cover of this album and the record itself, his mind runs wild and detailed with ideas. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for this next year.
(4) Mick Jenkins - The Healing Component
Love. What is it? What does it look like? Is it what we strive for in life? Are there different kinds of love? Well I can answer one thing, I love this fucking album. Now, you might be asking why this isn’t number one on my list as the biggest Mick stan on the internet, and my answer is because I judge critically about everything in life without blind acceptance, and I enjoyed it, to be truthful, slightly less than the three above it. Cool? Cool.
Mick Jenkins means a lot to me for a lot of different things - but most importantly his passion is unwavering about truly important life themes that everyone seems to forget about. I have a lot of moments of frustration when I see news headlines and personal experiences of people blindly accepting opinion/lie over fact/truth, or accepting to hate one another rather than seeing their perspective first and giving them love regardless of personal background. Everyone seems to agree with these ideas but Mick reminds us incessantly, because it’s important. On The Healing Component, he speaks on the latter of my examples - Hate/Love. Anyone of course can make an album about love, the pop charts for decades have churned out love anthems for a long time. But what isn’t discussed is the nuance and the start of the discussion of love, more than just the Hollywood, commercial romantic love. It could be love for your people, love for your country, love for your family, love for your friends, love for your species, love for yourself, love for everything.. Love is the motivation for people to do heinous acts (people can murder in defense of those closest to them, for example), and love is the motivation for people to do incredible things. It’s all about spreading love and it’s concept, and shutting it out with division of people against each other into smaller and smaller groups until we have no one including ourselves to love. He simplifies that into one concept: The Healing Component, the driving force of the album.
Mick conveys these incredibly heavy and insightful topics over instrumentals carrying an intoxicating, viscous sound. A comparison might be if The Water[s]’ instrumentals were like water, The Healing Component’s instrumentals are like wine. Yet the production doesn’t get stale through 15 tracks, it uses bottoming sub bass with eerie vocals and rising staircase percs that have a dramatic movie feel on Fall Through, and light, airy fluctuating synths and bright and punctual keys that give a club vibe on Communicate, or even the revving bass and lightning drum work that have an apocalyptic/natural disaster feel on As Seen In Bethsaida. The sonic variability adds more to the concept of different settings and spaces love can be found - everywhere.
He also uses some creative flows and wordplay that makes it not only interesting, but puts emphasis and weight on what he is saying, a knack he's had since The Mickstape. He relaxes at points to make the statement resonate and want to back and hear what he said again, and at times he really goes aggressive to make it just overwhelmingly emotional and almost put you where his mindset is. His singing - a new mix to the recipe of THC after his success on Wave[s] utilizing his vocals, I think in the context of the theme and mood this project goes for, it does an incredible job adding a cooling effect after the potent verses, making each track catchy, sticky and leaving you with earworms (when you can't stop playing a certain song to scratch a sonic itch)
This project has minor flaws that are admissible, but I really enjoyed it overall, and has me waiting for his next LP, it seems like he is willing to experiment which I am up for, 100%.
(3) A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
The most unexpected and blindsiding album of 2016 goes to…
A Tribe Called Quest’s final LP, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. The definition of a bittersweet album (as much as I love to use that word), Q Tip and the gang are back 18 years since The Love Movement, bar a posthumous return by key MC Phife Dawg, but nonetheless a testament to the group members’ endurance and ability to create under any circumstance. Hell, it was started right after their interview with Jimmy Fallon and the terrorist attacks not that long after in Paris, and released a year to the day throughout the emotional turmoil of Phife’s passing. But what I love about this album is that not only is it a heartwarming and celebratory ending album, they continue throughout the record to show they are modern, as if they were formed a few years ago.
The verse placement and the structure of the album are well done, utilizing a variety of features from rap antiquity and modernity, such as Kendrick, .Paak, Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes and others, and music icons such as Jack White and Elton John to build the audible infrastructure for each message and track, it consistently feels roaring, lively and intriguing. Q-Tip, Jarobi and Phife all bounce off each other like a ballroom blitz, flowing through the dense and heavily sample-knit and left field boom bap-esque instrumentals. In 2016, only this group can still be refreshing and boundary pushing yet retain their sense of nostalgia, and their progenitor status as alt-rap and jazz rap pioneers.
Tribe takes on a cornucopia of topics with New York and Patois flavour, such as protesting the monolith that is President Donald Trump and the segregation of Americans that he stands for, Phife Dawg’s passing, the new generation of “instinctual soul” - inheritors of Tribe’s legacy, ego, their youth, and more. Their diversity of topics throughout the tracklist reads as almost a checklist of things to address before they send off on their careers, arousing a tinge of sadness as the album progresses, but a celebration nonetheless of the modern genre that they were in part creators of.
Other than these points, I honestly do not have much else to say about this record. It was amazing when the article on Rolling Stone or something like that posted the article that Kendrick, Paak, Jack White, Andre 3000 and Elton John would be on it, and the chat flipped out when I shared it lol, no one believed me at all until the record came out. I had a rush from start to end, there was never a dull moment, and I can honestly see this record being another classic with Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders in their discography.
(2) Anderson .Paak - Malibu
I remember when Anderson .Paak was a feature on 3 tracks and was a lead producer on San Francisco poet and rapper Watsky's 3rd studio album, All You Can Do. It's been roughly 2 years since then, and .Paak has garnered the support and worked with Dr. Dre, Knxwledge, Q and the rest of TDE, he has been given the title of XXL Freshman and nominated for a Grammy, and as of recent, apparently is working with Pharrell. For someone with this amount of growth in such a short amount of time, there must be something propelling him to all this recognition and praise.
Your answer is this album. Well, for the most part, there are other factors but this is the main reason. .Paak finally finds his soulful west coast R&B style on Malibu after years of experimentation in the search for sonic identity, notably seen on his debut Venice. This record is true to .Paak at the core, his character and mentality clearly displayed across the 16 tracks, and relays his lessons that he has learned in the struggle to this point (if you haven’t read up on .Paak’s story I recommend you do, very interesting and gives a lot of context). The Season/Carry Me is the most personal track here, my favourite lines being:
How did you find me here?
It must be perfect timing (Forever grateful)
If I didn’t love you then I damn sure love you now (Fruit of your labor)
According to .Paak, “Reaping the benefits of the fruit of your labor, planting those seeds two to five years prior and then seeing them actually blossom into a tree—or into a strawberry, if you will—my mom did that. She invested in herself and started a produce company, and it didn’t crack off until later. When it did crack off, she reaped some heavy benefits and I wanted to put that into a song. I saw how that paralleled with my artistry and life. She was always adamant about hard work paying off.” .Paak uses quite literal and personal metaphors to tell a life philosophy of working hard and it will pay hard. .Paak has sure been living up to his words these last few years, and it’s been paying off in droves. However .Paak doesn’t remain stern on making this an album a huge PSA, he also has lighter cuts such as Heart Don’t Stand A Chance, Am I Wrong, Room in Here, and Silicon Valley to name a few smooth, seducing woo anthems.
Meaning aside, the more concrete aspects of the album - the execution is done masterfully. The variety of production that compliments his naturally smooth voice is astounding. Live instrumentations of pianos, tambourines, drums, trumpets and other brass instruments, and electric guitars mesh with neo R&B lush production effects to make this album feel both modern and a faithful devotion to old school soul and made from scratch, as .Paak does the drumwork, some production and the singing himself. The host of production work from Madlib, Kaytranada, Like of Pac Div, 9th Wonder, POMO, DJ Khalil and more brings diversity to a seemingly long album, keeping it seasoned and ear grabbing throughout. .Paak’s singing wonderfully matches the vibrant production, even adding to it’s effect as a choir like feel when he doubles his vocals. His half singing/rapping keeps the songs interesting as he switches invariably in between his rapping and his singing.
Malibu was a great fucking album regardless of circlejerk and one of my biggest go to’s when I have nothing to play. It makes me feel positive about the world and my life, and obviously dance my ass off.
(1) Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
To quote the prophetic BigQuint ---
"This is insanity."
Danny Brown's left field and unexpected turn into an experimental, drug-hazed sonic purgatory manifested into a musical format of 46 minutes, Atrocity Exhibition, is my favourite album this year. On this album, he explores not just the high of drug and alcohol abuse - but the demonizing, soul crushing downward spiral after all the good times fade, losing control of himself and his mind, facing death from overdose. The dark side of drug and alcohol abuse. He warns of his experiences with these struggles at the end as a cautionary tale, that this the effect that intense substance abuse has on your life. The whole album reminds me of Die Like a Rockstar, except he is telling his experience being subject to becoming one of the many stars that come and go mentioned on the track.
For one the production, courtesy of largely Paul White and Alchemist, is absolutely fucking nuts. It's almost inconceivable for anyone to rap over if it was anyone other than Danny. From odd screeches of guitars on Golddust and Lost, to the revving horns on Ain’t It Funny, to the rain sticks and tribal dance sounds on Dance In The Water, to the crashing metallic drum sounds on Pneumonia, the production never loses it's eccentric and electric, zany feel. The production honestly gives me second hand loopiness, it makes me want to lose it.
Danny's idiosyncratic voice, flow, cadence and personality has always been a mainstay in his music, however Atrocity Exhibition might be Danny's best work to showcase this, rivaling the great XXX. Danny's willingness to tackle a sonic switch up at this scale is a ballsy move, yet it feels like this really shows his distinctive personality as an odd character and an innovative persona in rap. Not only is he challenging these verbose, reality twisting beats, he is matching the level of character and sheer energy of them. For most rappers, the production would drown their verses. Taking influences across the board including Joy Division, System of a Down and Curb Your Enthusiasm apparently, Atrocity Exhibition comes from a truer place in Danny than the chart friendly Old
No space is wasted to express a feeling or idea on Atrocity Exhibition --- All of the features, though scarce on this project, contribute vitally to the album; from Petite Noir's chilling, death hallowing vocals on Rolling Stone to B-Real's humorous and bittersweet addition to Get Hi, to the relentless cypher from Kenny Lam Lams, Early Sweat and Soulo Ho3 on Really Doe.
Overall, Atrocity Exhibition is amazing to me in every aspect of it - the production, lyrics, flows, wordplay, features, the theme, and the meaning of this album in the context of Danny and the genre of hip-hop. By giving the #1 to any other album even on this list for how outside the box and creative this album is (which is I think one of my greatest appeals to certain types of music, how original it is). Fuck this album is so good, my dad even likes it.