Staff Picks: William E. Ketchum III's Best Albums of 2016
Mumble rap surely made its mark over the last 12 months with the ascension of acts like Young Thug and Desiigner, but the real story of 2016 is protest music. This year, more than any in recent memory, saw hip-hop fearlessly stepping up to the plate to represent what's happening in the real world. Whether it's Chance's joyous gospel, Common and A Tribe Called Quest’s weathered readiness, or YG’s anti-Donald Trump anthem, hip-hop rediscovered its power. The year also saw the Chicago become the new hotspot of brilliant black music, the emergence of TDE as rap’s best crew, and Solange making music fans wonder which Knowles sister had the better album. Read below for my top 16 albums of the year.
1. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
Much has been said about how Chance The Rapper was an ultralight beam in a year that was defined by loss, tragedy and despair. But while a lot of music pursues happiness with an escapism detached from reality, Chance delivers through community and the belief in people’s ability to create a better world. To do so is an exercise in faith, so the assortment of gospel chords and choirs fall right in line with Chance’s exuberant singing and rapping. As a new father, the lyrical themes are manifestation, camaraderie, and joy. By eschewing record labels and inspiring the Recording Academy to change its rules for the Grammy Awards, Chance is embodying the transformation he wants to see, and building up other young people to believe that they can do the same.
2. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service
A Tribe Called Quest experienced loss with the tragic death of founding member Phife Dawg, but they blessed their fans with a gift: the first Tribe album in 18 years. Q-Tip’s production gives the group a fuller, modernized realization of their stripped jazz/soul loops from the 90s. And the rappers - Q-Tip, Phife, a returned Jarobi, Phife, extended family Busta Rhymes and Consequence - all lend inventive flows and lyrics that pack sentiment and sadness without ever fully succumbing to them. They address loss and tragedy with a comforting composure and familiarity that’s almost difficult to believe, but Phife wouldn’t have had it any other way. Young’n’s like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak are handed the torch through strong cameos, and the vets lead by example.
3. Common - Black America Again
In a 2015 appearance on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, many of Common’s fans thought he had gone Hollywood when he passively offered an olive branch to people who perpetuated racism. But on his 11th studio album Black America Again, he reestablishes his role as one of hip-hop’s strongest voices with the urgency required for such times. Common angrily calls out racism while refusing to spare the feelings of thin-skinned audiences, defiantly celebrates his own blackness, and shows appreciation for black women in the process. Production and cameos from Karriem Riggins, Robert Glasper, Stevie Wonder, and Bilal marinate his rhymes with the full-bodied soul they deserve. It’s exactly what great protest music does: acknowledge pain, extract pride from survival, and encourage to keep pushing forward.
4. YG - Still Brazy
In 2014, YG’s breakthrough album My Krazy Life was so well received that fans protested when he wasn't nominated for a Grammy Award. But a lot has happened since then: he fell out with production partner DJ Mustard, and he barely survived a shooting attempt on his life. Meanwhile, police brutality against young people of color continues to intensify around the country. YG wisely compacts that all into Still Brazy: a tense, G-funk-fueled meditation on “paranoia down in killer California,” as he says on the title track. Don’t let the sun, palm trees and funky Terrace Martin production distract you. Between his would-be assailant, leechy folks from his hood, rival bangers and racist police and politicians, YG feels like the world is out to get him. “And they wonder why I live life looking over my shoulder,” he grumbles at the end of album closer “Police Get Away With Murder.” It’s tough to blame him for such sentiments.
5. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
Danny Brown’s last album Old was neatly sectioned into two halves, beginning with a set of gloomy tales of violence and despair before ending with druggy, EDM-fueled party anthems. Atrocity Exhibition does less compartmentalizing. Here, he’s wearing his depression on his sleeve and crying out for help, feeling like a freak show when fans glamorize the drugs and rock star lifestyle he uses to self-medicate. The emotion itself is palpable, but it helps that Danny Brown can literally rap over anything. Producer Paul White pushes him to his limits with an adventurous assortment of punk, techno, and backdrops that are just as diverse as Danny’s musical tastes and vocal tics. Seriously, name three other rappers who can rhyme over “Ain’t It Funny.” I’ll wait.
6. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
With his antics in interviews, on stage and social media, Kanye West has always been seen as a tortured artist for as long as many of his fans can remember. With a 2026 that seesawed between his epic Madison Square Garden fashion show/listening party, hospital time and an endorsement of Donald Trump, The Life Of Pablo captures his year of messiness. Ideas are abandoned and transformed as quickly as they’re blossomed. Songs are added and tweaked post-release with the same obsession that goes into his stage productions and fashion endeavors. Every featured act - Chris Brown’s singing on “Waves,” Chance’s spirit-catching rhymes on “Ultra Light Beam,” Rihanna’s dancehall vocals on “Famous” - is tuned to the best of their potential. And lyrically, Kanye, meanwhile, leaps between spiritual, hedonistic, and reflective; from gospel, to trap, to traditionalist hip-hop; all at the drop of a dime. It’s not cohesive, but the ride is worth it.
7. ScHoolboy Q - Blank Face LP
For his latest album, ScHoolboy Q looked back and pushed forward all at once. He brazenly takes himself back to his days as a Hoover Gang Crip on songs like “John Muir” and “TorcH,” tooling up and riding on enemies at the city’s MLK Day parade. But he also takes on some of his most inventive sounds and flows yet, experimenting with jazzy, bluesy vocals and production on “Kno Ya Wrong” and “Blank Face.” The record also helped kick off one of TDE’s most productive years to date, further proving that K. Dot isn’t the only member of the squad who is leaps and bounds above the competition.
8. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered
Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, good kid mAAd city and To Pimp A Butterfly appeared to be records that were deliberately planned and assembled to tell a larger story; so untitled unmastered, a collection of incomplete songs that didn’t make the cut of TPAB, seemed a bit out of his comfort zone. But that’s what makes it so great: hearing Kendrick’s unfinished thoughts and jokes with his bandmates makes listeners feel like they’re spying through a cracked door, watching the generation’s next great musician at work.
9. Travis Scott - Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight
Travis Scott built a cult following with the murky, operatic trap sounds he built for his own works and for clients like Kanye West and Jay Z. With Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, he continues to expand on that sound while trimming the fat that held it back. Songs are still dense and elaborate, but they aren’t overproduced. And at a slim 14 tracks that gets better in its second half, it’s not as bloated as its solid predecessor. Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Quavo, 21 Savage and others lend rhymes that make up for Travis’ lack of lyrical proficiency, and even Travis has improved enough to excuse the shortcomings.
10. Jamila Woods - HEAVN
Chicago blossomed as the new hotspot for powerful black music in 2016; and even though Jamila Woods’ HEAVN flew under the radar for some, it’s still one of the year’s best. Woods does justice to the lives lost in her city by pointing out the conditions that killed them, and showing herself the love that all her fallen brothers and sisters deserved. She doesn’t have the unbridled joy of her comrade Chance The Rapper, but her optimism, relentless love, and soothing voice are just as therapeutic.
11. Noname - Telefone
After shining in guest appearances with fellow Chicagoans like Chance The Rapper and Mick Jenkins, Noname showed the power of her own voice with Telefone. Her debut mixtape earnestly conveys the innocence of youth through topics like early love, admits the difficulties of battling doubt and low self-esteem, and grapples with the constant death plaguing her city. Its strength lies in its vulnerability: whether she’s talking to potential lovers, deceased loved ones, a child lost in an abortion, or even herself, Noname is always talking directly with someone. It’s a level of intimacy that’s frankly tough to find in relationships, much less in music.
12. Pusha T - Darkest Before Dawn
Pusha T has stayed visible in 2016 with selective stabs like the Drake-smearing “HGTV Freestyle” and the Jay Z-featured “Drug Dealers Anonymous.” But his last album Darkest Before Dawn dropped last December 2015 after most 2015 year-end lists were published, and it has continued spins despite a well-rounded 12 months of rap. King Push enlisted Diddy’s executive producer guidance for a set of ten sparse, cavernous productions that amplified his signature snarl. There’s plenty of coke rap, and even a song about police brutality; but what resonates is Pusha’s bar-for-bar precision while rebelling against an industry of fakes and featherweights. “All I see is victims,” he scowls in disgust on “Crutches Crosses Caskets.” In all fairness, it’s tough to look like anything but a victim while compared to one of the game’s best.
13. Kaytranada - 99.9%
After building his Soundcloud catalog with a series of sought-after remixes, EPs and mixtapes, Canadian producer Kaytranada delivered the goods in full with his debut album 99.9%. He brings a diverse palette of sounds with soul, funk, R&B, and dance, but he skillfully infuses pop sensibilities and buoyant drums into just about every production, making the songs dancefloor-ready and easy to go down. It helps that that he has an all-star roster of guests - Phonte, Syd, Little Dragon, and Anderson .Paak, to name a few - who are used over sounds that coincide with their skill sets. With Kaytranada’s history as a DJ, this album plays smoothly as a set all on its own, but there are plenty of highlights that will also stay on repeat.
14. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
With his appearances on 2015’s Compton, Anderson .Paak helped reaffirm Dr. Dre’s legacy. But through two of the year’s best releases, the singer/songwriter is telling his own story. The stellar Malibu sees him branching off from the sound that blossomed on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, enlisting producers like Kaytranada, 9th Wonder and Madlib to flesh out a diverse set of soul, hip-hop, R&B and trap. His voice and lyrics are just as versatile: an unmistakable melodic rasp that autobiographical rhymes about a gambling mother, an incarcerated father, and heartbreak. He also took over the summer’s festival circuit with his band The Nationals. He solidified his year with the stellar NxWorries project with produced Knxwledge, but Anderson .Paak had this year wrapped up months ago.
15. Solange - A Seat At The Table
Solange has dedicated much of her career to experimentation and self discovery, trying out different sounds while writing songs for herself and her sister Beyoncé. Her talent has always been clear, but A Seat At The Table finally finds her pocket. On her latest, Solange talks black womanhood as candidly as we've seen any artist do in 2016. That includes expressing grief, fear and frustration while navigating issues of setting boundaries and dealing with constantly being misunderstood; but it also consists of sharing bits of her own family history in Louisiana. Raphael Saadiq co-produces, giving the record a lush, soulful sound with the tender grace black women somehow maintain in the face of such adversity. Bey has become the main source behind culturally significant moments these days, but with A Seat At The Table, Solange has taken the temperature and spurred a moment that's powerful in its own way.
16. Beyoncé - Lemonade
As the industry's top pop star, Beyoncé’s strength has long been rooted in a balance between precision and authenticity. Her visual album Lemonade took over 2016 with that same arsenal, combining music, poetry, and film to show a journey of hurt, self-digging and empowerment and grappling with the betrayal of a man she loved. The rumors around her own marriage, tied in with the vivid recounts of abused faith that many can relate to, made it a unifying force for women itself. Add in Bey’s cohesive, assured navigation of country, hip-hop, rock and R&B, and it's clear why she's the queen.