- Boosie Badazz – Mann
Young Thug is still the best rapper breathing but Boosie owned 2016 for me and that’s not just because he gave me a pound on the DFW airport tram wearing pink socks. After stirring some mainstream attention in 2015 when he got out of jail while simultaneously releasing some of his weakest material to date, multiple personal tragedies struck late last year to reawaken Boosie’s deepest talents and push them to the heights we witnessed in 2016. Boosie has long been on my Top 5 Rappers with the Most Conviction, but 2016 might put him at #1. So many have spoken nearly identical words, but with Boosie you believe him; and by that I don’t mean the literal content of the sentences, but the emotional force behind them. Only a fool would believe the literal truth of every word any rapper says, but let me at least believe that you really feel the way you’re claiming, and not just selecting an emotion or message you think will make people think you’re deep or smart or relevant or scary or whatever image you’re going for. When you hear a Boosie song from 2016, you know that each time he stepped into the booth he made the only song that he could have possibly made at that moment. So many rap songs sound like the result of board room conversations or long ponderings about what kind of song would be relevant at this moment in the cultural zeitgeist (e.g. every Kanye West song). With Boosie you’re getting the rawest, most pure expression of his perfectly flawed self at every moment, and that is a rare gift to receive as a listener. Everyone wants you to believe that 2016 was terrible (and this song is in fact a great soundtrack to that sentiment), but for me it will forever be the year I proposed to the woman I love and gave Boosie a pound on the DFW airport tram.
- Young Thug – King TROUP
While “Harambe” stood out out as perhaps the most marked development of Thug’s style this year, my favorite version of Young Thug right now (there are so many…) is the delicate, restrained version. Maybe I’m just always one step behind his movements; last year I thought Barter 6 was boring on first listen and wanted the wild, unpredictable Thug back, now he breaks his voice screaming an entire song at me and all I want is whispers and syncopated empty space.
- Spodee – Black & Flashing
It was almost as hard to pick a Spodee song for this list as it was to pick a Young Thug song for this list, his music touched me in so many different ways on different songs that it’s hard to say what the “best” was. In situations like these I let the song that makes my body do the most interesting things break the tie, which is how we get “King TROUP” and “Black & Flashing“.
- Denzel Curry – Purrposely
Now that Percocet, Xanax, & MDMA are the dominant rap drugs it’s rare to get such raw aggression from today’s artists like Denzel achieves here. Boosie of course also achieved it with “Finish U” but he is the exception to every rule.
- Kodak Black – Slayed (feat. Boosie Badazz)
Kodak Black wins Best Pronunciation of 2016. The dropped consonants and captivating “ur” syllable repetition throughout his verse on “Slayed” are enough to keep my interest alone, but there’s so much more to this mournful track than this, and the mixtape that contains this gem is easily Kodak’s strongest project to date.
- Lil’ Wayne guest spots
Sometimes you give up on artists only to have them nonchalantly waltz back into your life with an impossibly turned-around trajectory and revitalization. Wayne did this for me in 2016 but puzzlingly only in his features, most notably “I Got A Question“, “Mad“, and “Bout That“.
- Tree – Heard Nothing
We already know Tree had the non-rhyming chorus of the year on “All Dat“, but “Heard Nothing” is actually the best song on that project. It’s easy to think of Tree as an artist with a single signature style that is just as deep, personal, and sincere as it is predictable (we’re still pretending like Trap Genius never happened, remember). But “Heard Nothing” truly breaks new stylistic ground for Tree and I’m glad to hear him still experimenting with new flows and approaches to songs. The almost mumbling, trailing off, crossing-the-bar complexity of phrase in this song is a far cry from the “I’m a better gangster than my father was…” one-liner style we’re accustomed to, and even though I could listen to infinite iterations of Tree rehashing his Sunday School flow for eternity, development and growth are certainly refreshing as well.
- Future – In Abundance
The first few months of 2016 saw an abundance (see what I did there?) of Future releases but this loosie moved me more than anything on those mixtapes/albums/EPs/whatever they’re called now. You might think of this as Future’s “King TROUP“, which is probably why I love it – constant delicate whispered syncopation.
- D.R.A.M. – Broccoli (feat. Lil’ Yachty)
This song is way higher on the list than it should be but I just realized we’re almost 10 songs in and every track has been pretty heavy on the dark, sad, lonely, angry spectrum so here’s a beautifully fun happy song to vibe to for a few minutes before I make you listen to another song about death and loss.
- Chance the Rapper – Summer Friends (feat. Jeremih & Francis & the Lights)
Y’all already know how I feel about Coloring Book, but even I can’t deny the beauty of this track. Not only is it the only understated moment on that whole album, but it finally pairs Chance & Jeremih on the same song, something I’ve been wishing for since I first heard “Oui” and saw some parallel stylistic leanings. The only way to improve this track would be to increase the Jeremih ratio by a factor of at least 3; matter of fact they should have kicked whoever Francis & the Lights is off the track completely and let Jeremih do all the singing.
- Zeroh – clock
Zeroh makes rap music that’s actually as crazy as Desiigner and Danny Brown want you to think their music is.
- YG – Who Shot Me?
A lot of the best music this year was the result of tragedy and pain. Tree almost lost his mom, Boosie got cancer, and YG got shot under circumstances that made him call into question the loyalty of those closest to him. I’m not thankful for any of these events but I admire these artists’ ability to transform these tragic moments into captivating, timely pieces of music for us lucky listeners.
- Ty Dolla $ign – What Are We Doing?
A rare & welcome moment of honest introspection from Ty. This song is tied with “No Justice” but wins out on the list because “No Justice” is arguably not even a rap song.
- Fetty Wap & PNB Rock – Addicted
This mixtape was unexpected in so many ways, from the odd artist pairing to its surprising replayability. PNB came into my awareness via “Too Many Years“, and we all know how Fetty Wap was introduced, but nothing about these artists histories or styles warned me that they’d come together to make this weirdly enjoyable mixtape that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. What each of these rapper/singers lack in raw talent they more than make up for in chemistry on the best moments of Money, Hos & Flows, and that chemistry is best exemplified on the opening track where they calmly trade fours over an unassuming IBeatz production, somehow able to constantly hold my attention through three and a half minutes of pretty middling rap.
- Cousin Fik – Learn Sumn (feat. K00l John)
Glad to see punchline rap alive and well in the bay thanks to Fik. Sickest Nigga Healthy 3 is worth your time.
- Ezale & DJ Fresh
See I like happy rap songs too!
- Nef the Pharaoh – Michael Jackson
We’re getting into more stream-of-consciousness selection than song ranking at this point, I’m just gonna go ahead and knock out all the 2016 Bay Area jams now. I think this song actually came out in late 2015 but it’s the best track on the 2016 Cardo/Nef tape so it gets a pass. “Say Daat” is good too.
- Mistah F.A.B. – Up Until Then (feat. Boosie Badazz & Iamsu!)
Son of a Pimp, Pt. 2 turned out to be pretty disappointing but this track still jams. I hope someday Iamsu! starts having fun making music again, sometime around 2013 we went this weird serious/aloof direction and his music has only suffered as a result. This at least has a glimmer of that former lightheartedness, with strong verses from F.A.B. and Boosie.
- E-40 – Slappin’ (feat. Nef the Pharoah and D.R.A.M.)
Before “Broccoli” captured everyone’s hearts and attention, this banger was in heavy rotation in my world, and still gets frequent revisits. E-40 has a similar effect on Nef that Birdman had on Wayne in Like Father, Like Son – Nef checks his ego just enough to focus on rapping well instead of the kind of self-indulgent wanderings we’ve seen on some of his recent releases. D.R.A.M. is also great on this song, pulling off a chorus only he could.
- Lil’ Durk – Check
Last year two artists clicked for me after years of being unable to appreciate their music – Jeezy & Lil’ Durk. I’m still not sure if their styles changed or my brain did (maybe both), but I’m happy I have two more active rappers whose releases I can be excited about. Durk 2x is awesome, and “Check” is easily one of the best album openers of 2016.
- Jeezy – Goldmine
Trap or Die 3 wasn’t quite as strong as last year’s eye-opening Gangsta Party but there’s still plenty to vibe to on this tape – see “Bout That” on #6 above.
- 9% Camp – Shit Right
Gotta give these cats props for going in hard on a 6/8 beat like it’s nothing.
- Jeremih – Giv No Fuks (feat. Migos)
I know this came out in late 2015 and Jeremih is not a rapper, but this is a rap song and none of us had time to fully process Late Nights: The Album before this year, so it deserves its place on this list.
- Nipsey Hussle – Basic Instinct
Slauson Boy 2 is great, and this song feels like if you boiled that whole mixtape down into its most potent extract and then dripped a droplet of it onto each eyeball.
- Ka – Mourn at Night
Honor Killed the Samurai wasn’t a huge step forward for Ka or anything, but was still one of the albums I listened to the most this year. This is an especially swirly one that contrasts beautifully with Ka’s stone cold delivery.
- Starlito – Greatness
Now that his friend Red Dot is out of jail, Starlito will definitely have to come up with some more album, shout-out, and song title sources, and I wonder if it might even shift his whole creative direction in some way with how heavy that message has been in the past few years. Maybe that’s how we got Starlito rapping over a hopeful Jazzy Pha beat and not talking about depression every few bars.
- Justiiice – Running in Circles
I’m pumped that my Justiiice pick for this year is still on Soundcloud to post after having my 2015 pick disappear from the Internet before I could pay it homage. Anyone still doubting Chief Keef’s influence on today’s rap or auto-tune’s emotive power should study this song thoroughly.
- Vince Staples – Big Time
“Little Bit of This“ had a cool video but I think “Big Time” is the best Vince Staples song this year.
- ScHoolboy Q – By Any Means (Part 1)
How “That Part” became as huge as it did this year will forever be a mystery to me, but this track might actually be my favorite ScHoolboy Q song ever (which isn’t saying much because I don’t actually like him but one of my favorite things is when an artist I don’t like makes a song I do like so enjoy). Parts 2 & 3 ain’t bad either.
- Danny Brown – Lost (as of this writing, the only YoutTube link for this is actually weird instrumental funk song that has nothing to do with “Lost“, so this is the only link to a paid streaming service, sorry for it)
Maybe it just needs a little more time to grow on me, but Danny Brown’s Warp debut didn’t quite rub me the right way. Unlike the best moments of XXX and Old, Atrocity Exhibition shows Danny Brown at his least synergistic with the production he’s choosing. Most of the raps don’t feel like they were written or even chosen for the beat they’re on, and as a result the rhythm and cadence of the individual lines don’t interlock very well with the rhythm and cadence of the music. It sounds disjointed and sloppy and not in the good ways that Danny Brown can sound disjointed and sloppy. The off-kilter production serves to highlight not Danny’s weirdness or individuality, but rather exposes his rap style as being surprisingly basic. The dominant aesthetic is warbly unquantized sample with disconnected single couplets in a weird voice. There are a lot of cool textures and gestures throughout, but “Lost” is one of the only tracks that feels cohesive in the way I know Danny Brown can be; and by that I mean cohesive within a single song, the album as a whole is quite cohesive.
- Curren$y – Told Me That
I’ll admit I haven’t paid much attention to Curren$y since he left Young Money and the best parts of his rap style behind back in ’07 or whenever that was. Luckily I try to listen to everything Starlito puts out so I happened to catch this moment where a glimmer of Curren$y’s former A game peeked out from the darkness. For the first time since the “Ridin’ with the AK” era we hear Curren$y making the words fit the groove instead of the other way around. This is when Curren$y sounds his best, putting just the right syllables on the right places in the bar, and emphasizing just the right moments to pull you into the flow of the beat even more strongly than before. Now that I know he’s still capable of this, it makes me wonder if these gems are sprinkled through his whole back catalog just under the surface. Anybody know whether or not that’s the case so I don’t have to spend the next month listening to a bunch of weak ass Curren$y songs?
- Lil’ B – Finess ‘Em
Now more than ever we need to remember that Lil’ B exists and take his music to heart.
- Mozzy – Messy Murder Scenes
Rap game Energizer bunny on this one.
- Ralo – My Brothers (feat. Future)
I’ll admit a lot of the driving force of this track comes from Southside and Future, but Ralo holds his own on this uncharacteristically upbeat track, and is definitely an easier listen than most of the other tracks on Diary of the Streets 2. It’s possible that my ear just hasn’t quite adjusted to Ralo’s usual voice and delivery, but I find that I enjoy his songs most when he’s got a little bit of staccato mixed in with the constant dragged-out lilt of his crazy ass voice. I’ve got faith he’ll catch his stride and hone his sound, or that I’ll come to realize he’s been great all along and just couldn’t hear it.
- Earl Sweatshirt – Mirror
Earl stays comfortably in his own lane with this one, relying on the strength of his lyrics and delivery to keep you engaged with this wildly gritty production. I’m absolutely in favor of this kind of under-produced basement rap, as long as it has the urgency and vibrancy Earl exhibits on songs like “Mirror“.
- Tate Kobang – Oh My
Also in favor of the stripped-down physicality of songs like “Oh My“, it’s a nice break from the hazy somberness and detachment of so much of today’s rap.
- Butch Dawson – Ain’t No Limit I Go
This song does a great job of never giving you quite what you want but in a very endearing way, like an older brother holding a piece of candy just out of your reach with a big grin on his face but you know he loves you.
- Noname – Sunny Duet (feat. theMIND)
I haven’t heard a female rapper be this playful and lyrical at the same time since Ladybug Mecca and its wonderful to hear.
- DJ Carnage – Mase in ’97 (feat. Lil’ Yachty)
Here’s a pretty serious rap conundrum – Yachty spitting “hella bars” on a song named after a 90s rapper [scratching chin emoji].
- Z-Ro – New Shit
Ro keeps it almost too real on this one with the “I don’t do this for y’all” line but by now we should be used to Z-Ro’s keeping it a little too real.
These next 5 I’m still on the fence about
- Aminé – Caroline
It’s hard to say exactly what’s holding me back on this one, I just have this feeling my future self will find my current self naive for thinking this was cool. I should probably just enjoy it for the fun song it is, but I can’t shake that sinking feeling…
- 21 Savage – No Heart
I’ve listened to Metro Savage or whatever that album is called a few times now and I sorta get it I think but I just don’t yet feel like it achieves what so many people think it has. I see what he’s going for, but it doesn’t feel to me like he actually got there. Might just take a few more listens.
- Kevin Gates – Really, Really
I like Kevin Gates a lot but I’m never actually in the mood to listen to his music.
- Gucci Mane – Dirty Lil’ Nigga
Gucci is a legend and I’m glad he’s fit and out of jail and has shiny teeth and everything but every song I heard from him this year just didn’t quite hit home for me. I like a lot of things about a lot of it, and this one’s probably my favorite, but it’s still a little lackluster compared to what I know he’s capable of.
- Brodinski’s collaborations (Dead People, Get Me Some More, Big Dawg, etc.)
Feel kinda the same way about these as I do about “Caroline“. I can’t deny the immediate physical response I get from these songs but something feels suspicious about it. I feel like I’m almost being catered to too much, and it leaves me wondering about the hidden agenda there, or worse what better music might I be missing?
Best from other people’s lists:
- The Team – Can I (RAP MUSIC HYSTERIA!)
It’s embarassing but also beautiful that this video was shot 4 blocks from where I live but it took a blogger in Florida posting it for me to find out about it.
- Smino – Zoom (Noz)
This dude is pushing into Zeroh territory as far as actually-crazy-sounding rap music and not “look how crazy I am” rap music.
- NBA Youngboy – 38 Baby (The Martorialist)
I saw this video when it came out and loved it but then forgot who it was or where I saw it posted or anything about the dude’s name or where he’s from so it slipped through my fingers in the moment. Luckily it popped up on a few of these lists this year so I could rediscover it and share.
- WNC Carlos, JMM Larry, & SOG Sherwood Flame – Cross Me (So Many Shrimp)
Rap can do relentless like few other genres can (see “Messy Murder Scenes” above and “Gas Chamber” below) and this is an especially fun version of it.
- DB tha General – Gas Chamber (RAP MUSIC HYSTERIA!)
Speaks for itself.