Today, we are witnessing a golden age of hip hop. Hip hop dominates the top charts, music awards, and pop culture. More importantly, it now encapsulates a wider range of styles.
2016 and 2017 saw the emergence of SoundCloud rap. Underground rappers from all over the United States became internet sensations and blew up for their unique music which seemed to break down boundaries between music genres. These artists’ styles are eclectic, borrowing heavily from electronic dance music, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and rap, and throwing bits of all of these genres into one song. Hip hop progressives have embraced this new wave of experimentation and expansion, while others call it a disgrace.
We see the marriage of rock and rap, with rappers like Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti insisting on being called rock stars, dressing up in tight leather jackets, and hosting performances with mosh pits reminiscent of rock and roll concerts. On hit song “Rockstar,” Post Malone and 21 Savage echo Uzi and Carti as they celebrate the lavish and eccentric lifestyle of hip hop today, saying, “Man I feel just like a rockstar.”
This new age of hip hop is also more open to talking about what was once taboo in the genre. Suicide, depression, addiction, and mental health issues are becoming more commonplace in rap lyrics. And, while hip hop still harbors hostility toward LGBT+ artists — Quavo from Migos said it was a “shame” for artist Makonnen to come out as gay because he loses his credibility — the genre is far more accepting than it once was.
1) “DAMN.” – Kendrick Lamar
On “DAMN.” we enter Kendrick’s world in Compton, where he reminisces about life’s sins and virtues and defends the throne. Kendrick displays his storytelling ability, clever rhymes, introspective lyrics, and killer attitude towards all who oppose him. According to a confirmed theory, the album can also be played in reverse to reveal new meaning.
He is in his element with his classic fast-rap style on “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” and explores a more melodic flow over slower beats in “PRIDE.” and “LOVE.” On “ELEMENT.” Kendrick shows us just how important rap and his Compton roots are to him. On “XXX.” Kendrick includes a surprising U2 feature, and reflects on the problems facing the nation: “Donald Trump’s in office, we lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again, But is American honest, or do we bask in sin?”
“PRIDE” is cast with a hazy mood. With a dreamy voice he sings, “Race barriers make inferior of you and I. See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches… I’ll make schools out of prison, I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service.”
Kendrick has mastered the ability to construct a complete project full of depth, introspection, and catchy and interesting flows throughout. The album is a great listen from front to back, or back to front, and represents one of the few manifestations of “pure” hip hop today.
Best tracks: HUMBLE., ELEMENT., GOD., DNA., and LOVE.
2) “Ctrl” – SZA
When listening to “Ctrl,” you feel like SZA understands you. Drawing from indie rock, SZA reflects on past relationships, wishes for a real emotional connection, and fears that she does not fit the male-centric ideals for a woman. On “Drew Barrymore,” she sings, “I’m sorry I’m not more attractive, I’m not more ladylike, I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night.”
On “The Weekend,” SZA takes on the perspective of the “other woman,” who only gets to see her man on the weekends. “My man is my man is your man heard it’s her man too,” SZA sings nonchalantly about her situation while leaving traces of underlying sadness and insecurity. She doesn’t hide from the polygamous rules that she sets for herself.
She highlights the contradictions of women, promoting their confidence and empowerment on “Doves in the Wind,” while also admitting her own desperation for love, fear of being alone, and insecurity under the scrutiny of men. SZA conveys that nothing is clear-cut — you can feel empowered by your feminity and also struggle to be alone.
Best tracks: “Supermodel”, “Drew Barrymore,” “The Weekend,” and “Love Galore”
3) “Flowerboy” – Tyler, the Creator
Before “Flowerboy,” Tyler’s music was purely radical. Eating cockroaches, taking on his alter-ego Wolf Haley, and unapologetically yelling controversial, sometimes homophobic, slurs was part of his style and definitely gave him a distinct reputation. On “Flowerboy,” however, Tyler exposes us to his delicate, more vulnerable side.
He hasn’t lost his recklessness but shows us that there is more to him than what past albums “Goblin,” “Wolf,” and “Cherry Bomb” suggest. On “Garden Shed,” Tyler uses an extended metaphor to describe being “in the closet.”
He raps honestly about his sexuality: “Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase, Thought it’d be like the phrase; “poof,” gone. But, it’s still goin’ on.”
He later raps “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004” on “I Ain’t Got Time!”
His beats span from classical notes on the violin to horror movie soundtracks to slow jazz. He is raw and real throughout the album, making strides in the rap community’s acceptance of LGBT+ artists. He explores dreams, friendships, growth, and infatuation, sharing his perspective of a young person just trying to figure out who he is.
Best tracks: “See You Again,” “Boredom,” and “Where This Flower Blooms”
4) “Luv is Rage 2”- Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi Vert’s debut album showcases some of the best work of his highly successful career thus far. What his songs lack in substance, they make up for in rhythm and production. Uzi sounds energetic on songs like “Sauce It Up” and “Pretty Mami,” and more sentimental on others like “The Way Life Goes,” and “XO Tour Lif3.” Much of his beats are other-worldly, sounding like a spaceship accelerating into the universe.
“Neon Guts” gleams with a colorful and flashy beat. Uzi playfully boasts about his wealth: “Yeah, you never stayed in Kailua. I put Chanel on my shooter… I’m basically saying I’m cooler, get Dior discounts from my cougar, back in the sixth grade I got them bad grades, I was in love with my tutor.”
While most of the tracks feature Uzi bragging about what you don’t have, some songs reveal his emotional struggles and pain after a difficult breakup with Brittany Byrd. He becomes vulnerable on “Feelings Mutual,” when he sings “I can’t feel, my body’s numb, It because I am so hurt.”
“XO Tour Lif3” is without a doubt Lil Uzi Vert’s best song and a contender for best song of the year. Pitchfork calls it a “stretch of masterful songwriting.”
Don’t let the catchy hook and beat distract you from the way Uzi’s lyrics tap into a deeply emotional “vein that had previously been found but never fully pierced.”
Uzi flexes on his rockstar life but does not leave out the pain that follows him no matter how much money he makes. “Luv is Rage 2” confirms his uniqueness and his unwillingness to let haters tame his “out-there” style.
Best tracks: “Sauce It Up,” “Neon Guts,” “XO Tour Lif3” “444+222,” and “The Way Life Goes”
5) “Culture”- Migos
For four years, all Migos were known for was “Versace.” Takeoff, Quavo, and Offset, the two cousins and nephew from Atlanta who make up rap group Migos, were almost extinct from the rap world after their fame was interrupted by Offset’s jail time. In August 2016, “Bad and Boujee” changed Migos’ legacy forever and brought them into hip hop’s spotlight.
With “Bad and Boujee”’s catchy, humorous rhymes, Migos gained viral popularity, their single even hitting number two on the Billboard 100. At the Golden Globe Awards, rapper and comedian Donald Glover called Migos the “Beatles of this generation,” and thanked them for creating the “best song ever.”
“Culture,” their debut album — and first album since their period of inactivity — showed the world that they were not just a one-hit-wonder. Songs like “T-Shirt” and “Slippery” feature engaging hooks and ad-libs that make the songs seem like dynamic conversations between the three members. Culture became the number one album on Billboard and made Migos the exemplary rappers that the new generation looks up to.
Best tracks: “Bad and Boujee,” “T-Shirt,” “Slippery,” and “Get Right Witcha”
6) “Saturation III” – BROCKHAMPTON
In 2015, 15 young men found each other online via a Kanye West fan forum. These rappers, artists, and producers formed BROCKHAMPTON, “the internet’s first boy band.” By naming themselves as a boy band, they are reclaiming what used to be “white boy” territory and making it a place for black, queer rappers.
In the third album of their trilogy “Saturation,” BROCKHAMPTON draw out their purpose and motivations, their members finding their voices in a newfound family unit. They thrive on ridiculing themselves, using derogatory labels, reclaiming these identities and throwing them back in your face. On “JOHNNY,” Joba raps, “I’m a shithead’s son, and I’m bad at growing up.”
On “STUPID,” Kevin Abstract says, “I’m a faggot I say it I scream that shit like I mean it.”
On “JUNKY,” he raps, “Why you always rap about being gay? Cause not enough n****as rap and be gay.”
The members do not rap like most rap groups. They finish each other’s sentences and piggyback on each other’s verses, showing off their effortless chemistry. BROCKHAMPTON celebrates inclusion, creative collaboration, and changing of the norms. They are certainly unconventional, and they are what the rap world needs.
Best tracks: “BLEACH,” “STUPID,” “JUNKY,” and “ZIPPER”
7) “Playboi Carti” – Playboi Carti
As Billboard so perfectly describes, “There’s no precedent for a rapper hitting such heights while rapping so little.”
On Playboi Carti’s first mixtape, less is more. Carti effortlessly raps, stacking syllables and repeating the same phrases over and over. His repetition only makes his songs more catchy, complemented with his signature ad-libs: “Ooh” “What,” and “Yah.” His main producer Pierre is able to turn Carti’s playful mumble rap into amazing music with the beats he crafts up.
Best tracks: “Magnolia,” “wokeuplikethis*,” “Flex,” “dothatshit!,” and “Kelly K”
8) “Without Warning” – 21 Savage, Offset, and Metro Boomin
Metro Boomin teams up with two of hip hop’s rising stars to deliver ten hard-hitting trap-rap tracks with frightening beats. The album’s Halloween release is fitting with its gloomy theme of murder and terror. Unsettling screams, sounds of wind blowing, and eerie beats serve as the backdrop to Offset and 21 Savage’s verses. Offset gets the chance to show off his individual skillset without the support of other Migos members. 21 Savage sounds like a “gleeful serial killer taking great pleasure in his conquest.”
Each track brings you on a deadly venture into a haunted house. Your pulse races as the tracks unfold, and your mind fills with terrifying images of bloody, menacing crime. The cohesive project never bores, and the two rappers offer listeners a peek into the dark, fearful world of gang violence.
Best Tracks: “Ghostface Killers,” “Rap Saved Me,” “Ric Flair Drip,” and “Disrespectful”
9) “Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 1”- Lil Peep
21-year-old Lil Peep, who was praised as “the future of emo,” died tragically of a drug overdose in November. His death brought about widespread praise of his work, which was sadly under-appreciated while he was alive.
The polarizing punk star blended rock and roll with rap, seamlessly integrating aspects of the two genres into emo rap, a genre which has been on the rise in the past year. He strove to move in the same direction as emo rap stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Trippie Redd but infused his music with more rock. Often compared to rock bands like Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy, Peep used emo guitar and trap drums simultaneously, creating a refreshingly new sound.
“Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 1” encapsulated his vision, relying on no samples, and only on Peep’s homemade beats and live guitar. On the album, Peep seems to channel all of his pain and loneliness into his songs. He expresses his troubling relationship with a girl on “Save That S**t,” telling her that jeopardizing their relationship threatens his own life. He sounds tired and drowsy on “Benz Truck,” like someone slurring their words high off benzodiazepines. On “Brightside,” Peep sings, “Help me find a way to pass the time. Everybody’s telling me life’s short but I wanna die.”
His pill-popping is the only way he can pass time, and the dark cloud of depression takes over his world, binding him to never-ending idleness.
His music is dark, but makes some listeners able to see the light — Lil Peep fans thanked him for his music, which solaced them during their depression and in some cases prevented them from committing suicide. If Peep had a longer career, he would have soared to new heights and broken boundaries in the rap genre. His death was tragic and too soon — as Post Malone said, “he was going to change the culture of everything.”
His legacy stays quite alive, and his music will always be a testament to his creative talent and unparalleled vision.
Best tracks: “The Brightside,” “Better Off (Dying),” “Save that S**t”
10) “A Love Letter to You 2” – Trippie Redd
The 18-year-old grungy rapper from Ohio blew up from his SoundCloud-famous “Love Scars.” As Complex News put it, Trippie Redd sounds like pain.
On “A Love Letter to You 2,” Trippie taps into themes of unholiness, sin, and lust. Echoing auto-tuned vocals dominate the tracks. He can convey so much emotion with so little. “I Know How To Self Destruct” communicates gut-wrenching melancholy, as Trippie whines, “Starting to lose control… I know I know.”
On his popular “Bust Down,” he repeats, “My wrist is bust down it’s bust down,” shamelessly flexing his newfound wealth and fame.
With his new success, he still reflects on where he comes from: Canton, Ohio. On “Hellboy,” Trippie raps, “I think I came from under a rock, was out on the block, my cousin had that shit in his sock, he moving the work.”
He sounds like no other rapper, carrying an energy and vision that is undoubtedly going to take him to great heights in the hip hop world.
Best tracks: “Bust Down,” “In Too Deep,” “Hellboy,” and “I Know How To Self Destruct”
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