Tyler, The Creator- Flower Boy
Tyler, the Creator is undeniably one of the most interesting rappers of this generation. While his earlier music is most definitely not for everyone, his controversial lyrics & outgoing persona could easily draw comparisons to 1999-2000 era Slim Shady. On his newest record, Flower Boy, however, he drops the mask in favor for a much more vulnerable & introspective version of him that had only been seen in rare glimpses previously. Over an eclectic musical backdrop reminiscent of old N.E.R.D (one of his greatest influences), Tyler waxes about loneliness & self-doubt, while at the same time creating braggadocious bangers reminiscent of his older work. Tyler balances these two personas to create a revealing portrait of an artist coming to his own terms.
Photo courtesy of Columbia Records
South London-bred crooner Sampha found a name for himself through collaborations with artists such as Kanye, Drake, & Solange, yet despite not having much solo work to his name, Sampha had enough material for a career of his own; his struggle to come to terms with the death of his mother through cancer. On his anticipated debut, Process, Sampha’s smooth & luscious voice beautifully expresses grief & the process of overcoming it. Simple yet effective ballads add a realistic air to it, but it never comes across as mundane. The result is more beautiful than the situation at hand really is.
Photo courtesy of Young Turks Recordings
Kelela- Take Me Apart
After a series of promising EPs, Kelela’s studio debut Take Me Apart is a futuristic & ambitious view of pop & R&B music, offering complex & cryptic lyrics & dystopian yet ultimately modern production that further sets her apart from her peers. Lead single “LMK” sounds like a hit from a parallel universe of radio, both modern & catchy yet wistful at the same time. “Turn to Dust” features multitracked vocals over sweeps of cello & pizzicato strings, while “Blue Light” ends with a brief a cappella section before her voice launches into several different directions. It’s strange, catchy, wistful & futuristic all at the same time, all burning down into one of the most creative efforts of 2017.
Photo courtesy of Warp Records
Vince Staples- Big Fish Theory
On Vince Staples’ 2015 debut Summertime ‘06, he proved himself as one of rap’s greatest new talents with menacing yet poetic reflections of a tough upbringing in Long Beach, CA. On his latest offering, he expands his talents to something much more. Staples replaces foreboding gangsta mannerisms with futuristic electro soundscapes drawing influence from dance floors in Detroit, Chicago & New York. Opener “Crabs in a Bucket” kicks off with funky UK garage beats courtesy of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, while Staples pays homage to his West Coast roots with the G-funk bassline of “745” & the Bay Area bounce of “Big Fish”. Tracks like “SAMO” & the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “Yeah Right” sound completely different than anything else released this year, further proving Staples as one of the most intriguing rappers of this generation. If this is the result of Staples’ “WE IN 3230 WIT IT” tweet, we can only wonder what his next album will bring.
Photo courtesy of Def Jam Recordings
On her debut Pure Heroine, Lorde was a 16-year-old with a gift for songwriting who was just trying to figure things out. Now a 20-year-old, she’s come to face adulthood & all the good & the bad things that come with it. On her second album Melodrama, Lorde faces topics like lost love, loneliness, drinking & more. In a Beats 1 interview, she said “Everyone has that first proper year of adulthood. I think I had that year”. Glimmering pop production & melodies meet poetic ruminations on these topics, making a mixture that makes the album just as enjoyable as it is cryptic & poetic.
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Group
JAY Z- 4:44
Within the first ten seconds of 4:44’s opener “Kill Jay Z”, JAY Z raps “Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you/You’ll never be enough, let’s keep it real, Jay Z”. It’s less of a literal interpretation than him coming to terms with his faults, which include him admitting to cheating on his wife (which he goes more into detail about on the title track), accidentally shooting his brother as a 12-year-old, & more, all on this one track. The abrupt start also sets the tone for the rest of the album; raw, honest & straight-to-the-point. No I.D. weaves a clean, sample-based backdrop for JAY Z’s vulnerable & introspective lyrics, which cover topics from black heritage to his childhood in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn to the importance of credit. Coming from a rapper known for his bravado & larger-than-life persona, it’s revealing & shows a different side of Shawn Carter than known before. It’s a raw & honest admission of defeat from the only rapper who can defeat him.
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Group
King Krule- The OOZ
To say that King Krule’s second album is different than anything else released this year is an understatement. The album almost exists in a universe of its own, where post-apocalyptic & empty lyrics meet a musical backdrop where jazz chords & punk influences live in harmony. This universe is a dark one, as Krule looks into the empty space & wonders what went wrong. It’s a deep exploration of Krule’s mind, where colorful instrumentals give a glimmer of hope to this dark, crumbling & infinitely intriguing universe of his. Never in recent memory has such a collapse felt so listenable.
Photo courtesy of XL Recordings
Mount Eerie- A Crow Looked at Me
Death is inescapable; it has to happen to all of us sooner or later, yet when it eventually does sneak up on you, it’s pretty hard to deal with. Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum lost his wife to cancer last year, & A Crow Looked at Me, written immediately after her death, is all about this, & you can hear it through the compositions & the grief-stricken lyrics. But instead of focusing on the bigger things, the record instead focuses on the more mundane details. It’s through this that the record strays away from becoming a pity party & rather a realistic, raw & honest portrait of the aftermath of a loved one’s death. This honesty reminds us that no one really knows how to overcome a situation like this, & that it’s best to start out with the little things. The record is all the more beautiful for this.
Photo courtesy of P.W. Elverum & Sun
By the time Ctrl arrived in June, it almost seemed as if the record might have never arrived. Multiple delays, name changes (it was originally titled A to complete the trilogy of EPs starting with S & Z) & personal problems (temporarily quitting music, anxiety & perfectionism) caused the record to exist in a development hell for a while. But soon enough, SZA had enough material for it to be released. The record is personal & vulnerable, opening up about heartbreak, self-esteem & what it means to have control. SZA is open about her loneliness throughout the entire record, but it never feels repetitive or overstated; poetic & cryptic ruminations on topics ranging from heartbreak to the empowerment of women, & a soulful & distinct voice seperate the record from just being any R&B record. Over lush & soulful production, the raw honesty of the lyrics make the listener feel like they’re right there with her, knowing they’re not alone, that they’re understood, which makes it not only one of the most unique records of the year but of the past decade.
Photo courtesy of RCA Records
Kendrick Lamar- DAMN.
On the remix to Future’s “Mask Off”, released about a month after DAMN., Kendrick Lamar posed the question: “How y’all let a conscious n**** go commercial while only making conscious albums?”. It rings true; Kendrick is at his biggest peak of popularity. “HUMBLE.” has become his biggest single, spending weeks at the top of the Billboard charts upon its release (as did the album), & he’s arguably the most critically acclaimed artist of his generation. Every one of his three studio albums (including this one) has received outstanding critical reception, & mainly for the reasons mentioned on “Mask Off”; an ability to give a poetic outlook on serious topics such as racism & black empowerment, while retaining a level of accessibility. In the wake of his peak of popularity, Kendrick is able to keep this mixture on DAMN.; the radio-friendly vibes of “LOVE.” & “LOYALTY.” live in harmony with some of his best storytelling & lyrical abilities, showcased on tracks like “DUCKWORTH.” & “FEAR.”. Among this peak of fame, he resides to his strongest personal themes yet as well. Kendrick tries to retain meekness on “HUMBLE.”, addresses the monotony of materialism on “LUST.”, & contemplates death on “FEAR.”. “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for them/But who the f*** praying for me?”, he poses on “FEEL.”, as he comes to grips with the circumstances of being an artist held on such a high level. However, the album’s finest moment comes on “DUCKWORTH.”, where Kendrick details the story of how his father crossed paths with the manager of TDE, & how it almost cost the label big time. “If Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life/While I grow up without a father & die in a gunfight”, the final lines read before a gunshot is heard, & the sounds of audio reversing are heard before the first line of the album is repeated. The loop represents the cyclical nature of both the record & life itself. DAMN. is a deeply personal & intriguing story of his thoughts, the things he goes through & his life itself, all boiling down to a modern masterwork; maybe not his best album, but certainly one that will continue to be talked about for the forseeable future.
Photo courtesy of Interscope Records