Although 2016 has been an absolutely horrible year in just about every other facet, hip hop still thrived with some excellent projects released throughout the year. Everything from a modern day Gospel rap album that defied conventional projects in a similar vein to a rapper dropping leftovers that were better than most artists who spent years putting together their best work, we saw a little bit of everything in 2016.
The DopeHouse’s list of our favorite albums of 2016 may shock a few of you who expected a certain album or two to be featured. But these are our picks and we pretty much cover the entire spectrum of hip hop. If you disagree, oh well.
Smoke DZA and Pete Rock crafted one of the most “East Coast” rap albums of 2016 with their collaborative debut, Don’t Smoke Rock. All jazzy boom bap, all the time, the LP shrugged off the notion that New York rap has devolved into nothing more than Milly Rocking, Southern rap-sounding songs.
Paying homage to the past while keeping up with today’s times, any semblance of “mumble rap” is put to the left as even the guests — from Wale to Cam’ron, Mac Miller and Rick Ross — put on their proverbial Sunday’s best to help the Kushed Gawd and Chocolate Boy Wonder deliver some of the most quality music to drop in the fourth quarter of 2016, without sounding dated or having to delve into “weird” territory. If there was ever a reason why The Big Apple was, at one point, the biggest inspiration in hip hop culture, Don’t Smoke Rock is that example. — Meka Udoh
Not for nothing, 2016 was the year that the so-called “old school” hip hop artists arguably out-shined their new jack equivalents. Sure, Kendrick, Chance, YG, Dave and ScHoolboy did their thing, but Royce 5’9”, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest showed us that a few grey hairs didn’t stop anything either. With the help of legions of fans (via Kickstarter) and the Anonymous Nobody… was a crowdfunded masterpiece from members of the Native Tongues collective. Arriving a dozen years after The Grind Date, the album became De La Soul’s first-ever album to top a Billboard chart (debuting at No. 1 on the Top Rap Charts) and nabbing them a GRAMMY nomination in the process. What a time to be a so-called “old head.” — Meka Udoh
Did anybody work as hard as Dave East in 2016? If you listened to hip hop, you absolutely heard Dave East rumble through something noteworthy. But could he pull off a full-length project with all eyes on him? The correct answer was a definitive “yes” as Kairi Chanel delivered on all fronts. The New York emcee somehow managed to save some of his best bars for this project despite appearing to burn the candle on both ends with so many songs dropped in a calendar year. But then you hear “Don’t Shoot” and “Keisha” and realize that there’s a reason Nas signed him to Mass Appeal. He’s an exceptional storyteller with an unbelievably wide range of subjects to pull from. It’ll be interesting to see how he follows this after making his presence felt in 2016. — Andreas Hale
Up until this album, Royce 5’9” was known as a rhyme animal and that’s about it. Granted, he was an exceptional rhyme animal but he was perceived as relatively one-dimensional. Then he dropped Layers and we realized that Nickel had more… uh… layers than what we initially thought. From the brilliant narrative of when moments collide on “Tabernacle” to the pitfalls of being caught up in fast money on “Dope!” we got to peel back the… uh… layers to the Detroit emcee and realized that he’s got a lot more to give. — Andreas Hale
The GRAMMYs turned their backs on YG in 2016 once again, as his second album Still Brazy received no nominations like his first My Krazy Life. Sad, really, as Still Brazy firmly put Fo’ Hunnit at the forefront of the West Coast hip hop scene. While as unapologetically gangsta as ever, YG messed around and dropped the most socially conscious gangsta rap album in 20 years, injecting some social commentary into his music while still keeping it G. When will the GRAMMYs wake up? — Meka Udoh
If the media needs a reason to wait until the end of the year before dropping these year-end lists, Killer Mike and El-P gave them one with RTJ3. With a surprise Christmas drop, the dynamic duo that has already given us classic material with their previous two installments took their chemistry up a few more notches with RTJ3. By bottling up the social angst surrounding a tumultuous 2016 that was punctuated by Trump’s unlikely victory to become the next president of the United States, RTJ created a moment in time unlike any other. You won’t hear anything like it thanks to the futuristic boom bap of El Producto’s production and with marvelous songs such as the volatile “Thieves” and the crucial “2100.” This is that “grab-you-by-your-shoulders-and-shake-the-shit-outta-you” music that refuses to be denied. — Andreas Hale
The evolution of ScHoolBoy Q from glorified hype man given a mic to full fledged emcee has been noteworthy and Blank Face was evidence that TDE isn’t all about Kendrick Lamar. After dropping Oxymoron, ScHoolBoy Q kicked it up a notch with the stellar Blank Face that truly showed his improved songwriting. He was frighteningly profound throughout and ripped through bangers like the Vince Staples-assisted “Ride Out” and the chilling “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane.” Nah folks, you can’t call TDE “Kendrick Lamar and them” without being called a hater. Q and the rest of the family have certainly earned their stripes with Q becoming a certified star. — Andreas Hale
Is it possible that one of the best hip hop albums of 2016 could double as a gospel album? No, but Chance’s third mixtape was clearly inspired by the Holy Ghost.
What Kanye West tried to do with The Life Of Pablo (to mixed results, because bleached bungholes staining t-shirts during sex or whatever) Chance perfected on Coloring Book. Equal parts introspective and celebratory, not only did it formally introduce Chano to the rest of the world (thus officially earning the crown of “The Future Of Hip Hop”) but he also made GRAMMY nomination history with it as well. And he didn’t have to make a crude sex joke about Taylor Swift to do so. — Meka Udoh
You know that you are an emcee on a different plateau when your leftovers are better than damn near everyone else’s so-called best work. Thanks to the urging of LeBron James, Kendrick Lamar decided to cut loose the untitled and unmastered songs that were left on the cutting room floor of To Pimp A Butterfly and gave us an almost accidentally near classic album. We got the songs he had performed on late night talk shows, some remarkable gems like “untitled 05” that featured excellence from Punch and the ridiculous “untitled 07 (Levitate)”. It’s safe to say that Kendrick Lamar’s trash was everyone else’s treasure. — Andreas Hale
The sixth album from A Tribe Called Quest will forever be defined by both ecstatic euphoria and devastating sorrow. Like D’Angelo’s brilliant Black Messiah before them, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service appeared almost unexpectedly and over a decade after Tribe’s initial swan song (1998’s The Love Movement). And like Black Messiah it was also met with widespread critical acclaim.
However, the album arrived during a time where the socioeconomic, political and cultural climate of the country is — to put it nicely — in disarray, and its jazzy sonics are also somewhat somber as ATCQ lost Phife Dawg on March 22nd.
Nonetheless, the album was a return to form for the legendary Native Tongues troupe, combining their “aged like fine wine” sound with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Anderson .Paak and even Elton John to create 2016’s best hip hop album. — Meka Udoh