Who knows where hip-hop or grime is going these days. It seems like the two genres are pulling themselves apart. Some dive further into the genre’s elements of aggression, and hedonism, and some recede even deeper into the genre’s history of introspection. Elements of experimental electronic, ambient, house, pop, lo-fi, and god knows else are being thrown into the gumbo, and it feels like we are fast approaching the day where we will have to ask ourselves, what is hip-hop? What is grime? Thank god it’s not that day, here’s Overblown’s Top 10 Hip-Hop/Grime Albums Of 2017 (So Far).
10. Scallops Hotel (Pseudonym of milo) – over the carnage rose a voice prophetic
Named for a civil war poem you most certainly have not heard before, Scallops Hotel’s new album continues to be milo’s abstract playing ground. While it may not be a single 40 minute long “track” like last year’s too much of life is mood, it is by no means any less challenging. Sonically it plays pretty closely to the semi-electronic, semi-jazzy, downtempo-y abstract beats motif that he established with that project, but milo the rapper’s presence seems to have taken the spotlight from milo the producer. The beats have lost a bit of their formlessness and difficulty, and sucked up what little amount of “directness” milo the rapper had on the last album. The grooves are tangible, building on rich bass lines, 90’s-esque dusty drums, and… Stereolab samples? I think?
But milo the rapper didn’t have much “directness” to begin with, and stripped of that little bit, milo starts to read a bit like Finnegan’s Wake.
“Morose is how we flip the allegory Feet stuck to soil pine Refusing to shuck or shuffle off this mortal coil for a fucking dime Give me pause Give me peace Give me mind Ain't seen you beyond time since Found my way back Tracing the echo and nine pence”
But, there are much worse things than Finnegan’s Wake over dreamy, intoxicating beats.
9. Migos – Culture
Like most of their contemporaries in the trap-rap sphere, Migos struggle to create an album that is satisfying as a holistic experience. More than a few songs on Culture fall into the highly repetitive mid-section we’ve come to expect from most trap projects. For that solid ⅓ of the album, Migos give mind numbing triplet flows over minimal, hi-hat heavy beats in a way that completely kills their power. Where Migos succeeds however, is the pure, earth-shattering power of those singles that surround it.
The universality of “Bad and Boujee” is undeniable, and the teeth-clenching confidence of “T-Shirt” is one of the most infectious songs of 2017, not to mention the almost surgical utilization of Gucci Mane on “Slippery”. Migos have mastered a pop sensibility that manages to come through without compromising a modicum of their aggression, machismo, or style. Maybe it’s not ideal, but I’ll take any album with highs this high, and ambitions this soaring over something that shoots for eye level.
8. Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
Stormzy’s new album has become a sort of symbol for grime purists, a symbol of everything wrong with the growing pop aspirations of the scene’s stars. His flirtations with Drake-styled R&B on “Velvet / Jenny Francis” and “Cigarettes & Cush”, and his Chance and Kanye-inspired gospel interludes “Blinded By Your Grace 1 & 2” confirmed for them that Stormzy never really cared about grime. The inclusion of white-knuckled grime songs next to all these pop reaches only made it worse, as songs like “Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2” led into “Return of the Rucksack”. It must be an insult to his grime roots! But the question needs to be asked, forgetting any discussion of grime “purity”, is the album any good?
Many might disagree, but I find I enjoy the vast majority of Stormzy’s debut effort, despite its divergence from what I expected and wanted. The gospel interludes may reveal the weakness of his voice, and his tenuous grasp on music outside the grime/hip-hop/r&b sphere, but on tracks like “21 Gun Salute”, “Velvet / Jenny Francis”, and “Cigarettes & Cush”, Stormzy shows that he has a better sense of how to make sedated hip-hop/R&B fusion than his OVO inspirations seem to these days. And of course on tracks like “Cold”, “Big For Your Boots”, and “Mr Skeng”, Stormzy’s voice continues to be an absolute monster. Finding the perfect lyrical balance between anger and uplift, dealing each in equal measure. When the album ends on the emotionally raw “Lay Me Bare” it genuinely feels like Stormzy has, something a lot of those grime-purist favorites could never do.
7. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
I can’t speak to what other people expected from a new Vince Staples project, but I can say with great certainty, that this isn’t what I expected at all. I guess the hints were there, James Blake taking production reigns for so much of last years Prima Donna EP, Vince’s placement on Gorillaz’s newest album, but still, was anyone really ready for “Crabs in a Bucket”? Or ready for SOPHIE/Flume and Justin Vernon to show up in the production credits? More importantly, was anyone really ready for it work this well? Big Fish Theory is a hip-hop album that sounds like it was beamed in from the future. A place where UK Bass, Wonky, Dubstep, and Hip-House have blended into something entirely new. The sounds you can catch whizzing across your ears, and stirring behind the drums, are intoxicating, like nothing else you’ll hear this year.
On a pure sonic level, I find myself thinking that Big Fish Theory is the best hip-hop album of 2017, and on tracks where Vince and his guest vocalists construct a genuine song on top of those soundscapes, it’s absolutely some of the best hip-hop of the year. Track’s like the spacious and epic “Crabs In a Bucket”, braggadocious “Big Fish”, nocturnal “745”, or the absurd acid-house-y “Party People” are monumental achievements. And even the tracks were the songwriting and sonics don’t mesh so well, are endlessly fascinating, like the sound of Kendrick acrobatically weaving through SOPHIE’s hectic, massive drums. But in between all this, there are just as many songs where Vince becomes buried in a beat, or lost in the formless sonics. A shame, because Vince is onto something here, something that I think could be huge, once he works out the kinks of course.
6. Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
When Loyle Carner brought his ‘mum’ out on stage at Glastonbury this year, it was the solidification of everything there is to love about his music. From the laid-back, working-man beats which blend pristine piano/guitar melodies with classic, dusty drums, to his delivery, which feels like an intimate conversation at the back of a pub. Loyle’s music is the sonic personification of a good friend that you trust completely.
Despite his verging-on-spoken-word flow which could easily be compared to political firebrand Kate Tempest, and his noted love of Jeremy Corbyn, Loyle doesn’t talk much of the big issues, the “political” issues. Loyle’s eyes are very much on street level, telling stories about love, family, student loans, and the sister he always wished he had. Things that will be painfully relatable to anyone. But Loyle never lets that sadness or pain overwhelm his music, often turning those forces towards positive messages of reassurance, even if that message is as simple as “I’ve been there too”. It’s there in the title, Yesterday’s Gone, and as much as Loyle will reflect on those days, and those feelings, he never loses sight of tomorrow and its value.
5. Wiley – Godfather
Grime. Real, Grimey, Grime.
Despite popular opinion on Wiley’s last few albums, I never really thought he fully embraced the pop world, or at least, not as intensely as his contemporaries. In retrospect The Ascent seems downright filthy compared to the pop/grime fusions we’ve seen since. But the long overdue Godfather feels like a heroic return nonetheless. Something was missing, and it wasn’t the “sound” of grime, it was the attitude of it. Wiley didn’t had anything to prove.
Most of his work since Playtime Is Over has done nothing to confirm that title of “godfather of grime”, it reeked of complacency, of comfort in his stature. With this though, Wiley’s a whole new animal, overflowing with confidence and the determination of a much fresher artist. Here is Wiley’s Watch The Throne, his 2016 Rio Olypmics, his victory lap, effortless proof that he deserves the crown, and still has the talent to make white-knuckle, world conquering grime.
4. Brockhampton – Saturation
Brockhampton’s quickly exploding fanbase shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s watched even a single music video for the group’s new album. Whether it’s their colorful, hazy, and just generally superb visual direction and visual consistency, or the deeply charismatic on-screen friendship of the whole “team”, it just feels like a welcoming online word that you can disappear into. Something which defined the meteoric rise of Odd Future and their outsider fanbase just 6 years ago. To say nothing of Brockhampton’s music which is attached on top.
But the looming worry for Brockhampton’s second, dangerously hyped project, Saturation, was that much like Odd Future, the great number of hands in the pot would lead to a project that was sloppy, or felt throwaway compared to the groups solo efforts. Thankfully, Saturation is nothing of the sort. Not to say it’s some sort of 36 Chambers, group-effort masterpiece, but Saturation is an album that is not only enjoyable front-to-back, but also has a genuine direction and purpose to it’s overall sound and themes. The blend of conventional, aggressive hip-hop with Blond-era Frank Ocean-inspired pop and lo-fi indie feels fresh. And the head-first confidence with which Brockhampton dives into that sound serves the music well, exploring all of its possibilities, instead of wading in where its safe.
I don’t know if they have the legs to do it again, or push this sound further, but with Saturation, they certainly deserve all the eyes in the world for when they try.
3. Bedwetter – Volume 1: Flick Your Tongue Against Your Teeth and Describe the Present.
Volume 1 is a miserable album. These are not small emotional gestures, or little dabbles into pain, and anger. This is Travis Miller’s stomach ripped open, guts spilling out everywhere. From the opener “Man Wearing A Helmet”, which describes the kidnapping of a child in the bleakest possible detail (piss and vomit including), Travis sets out to find the darkest corners, and the worst thoughts he can conjure. Just listen to the songs ending, as his faceless captors take the child into their basement prison, to a future that is certainly short, and remorseless, before drifting into the melancholic electric piano outro.
Volume 1 is the most painful parts of a man made real, both sonically and lyrically. It’s not too surprising considering the psych ward mattress on the cover, and the very agonized post he released about his own experience seeking psychological help upon the albums release. Even knowing all that from the offset though, it can be a draining experience to listen to.
Bedwetter is one of the most fully realized rap albums about mental illness ever made. From the dark and nihilistic “Stoop Lights”, which features Travis most emotionally raw vocals ever, to the gentle tinge of depression and worthlessness on something like the outro track “Cave Yourself Over”, wherein Travis works purely instrumentally. Melancholic mellotron worked underneath field recordings and warm synth washes, a portrait of a man fruitlessly searching for emotional connection.
2. Wednesday Campanella – Superman
Hip-house has had an endlessly disappointing history here in the west. From its explosive emergence in the late 80s, to it’s quick and merciless death at the hand of hardcore hip hop in the early 90s, it never really achieved the sort of artistic highs that most hip hop subgenres have been afforded. It’s resurgence in the the 2010s was no less disappointing, despite promising singles out of newcomers like Azealia Banks, and Vic Mensa, no one seemed to be able to string together a project that had any sort of consistency, or even fully commit to that hip-house sound. The balance of pop-sensibility, sugary electronics, and hip-hop viability just seemed too hard to work out.
Switch gears to Japan though, and a different history begins to form, one where everything seemed pre-designed for hip-house’s success. It was a scene that was free from America’s rigid and history-laden hip-hop scene, and with a much deeper understanding of electropop and house due to their internationally renowned electronic scene.
Over the past four or so years, artists began to explode out of the underground with fully fledged hip-house sounds. The best of them all, far and way, was Wednesday Campanella. Since their 2013 debut they have been slowly building towards a sound that was intoxicating, and blissful in a way that no hip-house had been before. Here on Superman, they may have achieved their masterpiece. The sound is more vibrant than ever, exploding open in great washes of color on singles like “Aladdin”, and “Ikkyu-San”. Not to neglect the incredibly sticky vocal melodies from the incomparable KOM_I, which stick in the brain harder than they ever have before. Perhaps it’s bold to say, but it may well be the greatest hip-house album that exists today, and hopefully, a shining sign of things to come.
1. Kendrick Lamar – Damn.
With DAMN., Kendrick pulled the greatest heist in pop-rap history. Hidden beneath that shiny and glamorous pop surface which propelled DAMN. to the top of every chart around the world, was some of the year’s densest rap music. Hundreds of layers of ambiguity, subtlety, and thematic complexity were compacted beneath the album’s shimmering, immaculate production.
Listen as Kendrick plays bait-and-switch, flipping a glossy rap/r&b song with Rihanna into a grand musing on the existence of genuine, and profound connection. Ending it with an almost Descartesian conclusion that god is the one connection we can know to be true. A sort of profoundly lonely conclusion that could only come from Kendrick where he is now. A man who is floating even deeper into the conflicts of his mind. So deep, that it reaches a point of incoherence, as the “grand narrative” of the album becomes all but lost to the complicated side tunnels, and detours. There is no big answer here, no big conclusion or revelation to find at the end of this descent. DAMN. has no sense of TPAB conclusion, or GKMC catharsis. This is a grand, directionless, existential journey we are taking with Kendrick, one that ends right where it starts. Its a sort of grand philosophical sigh, like “Damn. Didn’t get anywhere today either”.