In the UK and US, the politics of an older generation seemed to dominate the conversation in 2016. For genres filled with the young and disenfranchised artists making music for young and disenfranchised audiences, this meant the scene was ripe for music that was important. Music that challenged the old ways of doing things, musically and thematically. And while many fell short of their ambitious attempts, just as many succeeded to capture that zeitgeist, with music that embodied youthful energy, political frustration, and a growing disaffected nihilism in equal measure. But 2016 was also a year that saw the return of some of the biggest legends in both genres, who confirmed that the only difference between the frustrations of today and those of the past was time. These are Overblown’s top ten hip-hop and grime albums from 2016.
10. Scallops Hotel – Too Much Of Life Is Mood
Working under his more experimental pseudonym, Rory Ferreira (Milo) returns from the more immediate, in-your-face songwriting of last years So The Flies Don’t Come, to something more slippery. Consisting of 22 “tracks”, but sold as a single 40 minute piece (to match the original intention of a cassette only release), too much of life is mood seemed to be milo’s way of purging every experimental learning, and oddball idea he held back from his last album. From the vocal manipulations, to the Henry Dumas poetry interludes, Rory seems less interested in songs and more interested in capturing those single moods he thinks life is too much of. The raps are infrequent, like islands in a sea of ever-changing instrumental interludes. Of course when he comes in for the first rapped lyric on the album, spitting that “Scallops Hotel lurk wherever popo don’t be”, it’s apparent that Rory hasn’t forgotten the “raps” part of his miloraps handle. His, teetering-on-the-edge-of-spoken-word flow is smoother than ever, sliding over his colorful, Digable Planets meets Avalanches production. He speaks about rap music, “I know the best rap songs aren’t cohesive thematically”, about memes “And tenuring in long hallways/It’s all Harambe”, but most importantly, he continues to talk about his world, and perspective on the outskirts of rap. Shaking his head at rappers who use visual art as a display of wealth and culture, while simultaneously evaluating and questioning his own place and purpose as a rapper. Rory seems as discontent with the world as ever. It’s a densely woven tapestry that perhaps only he fully understands, but in Rory’s borrowed words, ‘I began reading on page six, because fuck it, nothing matters‘.
9. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
After the highly publicized “breakup” of Death Grips in 2015, which saw them releasing their supposed final album, The Powers That B, it seemed their return was the end of Death Grips’ punk ethos. In a way though, Bottomless Pit is the biggest fuck you they were capable of slinging. Releasing an album that picks up where 2012’s Money Store left off as if nothing happened in-between was something no-one expected. Death Grips, in a way, rewrote their own history, making a joke of the supposed “break-up” and lead up to it. It even pokes fun at the break-up letter that suggested they were at their best back in 2015, as they return with an album that easily matches the highest moments of their substantial discography. They return to melting noise, hip-hop, and electronic music like they were still cutting their name into hip-hop legacy 5 years ago. Tracks like “Eh” and “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” are already among the most beloved Death Grips track ever recorded, spawning their own in-jokes among devoted fans on forums the internet over. For the first time in years, Death Grips sound like something inviting new fans, instead of a descent deeper into their own claustrophobia. And while it didn’t release to as much internal fan-fare as the internet pandemonium of Jenny Death, it’s proved Death Grips have no intention of slowing down, or selling anything less than the best possible music they can make.
8. Noname – Telefone
This year was big for Chicago as Chance the Rapper seemed to conquer the world, playing on Fallon, Ellen, SNL (along with Noname), Colbert, and of course Good Morning America. But while he released a triumphant album from the mountaintops, Noname, formerly Noname Gypsy, released an album back on street level. Stylistically, it had the same watermarks, that beautiful blend of jazz, soul, gospel, and hip-hop that seems to speak to something religious in even the fiercest atheist. But Telefone was less like endless praise heaped onto a benevolent god, and more like a telephone call, exchanging worries and wonders in equal parts. Noname looks at both and simply does her best to improve the world through herself. She’s upset at ‘Black death’, but still finds it important to rap about quitting drugs in an attempt to become the person she thinks she should be. Telefone is an album about a complicated world that pulls everything into the eyes of one person trying to live by simple principles, and do simple good. While her fellow male chicago rappers seem to be searching for epic, convert-the-world classics, Noname got further than most of them, doing something closer to the chest, more dairy than scripture.
7. Kano – Made in the Manor
In a year that saw grime conquering the world, where Kano could have turned his eyes to the world at large, he instead looked back home. His music gravitated to the streets of East Ham, and to a time when ‘Lethal Bizzle was Lethal B’. Made in the Manor is Kano’s line in the sand, a promise that he won’t forget the counterculture values that defined that original grime scene. Even as he notes the barriers that have grown between him and the people he knew back then, and the ways in which the world has changed, he promises to ‘Rap for the have-nots and the have-less’. It’s these principled values, and the earnestness of Kano that hits the listener at first. When he spills the good and bad of life in London on “T-shirt Weather In The Manor”, it truly feels like sitting on Kano’s street watching the years go by, as bright nostalgia turns to dark adult complications. Of course Kano hadn’t forgotten the simple pleasures of grime too. Finding beats that sound like they were dragged through East Ham mud, and then spitting the most aggressive bars he can think of over them. Tracks like “New Banger” and “3-Wheel-Ups” show a man with more passion than a million kids spitting freestyles on Youtube. Made In The Manor is a masterpiece of capturing every angle to a man, from the crude, to the thoughtful, and the emotional.
6. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
On the song “Pictures on a Screen’” Kate tells the story of Bradley. A young London man awake at 4:18 AM, staring at the clock. He’s confused and disaffected despite the good things in his life. His apartment is filled with the finer things, and his social life is thriving. At least that’s what he believes. He can’t decide if he’s dreaming or awake, a measure of the fog that’s growing over his life. It feels like ‘days go past like pictures on a screen’. Bradley is not a happy man. He is a product of a society that devalues him, that pushes him to chase everything but empathy, and genuine human understanding. At least in Kate Tempest’s view. Let Them Eat Chaos is the story of seven people like Bradley, in different places in life, but running into the same walls of disconnect and frustration. Through them, Kate airs her own disconnect and frustrations with the cruelty, and disinterest of the English nation to help the world, and forget themselves towards something greater. Over minimalistic beats that sounds like the cold London air at 4:18 AM, she weaves together stories of simple, modern people with biblical floods, and wars across the world. It is political and social commentary of the highest form, bringing the distant, and the abstract to ground level. It’s an album that evokes the kind of empathy for strangers that Kate so desperately wishes we were more capable of.
5. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
For a man as restless as Kendrick Lamar, it was nice to hear him enjoy a moment. To Pimp A Butterfly was an album that dominated hip-hop’s collective conscious last year, and as a man of the people, Kendrick was willing to give us more. Free of any sort of conceptual delivery, or hype cycle, untitled unmastered. was the first time we got to think of Kendrick in terms of songs. “Untitled 02” didn’t have much to do with “Untitled 06” and so on. We got to hear the creativity of Kendrick go in every direction it could, from the sparse, and biblical, to the light and poppy. It was a joy that perhaps left a great deal of people unfulfilled, hoping to be crushed with the massive weight of something like Good Kid M.A.A.D City. But for those who could switch gears and follow where Kendrick was taking them, it presented something new and totally essential. It was lo-fi and casual, while still floating into Kendrick’s heavy discussions of race, and morality, but in a way that could be listened to with friends. untitled unmastered. is not a headphone experience, it’s joyful-soul numbers, and murky, dark bangers are meant to be played in cars and parks. Songs that play to live audiences, and social interaction. A far cry from the solitary sound of tracks like “u” and “How Much A Dollar Cost?”. Kendrick opens his sound to a place that he realizes may have missed him, and it’s just another dimension to one of hip-hop’s new greats.
4. Clipping – Splendor & Misery
Often, concept albums fail to musically meet the ambition of their premise. Hip-hop sci-fi concept albums will add a synth or two and wash their hands, job done. Splendor & Misery so fully rejects that premise that the only thing hip-hop about it is Daveed Diggs’ now Tony Awarded flow. The instrumentals are all dark ambient washes, and sci-fi bloops, blending their way into soul music interludes, and harsh noise. It’s beyond genre, and beyond definition, finding the cracks in a dystopian future where all the past has slipt in. Blending it all together into the most successful afrofuturist album ever made. While simultaneously proving itself to be one of the best sci-fi concept albums ever, regardless of subgenre. It blurs the line between human and technology, and the line between hopelessness, and optimism. From the slow descent into humanity for the ship’s computer program in “All Black”, to the slow build from the bleak, isolationism of our slave character in “Interlude 01 (Freestyle)“ to the unphased optimism of “A Better Place”. Splendor & Misery captures its titles duality beautifully, exploring them both in vignettes that show Clipping to be storytellers of the highest order.
3. Injury Reserve – Floss
In a year where Kanye West landed short of the massive expectations that he had created for himself, we desperately missed pop-rap that surfed the line between serious, and playful. Music that allowed for jokey one-liners to sit next to racially charged observations, while still proving catchy and bombastic. In a word, music that had personality. Thankfully, Injury Reserve have personality in excess. Personality that spills out of every one of Parker Corey’s genre-leaping beats, and every bar traded between Stepa Groggs and Nathaniel Ritchie. They can put their foot in the door with tracks like “Oh Shit!!” and “What’s Goodie”, chest-pounding music to invigorate mosh pits, but also have the foresight to put them next to tracks like “Keep on Slippin” and “Look Mama I Did It”, where they effortlessly pour their hearts out, down to the bottom of their guts. For hip-hop fans, it evokes deja-vu to albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy where Chris Rock interludes about ‘re-upholstering pussy’ could sit between songs about the “American Dream” leaving everyone empty and unsatisfied. Floss embodies the principle that music can be everything. A place to turn to for solidarity, uplift, and even just a distraction to make it through the day. Whatever a listener is looking for coming into Floss, Injury Reserve are more than happy to give it to them, along with everything they didn’t know they wanted yet.
2. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
With the terrible passing of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and Phife Dawg, we have had the unfortunate pleasure of finding that with death comes a kind of music that is uniquely powerful. With their star-studded final album however, A Tribe Called Quest goes for something very different then Cohen and Bowie. There’s nothing doomed, or morose to the music here, instead Tribe Called Quest return to what they do best, making music that feels celebratory and pointed. Twenty five years after The Low End Theory, Tribe managed to release an album that sounds like their younger selves had travelled into the future to make a modern version of it. Finding new, seemingly limitless ways to build smooth, and heady sounds into huge tear-the-system-down songs. It’s the kind of music that makes people want to see the world pull together, instead of tearing itself apart. Great music is both timeless and timely, and Tribe Called Quest continue to be both. Rest in Peace Malik Izaak Taylor.
1. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Atrocity Exhibition was the album that proved hip-hop was the most punk thing happening in 2016. Dissonance blends with aggressive, violating flows as Danny Brown pushes the boundaries of good taste, and “rapping” itself. All in complete disregard to what you think of it. Regardless of method though, what Danny Brown pulls together, between crude punch-lines, and horrifically accurate depictions of drug use, is a world filled with despair, and paranoia. Atrocity Exhibition’s world is as informed with pain, and psychosis as the namesake Joy Division song, and the “novel” by J. G. Ballard which was that’s namesake. Despite playing to the conventional themes of hip-hop, the fearful, yelping vocal style of Danny, mixed with his increasingly heady lyrics, makes for a complete re-imagining of those tropes. When he says “Last night homie got killed at the liquor store”, it doesn’t matter how unfortunately desensitized you’ve become to violence, or mortality in hip-hop, the bleak instrumentation merged with Danny’s uncharacteristically somber voice hits you as hard as the first time you heard Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts”. The bleak soundscapes, and the way Danny blends his voice into each and every beat he’s given, make for a uniquely singular experience, one that redefines what hip-hop “is”, perhaps for the first time since Death Grips’ Money Store.