It seems like every new year is THE year for hip-hop. How much bigger can this get, how much better, how much more diverse? There’s just no end to it, like hip-hop won’t be satisfied until it’s saturated the whole world. Grime as well, as the artistic voice of a much smaller UK tries to muscle it’s way into conversations with their bigger hip-hop cousins. Bonafide grime stars are beginning to take on roles across the world. Just think, Giggs appeared twice on one of the year’s best selling albums. As a life long fan of both in all their forms, well except for this one, I just hope that we aren’t living in some bubble here, that some great international collapse isn’t imminent. Anyways, that’s my contractually obligated preamble, so here’s Overblown Top 10 Hip-Hop And Grime Albums of 2017. (Thought honestly it’s mostly hip-hop, step it up on the album front grime guys.)
10Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!
Rory Ferreira returns to his primary pseudonym, after the incredible success of 2015’s So The Flies Don’t Come, in the year that seemed to need his words more than ever. Or as James Baldwin puts it so eloquently at the beginning of Milo’s new album
“I think in a country like ours, in a time like this, when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only poets can make”
Milo is making a report for his times, one that only a poet could make. To the feeling of his times, and to the underlying subjective components of it which drive the objective elements above. Perhaps much more subjective than Rory has ever before been under the Milo name. A rejection perhaps, of the forceful, outspoken character he cast himself as with the much more direct, and passionate previous album. And perhaps it’s not quite the blood-pumping listen that previous album was, but there is also great power in the subjectivity of this, in it’s obfuscated, tonal focus. Another supremely challenging and invigorating work from hip-hops most inside outsider.
“Working titles of my autobiography: ‘I’m probably not the rapper for you’”
9Offset, 21 Savage, Metro Boomin – Without Warning
I’ve never much cared for 21 Savage, on every one of previous solo albums I’ve found him exhaustingly boring to listen to. Not even the incomparable Metro Boomin could make me care for his repetitive monotone flows, and drab, cyclical lyrics. The same goes for Offest really, I quite enjoy Migos music, but I can’t say that I’ve thought too much about any of the trio as individuals. Their collective charisma and confidence seems so intrinsically tied to one another that in a solo capacity I’ve never much cared for any of them outside a Quavo verse here or there.
It turns out I’m an idiot, or at the very least, not much of a music critic. Just dangling in front of eyes was apparently some of the most relentless, talented voices in trap music. Either that or Without Warning is one of the most impressive musical accidents of all time. I’m still not really sure which, but what I am sure of, is that Without Warning is the most consistently impressive pop trap project since Rodeo. 21 Savage’s gloomy, militant delivery balanced against the acrobatic, and energized Offset is a delicately executed balance that keeps each of their joint tracks on the edge of both ruthless, hardcore hip-hop and danceable party anthems. But what makes it so truly shocking is that unlike most trap projects, including Migos’ own album Culture from earlier this year, is that it isn’t just three front loaded hot singles, it’s engaging front to back. From the murderous epic opener “Ghostface Killers” with Travis Scott to the moody final “Darth Vader”, it’s head bobbing and face scrunching worthy.
“Freddy Kruger, give ’em a nightmare”
8Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
I don’t know what other people expected from a new Vince Staples project, but I can say with great certainty, for me, that this isn’t it. I guess the hints were there, James Blake taking production reigns on much of last year’s Prima Donna EP, or 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.
Sonically 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.
“Take a ride on my side where we die in the street/ And the cops don’t come for some weeks”
7Wiley – Godfather
Grime. Real, Grimey, Grime.
Despite popular opinion on Wiley’s last few albums, I never thought he really 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 coming Godfather feels like an overdue 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.
Unfortunately for an grime purist or fan of Wiley, most of his work since Playtime Is Over has done nothing to confirm that title of “godfather of grime”. With this though, Wiley’s a whole new animal, overflowing with the 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. Nothing but essential tracks and some of Wiley’s best in every dimension.
“Some man do the crime and talk but that’s singin’/ Not many man have been in the wars that I’ve been in”
6Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Open Mike Eagle has always presented himself as a comedian playing the part of a rapper (or maybe vice versa). And not just on his very literally comedic last solo album Dark Comedy, it’s been a core tenet of his sound since the days of his debut almost a decade ago. Interweaving his cultural and political observations with a smarmy comedic undercurrent that gave his music the feeling of a casual conversation. The topics of his songs may have ranged from race politics to mental illness but the whole affair never felt too confrontational. I guess Open Mike Eagle was sick of the jokes.
Not that there aren’t comedic moments on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, but it’s delivered with a seriousness and severity that Open Mike Eagle has only ever really dabbled into before. By the time the album ends with “My Auntie’s Building”, describing the destruction of his Aunt’s public housing project, and the masses of people it displaced, Open Mike Eagle no longer feels conversational, he feels confessional, and confrontational. The beat shakes and Mike’s voice cracks at the thought of it, the injustice he feels like the world is drowning in. His moments of bliss and reprieve come not from the daily doses of joy that Mike so often spoke of on previous projects, but from nostalgia (“95 Radios”), and hope for the next generation (“Daydreaming in the Projects”). There’s just no joy on the news, or in the streets for him anymore. Mike’s world is too serious, too tangible for jokes anymore. But the music here doesn’t suffer from this new Mike, in fact, it’s never been better.
“That’s the sound of them tearing my body down, to the ground”
5Loyle 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 laidback, working man beats that blend pristine, melancholic guitars with classic, dusty drums, to his delivery that feels like an intimate conversation at the back of a pub, Loyle’s music feels like a good friend you can trust.
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 big issues, or “political” issues. Loyle’s eyes are very much 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.
“Cause this is for the men of the house who were far too young/ See your friends are growing up but feel you can’t do none”
4Wednesday 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. Its resurgence in 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 embrace 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 began 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, defined by their internationally renowned electronic scene. Over the past 4 or so years, a great deal of artists began to emerge with hip-house sounds, and influences. The best of them all, far and way, was Wednesday Campanella. Since their 2013 debut, they have slowly building towards a sound that was intoxicating, and blissful in a way no hip-house had been before. Here on Superman, that sound is even more vibrant than ever, and explodes open with great washes of colour on singles like “Aladdin”, and “Ikkyu-San”. Not to neglect the vocals from the incomparable KOM_I, which stick in the brain harder than they ever have before, as well as flow over a beat like water. Perhaps it’s bold to say, but it may well be the best hip-house full length of all time. An incredible capstone for an incredible year for Wednesday Camapanella.
“Ten times faster than the setting sun/ I run like the black wind/ As I turned at the last corner/ I saw the tower of Syracuse”
3Tyler The Creator – Flower Boy
Since the early days of Tyler The Creator’s music I’ve always felt a certain distance from the man behind the music. Sure there was personal stuff scattered across Wolf, Goblin, or even Cherry Bomb, but the personality of Tyler the character always seemed much bigger than Tyler the person. “Yonkers” was always the image that I associated with him, and I thought it might end that way, then Flower Boy happened. It seems like Tyler finally found the way to express himself in a way that is earnest and striking, and it turns out that the person was more interesting than the character all along.
From the blissful piano chords of “Where This Flower Blooms”, to the cutesy little synthesizer funk that ends the final moments of “Enjoy Right Now, Today”, Tyler feels so in tune with his emotional state that beauty and love pour out of him without any difficulty or challenge. The marvel of Flower Boy is not in the moment-to-moment highlights but in letting it wash over you, like the confessions and inner thoughts of a close friend for whom you feel a deep affection. Jokes and absurdist nature included, just an endearing quirk to someone whose personality was already big enough to draw the eye.
“I can’t be alone/ I been starting to feel like I don’t know anyone/ So now I’m staring at my ceiling fuckin’ going/ Like I have no idea where I’m going/ Tick tock/ (Damn, gotta get outta here)”
2Kendrick Lamar – Damn.
With DAMN., Kendrick pulled the greatest heist in pop-rap history. Hidden beneath that shiny, 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 densely compacted beneath that 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 profoundly lonely conclusion that could only come from Kendrick where he is now, 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, 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, a sort of philosophical sigh, like “Damn. Didn’t get anywhere today either”.
“Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?/ Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life/ While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”
1Brockhampton – Saturation 1, 2, & 3
A simple revist to our halfway year list for hip-hop and you’ll find Brockhampton at a comfortable 4th place, a measured prediction on my part. Six months, and two albums later, and I’m finally convinced. Brockhampton was the most necessary thing to happen in hip-hop in 2017. Not that any of the 3 albums individually are better than some of the albums lower on this list, no, it’s the trilogy together that earns this placement. Brockhampton represent such an energetic, unpredictable shot into the arm of hip-hop culture in 2017, from it’s diverse and youthful cast of rappers to it’s sonic absurdism and eclecticism.
Brockhampton is the place where Pharrell, Kanye, Tyler the Creator, and Frank Ocean meet into a single coherent sound, the sound of a new generation emerging fully grown. As auto tuned croons melt into bouncy, bubbly drums, and distorted samples. Until the next song of course, where Brockhampton will make their flirtations with Yeezus as high frequencies screech over brittle drums. Over each album, and between each of the three albums, Brockhampton exhibit a constant sonic restlessness that has, in a way, becomes their own defining sonic trait. Constant music whiplash from front to back, as Brockhampton plunge the depths of youthful malaise and frustration between sugary bangers.