Best Hip Hop Songs - 2017
In 2017, I wasn't sure what to expect with hip hop as a genre. Would rappers take on the Trump era politics? What sounds would underpin their raps? The result, it seems to me, was less of a political response to Trump and more of celebratory declaration of Black and Latinx identity. Since people of color are constantly policed and undermined, Trump didn't do much change their raps so much as elevate and clarify them into forward leaning sonic exercises. The top 25 tracks I've selected range from the deeply spiritual to electronic ragers to impassioned feminist anthems and everything in between.
Here they are:
25. Bohan Phoenix - "PRODUCT"
24. Lethal Bizzle (ft. Skepta) - "I Win"
23. Crysp (ft. Anita Got Bars) - "Decisions"
22. A$AP Mob - "RAF"
21. Bbymutha - "Rules"
20. Maliibu Mitch (ft. Paul Couture) - 4 AM
19. Princess Nokia (ft. Wiki) - "Saggy Denim"
17. Rapsody (ft. Kendrick Lamar) - "Power"
16. Future (ft. Kendrick Lamar) - Mask Off (Remix)
15. J HUS - "Clartin"
14. Loyle Carner - "Ain't Nothing Changed"
15. Saba - "There You Go"
13. Little Simz - "Good For What"
12. Smino - "Netflix & Dusse"
11. Jay Z - "The Story of O.J."
10. N.E.R.D (ft. Rihanna) - "Lemon": When this song dropped, it was hard not to be immediately hooked, particularly when Rihanna entered and stole the track from them, spitting out, "Tell the paparazzi get the lens right." This is fun, infectious track that may have done better to be released at the height of summer, but it is nonetheless once I have on repeat, particularly during those morning commutes.
9. Aminé (ft. Missy Elliott and AJ Tracey) - "REDMERCEDES (REMIX)": Aminé has had a breakout year in 2017 for being quirky and witty, producing mostly 2-3 minute tracks that frequently make you feel joyful. But on "REDMERCES," Aminé really ups his game, when he raps, "Rolling deeper than Adele when we go out / If the ladies show up, then we show out." When Missy Elliott enters, we are treated to her signature bravado, as she chimes in, "You know you like to see me when I'm nake / Junk in my trunk, gon' beat / Look back at it, I'm thick, thick." It's an unexpected collaboration but one that seems to pass the torch off to the next generation.
8. clipping. - "The Deep": The clipping. are a group that are known for being quite grating, borrowing noise and other distorted electronic elements with varying success. On "The Deep," however, they perfect the most sonically interesting rap track of 2017, with a beat that progressively intensifies and seems to plumb the depths of an ocean. The inspiration behind this song is Afrofuturistic storytelling from the 90s group Drexciya, and is an apt commentary on global environmental destruction.
7. Cardi B - "Bodak Yellow" - Love it or hate it, you have to admit that "Bodak Yellow" is the single biggest cultural phenomenon of 2017. The moment I returned to New York City in August after being away from the city for a week, I heard this song. Cardi B doesn't write her own music but her delivery captures both the spirit of the Bronx and the spirit of those sultry summer evenings, showing up to make a coin. Though this is partly a classic diss track, it's also Cardi B exploring the hustle that has made her career possible. "I'm a boss, you a worker bitch / I make bloody moves" are two lines forever imprinted in my brain.
6. Stormzy - "Big For Your Boots": Stormzy emerged in 2017 as the UK's most critically acclaimed and anthemic rapper. "Big For Your Boots" feels to me an equivalent of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," though of course without the same United States presence. Built on classic grime instrumentals, Stormzy raps, "You're getting way too big for your boots / You're never too big for the boot / I've got the big size twelves on my feet / Your face ain't big for my boot" to put other rappers in their place, while also rejecting the usual diss politics and violent swagger that can dominate the genre. Stormzy is king but he doesn't rule the throne with an iron fist; he rules with his lyricism.
5. GoldLink (ft. Jazmine Sullivan and KAYTRANADA) - "Meditation": Almost everything Kaytranada touches turns to gold an this GoldLink track is no exception. Like a number of other tracks I've loved this year, this one is about a night out on the dance floor, but the production amplifies the informal dancehall quality of the track, making it looser and breezier than anything else to come out of 2017. Jazmine Sullivan's vocals also provide and sexy and seductive counterpart to GoldLink's desire and gaze. Unexpectedly, and as a memorable gesture, the track ends with gunfire, perhaps to show just how fleeting pleasure on the dance floor is.
4. Run the Jewels - "Call Ticketron": Though RTJ3 isn't as strong an effort as RTJ2, "Call Ticketron" is one of the duo's most accomplished songs to date. As an nod to the electronic computerized ticketing software, it manages Run the Jewels playing at Madison Square Garden, one of the city's largest and most iconic venues. It's braggadocious but manages to infuse wit and lightheartedness throughout, like when they rap, "It's a daily lick, I slit throats with a grin that reek of pure shit / Travel by backflip, eat from the river, the panther heart taught to talk by smart chicks." This is precisely the track that would get a stadium of fans on their feet and moving to the beats.
3. Vince Staples (ft. Kendrick Lamar) - "Yeah Right": Vince Staples has continued to defy expectations again and again while also maintaining an air of mystery in the process. He's incredibly smart, often throws red herrings at the press and on social media, and doesn't seem to conform to any rap conventions. On his new album, he's traded his breezy Los Angeles aesthetic for Detroit, Berlin and Chicago deep house and techno beats. "Yeah Right" is one of the many highlights, elevated by SOPHIE's production and Kendrick Lamar's guest verse that builds the intensity to its breaking point.
2. Tyler the Creator - "I Ain't Got Time!": I did not like Tyler the Creator before 2017 because of his homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. I still struggle with his past, but Flower Boy has changed my opinion of him greatly. All self-produced, Tyler infuses sensitivity and conflicting points of identification together into a decidedly queer tableau of musings. On "I Ain't Got Time!", Tyler maintains his signature raucous style but throws a lot of curveballs, critiquing caricatures of Black masculinity and declaring he's been kissing white boys since 2004. The beat in this song is weird and wild but it works so well.
1. Kendrick Lamar - "FEAR.": Nobody else is making rap music at the level that Kendrick Lamar is making it. With DAMN. I had significant anxiety that Kendrick would go too commercial or too obscure, but he managed to combine the hooks of earlier work with the conceptual nature of To Pimp A Butterfly, creating one of the best rap albums of his generation. "FEAR." is his longest song on the album but it is, without a doubt, his best. Here he raps about 3 periods of time in life, from his early childhood years to the years in Compton that brought on the streets and into addiction to his time now, an undeniable musical star. Each period finds Kendrick changing the flow and structure of his raps. The effort is sensitive and perfectly executed.