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Which Rap Albums in 2017 Were Good and Which Ones Were Bad?

Two Ringer staffers boil their opinions down to one-word verdicts on releases from Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and Cardi B and the rest of the year’s big hip-hop LPs

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Shea: Justin, for this article I have a very simple idea: Let’s you and I go through some rap albums that came out this year and decide if they were good or bad. Can we do that? Let’s do that. And you’re only allowed to pick from one of those two words. There’s no alternate option.

Justin: The world is filled with ambiguities and nuances that we will ignore for the sake of this column. Good or bad. Got it.

Shea: Good.

Justin: Good.

Shea: First, though, let’s you and I settle on at least one thing: Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. was the best rap album of the year, right? That has to be true, right? It was just too smart, too well-written, too well-constructed, too powerful not to be, right? Think about “Humble.” Think about “Duckworth.” Think about “Element.” OH MY GOD, THINK ABOUT THE VIDEO FOR “ELEMENT,” which was incredible because it was perfect, or the video for “DNA.,” which was incredible because it had Don Cheadle rapping in it. DON CHEADLE WAS RAPPING.

Think about that.

And think about how much fun it was when everyone was trying to figure out if Damn. was actually a double album, only to find out later that it wasn’t technically a double album, but spiritually, yes, it was a double album because of the whole playing-it-forward-or-backward thing.

Justin: Kendrick’s album is good. But Jay’s album is better. And, frankly, there are several albums and mixtapes that I enjoyed more than Damn., which hasn’t stuck with me as resoundingly as Good Kid, m.A.A.d city; To Pimp a Butterfly; and untitled unmastered all have. Still, it’s good. I would put all this year’s Young Thug and Chief Keef tapes over it though.

Shea: Jesus Christ. OK, a follow-up question then: Is Kendrick Lamar the best rapper alive right now? And to be clear: There’s definitely a difference between “of all time” and “alive right now.” Michael Jordan is alive right now, and he’s the best basketball player of all time, but he’s not the best basketball player alive right now. He’d get dusted by a bunch of current NBA players if they played one-on-one tonight. That’s the same way I’m talking about “alive right now” when I say, “Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive right now.” Jay-Z is still alive, you know what I’m saying? And, if you’re considering all factors, he’s probably the greatest rapper of all time. But he’s not better than Kendrick Lamar right now, same as Jordan isn’t better than, say, Kevin Durant right now.

Justin: Young Thug is the best rapper alive and has been the best rapper alive for a couple of years straight.

Shea: I … I … I … how … I …

Justin: However, Kendrick is good. Also, I think it’s unfair to count Jay out like that. Unlike other middle-aged rap gods, Jay is still making acclaimed, successful music, and he hasn’t gone through that unfortunate and otherwise inevitable late-career rapper phase where he suddenly sounds like he’s just totally forgotten how to rap. Jay has outlasted Ice Cube, Eminem, Rakim, and many others in this sense, but I won’t belabor this point. Jay, too, is good.

Shea: Let’s do some albums. I’ll start: Was Kamaiyah’s Before I Wake good or bad?

Justin: I like the new Kamaiyah album a bit better than the previous Kamaiyah album, A Good Night in the Ghetto, which is also good, and which a lot of rap fans liked, and which introduced people to Kamaiyah in the first place. Yes, Before I Wake is good. Here’s a good song:

Shea: I’m a big, big fan of Kamaiyah. There are a bunch of different things I like about her and her music (it’s always very buoyant, even when she’s talking about heavy matters; it’s always very insightful, even when it feels like that’s not the point, and sometimes especially when it feels like that’s not the point; it always feels very packed with color, which is a thing only the most talented rappers can pull off), but what’s most appealing is the way she’s able to take pieces from a bunch of different sounds and turn them into something new. And more than that, it’s the way she’s able to do so without it ever feeling like she’s mining nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. On “Leave Em,” for example, she samples TLC’s “Creep,” and sampling a song as massive and monumental as “Creep” is almost always an overstep. But by the end of the song, she’s turned it into her own winding, cosmic, lush thing.

A bonus: She pulled off a similar trick in 2016 when she sampled Snoop’s “Doggy Dogg World” on “Freaky Freaks,” and also on “Dope Bitch” from Before I Wake when she sampled Tha Dogg Pound’s “Some Bomb Azz (Pussy).”

Another bonus: “Creep” is about a woman who has decided that, since her boyfriend is cheating on her, she is going to cheat on him. “Leave Em” is about a woman trying to convince another woman that she needs to leave her boyfriend because he’s not a good person. It is, essentially, an ideological extension of “Creep.” There’s no way you can convince me that that’s just a coincidence. Kamaiyah is brilliant.

So she’s able to modernize things in a way that turns them into something that’s new while also paying homage, but she’s also capable of creating stuff that feels forward-thinking and inventive, like what she did on “The Wave” or “Playa In Me” or “Therapy.” (There’s a guy named LE$ in Houston who can walk a similar tightrope. His most recent tape, The Catalina Wine Mixer, was phenomenal.) It’s all just very wonderful and exciting. I agree with you. A Good Night in the Ghetto was one of the 10 best tapes of 2016. Before I Wake is one of the 10 best tapes of 2017.

Verdict: Good.

Justin: We need to talk about Future, who released two albums within a week of each other this year, and who arguably made the most interesting rap album this year.

Shea: Future’s Hndrxx? Good, right?

Justin: Yes, though I’m still more so partial to Future, the first, more conventional half of that release set.

Shea: I wish that every rapper was required to put out an album release set where one album was his or her normal self but the second one was something a little more bizarre. Like, I would kill for a Gucci Mane country album. That would be very great. (Related—Gucci’s Droptopwop: Good.) To your original point, Future’s music has always, either by intention or not, hinted that Hndrxx—consisting almost entirely of him singing and cooing, produced through some brilliant underwater filter that made everything sound like he was the most emotional merman—was coming. And still, when it finally showed up as part of his two-separate-albums-one-week-apart release, it was very surprising. It’s really great. The way he cries “These tools are you for you to uuuuuu-UUUU-uuuuse me” on “Use Me”; the way he skips across the beat on “Incredible”; the way he swims naked through energy waves on “Hallucinating”; the way he retreats into himself on “Turn On Me.” If you and I were hanging out at two in the morning on a weekday and this album came on, I might try to argue that it’s the best Future tape we’ve ever gotten.

Verdict: Good.

Justin: Hndrxx is Future’s strange, unexpected pop turn, and has captured rap fandom’s imagination to an impressive degree. I’m self-conscious in my aversion to Hndrxx; there are just a lot of bright tones on that album that aren’t what I’m trying to hear when I listen to Future records. It’s like when Prodigy started rapping over very digital, very 2000s rap beats instead of dark, dusty, obscure Havoc samples. I can’t quite process it and am having an admittedly conservative reaction to it.

I hereby declare Hndrxx good and myself a hater.

Shea: That response for real hurt my feelings, Justin. This is a cataclysmic betrayal. Do you remember in that movie 300 when the hunchbacked guy (Ephialtes) betrayed the Spartans because Leonidas wouldn’t let him fight alongside them? That’s you right now. And, FYI, I very easily could’ve gone with a Donnie Brasco reference there instead, and it would’ve worked just as well because Johnny Depp betrays Al Pacino at a truly heartbreaking level in that movie. But I’m so upset at you right now that I refuse to compare you to Johnny Depp, who is beautiful, because you are behaving in a very ugly manner right now, sir.

Here’s one for you: J.I.D.’s The Never Story. What’s the word here? Because I really liked it. The way he tinkers around, pulling words and phrases until they somehow snap together, is fun. It feels a lot like he’s at his best when he lets himself lean all the way into his innate weirdness—“Underwear” was one of the most exciting songs of the year, and “EdEddnEddy” was legit thrilling to hear for the first time—but he’s interesting enough to still be likeable when he’s ordinary, which is no small feat.

Verdict: Good.

Justin: I’ve followed Dreamville for a while, but I’m unfamiliar with J.I.D. and don’t want to foul your enthusiasm with an uninformed take. So this one’s all you. Speak on it. I’m listening to the tape as you type.

Shea: The most moving line—

Justin: Hey, “Never” is pretty good!

Shea: —on The Never Story happens on “Hoodbooger” when J.I.D. says, “Boy, I’ve been happy with nothing / Imagine me if I got it.” It’s an—

Justin: “Lil’ savage-ass, ratchet-ass, bastard-ass, havin’-ass, rappin’-ass, jackin’-ass; wait!”

Shea: —easy-to-miss line, but that sort of aspirational charm is always appealing to me (when it feels genuine, I mean).

Justin: Thank you, Shea, for putting this tape on my radar. I’ve been rather distracted this year, as you’ll notice I’ve been writing about politics more than music for The Ringer—a good website. Luckily, you’ve got my back.

Shea: I mention it because I heard a rumor that you do not like Cousin Stizz, who is, I would argue, the best at capturing that feeling right now. (I, as is already on record, love him and One Night Only.) Please explain yourself.

Justin: Cousin Stizz has a flat voice and dry musical instincts. I’m sorry. But every joke you made about J. Cole in our previous debate, except for all the farting jokes, is really a joke about Cousin Stizz, as far as I can tell. I just don’t hear a lot of there, there. Dare I say: bad.

Shea: I just want you to know—nay, I need you to know—that everything you just said right now was the opposite of true, and the next time I see you I’m going to hit you in the head with whatever substantial object happens to be nearby, be it a rock (if we are outside) or a laptop (if we are in the office), or a pipe (if, for whatever reason, we happen to be in a Home Depot).

Justin: Well, that’s not good.

Shea: Let’s pivot some.

Are we both of the mind that Cardi B is currently bulletproof and that Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2 was good? There’s just something about her full-mouthed mega Bronx accent that turns everything she raps kinetic and confrontational.

Justin: Yes, but also—Cardi’s brash mode suits the broader shift that happened this year— hip-hop retook control of the pop mainstream. It’s a shift that began with “Panda” and then “Black Beatles” a year ago, and it culminated with Cardi’s own no. 1 single, “Bodak Yellow,” her breakout hit, a spooky, commercialist sermon that only Cardi could’ve sold so transcendentally.

New York hip-hop scored another decent year. Now that I think about it, hip-hop’s founding capital has sort of reimagined itself as a source of viral, individualistic success stories—Bobby Shmurda, Desiigner, Cardi B—even as its broader, genre influence continues to pale in comparison with hip-hop from the South, the West, the Midwest, and even elsewhere along the East Coast, such as Boston, Philly, and the DMV. It’s a pretty diverse and prolific landscape these days!

Shea: We have several more albums to discuss in detail, but there are a ton that we’re not going to get to. I’m gonna throw 12 extra ones at you and all you can do is mark them as either “Good” or “Bad.” I’ll put mine in parenthesis.

  • Migos’s Culture (Good)
  • GoldLin’ks At What Cost (Good)
  • Logic’s Everybody (Bad)
  • Meek Mill’s Wins and Losses (Good)
  • Drake’s More Life (Bad) (Originally, I’d thought it was very good. I think I’ve flipped on it.) (It’s just that I can’t remember even three of its 65 songs.) (Sorry, I know I was supposed to say only one word.)
  • 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music (Good)
  • Lupe Fiasco’s Drogas Light (Bad)
  • Joey Bada$$’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ (Good)
  • XXXTentacion’s anything (Fart Noise)
  • Jaden Smith’s Syre (Good)
  • Lil Pump’s Lil Pump (Bad)
  • G-Eazy’s The Beautiful & Damned (Bad)

Justin: I know we pitch ourselves as a hopelessly opposed pair of rap critics, but I think I agree with all of this, with the exception of the Migos album, which is pretty boring, but at least defies the earlier phase of the Migos ascendency when all their projects were way too damn long. Meek’s album is my favorite from this batch. I’m not listening to G-Eazy. Not in this economy.

Shea: You and I both thought Young Thug’s Beautiful Thugger Girls was good (though, to be clear, I thought it was juuuuuuuuuust barely strong enough to be called “good”). And we also both liked CyHi’s No Dope on Sundays. (It was very textured and very assertive. I like that kind of rap, particularly when it comes during waves of rap that is the opposite of that.) And we also both liked Jay’s 4:44 (though, obviously, we liked it to varying degrees, what with you saying it was the best rap album of the year, and me correctly saying that, no, it wasn’t, it was actually probably closer to, like, the 11th-best rap album of the year). What about Big Sean and Metro Boomin’s Double or Nothing?

Justin: There’s one, indispensable record from the Big Sean tape. It’s “Pull Up N Wreck,” featuring 21 Savage, which is good but doesn’t quite make up for the overabundance of bad Big Sean rapping that ruins the tape overall.

Shea: Here’s the thing: I think Big Sean is good.

Justin: He can be good. “Is” is strong. Let’s not get carried away.

Shea: I think his voice has an interesting timbre and also I think he’s an interesting writer.

Justin: I think “Big Sean is an interesting writer” is one of your more interesting opinions. By “interesting,” I mean “curious.” I don’t mean “good.”

Shea: I say that with reference to the way he builds his songs so that there are moments when his words tumble and cascade over each other. I do not say that with reference to the way that he says things like, “She doin’ tricks with her pussy / I guess she’s a vagician” or “Pussy so good I never fuck you in the ass.”

Justin: Good to know.

Shea: That said, I cannot, in good faith, say that Double or Nothing is good. There are a few spare good parts to it (the quirkiness of “Pull Up N Wreck” is genuinely enjoyable, as you’ve mentioned, as is Travis Scott on “Go Legend”), but mostly it’s a dud. I guess Big Sean was … *in a Big Sean voice so perfect you’d swear it was the real Big Sean* … a dud-ician on Double or Nothing.

Verdict: Bad.

Justin: Yes, bad. But your “dud-ician” punchline is worse. No small feat. We’ve talked a lot about older rappers and mid-career rappers—but do you listen to the kids, bro? Which younger, upstart rappers were you into this year?

Shea: Did you by chance listen to Kodie Shane’s Big Trouble Little Jupiter? It was good. I’m excited for what her 2018 looks like. I think she’s going to be the breakout star from Yachty’s Sailing Team group thing he has going on. (Yachty’s Teenage Emotions, since we’re here, was bad. It was missing all of the magnetism of his Lil Boat tape. It felt like that movie The Hangover Part II, if that even makes any sense.)

Justin: We agree on Yachty. All our other disagreements withstanding, we agree on Yachty, and so I feel like we just concluded the Cold War.

Shea: Here’s a divisive one: Vince Staples’s wild, experimental Big Fish Theory. Good or Bad?

Justin: It’s good. Better than his Def Jam debut album, Summertime ’06, which was way harsher than Big Fish Theory, which is, in purely technical terms, some real slick shit. But weird nonetheless. In fact, I’m surprised to hear you describe the album as divisive in comparison to the broadly acclaimed Summertime ’06. I haven’t really followed the critical consensus surrounding this album; I just know it sounds a lot more robust and resounding, and cleaner, to me personally.

I’m curious, though—what leads you to describe Big Fish Theory as “experimental”? Our readers must know.

Shea: “Experimental” in the sense that he’s trying out a bunch of things he has not done before. Do you remember those old science-experiment boxes they’d sell at Toys “R” Us or whatever where it’d be, like, 20 different experiments inside? It’s like that, except there aren’t any instructions, so he’s just making shit up. Also he’s a genius, so it all just works out perfectly.

Maybe the thing I liked most about Big Fish Theory was that it was somehow expected (if any one major-name rapper was going to make a rave-rap album in 2017, it was going to be Vince Staples, who seems to honestly not care one single percent what anyone has to say or feel about his music, and I say that as a compliment) while also being entirely unexpected (VINCE STAPLES MADE A RAVE-RAP ALBUM!!!). I remember listening through the first time and, on at least three different occasions, I picked up my phone and clicked the screen on because I wanted to make sure I was still listening to the correct album. I like when a rapper does things like that without it ever feeling like the reason they’re doing it is just to do it. Music should always function as a natural response to something. (In Vince’s case, Big Fish Theory was a response to the oddity of fame.)

What about Tyler’s Flower Boy? Because Flower Boy and Big Fish Theory have a similar ethos.

Justin: I am a bad Tyler, the Creator critic since I’ve never given a shit about anything that Odd Future, as a group, has done in its entire run. Tyler’s recent solo stuff is interesting. To me, he sounds more like a curator than a musician; I would also say this about Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky, both of whose taste in music is way better than their music, and who will occasionally win me over just by rapping over the right, rich sound-bed. “Pothole,” featuring Jaden Smith, on Flower Boy, is a good example of this. It’s good.

It is weird to think that Tyler, the Creator is, effectively, a middle-aged rapper in spirit at this point. He’s continually obsessed with 2000s middlebrow rap aesthetics and couldn’t seem further removed from the hip-hop zeitgeist despite the fact that he clearly styled it.

Shea: Talk to me about Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2. I’d originally been of the mind that it was good, but I can’t shake the feeling that its best piece came from someone who was not Lil Uzi Vert (Pharrell on “Neon Guts”). I care very much about “444+222,” and “20 Min” fucking goes, and “Skir Skirr” is charming. But those other 17 songs… I don’t know, man. I like Uzi as an internet personality. And I love Uzi as an avatar or indicator of what rap is shifting toward. (The most insightful thing I read about Uzi as a representational figure this year was when, while discussing the oddness of the structure of several of his songs, Naomi Zeichner wrote at Vulture: “This is also, for me, the most compelling example of rap’s present and near future: a style that’s emo and grunge-influenced, at turns soft, dark, and catchy.”) But that might be where I get off the train, you know what I’m saying?

Justin: I have a different theory about how you’re processing Lil Uzi Vert. Hear me out. I think artists and fans alike are adapting to broader shifts in the attention economy that, as far as music consumption is concerned, have rendered songs more important than albums. I think Lil Uzi Vert’s breakout year wasn’t driven by his album. It was a messier, songs-driven snowball that has culminated with a sort of ubiquity that doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with Luv Is Rage 2, which is good, but which is also sorta beside the point if we’re talking about the state of Lil Uzi Vert in 2017. Kendrick and Future are the last active rap titans who have very heavily album-driven narratives. Ideally, I think everyone else is working song-to-song. On Twitter, I shared a ranking of the 50 things released in 2017 that I enjoyed most. I included a whole bunch of specific songs, but no albums. It just seemed right. That’s just how I engaged with music this year. Song-to-song. Does this sound odd—or, worse yet, bad—to you?

Shea: I think I might agree, but I also think it’s even more proof that Kendrick is the best rapper alive right now. It’s easy to exist as a powerhouse in songs. Anyone can have a good game, you know what I’m saying? To do so with an album, though, that’s a whole different, harder, more impressive thing. I think.

Justin: Albums are good, I agree. Also, yes, Kendrick Lamar is good. Wow, I think we agree about pretty much everything at this particular point in our lives. Music truly unites us. It’s good.

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