Hip-hop ruled in 2017. In fact, the genre surpassed rock as the most dominant in the United States. Taking advantage of that, veteran stars returned to glory with some of their best work yet, while newcomers surprised audiences with impactful debuts.
Rappers delivered an array of excitement. Kendrick Lamar solidified his crown with DAMN., while JAY-Z displayed long-hidden vulnerabilities on 4:44, which earned him eight Grammy nominations. Migos and Drake kept making undeniable hits with Culture and More Life, respectively, while Lil Uzi Vert added some shoulder shimmying fun to the mix with Luv Is Rage 2.
On the R&B side, SZA took Ctrl with her acclaimed debut, Kehlani was a SweetSexySavage, and Khalid brought old soul to American Teen, while Daniel Caesar broke out with Freudian. Together, they all helped usher in a new era of R&B with many emerging artists making a dent on the charts through soulful gems.
From Kendrick to Young Thug, here are Rap-Up’s 20 best albums of 2017.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
In the ominous opening scene of Kendrick Lamar’s spectacular “HUMBLE.” video, the Compton rapper has a light shining down on him. Clad in a regal robe, King Kendrick’s fourth major label album DAMN. showed that K-Dot knows how to elevate his game under the spotlight, too, especially after two of rap’s most acclaimed albums of the past 10 years, good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly. Balancing introspection with banging production, deeply personal narratives with global implications, and intertwining it all with a gifted storyteller’s flair, Kung Fu Kenny solidified his spot as one of the strongest and most important artists in music today.
2. JAY-Z – 4:44
Shawn Corey Carter introduces his 13th studio album with “Kill Jay Z.” The stunning self-reflection allows him to bury the ego and emerge from the introspection with a sharper perspective. From there, Mr. Carter outlines the album with pensive soliloquies about infidelity, regret, and pain, as well as growth, forgiveness, and self-love, creating his most personal and candid album to date. Other themes, including entrepreneurial wisdom, race, and unity, are explored with his usual poetic tilt, only adding to his “Legacy” as a G.O.A.T.
3. SZA – Ctrl
Before releasing Ctrl, SZA cried. Things got so bad, in fact, that she wanted to quit making music. “I remember feeling like, ‘Damn, maybe I suck. Maybe I should try something else?’” she said. It turns out, there was no need to worry. Her debut album through Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA became a massive success that resonated with listeners through deeply personal songwriting. Combined with Solana’s soulful vocals, those lyrics became romantic anthems and empowerment cries that inspired listeners through songs like “The Weeknd,” “Normal Girl,” “Go Gina,” and “Doves in the Wind.”
4. Khalid – American Teen
Much of the world was introduced to Khalid through “Location,” a smooth and charming single that manages to blend youthful lyrics (“I don’t want to fall in love off a subtweet”) with the vocal range of an old soul. But the Texas teen would reveal that he could deliver much more from that pool of talent, including standouts like the reflective “Angels,” the catchy “Young Dumb & Broke,” and the soothing “Coaster.” Sure, Khalid might be young, but he isn’t dumb or broke, and if American Teen is any indication, the 19-year-old is here to stay.
5. Migos – Culture
Migos’ Culture starts with a strong declaration from DJ Khaled, about anyone who’s ever doubted the group: “You played yourself!” Thanks to their chart-topping “Bad and Boujee” smash, the group earned their first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200. Songs like “T-Shirt,” “Slippery,” and “Deadz” solidified their status as infectious hook writers with a penchant for catchy ad-libs over thumping production. It was such a success, both critically and commercially, that a Culture II is now in the works for the top of 2018, proving Khaled’s declaration correct.
6. Drake – More Life
Drake promised more chunes for head tops in 2017 and he delivered with More Life. Setting itself apart as a “playlist” instead of an album or a mixtape, the 22-song project provided irresistible tracks like “Passionfruit,” “Gyalchester,” “Portland,” and “Get It Together.” As a playlist, it also played out like a representation of Toronto’s diversity, booming with influences from places like England, Jamaica, South Africa, and U.S., all under through the 6 God’s lens.
7. Kehlani – SweetSexySavage
Kehlani planned on showing off multiple sides of her personality with her long-awaited debut album, SweetSexySavage. While that’s exactly what she did with her first full-length LP, the Oakland songstress also ended up showing many sides of her talent. Inspired by classic R&B from the ’90s and early aughts, the Bay Area songstress provided soulful, edgy, hip-hop-infused ditties with pop sensibilities on standouts like “Keep On,” “Distraction,” “CRZY,” and “Personal.” Since then, she’s been named Billboard Women in Music’s “Rule Breaker of the Year” and has released the soothing “Honey,” which shows Lani’s not stopping anytime soon.
8. Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2
After much anticipation, Lil Uzi Vert unleashed his debut album, Luv Is Rage 2, to a swarm of applause. Led by the infectious top 10 hit “XO TOUR Llif3,” the album delivered on SoundCloud hype with commercial viability. By topping the Billboard 200 and earning a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, Uzi established himself as one of hip-hop’s biggest success stories of 2017. With his eccentric style and daredevil stage show, the 23-year-old also became a bonafide rockstar. Next year, he might even follow Luv Is Rage 2 and its deluxe edition with a Marilyn Manson-led sophomore album.
9. Jidenna – The Chief
It would have been easy to dismiss Jidenna as the “Classic Man” after his dapper anthem soared through the Hot 100. But the Nigerian-American singer-rapper shut all doubters out with The Chief. The creative and vibrant effort showcased the burgeoning star’s diverse skill set, including powerful thumping raps (“Long Live the Chief,” “2 Points”), dance-ready bangers (“Little Bit More,” “The Let Out”), socially-conscious works (“White Ni**as,” “Bully of the Earth”), and romantic throwbacks (“Bambi,” “Adaora”), all wrapped up in a compelling and catchy package.
10. Daniel Caesar – Freudian
Toronto continues to birth stars. One of the latest standout musicians to come out of the 6 is Daniel Caesar, a stirring vocalist who released an inspired debut album in Freudian. The soul-drenched project puts D.C.’s impassioned voice on display, matching up with moving musical accompaniments like “Hold Me Down,” “Get You” with Kali Uchis, the H.E.R.-assisted “Best Part,” and “Take Me Away” featuring Syd.
Rap-Up’s Best Albums of 2017: 11-20
11. Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1
12. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
13. Majid Jordan – The Space Between
14. Joey Bada$$ – ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
15. Future – HNDRXX
16. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
17. Miguel – War & Leisure
18. Ty Dolla $ign – Beach House 3
19. Snoh Aalegra – Feels
20. Young Thug – BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS