2016: The Year in Rap

While 2016 may have failed humanity on most fronts, it marked a banner year for rap, as well as an opportunity.

In case you haven’t heard, 2016 was piss-poor for a lot of reasons—Tim Duncan retired, Cersei got her way in King’s Landing, the Ghostbusters remake sucked.

Luckily for us rap fans, 2016 was an awesome year, full of breakout stars and prophetic returns. Here are some of the best rap songs of the year, as determined by super important categories I created.

Best Feature

Andre 3000, “Solo (Reprise)” – Blonde

It’s not enough to simply be rewarded with Blonde, Frank Ocean’s first album in about four years. A little over halfway through the album, as “Nights” ends with Ocean’s voice slowly fading, THE Andre 3000, the same artist who told the tale of Sasha Thumper, surprises us all with a minute-long verse on “Solo (Reprise).”

In case you can’t remember all of it, here’s everything 3 Stacks did in his verse:

  • Delivers a brief, sobering statement on police brutality and how he’s begun to normalize shootings
  • Claims he doesn’t care about the latest fashion, which admittedly is hard to believe
  • Calls out girls who had reconstructive surgery, yet say they want a real man
  • Apologizes for contributing to hip-hop’s current state of misogyny
  • States that he doesn’t much care for women or money anymore
  • Hints at a possible solo album
  • Calls out rappers who use ghostwriters

It was like Andre called you in the middle of the night to vent about the state of hip-hop and the world in general, only for him to abruptly hang up and leave you wondering when you’ll hear from him again. 3 Stacks purposefully stays out of the spotlight, and it only makes this loaded verse more impactful.

The lines which got the most attention were those regarding ghostwriting, as people immediately assumed he took shots at Drake. Unfortunately, Andre’s pal CeeLo Green said during an interview with Sway that the verse was written two years ago, or before the Drake vs. Meek Mill beef began. Even so, for 3000 to shamefully admit he hums along to today’s rap songs implies he doesn’t think the world deserves his next project. For now, all his fans can do is take what they’re given, and pray 3 Stacks changes his mind and blesses us all.

Most Well-Timed Song

A Tribe Called Quest, “The Space Program” – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

Sometimes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. When it was announced that A Tribe Called Quest would be releasing their sixth and final album this year, the project was supposed to merely provide a nostalgic walk through Linden Boulevard and a tribute to the late and great Phife Dawg.

Yet just a few days before its scheduled release date, the first Tribe album in 18 years was branded with a totally different purpose. The black community, and minority groups as a whole, needed to be picked up off the floor after Donald Trump won the presidential election on Nov. 8. Would Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s last project together serve as a temporary healing component and find the right words to help a group of people that were hurting?

The opening track, “The Space Program,” begins with dialogue from the movie Willie Dynamite, stating, “It’s coming down hard / We’ve got to get our shit together.” The song continues with Q-Tip and Phife calling for unity, stressing the importance of getting it together. During the Tribe’s excellent performance of the song on SNL, an emotional Q-Tip takes the time to address those watching him in hope of answers. He asks the crowd, “What [are] you going to do tomorrow when you wake up?”

It’s possible the Tribe didn’t think Trump would win the election while they were recording the album earlier this year. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that We got it from Here was the first full-length hip-hop album released after Trump was named the President-elect. By displaying the same lyrical dominance and thought-provoking wordplay that were the staple of the group’s dominance in the 90’s, We got it from Here pushed back against the hate and panic that sprouted at an alarming rate in the wake of Trump’s election. “The Space Program” is the perfect example of this, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Best Summer Rap Song

D.R.A.M. ft. Lil Yachty, “Broccoli” – Big Baby D.R.A.M.

It was fun to see hip-hop sprout in two opposite directions in 2016. On one side, you had the rise of 21 Savage, whose nihilistic Savage Mode EP with Metro Boomin peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard 200. On the song “No Heart,” 21 raps about the time he was expelled from school for having a gun. “You was with your friends playing Nintendo / I was playing ‘round with that fire,” Savage explains to the audience.

Opposite him, you had the emergence of D.R.A.M., who was working at Best Buy just two years ago and is now putting salmon on his bagels. Born Shelley Massenburg-Smith, D.R.A.M. made some noise with his 2014 hit “Cha Cha,” but it wasn’t until he released “Broccoli” this April that his popularity skyrocketed. More importantly, D.R.A.M.—an acronym for Does Real Ass Music—gave us the perfect song for the long summer.

The aforementioned Lil Yachty opens up this one by asking his lil’ mama if she’d like to be his sunshine, which is Instagram quote material. He follows that up with a Columbine reference, because why not? Nonetheless, Yachty’s verse is, as always, catchy as hell, and easy to sing along to in the car.

And of course, that’s why this song is so fun. D.R.A.M.’s vocals are warm and inviting, like he just wants you to join in and try to hit the high notes. Throughout his debut album Big Baby D.R.A.M., which released in October, the Virginia native displays his natural talent all while providing simple sing-a-longs for us. In his performance of “Broccoli” on Conan last month, D.R.A.M. spends the first minute serenading the audience before launching into the song of the summer we all know and love.

He finished the track with a simple message: “Spread love.” That’s pretty much D.R.A.M.’s motto, and in a year with plenty of political unrest, it’s always nice to hear.

Best Posse Cut

Danny Brown ft. Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, “Really Doe” – Atrocity Exhibition

Hip-hop fans don’t often get treated to posse cuts, and it’s a shame, because at their best, posse cuts can launch rappers to the top or solidify a group’s legacy. Think Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” or A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” when Busta Rhymes went off like a dungeon dragon.

Luckily, Danny Brown came through this year with “Really Doe,” a murkier, darker echo of “Backseat Freestyle” from Kendrick Lamar’s good kid M.A.A.D. city. “Really Doe” features a chorus and verse from Kendrick himself (who Danny Brown credited with the making of the track), as well as verses from Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, two guys we don’t hear from enough.

So why were those guys chosen to be on the cut? In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Brown talks about how the three rappers he thought were better than him were Ab-Soul, Kendrick and Earl, which is why he wanted them on the track. Brown refers to the group as “The Four Horsemen,” which is totally a phrase Danny Brown uses regularly.

Like most posse cuts, this song was meant for the four rappers to flex their lyrical muscles, and as expected, they deliver. Soul talks about bringing his mom’s wedding ring to show-and-tell in the second grade and made it sound really great. Kendrick could have just said “Bet a thousand, shoot a thousand” and ended his verse there, and it would still be a better than his Maroon 5 feature. Earl admitted to dumping his girlfriend because they didn’t argue enough, and that’s interesting to think about.

And tying it all together is Danny Brown, the Detroit native’s trademark voice at the beginning resonating with you until the song ends. It’s part of what makes Atrocity Exhibition as a whole such a joy to listen to.

Best Rap Song by a “Lil” or “Young” Rapper

Lil Uzi Vert, “Do What I Want” – The Perfect LUV Tape

If you follow hip-hop at all, you’ve heard about the beef between “old heads” and the new kids. N.O.R.E. and Vince Staples got into it, Lil Uzi Vert declined to freestyle over a DJ Premier beat, Lil Yachty admitted he couldn’t name five Biggie or Tupac songs.

Maybe you’re one of the few who has a problem with the young stars of rap not respecting their elders, and that’s fine. But if you can’t admit that their best songs are creative and simply fun to listen to, I can’t help you.

“Do What I Want” is the opening track on Lil Uzi Vert’s The Perfect LUV Tape, his second of three projects to come out in 2016. It’s not necessarily a good song—Uzi says the phrase “Now I do what I want” exactly 32 times—but it’s the anthem for the Lil’s and the Young’s of the world who don’t want to make the rap music their dads listened to as a kid.

The feelings “Do What I Want” stirs up don’t just apply to rap, either. In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Durant left Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer. How did the 28-year-old Westbrook respond? He signed a contract extension with the Thunder in August. He’s close to averaging a triple-double. And he used Lil Uzi Vert’s anthem in his latest Jordan commercial, hinting that he’s okay with Durant ditching him. Because now he does what he wants.

“Everybody know I’m better, yeah / Yeah I’m better, yeah” Lil Uzi quips to kick off his first verse. Could a 7-year-old have come up with that? Maybe. But try not to analyze it. Uzi’s music isn’t for everyone, but it’s important that he ignores the “old heads” and continues to carve out his own niche in hip-hop. The Russell Westbrooks of the universe need him.

Best Passing of the Torch

Kanye West ft. Chance the Rapper, “Ultralight Beam” – The Life of Pablo

Phife Dawg and Kendrick Lamar’s “Conrad Tokyo” deserves some consideration here, but let’s be honest, K-Dot has been holding the torch for a while.

From the beginning of his musical career, Chancellor Bennett, AKA Chance the Rapper, has named fellow Chicagoan Kanye West his biggest influence. West’s The College Dropout was the first album he ever owned.

“That was a big thing for me,” Chano said. “After that, I was able to reach back and find music that I loved that represented me growing up. That was my first real experience with hip-hop.”

That’s why Chance’s verse on “Ultralight Beam,” the first track on Kanye’s beautiful disaster The Life of Pablo, holds so much weight. As much as we may not want to admit it, there’s no way of knowing whether or not we’ll get another Kanye West album. But fear not, for West has left us with a god-loving, gleeful 23-year-old who met Kanye West himself, so he’s never going to fail.

For me, the highlight of the verse is when Chance politely requests that nobody else speak during his part. Can you imagine have the gall to ask for complete silence when you’re already opening a Kanye West album?

Of course, where Chance shows confidence, he backs it up with an incredibly impressive verse. When mentioning his year-old daughter, Chance states, “My daughter look just like Sia, you can’t see her,” meaning she won’t be having public playdates with North West anytime in the near future. He also proclaims his next album, which would turn out to be the massively popular Coloring Book, would be so free that “there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.”

Chance had seemingly been stuck on the edge of being a household name ever since his Acid Rap mixtape in 2013 made him a blip on the radar. Once West named Chance The Future and brought him on to help with The Life of Pablo, there was no avoiding Chance’s rise to fame.

Best Anderson .Paak Song

Anderson .Paak, “Come Down” – Malibu

Yes, this award is an excuse for me to talk about Anderson .Paak. Sorry.

Not many hip-hop artists had a better 2016 than Anderson .Paak. His second studio album, Malibu, was Grammy-nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album. He had solid features with Mac Miller, Chance the Rapper, Kaytranada and ScHoolboy Q. Toss in Yes Lawd!, his R&B collab album with Knowledge, and .Paak rightfully earned his Grammy nom for Best New Artist.

“Come Down” is the best song off of Malibu. It’s .Paak depicting his rise to fame while enjoying the fruits of his labor. “You might never ever come down / It took too long to get this high off the ground,” .Paak shouts to his antagonist. He’s been climbing towards stardom for a while now, originally making music under the moniker Breezy LoveJoy. His first album as Anderson .Paak, Venice, was nice, but he didn’t really take off until he appeared on six songs for Dr. Dre’s 2015 album, Compton. Since then, .Paak has been a household name, and for good reason.

In an interview with Hot 97 last year, Ebro asked Anderson .Paak how to pronounce his name. .Paak told him it doesn’t matter, just don’t forget the dot. “They slept on me for so long, so now they got to pay attention to everything, the details,” .Paak said.

.Paak demands you notice what “Come Down” is really about. It’s not just a song to dance to—it’s about a musician who’s worked long and hard to get to where he is now. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope he never comes down.

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