Step Off! Magazine’s Top 5 Hip-Hop Albums of 2017

#5. Kendrick Lamar: Damn.

Kendrick Damn.In a year full of stellar releases it goes without saying that Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album Damn. tops the list as one if not thee most hyped and lauded releases of 2017; topping virtually every Hip-Hop head’s top pick for the coveted pick of top spot. With a swift announcement date and a visually stunning music-video to ‘Humble’ kicking off the album’s debut Damn. was quickly propelled by immense listener anticipation and strong, positive word of mouth approval on the streets by fans. However, nearly ten months later, now that the initial hype and excitement of a brand new release has subsided does Damn. still live up to the praises it gained during its initial run? Frankly, the album is a mixed bag of great moments, not so great moments and then just downright confusing ones that fall somewhere in the middle. Conceptually, there is always more than what initially meets the eyes in regards to Lamar’s work. However, conceptually speaking Damn. is definitely Lamar’s most vague, ambiguous project to date. With the loose storyline and vague one word track titles, the album has opened itself to conspiracy theorist abound who have debated everything from the album’s meaning, the belief the LP is meant to be played backwards, to even going as far as speculating a second accompanying album was surely on the way early on in the album’s first week of release. And, while the album does manage to keep the guest appearances down to bare minimum, the selection of featuring U2 and Rhianna as the album’s sole featured artists through its entire run time is a confusing one to say the least. The strengths on Damn. shine brightest more so in their individual moments as opposed to being judged as a whole. ‘DNA.’, the album’s first opening track is a boisterous, energy filled banger that kicks off the album perfectly setting the stage with a monster of an opening. However, the momentum created by ‘DNA.’ is quickly doused by the relatively slower tempo and energy that accompanies a majority of the songs present on the remainder of the fourteen track album. However, individually the tracks that do work are dead-on when they manage to hit their marks. ’Duckworth’ produced by the legendary 9th Wonder is an exemplary storytelling record. With 9th continually switching up the production as the song progresses, not unlike what he did for MURS nearly fifteen years prior on ‘Walk Like A Man’ in their first collaboration album Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition. While the Alchemist produced ‘FEAR’. is a dark, brooding, sample-heavy, paranoia laden record where the Compton emcee laments some of his deepest fears, whether it be falling off and returning to the inner-city projects of Compton or just simply being judged by others. Even tracks such as ‘LOVE’. which could have easily been waved off as a cheap cash-in record crafted specifically to cater to the top-40 crowd hits its mark in a way only Lamar could manage to pull off. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Damn. falls victim to the successes previously made by it’s predecessors. In comparison, Damn. is not nearly as focused as Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, but not nearly as innovative or envelope pushing as To Pimp A Butterfly either. Which is made all the more obvious by the absence of Thundercat, who played a large part in the sound and direction on Lamar’s previous LP; making only one appearance on the track ‘FEEL’. When one removes the hype, Damn. is an average album coming from an emcee of Lamar’s caliber. The album simply plays it too safe and never takes the listener to new heights like in previous projects. As an individual album, Damn. is head and shoulders above most domestic Hip-Hop releases in 2017. However measured up to it predecessors, Damn. is a far cry from the incredibly high standards set by both Good Kid M.A.D.D. City and To Pimp A Butterfly. But, if Damn. proved one thing in 2017, it proves that not only in an era dominated by flavor of the month novelty records/artists, and a environment oversaturated by over simplistic mumble/trap rappers there is still a market for introspective, thought provoking lyrics and subject in mainstream contemporary Hip-Hop; but, that Kendrick Lamar still has plenty more left to offer up to the music world.

#4. Thundercat: Drunk

Thundercat - Drunk - Front & Back CoverOutside of his loyal hardcore fanbase, much of the world was first introduced to Thundercat on Kendrick Lamar’s seminal third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly back in 2015. And while Thundercat only made a brief appearance on Lamar’s Damn. this year, fans disappointed in the bass virtuoso’s absence from the project were lucky enough that the master himself was gracious enough to bless the music scene with a solo album of his own reminding us why we fell in love with his sound in the first place. Drunk, another release that dropped early on in the year, serves as Thundercat’s third full length studio album and first solo album since 2013’s Apocalypse as well as his first full length project since working on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Much like Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! which dropped just a few months prior to Drunk, the album is yet another project that manages to blur lines and genres marrying Funk, Jazz, Soul and Hip-Hop is a strange, wonderful cauldron of sound and vibration. As pointed out in our own review of the album earlier this year Thundercat’s “signature brand of interstellar cosmic-soul and psychedelic, electro jazz-funk fusion along with layered, spacey almost dreamlike vocals, all return along with the use of vintage synths, keyboards, a combination of live and programmed drums” all make a welcomed return on what is easily the South-Central bass guitarist’s most accessible, and jubilant album release yet. The album also boasts an eclectic roster of guest stars, featuring the likes of Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Wiz Kalifa and Pharrell who all various contributions throughout the album’s twenty-three tracks. Even musical cohort Kendrick Lamar managed to drop by to make an appearance on “Walk On By” on what is easily the highlight collaboration featured on the album. Re-united together once more, the duo’s collaboration easily could be mistaken for a long lost gem somehow forgotten as an extra left off To Pimp A Butterfly or Untitled Unmastered to languish on the cutting room floor. A true testament to both of the artists undeniable chemistry, and natural compliment that each one’s music gives one another on the record. Simply put, the album not only retains what initially drew fans in to begin, but also manages to walk to the fine of introducing new elements as well. Whether that be shorter track lengths, more left-field guest features or simply just an overall more upbeat atmosphere present on the album. Drunk, really does manage to deliver the best of both worlds to both long time fans, as well as newcomers who likely were introduced to to his work through To Pimp A Butterfly. While many artists fearful, of being forgotten or labeled one dimensional constantly change styles. Ever chasing the latest trend or craze, Thundercat proves that artists can successfully build up a strong, loyal bases; while also adding new fans by sticking to what works for them. No matter how strange, different or experimental it may be.

#3. Joey Bada$$: All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$

Joey BadassJoey Bada$$ is perhaps one of the most touted and hyped artist to step foot on the Hip-Hop scene in recent years. Since the releases of his breakthrough mixtape 1999 nearly six years ago back in 2012; Joey Bada$$ has quickly ascended the ranks to the top of Hip-Hop’s premier elite lyricists. Going from underground Hip-Hop darling once hailed for ushering in the return of classic New York Boom-Bap production to being lauded as one of New York’s great new emcees, and even somewhat outgrowing his title of being the purveyor and spiritual torch bearer of true school East Coast Hip-Hop. In short, the past several years have been a whirlwind in the young artist’s career, so needless to say when it was announced back in 2016 that the twenty-two year old Brooklyn emcee would be releasing his sophomore LP following up 2015’s B4.Da.$$ Hip-Hop heads hailing from both underground and mainstream persuasions alike rejoiced at the prospect of a brand new album. What fans got was not only more mature and fully developed album, but, a far more dark, gritty, politically conscious release that serves as a proper reflection of the feel and mood of the times in the U.S. under a Trump administration. Joey manages to take several shots at Trump, notably on the track ‘Land of the Free’ released on inauguration day as single rapping “Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier/Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need some more closure/And Donald Trump is not/equipped to take this country over/Let’s face facts ’cause we know what’s the real motives”. As well saying bolding proclaiming “And if you got the guts, scream, “Fuck Donald Trump” on ‘Rockabye Baby’. Joey also touches on a range of other topics from the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, mass incarnation and the hyper criminalization of African-American men and boys as well as the general angst of coming of age in the nation’s current political climate. And while the album certainly has its own political angle, it never comes off as too preachy or heavy handed in its approach. It goes without saying All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is a stellar top tier album, however, the project isn’t without it’s own few flaws. While the production is more cohesive, sonically it is far less varied than that previously heard on B4.Da.$$ which works both towards the advantage and disadvantage of All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. While the album is by far Joey’s most cohesive project released to date, the dark droning production has a tendency to blur together particularly during the final quarter of the album’s run time. This perhaps may be in part due to a switch up in production responsibilities heard on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. While B4.Da.$$ featured the likes of both DJ Premier, the late J. Dilla along with The Roots and Static Selektah supplying production on the album’s stand out tracks; this time around both Statik Selektah and Chuck Strangers have a noticeably diminished role handling the production responsibilities. In fact, Chuck Strangers only supplies one production credit this time around for the ScHoolboy Q assisted “Rockabye Baby”. However, fellow Pro Era member Kirck Knight does step up to the plate and see’s a much expanded role handling the album’s production on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. The album also takes full advantage of its guest feature roster which includes the likes of such lyrical heavyweights like Styles P, ScHoolboy Q and J. Cole. While it is disappointing that producers such as DJ Premier were not brought along to contribute to the album this time around, the stand out tracks as well as its guest features truly are among some of the best released in 2017. Some highlights include ’Temptation’, ‘Land of the Free’, ‘Rockabye Baby’ and Super Predator just to name a few. All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ is not only one of the most politically conscious and aware albums of the year, it’s also evidence that this early on his career, Joey Bada$$ still has room to reach even greater heights than he already has lyrically and conceptually.

#2. Big K.R.I.T.: 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time

4eva-Is-a-Mighty-Long-TimeFew artists in the game can claim the same grind and work ethic of Big K.R.I.T.. Since bursting on the scene in 2010 with his critically acclaimed mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here the Meridian, Mississippi has dropped five album quality mixtapes and three studio albums; the latest being the double album 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time. Three years since the release of his last studio album, Cadillactica back in the fall of 2014 and two years since the release of his most recent mixtape It’s Better This Way the following year, K.R.I.T. made sure to hold no punches on his long awaited third studio. His first release since his departure Def Jam after a near two year absence from the music scene; what fans received was a two disc, twenty-two track star studded spectacle and a monster of an album. Jammed pack with an all-star supporting cast of emcees, singers, musicians and producers enlisted by K.R.I.T. himself, the album is arguably the most disciplined and ambitious project of K.R.I.T.’s career to date. Featuring the likes of T.I., Bun B, the late Pimp C, CeeLo Green, Sleepy Brown, Loyd, Joi, Jill Scott, Keyon Harrold, Kenneth Whalum, Burniss Earl Travis II, Bilal and Robert Glasper; the album is by far K.R.I.T’s most feature heavy release yet to date. With every artists contributing something special and unique on his latest musical journey. Like many album’s related in 2017 the album’s concept centers around the duality and humanity of K.R.I.T.’s very own identity, taking listeners on a introspective exploration of the contrast between the flamboyant, boisterous artist who boast and flexes on disc one. While the album’s second disc examines Justin Scott; the humble, grounded man behind the conjured up Hip-Hop persona that laments and ponders the various, sometimes overwhelming complexities of life. Like many artist who put out records in 2017, K.R.I.T. finds himself in a unique position, a crossroads if you will. A half-way point, whether that be in terms musically on the album or the literal position in which his career currently falls into. Musically the album is jammed with stunning, head nodding tracks that will have any Hip-Hop head instantly bobbing their head. Highlights include tracks such as ‘Big Bank’, a booming, soul infused banger making expert use of a classic Willie Hutch sample. Featuring a stellar guest verse from T.I on what is easily the most energetic, high-tempo, block rockin’ track on the entire album. Other highlights include the Mannie Fresh assisted track ‘Subenstein (My Sub IV)’, an electrifying, trunk thumping anthem which serves as the fourth entry in a quadriliogy of ‘My Sub’ tracks from K.R.I.T.. While ‘Ride Wit Me’ features a verse from the legendary Bun B and a hook from the late Pimp C. Utilizing unused UGK, the track is a testament not only to the late Houston emcee’s lasting legacy but to UGK’s immense influence that the group still holds on southern Hip-Hop as well. Lyrically and sonically not only is 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time one of the best albums of the year; its a testament to and culmination of everything K.R.I.T. has worked for thus far. From living out the dream of being a signed artist, the opportunity to break free and pursue a successful career independently, to even working with and befriending some of his very own heroes who inspired him to get in the game in the first place. 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time embodies all of this and so much more, making it not only one of the most stellar albums of 2017; but a release who’s re-play value will far outlive the year and beyond.

#1. Jay-Z: 4:44

jay-z-4-44-cover1In an era where surprise albums have become a bit of a cliche the public has to an extent become a bit numb to the shock and awe of surprise blitz releases from big name artists. However, few were expecting Jay-Z’s release of 4:44, the past summer; his first release since 2013’s Holy Grail Magna Carta. In what could have easily been another phoned in run-of-the-mill album, Jay delivers what is definitively his most personal, introspective album date. 4:44 is in a sense a return to basics album in regards to production, while conversely exploring a brand new plain in reference to lyrical content. Jay-Z steps into largely uncharted territory on the album making it musically the most vulnerable Jay-Z has ever been on record in his twenty plus year career. Delving into subject matter such as his infidelity and cheating on wife Beyonce Knowles, It’s a rare candid moment seeing Jay-Z’s guilt and shame truly on full-display, which most importantly comes off as truly sincere and genuine. As we said in our own review last June, “It’s not very often to hear Hip-Hop artists (albeit one often touted as the greatest rapper alive) admit to the whole world to hear that infidelity is not okay and confide to their audience the most personal and darkest secrets and it is expertly handled in way that is uniquely Jay”. Lyrical content aside Jay-Z doesn’t slack off in the production department either. 4:44 arguably features what is easily the best, most cohesive block of production to be featured on a Jay-Z album since The Blue Print back in 2001. Serving as the album’s one lone producer the album is helmed entirely by Chicago producer No I.D., who’s unbridled and uninhibited direction gives the project a distinctly focused and mature sound. As well as a sense of discipline which is largely absent on most contemporary Hip-Hop releases as well as past Jay-Z projects. Not unlike what the Chicago producer did for Jay’s former rival Nas on his last album Life Is Good, five years prior which coincidentally covered similar subject matter. At its core, 4:44 delivers the best of what Jay-Z has to offer as an emcee while pushing him to step out of his comfort zone and tackle deeper, more mature subject matter. Save for a few occasional tracks here and there Jay-Z has largely avoided exploring the same depth and lyrical introspectiveness his other musical contemporaries have made a name for themselves exploring in the past. After nearly twenty plus years of over the top braggadocios rhymes and skin deep superficialness which has come to define his hustler, businessman persona; it’s a refreshing change of pace to hear Jay-Z show human vulnerability as well as see him embracing his age and maturity. To many die hard Hip-Hop heads, Jay-Z’s superficialness to his music and over the top businessman persona has been his achilles heel. So for him to actively shed this front in exchange for a more candid approach, this late in his career is a monumental step not to be downplayed. At forty-seven years of age Jay-Z managed to turn the entire internet on its head leading up to and following 4:44’s release. In an industry that is rarely kind to aging stars, and a genre that is often times even crueler to its own pioneers and innovators, Jay-Z proved that Hip-Hop is not just a young man’s game, and that the genre has yet to reach new heights and peaks as some as the genres greatest writers approach middle-age and utilize the perspective, judgement and wisdom which only comes with age and experience. Ultimately what Jay-Z had to offer on 4:44 that few other emcees could is life experience. It’s traits and qualities cannot be faked, they cannot be taught, nor can they be re-created in a studio, and they whole heartedly come across loud and clear on 4:44 not only making it our top album of year but one of our top Jay-Z albums as well.

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