2016 was a mixed year for big-ticket rappers. Atrocity Exhibition was arguably Danny Brown’s best album yet, Young Thug continued to hold our attention, and A Tribe Called Quest released a comeback album that confounded all expectations, but Kanye West, Drake, and Chance The Rapper released patchy follow-ups to their stellar 2013 releases. Meanwhile, several anticipated releases failed to arrive before Christmas, and several more appeared as short pseudo-EPs rather than satisfying full-lengths.
In the underground, it was another story. There was a frighteningly large amount of good music released this year. Some of the best albums didn’t really inspire me to write about them, but that’s not a reflection on their quality. Around half a dozen albums fully deserved a place on this list and are only missing because I have nothing to say about them.
Briefly, honourable mentions must go to: Astronautalis’ Cut the Body Loose; Saba’s Bucket List Project; Kemba’s Negus; the collision of underground favourites Apollo Brown and Skyzoo on boombap revivalist The Easy Truth; L’Orange and Mr Lif’s dystopian adventure, The Life and Death of Scenery; two consistent projects from Mello label mate Oddisee; Fudge’s cheeky Lady Parts; Kamaiyah’s hugely acclaimed A Good Night In The Ghetto; and the people’s favourite, Elzhi’s long-awaited return on Lead Poison. I can only apologise for not doing them justice.
So the following twelve albums aren’t necessarily the best twelve underground hip-hop albums of the year. They’re not quite the most exciting, either. They’re not necessarily the very most creative or distinctive. But they are all exciting, creative, distinctive, and great. They make you think and test your preconceptions of what hip-hop is or should be. They’re not necessarily the best, but perhaps they’re the most essential.
- Nyemiah Supreme – Happily Ever After
Hip-hop used to be neatly geographically distinct. Not any more! While some New Yorkers hold down the boom-bap sound that the city was once known for (Joey Bada$$ is the foremost amongst them), increasingly East Coast rap is hard to distinguish from Southern rap.
Although Nyemiah Supreme could easily be filed alongside Desiigner, that would be a mistake. Yes, there’s a clear trap-influence in the beats that Supreme has chosen, but she’s got much more to say than a copycat rapper could do. She’s much more compelling even than A$AP Rocky of late. One minute she’s resisting label pressure to be “more like Nicki”, the next, she’s channelling Gangsta Boo in celebrating good cunnilingus. It’s a short project, but promises a lot – particularly if Supreme can move away from trap-influenced beats to a more cosmopolitan sound.
- Ocean Wisdom – Chaos ‘93
2016 was a good year for Brighton. The football team finish the year with every chance of promotion to the Premier League, Caroline Lucas was re-elected leader of the Green Party, and Ocean Wisdom became the city’s first nationally successful rapper.
Although Wisdom’s music owes a lot to hip-hop – his staggeringly dense wordplay and highly technical flows will surely appeal to fans of Tech N9ne and Eminem – he has a British sense of social commentary, which, as bizarre as it is to say it, is better rooted in The Jam than Public Enemy. Although the density and aggression is what gets people excited, the album’s highlight is probably “Heskey”, a slower-paced track that seems Wisdom compare himself to the former England and Liverpool striker as he cruises on the motorway. At this point, Heskey’s highly successful career, including 110 Premier League goals, 63 England caps, and getting the best out of both Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, has largely been overshadowed the “no tekkers” meme. Technical feats and erudition will win Wisdom many fans, but the memes are what will stick longest in the memory.
- Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing
This is probably the most direct protest album of the year. Williams is known as a poet first and foremost, but MartyrLoserKing stands as evidence against the idea that poets are whispering old bearded men with no sense of urgency. Williams launches tirades against social media, against capitalism, and against corruption. “Fuck you, understand me” is the line that people talk about, and with good reason, but this is a complete work that shouldn’t be reduced to a buzzphrase. The instrumental backing provided by producer Justin Warfield matches Williams’ fury and dynamism. There’s a strong industrial vibe, but not at the expense of melody – this isn’t “noise rap”, rather something more akin to “sound rap”. Williams is relentless, almost to a fault – he’s probably too cynical and slightly out of touch. Nonetheless, this is an outstanding piece of work that deserves wider attention.
- Koi Child – Koi Child
If you have tried to talk to someone on the internet about music this year, the chances are you have discovered Anderson .Paak and fallen in love. There’s also a good chance that, like me, you’re sick to death of being told to listen to Anderson .Paak, how creative Anderson .Paak is, how nobody is talking about Anderson .Paak, and what a great debut Anderson .Paak’s fourth album is.
Koi Child are like Anderson .Paak, but actually good and less interested in toilet humour or doing shit impersonations of Kendrick Lamar. Formed from the merger of Kashikoi and Childs Play, they make vibrant, funky music, and cover it with fun-loving hip-hop. Helped by production from Kevin “Tame Impala” Parker, this is jazz-rap at its best. It’s warm, groovy, and easy going. Forget hip-hop – this is the best psychedelia album of the year. Sure to appeal equally to fans of The Roots and The Byrds.
- Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere
Heems and Riz M.C. are the best Desai rappers of the US and UK respectively. Heems made his name in Das Racist, and last year released his first solo record, Eat Pray Thug, telling of his struggle to be brown and American in post-9/11 New York with humour and pathos. Riz is an actor and comedian with a sideline in conscious rap. He released Englistan early in 2016, but his collaboration with Heems really drew the best out of him. The two trade bars, desperately trying not to be outwitted by their partner. They find common ground in their experiences as Asian men on each side of the Atlantic, but it’s not just about being an outsider who gets randomly searched every time they go on a plane. They’re citizens of the world, partying and having fun everywhere from Palestine to Turkey. Which isn’t actually that far. While this isn’t quite as hard hitting as Eat Pray Thug, it’s still an excellent project. It could quite fairly be painted as its more optimistic b-side, celebrating Asian culture rather than defending Asian existence, embracing opportunities rather than protesting injustice. In this troubled world, we need positive affirmations of diversity, and Cashmere firmly accomplishes that, earning its place at the table.
- Joey Purp – iiiDrops
At the heart of the vibrant Chicago scene lies SaveMoney. The group rose to global attention in 2013, as leaders Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa released stunning mixtapes which blended a wide range of musical influences while also containing a solid emotional core. 2015 was a breakout year for several of the low-profile members of the group. Nico Segal’s Surf and Towkio’s .wav Theory were both well-received attempts to expand the group’s sound, but the most exciting SaveMoney project of 2015 was Leather Corduroy’s Season. Duo Kami De Chukwu and Joey Purp spit over a more varied production palette than their colleagues, experimenting with different song structures and flows.
Joey is the best technical rapper in SaveMoney, but has historically produced his best work with Kami or as a featured artist. His “breakthrough” mixtape, The Purple Tape, failed to earn him the same attention as Chance and Vic, and there was a sense that Joey had missed the train. iiiDrops shows that he is capable of crafting a great project on his own. The brass-heavy production is distinctively SaveMoney, although a little safe, and Joey rides each beat expertly. While his depiction of women is disappointing – there are several songs dedicated to “thots” and “hos” – Joey is otherwise socially conscious, highly observant of street life and capable of spitting bar after bar. “Cornerstore” and “Winners Circle” are particularly harrowing. On Vic-assisted “Winners Circle”, Joey spits the best sixteen of the modern Chicago scene:
Vision’s blurred how about you niggas try to change your fate
You killin’ niggas in your hood, you the KKK?
What’s the difference between you and them?
Boys in blue and the boys in white
I used to be with them
Boys in blue sellin’ poison white to my own folks
Joey’s expected to work with Kami on a new Leather Corduroys mixtape at some point in 2017. If they successfully combine Kami’s ambition with Joey’s lyrical firepower, then they should finally move the SaveMoney spotlight away from Chance and Vic.
- clipping. – Splendor and Misery
Previously a cult industrial noise-rap group, clipping. have reached a wider audience of late due to Daveed Diggs’ success as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Splendor and Misery dials back the industrial influences in favour of soul and particularly gospel but is no less ambitious. Diggs’ rapping is just as dense and acrobatic, while his storytelling is tighter than ever. Telling of a spaceship that falls in love with its only inhabitant (a rebellious slave who breaks free and murders the crew), Splendor takes cues from Dick and Her, but less obviously from romance fiction going back to Shakespeare. The love story is driven by a kind of reckless insanity. From the omniscient, lovestruck ship’s perspective, Diggs picks out details of the slave’s life which conjure a suffocating, claustrophobic atmosphere. To escape it, the slave periodically puts himself into suspended animation for centuries, which the ship passes in agony and loneliness. Despite its sci-fi setting, it is littered with pop-culture references, with allusions to “Juicy” and “Control” being most effective. This is a staggering and hard-hitting piece of work.
- Noname – Telefone
Despite a popular misconception, Noname isn’t actually a member of the SaveMoney clique, so I’m under no legal obligation to compare Telefone to Acid Rap.
As with Saba’s Bucket List Project, there are some shared musical cues with SaveMoney, but there’s no way you could mistake this for a SaveMoney mixtape. Noname’s too chilled, too understated, too introverted. It’s a breath of fresh air. There aren’t many rappers who sound at all like this without getting dull. Elzhi flirts with it, but Noname embraces it for a whole project. Raury, who appears on standout track “Diddy Bop”, is probably closest, but doesn’t have Noname’s command of imagery.
There are some undoubted similarities to iiiDrops. Both of them confront the violence of Chicago alongside wider societal issues like the BLM campaign. Telefone reminds us that death is a daily reality, and for some, it’s a constantly looming spectre. Noname speaks of babies buried in suits, imagines her funeral after she’s mistakenly shot by the police, and hopes that Twitter will bring her “something holier than black death”. But it’s far from an album of unrelenting misery, particularly musically, with plenty of optimistic RnB and soul influences apparent. Noname herself is also peddling hope, describing “Freedom Interlude” as “a song for overcoming”. Yes, there’s a lot messed up – but don’t despair. That’s the only message that ever leads to things getting better, and it’s what Noname has to offer.
- Ka – Honor Killed The Samurai
The samurai motif that runs through the spoken word sections linking Honor’s tracks would naturally draw comparisons to Liquid Swords if there was any other similarity between these two albums. There isn’t. GZA’s won fans through his lyrical acrobatics and remarkable extensive vocabulary. Ka, who owes his fame to a feature on Pro Tools, is no less talented as a lyricist, but much more economical. He’s ruthlessly concise , giving every word maximum impact. The instrumentation is also stripped right down, often lacking percussive elements altogether. Even Ka’s delivery is stripped right back. He’s monotone and emotionless. That would normally be a point against. Not here. Instead, it allows his lyrics to resonate without distraction, and even draws more out of them, emphasising the monotony of poverty and the tragic mundanity of violence.
Picking out a single line feels wrong. With Ka, every line says something important, but is inseparable from the surroundings. There are no punchlines or cheeky one liners. This is not easily digestible. This is not as fun as Lil Wayne. This will not make you dance. But if you let it, Honor Killed The Samurai will envelope you, and reward repeated listens again and again and again. This is a rare album that gets inside your head and never quite goes away, without getting “stuck”. Commit to it fully.
- Kano – Made In The Manor
The story of grime right now is that it’s struggling to gain mainstream relevance in America, with Skepta, anointed by Drake and Kanye, being the poster child for this. While it’s true that Skepta has achieved a degree of penetration that no grime artist has come close to since Tinie Tempah or even Dizzee Rascal, he remains trapped in the “thug music” caricature that has plagued hip-hop for so long.
Enter Kano. The 31-year-old rapper’s fifth studio album is very much a grime album, but it doesn’t allow itself to be limited. While it’s not “RP cuppa tea music”, as Kano puts it, it’s not afraid to push on grime’s conventions or taboos. For example, Kano’s unafraid to show a vulnerable side. This is an album steeped in nostalgia and sentimentality. On “Lil Sis”, Kano regrets never getting to know his half-sister, who he only met once. Elsewhere, he offers olive branches to lost friends and pines for the simple days of his youth, and even samples KC and the Sunshine Band.
The beats are as icy as ever, the atmosphere is still dark, and Kano’s still keeping it real – but there’s a certain maturity to that concept. When you’re a successful professional, rapping about shooting a rival isn’t keeping it real. Kano’s sufficiently introspective to realise that. The manor he was made in is neither a twee bohemia nor a clichéd gangland, but rather an ordinary London estate that, like every neighbourhood, acquires an almost spiritual reverence from the people who grow up there. That’s so much more real and relatable. Kano’s made an album that warrants comparisons with The Suburbs.
- Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
It’s debatable whether this is even really hip-hop, or more like spoken word poetry set to music. Let Them Eat Chaos combines the two styles excellently. It follows seven ordinary people awake at night on the same London street. Spoken word narration links the rapped soliloquies which drive the album. Tempest is a poet first and foremost, but there’s no doubt that she can rap. She cites the Wu-Tang Clan as her main influence, and there are hints of RZA and ODB in here aggressive flows. Her characters are well realised and nuanced. Gemma recounts her wild youth on “Ketamine For Breakfast” without either pulling punches or slipping into self-recrimination. Exhausted carer Esther tells us, hauntingly, that “Europe Is Lost”, which rather than being a predictable tale of Brexit woe, makes us progressively less sympathetic as her misanthropy and xenophobia bubble to the surface. This is a frighteningly well-realised portrait of the social woes of modern Britain. If there were one album to force a nation to listen to, it would surely be this.
And an honourable mention to…
Open Mike Eagle and Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
On paper, this album was incredibly exciting. Paul White’s work with Danny Brown has resulted in some of the best music of the decade, and Open Mike Eagle’s 2014 LP, Dark Comedy, is a cult favourite jam-packed with witty social commentary and hard-hitting punchlines.
Hella Personal Film Festival doesn’t live up to that billing, but that’s a huge ask. The production is solid enough, and Mike brings some good bars – he complains that he’s “avoided like a ghost fart” until people realise that black guy is a famous alt-rapper – but there’s a lack of real magic.
Despite that, I wanted to write about this album. It stuck with me in a good way. It just didn’t compel me the way that previous works by these artists have. Dark Comedy is underground rap at its very best, ready to go on a date with an exciting hottie. Hella Personal Film Festival is underground rap on an ordinary day – and the ordinary days are just fine, thank you.
Listen to Dark Comedy and Acid Rap and Eat Pray Thug and Honor Killed The Samurai and Lead Poison and Let Them Eat Chaos. Listen to Danny Brown and MF DOOM. Listen to Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar or whatever makes you happy. But also try to listen to projects like Hella Personal Film Festival. Embrace the beauty of the extraordinary without losing your ability to appreciate the beauty of the good-but-ordinary. The extraordinary doesn’t come around every day, so make the most of the ordinary. And when you find yourself accidentally writing a negative review, desperately try to pass it off as a life lesson for your readers rather than cutting your losses and deleting the whole thing.