Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

By | June 27, 2017

Every year, this intro basically says the same thing: albums seem to matter less now, the way we consume music is shifting, blah blah blah, streaming, blah blah, singles, blahhhhh. The concept of grouping nine to twenty-something songs together, packaging it with some art, and trying to run some common threads throughout seems pretty arbitrary.

But no matter what happens, this format sticks around for a reason. Whether you call them albums, mixtapes, or playlists, there’s still something special about a full body of work—they’re the cornerstones of any important artist’s career. 2017 has already brought us some great music moments in the form of breakthrough mixtapes, superstars delivering, and cohesive releases that exceed all expectations.

It’s been a good year for the album, and these are our favorites so far.

  • 30. Khalid – ‘American Teen’

 

  • Release date: March 3

    19-year-old El Paso native Khalid first caught our attention with his breakout single “Location,” and he’s continued to impress us ever since. His rich, distinctive voice and unflinchingly honest lyricism are what drew us in, and he continues to make great use of these talents on his debut album, American Teen.

    The album finds him ruminating on young love, self perception, and his desire to leave his hometown in pursuit of his dreams. He wrote the lyrical content of American Teen as he prepared to graduate high school, documenting his complex, sometimes conflicting emotions about diving headfirst into the “real world” in real-time. His classically beautiful vocals bring an element of maturity to his youthful subject matter, forcing listeners to take him seriously regardless of how many years out of high school they are. He pairs his timeless, soulful vocals with punchy pop percussion and maximalist production elements, crafting a sound that is referential of the past, but also forward-thinking.—Charlotte Freitag

    Watch our interview with Khalid here.

  • 29. Playboi Carti – ‘Playboi Carti’

  • Release date: April 14

    When Cousin Stizz was in New York earlier this year, I asked him what he was listening to and he said one name: Playboi Carti. “Yeah, he’s my favorite rapper right now,” he said without hesitation. At this point, I wasn’t convinced that Carti was more than a stylish, connected, cool guy who young hip-hop fans connected with. But when his self-titled debut mixtape finally came out, Stizz’s co-sign popped up in my head and I had to spend time with it.

    Stizz was right. Carti’s lack of effort sometimes seems like a statement that represents everything that young rappers have been proving for years now: it’s not all about skill. Or, maybe that skill can be defined in ways more abstract than just how complicated and intricate your lyrics and rhyme schemes are. Carti’s appeal lies in his ability to tap into the simple things. When you’ve got a good line that fits perfectly into the pocket of a beat, repeat it, drive it home, turn it into that catchphrase that fans can latch onto.

    This formula, along with Carti’s strong brand and lively performances, has made songs like “Magnolia” and “wokeuplikethis*” unlikely hits that hint at a superstar in the making. For every rap fan that dismisses Carti as a talentless hack, there’s another willing to call him their favorite rapper alive. His debut mixtape makes both sides of this argument understandable, but in all honesty, enjoying “Magnolia” is way more fun than trying to hate on it.—Jacob Moore

    Learn more about Playboi Carti’s unorthodox rise here.

  • 28. Sevdaliza – ‘Ison’

  • Release date: April 26

    Gorgeous, soothing projects like Ison sometimes run the risk of settling into slow-paced grooves and getting repetitive or boring. But Sevdaliza and co-producer Mucky manage to pull off quite the opposite on the Iranian-born singer’s full-length debut. Held together by Sevdaliza’s stunning vocal performances, the album’s adventurous production takes twists and turns—mixing trip hop influences with lush atmospheric sounds that somehow keep you on your toes while lulling you into deep relaxation. It’s quite an experience.—Eric Skelton

  • 27. A.CHAL – ‘ON GAZ’

  • Release date: June 1

    Honestly, this blurb probably would have been more accurate if I had just copy/pasted the word “vibes” a couple dozen times, punctuated with a sparkle emoji. Attempting to describe the unique energy of A.CHAL’s music with a few dumb adjectives feels futile. Throughout On Gaz, the Peruvian R&B singer doesn’t shy away from his roots, choosing to include three bilingual songs on the tracklist, proving this is the kind of music you feel even if you don’t understand all the words. Addictive songs like “Love N Hennessy” and “To The Light” are highlights on an album you can play straight through with no skips—preferably on the beach late at night. Vibes.—Eric Skelton

  • 26. Drake – ‘More Life’

  • Release date: March 18

    After Views was seen as a misstep, Drake decided to dial it back by giving folks 22 tracks, an assortment of features (ranging from Jorja Smith and Skepta to Kanye West and Quavo), and a multitude of vibes. From the hypnotic, house-drenched tunes like “Passionfruit” and “Get It Together” to the more turnt “Portland” or “KMT,” Drake found his pocket and rode this “playlist” directly into all the functions.—khal

  • 25. Charli XCX – ‘Number One Angel’

  • Release date: March 10

    PC Music found their conduit to the mainstream in Charli XCX. The British collective that turned heads with a collection of sugary hyper-pop first collaborated with Charli on 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP, and they’re behind most of the production on Number 1 Angel. The resultant project is giddy with adrenaline. Charli is up to the task, as are her guests—MØ, Uffie, and cupcakKe make vibrant contributions over bubbly, sticky beats best enjoyed mid-strobe.

    Charli has retained the punky mystique that made her such an appealing pop star in the first place, but she’s plunging headlong into virtual realities on Number 1 Angel. There are moments when it veers towards sensory overload, but when it works—”Emotional,” “Dreamer,” or “3AM” are post-pop anthems that act as gateway drugs to the album’s heavy stuff—there’s nothing else that sounds like Number 1 Angel.—Graham Corrigan​

  • 24. Tee Grizzley – ‘My Moment’

  • Release date: April 7

    Tee Grizzley’s stock just went up. The Detroit rapper already had one of the year’s hardest songs in “First Day Out,” and then he got cosigns from LeBron James and Jay Z in the same week. Damn. Tee Grizzley wrote all the lyrics for his debut project My Moment while serving time in a Michigan jail, and recorded the song “First Day Out” the day he was released on parole. A video for that song was put on YouTube in November 2016, and it’s since racked up nearly 50 million views.

    It’s not all about “First Day Out,” though—My Moment is incredibly consistent with impressive variety between hard rapping and more melodic moments. Tee has bars for days on tracks like “First Day Out,” “Country,” and “Catch It,” but he also sings on tracks like “Day Ones,” “Secrets,” and “Real Ni**as.” Now signed to 300 Entertainment, Tee is set up to keep winning in 2017 and beyond.—Alex Gardner

  • 23. Stormzy – ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’

  • Release date: February 24

    What a couple of years the young king Stormzy has had. From freestyle videos in the park to singles on the U.K. chart to a U.K. #1 album, the rapper has made an indelible mark with his debut. He combines the raw power and aggression of grime with a pop polish on Gang Signs & Prayer, with Fraser T Smith (Adele, Britney Spears, Sam Smith) enlisted as an executive producer.

    Some of Stormzy’s hardest ever tracks (“Bad Boys,” “Return of the Rucksack”) sit alongside gospel (“Blinded By Your Grace”), R&B songs (“Cigarettes & Cush”), and deeply personal moments (“Lay Me Bare”). People expecting only grime tunes might have been disappointed, but as a complete artistic statement, as a reflection of the breadth of sounds that a 21st century music fan listens to, it’s an essential album.—Alex Gardner

  • 22. Choker – ‘PEAK’

  • Release date: May 10

    Despite inconsistencies and the occasional lack of polish, Choker’s Peak is one of the best debuts of the year. It’s all over the place, but that’s a big part of the reason it’s so exciting. Throwing almost every idea at the wall, with most of it sticking, the album is relentlessly inventive from the moment it starts. More established artists could learn a thing or two from Peak, even if it sometimes sounds like Choker still in the process of learning himself. Listen to “El Dorado” or “Lush” and you’ll soon realize that the young Michigan artist has a very bright future ahead of him.—Joe Price

    Learn more about Choker here.

  • 21. Spoek Mathambo – ‘Mzanzi Beat Code’

  • Release date: April 14

    Spoek Mathamabo explains that his new album, Mzanzi Beat Code, celebrates the rich and diverse culture of electronic music that exists in his native South Africa. Whether you’re familiar with any of the music Spoek is celebrating is not important—in fact, if the words “electronic music” make you think of EDM or mega-festivals, then now is the perfect time to listen to dance music with soul, grit, and real emotion.

    Many different styles collide on the album, from house and techno to rap, folk, and soul, and the peaks and valleys make for a rewarding listen. Whether you’re singing along to the gloriously uplifting vocals of album highlight “I Found U” or dancing to the chunky house track “Black Rose,” Spoek and his expertly curated collaborators are there to guide you through the sounds and styles that inspire them. This is the sound of South Africa, and the sound of our ever more interconnected world. Or as Spoek himself puts it, “Everything clashes to express things that are so specific and local yet global…nostalgic yet right now​.”—Alex Gardner

  • 20. Rex Orange County – ‘Apricot Princess’

  • Release date: April 26

    Rex Orange County is a teenage singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the U.K., and on Apricot Princess he is unashamedly himself, singing autobiographical lyrics that can’t help but put a smile on your face. “When we first spent the night / Nothing else would ever feel that way,” Rex Orange County sings on “Nothing,” the third song on the album. “I’m glad I’m not alone anymore / Is this too good to be true?,” he sings on the next song, “Sycamore Girl.”

    He taps into the awkwardness and pure, giddy joy of young love and captures the trials and tribulations of growing up through his intimate songs, which mix indie rock, R&B, jazz, partially rapped verses, and melody driven ballads. Rex Orange County packs a lot into his songs, which sometimes take unexpected twists and turns, but his songwriting ability holds everything together for one of the year’s most intimate and exciting projects.—Alex Gardner

  • 19. Gucci Mane – ‘Droptopwop’

  • Release date: May 26

    It’s unfortunate but true: some great art is fueled by drugs, alcohol, and turmoil. A lot of times, these are just the side effects of a creative, outside-the-box mind, and they typically end in self destruction. When an artist cleans up their act, the whole creative process can fall apart, but this doesn’t always have to be the case.

    When Gucci Mane was released from prison in 2016, it was obvious that he was a changed man. He was clean, fit, and his new demeanor even sparked an embarrassingly internetty clone theory. It was unclear how the music would be affected, but with Droptopwop, all doubt has been removed. Gucci Mane is a character, with or without the drugs, the belly, and the extracurricular activities. He’s a one-of-a-kind oddball full of left-field charisma and a way with words completely unique to Guwop and Guwop alone.

    Plus, Gucci’s place in hip-hop history doesn’t hurt. This man birthed half of today’s popular rap scene in one way or another, and he can casually drop an album like Droptopwop, produced entirely by Metro Boomin and with features from Rick Ross, Offset, Young Dolph, and 2 Chainz, like it’s no big deal. This is part of the fun of listening to Gucci Mane. You never know what you’re going to get, when the magic is going to hit, and when a song like “Met Gala” or “Finesse The Plug Interlude” is going to sneak its way into your daily rotation. Droptopwop has plenty of these moments, and it’s a positive sign that Gucci Mane is still a fucking legend, even if he is a clone.—Jacob Moore

  • 18. Tennis – ‘Yours Conditionally’

  • Release date: March 10

    Five years after writing their debut album while sailing the ocean, Tennis has done it again. Yours Conditionally is full of masterful songwriting, unique pop melodies, and a muffled, timeless sound that is supremely comfortable in its own skin.

    The first album, Cape Dory, put the husband-and-wife duo on indie rock’s radar. This time Urban Outfitters made sure they blogged their sailing, but the resulting music was just as lush, inviting, and clean. Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are at the peak of their powers on “In The Morning I’ll Be Better” and “My Emotions Are Blinding,” but the album’s second half contains sleeper hits like “Please Don’t Ruin This For Me” and “Modern Woman.” Rock isn’t dead, it’s just out to sea.—Graham Corrigan

  • 17. GoldLink – ‘At What Cost’

  • Release date: March 24

    Up until this point, it felt like we had only gotten brief glimpses of what GoldLink’s all about. That all changed with At What Cost, a debut album that builds upon the framework of his past material in some surprising ways. Genre notions are still, for the most part, ignored, but At What Cost shines best when it highlights GoldLink’s idiosyncratic storytelling. Over frequently challenging and colorful production, GoldLink paints a vivid picture that’s worth really paying attention to.—Joe Price

    Watch GoldLink break down his deeply personal album here.

  • 16. Brockhampton – ‘Saturation’

  • Release date: June 9

    Over a year after delivering their debut mixtape All-American Trash, Brockhampton decided it was time to step things up with their second full-length project. Saturation started its life as a mixtape, but somewhere down the line they decided to call it an album instead, and it’s easy to see why. Fleshed-out, more collaborative, and better in just about every way, Brockhampton’s Saturation is the full realization of their undeniable chemistry.

    Rather than sounding like a handful of great songs showcasing each member, Saturation is the first time their “boyband” tag has made sense. Playing out something like an emo 36 Chambers with everyone pulling their weight, sliding in and out of tracks, the album is a rapturous display of both singular and collective talent.—Joe Price

  • 15. Thundercat – ‘Drunk’

  • Release date: February 24

    If this is a Graham-only list, Drunk is a top five album. But it’s not, so Thundercat got bumped back a bit, even if it’s the most unique album I’ve heard all year. Thundercat is a prolific musician, and each of these 23 tracks can grab the listener immediately. He was able to get Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins on an album together and make it all feel right.

    What Thundercat can do that no one else can is blend a distinct taste for dark comedy with thoughtful questions about existence and death. He has a song with fluctuating time signatures that orbits a hook that demands you “beat your meat, go to sleep.” “Jameel’s Space Ride” might sound like a lighthearted jaunt through the galaxy, but listen to the lyrics and another song emerges. It’s this balance between Thundercat’s musical knowledge and his real-life anxieties that makes Drunk stand alone in 2017, unapologetically weird and undeniably imaginative.—Graham Corrigan

  • 14. Migos – ‘Culture’

  • Release date: January 27

    Back in January, we listed Migos’ then-forthcoming album Culture as one of the most anticipated albums of 2017, and it did not disappoint. After their No. 1 single “Bad and Boujee” blew up towards the end of 2016 and carried its momentum into the new year, it was clear Migos had finally reached a new, unstoppable place. Culture not only came at the perfect time but was a solid packaging of everything the trio does perfectly.

    With 13 tracks, Culture doesn’t miss a beat. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff each deliver fast-paced verses accompanied by infectious melodies, fun ad-libs, and singalong choruses. Often, artists have to change their style or persona in order for their career to reach new heights, but Migos have stayed true to themselves, continued to represent their city, and earn the international love they deserve. Many of us already knew and appreciated how great Migos were, but Culture helped solidify their spot as leaders in contemporary rap music.—Adrienne Black

    See if New Yorkers can identify each member of the Migos here.

  • 13. Rick Ross – ‘Rather You Than Me’

  • Release date: March 17

    Rick Ross has been a defining figure in rap for the past decade, but a lot of his work hasn’t resonated with P&P—until Rather You Than Me. Ross plays to both sides here: he has music genius Raphael Saadiq on the album opener “Apple Of My Eye” and gets all sorts of elegant on “Santorini Greece” and “Idols Become Rivals,” which might be the best Birdman takedown of many Birdman takedowns.

    Then he switches, calling on Young Thug and Wale for the massive single “Trap Trap Trap” before unleashing all hell on “Dead Presidents” with Future, Jeezy, and Yo Gotti. The rest of the album is an interplay between the two Rick Ross’s—the soulful and the violent, the drug talk and the internal anxiety. And the production is up to the task, with cinematic strings and dramatic orchestral moments from Bink! matching Ross’ level of luxury at every turn. Nine albums in, Ross is still finding ways to grow.—Graham Corrigan

  • 12. Mac DeMarco – ‘This Old Dog’

  • Release date: May 5

    Against all odds, Mac DeMarco has accepted that he can’t always be a goofball. The overarching theme of Mac’s latest, This Old Dog, is how things can’t always stay the same. Lamenting strained relationships and addressing how he’s never really got to know his dad, This Old Dog seems, at first, out of character. Moving beyond his reputation for wild onstage antics and offbeat humor, Mac is beginning to accept what it means to be human.

    More developed musically and lyrically, the album is Mac’s most impressive. This is still identifiably him, but there’s a hint of sadness throughout that album that makes it feel like a major step forward. That friend that’s always eager to make a joke is facing up to life, and he’s not taking it as well as one would hope. Listening to This Old Dog isn’t the same carefree experience as Mac’s previous output, but because of that, it is essential listening.—Joe Price

  • 11. Syd – ‘Fin’

  • Release date: February 3

    When you are known for being a part of a collective—first with Odd Future, then three albums later with The Internet—it can be hard to establish yourself as a solo artist. But for Syd, that jump was seamless, and Fin is a perfect example of what a solo debut should sound like. The album oozes sensuality, and at first glance Fin is a highly polished R&B album, one of the year’s best. But beneath the surface of each experimental, slick, and soulful track is a perspective less heard. Fin is the embodiment of the confident independent woman who’s in complete control, and the result makes for tantalizing listening.—Joyce

  • 10. Young Thug – ‘Beautiful Thugger Girls’

  • Release date: June 16

    “Country Billy made a couple millie.” Young Thug flipped the rap world on its head with this one. And while the label “singing album” doesn’t tell the full story of Beautiful Thugger Girls, it’s the best descriptor. Thug traded Metro Boomin’ beats for Wheezy strings and acoustic guitar, creating a collection of songs as beautiful as they are mystifying.

    After the stunning opener “Family Don’t Matter,” Thug leans into the new persona. His hooks are just as catchy (check “She Wanna Party” and “Feel It” for confirmation), and his melodies are just as effortlessly surprising (“On Fire”), but there’s a restraint here that’s been missing from Thug’s previous releases. And a decidedly country influence—he’s warbling and affecting intonations usually reserved for Memphis and Alabama, not Atlanta. This is a new leaf for rap’s Andy Warhol, and yet another reminder that Thug is one of the most uniquely creative artists alive.—Graham Corrigan

  • 9. J Hus – ‘Common Sense’

  • Release date: May 12

    J Hus album for the #1 spot was really all that was on my mind as the P&P team was debating our ordering for this mid-year list. Well, we couldn’t quite all agree on that, but as everyone who listens to this album soon realizes, Common Sense is a special debut album. In a way, the British artist is like Drake—a rapper who can sing, a songwriter with a brilliant ear for melody—but where Drake feels like an outsider trying on different sounds and styles like costumes, J Hus inhabits the very fabric of the music. There’s the influence of the African music that his Gambian parents played him, the sounds of grime and dancehall that surrounded him growing up in London, and the mid-2000s rap that inspired him to pick up the mic.

    All this manifests itself in a wildly varied album that is held together by J Hus’s charisma, whether he’s crooning about making love (“Closed Doors,” “Like Your Style”), rapping about going to war (“Clartin,” “Goodies”), or toasting his success over sparkling production (“Did You See,” “Common Sense”). Executive producer and long-time collaborator Jae5, deserves a lot of credit for the richly textured beats across the whole album, but the biggest takeaway has got to be J Hus’s incredible hooks, melodic moments that pop up on almost every track.

    Highlights abound, but the personal storytelling on “Spirit,” “Who You Are,” and “Leave Me” are highlights, moments of honesty that might stick with you long after you’ve finished dancing to “Good Time.” From London around the world and back, J Hus is providing a blueprint for the future of global rap and pop music.—Alex Gardner

  • 8. Kodak Black – ‘Painting Pictures’

  • Release date: March 31

    Kodak Black’s debut studio album opens with a collection of local news sound bytes that outline his legal troubles—a fitting intro for a project surrounded a long list of distractions including ongoing court dates, bizarre morning show appearances, and feather-ruffling quotables including: “I’m better than Tupac and Biggie.” But as Painting Pictures settles into its groove, we’re reminded why we put up with all of this. At only 20 years old, Kodak Black is one of rap’s most intriguing characters, possessing a distinct style that stands out from his peers.

    On his studio debut, Kodak sounds more polished than we’ve ever heard him—rapping over intoxicating beats from guys like Metro Boomin and Mike Will Made It​ that make up a canvas for his colorful lyrical imagery. In the same way that the simple illustrated album cover is immediately recognizable as Kodak, when you hear the young Florida artist rap for a few seconds on any of these songs, you immediately know it’s him. Whether it’s his unique way of describing the world he sees around him or little melodic decisions that no one else would consider making, everything about this project feels true to Kodak himself.

    Kodak Black is far from perfect, but there’s an honest, relatable quality to this kid that shines through all 18 tracks on Painting Pictures—making it difficult not to root for everything to fall in place as he maneuvers through all the distractions.—Eric Skelton

  • 7. Future – ‘FUTURE’

  • Release date: February 17

    At this point in my life, Future is like a gospel artist to me. Not like Lecrae, either (no offense). I’m talking a Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond gospel artist. Time and time again Future digs deep into the many trials and hardships he has gone through in order to uplift, encourage, and entertain us. When FUTURE released, there were some who thought, and maybe even prayed that this would be the beginning of the end for Future Hendrix. I was not one of those soulless haters.

    Future slapped doubters in the head with “Mask Off” and took over the streets, clubs, and cars nationwide like he seems to do every year. The 17-track project also features an aggressive introduction with “Rent Money,” fun tracks like “Draco,” and of course records like “Feds Did A Sweep” that dive deeper into the darker side of the Atlanta superstar’s past.—Eric Isom

  • 6. Lorde – ‘Melodrama’

  • Release date: June 16

    When Lorde released “Royals,” she faced some serious backlash and issued a response, which consisted mostly of explaining that she wrote that song when she was 15 years old, and was just 17 when she released it. She was still learning, and her perspective as a teenager in the small, isolated country of New Zealand shaped her outlook of the world.

    It’s been almost four years since then. Lorde is 20 years old now, and she’s been spending a lot of time in New York City. Instead of the naive teenager we heard on Pure Heroine, she re-introduced herself as a self-aware young adult on Melodrama. Instead of commenting on things from the outside, she’s in it. “Every night, I live and die / Meet somebody, take them home / Let’s kiss and then take off our clothes / It’s just another graceless night,” she sings on “Perfect Places.” She’s speaking from experience in a way that gives these songs more weight than anything on her debut.

    She’s growing up musically, too. Instead of sticking with the sparse, rap-inspired beats that Joel Little supplied on Pure Heroine, she tapped Jack Antonoff—who’s put in work with Taylor Swift, fun., and Bleachers—for an executive producer role. The result is a bigger, more ambitious pop approach, but there are still signature Lorde moments (the dramatic, drumless “Writer in the Dark” or the two-for-one “Hard Feelings/Loveless”) that are more left-field than your typical, radio-friendly pop.

    The thing that hasn’t changed is Lorde’s songwriting. She’s a brilliant pop writer, and songs like “Perfect Places,” “Green Light,” “Supercut,” and “Homemade Dynamite” are driven by undeniable melodies and hooks. That talent is what got Lorde this far in her career, and it’s beautiful to witness everything else falling into place as things tend to do in any good coming-of-age story.—Jacob Moore

    To learn more about Lorde’s long path to stardom, watch this.

  • 5. Sampha – ‘Process’

  • Release date: February 3

    Sampha’s album was a long time coming, but you can’t rush greatness. Since he debuted on Young Turks with the Sundanza EP in 2010, Sampha had released just one solo EP, 2013’s Dual, before his debut album Process came out this year. In that time, however, he made an album with SBTRKT and toured it around the world, worked with superstars Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean, and dealt with the loss of his mother, who passed away in 2015.

    Sampha attempts to make sense of that loss across the soulful album, while themes of home and belonging also feature prominently. The beautiful Process film, directed by Kahlil Joseph, was shot in Sampha’s parents’ hometown of Freetown, Sierra Leone and the area of London where Sampha grew up. It’s an essential companion piece, helping draw out the album’s themes, giving more context to lyrics like, “I don’t know which way to go now / Don’t know which way is home now,” from “Timmy’s Prayer.”

    With polished production that ranges from spare piano to upbeat electronics and Sampha’s glorious voice front-and-center, Process is a bold debut album from an artist who I hope to be listening to until I am an old man.—Alex Gardner

  • 4. J.I.D. – ‘The Never Story’

  • Release date: March 10

    There’s always this unexplainable feeling that takes over when I hear a great song that has the bars to match—the shit that makes you make a screwface. In 2017, it seems to be an increasingly infrequent occurrence. Young rappers are pushing hip-hop forward with genre-defying blends of melody, hip-hop production, and quasi-rapping, but the emphasis is shifting away from the technical skills that great rappers were once judged on. It’s not a good or bad thing; it’s just how it is.

    The shift in style is part of what makes J.I.D. and his album The Never Story so special. There are moments where you start to feel sympathy for the beat as the Atlanta rapper attacks with line after line, barely taking a moment to breathe. He snaps on this album, and it’s a reminder of how strong rapping, like actually rapping, can be such a powerful experience.—Eric Isom

    ​Learn more about J.I.D. here.

  • 3. SZA – ‘CTRL’

  • Release date: June 9

    Last year felt like an incredible moment for music written by and written for black women, with powerful albums from both Beyoncé and Solange at the forefront. Thankfully, we don’t have to come down from that high just yet. After months of delays, SZA finally released her debut album Ctrl in June and one listen was enough to realize why there was such a wait. Ctrl was written with the sort of raw honesty that cannot be fabricated, only documented after it’s been lived. The wait for this album now feels absolutely worth it.

    In 14 tracks, SZA unfolds the story of a young woman learning to love herself. She holds herself accountable for all of her flaws, openly admits to her mistakes, and sings about topics many would be too ashamed to tackle. There are countless songs about cheating or being cheated on, but very rarely do we hear about the insecurities that influence these decisions. From the beginning to the end of Ctrl we follow SZA as she goes from being a shy girl, looking for security and affection in all the wrong places, to a bold powerhouse who understands how each of these mistakes have molded her into the confident woman she is today.

    There are moments when lyrics might hit painfully close to home, paralleling our own lives and reminding us of memories we tried our best to bury. However, this isn’t about self-loathing, just acceptance and growth. SZA has blossomed into an entirely new woman—and artist—before our eyes. She’s in full control of her life now, and she’s only reached this point by admitting her flaws, revealing dark truths, and using that as a foundation to build herself up into someone she can be proud of.—Adrienne Black

    Watch SZA speak on her new album, Kendrick Lamar, and more here.

  • 2. Smino – ‘blkswn’

  • Release date: March 14

    2017 wants us to believe that projects don’t matter as much anymore. But the occasional bulls-eye album still rises above any playlist, whether it defines a moment in growth and maturity (Acid Rap), or gives voice to a movement (To Pimp a Butterfly).

    Albums still hold weight when they make a statement, and St. Louis rapper Smino makes many with his full-length debut. Black is beautiful; love deserves to be cherished; and no rising artist can rap and sing as well as Smino. He’s a gymnast on blkswn, somersaulting his way through Monte Booker’s production, flipping from one flow to the next, keeping boredom at bay despite an intimidating 18-track length.

    Few active artists can claim such an exhilarating control of pacing, verse for verse. Be it the crooned money notes on “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up” or the accelerating raps dancing across “Glass Flows,” this album constantly encourages its audience to ask, “How did he do that?”—Alex Siber

    ​Watch our Who Is? video profile with Smino here.

  • 1. Kendrick Lamar – ‘DAMN’

 

Release date: April 14

God, I’ve been dreading this blurb. Like, what more is there to say about Kendrick Lamar? He’s the best rapper alive, you could spend a lifetime dissecting his art. Plus, I’m not even qualified to write about albums. These days, I’m ashamed to admit how I really consume music—I mostly listen to playlists, overdose on singles, and spend way less time than I should with full albums. I’m a product of spending over a decade on the internet taking in as much music as I possibly can and blabbing about it through blog posts and list blurbs. Fuck.

After releasing To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled. unmastered., I worried that Kendrick Lamar was taking a difficult path to greatness that fought against the immediacy of the age of streaming and my own re-wired brain. Those projects are great, but they’re not made for people who listen to music the way I, and a lot of younger fans, do today. They are albums that demand time, attention, and brain power. The barrier to entry is high, even though the payoff is great.

DAMN. is different. It’s still smart, still layered with Kendrick’s masterful storytelling and musicality, still nuanced in ways that make other rappers look inferior. It’s complicated, emotional, and packed with commentary on society and harsh self-evaluation. But it’s also accessible enough to hold the attention of a listener like me. Without dumbing it down, Kendrick managed to make an album that is immediate, anchored by inviting production, hooks that stick, and deliveries that aim to do more than just flaunt technical skill.

Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive not just because he’s the best rapper alive, but because he’s able to move and inspire people in ways that no rapper since 2Pac has done. With DAMN., Kendrick humanizes himself both lyrically and sonically, making something that is equally challenging and enjoyable. In 2017, that is a colossal accomplishment.—Jacob Moore

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