2017 may have been the best year for rap and R&B this decade since 2012. We were gifted with a number of stellar albums, mixtapes and EPs from both the American and British rap scenes. In this era of quick music consumption, some albums have glossed over my head while others have simply not impressed from start to finish. Along with some honourable mentions, here are the best albums of 2017 from 20–1, based off enjoyability from start to finish, lyricism, production, creativity and replay value.
20. SZA, Ctrl
Top Dawg’s very own SZA made a massive improvement from her EP releases with her debut album, Ctrl. SZA’s managed to gather an audience with Ctrl by being relatable. The lyrical narratives surrounding uncertainty in relationships and how infidelity’s dealt with is very relevant to the current generation. Her situation is enhanced through her strong vocal performances and the cotton-smooth production. It’s not an album I’ve consistently replayed but its quality sets it apart from most R&B releases this year.
Best tracks: “Prom”, “Supermodel”, “The Weekend”, “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”, “Love Galore”, “Drew Barrymore”
19. THEY., Nü Religion: Hyena
The relatively unknown THEY., an R&B duo, came through at the start of the year with a surprisingly cohesive experimental R&B album. The sound of Nu Religion is hard to describe because the production sounds like something totally new. Every song brings a memorable melody, particularly the highlights “Dante’s Creek”, “Motley Crew” and “Deep End”. Although it has gone under the radar, Nu Religion: Hyena is worth checking out.
Best tracks: “Motley Crew”, “Back Around”, “Bad Habits”, “Back It Up”, “Deep End”, “Truth Be Told”
18. Charli XCX, Number 1 Angel
Charli XCX reignited my interest in pop music with Number 1 Angel, an incredibly catchy 10–track mixtape with upbeat, bouncy production and infectious hooks, such as on “3AM (Pull Up)” and “Roll With Me”. XCX also steps into trap territory in “Dreamer”, drenching her vocals in Auto-Tune to create consistently memorable melodies. Besides a few basic tracks towards the end, Number 1 Angel is the best pop project of the year.
Best tracks: “Roll With Me”, “ILY2”, “Dreamer”, “3AM (Pull Up)”, “White Roses”
17. Jaden Smith, SYRE
Jaden Smith shocked music listeners with SYRE, a layered, alternative hip hop album carried entirely by Jaden and the ingenious production. It’s clear time was taken to perfect SYRE, delivering 7 minute+ songs that are treated as progressive compositions rather than short, incomplete musical ideas (“B L U E”, “Ninety”‘). Although there’s a few of the latter, SYRE is generally too strong of an album to disregard its prowess.
Best tracks: “B L U E”, “Ninety”, “Hope”, “Falcon”, “Fallen”, “Lost Boy”
16. Giggs, Wamp 2 Dem
On Wamp 2 Dem, Giggs continued to prove he’s in a league of his own. Signature flows are explored over thumping beats like on “Ultimate Gangsta” and “50 Cali”, as well as continuing to reach out to an American audience with the guest appearances of Young Thug and 2 Chainz. When it comes to bangers, Wamp 2 Dem is a fine example that the UK scene is full of them.
Best tracks: “50 Cali”, “Ultimate Gangsta”, “Straight Lifestyle”, “The Essence”, “Peligro”
📌 Read the review for ‘Wamp 2 Dem’
15. Dave, Game Over
Dave’s Game Over EP made him accessible on a mainstream level without compromising his vision. There’s a mixture of everything Dave’s good at; making melodic tunes with a pop edge (“No Words”, “Calling Me Out”) and bringing content-heavy bars over extended songs that test casual listeners’ short attention span (“Question Time”, “My 19th Birthday”). It’s rare for rap artists to maintain your attention for 9 minutes straight without a hook, but Dave achieves that with ease.
Best tracks: “No Words”, “Game Over”, “My 19th Birthday”
14. Migos, Culture
Culture is the album that propelled Migos to the top of rap. They finally managed to create album-worthy songs, giving songs that are cemented in rap history whether you like it or not (“T-Shirt”, “Bad and Boujee”). While Quavo began the year as the frontman of the trio, Culture showed that Takeoff is the best rapper in the group and that Offset performs the hardest. Every adlib is ‘libb’d with charisma, and that’s the best way to describe Culture. It’s an album full of personality that has taken Migos to the next level.
Best tracks: “Deadz”, “Kelly Price”, “T-Shirt”, “What the Price”, “Culture”, “Call Casting”
13. Future, FUTURE
Out of the two back-to-back Future dropped back in February, FUTURE is the one that left a stronger mark come December. The self-titled album is a consistent showcase of Future in his element. There’s nothing but trap banger after banger, opening up strongly with “Rent Money” and continuing the streak with the likes of “Poppin’ Tags”, “POA”, “Flip”, even toning it down on the mellow “Feds Did a Sweep”. There’s only 5 songs worth cutting off the tracklist, so for a 17 track album Future delivers well above the target, leaving out as much trap filler as possible that slots comfortably into his top 5 albums.
Best tracks: “Rent Money”, “Flip”, “Zoom”, “Massage in My Room”, “Super Trapper”, “POA”, “I’m So Groovy”, “Poppin’ Tags”, “Feds Did a Sweep”
12. Wiley, Godfather
Wiley is a UK veteran that is often forgotten by the younger generation of listeners, but for those that are familiar with him, Godfather shows Wiley hasn’t lost his touch. Godfather is the best grime album of recent years, let alone in 2017. There is nothing but bangers across the 17 tracks, aside “U Were Always, Pt. 2”, a necessary breather from the energy of Wiley’s skippy flows. You wouldn’t expect it from a grime album, but there’s a range of memorable hooks as well, whether that’s on the intense “Back With a Banger” or glitchy “Speakerbox”. Godfather is grime to the core and one of the strongest UK albums of the year.
Best tracks: “Holy Grime”, “Back With a Banger”, “Pattern Up Properly”, “Speakerbox”, “Can’t Go Wrong”, “Name Brand”
11. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples pushed experimental boundaries with his second album. Big Fish Theory stood out this year by not feeding into the trap trend. Instead, Vince rapped over electronic beats that are very reminiscent of Kanye West’s Yeezus in its own unique way. Complexity is mixed with simplicity, particularly on “Big Fish” and the dysfunctional “Yeah Right”. Its a quick 36-minute burst of diversity from Ramona Park’s very own.
Best tracks:“Yeah Right”, “Big Fish”, “Homage”, “Party People”, “Rain Come Down”, “Crabs in a Bucket”
📌 Read the review for ‘Big Fish Theory’
10. Joey Bada$$, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
Not every quality album should be based on its replay value. While an album like FUTURE has many songs that I’ve played more, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is an album to revisit from start to finish attentively. For the first time in his career, Joey Badass manages to appeal to the mainstream while maintaining the integrity of his content, providing necessary social commentary of America mixed with memorable choruses (“Land of the Free”, “Devastated”). AABA preserves a mellow, relaxing sound, only picking up the tempo on “Ring the Alarm” and “Rockabye Baby”, alongside stellar lyricism, cohesiveness and thought-provoking concepts, without a single weak track in the tracklist.
Best tracks: “Super Predator”, “For My People”, “Temptation”, “Amerikkkan Idol”, “Good Morning Amerikkka”
9. Daniel Caesar, Freudian
Sometimes you need a break from upbeat rap music. Daniel Caesar emerged this year with the most gentle R&B album of 2017. The minimalism of Freudian isolates Caesar’s voice to make it the centrepiece of every song, often only accompanied by a guitar or piano. Smooth tracks like “Hold Me Down” put you in the clouds, as does the laid-back “Transform”. Freudian is the definition of soothing music, with the power of alleviating any worries across a full listen.
Best tracks: “Hold Me Down”, “We Find Love”, “Best Part”, “Get You”, “Transform”
8. Nines, One Foot Out
On the second-best UK album of the year, Nines exercises his usual laidback flow over remarkably consistent production. Sonically, One Foot Out matches Nines’ lazy delivery with mellow beats to make great songs, incorporating trap elements without taking it overboard, but making sure the laidback album is balanced out with bangers like “Trapper of the Year” and “High Roller”. Even though Nines flow never switches up, the melodies in the beats are enough to carry each song and add insane replay value such as on “Stacey Adams” and “Break Away”. Lyrically, there’s not much going on besides Nines portraying his own life, but that’s excused with plenty of impressive wordplay to appreciate (“When I re-up they ain’t seen this much white since the EDL march”).
Best tracks: “Break Away”, “Trapper of the Year”, “Love 2 the Game”, “Stacey Adams”, “Trap Music”, “Intro”
7. Tyler, The Creator, Flower Boy
It is universally accepted that Flower Boy is Tyler, The Creator’s coming-of-age album – at long last. This is the album the world has been waiting for. There is not an ounce of immaturity present on Flower Boy as he explores the ways in which he’s found himself over the refined, lush production. The entire album feels grand, featuring polished experimentation such as singing and making buttery love songs (“See You Again”). Behind the strong song-crafting is personal lyrics of loneliness, and a sense that Tyler is far from being where he wants to be in life. Though that may be the case, at least he has channelled the pain to create an album where every track is special.
Best tracks: “Garden Shed”, “Boredom”, “November”, “Foreword”, “Where This Flower Blossoms”, “I Ain’t Got Time”, “See You Again”
📌 Read the review for ‘Flower Boy’
6. J Hus, Common Sense
You would need a very compelling argument to dispute that Common Sense is the best UK rap album of the year. Over 17 tracks, J Hus remains incredibly consistent when it comes to memorable melodies, creative vocal performances and entertaining one-liners. It’s hard to label Common Sense into a genre (afro-hop?) because it’s like nothing we have heard before. Whatever angle it is, it is accessible to a mainstream audience but still remains true to J Hus’ own sound. Jae5’s production is unique from start to finish, providing the foundation for the UK’s soundtrack for every summer to come.
Best tracks: “Spirit”, “Fisherman”, “Mash Up”, “Did You See”, “Friendly”, “Leave Me”, “Like Your Style”
5. 21 Savage, Offset, Metro Boomin, Without Warning
While most collaborative albums released this year have patches of brilliance, Without Warning is the one that is most consistent from start to finish. 21 Savage, Offset and Metro Boomin work together to create an ominous, dark tone that fit well with the Halloween release. Metro Boomin crafted ten memorable beats, each of which have their own set of melodies. 21 Savage brought the cold-blooded delivery and Offset proved the world he can hold his own outside the Migos. The album doesn’t overstay its welcome, giving us only 10 tracks that are over within 33 minutes but pack in a lot. Every element of every song meshes effortlessly to fit each strength of the trio. In the year where trap albums have felt exhausting to consume, Without Warning shows how to do it correctly.
Best tracks: “Ghostface Killers”, “Rap Saved Me”, “My Choppa Hates N**gas”, “Disrespectful”, “Darth Vader”
📌 Read the review for ‘Without Warning’
4. JAY-Z, 4:44
Just like Tyler, The Creator, rap’s very own Jay-Z shows personal and artistic growth on his thirteenth album. On 4:44, takes off the mask of Jay-Z and becomes Shawn Carter, becoming the most transparent he’s ever been in his lengthy career. What allows Jay to achieve this sincerely is producer No I.D., whose sample-based beats strip the album down to the fundamental elements of hip hop. That is accompanied by Jay-Z’s creative lyricism, sprinkling one-liners from track to track (“Y’all on the ‘Gram holdin’ money to your ear / There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here”). It’s hard to fathom, but Jay-Z’s thirteenth album may just be one of the best album he has ever released.
Best tracks: “4:44”, “The Story of O.J.”, “Kill Jay Z”, “Bam”, “Family Feud”, “Moonlight”
3. Young Thug, Beautiful Thugger Girls
Young Thug continues to reinvent himself on my third favourite album of the year. Beautiful Thugger Girls is yet another showcase that you cannot understand Young Thug, he will forever remain a creative enigma. Beautiful Thugger Girls cleverly mixes trap with acoustic and pop in a better way than Future’s HNDRXX was able to do. Thug’s absurd vocal performances drives the enjoyability of BTG, ranging from squeaky singing to nonsensical yodelling. Alongside the upbeat tracks (“Do U Love Me”) are plenty ballads filled with an abundance of melody (“Feel It”, “You Said”, “Oh Yeah”). Beautiful Thugger Girls is proof that Thug is yet to reach his musical peak, and that we should expect more of the same in the foreseeable future.
Best tracks: “For Y’all”, “Family Don’t Matter”, “Relationship”, “Feel It”, “Do U Love Me”, “Oh Yeah”
📌 Read the review for ‘Beautiful Thugger Girls’
2. Sampha, Process
If fragile was an album, Process would be it. Sampha has accessibility to the world’s most biggest artists, working with the likes of Kanye West, Beyoncé, Drake and Frank Ocean in recent years, but decides to take the solo route on his debut album. That decision is fair enough, as Process is a body of work that has stemmed from Sampha’s loss of his mother to cancer. Sampha channels this emotion in every song that is strong enough for you to absorb as a listener. The beauty lies in Sampha’s vocals and songwriting, cooperating with the uniquely mediated blend of electronica and alternative R&B to transmit the pain in his words (“You’ve been with me since the cradle / You’ve been with me, you’re my angel / Please don’t you disappear”).
Across a full listen, Process puts you in a relaxing trance while you daydream. The level of minimalism restores serenity to the mind. Not many albums are able to full off the level of effect that Process can. It is an album that encompasses every aspect of artistic creativity and brilliant song-crafting, making it my second-favourite album of the year.
Best tracks: “Plastic 100°C”, “Kora Sings”, “Reverse Faults”, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, “Blood on Me”, “Timmy’s Prayer”
1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Although it is an obvious pick, DAMN. is the best album of the year both subjectively and objectively. DAMN. is not Kendrick’s best album, but it is the most monumental body of work of his career so far, breaking records and solidifying his status as the Best Rapper Alive. He continued to set the bar high for his peers to a height where none of his close competitions were even close to reaching this year.
Since its release, I’ve made it my mission to understand the album’s concept. DAMN. is comparable to Inception in that sense; it is difficult to figure out, but that is where the brilliance lies. Listening to the album backwards does nothing for me, but splitting the tracklist into songs that fit “Wickedness” and “Weakness” makes me believe the album splits into two alternate outcomes of Kendrick’s life, one which details a life without his father and fame and one where he makes it to the top, forgets about God and lives without any morals. However, either way, he is going to die after it all. The recurring themes are clear – religion, self-worth and fame, but particularly religion, suggesting that we as a human race are doomed if we continue to distance ourselves from the word of God.
Sonically, DAMN. introduced a new side to Kendrick as he tackles trap beats head-on with “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.”, as well as delving into experimental pop on “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.”. The lyrical masterpieces arise on “FEAR.”, the 8-minute breakdown of what he has feared throughout his life, and “DUCKWORTH.”, showcasing his lyrical talent for storytelling that makes you ponder the importance of the life choices we make. Though some songs aren’t as memorable (“YAH.”, “PRIDE.”) they go well with the collection during the course of a full listen, providing numerous emotional highs and lows.
The main message of DAMN. is about life choices. These concepts alongside the impressive lyricism, production and experimentation sets DAMN. apart from most releases. When I haven’t been going back to the album in full, I’ve listened to at least half the songs individually. It may not stand up to the heights of good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, but even his most simplistic work is able to earn Best Album of the Year.
Best tracks: “FEAR.”, “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “DUCKWORTH.”, “LOVE.”, “FEEL.”
📌 Find out the Best Songs of 2017: 50–1 next