2017 was a busy year for rap. It seems like everyone dropped this year, including some legends—like Kool G Rap—who we haven’t heard from in a while. Cardi B topped the charts and broke new ground with her hit single “Bodak Yellow,” a lot of beefs were started and subsequently squashed, and Jay-Z became the first rapper to enter the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
With so much great music and so many great moments, it’s hard to choose the highlights, but that’s what we’re here for. After poring over album after album and dissecting each track, beat and bar with care, here’s what we came up with for the top 10 hip-hop albums of 2017.
1. Jay-Z – 4:44
As the years drag on, successful careers often turn sour. The desire to create seems to fade, and it’s almost always evident in the end product—but not for Jay-Z. At the ripe old age of 47, the Brooklyn legend continues to prove that he not only belongs in the game, he belongs at the top of it.
4:44 was a masterpiece from start to finish, with 10 songs that take up just 36 minutes. Hov’s brief gift to fans had it all: a response to Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” a song featuring his mom, plenty of throwback imagery and shots at today’s rappers, and a great video for “The Story of O.J.”
2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN**.**
Fresh off the release of To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, it seemed Kendrick Lamar could do no wrong with DAMN. But this album went above and beyond the expectations we’ve set for K. Dot—it was a 14-track masterclass in how to make great rap. Period.
Perhaps the best part about DAMN. is the fact that it marked Kendrick’s return to the basics. This is a lyrical emcee who started his career freestyling over popular beats a la Lil Wayne before graduating to the complex storytelling and conceptualization found in Section.80, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and To Pimp a Butterfly.
More than a decade into his storied career, Kendrick has found a way to balance all of his strengths to create incredibly dope music.
3. Rick Ross – Rather You Than Me
To say I wasn’t particularly excited about this album is an understatement. Rick Ross is one of those guys who can spit well enough but often lacks something; I get the feeling there are plenty of others doing what he’s doing—only better.
That couldn’t be further from the truth with Rather You Than Me. Armed with great production, a strong supporting cast and a lot to say, Rozay won over a slew of non-believers with this smooth, consistent 14-track offering. If this is the Rick Ross we’re getting from here on, he might retire as one of the greats.
4. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
Female emcees will probably never get the same respect as men, even if Rapsody is out here out-barring damn near every rapper out right now. Since signing to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records, Rapsody has dropped some great projects and killed plenty of rappers on features. Oh, and did I mention 9th Wonder produces the majority of her music?
Putting Laila’s Wisdom this high on the list was an easy decision; the tough part was not putting it higher. From the Kendrick Lamar assisted “Power” to “Nobody,” this album is incredibly solid from start to finish. If you feel like modern-day hip-hop is straying too far from its roots, a little bit of Rapsody is all you need to keep yourself grounded.
5. Big Sean – I Decided.
There was a time when Big Sean was nothing more than a mediocre lyricist who was capable of churning out the occasional hit. But all these years, he’s never stopped working. Sean’s discography is a musical growth chart, each entry marking a significant improvement over the last.
I Decided. is the latest display of Big Sean’s growth, and it’s a big one. This album gives us a side of the Detroit native that we’ve only glimpsed in the past. A side marked by decisiveness and certainty, rather than the mere hope that previously served as the foundation for his music. And with all the great guest verses and production, this album is solid in every sense of the word.
6. Joey Bada$$ – All.AmeriKKKan.Bada$$
When Joey Bada$$ released his well-received debut project 1999, some questioned whether he could ever grow beyond the dusty boom-bap sound that he started with. By now, he’s proven he’s more than that time and time again, but never more so than on All.AmeriKKKan.Bada$$.
The New York emcee managed to pack a lot into just under 50 minutes of music, with a perfect mixture of readily apparent messages and secretive subtext. The lead single, “Devastated,” served as a departure from Joey’s norm and proof that he could extend well beyond the ‘90s production and nostalgic rhymes that he caught the world’s attention with.
7. Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Tyler, the Creator began his career linked tightly with Odd Future and the horrorcore genre, but those days are long gone. He’s no longer the obnoxious, brash teenager he once was, and that’s evident throughout his newer music, interviews, and even the fact that he decided to drop his signature
But Flower Boy is the most definitive proof of Tyler’s maturation, both musically and personally. It’s an incredibly creative body of work that finds Tyler exploring somewhat unexpected topics. He reflects on his past and what made him who he is, encourages black youth to be themselves, and seems generally more positive and focused.
This would easily be a top 3 album if it hadn’t dropped during such a busy year.
8. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Never heard of Open Mike Eagle? You’re not alone. That’s because he’s spent the last decade carving out a spot in underground rap in Chicago and LA. Thanks to a potent combination of sharp lyrics and unique production, Mike Eagle has built a strong foundation for the brand of music that only he can deliver.
His latest project, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is a voyage of an album that takes us through Chicago’s infamous Robert Taylor Homes. It’s a beautiful window into what life was like in a housing project that, given its intended purpose, failed miserably. With 12 cohesive tracks and no low points, BBKSD is definitely some of the best hip-hop we’ve heard this year.
9. Vic Mensa – The Autobiography
Shortly after the release of The Manuscript, a 4-song project referred to as a “capsule,” Vic Mensa dropped off his debut album, The Autobiography. With a mix of soulful, traditional production, slick wordplay and energetic crooning, this album is more than just an autobiography of Vic’s life—it’s a glimpse into his musical DNA.
While Vic’s debut isn’t strong enough to crack the top 5, it was a good indicator of his progression and devotion. At a time when a lot of a newer guys take the easy route of making shallow music that sounds great, Vic Mensa strives to succeed and improve in every facet, and that’s something you can never get enough of in hip-hop.
10. Action Bronson – Blue Chips 7000
There’s something about a good Bronson track that inspires me. As nonsensical as some of his rhymes are, beneath it all lies a man who loves nothing more than living a good life, which includes exquisite food, fine women, and plenty of weed. He can’t sing like sing like Whitney or rap like King Los, but he always manages to make entertaining music.
Blue Chips 7000—the third installment in the series—wasn’t Bronson’s best work, but it was a cohesive, entertaining listen nonetheless. Production was handled by Party Supplies, Harry Fraud, The Alchemist, and Daringer, and features include the one and only Big Body Bes, Meyhem Lauren, Rick Ross, and a random dude who Bronsolino met in Jamaica named Jah Tiger. How can you go wrong with that combo?