Year In Music 2017

The 20 Best Rap Albums of 2017: Critics' Picks

Future, Jay-Z & Kendrick Lamar

Future, Jay-Z & Kendrick Lamar

Every December, hip-hop debates tend to get a bit contentious. End-of-year discussions regarding the best rap albums often turn into heated in-your-face spats. In 2017, we were fortunate to be able to debate between a bountiful supply of releases from top-tier acts, including Drake, Future (twice), Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z and more, as well as sizzling breakout efforts from burgeoning acts such as Joey Bada$$, Vince Staples, and J.I.D.

The only downside? We had to omit several powerhouses from the list because of their decisions to drop at the tail-end of the year. So, if you're looking for Big Sean and Metro Boomin, Eminem, or Jeezy, sorry to burst your bubble, but they were too late to the party.

Take a look at Billboard's top 20 rap albums for 2017 below.

20. Gucci Mane, Mr. Davis

It's hard to think of a redemption story in music more triumphant than Gucci Mane's over the past two years, following his release from federal prison in May 2016. For someone so mind-bogglingly prolific, Mr. Davis is somehow Gucci's only official album of 2017 (DropTopWop being deemed, technically-speaking, a mixtape) and it's his most ambitious, feature-wise, since probably 2010's The Appeal, with features from Nicki Minaj, Monica, Rico Love, Big Sean, The Weeknd, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Migos, ScHoolboy Q, A$AP Rocky, Young Dolph and Slim Jxmmi from Rae Sremmurd.

One of Gucci's greatest skills these days is his versatility and ability to slot into any situation and make it his own -- which, coupled with his newly-positive attitude about himself and the world around him, often finds him wrapping happy-go-lucky lines around themes with which he's more generally associated. Case in point, from "Make Love" -- "You talkin' crazy/ I'm tryna book Beyoncé for my wedding day/ I'm the type of n---a spend a million on a wedding cake/ N---as hate but hesitate, they hate to see ya elevate/ I just left out the gym I'm 'bout to take a swim and meditate." -- DAN RYS

19. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, The Bigger Artist 

Early on his career, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie's penchant for melodic bangers had him penciled in as a surefire prospect in rap. With two Platinum-certified singles in "Timeless" and "Drowning" tucked away in his resume, Boogie shifted gears and turned up the aggression on his debut album The Bigger Artist.  First, he gleams on the cavernous intro "No Promises," and later teams up with his Highbridge brother Don Q for the party-ready single "Somebody." Watch out Aaron Judge, because this Bronx native is ready to bring the crown back to New York by himself. -- CARL LAMARRE

18. 21 Savage, Issa Album

Even before 21 Savage's debut album was released, he had already established himself as a formidable presence and a voice to be reckoned with in the hip-hop landscape, thanks mostly to his Savage Mode EP with Metro Boomin last year. In a way, that's what set Issa up to be one of the more surprising albums of the year -- at a point in his career where most artists would be working to establish themselves and what they have to offer, Savage was already beyond that, which gave him the opportunity and the space to experiment.

There is plenty of his patented detached street-tale narration here, but there's also a DJ Mustard beat, a smattering of love songs, a commentary on the Black Lives Matter movement and his first-ever production, "Bank Account," both one of the best Savage songs of his career and his biggest hit to date as a lead artist, peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August. Savage caught the zeitgeist in such a way that there was only one album that came in higher than Issa on the chart the week of its release: JAY-Z's 4:44. Life could be worse. -D.R.

17. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory 

Staples has developed a reputation as a bit of a critic's darling, a fantastic lyricist whose projects are singularly-focused in their vision, with the knock on him being that sometimes that vision is so refined that his albums can be tough nuts to crack. That's what makes Big Fish Theory such a great release from the Long Beach native: It has a range and breadth to it that goes well beyond what anyone had previously associated with him, particularly on the bouncy funk of "Big Fish" -- a song that wouldn't be out of place on a YG album -- as well as the swirling "BagBak" and the deep-space drone of "745." One thing that will never change is Staples' lyrical wizardry; there are few rappers around who can so clearly deliver an idea with such consistency. -- D.R.

16. 21 Savage, Offset, Metro Boomin', Without Warning 

It’s foolish to deny: 21 Savage and Offset leveled up this year. You need not look further than “Ghostface Killers,” opening salvo on Without Warning, the duo’s full-length collaboration with producer Metro Boomin. Offset positively skates, putting the chorus on his back by providing sound effects and adlibs, while also spinning off memorable lines like, “All your pockets on hurting, n---a you can be my servant.”

And then 21 enters like the villain in the second act. If you’re still writing off the 25-year-old Atlanta native as a affectless stoic, just listen to how he delivers the phrase “hit stick.” It’s one of the best rap performances of the year. He’s got wordplay, too, piling on shrimp references, but each time framing the word in a different way. And that’s just the first track, with highlights “Rap Saved Me,” “Ric Flair Drip,” “Still Serving” all to follow, turning what could’ve been dismissed as a novelty collab LP into one of the year’s most exciting releases. -- ROSS SCARANO

15. Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti 

It’s high praise to say that so-and-so floated on a particular song, that they found a flow that made what they did to the beat feel as marvelous as air travel. The thing about Playboi Carti’s debut mixtape is that it floats entirely, like a movie space station with the gravity machine turned off -- nothing is pinned down. From the gorgeously produced Harry Fraud opener, “Location,” to the closer, “Had 2,” the experience is thoroughly weightless. Carti took the adlib ;to new heights on his debut, largely eschewing verses and bars -- and with producer Pi’erre Bourne's backing, he made his self-titled experience singular in 2017, the ultimate statement in style over everything. - R.S.

14. CyHi The Prynce, No Dope on Sundays

Undoubtedly one of the craftiest lyricists on G.O.O.D. Music, CyHi The Prynce hushed his foes with his ambitious, long-overdue debut album No Dope on Sundays. Armed with a punishing flow, CyHi ruminates about his dark days in the trap with gruesome war stories, rapping "From where the gangstas die young and the rats die faster/ So when my shooter spread, this Mac lives shatter on the hard-hitting intro "Amen." When he isn't spewing sinister bars, CyHi spends time wreaking havoc on rap beats with his G.O.O.D. Music buddies, most notably Kanye West on "Dat Side.": "Got two bitches bumping clits, that's a cat fight/ I'm ridin' with the stick, that's that act right," With his debut project finally officially out, CyHi proves that he can rise to the occasion any given Sunday. -- C.L.

13. Rick Ross, Rather You Than Me

You would think at some point in Rick Ross' career that his deafening ad-libs and impeccable ear for production would slip a notch. For his ninth album, Rather You Than Me, Ross adroitly handpicks his features, ranging from his MMG cohort Wale ("Trap, Trap" Trap"), to veteran R&B crooner Raphael Saddiq ("Apple of My Eye") to prolong his reign as rap's biggest boss. His regal presence is clearest on the blistering "Idols Become Rivals," where Rozay instantly punctures the heart of Birdman with callous disregard for his foul business practices ("Damn, Stunna, I loved you, n---a -- hate it came to this"). -- C.L.

12. J.I.D. - The Never Story

With a sing-song style and tone reminiscent of Anderson .Paak, J.I.D is one of the most talented additions to J. Cole’s Dreamville roster. His debut, The Never Story, was released to insufficient fanfare in March, letting the 27-year-old Atlanta native become an artist that listeners can feel like they’ve discovered. Over warm production, more Dungeon Family than Metro Boomin, J.I.D lets the world in on his story, his blues. Standout tracks like “Hereditary” and “All Bad” find J.I.D in a particularly melancholy pocket; on the latter, he explains to a girlfriend, “If I'm trying to tell the truth, it's all bad.” Luckily for the listener, it sounds very good. - R.S.

11.Future, Future

The first of Future's back-to-back history-making LPs this year showcases the more famous side of his split personalities -- the drugged-out trapper pouring lean, popping Xans, toting Dracos and swimming in cash and women. It's that aggressive superstar draped in ice that he portrays so well, and that has created a cottage industry of imitators in his wake. If HNDRXX is the album you put on in your headphones, then Future is the one that carries the party; though "Mask Off" got all the headlines and deserved accolades, it's songs like "Good Dope" and "Super Trapper" that probably fit more seamlessly into his overall catalog, while the closing one-two punch of "When I Was Broke" and "Feds Did a Sweep" make this album more of a complete package than many give it credit for. -- D.R.

10. Big K.R.I.T., 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time 

All Big K.R.I.T. wanted was to receive the same respect as his fellow peers. After watching J. Cole and Mac Miller morph into full-fledged superstars, K.R.I.T curtailed his deal at Def Jam in 2016 and took a chance on himself on the independent route. The result? His comeback album 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time. The double album allowed K.R.I.T. to touch base on love, depression, religion, his bouts with alcoholism and more. Thankfully, his pen game was smoother than ever, as displayed on "Get Away" and his Lloyd-assisted record "1999." Don't sleep, this Mississippi boy has some flair, too. -- C.L.

9. Joey Bada$$, All Amerikkkan Bada$$ 

In 2012, a brash 17-year-old under the rap moniker Joey Bada$$ wowed listeners with his lyrical dexterity. Five years later, the Brooklyn MC left fans enthralled with his politically driven album All Amerikkkan Bada$$. With Trump in office and African Americans being used as target practice by police at an alarming rate, Bada$$'s mission was simple: rattle the cages of America until someone heard his calls to action. First, he assumes the role of protagonist for the hopeless on the jazzy record "For My People," before denouncing Trump's presidency on "Land of the Free." "We can't change the world, unless we change ourselves," preaches Bada$$ on the soulful single. With his sophomore attempt, it's safe to say that Joey's attempts to make America great again were truly admirable. -- C.L.

8. Rapsody, Lalia’s Wisdom 

For those who miss the good ol' days when the boom-bap sound dominated hip-hop, Rapsody's new album Lalia's Wisdom will inject throwback bliss into your everyday playlist. There's a reason why Roc Nation snagged the North Carolina-bred MC: Rapsody's lyrical pedigree will make the toughest lyricists shake in their boots. (Ask Busta Rhymes -- who dubbed Lalia's Wisdom "The best album I've heard not only from a female MC but in hip-hop period” -- about her limitless potential.)

Tracks like "Sassy" finds the vivacious star slaying her competitors with clever lines like, "I like my t-shirts wit no sleeves/ Ain't gotta bare arms to show I’m deadly,” while her Kendrick Lamar-assisted "Power" allows her to flex her lyrical muscles with TDE's heavyweight champ ("Steph Curry projectile/I saw the goal from 8 miles"). Because of her sizzling release, Rapsody not only gained two Grammy nominations -- including one for best rap album -- but countless new fans who'd been yearning for that quintessential hip-hop flavor. - C.L.

7. Drake, More Life 

Though Drake reveled after watching his fourth album Views shatter every possible chart record in 2016, the 6 God wasn't satisfied, charging up and releasing his 22-track playlist More Life the following year. In hopes of tightening his grip on the rap game, the Toronto MC delivered incendiary bars on "Free Smoke" -- (“I brought the game to its knees/I make too much these days to ever say poor me”) -- before flattening his peers' confidence level on the project's outro track "Do Not Disturb." When Drake wasn't deep-frying his foes for recreation, he was whipping up sweet-sounding records like "Passionfruit" for everyone to sing along to. Because of his unquenchable thirst to win and win big in the music industry, Drake's quest for immortality gained more traction with More Life. -- C.L.

6. Tyler, The Creator, Flower Boy

Easily Tyler, The Creator’s most fully realized LP, even if it won’t be as influential as the initial Odd Future releases, Flower Boy is a pretty, wistful collection of songs about the difficulties of desire and the limits of language. The 26-year-old MC can’t (or won’t) find the words to pin down what he wants, but his relentless search drives the set forward. There’s probably a specific boy at the center, and maybe he looks like ‘95 Leo, as Tyler says on “Who Dat Boy,” but Flower Boy’s power comes from what can’t be articulated. It’s an album about the tip of your tongue. - R.S.

5. Lil Uzi Vert, Luv Is Rage 2 

Lil Uzi Vert's hellacious run in 2017 came courtesy of his Billboard 200 chart-topping album Luv Is Rage 2. Though hip-hop purists were eager to ostracize Uzi for his unconventional skill set, he silenced pundits with his poignant, chart-crashing singles "X.O. Tour Llif3" and "The Way It Goes." The songs' somber lyrics emanate from Uzi's floundering relationship with his ex-girlfriend Brittany Byrd and how their steamy love quickly went sour: "I don't really care if you cry/ On the real, you shoulda never lied," he sings on "XO Tour Llif3." When Uzi wasn't wallowing in despair, he managed to level up with anthemic records like "Sauce It Up" (Everyday I'm ballin', so you know I'm scorin'/I feel so important, my pockets enormous") and his Pharrell-assisted "Neon Guts." In a matter of 12 months, Uzi blossomed from a SoundCloud rapper to a hip-hop giant. -- C.L.

4. Future, HNDRXX 

Future's first foray into the pop realm, 2014's Honest, was largely derided upon its release, though it has aged well as a catalog entry. But his now-legendary mixtape run, and more obviously the Drake-assisted joint album What A Time To Be Alive, proved that the Atlanta MC could cross over onto the pop charts by not changing a thing, bringing others into his sonic realm rather than stepping away from his 808s and reaching too far. (Of course, as he later proved, Future is too dexterous a rapper to count out in any realm.)

HNDRXX executes that, with guest turns from The Weeknd ("Comin Out Strong") and Rihanna ("Selfish") -- both resulting in deserved hits on the Hot 100 -- but, as is often the case with Future, it's the deeper album cuts that truly make this project stand out. Opener "My Collection" sets the tone, while the mid-album run of "Incredible," "Testify" and "Fresh Air" see him experimenting with melody and vocal effects in ways that are both unexpected and irresistible. This is the more sensitive side of Future's personalities, but he's still not giving an inch. -- D.R.

3. Migos, Culture

To those paying attention, Migos established themselves long ago as one of the more innovative, catchy and prolific groups on the hip-hop scene. Culture's great achievement was cementing that reputation, and bringing it to the masses. The highlights are many and come from all over the place: memorable hooks, clever and witty one-off lines, moments of lyrical dexterity, driving beats, bombastic delivery -- it's a constant and consistent onslaught of a trio of MCs stepping confidently into the prime of their careers. The highest praise that can be reliably placed on this album is that, across its 13 tracks, there are no misses. - D.R.

2. JAY-Z, 4:44

Who would've thought when Hov first uttered the lyrics, "Can't leave rap alone, the game needs me," on his 2001 Blueprint track "Izzo," that 16 years later, we all would still be clamoring for another album. In the eyes of rap aficionados, Hov was the genre's Clark Kent, because once he stepped inside the booth, the business attire vanished and Superman was instantly alive. In 2016, Jigga's powers seemed weakened after he was blasted by the media for his infidelity in his marriage to superstar wife Beyonce -- whose blockbuster 2016 album Lemonade was served cold, as her candor and bitterness towards her rap beau stung and paralyzed Jigga's ego.

His response? A ten-track opus titled 4:44, which found the King of Rap on his knees, begging for his wife's forgiveness, with a vulnerability rarely seen from Hov in his earlier decades. Whether he was fighting against his pride on "Kill JAY-Z," uniting the culture on "Family Feud," or remedying his partnership with his Queen on the album title track, Shawn Carter showed the humblest version of himself fans had ever seen, but delivered with such singular skill that it was clear the "S" on his chest was still lurking underneath. - C.L.

1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. 

It can be a little dizzying to look back at the past half-decade of releases from Kendrick Lamar: a debut concept album that was near-instantly certified as a classic; a sophomore release that stretched the boundaries of what a rapper could do when locked in a studio with some of the best jazz-funk musicians of his generation; a collection of "outtakes" from those sessions that ventured into the outer fringes of unbridled and unobstructed creativity; and, with DAMN., a tighter, punchier project that is both as deep as he's ever gone, and maybe his strongest collection of songs front to back since 2011's Section.80.

The genius of Kendrick Lamar is not in his rapping ability, which is unrivaled among his peers, and not even in his multi-faceted flows, constantly shifting delivery and preternatural ability to hear a beat and know exactly how to shape it to fit his whims. It's that in everything he does, no matter how straightforward it may seem, there are layers and layers to pull back, whether that's within a double-entendre, a snapped lyrical barb or in the possibility that this entire project might be a large, overarching allegory about his own death wrapped up in an extended Biblical apocalypse that is stuffed full of moral, emotional, political and societal self-examination.

DAMN. works so well because it doesn't demand that you follow along on the journey that he is laying out -- as good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly do to different extents -- but presents itself as is, inviting the listener to delve as deeply as they dare. Fortunately, beneath each surface, there remain entire universes to explore. -- D.R.

Billboard Year in Music 2017