“No News Is Good News” When Little Brother officially dissolved in 2010, the fanbase cultivated by the endearingly earnest North Carolina trio took it like a divorce. For eight years, they begged for a reunion. It never came. Instead, life happened. For Phonte’s part, the ups and downs came at the same time: He won a Grammy for “Foreign Exchange,” he went through a divorce, lost his father and grandfather, and got remarried. It took seven years to finish “No News Is Good News,” but Phonte crystalizes every possible emotion in a matter of 33 minutes. The combination of head-snapping boom bap and R&B grooves feels cathartic. He immediately cements his skill level as a rapper on “So Help Me God,” (“I am Hugh Masekela meets Masta Killa/Your OG’s OG, just ask . . .”) then dives into headier territory, exploring the long-term effects of family history on personal health both physical (“Expensive Genes”) and mental (“Cry No More”). The joy is hard-earned and heartfelt, like finding lasting love (“Sweet You”). And with Little Brother reuniting to perform twice in the past two months, the full-circle moment felt like cheers to new beginnings.
“KOD” The early 30s are a weird in-between where you’re not quite old enough to settle into the slacks and hardbottom crowd but still not completely ready to surrender your youth. But as the blog era that birthed J. Cole shifted into a generation flooded with a rotating cast of young, colorfully haired, excessively tatted rappers affectionately known as The Lil’s (Lil Uzi, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby), Cole became a target. “KOD” is his response, turning his gaze to the younger generation, peeling back all of its vices — money (“ATM”), social media (“Photograph”), drugs (“The Cut Off”) — and exploring the darker outcomes that inevitably arrive once the music videos end. With the untimely passing of rappers like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, “KOD” felt like a necessary warning.
“Swimming” There’s no way to sit with “Swimming” and not float in a sea of “what-ifs” and “what happened.” Miller was just 26 when he died of an apparent overdose in September, and despite a year of turbulence (from his highly publicized breakup with Ariana Grande to his DUI in May) he was rounding into his most fully-formed self artistically, playfully testing the limits of his sound. Here he’s at his most reflective on “2009,” a touching flashback to a time that probably seemed simpler. “They ask me what I’m smiling for/Well because I’ve never been this high before/It’s like I never felt alive before/I’d rather have me peace of mind than war.”
“DAYTONA” Setting aside his sinister dismantling of the machine that is Drake, arguably the most impressive feat Pusha T managed to pull off this year was procuring seven bulletproof beats from a completely unhinged Kanye West. “DAYTONA” is easily his most potent solo project. His focus is unwavering — he’s still writing love letters to the drug trade, the opulence it’s afforded him, and the consequences that come along with it — but he drew a clear line in the sand between the brand of rap that raised him and anything else that threatens to change it.
“Hive Mind” At this point, the Internet has sleek and sultry down to a science. The group’s members had spent a year indulging their creative urges individually (Syd’s “Fin” was the showstopper, but Patrick Paige II’s “Letters of Irrelevance” is a charmer), then came back together fully recharged.
“Victory Lap” Good luck getting past the intro. His debut felt overdue after a relentless run of mixtapes and an odds-defying “Proud to Pay” campaign, and he unloads from start to finish.
“FM!” On almost every level, Staples is so far ahead of the curve. He trolls trolls, he out-raps rappers, and for all the criticism that he doesn’t make radio-friendly records, his checkmate is imagining what terrestrial radio would look like on his terms. And it slaps.
Von Pea & The Other Guys
“I’m Good Luv, Enjoy” Yup. The title is a reference to that time Future curved a woman who had flown to Los Angeles to hang out with him after he realized she didn’t want to sleep with him. Timely humor is as embedded in Von Pea’s DNA as boom-bap itself. This is the third time he’s linked up with the Washington, D.C., production duo the Other Guys, and their chemistry is undeniable.
“Room 25” The scariest part is that Noname’s lyrics are just a small slice of how her mind works. Her cadence — poetic and bouncy — is all her own. The toughest job for producer Phoelix was churning out jazzy soundscapes that could keep up.
“Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 & 2” It’s hard to find a rapper with a higher approval rating than Black Thought. He stopped time with his freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show last December. Then he bottled it with a pair of EPs, produced respectively by 9th Wonder and Salaam Remi, stuffing them with rhymes that’ll take at least another year to unpack.
Local artist pick
“Bang Bang” On her sophomore album, Dutch ReBelle stretches out and gets comfortable across a wide range of sounds — trap, acrobat, dance.
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Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.