“A Seat at the Table” While Beyoncé has been bending the pop universe to her will, little sister Solange Knowles has been painstakingly exploring the depths of all the joy and aches that come with simply existing in America as a black woman. “The Table” is sensuous, soulful, and still searing in its examinations both internal and external. Funny enough, it connected with black men. Rick Ross and Common both laid verses to the infectious “Cranes in the Sky,” and Kaytranada remixed it. Beyoncé may have grabbed our eyes, but Solange grabbed our ears.
“Blonde” After waiting impatiently for four years, fans finally got not one but two Frank Ocean albums, and what did they do? Complain about the lack of drums. But the heartbeat of a 29-year-old using the ghosts of David Bowie and Elliott Smith to understand his place in the world was the percussion that drove this beautiful album. The wait was worth it.
“Awaken, My Love!” With an FX series, “Atlanta,” that was pitch-perfect in its depiction of the black millennial experience, Donald Glover was miles ahead. Dropping this funked-up jam session was just running up the score. We get it Donald — you won 2016.
“Telefone” By and large, the voices telling some of Chicago’s most gruesome stories have been male. It was either Chief Keef and King L glamorizing violence like South Side Crypt Keepers, or Kanye and Common using soul samples to get the city to soul search. But in a way that’s warm and inviting, Noname shows what it’s like to grow from a little girl on the playground in Bronzeville to a young woman who saw the problems her home deals with — but who also saw the sunshine in it all.
Chance The Rapper
“Coloring Book” Yes, Chance the Rapper injected Kirk Franklin and the Chicago Children’s Choir into hip-hop, but perhaps more importantly, he injected joy in its purest form. From carefree late nights at the skating rink, to the annoying car rides after, to church the next morning, Chance managed to remain wide-eyed when those eyes could’ve easily been weary.
A Tribe Called Quest,
“We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service” Both a tribute to one of hip-hop’s most legendary groups and to the “funky 5-footer” Phife Dawg, who died in February after years of battling diabetes, A Tribe Called Quest’s return brought beautiful closure to the loss of a friend as well as to their own storied run in rap, with beats and rhymes that were politically piercing and painfully heartfelt.
“Blank Face” Sometimes gangsta rap is a cartoon, sometimes it’s a novel. In many ways, ScHoolboy Q puts South Central Los Angeles on display with the same touches as Ryan Gattis in his 2015 novel “All Involved.” From the gang injunctions telling him where to go when he was just a middle-schooler, to the futility of a preacher trying to persuade him to keep a truce on Sundays, to uncles smoking what he was selling, the devil’s in Q’s details.
“untitled unmastered” More than just “To Pimp a Butterfly” leftovers, “untitled” is a fully formed extension of Kendrick’s massive 2015 think piece. It’s as lush, vivid, and pointed as his Grammy-winning opus, in a smaller, possibly more potent dose.
“The Divine Feminine” Miller likes pseudonyms. Probably because it’s a way to shake the image of the party-loving rapper that frat packs adore and to truly explore where different sounds can take him. He dropped the “You” EP in 2012 under the name Larry Lovestein & the Velvet Revival. But on “Feminine” he takes the mask off and dives into love, lust, jazz, and funk. No shame in love.
21 Savage and Metro Boomin’
“Savage Mode” In tone and content, 21 Savage takes you on a tour though a tormented subconscious. It feels less like you’re hearing raps and more like you’re hearing the voices in his head. Meshed with Metro Boomin’s sinister ambient beats, it’s like music for the elevators in hell.
“The Return East Atlanta Santa” The Gucci Mane parade was thrown as soon as he was released from prison in May, but you knew he was truly settled once the overflow of releases started coming. He released two East Atlanta Santa mixtapes while serving time, but “The Return” is a specially gift-wrapped stocking stuffer from Ol’ St. Brick.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.