“CTRL” SZA’s vulnerability is immediate and piercing. Her breakthrough debut is more than just a reframing of R&B, soul, hip-hop, and chill wave, it’s a searing investigation of the insecurities that shaped her. Hearing her sort through the links between the relationships that caused them and their effect on her going forward is equal parts heartbreaking and healing. When she sings, “I could be your supermodel if you believe/if you see it in me/I don’t see myself,” it crystalizes her self-image issues and need for validation. When she bargains with another woman over a man they both share (“You take Wednesday, Thursday/then just send him my way/Think I got it covered for the weekend”), you can hear her grappling with the idea of settling for a situation she knows is unhealthy. As she details each step in her march toward womanhood, she pulls back the curtain on a process as painful as it is beautiful.
“4:44” The bread crumbs that ultimately led to “4:44” trace all through Jay-Z’s discography. His seminal debut, “Reasonable Doubt,” ended with a grim conclusion about the drug game he glamorized on “Regrets.” His 2002 opus “The Blueprint” had the comical yet misogynistic “Girls, Girls, Girls” on the same album as the thoughtfully apologetic “Song Cry.” He’s rapped about shooting his own brother (“You Must Love Me”), police profiling (“99 Problems”), and Katrina (“Minority Report”). But it was never enough to overcome the materialism that had essentially become his brand. With “4:44,” he’s managed a do-over in 36 minutes. In what is more or less a 10-track therapy session, Jay-Z strips his ego completely, takes inventory of his missteps in both his marriage and his professional life, and lays out a new blueprint for what success and manhood truly look like.
“DAMN.” The closer Kendrick Lamar flies to the sun, the more it worries him. His 2015 masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly” lifted him to a different stratosphere, earning him more Grammy nominations in a single year than anyone besides Michael Jackson. The universal praise made him skeptical, and those worries are the backbone of his 2017 follow-up, “DAMN.” He draws a line in the sand between praise and worship when he declares “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” tries to connect the dots between the seemingly random events in his life that shaped who he is, and ultimately leans on his relationship with God, because it’s the only thing he believes will truly sustain him. And he does it over some of the most ear-splitting Mike Will Made-It beats ever.
Open Mike Eagle
“Brick Body Kids Still Daydream” Open Mike Eagle’s skepticism, cynicism, and wit are his weapons. It might have seemed like he was poking fun at society’s addiction to devices on “Check to Check” or its strange fetish for celebrity lifestyles on “Celebrity Reduction Prayer,” but there’s frightening truth in his cheekiness. With “Brick Body,” he’s laser-focused on examining the period of his life spent in Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s south side, sharing the light that gleamed from a housing project notoriously cast as grim, violent, and oppressive before it was torn down in 2007. He shows us that the bricks weren’t buildings but the people who lived there.
“Heirloom” Ill Camille has been in the background of some of the most influential artists to come out of Los Angeles, from Kendrick Lamar (“Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst”) and Terrace Martin to Kurupt and Ty Dolla $ign. But “Heirloom” is a process of self-discovery, not only though the album’s lush jazz soundscapes but through the many losses (of a father, a grandmother, and an uncle) over a short span that made Camille look inward.
When Kendrick Lamar tapped Rapsody as the only rap feature on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” it was for a reason. Rapsody has been gradually carving out space as one of the sharpest voices in the genre. Her storytelling fits hand-in-glove with the soul chops that producer 9th Wonder uses like a second language. Here, they come together to create Rapsody’s most fully formed work to date.
“who told you to think??!!?!?!?!” Give Milo a passing listen and it sounds like he’s rapping in riddles with no answers, but “who told you to think” is a statement album. Whether he’s referencing the Last Poets’ “Time” or James Baldwin’s speech “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” Milo’s constantly asking questions — and then answering them through one of rap’s most effortlessly intricate rhymes schemes.
“At What Cost” There might not be a sound more stubbornly loyal to its city than go-go is to D.C. Backyard Band, Uncalled 4 Band, and Taking Care of Business are as much a part of the fabric of D.C. as the politics that drives the city. It’s more than just a genre, it’s a culture — one that’s joyful and exuberant, but at times also treacherous and territorial — and “At What Cost” serves as a love letter to it.
“CULTURE” If Donald Glover’s Golden Globes speech brought you to Migos for the first time, you missed a lot. For about five years, the Atlanta trio has essentially been the template for the trap sound that’s made hip-hop the most dominant genre on the charts. Their ad-libs are infectious (“Momma!), but “CULTURE” flashed a hit-making ability that had been ignored for far too long.
“No One Ever Really Dies” It’s nice seeing Pharrell Williams lose the Clint Eastwood hat and dye his hair a wild burnt orange. It’s nicer to see him side by side with Chad Hugo and Shay Haley again. The revival of the Neptunes’ rock-funk-rap hybrid side project was a welcome surprise after a seven-year hiatus. It’s a blissfully chaotic cocktail in which Rihanna doesn’t so much rap as she floats (“Lemon”), Andre 3000 beams down from another planet (“Rollinem 7’s”), M.I.A screams at the system, and N.E.R.D. pulls all the strings.
Local artist pick
Mr. Lif and Akrobatik
“Resolution” Cousin Stizz (“One Night Only”) harnesses the turn-up. STL GLD (“Torch Song”) capture the tension of the times. But Lif and Akrobatik trade frill-free bars with the perspective of seen-it-all vets who were long overdue for a reunion.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.