A month or so ago, Panama suggested I listen to “We Did It,” a track from Lil’ Yachty’s Lil Boat “mixtape.” He said it was worth peeping because it might be the single worst rap song of all time.
Because Panama is one of, like, three or four niggas I know with whom I can have a hip-hop conversation on a near-academic level, I took seriously his claim. Indeed, the track is like every celebrity death, terrorist attack, Donald Trump election, gorilla assassination and iPhone headphone jack removal from 2016 in audio form. It’s the Holodomor of songs. I wouldn’t even wish for it to be pumped into Dylann Roof’s solitary confinement cell on repeat.
When I imagine mid-30-somethings in 2035 reflecting wistfully upon the “halcyon” days of Lil’ Yachty and cursing whatever the hip-hop is of that day, it makes my toes itch. It also makes me wonder if I’ll still be able to make a robust year-end list like this – as I’ve done every year for 14 years – decades from now. Hell, will I even care about hip-hop when I’m in my 50s?
Fortunately, like incontinence and erectile dysfunction, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that for a while: it’s still challenging for me to put my favorite music on a playlist that can fit an 80-minute CD-R. (Yes I know…my conditioning has been conditioned). Thanks to a lot of internal debating over the wealth of great music this year, my list took some finessing, which is why you’re just now seeing it.
Sorry it’s late, but better that than never, yeah?
1. “Limitless” – Smoke DZA & Pete Rock (feat. Dave East): It warms my cold, dead heart to see Pete Rock, one of my top-three favorite producers of all time, having a renaissance of sorts. His production made this list three times. DZA is a capable emcee, but Don’t Smoke Rock matters most as the best-produced album of the year.
2. “February” – Elzhi: As far as highly talented emcees with trash outputs go, Elzhi ranks just above Jay Electronica. The former Slum Village emcee took forever and two days to drop his crowd sourced album Lead Poison, but it was generally worth the wait. My guy 14KT is on the boards for this plaintive, piano-driven track, and he’s never been better.
3. “1st Gear (Technoviolet)” – L.E.$.: The E36: Technoviolet album comes courtesy of L.E.$., a Texas-by-way-of-Louisiana rapper and producer known for working under Curren$y’s Jet Life Entertainment brand. You won’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music, but the whole Fast and Furious-themed tape is worth a listen.
4. “Memory of….(US)” – De La Soul (feat. Estelle and Pete Rock): This is basically the hip-hop version of Adele’s “Hello,” only it won’t ever make you wanna cut your ears off with a serrated knife due to overplay. Pos and Dave’s dulcet voices perfectly fit the song’s content, and the Chocolate Boy Wonder does his damn thing on the boards.
5. “How Great” – Chance the Rapper (feat. Jay Electronica and Chance’s cousin Nicole): I didn’t get into Coloring Book as rapturously as…everyone else. And I’m still aggravated that there’s not a properly mastered version of the album considering all the hosannas Chance has gotten for it. But Jay Electronica over a gospel sample? Here for it.
6. “No More Parties in L.A.” – Kanye West (feat. Kendrick Lamar): To be clear, “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. I” has the best beat of 2016. But Yeezy ruins it by talking about bleached assholes and, y’know, not actually rapping. This Madlib-produced gem captures everything that was ever appealing about Kanye as a rap artist and throws in a K. Dot verse for good measure.
7. “Don’t Ever Play Yourself” – DJ Khaled (feat. Fabolous, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss and Kent Jones): Get past his entertaining social media feeds and you’ll find Khaled is good for the occasional dope track. This ominous joint reminds me of 90s posse cuts of yore, and happens to feature a bunch of rappers from my favorite ones.
8. “TorcH” – ScHoolboy Q (feat. Anderson .Paak): The Blank Face LP surprised me by being one of my favorite albums of the year. This opening salvo has a hook that makes me wanna punch everybody within a mile radius.
9. “Bad Boy on Death Row” (O.G. version) – Dave East (feat. The Game): Between his Kairi Chanel album and a ton of dope loosies and collaborations, Dave East had a fantastic year. The instrumentation of this track is slightly remixed on Kairi Chanel, but I enjoy the original slightly better.
10. “THat Part” (Black Hippy Remix) – ScHoolboy Q (feat. Black Hippy): The album version with Kanye West is pretty useless; this remix retains the dope beat and adds a Kendrick verse that ranks among the year’s top three verses.
11. “The Jungle” – Nick Grant: Grant is a South Carolina emcee who came from outta nowhere with his ’88 mixtape, a tight project most notable for the “Royalty” Remix with Big K.R.I.T. and Killer Mike. “The Jungle” is straight Millennial fight music and I’m looking forward to a “proper” album release from Grant.
12. “Temptation” – Asher Roth x Nottz x Travis Barker (feat. Royce Da 5’9”): I’ve never had any use for Blink-182, but I’ve kept an eye on Travis Barker’s recent foray into hip-hop because his drums work wonders in the genre. Rawther as a whole is worth checking out because Nottz is always dependable and Asher Roth is what Macklemore could be if Macklemore didn’t suck.
13. “Dead Pre$ident Heads” – Royce Da 5’9”: Royce is still in my top five dead or alive, and there’s very little more satisfying in all of music than hearing him snap hook-free over a hard beat for an entire track.
14. “I Wanted Mo” – Dizzy Wright: Wright may be the only Las Vegas rapper I’ll ever appreciate. He’s been quietly putting out hot material over the last four years or so, and I strongly recommend digging into his numerous projects on Apple or Spotify. You can hear in his music the influence from his biological uncles, Layzie Bone and Flesh-N-Bone of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
15. “Hold the Drums” – Smoke DZA x Pete Rock (feat. Royce Da 5’9”): I had another beatless wonder originally on this list, and I figure some of you are side-eyeing me over having so much Royce. But this joint isn’t even about him…it’s about Pete Rock’s beautiful production. No track has spent more time on repeat in the last month.
16. “A Couple Dollars” – Skyzoo & Apollo Brown (feat. Joell Ortiz): Apollo Brown is a Detroit producer who shines much brighter when working with some rappers more than others. Skyzoo is one of the best and most consistent underground New York emcees ever, so it’s no surprise that he’d bring something special out of Apollo. If season 4 of The Wire were transformed into a song, it would be “A Couple Dollars.”
17. “I Grew Up on Wu-Tang” – The Game: Jayceon always seems to be good for at least one year-ending track, thanks mainly to his fantastic ear for beats. Every track on the 1992 album has samples, and The Spinners’ “We Belong Together” sample shines on this cut.