We’ve hit the halfway point in 2017, and it’s been an amazing year for music fans. Major releases have been dropping almost once a week, and many of them are living up to their lofty expectations. There’s still plenty of time for more great music to come our way this year, but before it does let’s take a look back at the best projects thus far.
25. Syd – Fin
Syd’s debut solo album is a sharp pivot from her work with The Internet, as well as the other solo albums the group members released this year. For the majority of Fin, the smooth singer eschews the live instrumentation that’s backed her for much of her career, opting instead for hazy, digital production on songs like “Body” and “Over”. When she does bring the funk, though, it’s as good as ever; the Steve Lacy-assisted “Dollar Bills” is one of the standout tracks. Overall, Fin isn’t quite as impressive as The Internet’s last group effort Ego Death, but Syd proves she’s more than capable of succeeding on her own.
24. Freddie Joachim – Trouvaille
You may not have heard of San Diego-based producer Freddie Joachim, but you’ve probably heard one of his relaxed beats at some point in your life. The man behind the boards on Joey Bada$$’s breakout single “Waves,” (a beat later used by J. Cole on “False Prophets”) Freddie’s 2017 full length album doesn’t need vocalists to be a solid project. It’s a continuous, mellow vibe with watery melodies over boom-bap drums, sparking memories of some of hip-hop’s earliest, most venerable producers. Recently featured artist Ozmosis raps over a few of his beats on The Chill Tape, and both the instrumentals and the versions with lyrics are worth a listen.
23. Future – FUTURE
In the most extreme example of current artists overloading albums to get their streams up, Future released 36 new songs between two albums in the span of a week (and since then, he’s added more songs to each). A single cohesive project combining the best of FUTURE and HNDRXX would have ranked much higher on this list, but as it is the earlier release is the stronger one. Future’s at his best when he’s pumping out relentless bangers, and hits like “Mask Off,” “Rent Money,” and “POA” are just that. The songs on FUTURE sound better shuffled into a turn-up playlist than they do on their own, but since that’s probably what he intended we’ll consider it a success.
22. Khalid – American Teen
Senior year of high school is a time of angst, self-discovery, and memories, and Khalid touches on all of it on American Teen to great effect. The album has propelled him into the hearts of the youth around the country, making him one of the brightest breakout stars of 2017 thus far. It’s impossible not to feel sentimental when listening to his passionate voice, especially over stripped down songs like “Coaster” and “Angels.” There’s plenty of upbeat, cheery songs as well for when the mood calls, making it the complete soundtrack to a magical time in the lives of many.
21. Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Tomorrow
The majority of English rappers currently on the come up in America don’t sound like Loyle Carner. Gravitating toward the smooth boom-bap instead of aggressive, raging grime music, Loyle Carner vents his mind throughout Yesterday’s Gone with a unique charm that’s lodged deep in his British accent. It’s a highly personal album, with guest appearances from his father and his ‘mum’ as well as accomplished artists such as Tom Misch. The accent might be an acquired taste for some, but the music is well worth the extra effort.
20. Wale – Shine
Gone are the days of Wale lamenting his rank in the rap game. On Shine, the D.C. veteran creates the most fulfilled music he’s made in years, showing he’s finally appreciating all he’s achieved in his career. The simplest way to describe the album is “happy,” as songs like “Running Back,” “My Love,” and “Smile” set the tone on his fifth studio album. It’s a beautiful thing when fatherhood pushes established rappers to change course in their music, showing their priorities are shifting for the right reasons.
Overjoyed . I keep the most important things in my life so far away from people because I'm sensitive . Quite possibly too sensitive to even be in this business nevertheless I spoke on the downward spiral that ensued after complications with my previous child… For that reason I kept this very private as I prayed every day to receive this blessing . Thank You to all my friends so many , Iman/Teyana . Draya and O.Mel and Robyn. Finn Balor Neil Lawi. Bryson, Kehlani WizardEd.. So many ppl that stayed up wit me and talked me thru such a sensitive subject … I named my album SHiNE when I knew my babygirl was on the way …I want to be a better man than I ever been. I'm so flawed I'm so imperfect and the world knows it… I just want to honestly be the best version of myself I can be.. My focus is renewed I'm infinitely in love with my princess and I truly appreciate all the love you have shown her and how understanding many people who knew were .imma keep workin on me and pray to God I can design a young princess who flourishes to an absolute queen .. I got u baby … U go girl .. You are my everything and I'll see to it we SHiNE my precious Zyla💙
19. Gucci Mane – Droptopwop
It’d be an understatement to say Gucci Mane had himself a year since being released from prison last May. Between his eight releases and his countless features for the likes of Drake and Rae Sremmurd, barely a day went by without the world being blessed with a new Gucci verse. The East Atlanta rapper’s work ethic is unparallelled, and his collaboration with Metro Boomin’ on Droptopwop feels like it was effortless in the two days it took them to create it. Gucci times his flows seamlessly over Metro’s ominous production, creating a brooding album that only reasserts their trap dominance.
18. Bryson Tiller – True to Self
Surprise releases can be risky, especially when they’re on the same day as two highly anticipated albums. Bryson pulled it off with True to Self, outperforming both Lil Yachty and Gucci Mane in album sales and edging out Droptopwop by a spot on this list (sorry Yachty; Teenage Emotions didn’t even come close). True to Self has its limitations; it’s a tad bloated in the form of More Life, and Pen Griffey doesn’t show much growth from his debut effort. But even still, the sound that made him a name to watch on Trapsoul is just as clean in 2017, leaving little reason for the Louisville crooner to leave his niche.
17. FKJ – French Kiwi Juice
French DJ/producer FKJ built his career off light, groovy Soundcloud remixes, as well as short EPs previewing his own creations. He’s finally released his first full-length project French Kiwi Juice, and it showcases everything that’s made him a household name thus far. His playful melodies extend and evolve on whatever instrument he chooses to feature, before scratching it all on his turntables and remixing it into a new melody. It all reaches a twinkling peak on “Joy,” a track that warmly encapsulates summer sunshine into four glorious minutes.
16. Drake – More Life
Technically, More Life shouldn’t even be eligible for a Best Album list, since he’s decided to term it a playlist. Labels aside, however, it’s one of the best 25 collections to come out this year, so it deserves a spot. Drake’s wave riding goes international on More Life, as he spotlights the British grime scene through Giggs and Skepta as well as giving British soul singer Jorja Smith the platform she deserves on “Get It Together.” All three of them have enjoyed increased visibility following Drake’s cosign, proving that the Toronto artist’s tastemaking abilities are as strong as ever in 2017.
15. Thundercat – Drunk
Thundercat’s worked with a laundry list of some of the best artists from all genres, varying from Kendrick Lamar to Erykah Badu to legendary thrash band Suicidal Tendencies. Recently, he’s received more acclaim for his individual work, culminating in his 2017 masterpiece Drunk. There’s plenty of oddball lines to keep you on your toes throughout, and it doesn’t feel like a conventional album by any means. Instead, it’s a winding, experimental journey through funk, that’s equal parts baffling as it is brilliant.
14. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples refuses to be boxed in. He’s grown more experimental in each of his four major releases, and his newly released Big Fish Theory feels like the robotic future of both the club and the mosh pits. His cold, calculated sound belies insightful lyrics like “at the park politickin’ with the kids / tryna get them on the straight path, got the lames mad” on “Big Fish,” creating a project that gets better with every replay.
13. The Juju – Exchange
Donnie Trumpet is no stranger to working in a band, as the Chicago native has previously been involved in Kids These Days and often works with Chance the Rapper as part of the Social Experiment. With his new collective The Juju, however, he leaves his hip-hop connections behind, linking with three other jazz instrumentalists to create Exchange. The seven-song project is as carefree and airy as you’d expect from the man behind Surf, and an excellent introduction to what will hopefully be a long run of music from the quartet.
12. Kodak Black – Painting Pictures
Probation and colorism issues aside, Kodak knows how to make a hot track. There’s plenty of them on Painting Pictures, as the Florida rapper’s southern drawl rides every beat the way that only he could. “Patty Cake” samples an obscure piano cover of a song from the Final Fantasy X soundtrack (yes, the RPG video game), creating one of the most childlike, blissful beats you’ll find on a trap album. Elsewhere he gets deep on his perception in the media, venting “I got a headful of dreads, think a nigga illiterate / But know when I go to talk, a nigga’ll reconsider it” on “Reminiscing.” There’s a lot of baggage in Kodak’s life that needs to be addressed, but through all his hindrances he’s still managing to put out good music.
11. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls
Thugger raised eyebrows when he announced his upcoming project would be “a singing album,” and premiered a snippet of his new country-infused music on Instagram. He raised more eyebrows when he arranged for the brutal kidnapping and assault of a young woman in the album’s trailer. The hype had reached a fever pitch by the time the release date finally arrived, and Beautiful Thugger Girls proved worthy when it was all said and done. Melodies come second nature to Young Thug, and he scuttles up and down the scales at will on an album that sees the unique artist at his best. The country guitar is an interesting (and hopefully temporary) experiment, but “Tomorrow Til Infinity” and “Relationship” are built to last.
10. Kehlani – SweetSexySavage
The year 2016 was not kind to Kehlani. The singer endured personal turmoil and public scorn, eventually attempting to end her own life as a result of all the negativity. Fortunately she’s still with us today, and on SweetSexySavage she airs out her demons in a victorious recap of her journey. She’s anything but a broken woman despite all she’s gone through, and her uplifting message is proof that no matter how dark it may be around you, there’s still reason to persevere.
9. BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION
Make sure you’re strapped in tight before you press play on this album. The self-proclaimed “All American boy band” wastes no time bringing the heat on SATURATION, threatening to “break your neck so you can watch your back” on the first song (aptly titled “HEAT”). The album becomes increasingly musical and less angry as it progresses, and once the group trusts they have your attention they reveal some intensely personal confessions in their lyrics. “MILK” is a beautiful ode to self-acceptance, seeing Merlyn Wood nonchalantly rapping “Hi, my name is Merlyn / I just applied for food stamps” at the top of his verse. BROCKHAMPTON is the most intriguing band out right now, and on their debut album they provide a glimpse into their raging psyche. You’d be wise to take the opportunity.
8. Migos – Culture
Culture isn’t just an incredible album, it’s a movement. For as long as Migos’ career has been, it’s only their second studio album, and the most fully-formed project they’ve ever released. “Bad and Boujee” first dropped in 2016, but it’s dominated the airwaves well into 2017 and is one of the biggest songs of the year thus far. Migos’ chemistry is on full display throughout on songs like “Get Right Witcha” and “Call Casting,” and they pack the album with hits from front to back. They’ve been repping Atlanta all over the place this year, and most importantly, they’re doing it “for the culture.”
7. Lorde – Melodrama
It took Lorde four years to give us a follow up to her heralded debut album Pure Heroine, but on Melodrama she delivers a project that’s well worth the wait. It’s a big step up production-wise, with strong parallels to the experimental samples and effects found on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, which Lorde cited as an inspiration. Much of the album comes out of Lorde’s experiences dealing with her first real heartbreak, and lyrically she sounds much more mature and thoughtful than she did at age 16 on her debut. The rare acoustic moments on “Liability” and “Writer in the Dark” hold special weight as Lorde’s vocals take center stage, spilling her heart for her sympathetic listeners.
6. Smino – Blkswn
The best rapper out of St. Louis since Nelly, blkswn is Smino’s breakout effort that should vault him to the top of the list of rising artists. He’s country to the bone, and his country vernacular blended with Monte Booker’s one of a kind production creates a funk that’s simply irresistible. Smino’s witty humor dominates much of the tape, but he also takes time to reflect on real moments growing up in his hometown, such as “Where I was growing up / They called the coroner / Around the corner, every morning / Where the fuck Tom Joyner?” on “Long Run.” Expect to hear more from Smino on Monte Booker’s upcoming mixtape, and hopefully on his own as well as he looks to build on his momentum.
5. Goldlink – At What Cost
Wale carried the crown of the D.C. rap scene for much of his career, but Goldlink’s taking over the throne on At What Cost. The rapper depicts the vivid D.C. go-go scene on his debut studio album, and invites a host of the city’s artists to contribute (Shy Glizzy, Mya, and legendary go-go artist Kokayi). And of course, Goldlink connects with Wale himself on “Summatime,” seeing his accomplished predecessor spit a sweet 16 over groovy production by Radiant Children. Hometown pride runs deep on At What Cost, and Goldlink comes with the tunes to back it up.
4. Jay-Z – 4:44
After the most well-executed rollout in recent memory, Hov’s new album released on the last day of June and rightfully set Twitter ablaze with everything he said. Gone are the days of Jay-Z hustling his way through the streets of New York, as Shawn Carter instead passes down life lessons on money management and cultural responsibility. He finally responds to Beyonce’s cheating allegations on the title track “4:44,” profusely apologizing for all his misdeeds over a heart wrenching sample of “Late Nights and Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams. No I.D.’s incredible production throughout the album gives Jay-Z the most concise album of his career, and the wisdom Hov relays over his beats truly is “a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.”
3. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$
If he hadn’t already, Joey Bada$$ officially ascended into the ranks of hip-hop elite with All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. It’s relevant, it’s inspiring, and on top of that it’s some of the best music he’s ever created. He shows new versatility over a range of modern beats both aggressive and relaxed, while still retaining some of that classic boom-bap essence that made him a fan favorite on 1999. “BABYLON” is one of the realest songs of the year, perfectly contrasted by more feel-good tracks like “FOR MY PEOPLE” elsewhere on the album. It’s not a project to be taken lightly, as Joey uses his talents on the mic to tell a message that needs to be heard.
2. SZA – Ctrl
For all the frustration SZA endured regarding the numerous delays around her album, it’s getting the praise it deserves now that it’s finally here. SZA bares her soul from the first note on “Supermodel” to the final cry on “20 Something,” telling her story without fear of retribution. “Doves in the Wind” might be the most important song of the year, and the nod to the classic TV series Martin on “Go Gina” will give 90’s babies everywhere something to smile about. It’s a shame her first ever TV performance at the BET Awards was marred by technical difficulties, but she shined once the setup was squared away. Kudos to her for not faltering after the slip-up; it shouldn’t be long before she’s winning awards at these shows, not just performing at them.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
According to the artist himself, DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar’s best album, and its the best album so far in 2017. It’s foolish to expect to catch all of Kendrick’s references and hidden meanings on one listen, and the more you understand DAMN. the more you appreciate it. The Compton rapper explores religion, the black genetic code, and even includes clips from his critics on a project that feels as painstakingly orchestrated as his recent Coachella performance. It’s the latest rap album worthy of the Album of the Year award at the Grammys, but whatever the Committee decides, DAMN.‘s place in hip-hop lore will last for decades.