It was a weird year in American life. It was a weird year in hip-hop, too. Much of mainstream rap descended into a dark pharmacological haze that was alternately illuminating and horrifying; few embodied those twin impulses like the dead-eyed, flat-voiced rapper 21 Savage. Every major chart hit seemed to include Migos, or one of its members. Most rappers spent more time singing and harmonizing than actually rapping, whether it was Future, Lil Uzi Vert, or Kendrick Lamar. Drake entered his Aerosmith/rock-dinosaur phase—likeable enough, still one of the biggest stars, but no longer generating the kind of critical excitement and discourse he once did. And the top newcomer of the year (though technically her debut mixtape dropped last year) was Cardi B, a former Bronx exotic-dancer-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-social-media-darling who may not be a technically proficient rapper, but made up for it with a delightful mix of personality and panache.
Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was arguably the year’s best album, but it also seemed purposely muted and focused on addressing past triumphs, personal failings, and searching for a path ahead. Its defining quality may have been a surplus of hooky, memorable tunes that didn’t overwhelm intellectually like his past work. By contrast, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory delved into fame, disappointment, and UK beat culture in vivid yet perplexing fashion. Migos’ Culture simply offered a cavalcade of hits. Its magnificently scattershot quality was akin to a Stephen Curry highlight reel: Even the best shooters in the NBA merely average over 50 per cent makes. Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut was wonderfully ephemeral. Nothing felt like a genre-shifting achievement on the scale of last year’s Coloring Book, or 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DS2. But in a year when optimism about the world around us was in dangerously dwindling supply, modest artistic breakthroughs felt like small yet important steps forward.