This year in music saw many of our favorite artists, both old and new, release albums marked by unexpected risks and surprising turns. The projects below took us along on journeys well worth the price of admission; however, for some reason, their flights of fancy went unappreciated by the masses. That’s too bad; guess they just have to #RestUp. Here are REVOLT’s picks for the year’s most unexpected, yet underrated, releases:
Whether it’s his verse on “So Appalled,” his rhymes in cyphers and freestyles, or his solid pen work for Kanye West, there’s never been any doubt if CyHi The Prynce could spit. But after seven years in rap purgatory with several false starts and no release date in sight, there was definitely question on whether the Atlanta lyricist had the vision to put together a cohesive, memorable body of work. With No Dope On Sundays, he proves his doubters wrong. CyHi’s long-awaited debut is a meditation on the parallels and differences between his life in the streets and his spirituality, delivered through expert storytelling and lyrical calisthenics. Hopefully, his A+ debu means we won’t have to wait very long for the next sermon.
—William E. Ketchum III
It’s hard to believe that H.E.R. Volume 2 could ever be slept on, even though it’s great music to put you to ease. As the harps play puppet master pulling at the strings of your heart, each track takes us on an emotional journey. At the beginning there is a feeling of bliss that is reminder of the honeymoon phase of a new relationship. Slowly the album progresses through the peaks and valleys of the rocky roads that exist when falling in and out of love. Songs like “Every Kind of Way” illustrate the joy that love brings, while “Still Down” reflects on the apprehensions that can occur when things don’t feel like before.
Through composition it is apparent that H.E.R. is a student of music, especially R&B. The use of cadences, melodies, and even lyrics give of flashes of songs from R&B legends like Mary J. Blige. H.E.R juggles sexuality, vulnerability, and assertiveness with clever words and honest storytelling. Lifting the weight for many women that can relate to giving love and expecting reciprocity.
On All Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey turns pain into cadence, premonition into awareness, and darkness into sunshine (with a chance of clouds). With lyrics soaked in pleas (“Can’t you see it’s a trap”), rumination (“I feel my ancestors arrested inside of me”), and self-analysis (“Can’t change the world unless we change ourselves”), Joey’s spiritual journey is put in focus for all to experience. In turn, he emerges revitalized with his best studio album yet. Actualizing the strength of societal awareness, he puts every headline in the forefront in hopes that it will spark a mind, a change, an “action in your first child.” If none of that comes into realization, then, as Joey raps on the last line of the album, “we’ll all be doomed." Time to wake up.
In his unfortunate bouts with trials and tribulations, Meek Mill shines when it’s all poured over an instrumental. And for Meek, the music really speaks for itself. Out of all his studio albums, Wins & Losses, his third, is the first release from the rapper to arrive without a hit single attached. “Glow Up” arrived early in the summer and showed signs of potential, but compared to 2015’s “All Eyez On You” and 2012’s “I’ma Boss,” there was no undeniable hit strapped onto the campaign. Still, he rose. In freeing himself from the infamous feuds, breakups, and narratives attached to his name, Meek traded those setbacks for a major comeback. Honest, forward, and reflective, Wins & Losses is a potent self-analysis of a rapper whose struggles with the pros and cons of being the mouthpiece for an oft-overlooked generation of underdogs. “They wanna see me fold, but I will never sell my soul,” he raps on “1942 Flows.” This is the story of Robert Rihmeek Williams.
Let’s dispel that myth that the younger generation of Rap MC doesn’t put emphasis on lyrics. Hell no! There are definitely some upcoming wordsmiths dropping declarative soundbombs. Nick Grant is the cat from the small town who immediately put his imprint on hip-hop’s bigger picture with his debut Return of the Cool. Grant’s opus established him as one of the most lyrically proficient blue chip MCs. He’s cut from the proverbial “cloth” of rapper that isn’t just naturally talented, but works meticulously at their craft. Growing up, he paid attention to those who paid attention. Biggie, Nas, and OutKast all major influences of Grant and Cool, with it’s dexterous rhyme, marks Nick as being a major influence for years to come.
The feds may be looking to get their hands on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, but, it is Raekwon’s The Wild they should be after. The Chef’s seventh solo entry in the Wu-Tang saga arrived, guns blazing, to the sounds of his first single “This Is What It Comes Too,” a gnarly output reflecting a hungry wolf still on the prowl. Across the album Raekwon does what Raekwon does best – intimidate and articulate – which ought to keep longtime fans comfortable enough to enjoy some of his more earnest, non-Chef work. On “Can’t You See,” Rae takes listeners through the trials of his childhood, being influenced by neighboring kids, and being able to witness his mother’s happiness. Members of the Wu-Tang Clan are hardly shy when it comes to their stomping grounds, but Rae’s reflectiveness scribes a different mark onto their discography. Whether you have heard it, or not,The Wild is a solid rap album, period.
Before releasing this debut album, Sampha spent a few years backing an upper echelon so decorated with artistic accolades that the collection of co-signs ultimately felt ironic. If the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and both Knowles sisters—he’s uncredited on “Mine,” y’all—can’t do without recruiting you, your work probably doesn’t even need the vouching. What we can confidently assume they wanted was Sampha’s distinct tone: ethereal and achy, fragile but gripping. A gentle giant in vocal form. A voice without a poker face. And on Process, which didn’t earn nearly the same widespread social conversations as the projects from those he once supported, Sampha puts it to work on tracks that are either contemplative or catastrophic. “Plastic 100°C” swirls above and around you, but “Blood On Me” gallops towards you like a threat. You’ll be bruised by the crushing “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” and spellbound by the undeniable bounce of “Under.” The LP chronicles palpable loss and, per its title, the mindful work that’s endured to overcome it. But despite the project’s subject matter and all its unique production—are those bagpipes on “Timmy’s Prayer”? Varying harps on “Kora Sings” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?”—Process never feels overwrought. Sampha, with his subtle power, leaves you meditative, not mourning.