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Pound-for-pound, these albums are the best projects of 2017.
4eva is a Mighty Long Time
collection of trunk knockers
Many artists believe that the big record deal is the launchpad for their careers reaching new heights. For Big K.R.I.T., it was the other way around: it was only after splitting from Def Jam that he was able to craft 4eva is a Mighty Long Time, the best album of his career. The ambitious double-disc album is split into two sides. The first half is a collection of trunk knockers like “Subenstein (My Sub IV)” and “Confetti” that see the Mississippian in full-on rapper mode, confidently bodying beats while appreciating subs and candy paint. The second disc gets to K.R.I.T.’s heart, as he opens up about depression, his relationship with God, and family. Different discs for different moods, but both sides are authentically K.R.I.T.

William E. Ketchum III
grapples with humanity 
A major theme of Jay-Z’s last album, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, was the idea of hip-hop as high art: the cover was revealed in a photo next to a rare copy of the actual Magna Carta 13th century English charter, and the performance video for “Picasso Baby” was shot in an art gallery. Hip-hop, Jay felt, can stand shoulder to shoulder with Warhol and Da Vinci. But 4:44 delivers on the concept with thoughtfulness, artistry and leadership. Released months before Jay-Z would celebrate his 48th birthday, 4:44 presents a reflective, family-rearing Shawn Carter who is reevaluating the brash, egotistical attitude that fans fell in love with. Just four years ago, he rapped about a Picasso painting as a status symbol like he would have chains or cars on his previous albums; now, it’s a tool to hand down generational wealth to his children. On “Song Cry,” Jay-Z cheated on his woman and essentially blamed her for moving on; on “4:44,” he confesses his misgivings and comes to terms with the hurt he caused someone he loves. In other words, Jay showed that what made 4:44 great is what helps all classic art transcend: the way it grapples with humanity and its questions. After 20 years of largely playing the poker face, Jay-Z lets us in with 4:44, and discovers himself in the process.

William E. Ketchum III
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
An outcry of emotions
At 14 tracks and 55 minutes, Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. is a testament to two things. One, rap’s most powerful voices is at his apex. Two, he has it in him to raise the bar on each and every occasion. An outcry of emotions that happens to be as palpable and loud as the caps behind the song titles, Kenny’s third studio album is genius at work. He’s rapping at an immeasurable height compared to his previous works and his scope is as crisp as his razor-sharp verbal firepower. A fitting threequel to the Section.80, good kid, mA.A.d city lineup, all the elements of life, love, and spirituality are laid out here and analyzed. Take “FEAR.,” the 12th track on the album, for example. “FEAR.” is to DAMN. what "Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst" was to good kid, m.A.A.d city and "u" to To Pimp A Butterfly. A potent keystone, this six-minute confessional conveys Kendrick's aptitude as a master of dramatic structure. He unpacks his psyche over Sounwave’s cozy soundscape, providing one of his most heart-rending moments on-record to date. When lines like "I'll prolly die at these house parties, fucking with bitches / I'll prolly die from witnesses leaving me false accused" pop up, songs like "Average Joe," "Sherane aka Master Splinter's Daughter" and "good kid" come to mind. In drawing from his past and splicing them with the sense of fear those moments create, the song heightens the overall vulnerability of one otherwise brutally honest, spare, and loud cry of an album. Life is one funny motherfucker, it’s true.

Ralph Bristout
hit-making trio
2017 was a hell of a year for the Migos. It consisted of the likes of Katy Perry, Calvin Harris and Gucci Mane calling on the hit-making trio to add some flavor to their singles, some of the hottest chicks in the game rocking their chains, them pulling up to the Met Gala and dropping their first platinum album
C U L T U R E. Where their 2015 debut Yung Rich Nation was an overlooked commercial failure, Quavo, Offset and Takeoff’s sophomore effort catapulted the group to superstar status. Accompanied by three platinum singles including “T-Shirt,” "Slippery" and the group’s highest charting single to date, “Bad and Boujee,” the Grammy Award nominated LP cemented the Migos as leaders in this current class of not only hip hop, but more importantly, pop culture.

—Kai Acevedo
unhinged, but anxious
Show me someone who has tired of Ctrl and I’ll show you a liar. Because its impact isn’t solely sourced from sales, shiny RIAA certifications, and award nominations, but its replay value, the kind that would leave it worn to shreds and scratches if streaming allowed for such. And, even with four guests—all men, at that—that value is only energized by SZA’s ability. The individualistic way she curls unseemly confessions into casual conversations. She wavers between singing with a snarl and singing with a pout. With her finger in your face or a dark cloud over her head. While just as much at odds with inept men as she is with her own insecurities. And with both the quick cadence of a rapper and the improvisational, crooked melodies of a scatting jazz singer. “I been secretly banging your homeboy” is delivered with the same impassioned candor as “I know you'd rather be laid up with a big booty.” She’s unhinged, but anxious. And seeks growth in herself but authenticity in others. Don’t you? So, across 14 tracks unbound by genre, she entertains the undeserving, exacts revenge, praises the pussy, shares the dick, questions her worth, stakes claim in self-ownership, ponders improvement with aging, advises the “old me,” wishes for normalcy, gets high, gets low, flings and gets flung, and blesses her fellow 20-some’ns. Haven’t you? It all makes for a resonating accessibility that we—digital-age almost-adults—have always known we’ve needed.

Danielle Cheesman
Tyler the Creator,
Flower Boy
a sun-soaked sonic pillow
This entire review could be spent ruminating over whether or not, after much speculation, Flower Boy truly served as the proverbial closet from which Tyler came out as a gay man, but there are arguably even more revelations worth applauding. What we witnessed was an evolution. Gone on this album is the Tyler who used shock as a vehicle and gloom as a mouthpiece, and what emerged instead was an introspective student of life. Even its soundscape is softer. There are swelling synths and strings, fuzzy keyboard chords, blurts of horn blows, guitars both acoustic and distorted, and many an inspired spark of soul-jazz and psychedelic funk. It’s a sun-soaked sonic pillow for Tyler’s juxtaposing rumbling vocal, and the platform for his reflective admissions. Countering the machismo and materialism that tends to populate rap, Tyler leads with emotion. He seeks out happiness, laments loneliness, fears disloyalty, questions longevity, looks down, and looks up. Make no mistake, there are the tally-mark mentions of luxury whips but, lo and behold, they’re not a panacea: “Crashed the McLaren, bought me a Tesla / I know you sick of me talkin' ‘bout cars / But what the fuck else do you want from me? / That is the only thing keepin’ me company.” While some assumed the coming-out implications were an in-character, attention-seeking antic, it’d be even more devastating (and thus, unlikely) to learn that Tyler’s sincerity was, too. Especially when he’s out here dealing hope: “Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit; I'll do it too.”

Danielle Cheesman
Laila’s Wisdom
toe-to-toe with veterans
Rapsody planted one triumphant flag into the ground when she released Laila’s Wisdom back in September. The Snow Hill emcee’s sophomore album allows her to go toe-to-toe with veterans (Black Thought, Busta Rhymes) and contemporaries (Kendrick Lamar) over a soundscape crafted, in majority, by the magnificent 9th Wonder. However, when she’s not out-rhyming her feature guests, she’s touching on topics that include spirituality, returning to Jesus in the afterlife, her grandmother Laila, and the false beliefs that having dark skin equates to being unattractive. As for snagging a nomination for Best Rap Album at the 60th annual Grammy Awards, alongside JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody earns the recognition for simply keeping true to herself and delivering an album worthy of more than one listen.

Rob Hansen