Top 10 favourite albums of 2017

2017 has been a very eventful year for music. Kendrick Lamar continued his dominance of the rap game releasing another critically acclaimed and commercially successful album, DAMN., and taking the charts by storm. Drake released a “playlist” called More Life which introduced the world to UK rap legend Giggs and further confused those with his ever changing accent. UK actor and comedian, Michael Dapaah in character as Big Shaq became one of the biggest memes of 2017 and released the biggest UK rap song ever “Man’s Not Hot” after the success of his viral Fire in the Booth freestyle with Charlie Sloth. Sampha finally released his debut album Process, which won the Mercury Prize, and captured the world with his beautiful soulful voice. SZA, Syd, Kelela, Daniel Caesar, Brent Faiyaz and more released some of the smoothest alternative R&B albums in a while. JAY-Z got everyone talking when he admitted he cheated on Beyonce (stupid) and released some of his best music in a while and some incredible music videos. And throughout the year, there was so much amazing black British music. J Hus, Stormzy, Skepta, Dave, Little Simz, Krept & Konan, MoStack, Giggs, AJ Tracey, Kojey Radical, Wiley, Not3s, Nadia Rose, Chip, 67, Kojo Funds and more all released amazing projects and songs this year. So let’s get into it. These are my top 10 favourite albums released in 2017 from favourite to slightly less favourite.

10.

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Moses Sumney — Aromanticism

One might be tempted to label Moses Sumney as an R&B or alternative R&B artist because he’s a black singer but he’s much more similar to an Elliot Smith than say Chris Brown. On his debut album Aromanticism, Sumney softly coos in his falsetto about loneliness and isolation backed by ambient and indie folk instrumentation. Think Dirty Projectors or Arca. His voice is often a quiet whisper a perfect vessel for delivering his beautifully written poetic lyrics. Sumney joins other current soulful black singers like Sampha and Benjamin Clementine who are creating some of the most unique music melding the genres of electronic, indie, soul, baroque, folk and R&B music in a distinctly black style.

9.

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LCD Soundsystem — American Dream

In February 2011 LCD Soundsystem disbanded and it was made official following a large farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. The farewell concert was chronicled in the documentary film Shut Up and Play the Hits. So it came as surprise when in January 2016 the band announced their reunion and a day later their fourth studio album American Dream. LCD Soundsystem return without a hitch with American Dream, still sounding like quintessential LCD but with some bells and whistles. They return with their distinct dance-punk and new wave sound but updated and refreshed for 2017. Frontman James Murphy muses on the current turbulent political climate with his unique brand of lyricism. It’s a great return to form and shows that no one does dance-punk/rock better than LCD Soundsystem but nice try Arcade Fire.

8.

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Slowdive — Slowdive

Legendary English shoegazing and dream pop band reunited in 2017 for the first time in 22 years since the release of their last album Pygmalion in 1995. Along with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive are regarded as one of the best and most influential dream pop and shoegazing bands ever. Their latest, self-titled, album after more than two decades proves why they’re so critically acclaimed. When an album is self-titled it sets very high expectations and Slowdive definitely exceeded them on this album. They sound as dreamy as ever but their new songs are even more vibrant and fresh, the wash of guitars and reverb entrancing you in bittersweet memories and nostalgia.

7.

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Jay-Z — 4:44

After the disappointments that were Magna Carta Holy Grail and The Blueprint 3 Jay-Z is back to prove why he’s still considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jay-Z, I got into hip-hop when I was around 13/14 so the first Jay-Z album I remember coming out and listening to was Magna Carta Holy Grail which massively disappointed me. I always preferred Nas and Biggie to Jay. 4:44 is Hov going back to basics, leaving behind the braggadocio and ego and being more vulnerable and honest than he’s ever been. The album is brief and the production is stripped back solely handled by long-time collaborator, No I.D. and Jay-Z himself. The album succeeds immensely with tracks like “The Story of O.J.” being among the best this year.

6.

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SZA — Ctrl

SZA’s debut album could have come a few years earlier but because of issues with her confidence and lack of control it didn’t. But it came this year which was the perfect time because this has been SZA’s year. Almost every black woman I know has loved SZA’s album and related to it in some way. As the sole female member of indepedent hip-hop label TDE, which has produced some of the biggest artists in hip-hop including Kendrick Lamar, she’s an odd fit. But like most members of TDE she’s incredibly talented. The production on Ctrl is very smooth and reminiscent of 90s neo-soul yet simultaneously contemporary and unique. The album also has an indie spirit with dreamy guitar riffs such as the one on “Drew Barrymore” the anthem for misfit girls everywhere. Her voice is expressive and her lyrics are poignant as they are relatable for weird, awkward black girls.

5.

Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory

After the critical acclaim of his debut album Summertime ’06 Vince Staples could have easily played it safe with his sophomore album and repeated the success. However, Vince does the opposite on Big Fish TheoryBig Fish Theory is one of the most unique hip-hop albums in recent years and as experimental as a relatively mainstream hip-hop artist gets. Of course Vince is not going to be topping charts any time soon but with his infamous interviews and hilarious Twitter account he’s increasingly popular. Big Fish Theory is a very unique album, it’s production is totally electronic there isn’t a single beat I could call traditional hip-hop. The album has a mix of different electronic genres including UK garage, house, techno and EDM. Vince flows incredibly well on these unconventional beats and enlists Kendrick Lamar on “Yeah Right” one of the best bangers of the year.

4.

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Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy

Flower Boy also known as Scum Fuck Flower Boy is I wanted Tyler to make after Cherry Bomb. While Cherry Bomb wasn’t a bad album, Tyler’s experimentation with production meant it was often a difficult listen and he didn’t always pull it off. But he showed glimpses of the greatness that appears on Flower Boy. When Flower Boy leaked it started a lot of speculations about Tyler’s sexuality referring to some not so subtle lyrics on the album. Tyler has still not confirmed these rumours despite some who point to tweets he’s made in the past. The thing about Tyler is that no one takes him seriously because he’s sometimes too much of a joker. But I think Tyler wants us to take him seriously  on Flower Boy and let the music speak for itself because he doesn’t use the persona of Wolf Haley on this album it’s just Tyler Okonma. And Tyler Okonma is very talented. Flower Boy has some of the most beautiful production, soulful singing and honest poignant lyrics on any album this year. It’s been great watching Tyler grow into a mature artist and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

3.

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J Hus — Common Sense

2017 has been an incredible year for black British music as I mentioned in my introduction and J Hus’ Common Sense is a stand out. J Hus has been making massive waves since he broke out in 2015 and it’s great to see that he’s been able to turn that talent into a great album. Common Sense is the perfect encapsulation of young black Britain in 2017, it captures the mad raves, the dance-hall and afrobeats hall parties, the roads; the essence of young black British African and Caribbean life. The production on Common Sense (most of which is handled by JAE5) is fantastic, from the jazzy title track “Common Sense” to a grime rave banger “Clartin” and UK garage tunes like “Plottin.” J Hus is undeniably one of the most talented artists in the UK and I’m so excited to see what he does next.

2.

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Sampha — Process

I’m so glad to have another black British artist not just in my top 10 but in the top 3. Not to go on about it but it really has been an incredible for black British music. In any other year, Process could be my number one but a certain someone had to release another masterpiece. But what an incredible album Process is and well worth the wait. Sampha has caught people’s attention since appearing throughout SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album in 2011 stunning everyone with his angelic soulful voice. I’ve seen Sampha live and honestly he sounds even more incredible live like that’s even possible. By having literally one of the most beautiful voices ever Process could have had average production and I would have loved listening to it. Thankfully that’s not the case as the production is also great handled by Sampha himself and Rodaidh McDonald. It’s production is electronic similar to James Blake but it’s also very soulful. He bares his soul on this album singing about his anxiety, fear, loneliness and grief. A standout track is the piano ballad “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” dedicated to his late mother it’s the most emotional, touching song in an album full of heartwarming moments.

1.

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Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

And it’s no surprise that my number one album of 2017 is a Kendrick Lamar album. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Kendrick Stan but this pick is only slightly biased because I genuinely think DAMN. is the best album of 2017. It had some fierce competition and I’ve had Process over it a few times but in the end I think I made the best decision. No other album in 2017 affected me as much as DAMN. After To Pimp a Butterfly which is my favourite album ever I eagerly anticipated what Kendrick would do next. I don’t think  he will ever top To Pimp a Butterfly, at least for me but he came pretty DAMN. close. On DAMN. whose concept I still haven’t fully begun to unpack yet, Kendrick goes internal examining his now messianic status, his fears and anxieties and the state of the world we’re living in with excellent results. “FEAR.” the album’s centrepiece is one of the best Kendrick Lamar songs ever, a 7-minute epic detailing his life from the age of 7 to now. “HUMBLE.” proves that he’s capable of making of chart-topping bangers without sacrificing lyricism. On “DNA.” he goes in on his critics and does lyrical acrobatics. The album is full of highlights and while there are some more poppy songs like “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” Kendrick continues to prove that he’s the greatest active living hip-hop artist. After To Pimp a Butterfly was released there was not doubt Kendrick Lamar was one of the greatest rappers of all time (and my personal number one) there’s no absolutely reason why anyone should think otherwise after DAMN.

JAY-Z: 4:44 review – Hov swaps hubris for humility and vulnerability on this brilliant confessional record

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I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of JAY-Z. One of the biggest reasons for this is that his music is currently only available online on TIDAL and for purchase on the iTunes store and my primary way of listening to music is streaming on Spotify. However, I’ve listened to JAY-Z songs over the years I’ve been listening to hip-hop because well he’s JAY-Z. He’s one of the most well-known figures not just in hip-hop but in pop culture in general. I mean even my dad who doesn’t listen to much music used to listen to JAY-Z. He is one of the best-selling musicians of all time and Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album and The Blueprint are regarded as among the best hip-hop albums ever. I’ve listened to songs from all three albums but I doubt I’ve listened to any of them in full. I loved his collaboration album with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, in 2011, I think this was the year I started to listening to music properly and not just watching music videos on MTV. So in 2013 when Magna Carta Holy Grail was released I was excited, I remember downloading the leak and then listening a couple of times and not again. It was not a bad album, just utterly mediocre and not what I expected from a legend such as JAY-Z. When I heard the rumours that JAY-Z was working on a new album a couple of months ago I anticipated it I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised but ready to be disappointed again. I can confidently say that 4:44 did not disappoint.

A lot has been made of 4:44. Some have seen it as a response to Beyoncé’s seminal album Lemonade which was released last year and in which she strongly implied that Jay-Z had cheated on her.  Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s relationship has been in the public eye since at least 2003 when Beyoncé released her debut solo single “Crazy in Love.” Many have also interpreted Solange’s infamous attack against JAY-Z in an elevator in 2014 as a response to his cheating. All of this has been speculation (though it seemed more than likely) until JAY-Z confirmed he did cheat on Beyoncé on the title track “4:44.” “4:44” begins with a sample of “Late Nights & Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams & The Affirmations. Williams sings “do I find it so hard / when I know in my heart / I’m letting you down every day”  reflecting how JAY-Z feels about cheating and letting down his wife and kids. JAY-Z begins the first verse with the line “Look, I apologize, often womanize /
took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes” clearly admitting his infidelity and taking his children for granted. The sample forms the chorus and No I.D.’s, who produced the entire album, production is simply amazing. The song and the entire album manages to use old soul samples while sounding fresh, modern and different. And JAY-Z’s flow on this song doesn’t miss a beat, he has a distinct voice which sounds effortless on the beat. It’s almost like he’s just talking or confessing but paired with the production it’s extremely effective. JAY-Z is brutally honest and vulnerable on the song “my heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes / and the mask goes away / and Santa Claus is fake.” With these lines JAY-Z likens himself to Santa Claus, a fictional figure which parents tell their children exists but are really just themselves pretending.

Some critics and people have described 4:44 as the first grown rap album and others have made comparisons to Nas’ 2012 album Life Is Good. It’s easy to see why. Hip-hop is still a relatively young major genre unlike rock which has been around since the 50s and 60s, hip-hop came around in the late 70s and did not become popular or commercial until the late 80s and early 90s. Therefore, a lot of well known rappers in the “golden age”, many of whom started young, are only in their 40s such as Nas, DMX, Ice Cube, Eminem and the recently deceased Prodigy. Biggie and Tupac, the martyrs of hip-hop, would only be 45 and 46 respectively today. At 47, JAY-Z is definitely considered an “old head.” The debate about the state of hip-hop has been going on for a while now. Nas made an album called Hip Hop is Dead in 2006. In 2017, the truth is hip-hop is a better place than it has ever been. In a recent study by Nielsen, hip-hop/R&B combined was the most consumed genre in the United States for the first time ever. Hip-hop shapes pop culture more than any other genre today and JAY-Z has been a big part of its cultural status. JAY-Z started out as a drug dealer and is now worth $810 million just behind P Diddy as the second-richest hip hop artist. He’s a businessman and is friends with the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. JAY-Z has inspired a lot of rappers including the current most important rapper Kendrick Lamar and although his influence has gone unnoticed in recent years it’s still huge and he proves it on this album. On “Family Feud” for example, JAY-Z examines his status and role as a father in his family and as a father figure in hip-hop. The track is backed by beautiful Beyoncé vocals and great production from No I.D. He sends shots but in a friendly way with the lines “all this old talk left me confused / you’d rather be old rich me or new you?” referencing the “old head” debate as well as bragging in his typical Hov persona. As well as that, the line “and old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new / like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh” commenting on his contemporaries judging young rappers such as Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert for their unique fashion choices whilst ignoring the fact the Tupac and other rappers also dressed in a not so hyper-masculine way.

On the brilliant album opener, “Kill Jay-Z”, JAY-Z talks about killing his ego. He says “fuck JAY-Z, I mean, you shot your own brother / how can we know if we can trust JAY-Z?” referring to the incident when he was 12 when he shot his crack-addicted brother. By talking about killing his ego JAY-Z shows that he is self-aware of the danger of being too egotistical, he expresses his doubt and vulnerability by rapping in the third person and talking about the things he’s done. And his wordplay and imagery is extremely sharp, for example the lines “let go your ego over your right shoulder / your left is sayin’, “Finish your breakfast!” / you egged Solange on” refers to his song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, his inner conscience, the Eggo waffle brand and the term “egged on”. “The Story of O.J.” is a highlight on the album. The production is soulful and No I.D. brilliantly reworks a sample of Nina Simone singing “Four Women” which was about the effects of slavery on black women. Nina Simone sings “Skin is, skin, is / Skin black, my skin is black / my, black, my skin is yellow” which is repeated throughout the song. JAY-Z talks about a lot of different issues such as slavery, financial responsibility, black ownership, capitalism and commercialism on this single track. The chorus “light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga / rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga / still nigga, still nigga” is straightforward and effective in highlighting the sad truth that no matter your status, your wealth, your position if you’re black you’re still just a “nigga” in America. Despite his wealth and status JAY-Z will be treated as inferior by a racist and by the racist institutions that are still upheld in America he’s still a nigga. The interlude before the first verse perfectly sums it in one sarcastic line “O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” followed by a long pause then “…okay.”

JAY-Z listening to this song then hearing that O.J. will be released from parole later this year.

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Another highlight is the delightful “Smile” which has possibly my favourite beat on the entire album and a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” He talks about his mother coming out as a lesbian and how he feels about that: “mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian.” The song ends with monologue from his mother, Gloria Carter, “living in the shadow / can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?” It is an important revelation because homosexuality and other LGBT identities are topics which aren’t talked about as much in black communities especially among the older generation. As well as feature spots from his mother and wife, the two most important black women in his life, JAY-Z also gets help from Frank Ocean on the chorus of “Caught Their Eyes” and Damian Marley on “Bam.” “Bam” also samples “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy which Kanye West, close friend and now possible rival, also sampled on “Famous” on The Life of Pablo. On “Moonlight” JAY-Z references the snafu at this year’s Academy Awards when La La Land was falsely announced as the best winner before Moonlight was correctly identified as the true winner: “Y’all stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon’ lose.” It was a bittersweet moment and served as a metaphor for black joy overcoming impossible obstacles but still not allowed to express happiness fully. At 37 minutes and 10 tracks, 4:44 is an album full of highlights. There isn’t a single bad track on it. JAY-Z has a great flow and wordplay throughout the album, the production is incredibly soulful, the vocals match the beats perfectly and the lyrics are well-written exploring a wide variety of issues which should be discussed more often. It’s yet another example of black masculinity being expressed through vulnerability and I hope this becomes the norm. By killing his ego JAY-Z has produced a brutally honest and vulnerable record, his status and legacy still intact.