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.

Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory review – keen observations on the perceptions of artists over experimental electronic production

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Vince Staples is one of the most talented and fascinating figures in hip-hop today. Over the past three years, Staples has been prolific releasing a new project every single year. The brilliant Hell Can Wait EP in 2014, his Def Jam debut, his debut album Summertime ’06 in 2015 and last year summer’s Prima Donna EP which was accompanied by a 10-minute long short film. All three projects were outstanding, polished and focused with great production and Staples’ breathless flow as he documented the hellish environment he grew up in North Long Beach, Los Angeles as a former Crip member. In three short years, he has always been in the conversation around hip-hop culture as a prominent subject for blogs and magazines who want his opinion on everything. Last year, he made dozens of short videos in which he shared his opinion on anything and everything. He did so many of these videos that I couldn’t imagine him enjoying them but I enjoyed his clever wit and watched every single one of these I could find. It’s no surprise why everyone wants his opinion on things, he is a very intelligent, funny and quick-witted individual with obscure pop culture references all delivered in a dead-pan tone that you can never tell if he’s being serious or tongue-in-cheek. Over the past few months Staples began to appear as a feature on several electronic and EDM tracks collaborating with artists such as Flume, Clams Casino and GTA. He also appeared on the track “Ascension”, the first track from the latest Gorillaz album, Humanz. It shouldn’t have been that much of surprise then that Big Fish Theory is full of experimental electronic production.

Electronic music is such a broad genre that it would be foolish to call the production on Big Fish Theory simply “electronic”. There are so many sub-genres many I’ve never heard of or listened to. But I am of course familiar with techno, house and UK garage which are some of the genres I can most identify on this album. Techno is the most prominent influence on the album specifically Detroit Techno and I noticed some House influence in the pop hooks but I can’t tell the difference between different sub-genres of House so you’ll have to forgive my ignorance. UK garage is the most interesting sound to me though because it’s the last thing I would have imagined Vince Staples rapping on but there it is on the first track on the album “Crabs in a Bucket.”

“Crabs in a Bucket” builds up with an eerie atmosphere, electronic synths and some high-pitched vocals. Staples’ vocals come in and there’s thumping bass as Staples frantically raps in his effortless flow. The bass gradually becomes more warped and frenetic and Kilo Kish sings in her sweet voice on the outro. If you’re not familiar with UK garage, it’s a genre of electronic music originating in the early 90s in the UK which often features a distinctive 4/4 percussive rhythm and pitch-shifted vocal samples. If you’re curious enough to listen to any though you might not see the influence on “Crabs in a Bucket” but if you listen to Burial it will be crystal clear. Burial’s version of UK garage in the 2000s was much darker than that it’s 90s predecessor it’s often called “future garage.” Co-produced by Zack Sekoff, who produced four tracks on the album, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, it’s a very good homage to the genre which developed grime. Although, Big Fish Theory, is much less lyrical than Summertime ’06 and also much shorter at only 36 minutes, Staples comes through with great flow and insightful lyrics. “Crabs in a Bucket” is an idiom which refers to an individualistic mentality which ensures that no one succeeds. The lines “need white women at the shows unconscious / If not that then topless, earned all this” possibly refers to hyper-masculinity in hip-hop and juxtaposes the white women who consume hip-hop which is mostly made by black men and the long history of white women’s festishation of black men. The lines “nails in the black man’s hands and feet / put him on a cross so we put him on a chain” suggests Staples is comparing the mass incarceration of black men to the crucifixion of Christ.

The second track on the album is “Big Fish” which was released as the second single. It’s a bass heavy club-banger produced by Christian Rich (Kehinde and Taiwo Hassan) featuring a catchy chorus from Juicy J. It’s the one of the most accessible tracks on the album and could easily be on the radio unlike most of the tracks on the album. On this song Staples reflects on his modest success financially and how he’s made it out of the dire situation he was in: “it’s funny I was going crazy not too long ago.” Watch any interview with Vince Staples and you’ll know that he cares about being financially stable because money is the most important thing where he comes from and in most places in the world and it can get you out of where you come from where someone like Vince might been killed by another black person or the police. “Alyssa Interlude” samples an Amy Winehouse interview. Staples was influenced by the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy making Prima Donna, he saw how badly she was treated by the press and her family when she became famous. The inclusion of the sample points to the perception of artists but on the outro Staples sings “Raindrops on my windowsill / longing for your nature’s feel” reminiscing about someone he once knew and loved, this is overlayed with a beautiful Temptations sample. Produced by GTA, “Love Can Be…” is such a catchy track. Damon Albarn sings on the intro and Kilo Kish’s vocals sound purposeful robotic and her flow is so smooth. Staples’ flow is reliably smooth but his cadence is so quirky perhaps mimicking Kendrick Lamar’s on “Alright” “tell the world I want my Uchies / dodge the groupies, them don’t move me.” Also the Ray J vocals are an inspired choice (interesting parallel Burial also sampled Ray J on his track “Archangel”).

“745” is a certified banger produced by Jimmy Edgar, it features heavy bass and rattling hi-hats. The lines “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs / All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss / All my life I want waves at my front door” are again reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” It is followed by “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” an interlude which features Vince singing mournful, the track ends with a gunshot transitioning into the highlight of the album “Yeah Right” (more parallels to Kendrick Lamar – “BLOOD.” ends with gunshot transitioning seamlessly into the banger “DNA.”). Yeah Right features KENDRICK FUCKING LAMAR. There are many comparisons to be made between Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. They’re two of the most critically acclaimed rappers today, they’re both from poor crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and they’re both super fucking talented. “Yeah Right” is a dream come true, two of my favourite rappers currently (Kendrick Lamar is a GOAT easily but Staples is not quite a GOAT yet but he’s a strong contender)  collaborating for the first time on a banger of a track. The last time this happened was…well last year – Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on “Really Doe.” But boy does this deliver. The hook by Staples is so catchy repeating “boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right” over and over again.

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He talks about materialism in hip-hop “Is your house big? Is your car nice? / Is your girl fine? Fuck her all night?” then there’s a bridge by Kućka until Kendrick comes in and takes over the track it’s his now. And he absolutely snaps on his verse, switching up his flow and cadence multiple times. “Popular demand, I understand my name is only for conversation” he knows he’s great and he proves it again and again. Co-produced by SOPHIE, a PC music collaborator and Flume it’s a highlight on an album full of highlights.

“Homage” has some of the craziest production on an album full of insanely good experimental electronic production. Staples puts on a braggadocios persona and pays homage to Rick Ross on the chorus “these niggas won’t hold me back” and to A$ap Ferg on the last verse “I’m on a new level.” Also on the last verse Staples says “I’m out in Bristol, bro from the ends got a pistol” I know Staples has listened to Portishead (a trip-hop group from Bristol) and I’ve never heard an American rapper use the word “ends” in this way so perhaps Staples has picked up some UK slang and is paying homage to it or maybe it just rhymes. “SAMO”‘s title pays homage to the iconic black American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat who like Amy Winehouse died at the “cursed” age of 27 and was also an artist who was pimped and treated poorly. The word “SAMO” means same old shit alluding to the mundane nihilistic gang lifestyle he once lived. Party People uses the old trick of having an upbeat instrumental but with deceptively depressing lyrics. The chorus is lighthearted “Party people, yeah / Party people I like to see you dance” and I can easily hear this at a early morning uni student rave but the rest of the lyrics are quite depressing highlighted by the line “how I’m supposed to have a good time / when death and destruction’s all I see?”.

The album concludes with “Bagbak” and “Rain Come Down.” “Bagbak” was the first single released in promotion of the album, the beat produced by Ray Brady sounds the most like what I think Detroit techno sounds like though I’m not very familiar with the genre. It’s futuristic but industrial and on this track Staples delivers his most explicit political lyrics on the album with lines like “prison system broken, racial war commotion / until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’ / we need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office.” In an interview with LA Weekly Staples said “we making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism” he later said he was trolling telling white people about black culture but I think he’s right. This is afro-futurism at least Staples’ interpretation of afro-futurism whether he intended to or not. He took the sounds of Detroit and other metropolitan cities and crafted a unique forward-thinking vision of the world we’re living in. The final track “Rain Come Down” is slightly more subtly political “I’m the blood on the leaves, I’m the nose on the Sphinx / Where I’m from we don’t go to police” referring to the issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting African-Americans. The track also features some vocals from Ty Dolla $ign on the chorus. Big Fish Theory is a short but powerful album featuring unique experimental electronic production, witty and insightful lyrics, minimal but effective features and a very strong concept. It joins Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Sampha’s Process as three great albums from three great black artists which explore to some extent how black men deal with pressure and anxiety.