Aesop Rock’s seventh album and second project from the Rhymesayers imprint has little to do with black identity. One of rap’s most lyrical and underrated acts has stood out in the genre for his verbiage and impeccable flow. It’s that appreciation for the genre that shines through on The Impossible Kid. To create the album, Rock sold most of his possessions and retreated to a cabin in the woods with his pen, his cat and an open mind.
During this time, the rapper penned relatable lyrics on broken dreams (“Rings”,) how gentrification can poison nostalgia (“Mystery Fish”) and the evolution of his family (“Blood Sandwich.”) By going off the grid, Rock grew closer to the style of hip-hop’s early mission statement. Inspired by a thorough conversation with Chuck D, one of the strongest tracks (“Lazy Eye”) arises. There’s also the presence of grand beatboxing on “TUFF.”
By just taking a little time away from our tech-filled world, Rock allowed himself to be vulnerable to fans while giving praise to the spirit of rap.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Blood Sandwich,” “Lotta Years,” “Lazy Eye”
Emeli Sande’s journey in music has placed her in a gripping space between pop and soul. Since the release of her debut album Our Version Of Events in 2012, the singer struggled to find inspiration for her sophomore. Taking a leap into the unknown, the Scottish singer went on a journey of self-discovery where she traveled to Zambia, the birthplace of her father.
From there, Sande explored her childhood devotion to legends like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, while toying with her faith. The outcome was Long Live The Angels, an album that merged her gospel and soul influences under one roof. On powerful tracks like “Breathing Underwater,” “Happen” and “Tenderly,” Sande finds her calling from The Highest while professing her trouble with fear and anxiety. On “Give Me Something” she prays to find the deeper meaning in life while digesting the racial tensions across the pond and the states.
She also experiments with R&B sounds on tracks like “I’d Rather Not” and “Garden,” with the assistance of Jay Electronica and phenomenal poet Aine Zion. Her drive to create intersections of faith, truth, and love test her creativity and how far faith can truly take us.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Breathing Underwater,” “Garden (featuring Jay Electronica and Aine Zion)” “Give Me Something”
As much as you tried to deny or ignore it, the return of Gucci Mane was a long time coming. Ever since his incarceration in 2014, the rapper made sure he would be missed by releasing dozens of mixtapes and introducing the world to Young Thug and Mike Will Made It. It would show just how clever and practical Radric Davis truly is. After all, he did make over a million dollars in prison and managed to employ a strong street team to tweet to promote his music.
He was even prepared as he walked out of prison with the release of “First Day Out the Feds” and a new deal with Atlantic. His clear mindset helped create Everybody Looking, his ninth studio LP and the highest charting project of his career. With mentions of his past battle with substance abuse and trap lifestyle, Gucci does his routine Gucci schtick in an enlightening way. By refusing to be a victim of mass incarceration, Gucci actually got his act together. He shared his love for Malcolm Gladwell. He wifed up his ride or die Keyshia Ka'oir. He also gave hope to those paying their debt to society that a fulfilling post-prison life exists. He continued his heavy music cycle by dropping Woptober and the collaborative EP’s Free Bricks 2K16 with Future and 1017 vs. The World with Lil Uzi Vert. In time we’ll get to know just how sentient the rapper can be on wax with his new perspective on life. Meanwhile, we can drown in what the East Atlanta Santa has to offer now that the chains are off.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Out Do Ya,” “Back On Road (featuring Drake),” Waybach”
Maxwell is the master of R&B. Over falsettos and jazzy tempos, the singer delivers soulful vibes on BlackSUMMERS’night. Serving as the second album in the “Black Summer” trilogy, the singer takes a mature approach to the project by creating close to 500 songs with longtime friend and songwriter Hod David between 2007 and 2009. Maxwell’s take on love has always catered towards the appreciation of the woman. By creating the sultry tracks like “Lake By The Ocean,” and “1990x,” the artist gives a voice to those who simply just can’t find the words to profess their love. I remember over the summer in Bedstuy watching a brother belt “Lake’s” chorus to his very embarrassed lady.
Others trapped in the hot and sweltering traffic simply laughed, but the moment was just one of many that make up the nooks and crannies of black love. While sacrificing his heartbreak, Maxwell helps us board the ship to Loveland.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “1990,” “All The Ways Love Can Feel,” “Gods”
Chicago’s talented kids are finally getting their credit. The drill sound helmed by acts like Chief Keef, Lil Durk and Young Chop still exists in the Windy City but thanks to acts like Chance The Rapper, Saba, Noname and Mick Jenkins, deeper perspectives on the Southside’s blood, sweat and tears fill up Jenkins’ debut album, The Healing Component. A conversation with a friend exploring the parallels of love binds the album together as the 25-year-old’s critiques of pop culture, self-care, faith and relationships resonate on wax. On “Drowning,” Jenkins tells the story of a runaway slave as jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD lay down the heavy bass lines. Jenkins coos “I can’t breathe,” which also serves as an ode to Eric Garner’s final words before he died at the hands of a police officer in 2014. Jenkins explained his willingness for listeners of all shades to find love and understanding in America’s troubled past.
“I was to represent black people and the white man was to represent more specifically the oppressor,” he told The Fader. “It was to say that we both need to be drowned in a certain truth. We know what the oppressor does but I also think that a lot of people think that because we are the oppressed, we’re free of guilt about things. I think it’s pertinent for us as well to go through and get an understanding of some very important truths which would be us figuratively drowning.”
His faith is explored on “As Seen In Bethsaida,” a city on the East Jordan river mentioned in The New Testament. Looking towards the story of how Jesus fed a full town with just two fish and five loaves, Jenkins explores the power of love and compassion for the next man. But Jenkins isn’t holier than thou. He reflects on cycles of fake love and drugs on “1000 Xans” and “Prosperity.” The Healing Component shares with the listener there is no one key to life’s meaning, but the first step is to find it in yourself.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “The Healing Component,” “Drowning,” “Spread Love”
Devonte Hynes’ musical persona Blood Orange delivers deep cuts of black culture on his third album Freetown Sound. Declaring the album as a clapback to his critics, Hynes dives into the archives with samples from KRS One, African Bishop and author St. Augustine, Zuri Marley (granddaughter of Bob Marley) and many more that almost require deeper research than a Spark Notes outline. Named after Freetown, the city in Sierra Leone where his father was born, Hynes provides positive affirmations on “But You” and reflections on weary love on “Best To You.”
The singer-songwriter also touches on his upbringing in London, where he was gay-bashed by his black neighbors for wearing makeup and hanging with those who were against the status quo. He gives listeners a sample of strength not from himself but to his friend on “Desiree.” “'Desiree' is about a friend of mine, a dear friend of mine in L.A, a trans woman who has been transitioning for the last few years and she came to visit me in New York,“ he tweeted to fans.“This song is really an ode to her strength.”
He also pens a love letter to those who are fighting the battle of oppression with “Hands Up.” “Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?/Keep your hood off when you're walking cause they/Trying not to be obsessed with your haitin/ Sure enough they're gonna take your body,” as the chant “Hands up, get out, hands up, get out” whispers in the background. The track, along with formerly released “Sandra’s Song,” places Hynes in solidarity with those searching for truth and justice beyond the pain.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Best To You,”With Him,” “Augustine”
If the R&B sounds of yesteryear had a love-child in outer space, then the genre would be called KING, the moniker of the soulful singing trio behind the solid album We Are KING. Packed with 12 songs of out of this world and dreamy sounds, Amber Strother, Paris Strother, and Anita Bias warp the traditional sounds of R&B by fusing elements of pop and electronic music.
Although the subject matter of each song doesn’t relate to the black experience per se (see "Supernatural"), the musical storytelling delivers soul-soothing sounds (see "The Story") and slightly uplifting uptempos (see "The Greatest") much like your favorite R&B ballad from your favorite singer.
Interesting Fact: The late Prince co-signed these talented, yet underrated ladies earlier this year before his untimely passing.
Fist-Worthy Songs: “The Story,” “Super Natural,” “The Right One,” and “Oh, Please!”
Yes Lawd! is a R&B lover and millennial must-have. The 19-track project by NxWorries (Anderson .Paak & producer Knowledge) brings to the surface many thoughts that often run through the mind of a black man. From sex to working and hustling at a job you could do without to the joy of riding around in a favorite whip, Yes Lawd! is probably one of the most honest albums you’ll listen to in 2016. In this soulful project’s case, any black man trying to “make it” and find success while having to choose between the love and the passion of his life will find many of these songs relatable.
The frank lyrics of each song, especially those relating to relationships and remaining faithful ("What More Can I Say") and juggling sidepieces ("Sidepiece") - yes, we know this doesn’t apply to every black man - make this album a favorite amongst many. But the blackest aspect of this 48-minute project is the plethora of throwback jazz, soft rock, R&B samples from songs performed by the likes of J Dilla, Gil-Scott Heron, Gino Vannelli, Evelyn "Champagne" King, Creme d’Cocoa and more. Not only is Yes Lawd! a chill album to vibe out to, it’s a low-key schooler of music history if you listen closely.
First-Worthy Songs: “What More Can I Say,” “Kutless,” "Get Bigger / Do U Luv" and “H.A.N.”
Flipping the script with the presence of a conceptual project, J.Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only tells the story of James, who falls into a life below what’s considered acceptable in the modern workforce. His story is heard by his daughter, who learns her father is much more than a “thug”, but a being who possessed the values of love, passion and sincerity. While it’s been confirmed that the fictional James is a tribute to a close friend of the rapper, it also helps paint a portrait of the voiceless who make up the troubling prison-to-pipeline system in the United States.
Cole questions the purpose of living on the album’s opener, “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” a feeling that anyone in the struggle can relate to. Keeping true to the theme, one of the largest influences of the 90’s--Tupac Shakur--flows through Cole’s vocal chords on quite a few tracks like “Deja Vu” and “Neighbors.” An homage to the late artist is also an extension of his mission, to have listeners change their perception of black youth. Within the past three years, black youth have covered headlines in tragic police shootings. From Tamir Rice to Jordan Davis, their adolescent innocence was erased by alt-right political pundits and those who immediately assume to fear for their lives while in their presence. Cole’s testament to change the narrative isn’t the first, but it does give a poignant look into the country’s biggest flaws.
Fist-worthy tracks: “Deja Vu,” “Change,” “She’s Mine Pt. 2”
The righteous demos that didn’t make the Grammy-winning album To Pimp A Butterfly ended up on what we now know as untitled unmastered. The surprise eight-track compilation explores the parallels of black livelihood, economic temptations and celebrating the joy of being alive. With musical contributions from Thundercat, Swizz Beatz, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Beatz’s 5-year-old son Egypt, the EP hits soulful highs with bass-filled lows through the unfinished tracks. Taking a look at some of the flaws that make up black America (mollys referred to as jigaboos and styrofoam alludes to codeine on “untitled 02 06.23.2014.”) Kendrick’s storytelling skills shine brightly with just enough time to call out the stereotypes that have plagued us for so long that they’re now embraced in a positive manner.
The jams can be heard loud and clear on negro spirituals, “untitled 07 2015-2016,” also known to fans as “Levitate” and calls for a God’s hotline on “untitled 02 06.23. 2014.” The tunes have continued to hold us over until the rapper’s inevitable return in 2017.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “untitled 02 06.23.2014,” “untitled 03 05.28.2013,” untitled 07 2014-2016”
Anderson.Paak’s sophomore studio album serves a gallon of freshness. His raspy-smooth vocals deliver a flawless amount of soul — sans the usual riff and runs — and with the perfect amount of rawness. The album’s first song “The Bird” makes you feel like you’re just waking and wiping the crust from your eyes, before you embark on one hell of a journey. In the case of this 16-song project, that journey is a vulnerable trip showcasing pit stops at life places that any human being can relate to.
From cheating in a relationship to reminiscing about that one friend you once grew up with to , the live instrumentation implemented on each Malibu song adds that extra dose of funk and sonic warmth, that seeps into the heart of anyone listening. With the random samples of surfing documentaries, one can’t help but appreciate the mellow melting throwback sounds, fused with the contemporary sounds of hip-hop and the evolving genre of R&B. Malibu is that album that touches on sex and life without an ounce of reservation, serving as the first wave of soulful greatness from the Aftermath artist.
Fist-Worthy Songs: “The Dreamer,” “Without You” (feat. Rapsody), “Your Prime,” “Celebrate”
Breaking free of sound, tone and genre, Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love! speaks to the soul with the help of some special inspirations. His climatic ascensions of togetherness ("Have Some Love”), racial tensions in America (“Boogeyman”) and odes to unconventional fatherhood (“Baby Boy”) make-up one of the most well-focused projects of the year.
Speaking with triple j radio after the album’s release, Gambino shared most of the animations with his voice had little to do with production. “Some sounds on it aren’t instruments at all, they’re just my voice or clicks on my tongue or something like that.” The project in a spirited way urges us all to feel the love we have for each other, as well as ourselves during the darkest of days.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Me and your Mama,” “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” “Terrified”
Despite the realities of America, the black struggle isn’t limited to just those in America. Struggle exists in other parts of the world, especially in the continent of Africa. Differences in religion, financial class and political corruption are some of the issues many nations are faced with today.
Who better to stand up and address these realities than Seun Kuti - son of the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Kuti - on a 3-track album titled Struggle Sounds. Loaded with live instrumentation from the instruments like the alto and baritone sax, guitar, drums, bass and more, the 24-minute project brings these issues to the forefront, while connecting the struggles of one with another, despite geographical location. The album’s cover art is simple yet powerful in its own right.
First-Worthy Songs: “Gimme My Vote Back”
I’ve been saying for years that A Tribe Called Quest deserves a spot on everyone’s Top 5 list. After all, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White the late Phife Dawg won over our minds and hearts with their infusion of jazz and rhymes on their previous projects like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, creating the subculture of conscious raps. Over a decade since their last album, ATCQ dropped We got it from Here...Thank you 4 Your service, just after the presidential election and reminded us of their slick and highbrow lyrics, while dealing us once again with a spoonful of soul.
Their sampling game didn’t fade as the group took advantage of the sounds from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” (“Solid Wall of Sound”), Musical Youth’s 1982 classic “Pass the Dutchie” (“Dis Generation”) and their second go around with Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” (Enough!!”). But what made their comeback so benevolent was that it didn’t drown in the sounds of the past. Instead, a bag of social, political and philosophical themes rested easy on live instrumentals paired with contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Anderson .Paak and Jack White. While Phife isn’t here to reap the accolades, his spirit shines through the album as he and Tip exchange lines as swiftly as they did in their youth.
In the closer “The Donald,” perceived on the surface a dig to President-elect Trump, the song actually a special tribute to the only Donald they acknowledge--”Don Juice,” a nickname Phife acquired during his career. Black brotherhood is not only felt on the final track but throughout the entire album. Many of us thought Phife and Tip gave up on their friendship and the music in Michael Rapaport’s sensational and at times cringe-worthy 2011 documentary Beats Rhymes and Life, but the two found a way to let their love overpower the hate in a final Tribe album we’ll cherish forever. Thank you for your service guys.
Fist-worthy tracks: “We The People...,” “Melatonin,” “The Donald”
Bruno’s appreciation for James Brown, Michael Jackson and all things love, peace and soul-related shine throughout 24K Magic. The singer-songwriter professes in several interviews a lot of 90’s influences played a big part in what he called a “movie” instead of an album, but you can’t help to be pulled into silent tributes to the 80’s sounds New Edition and MJ.
Nine tracks make up the party, from get-off-the-wall tracks like “Perm” and “That’s What I Like,” to red light specials like “Versace On The Floor.” Mars serves funk and lovely sex on a platter for all of us to indulge in. His direction on 24K had a lot to with “Uptown Funk,” a track curated by Mark Ronson that you’ll probably hear for the rest of your life. Shai’s 1992 track “Baby I’m Yours” is sampled on “Straight Up & Down” with the help of tempting vocals by T-Pain. By passing on the sounds that not only birthed many millennials, but inspired artists like Beyonce, Pharrell and Lady Gaga, Mars fulfills his duties as an artist by experimenting with sounds that helped fuel pop culture.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “24K,” “Straight Up & Down” “Finesse”
Hitting the feels of anger, sadness and grief over police brutality and racial tensions in America, Chicago’s Jamila Woods finds melody within tragedy on HEAVN. The singer and activist hailed her project as a complicated love note to her city. As a mentor, poet and the Artistic Director of the Young Chicago Authors (YCA) troupe, the 27-year-old has used her talent to spread love and expose the youth to other outlets than the small screen and hoop dreams. After working with acts like Macklemore and Chance The Rapper, Woods allowed her pen to craft themes around mental health, black identity and love on the project. Playground memories are heard over “Lonely, Lonely” and “VRY BLK.”
The former track takes the cadence of hand-clapping game “Miss Mary Mack” to unforeseeable levels. There’s also the presence of The Cure and The Roots on the album’s title track that calls for love under a divided nation. “I was thinking about all the barriers set up against love,” Woods told The Fader. “I thought about stories of black love in slavery times, how my ancestors had the audacity to love in spite of trauma and violence waged against them. The song became an ode to that history and a call to choose love in spite of the storms we weather.”
“Black Girl Soldier” helps inform the listener about black icons that often go ignored in the month of February like Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was mocked for her body and became the victim of racial science.”Look at what they did to my sisters/Last century last week/They put her body in a jar and forget her/They love how it repeats.” The callings for black women aren’t a newfound wonder but Woods' approach serves as a motivational vitamin to never give up.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “VRY BLK (featuring NoName),” Black Girl Soldier,” “Breadcrumbs”
T.I. took the step that many hip-hop artists decided not to do - call out the killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement. Although many rappers felt that it wasn’t their place to use their talents and following to address the black community and/or spark conversation and action, Tip rallied up as many hip-hop artists to join him on his powerful, six-track compilation, Us or Else.
In a solid 22-minute break from lyrics about drugs, women and money, the man born Clifford Harris uses his musical soapbox to drill the realities of being a black man in a country that is quick to treat him inhumanely through forceful arrests and overt prison sentences. His storytelling paints the frustrating reality of police brutality within the black community, while also offering authentic, yet thought provoking lyrics.
We’re grateful this project was released and placed a mirror in front of hip-hop lovers, but it would have been dope to have more than six tracks of ear candy: It’s too raw, gritty and good to be this short (Looks like Tip heard our cries). This EP is worth the download, stream and/or purchase - period.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Black Man” (feat. Quavo, Meek Mill and Rara) and “40 Acres” (feat. B. Rossi and Killer Mike)
Chance the Rapper is a one of kind anomaly, and his mixtape Coloring Book proves this. Honestly, the music he released since his 2012 project, 10 Day, has been nothing but uphill from there. What makes this Chicago kid that much more unique is the fact that he serves as a strong voice and positive example for the younger generation, especially those from his home city. From top to bottom, Coloring Book is the embodiment of storytelling from the eyes of a black kid growing up in South Side streets of the Windy City.
The blackest moment of his album is how he unapologetically fuses aspects of his church upbringing into his rap music. Sometimes it’s through verbal sayings like “Good God!” Other times, it’s through the weaving of the organ on some tracks or when he features an a cappella gospel choir, singing popular gospel lyrics like “Are you ready for your blessing?” or “How great is our God?” That pride of being from the Chi also shines through when he calls out the R&B / hip-hop radio stations of Chicago or provides another soundtrack to those “juke” lovin’, footworkin’ from the same streets he grew up on. After listening to Coloring Book, you can’t help but realize that the black experience in America doesn’t always involve gun violence, gangs, drugs and any other stereotype often associated with our race.
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “No Problem” (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz), “Blessings (Reprise)” (feat. Ty Dolla Sign, Anderson .Paak, BJ the Chicago Kid and Raury), and “Angels” (feat. Saba)
If A Seat At The Table were the musical perspective of a black woman in America, then Common’s Black America Again could easily serve as a black man’s perspective. Common’s eleventh studio album takes you into the mental of a black man who often questions the world in which he lives, searches for peace when there are mostly feelings of pain while sharing his wise consciousness and knowledge.
The existence of positive father figures (or male role models) is oftentimes overlooked by the negative societal stereotypes placed upon the black man i.e. violence, drugs and mass incarceration. The Chicago-native weaves the close and strong relationship he had with his late father, who often offered words of wisdom that molded him into the man he is today.
This 15-track project features the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marsha Ambrosias, Bilal and Tasha Cobbs who all help the veteran MC deliver messages about spirituality and/or religion, black-american heritage/history, racism, social injustice, love, the inevitable growing pains/pleasures, and the challenge of staying positive amidst the struggle of your fellow black brothers and sisters. The double entendres make this body of work that much more thought-provoking.
Fist-Worthy Songs: “Pyramids,” “Joy and Peace,” and “A Bigger Picture Called Free”
If there were an album that celebrated black pride in America, Solange’s A Seat At The Table would be just that. Much like T.I.’s Us or Else, her third studio album artistically touches on the experience of being black in America. From embracing #blackgirlmagic or that “glory within you” to wanting the best for your future without selling yourself short or out, A Seat At The Table has at least one track that every black person can relate to. What’s most enjoyable is that the flashback interludes strongly keep the motif of “self-love” or “self-care” afloat and bring a gentle yet grounding element to her floating, airy vocals.
With the countless shootings and killing of black men, Solange’s project couldn’t have come at a better time. All 21 songs make up 51 minutes of authentic and uplifting vibes perfect for the times when you just want to relax and chill by yourself or with a loved one. The visuals were nothing short of regal and breathtaking. Just like her first Saturday Night Live performance of “Cranes in the Sky.”
Fist-Worthy Tracks: “Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “Interlude: For Us By Us” & “F.U.B.U.” (feat. The-Dream and BJ the Chicago Kid)