Hip-hop and R&B had a transitional year in 2017 and no one knows that better than Ebro Darden. The Beats 1 host has not only enjoyed the genres from a fan level, but helped kept them thriving by keeping the culture privy to acts like 6LACK and Daniel Caesar.
Last week, Apple Music released their top albums and songs of 2017 with both genres respectively earning top spots. Bruno Mars' funk-inspired 24K Magic, JAY-Z's healing 4:44 project and Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. were hits with fans as the projects were streamed to the high heavens. Other artists who dominated the streaming and playlist world included Luis Fonsi's smash "Despacito" as well as Rihanna's guest vocals on Kendrick's "LOYALTY" and DJ Khaled's "Wild Thoughts."
With so much music to digest, we hopped on the phone with Darden to talk about the albums that shook the industry and why artists like Jaden Smith and Cyhi the Prynce deserve praise for their standout albums.
VIBE: In general, how would you rate the quality of music this year?
Ebro Darden: If I could rate this year in terms of music in general, I would give it an A even an A+. You can start with the marquee artists; you have a year where Rihanna didn’t even put out an album but was on amazing records (Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY,” DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts”).
When you go beyond that, in hip-hop, look how many great things happened. From albums, to singles to influential artists like Chance The Rapper and Cardi B sharing their life stories in their work. The resurgence of R&B was hard to ignore given the success of artists like Khalid, Daniel Caesar, 6LACK, and Sabrina Claudio. So many names I can get to there.
We even had amazing country albums with Chris Stapleton. That’s my dude. Chronixx, Damian Marley and Jesse Royal released A-1 albums and then there’s Latin trap with Bad Bunny. I think it was also amazing to have bilingual records at the top of the charts (the remixes of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” and J.Balvin’s “Mi Gente” with Justin Bieber and Beyonce).
Right. There was a lot of music from upper echelon artists as well as newcomers. With Kendrick and JAY-Z leading the Grammy nominations and end of year lists, some seem to think Drake’s More Life got forgotten about in the conversation...
If you think More Life was forgotten about that’s when you fall for that Internet social media trickery. How was More Life forgotten when it took the UK scene to a whole other level? The UK didn’t forget More Life, because Giggs is the biggest thing coming out the grime scene right now. Drake is still touring around the world. To those who think the album is lost in the convo, then they’re living in that American bubble and refusing to think outside the box.
J. Cole’s album also got looked the f**k over by the Grammys (Academy). People are acting like he didn’t put an album out last December that was super fire that took a theme and addressed what's going on socially right now. Such a hard album.
To some, an entertaining moment that happened this year was the unexpected back and forth between Mase and Cam’ron. I think it was interesting since younger hip-hop heads got to learn about their prior impact in music.
Well, there’s multiple layers to that. Like why is that happening now and why are we talking about individuals who are not here to tell the story? Because there are a lot of people beyond Mase and Cam’ron who are not here to complete the dialogue.
I know Mase, but I also know when these dudes are in the ‘heat in the moment’ using promo to make themselves hot again. Like, Cam brought Mase up on The Program and Mase was like, ‘Oh, that’s where we’re going? Alright tag, I’m in let me go at Cam and do these interviews and this record.’ Ultimately, I think these guys are going to keep it to record, because I don’t think any of the people in and around this want to do anything than just go on tour and put out records. It doesn’t really bother me, I just want the music to be good.
I think they did a great job on their records, everyone had a good time popping out at shows, did the radio interviews, telling stories, and contributing to individuals who didn’t know this was a thing. So when it’s time to listen to their music, you can jump on Apple Music and go listen to the old albums and use our amazing, well-thought out services for your music streaming pleasure (Laughs).
When looking at Apple Music’s “Best Albums” list, JAY-Z's 4:44 is pretty low in ranking. What would you attribute that to?
I think that’s a reflection of consumption. A lot of streaming is done by the young. In the 18-24 demographic, JAY-Z is your elder statesmen, but I think sales are woven into that.
Jay didn’t drop an album trying to chase mainstream consumption. Jay dropped an album for the hip-hop fan that has a real life and for those who are real connoisseurs of fine craftsmanship. Too frequently we confuse popularity with quality and popularity doesn’t always mean that something is the best quality.
The noisiest things often have some sort of spectacle associated with it, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t quality things that just aren’t clickbait spectacles that people miss.
Speaking of that, what are some releases this year that surprised you?
Yes. Mine is Jaden Smith’s album, SYRE.
Wow I forgot, yeah Jaden all day. I didn’t know what to expect so the fact that the first tracks (“B,” “L,” “U,” “E”) are one type of vibe in comparison to the rest didn’t bother me. I just loved it. Big KRIT’s album is phenomenal to me and I’m not even a fan of double albums. You’re asking a lot from the consumer and hurting your ‘batting average’ by releasing that much content at the same time. With Chris Brown’s project I was thinking, why didn’t he just break it up for different vibes and drop a new album every five months for a year and a half?
I am a fan of an album that is a complete thought. DAMN. is a complete thought. Cyhi the Prynce's No Dope on Sundays, a complete thought. Boom. Honestly, Cyhi had one of the top five albums of 2017, no question.
People like myself are critical of things that deplete the value of hip-hop, things that feel like they are just gimmicks and fast food in the culture. We've seen that just because an artist is popular doesn't mean they won't get challenged by our culture.
I feel like an artist like Uzi Vert - who I’ve had back and forth with over this and that– his album is incredible. And in some ways, there are things on there that are really insightful and very lyrical. There’s so much hip-hop for young and older to consume. You brought up Jaden Smith, there’s CyHi and Princess Nokia, who’s young and has a passion for lyrics and telling a story.
That’s another thing that I get frustrated about when people talk hip-hop because they are always demanding, lyrics, lyrics, lyrics, lyrics, but what about the actual musical components that turn these lyrics into the pictures and the vivid feelings? People be like, ‘But, their lyrics.’ Okay well what about the music, the concerts, the vibe? There’s a lot more to it than that and in 2018 we’re going to see that.
See Apple Music's top music lists below.
US MUSIC - TOP ALBUMS
1. Drake, More Life
2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
3. Taylor Swift, reputation
4. Ed Sheeran, ÷
5. The Weeknd, Starboy
6. J. Cole, 4 Your Eyez Only
7. Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
8. Migos, Culture
9. Future, FUTURE
10. Various Artists, Moana
11. Post Malone, Stoney
12. Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton, Various Artists
13. Trolls, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
14. Drake, Views
15. Big Sean, I Decided.
16. Travis Scott, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
17. JAY Z, 4:44
18. Future, HNDRXX
19. Khalid, American Teen
20. Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Volume 1
US MUSIC - TOP SONGS
1. Ed Sheeran, "Shape of You"
2. Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, "Despacito remix" (feat. Justin Bieber)
3. Bruno Mars, "That’s What I Like"
4. Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
5. Sam Hunt, "Body Like a Back Road"
6. Migos, "Bad and Boujee" (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
7. Bruno Mars, "24K Magic"
8. DJ Khaled, "I'm the One" (feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper & Lil Wayne)
9. Post Malone, "Congratulations" (feat. Quavo)
10. Rae Sremmurd, "Black Beatles" (feat. Gucci Mane)
11. ZAYN & Taylor Swift, "I Don’t Wanna Live Forever" (Fifty Shades Darker)
12. The Weeknd, "Starboy" (feat. Daft Punk)
13. Drake, "Fake Love"
14. James Arthur, "Say You Won't Let Go"
15. Imagine Dragons, "Believer"
16. Future, "Mask Off"
17. The Chainsmokers & Coldplay, "Something Just Like This"
18. Lil Uzi Vert, "XO TOUR Lif3"
19. KYLE, "iSpy" (feat. Lil Yachty)
20. The Chainsmokers, "Closer" (feat. Halsey)