Along with 2016, as is the case with every twelve months that passes by, came the age-old complaints that 'hip-hop isn't the same' and that any progression or change is automatically a bad thing. UK based artists make up four of my Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums Of 2016, and Skepta has led a British invasion on American shores. High Focus representatives Dabbla and Ocean Wisdom are also pushing progressive and forward-thinking product on their exciting releases, and on the other end of the spectrum we find London MC PhybaOptikz delivering some of the silkiest boom bap of the year with his under-appreciated project. We also had a number of noteworthy comeback LP's, and some of the biggest names in rap music returned with projects that were as much noted for clickbait context as they were for the quality of the music; the quality was most definitely there though.
Skepta - Konnichiwa
One of the UK's most treasured MC's finally hit his deserved recognition with this year's LP 'Konnichiwa'. Grime is going global, and who better to serve as its overseas figurehead than Tottenham lyricist Skepta. With undisputable bangers like 'Man (Gang)', 'Shutdown' and 'That's Not Me' (all of which individually set YouTube alight with huge videos), big name collaborations such as Pharrell Williams, Young Lord and A$AP Nast along with an intense and polished sound, the album was an instant hit. People have been waiting for Skepta to deliver a consistent, hard-hitting project for years now, and 'Konnichiwa' did everything we hoped for and more. If you're as uncompromising as Skepta is on this album and even the Mercury panel are rooting for you, you've got to be doing something right.
A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service
Wildly imaginative and completely outside the box, 'We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service' is undoubtedly one of the most important, most revered and most bittersweet LP's of the year. Following Phife Dawg's death in March hip-hop united in mourning one of its most underappreciated musicians, and when news of a new Tribe album arrived in August it was more than a little unexpected. The LP is littered with collaborations; from Kendrick and Anderson .Paak to Consequence and Busta Rhymes, generations both new and old contribute to this remarkable piece of work. The production is textured and diverse, with hard-hitting tracks such as 'Dis Generation' and 'Mobius' sitting side by side with creative, mature songs like the genius 'Solid Wall Of Sound'. This is jazzy, smooth, lyrical and musical; Tribe have closed their chapter with an undeniable work of art, and it ends with a beautiful tribute to Phife with the flawlessly executed 'The Donald'.
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
After Dr. Dre's co-sign on last year's 'Compton' album Anderson .Paak hasn't stopped working. With a string of impeccable collaborations and a recent LP with Knxwledge showing yet another side to his work he is one of the most exciting artists to emerge in recent times. Back at the start of 2016 he dropped 'Malibu', which capitalised on a post 'To Pimp A Butterfly' world with a brilliantly organic and smooth project infused with jazz-infused R&B cuts amongst some crisp and classy hip-hop numbers. Guest appearances from The Game, Rapsody, Schoolboy Q and Kendrick himself help bridge the two worlds, and if this year is anything to go by the genre-bending Anderson .Paak is surely set to continue with his categoric rise to the dizzying heights of his close cotemporary.
J. Cole - 4 Your Eyez Only
He's done it again. '4 Your Eyez Only' has only been out for a week or so at the time of writing, and it's a layered, complex story-driven project that is ambitious and expertly navigated. The melodic element of the sound of the album are a fantastic addition, and the production is beautiful. It's handled once again primarily by Cole himself, and also akin to '2014 Forest Hills Drive' there are no feature verses, a very rare find in rap music in 2016. Cole is one of the most important voices in modern music, and with this latest LP he's crafted another body of work that points to rappers like Cole and Kendrick Lamar, who are making making provocative, artistic albums that impact the music scene and spark conversation between people, being real contenders for those revered "Top Five Dead Or Alive" conversations.
Dabbla - Year Of The Monkey
London Zoo, Problem Child and Dead Players representative Dabbla finally unleashed a full body of solo work this year with the charismatic, categorically crazy release of 'Year Of The Monkey'. Dabbla's unorthodox style, humourous lyrics and likable character all work in his favour, but really it's the sheer level of his penmanship and presence that make this project a resounding success. Features come from a selection of the UK's most talented MC's such as Ocean Wisdom, Dirty Dike, Cobes and Jam Baxter and production is also handled by a host of incredible names including Sumgii, Ghosttown and Tom Caruana. Whether it's tunes perfect for the rave (but always with a hint of irony) or the concept-driven vibe of 'Life Line', Dabbla has hit the mark with this one.
Apollo Brown & Skyzoo - The Easy Truth
Mello Music Group is behind some of the most impressive albums of recent history; Apollo Brown & Ras Kass and Stik Figa have features on my list for 2014 and 2015 respectively, and this year the Detroit producer returns with 'The Easy Truth'. The full length collaboration with New York spitter Skyzoo is grown-man rap at its finest. The production is mature and soulful complimented by relentlessly banging drums, and Skyzoo is introspective and thoughtful whilst maintaining an authentic Brooklyn street-smart swagger. Features from Conway, Westside Gunn and Joell Ortiz help maintain a consistent east coast LP that is sure to test the time, and Apollo Brown's work on the album solidifies his position as the finest producer out there at the moment.
Ocean Wisdom - Chaos 93
Brighton rapper Ocean Wisdom is one of the most promising, technical and talented lyricists to make an impact on the UK hip-hop scene for a long time. Since his breakout track 'Walkin' he has been rapidly pulling in fans, and his rapid-fire delivery and impressive content sets him apart from his contemporaries. Ocean matches a manically energetic flow with intelligent subject matter, and his partnership with Cambridge's own Dirty Dike on this album is wildly successful. The gritty beats and charismatic vocals result in one of the best albums of the year, and High Focus Records have found a star in this young MC.
Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
It's not been the easiest twelve months for Kanye. He comes under fire and criticism from pretty much every angle, and don't get me wrong some of it is more than justified. Away from his personal life though, 2016 was one of Kanye's weirdest, most talked about years yet. 'The Life Of Pablo's chaotic release structure is still unfathomable, and the subsequent tour will now be infamous for many moons to come, but the album itself is at times beautiful, and always creative. There's a few lyrics that will make your eyes roll and stomach turn, but the production is unflinchingly ambitious and Kanye remains one of hip-hop's most exciting, unpredictable figures. From the gospel undertones of 'Ultralight Beams' to the raw, Weekend featuring 'FML' to the classic, soulful 'No More Parties In LA', Kanye's seventh studio album was one of the hottest topics of the year.
Meyhem Lauren - Piatto D'Oro
This is one for the rap heads; Meyhem is unashamedly braggadocious, and his punchline-heavy writing is some masterfully delivered straight up, bang your head back and forth grittiness. 'Flexxin' is one of the most hard-hitting tracks of the year with a cocky presence over a raw, knocking instrumental produced by Queens beatsmith Icerocks, and features from the ever-entertaining Action Bronson and Big Body Bes are scattered throughout 'Piatto D'Oro'. This one has certainly slipped under the radar, and Mehem is an authentic throwback to the hardcore hip-hop of the nineties which is much needed in the modern era's reliance on polished, tedious formulas.
Phybaoptikz - Shades Of Alejandro
PhybaOptikz is an underground MC specialising in lavish, luxurious references, spy-themed soundscapes and a sharp style that incorporates vivid imagery and hard-hitting punchlines. His output is prolific, and 2016 brings the 'Shades Of Alejandro' LP, which continues with his unique, trademark style; eery instrumentals with an influx of mystique are perfect for his clear tone and precise flow, and his lyrical themes are unpredictable and fantastically cinematic. 'Buscemi' is one of my favourite tracks of the year, and this project is a true hidden gem.