Sekou Bermiss joined the RSG team in 2015 as co-host/CO-creator of "Hustle & Flows" podcast (December 2016 show now available now in iTunes, iPhone users press & hold this link) where he and Marques Flowers break down the past, present, and future Hip Hop topics with a heavy dose of sports mixed in. For the second time, RSG is proud (and thankful) to present Sekou’s 2016 Hip Hop Year in Review, an annual classic he's published for the past decade. For those who already know, we are sorry for the wait; for those about to consume one of his reviews for the first time, as a warning think back to one of your favorite shows you binged watched online and that priceless feeling knowing there were 4 seasons/40 episodes left of that masterpiece. Yup, you’re in for a treat and we apologize in advance that you’ll have to wait another year for the next review, but the 2015 review is still available above. Enjoy and let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter. Here is the 2016 edition...
“That’s the way that goes”
My favorite playwright of all time is August Wilson, and his most famous play is Fences. I’ve seen the play a few times, but saw the movie the day after Christmas. The movie is great. It’s Denzel in the zone. Viola Davis acted the snot outta her role. I won’t give away too much for those who haven’t seen it, but the last line of the movie felt like a perfect cap to 2016. This was a year of both great gains and tremendous unexpected losses. The last line in Fences reminded me that loss is a part of life. The year of our Lord 2016 didn’t decide on it’s own to take Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and Prince from us. Sometimes, that’s the way that goes.
Last January, I spent 2 weeks celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the glorious Year of 1996 in Hop Hop. This year wasn’t nearly as filled with classic albums, but in terms of sheer volume, it was one of the best I can remember. There were a few that dropped early in 2016 in addition to the usual 4th quarter barrage. There was a lot to review and I wanted to get everything recognized. But 2016 was also an Olympic year. An event that brings 11,544 athletes, all world class, to compete but only gives out 306 sets of medals. In keeping with that ethos, I forced myself to select the top three albums for the Best of 2016 podium. They are are listed below:
Bronze Medal: Layers, Royce Da 5’9”
My finest hour is here, this is what I see
in my prayers
This is me, though I’m facing all of my fears
Making all my enemies look in the mirror
And see the meme of the Jordan face with all of the tears
What most of you analysts ignore, is my explosive animal allure
I went away to get in the way of my wife planning a divorce
Handled it and came back more talented than all these rappers / Though I’m DiCaprio, all they have on me is the awards
I’m a Steinway grand piano, they’re Casios, I will kindly pass them the torch
The day that one of them are able to hold a candle to my corpse
I’ll put a hand on your wh**e, even if she ain’t my type
And this song is inspired by Broadway play called Hamilton I saw that changed my life
So my next move is to either screen write a movie or write a play
On PRhyme Royce rapped “my next album’s gon’ be so dark and so fly I should CD package wrapped in bat wings.” He stayed true to that with the release of Layers. From the opening track (“Tabernacle”) you can immediately see that Mr. Ryan Daniel Montgomery hasn’t lost a single step. He is not here to catch the wave. He is here to show and prove that he is the best rap lyricist alive. Exhibit A is what he does to the beat on “Startercoat”. I don’t think there is anyone else breathing who could do a better job. Royce is not the best rapper alive, in the same way that Russell Westbrook will probably never be the best player in the NBA. Both are unique talents that can amaze, but both are also cautionary tale of stars that can burn a little too bright for their own good. You know an album is really good when it can take a song concept and make it interesting. His songs about women problems (“Misses”) or drug dealing (“Dope!”) are executed with a unique spin that makes them interesting. Royce is also preaching a bit on this album with some social commentary (“America” & “Pray”). It is also tremendously vulgar and misogynistic. The songs are all amazing, even when they are ugly. There are no club joints. There is nothing premade for the radio. It’s simply great song concepts executed with elite precision like a Golden State Warrior pick and roll. It’s everything that I knew a Royce album could be.
Silver Medal: The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
I miss the old Kanye, straight from the Go
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta say, at that time I'd like to meet Kanye
-“I Love Kanye”
Reluctantly, I had to separate the meltdown from the music and give Kanye his props for The Life of Pablo. This is my favorite Kanye album since Graduation (depending on the day I might like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a tiny bit little more, but that’s only on cloudy Wednesdays in April). To be fair, I don’t think Kanye has made a bad album yet, he has just made some albums that I don’t like (and one that I abhor). On Life of Pablo he seems to have found a fountain of that old Kanye. The soul is back. The samples and beats are layered, polished, and infectious. Every song has it’s own atmosphere and landscape, and yet the songs string together effortlessly. Listening to this album reminded me of watching Chris Paul play point guard. Everything comes together beautifully and effortlessly, but you are always cognizant of just how great a person has to be to make that happen. On the production side alone, the collaborations are world class: Rick Rubin (“Father Stretch My Hands”), Havoc (“Famous”), Boi-1da (“Friends”), and Madlib (“No More Parties in L.A.”). He also gets great verses from Chance and Kendrick and vocals from too many people to name. I thought the songs on this album were unique and creative but at the same time familiar sounding. Kanye is rapping more earnestly on this album, but instead of rapping about Candace from Black Planet he is rapping about Taylor Swift. He talks a lot about his struggles. His struggles with fame (“Famous”, “Wolves”, “Saint Pablo”) with his old friends and family (“Friends”), with his parents (“Father Stretch My Hands”). Fade is a nice tribute track to Chicago house music with a video that almost broke the internet. And even though it’s not a finished song, “30 Hours” might be as close to 2004 Kanye as we will get in 2016. And this is all before you get to the beefing with Nike, with the “Famous” video, and the tour show (which I heard was great until he wouldn’t let it be great any more). There was so much Kanye mess both before and after the release of this album, that it can color the evaluation of the album. At the end of the day, however, I believe Life of Pablo will stand up to the test of time as a classic album.
Gold Medal: We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest
Now who want it with the Trini
Mid finger to you haters, you biters not innovators
I take zero for granted, I honors my gift
Champion pen game, plus I’m freestyle equipped
You clowns be bum sauce, speak my name, it’s curtains
Hamdulillāh, my crew’s back to workin'
-Phife Dawg “Black Spasmodic”
My n***a spirit be talkin' to me, let me
Not through evil mediums, tarot cards, and Ouija games
But through mixing chords and boards
And even drum machines—he be saying:
"N***a f**k awards, keep reppin’ Queens”
-Q-Tip “Black Spasmodic”
Fear. That is the only emotion I felt when I heard that A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) was releasing a new album. I saw the Rappaport documentary. I didn’t know if they could come together as a unit. ATCQ is firmly on the mount rushmore of rap groups and now a few months after the death of one of their members, they were releasing an album. I was not ready to deal with a bad ATCQ album. I started listening to it as soon as I got to work and by the 3rd song I was almost in tears. This was a Tribe album. Jarobi was on it. Q-Tip’s masterful production. Knowing what was at stake, every feature brought their ‘A’ game. A mid-90s Busta showed up going back and forth with Phife in patois on “Solid Wall of Sound”. Consequence sounded right at home with his big brothers either doing hooks (“Black Spasmodic”) or spitting verses (“Whateva Will Be”). Talib and Kendrick’s verses are the living legacy of ATCQ. Anderson Paak giving life to Moving Backwards.” Tip and Andre 3000 are magic on “Kids…” Little things like Kanye singing the hook on “Killing Season” gives the album an All-Star roster feel. Apparently, Q-Tip forced everyone to come into his studio and record together. The result was a group album that actually sounds like a group album and not a collection of voices. Listening to this album made me think about the last great album from a real rap group (not a Slaughterhouse supergroup type deal). The last one I rated as one of the best of the year was Rising Down by the Roots….in 2008! The fact that ATCQ was able to accomplish something that is so rare and difficult to accomplish in hip-hop today is MJ 1998 finals extraordinary. That it was 18 years after their last album is unreal. That it was their last album ever...well. There is no way to express the beauty and pain of that in words.
and the Anonymous Nobody, De La Soul
Had ATCQ not hit a grand slam, this De La Soul album might have gotten way more run than it did. It stays true to the modern De La formula. I think De La might be the pioneers of “grown man hip hop” with their 1996 LP, Stakes is High, serving as the blueprint for the genre. Their 2016 effort featured incredible musical composition and clever thoughtful lyrics that oscillate between punchlines, rap braggadocio, and industry commentary. Add a few young gunners (e.g. 2Chainz) on a track or two just to keep things fresh. This is a solid unexpected effort. The primary drawback is that the album’s mood is really somber. I can only listen to this album while I’m working. Definitely not for a long road trip. This album is like the 2016-17 Boston Celtics, a well-coached and constructed group of solid songs, but no superstar tracks to take it to the next level.
Blank Face LP, Schoolboy Q
Schoolboy Q might still be the most underrated artist in hip hop today, in part, because like the late great Old Dirty Bast*$%! he doesn’t have a father to his style. He is one part mumble rapper, two parts classic west coast gangster rapper, and one part conscious lyricist. Maybe we need to have a separate Top Dawg Entertainment category the way we developed a Wu category in the 90s. The album has some really good tracks (“That Part”, “Neva Change”, “St8 Ballin”), but has way too many song that don’t quite resonate. Mark my words, when Schoolboy Q focuses his energies on a tightly conceptualized and produced 12 track album, it’s going to be a monster.
This album is a must listen. Rapsody is the current and future of conscious rap. For those who think the sub-genre is dead listen to this album. A talented lyricist with amazing production making meaningful soulful hip hop songs. The best thing I can say about this album is that it could have been released by Rawkus in 1995. It’s that good. There is not a bad song on it (which is good because there are only 10 tracks). The title track, “Crown”, is hypnotic. “Gonna Miss You” is a head nodder. The “Tina Turner” beat and flow is crazy. Raphael Saadiq, Ab-Soul, and Anderson Paak all rise to the occasion. She is on RocNation now. I have high hopes for the full length album. If Crown had two more tracks, it may have cracked the Top 3.
Coloring Book, Chance The Rapper
I just never came around on this album. I wish there was more rapping from Chance the rapper. He is clever and can spit, but his lyricism doesn’t show up on this album. The gospel interludes are great, but they don’t really improve the album. He gets props for the names, but the cameos are uneven. Decent but unremarkable verses from 2Chains, Future, Lil Wayne, a sick verse from Jay Electronica, a typically bleh Young Thug/Lil Yatchy verse. “Finish Line / Drown” is dope. But I only count 4-5 good songs on a 13 track album. There is soul on the album. He has interesting song concepts. As an aside, I don’t fully understand people that hate Drake and love Chance. They both sing too much, rap too little, and love talking about how they are both trailblazers in the industry.
If your rap album doesn’t bang harder than Rihanna’s album you can’t make my list. Sorry.
Filthy America...It’s Beautiful, The LOX,
Us or Else: Letter to the System, T.I.
4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole
Run the Jewels 3, Run the Jewels
These albums came out too late for me to form a real opinion on them. My expectations are pretty low for the L.O.X. and T.I. Cole is a different story. I think he is one of the few rap ARTISTS out here making it happen. I like the concept of the album (it is after all a concept album), but the songs don’t pull me in. Maybe I’ll come around to “Folding Clothes” by Valentine’s Day.
That’s it for me. I hope that your new year is off to a great start. Apologies for the delay in getting this review out. My new year’s resolution is to have my 2017 review out before Christmas. Hold me to it!
- Sekou Bermiss