If last year was the year the album release died, maybe 2017 has been the year the album itself died?
I mean, Drake said as much, right, so it must be true? It's a playlist, not an album, and well it's that thing they say about Going with (the 6) God. Yep.
Aubrey Graham blessed us with, and let's say it in our best Jamaican patois accent here, More Life way back in March, an album turned playlist that has since sold more or less 2 million units--perhaps the most underwhelming 2 million units ever by a bonafide superstar, if we're entirely honest. We're not trying to be mean to the boy, we swear, but it's just that, like, More Life came, was basically pretty great sure and, well, how about that new album Sam Smith album and also Tyler, The Creator too, right? More Life was fine. Then we moved on to whatever we moved on.
But if you deleted Drake's playlist from your iPhone really quickly, odds are that your smartphone is still filled to the brink with a variety of them. Pop music, in 2017 as much as it's ever been, is all about the playlist: your single is a success if you get #AlltheStreamsinTheWorld and your track is added to the mint (EDM), Rap Caviar (rap music), Are & Be (r&b) playlists. (We're with Spotify, in case you couldn't tell.) In 2017, you still release albums but laying the groundwork until then means carefully releasing a few singles in the lead-up, and scoring a few big playlist placements. And if you don't, well then you just create your own playlist and pin it to your Spotify profile, so that all your fans can subscribe and listen.
Even you as listener, that's what you like: whenever you'll discover a new artist you think you might dig, don't laugh this still happens even today in 2017, you'll search them on your streaming platform of choice and you'll check out what their artist playlist is. It's not enough for you to have all albums from rapper X at your fingertips because how the hell do you make sense of this, no you need and want a carefully curated playlist from rapper X that gives you a nice overview of all hits of his but also that isn't a literal greatest hits because you didn't ask for a Best Of.
Whew. In that spirit, let's run through a few of our favourite albums of 2017. With apologies to fans of Eminem, because the year is 2017 and in 2017 we are not interested in any way in hearing a new Eminem album. Because we're incredibly vain, there will be a second part.
Blu & Exile - In The Beginning: Before The Heavens
A while back about 10 years ago, young rapper Blu teamed up with producer Exile to bless the world with the underground classic that would become Below The Heavens. The effort came at the height, or thereabout, of music's fight against illegal downloads and leaks, and Below The Heavens actually came into ours and a bunch of other young kids' hands about a year before its release date because it had leaked. As a result, the album received a press of only 3,000 hard copies and lived on in a bunch of floppy disks over the years. Blu was a charismatic, gifted rapper from Los Angeles, equal parts hustler and wise beyond his years, while Exile had the perfect beats to match the rapper, soulful, banging and youthful. Below The Heavens told you that maybe you want to go to heaven when you die but you should still enjoy yourself while you're down here.
Well this year in October, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the album, Blu & Exile went digging back through the crates from their recording sessions to unearth the best songs that didn't make the cut for Below The Heavens. While lacking a little bit the cohesiveness of Below The Heavens, this new album is still a godsend. It still bangs. It's still better than about 90% of today's music. And it brought back ALL OF THE FEELS.
Big K.R.I.T. - 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time
Careful what you wish for, maybe that's the lesson here. Rapper and producer Big K.R.I.T. (standing for King Remembered In Time), born Justin Scott, has been on his grind since at least 2010 but we hadn't heard from the Mississippi artist in about three years--not since he had walked away from his deal with the hip-hop giant Def Jam, which is a sentence that still seemed like it would lead to a few nightmares at the time. You've spent all this time working hard at building a fanbase and releasing a series of unbelievable free mixtapes disguised as albums to join Def Jam, only to then walk away from it all?
Yes, careful what you wish for, especially if what's coming after such a move was alcoholism and depression. 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time is Krit's reinvention to the world as an independent and thriving artist, after his stint with a major label turned out to not be exactly fruitful for either party. Turns out that we did want to hear this "country n---- rap" (Mt. Olympus is still better than Kendrick's Control diss, don't @ me) but only if his sound remained the same as it was on Return of 4Eva, KRIT Wuz Here or 4eva N a Day.
KRIT divided 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time into two halves for the two personas we find in his music: the boisterous and Cadillac-driving Big KRIT on the KRIT front half, and the introvert, calm and collected Justin Scott in the second half. Through the 20 songs, he pays homage to his traditional Southern roots (Substein (My Sub IV), UGK and Pimp C (Ride With Me) but also a variety of themes he hadn't necessarily discussed in as earnest a fashion as he does here: tales of (doomed) love, a man's relationship with God and the Price of Fame, a clear album highlight. He also throws in the gospel song Keep The devil Off on there for good measure.
KRIT knows he isn't the greatest lyricist, but he still more than holds his own on the mic. And he'll probably make a much better album than your prototypical quote-unquote pure emcee.
Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
Maybe the year 2017 will be the one we'll have learned never to doubt that King Kendrick can surprise us. The Compton rapper had created a stunning masterpiece with his debut album Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, a coming-of-age story and extensive look at how our social environment will affect and influence our upbringing. Then in 2015, King Kunta went ahead and created another album of the year with To Pimp A Butterfly, where the rapper tackled themes as various and numerous as blackness, self-love and self-loathe, leadership, capitalism and a slew of others. In the end, TPAB confirmed that Kendrick Lamar wanted to make it his mission to further the cause of his people.
With DAMN., Kendrick proves he's once again at the top of his, and the, game. In this religious album, Kendrick asks if we might could pray for him. DAMN. is a dark and darker album than what we might have expected after the triumph of TPAB, full of dark thoughts but also some of the tightest and best hooks of Kendrick's career. It's one where the rapper comes to the realization that just because you're a person who has faith doesn't mean you'll be spared calamity. That, actually, one shouldn't have faith only to ensure salvation or receive eternal love and thanks. You believe because you believe, not to be thanked for it.