2016 was the year of experimentation. After a dry spell without albums from some of hip-hop and R&B’s most prominent figures, a gang of titans returned in mint condition, pushing themselves past their limits and carrying music into the future.
Rihanna set off a robust 2016 with her triumphant ANTI, which stretched her sound into spicy new territories, while Kanye West tampered with the notion of what an album could be with The Life of Pablo, a “living album” that he continued to alter in the wake of its release date.
And then Beyoncé emerged with her visual album LEMONADE, one of the catchiest ruminations on infidelity ever. Beyond that came Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, Solange, and A Tribe Called Quest with LPs that redefined how an album can sound, and what an album can be. Many have proclaimed 2016 as one of the best years for music in recent memory, and it’s a hard point to argue.
Here are Rap-Up’s 20 best albums of 2016.
1. Beyoncé – LEMONADE
There’s a reason they call her Queen Bey. Like with how she shirked a traditional album rollout for 2013’s Beyoncé by essentially pioneering the surprise release, LEMONADE arrived as a visual presentation on HBO, with a tapestry of visuals depicting the spectrum of emotions one feels when faced with infidelity. Questioning whether it was true to life seems inconsequential when you consider the breadth of Beyoncé’s artistic genius.
2. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Kanye West may have had the rockiest year of his life: his wife Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris, and he cut his tour short after being hospitalized for alleged paranoia and hallucinations. But in the midst of it all, he released yet another body of work that peered into the mind of one of music’s greatest. It may not have been as cohesive as previous records, but The Life of Pablo showed how West continues to bend the boundaries of hip-hop more than a decade after his debut.
3. Rihanna – ANTI
After 2012’s Unapologetic, Rihanna broke her hot streak of releasing a project every year (with the exception of ’08) by taking more than three years to drop her oft-delayed eighth album ANTI. But it was worth the wait: Rihanna explores a wide palette of styles and sounds, more so than ever before, making for her most eclectic offering to date.
4. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
It’s been a few years since Chicago native Chance the Rapper started picking up steam, but 2016 felt like the year he truly came into his own. Coloring Book, his third project, is joyous and ebullient, a victory lap for an artist who rebuffed the major label system and forged ahead as an independent musician. Putting out a mixtape album yielded strong returns: the Grammys changed its rules so he could be considered for the 2017 award ceremony, and he ended up with a substantial seven nominations.
5. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Music’s most mysterious mind had been altogether silent since the release of 2012’s career-defining channel ORANGE. This year, the Odd Future crooner came with not one but two albums—Endless and Blonde. The latter was a clear standout, a hushed R&B affair that was poignant and warm and a triumphant return to the music game.
6. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange has quietly become one of R&B’s boldest figures. Her 2008 album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams positioned her as a considerable talent, while 2012’s True EP only bolstered that claim. Her third album, A Seat at the Table, came almost suddenly, both in terms of timing and artistic merit, a calm meditation on race relations in contemporary America.
7. Travis Scott – Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
Travis Scott’s presence was felt everywhere this year, from his guest features on tracks from Rihanna (“Woo”) and Gucci Mane (“Last Time”) to appearing in fashion campaigns for Alexander Wang and Saint Laurent. But it was his sophomore album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, that stood out most. On the darkly-shaded set, he confects trap anthems accented by Auto-Tune vocals, his gloomiest and most apocalyptic yet.
8. Drake – Views
The 6 God continued his hot streak from 2015—when he released the chart-topping If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive—with Views, a record packed with some of his catchiest fare yet. Beyond “Hotline Bling,” which is included as a bonus track, Drizzy ruled the airwaves with the dancehall-inflected “One Dance” and reunited with Rihanna for the duet “Too Good.”
9. The Weeknd – Starboy
Following the success of last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness, where The Weeknd completed his transition from mixtape R&B singer to full-fledged pop star, Starboy merely confirmed his ascent to the forefront of the mainstream. Alongside collaborators like Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar, he embraced an even bigger sound, with sharp hooks and sharper songwriting.
10. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
Hip-hop spent a good part of the year mourning the death of A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, who passed in March. Little did fans know that the Five Foot Assassin had been in the studio with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad secretly recording the iconic group’s final album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, a politically-minded release that seemed to foreshadow the fallout of Donald Trump winning the presidential election.
Rap-Up’s Best Albums of 2016: 11-20
11. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP
12. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
13. Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine
14. Young Thug – JEFFERY
15. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
16. TWENTY88 – TWENTY88
17. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
18. J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only
19. YG – Still Brazy
20. Meek Mill – DC4