From Beyoncé to Thugger, 2016 was certainly the year of the single. While some legacy artists focused on expanding their artistry beyond the standard three-minute track to albums that questioned how music can be delivered, many of the best songs came without warning or expectations, making their mark in ways that weren’t initially anticipated.
Rae Sremmurd stood out with “Black Beatles,” the Gucci Mane-flavored tune that shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with help from being the de facto choice for the Mannequin Challenge. Newcomer Desiigner scored his first No. 1 with “Panda” with a little help from Kanye West, who adapted it for The Life of Pablo; Drake landed hits left and right, either as a lead artist (“One Dance”) or a feature (Rihanna’s “Work”).
If anything, music was so diverse this year that it’s hard to tell where hip-hop began and its influences ended. Reggae, dancehall, EDM, and gospel all shined through, a hallmark of experimentation that helped 2016 stand apart.
Here are Rap-Up’s 20 best songs of 2016.
1. “One Dance” – Drake feat. Wizkid & Kyla
Drake has always flirted with dancehall, and “One Dance” featuring Wizkid and Kyla off his fourth studio album Views was fully immersed in the Caribbean sound. Drizzy seamlessly incorporates the style into his own, making for one of the most infectious hip-winding singles this year.
2. “Formation” – Beyoncé
Just one day before she took the stage at the Super Bowl with Bruno Mars and Coldplay, Beyoncé surprise-released her Mike WiLL Made It-produced “Formation,” which swiftly became a cultural anthem. Bey is all attitude on the sparse cut, dropping catch phrases left and right (“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,” “When he f**k me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster”).
3. “Work” – Rihanna feat. Drake
Rihanna and Drake have an arsenal of collaborations—”What’s My Name?,” “Take Care,” and “Too Good” have all been respectable smashes. “Work” was yet another notch on their belts, with Rih’s patois chants mingling with the 6 God’s pitch-perfect crooning.
4. “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West
As the opener to his sprawling The Life of Pablo, Kanye West showed himself up with one of his most inspirational songs to date. Over a stripped-down instrumental, he takes turns on the mic with The-Dream, Chance the Rapper, and Kelly Price, tapping a gospel choir that aids in fleshing out its church-ready feel.
5. “No Problem” – Chance the Rapper feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz
Chance the Rapper came into his own with Coloring Book, a project so potent that it helped sway the Grammys to change its rules about nominating mixtape albums. “No Problem” is the ebullient standout from the set, a bop as uplifting as it is lyrically sound.
6. “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange
A far cry from her doo-wop-inspired 2008 album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, Solange’s third full-length A Seat at the Table settled for low-key R&B gems about the state of race relations in America. “Cranes in the Sky” is a gentle centerpiece on the LP, with a delicate percussion section and floating vocals.
7. “Starboy” – The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk
The Weeknd wasted no time parlaying the mainstream success of last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness for Starboy, which nudged him even further towards superstardom. With Daft Punk in the passenger seat, Abel Tesfaye goes intergalactic on the title track, perfectly suited to soundtrack the club in the year 3000.
8. “Black Beatles” – Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane
In addition to co-writing Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee had a banner year with his brother Slim Jxmmi thanks to the runaway success of “Black Beatles” featuring Gucci Mane. Bolstered to cultural ubiquity as the official soundtrack for the Mannequin Challenge, the icy tune blended the duo’s knack for catchy melodies with Gucci’s gruff delivery.
9. “Panda” – Desiigner
Though he was often pegged as this year’s answer to Future, Desiigner staked territory for his own with “Panda,” a hypnotic rap attack that pushed the trap anthem to the top of the charts thanks to a boost from Kanye West interpolating the song for “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2.”
10. “All the Way Up” – Fat Joe & Remy Ma feat. French Montana & Infared
To stage a double comeback on one track is highly unlikely in today’s music climate, and yet it’s precisely what Fat Joe and Remy Ma did with their summer single “All the Way Up.” With French Montana by their side, the Terror Squad members put themselves back on the map on the strength of this shout-along anthem.
11. “Ivy” – Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean made his grand return in 2016 with Endless and Blonde. The latter wasn’t so much a pivot from his 2012 breakthrough channel ORANGE as it was a continuation, with soft R&B tunes strung together for supreme vibes. “Ivy” set it off at the onset of the project, replete with warbling guitars and sensitive vocals.
12. “Champions” – G.O.O.D. Music
Cruel Winter may still be a pipe dream, but Kanye West gave hope to the existence of Cruel Summer’s sequel with “Champions,” a volume-cranked posse cut featuring Gucci Mane, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, Travis Scott, Yo Gotti, Quavo, and Desiigner. The song doesn’t explode or go beyond its comfort zone, and yet it’s still one of the hook-iest tracks of the year.
13. “24K Magic” – Bruno Mars
If his Mark Ronson collaboration “Uptown Funk” was any indication, Bruno Mars was headed into nostalgic territory for the follow up to 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox. It manifested throughout the LP with the title track “24K Magic” standing aside as an ode to Cuban links and designer minks.
14. “Broccoli” – D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty
In 2016, D.R.A.M. moved on from the success of his introductory single “Cha Cha,” rumored to be the inspiration for Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” “Broccoli,” his Grammy-nominated smash with Lil Yachty, is a ray of sunshine, coasting on vamping piano lines and vocals delivered through a grin.
15. “goosebumps” – Travis Scott feat. Kendrick Lamar
For an artist who boils songs in the trap, Travis Scott gets unexpectedly candid on “goosebumps” featuring Kendrick Lamar, a melodic inclusion on his sophomore album Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. He strains his vocals through an Auto-Tune filter, per usual, but humanizes it with lyrics about missing his girl.
16. “Not Nice” – PARTYNEXTDOOR
PARTYNEXTDOOR earned a few credits writing songs for Rihanna and Usher this year, but he flexed his pen on his solo project P3 with standouts like “Not Nice.” Consider it the companion piece to Drake’s “One Dance.”
17. “THat Part” – ScHoolboy Q feat. Kanye West
West’s influence was felt throughout the year, and some moments stood out more than others. ScHoolboy Q’s “THat Part” got the Yeezy treatment, with its haunted house instrumental and shoutouts to Kurt Cobain and Chipotle.
18. “Dang!” – Mac Miller feat. Anderson .Paak
Arguably one of the smoothest hip-hop collaborations of the year, “Dang!” is Mac Miller at his finest. Off his ladies-targeting album The Divine Feminine, the Anderson .Paak-assisted burner is rife with horns and snaps, a feel-good single that 2016 couldn’t have done without.
19. “Wyclef Jean” – Young Thug
Thugger had a banner year, taking his image to new heights by rocking a dress and a designer conical hat on the cover of his 10-track album JEFFERY. In addition to featuring Wyclef Jean on “Kanye West,” he named the opener after the former Fugee, one of his breeziest confections to date.
20. “New Level” – A$AP Ferg feat. Future
Future mingled with A$AP Ferg on “New Level,” a 2016 turn-up anthem for the books. Off Ferg’s Always Strive and Prosper, the A$AP Mob member incites a riot with Future Hendrix accenting his trap banger on the chorus.
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