Fuck 2016. That’s right, I said it. Let’s collectively bid adieu to the colossal shitstorm of Brexit, the Dallas Shootings, relentless police brutality, the siege of Aleppo, the election of Trump, and the sudden deaths of more musical artists than I care to recall. Like any patriotic American, I ended up burying my head in the sand when I became overwhelmed, clicking my ruby heels three times to remind myself that there’s no place like home. And yet we all prevailed. What helped us weather the storm? Music, of course. After all, while 2016 was one of the worst years on record, the leap year wasn’t without its silver lining. The hip-hop force was strong in 2016, with rap’s jedi masters generating tons of music to combat the dark side. Music continues to be one of the best places to unplug and find an audio escape-hatch from reality. Like 2016, this year’s best albums are a bit unconventional for In Steady Rotation. I had less time to update the blog throughout most of the year, and my own music routines were affected by momentous life changes. And yet, the six albums I’ve included here represent some of the best of hip-hop roots, from the head-nodding jams of Tall Black Guy to the cold racial realities presented on Negus. There’s equal parts hip-hop newcomers like Noname and Joey Purp and hip-hop veterans like A Tribe Called Quest. I’ve also included some Honorable Mentions for those albums that never left rotation, but didn’t quite make the cut. Read the reviews, stream the SoundCloud, and zone out. We’re in 2017 now baby!
I’ll be the first to admit it: I was sleeping. I was sleeping hard. My alarm was buzzing and I couldn’t lift my lazy-ass out of bed to deliver the long-deserved props. Despite damn near listening to #GeorgiaTape daily through April of last year, I delayed my intended review for a later post that never materialized thanks to my scramble to the Lone Star Republic. Scienze’s #GeorgiaTape dropped nearly a year ago, back when 2016 was still nascent and full of promise. And like a trip down south during the frigid cold of a New York winter, #GeorgiaTape is a warm breeze through hip-hop’s best vibes. Scienze lovingly provides us with a glimpse into his appreciation for the Peach State. From family recollections to nostalgic childhood memories, he guides us on a lyrical trip into his past. The beats are as head-nodding as they come, with my personal favorite tracks being “Georgia State” and “Decatur”. Scienze chooses lush and diverse samples, and at times dabbles in the eclectic (the Brazilian opening to Georgia State is dope). At the end of the day, I gravitated towards #GeorgiaTape thanks to Scienze’s decision to transform his work into a tapestry of familial togetherness and sentimental recollections. The album cover makes that much clear, and the featured spots from his extended family don’t just bore the listener with the past, but serve as a window into what drives Scienze’s creativity to this day. Scienze has always been a romantic, and he delivers a refreshingly sentimental album on #GeorgiaTape. And per a bizarre technicality that has reared its ugly head once again, Scienze no longer seems to have a downloadable or purchasable copy of #GeorgiaTape. The same thing happened to Omen’s album Elephant Eyes last year when I chose to feature it on the best listens of 2015. Perhaps due to a copyright infringement, the 2016 hydra of doom or that unholy curse placed on In Steady Rotation years ago, but #GeorgiaTape is sadly unavailable on iTunes or Bandcamp. Despite this upset, I would encourage you to listen to stream the entirety of the album on SoundCloud, included below. If you like boom bap beats, epic flows, and a warm ride through hip-hop fundamentals, you’ll enjoy Scienze’s #GeorgiaTape.
A Tribe Called Quest
“We got it from Here: Thank You 4 Your service”
This is an unconventional choice for this blog. As some of you are aware, I tend to recommend emerging artists rather than established hip-hop veterans. If you read the background behind In Steady Rotation, you’ll know that I created this blog to bring underheard emcees and groups into your musical radar. And yet here I am shouting out A Tribe Called Quest, probably one of the most well-known hip-hop groups of all time, often mentioned in tandem with groups like Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul and N.W.A. But hear me out here. Tribe’s new, and final, album We got it from here: Thank You 4 Your service sounds like golden era hip-hop produced a baby with modern rap music. The production is versatile, the lineup of artists incredible and the subject matter poignant for a country that feels like the clock just got rewound 30 years…and not in a good way. Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White and amazingly, the late Phife Dawg, all sound like they never left us. Despite their solo ventures, the intra-group beefs and the chronic label disputes, Tribe’s work on We got it from here sounds as cohesive and relevant as ever. Ranging on topics from skin color to hip-hop’s newest stars to Donald Trump’s ascent to classic hip-hop retrospectives, Tribe flows comfortably through each track and chooses guest appearances wisely. From newcomers like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson Paak to Tribe OG’s like Busta Rhymes and Consequence, they blend the old and new schools of hip-hop seamlessly. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad at once assert their rightful spot in hip-hop’s hall of fame while slickly passing the rap baton to the next generation. Since 1985, A Tribe Called Quest has been putting out musical gold and We got it from here: Thank You 4 Your service is no different. Sample the tracks below and buy your copy of the album today.
As I spoke to on another blog post, Joey Purp seemingly came out of left field this year with his iiiDrops release. He initially crossed my radar when his single “Cornerstore” blew up my SoundCloud feed. Apart from the dope cover art, the song itself channels a rawness and pain that acts as the fuel for some very ill bars. In a year when Cicago has been plagued with gun violence and referenced as nothing more than a dangerous “inner city”, Purp uses the cornerstore as a metaphor for Chicago’s beating heart–its ever-changing urban landscape where commerce thrives but lives are also lost. The rest of his album expertly vacillates between dance-hall jams like “Girls” with Chance the Rapper, to more reflective, triumphant tracks like “Winners Circle” featuring Vic Mensa. My personal favorite is “Photobooth” which showcases Purple’s more playful personality, while also mocking that same drug-laden party-culture that forms the basis of today’s hip-hop scene. While I often thought that I would exhaust iiiDrops, it’s been bumping around my headphones consistently since July. Even with his party tracks, I would often underestimate Purp’s fury, intellect and complexity. iiiDrops after all references vision, the ability to see clearly and comprehend what’s happening around you. Much like Mick Jenkins’ use of water to represent truth, Joey Purp seems to have multiple goggles available to him, ones that help him navigate the hip-hop game, his neighborhood, his friends and his growth. His verses emanate the maturity of a seasoned veteran and yet remain youthful to the fullest. I would say that with iiiDrops, Purple elevates himself to a new level of hip-hop as he spits hardcore, joyful and reflective rap bars…all at once. Chicago’s rap scions would no doubt be proud.
I featured Noname’s album as one of the best new mixtapes out of Chicago back in December. After listening to her album regularly, the album has managed to grow on me even more. Noname recently commented that Telefone was supposed to “feel like a conversation with someone who you have a crush on for the first time” and was supposed to “have all of that awkwardness and laughter and the moments of silence where it’s like ‘ugh, this is really awkward and I don’t know what to say right now.'” While Noname’s first mixtape certainly captures that spastic and awkward energy, it also channels an inner excitement and childish rambling that often feels like spoken word poetry. Noname is less intent on speaking her mind and more keen on navigating her own inner conversation, laying out all her uncertainties, her paradoxes and her nostalgia toward a more innocent past. Guest features like Xavier Omar (formerly SPZRKT), Raury, and Smino, complement Noname’s meandering and introspective bars well. Her album definitely provides head-nodding jams like “Diddy Bop” while the more soul-filled tracks like “Shadow Man” feel like Church gospels. While Telefone isn’t going to satiate your thirst if you’re after boom bap rap, with heavy bars, a careful listen will make you appreciative of what Noname is really saying. Her minimalist beats and steady flow create an intimacy that can often be shoved aside on heavier albums. What’s most important, especially given the fact that many of these albums come at a cost, is that she released Telefone to all of her fans at no cost. Be sure to download it below.
Tall Black Guy
“Let’s Take A Trip”
Let’s Take A Trip is my other unconventional choice for this blog, not only because it’s a beat tape but also because it’s a concept album. Hailing from the motown capital of Detroit and now residing across the pond in the United Kingdom, Tall Black Guy has been a prolific producer for years. And yet he’s manage to fly under my radar. It was only when I saw his album in perpetual “sold out” status on UGHH after three months, that I finally took a belated interest. From what I’ve learned, Tall Black Guy is respected by hip-hop greats like fellow Detroit producer House Shoes and the legendary Questlove. And his Detroit influences are not lacking on Let’s Take A Trip. From jazz and soul samples to audio cuts of motown classics, Tall Black Guy walks us through his intricate creative process, track by track. A Tall Black Guy trip entails layering samples, snare-drum beats and all forms of audio clips to produce one of the year’s most fulfilling homage to the time-honored head-nod. His beats are textured, lush and produce a soundstage that is at home both while cruising in your whip or kicking it at your neighborhood coffee shop. While on one level Tall Black Guy relies on the traditional hip-hop loop to form his musical foundation, he’s more than adept at fading in jazzy keyboard rifts, synthesized background chords, and vocal features from respected musicians. Of course the album isn’t without its guest emcee spots too, as any good hip-hop album must. Emcees like Dee Jackson rock hard on Tall Black Guy’s “80s Babies”, while crooners like Kenny Keys complement Tall Black Guy’s soulful roots. Much like the Tribe album, Let’s Take A Trip is at once nostalgic, deeply rooted in the past, and yet still refreshing, breathing new life into a predictable production landscape. Listen to his track “Come With Me and Fly” below, featuring Yusef Rumperfield, and then spread the joy on “Peace and Love”. Finally, don’t forget to grab a digital copy of the album or at least follow Tall Black Guy on Bandcamp.
If Let’s Take A Trip is a musical journey that helps you forget your woes, Negus seeks to grapple with them head on. While the two albums share a knack for thumping beats, Negus is unlikely to provide much of a musical escape. It is a fiercely emotional and gritty album. Kemba, formerly YC The Cynic, and hailing from NYC, dropped Negus days before the Dallas shootings and the subsequent outpouring of rage that inundated American streets. Negus is the hip-hop equivalent to Between The World and Me, an angry, reflective and reluctantly optimistic look at black empowerment and oppression in our modern times. Kemba does not beat around the bush on Negus. The cynical and brutally honest bars and choruses that fill his album provide a glance into the subconscious of the black man and the black woman in the United States. The listener is thrust into Kemba’s world with a false sense of optimism in its opening verses–a soaring image of a resilient black child rising from the embers of poverty–when suddenly the music transforms into a darker reality. Negus most importantly provides a categorical rejection of the status quo. It rails against the systematic suppression, the debilitating self-hatred, and the subservient pacifism that have become engrained in the black psyche. The album title embraces a vilified word, one that is regularly weaponized, both as an object of hatred and an object of self-love. Throughout Negus, Kemba is delivering a stark commentary that black folk should never compare themselves to white folk, never believe that a rising tide will lift their boats as high as the white folks’. The political establishment can only meet its objectives when the people force them to. The album’s gritty production bounces through street chants and outspoken children, a glimpse into a daily struggle with prejudice. While the tape seems to end on a high-note, and the crown placed above the child’s head symbolizes a sort of royalty, Negus distills the rage of 2016, even before the presidential election. Although music frequently serves to release anxiety and frustration, sometimes it also serves to fan the flames. Negus does that and more. Be sure to download it today.
H O N O R A B L E M E N T I O N S
- Little Simz – Stillness in Wonderland
- Saba – The Bucket List Project
- Kaytranada – 99.9
- Trapo – Shade Trees
- Aaron Rose – Elixir