Things are moving fast this year. At just the halfway point of 2017, it feels like music has been upended, and no genre is more vital and dynamic right now than hip-hop. Seemingly every A-list star this side of the Throne has dropped a magnum opus (or, in Future's case, two), with Jay Z and, possibly, Kanye on the way. A new class of upstarts—some long-heralded, some arriving seemingly out of nowhere—are finally realizing their debut full-lengths to great effects. And outside of hip-hop, music has been just as exciting. There are too many exciting albums from rising R&B acts, like Nick Hakim and 1-O.A.K. We've had some sideways pop greats drop (Khalid's American Teen and Charli XCX's Number One Angel). Meanwhile, the indie rock class of 2009 is apparently having its reunion, and we couldn't be happier (the xx's I See You and Dirty Projectors' Dirty Projectors). If the rest of 2017 continues apace, we're going to have trouble keeping up. These are our picks for the best albums of the year so far.
Label: XO, Republic
Released: February 24
Nav, the latest mysterious Canadian singer-producer to pop up, doesn't have much music to his name (though he's courted controversy for using the n-word, despite not being black). His self-titled debut, then, is the best introduction to the latest addition to the XO stable. Tracks like "Myself" and "Nav" show off his abilities, with a steady mix of bars and drug-addled tales. In content, it's not very much removed from what made the XO head honcho famous. The standout track, "Some Way," features Abel himself, with the two shredding back and forth for three minutes. With a new project entirely produced by Metro Boomin on the way, we're about to see way more from Nav in the very near future. —Zach Frydenlund
Bryson Tiller, 'True to Self'
Label: Trapsoul, RCA
Released: May 26
I did not enjoy Bryson Tiller's Trapsoul when it dropped in 2015. However, it was undeniable that the Louisville R&B singer was carving out a lane for himself—even if I couldn’t appreciate it. The platinum-album status and huge singles and sold-out shows proved that. Fans were waiting for his sophomore effort while I stayed hating.
Of course, I still listened to Bryson's True to Self as soon as it dropped. Like him or not, he’s someone you have to keep up with now—the mark of a star. And the results are solid. Coming from an admitted hater, that means something. I like the confrontational energy on "Blowing Smoke" and "Self-Made" is groovy. Still, the album is too long and when you listen front to back, it starts to sound like one really long song. That's a problem, but not one that’s big enough to count out the strongest moments. —Zach Frydenlund
Young Dolph, 'Bulletproof'
Label: Paper Route Empire
Released: April 1
50 Cent got shot nine times and he’s still breathing. If what Young Dolph says is true, 100 shots were reportedly aimed at his SUV in North Carolina, and he walked away unscathed. The theme of being bulletproof spreads through the Memphis MC's sophomore effort, in which every song title addresses his shooters in a fragmented message. (“100 Shots.” “In Charlotte.” “But I’m Bulletproof.”) Over minimal production, Dolph is focused as ever on his strongest entry in his mixtape-heavy catalog. You want to know how Telfon Dolph really is? Just listen to him stunt on “I’m Everything You Wanna Be.”—Eric Diep
Playboi Carti, 'Playboi Carti'
Label: AWGE, Interscope
Released: April 14
Atlanta’s Playboi Carti is the future of mainstream rap music. His long-awaited minimalist debut is high fashion for your ears, filled with effortless sounding anthems. And say what you want about his lack of lyrical ability, Carti is one of the best young live performers in the game today, a real master of ceremonies. “Magnolia” isn’t just a real candidate for Song of the Summer, it’s one of the best tracks of the year. The songs on this mixtape are so catchy, you’ll find yourself rapping to yourself at random moments throughout the day—”Wokeuplikethis*” and “New Choppa” are perfect examples. Carti knows his sound and sticks to it; he doesn’t reach for a love song or some shit like that. He stayed true to who he is and made a truly fun record in the process. —Angel Diaz
Released: April 28
Gorillaz has always been, at its core, a project about trying something new. It’s still hard to believe that Damon Albarn willed something this strange and specific into the world, and that there was an audience to get on board with it. Of course, it helps when you can write hits—it hardly matters that the band is a group of animated monkeys if the songs are as good as “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good, Inc.” The latest adventure doubles down on its throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality. It’s heavier on hip-hop than ever before, pulling a guest list of some of the most exciting new talent out there: Danny Brown, Vince Staples, D.R.A.M., Zebra Katz. It rarely works—there is no hit to be found here—but it’s relentlessly interesting. It’s an album that’s enjoyable, not for the music itself, but in the knowledge that someone tried something unexpected, and came close to pulling it off. —Brendan Klinkenberg
PnB Rock, 'Going Thru the Motions'
Label: EMPIRE / Atlantic
Released: January 13
Philadelphia’s hip-hop scene is thriving right now from both sides of the musical spectrum. While some of the biggest street rappers (Meek Mill, Beanie Sigel) came out of Philly, Lil Uzi Vert and PnB Rock are the faces of a new, eclectic style, one that molds their melodic takes on hip-hop/R&B into a perfect recipe for Top 40 success. PnB Rock’s GTTM: Going Thru the Motions is his major label debut, balancing his impressionable delivery on earworms like “Selfish,” “Smile,” and “New Day.” When he does trap, PnB is a smooth operator as he invites us into the life of a Philly hustler. “Range Rover” is windows down, sunglasses on, stuntin’ all summer vibes. —Eric Diep
Rich Homie Quan, 'Back to Basics'
Released: April 14
In a year where a literal fuckload of great rap has flowed forth from Atlanta like lean from a knocked-over double cup, it’s inevitable that some of it is going to get overlooked. One such album (excuse me, mixtape) is Rich Homie Quan’s Back to Basics, an 11-song emo-trap project that should by all rights put him somewhere in Young Thug’s orbit, albeit as a less adventurous alternative. He’s been nearly as prolific as well, Back to Basics is his eighth mixtape since 2012, not even including his breakthrough turn on 2014’s Rich Gang tape. “Lord Forgive Me” starts off with the line “Pull up in a Bentley drop-top and I got four hoes with me” and gets rapidly nastier from there, offset by a sing-song delivery that somehow makes even the filthiest lines seem harmless. “Word of Mouth” is anthemic, while “Da Streetz” goes year-by-year through the autobiographical education of a hustler. At 27, Quan is currently facing felony drug charges in Georgia following a traffic stop. Let’s hope his education—and his rap career—doesn’t stop here. —Russ Bengston
Released: May 18
EMI's Planet isn’t quite pop, isn’t quite R&B, but it's wholly enthralling. In eight tracks the rising Seattle artist establishes her persona as a slinger with a soft spot for guys who follow the same path, a standout moment being the sweet ride-or-die ballad "1." Loyalty ("$quad"), curbing the fakes ("Fools"), and a hustler's mentality ("Cheap") are all a necessity for survival, and EMI is thriving. Her dark and moody aesthetic may draw similarities to Post Malone, which isn't too much of a stretch seeing as she worked on Planet with two of the architects behind Stoney (Charlie Handsome, Rex Kudo). But what you get from EMI is her own take on the fast life, and she's showing no signs of slowing down. —Edwin Ortiz
Tee Grizzley, 'My Moment'
Released: April 7
Authenticity is still a big sell for crossover success. Detroit’s Tee Grizzley is signed to 300 Entertainment, but his time before the spotlight is a story of struggle and reflection as he served three years for home invasion charges and a failed jewelry store heist in Michigan. Last November, he dropped his debut single “First Day Out,” a hard-as-hell post-prison record, which is growing as the new “Dreams & Nightmares Intro" for the summer because its energy is so contagious. My Moment feeds off the positive reception of “First Day Out” with new songs showcasing his exceptional talent. There’s no reason why you wouldn’t add “10K,” “Catch It,” or “Country” to your own curated rap playlist. They all slap.—Eric Diep
Khalid, 'American Teen'
Label: Right Hand, RCA
Released: March 3
The title of Khalid’s debut album could’ve been American Teen in the '80s, since that’s the sensibility, though not necessarily the sound, channeled on this project. The '80s were some of the last years when teens could roam the streets on some insanity, being “Young, Dumb and Broke” as Khalid sings, figuring life out IRL, not via memes and Instagram timelines. The obvious jam is “Location,” but there’s no way you can listen to a tune like “Shot Down” and not be mesmerized by one of the more impressive pens to emerge in 2017. —khal
Jidenna, 'The Chief'
Label: Wondaland, Epic
Released: Feb. 17
“Classic Man” was played out by the time The Chief dropped that Jidenna was dangerously close to the end of his 15 minutes. That track doesn’t appear on this 14-song debut, but if you liked that vibe, the feel is present in some songs; and if you’re sick of it, there’s enough variety to catch your ear, too. For a self-described “black dandy” who looks and sometimes croons like a new-age Nat King Cole (“Bambi”), Jidenna swings from ratchet (“Let Out”) to woke (“White N---as”) to lavishly lusty (“Trampoline”). The Chief also heavily and playfully incorporates Jidenna’s Nigerian heritage through narrated interludes and Afrobeats-inflected tracks like “Little Bit More,” so be prepared for some cultural immersion as well. —Dria Roland
Father John Misty, 'Pure Comedy'
Label: Bella Union, Sub Pop
Released: April 17
Wry singer-songwriter pop-rock hit its undeniable golden-era peak in the 1970s — a decade in which optimism turned to cynicism, the powers that be pushed back against the progressive protest movements of the previous decade, and a rapidly changing world seemed like it was coming apart at the seams a little. Sounds a lot like 2017, right? And sure enough, there’s one artist updating Randy Newman and Harry Nillson for these snark-filled, tweet-addled, Trump-terrified times: Father John Misty, who reaches the peak of his philosopher-king powers on his new album Pure Comedy. At a time when rock in general has probably never been less relevant, the former Fleet Foxes drummer still manages to perfectly capture our times, toning down the detached, ironic absurdism of his previous projects to sincerely—but hilariously—ponder social media, political polarization, gender inequity and the apocalypse that’s surely upon us. —Alex Gale
Mary J. Blige, 'Strength of a Woman'
Label: Capitol Records
Released: April 28
Mary J. Blige has used stories of heartbreak and drama from her personal life as a coping mechanism before. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s earlier work dealt with drug abuse and depression, but her strength always encouraged her followers to move past their own dark clouds. Strength of a Woman is Blige moving on in order to grow from another straining experience—the divorce of her ex-husband, Kendu Issacs, of 12 years. For the 46-year-old singer, Strength of a Woman is chock full of reliable confessions (“Thick of It,” “U + Me (Love Lesson),” “Survivor”) and gleaming feel-good anthems (“Glow Up,” “Love Yourself”). Anyone who is getting over a breakup should seek motivation from Blige, who sounds happier here that she’s all on her own again. —Eric Diep
Nick Hakim, 'Green Twins'
Released: May 19
The most eclectic R&B project this side of Frank Ocean’s unpredictable Blonded Radio dispatches, Nick Hakim’s Green Twins sounds like a cult record long thought lost. It’s got the goofy prog-rock album artwork, the watery acid-trip vocals, the fuzzy, scratch-and-sniff ‘70s soft-rock instrumentation, and playful lyrics that shift between dreamy description and visceral detail, sometimes in the span of a single song. Hakim grew up in D.C., in the shadow of the hardcore scene, with Latin American parents who played nueva canción at home. At 26, he now lives in Queens and makes soulful, guitar-driven music that recalls Unknown Mortal Orchestra, only sexier. “Bet She Looks Like You,” “Cuffed,” and the title track standout but the album is a thick soup that’s served best from start to finish. —Ross Scarano
Dirty Projectors, 'Dirty Projectors'
Released: February 21
Dirty Projectors has always been something of a shifting experiment. Dave Longstreth, since 2009’s Bitte Orca, if not earlier, has taken on the label of exacting Brooklyn genius; he’s been described in fawning terms as an architect, or taskmaster—the kind of visionary who uses other people as instruments in service of something big. That’s a tough rep to have, especially when your personal life is tied up in the band. Amber Coffman, a lead vocalist and Longstreth’s partner, departure is at the center of the the latest Dirty Projectors album, which is essentially a solo project for Longstreth. So what is Dirty Projectors now that it truly is Longstreth alone? The results are strange; memoiristic and adventurous, with the sideways pop instincts that illuminate why Longstreth’s been writing for Kanye, Rihanna, and Solange. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Lupe Fiasco, 'DROGAS Light'
Label: 1st and 15th
Released: Feb. 10
This album is one that Lupe himself disowned upon its release over a long-running dispute with Atlantic Records, famously calling it "a compilation of old-ass songs we just had laying around." But Lupe is a strong enough artist, with a powerful enough vision, that even his throwaways are worth your time.
For sure, there are failed experiments here—the half-hearted Drake/Migos imitation on "Promise," most prominently. But Fiasco is a top-notch emcee who connects ideas and images in fascinating ways.
The politics here are mostly front-loaded on the project, and hover around the idea of violence, both within Lupe's Chicago and throughout the country. Unfortunately, the rapper, long hip-hop's most astute critic of Barack Obama's imperialism, doesn't mention Trump's name once.
But the politics of the heart are predominant, and it's here that Lupe really shines. Tracks like "Pick up the Phone" put his dizzying rhyming to use describing interpersonal relationships in a way that is simultaneously interesting and moving.
If this is what Fiasco does when he's not trying, things are looking good for his post-Atlantic future. —Shawn Setaro
1-O.A.K., 'Riding in Cars With Girls'
Released: April 28
From its first song, Riding in Cars With Girls sounds different. Oakland singer-songwriter-producer 1-O.A.K. screws, of all things, a live Stevie Wonder performance of “Give Your Love” from the ‘70s variety series The Flip Wilson Show. He lets the song rock for nearly a minute before introducing the high-hat, which starts “Every Day” to building like the best house remix you’ve never heard. And then, finally, when you can’t bear it any longer, he starts singing, vocals multitracked and angelic.
In a time when artists like Drake and Bryson Tiller engage in a sort of sampling arms race to prove their dedication to ’90s R&B, 1-O.A.K. goes left. His album is just as surprising and fun as that opening, an uptempo experience that celebrates the sweetness of success (“Success”) and dabbles in more Stevie homage (“Nature”). It’s one of the most promising debuts of the year. —Ross Scarano
Label: Maybach, Atlantic, Every Blue Moon
Released: April 28
Wale has spent the better part of his career pursuing rap’s crown, and while it’s made for some memorable milestones, it’s also been a burden that’s taken its toll on his personal and professional life. That goal doesn’t seem to inform Shine, and in no way is that meant to be a knock. On the contrary; the veteran D.C. rapper sounds more self-assured than ever. He can be found lyrically cruising over the smooth backdrop of “Scarface Rozay Gotti” or celebrating the life of his daughter on “Thank You” and “Smile,” and in each instance there’s a sense of gratitude in his voice. Those moments are counterbalanced by solid summer tunes for the ladies (“My Love,” “PYT”), and of course a flex or two (“Running Back”), making Shine an engaging listen for new and longtime fans alike. —Edwin Ortiz
Label: Empire, 400 Summers
Released: May 25
You really have to see RJ live. As the opening act on YG's Fuck Donald Trump Tour, one of the most underrated shows of 2016, the way he set the tone despite being the least famous on the bill was a wonder to watch. He's electric. I knew none of his music prior and instantly corrected that oversight after. It takes a lot of charisma to try and make a moniker as banal as Mr. L.A. work, but RJ's got it in spades.
Mr. L.A. doesn't drop the ball on his eponymous debut. This is rowdy, G-funk music, soaked in classic West Coast elements and marinated in the no-fucks-given aesthetic that's coming to define 400. Where YG is direct and guttural in his mean mug bars, RJ is prone to croon—the album opens with "Blammer," whose chorus features him harmonizing about his blammer—but the music is just as menacing. Oh, and fun. I don't know whether to ice grill or cheese when I'm playing this album but it's on repeat nonetheless. Between the fearless leader, Kamaiyah and now Sir Los Angeles, YG's team is shaping up to be quite the army, better yet, the navy. You're not real if you don't have a double cup in hand two-stepping to “Hennebeeto” this summer. —Frazier Tharpe
J Hus, 'Common Sense'
Label: Black Butter, Epic
Released: May 12
J Hus got the UK Afrobeats-grime-rap-reggae wave on lock. His debut album, Common Sense, contains all of those things, a beautiful array of rhythms and sounds perfect for summer. The title track sets the tone immediately with it’s big beat and a chorus with a dope wing to it. “Bouff Daddy,” “Did You See,” “Like Your Style,” and “Plottin” are the other standouts. Hus is only 22 and I can’t wait to see what his future looks like—the kid's a star. —Angel Diaz
Big Sean, 'I Decided'
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam
Released: Feb. 3
It’s safe to say the February release I Decided was a rebound from last year’s divisive TWENTY88 collaboration with Jhene Aiko. If you hit play on his fourth solo album expecting more soapy love songs, what you got instead were brag-heavy, hard-hitting bops like “Bounce Back” and “Moves.” Sean came with strong beat selection, a versatile flow, and more of his signature puns. (Seriously, he is unable to resist the double entendre, hate it or love it.) And while we imagine landing an Eminem feature on “No Favors” was a dream come true for a kid from the D, surprisingly, it’s the low point of an album that sees Sean continue to build on the polished sound of the exceptional Dark Sky Paradise. —Dria Roland
Gavin Turek, 'Good Look For You'
Label: Madame Gold
Released: March 20
It’s a shame that Studio 54 (or some 2017 incarnation of) doesn’t exist anymore because Gavin Turek belongs there, front and center. The L.A.-based artist quietly released a concise disco-cum-R&B EP, Good Look for You, earlier this year and you probably slept on it. From the jangly, sparkly chorus of “On the Line” to the swell of “The Distance” to the infectious dance bop of “My Delight,” Turek has created one of the most joyful pop creations in recent memory.
Turek’s disco pop evokes the same sheer happiness that Carly Rae Jepsen brings. It’s a delight to envelop oneself in while putting on fake eyelashes for a night out dancing with your girlfriends. But, at the same time, Turek’s questioning of love and loss in her lyrics (much like CRJ) suggest something a bit sadder under her Donna Summer/Diana Ross inspired surface. “I suppose what makes me comfortable isn’t always right” she croons on “It’s the Light.” Never has a lyric better explained every ladies night I’ve ever forced my friends into. —Kerensa Cadenas
Roc Marciano, 'Rosebudd's Revenge'
Label: Marci Enterprises
Released: Feb. 21
With Roc Marciano, you know what you're getting into: glorification of ’70s hustlers and pimps in sampled movie dialogue; knotty strings of rhymes that start one place and end somewhere wildly different; a career-long aversion to hooks; and almost no features.
If that sounds good, then Rosebudd's Revenge certainly brings you more of the same. But what makes it stand out are the differences from prior projects. Roc Marci has always been slightly hobbled as a rapper by a tendency to rely on very short phrases, one after the other. But here, he breaks free of that template, extending his musical ideas when necessary and providing more variety than he has in the past.
He expands his musical palette as well. There's Ghostface-style rapping over existing vocals and, in "Herringbone," perhaps the most minimal, weirdest beat to appear on a major rap release since the Clipse and the Neptunes made music out of the inside of a piano. Rosebudd's Revenge has Roc pulling off the rare trick of growing where he needs to, while keeping the shit that the people showed up for in the first place. —Shawn Setaro
Little Dragon, 'Season High'
Released: April 14
For 21 years the members of Little Dragon have horsed around in the intersection of genres, and made it look easy and fun. Season High, the band’s fifth full-length, isn’t their best and it couldn’t matter any less. At this point, Little Dragon is reliable—not the sexiest quality, but still. “High,” “Butterflies,” and “Gravity” are all perfectly executed expressions of their tough-to-pin down sound. Let’s just call it make-out music, since that’s what much of it is suited for. —Ross Scarano
Gucci Mane and Metro Boomin, 'DropTopWop'
Label: GUWOP, 1017, Atlantic
Released: May 26
Gucci Mane has been one busy dude since he got out of prison just over a year ago—not that being in prison really slowed him down much. Gucci’s always been nothing if not prolific, churning out mixtapes and singles seemingly by the day. His latest, Droptopwop, 10 tracks in 37 minutes over sparse Metro Boomin beats is, for lack of a better term, a movie. Everything is spot on, from the Clipse-esque cover art to the features (a top-of-his game Offset on “Met Gala,” 2 Chainz and Young Dolph on “Both Eyes Closed,” and Rick Ross on the album closer, “Loss 4 Wrdz”) to the beats. But it’s Gucci’s record from start to finish (“I’m Gucci Mane La Flare, I make $5 million a day” he raps on the intro), and the East Atlanta Santa does not disappoint, not one time. He rides smoothly over everything, from the music-box tinkle of “Helpless” to the menacing threat of “Dance with the Devil.” And while Offset and 2 Chainz in particular kill their appearances, Gucci more than holds his own. “100 tapes and goin', go check my discography / The freshest n***a livin', go check your photography,” he rhymes on “Both Eyes Closed.” Damn straight. —Russ Bengtson
Label: Dead Oceans
Released: May 5
Slowdive has been making music since 1989, and on the shoegaze band’s first album of the 21st century, it sounds like it. Which is to say the five piece’s latest is perfectly executed and polished, a work of master craftsmanship. The shimmering first song, “Slomo,” iris-opens a wormhole the listener steps through, transporting them into a gauzy ‘80s teen scene. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead give off light with their intertwined voices, like strands of small white bulbs criss-crossing around the same pole. Elsewhere, “Star Roving” chugs along, like a forgotten Neu deep cut, and “Go Get It” goes big, with a strong central riff and the catchiest hook on the record. “I wanna see it, I wanna feel it,” Halstead sings. The listener is already there, wish granted. —Ross Scarano
Stormzy, 'Gang Signs and Prayer'
Label: #Merky, Warner, ADA
Released: Feb. 24
To the surprise of no one who understands, the UK’s grime scene hasn’t taken off in America. No matter how much work acts like Skepta or Stormzy put in, there’s something about the beats and the flows (be it the accent or rapid fire bars) that Americans can’t wrap their heads around. Sadly, that means that impressive debut LPs like Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer risk being ignored on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re sleeping, though, you’re failing. Not too many projects will have obvious upbeat anthems like “Big for Your Boots” sitting alongside seductive cuts like the Kehlani-assisted “Cigarettes & Cush.” Did Stormzy reach for the stars on this one? Sure, but over time, it’ll be his ambition that pushes Stormzy closer to grabbing those brass American rings than other acts in his genre. —khal
Released: Jan. 26
The collaboration between Baltimore-born R&B singer-songwriter Brent Faiyaz, and producers Atu and Dpat, is Sonder, and the trio’s first EP, Into, is moody and spare. Faiyaz has a supple, gentle tenor, like Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, and his runs and his falsetto recall the ballads of the ‘90s in technical ability and softness. But the production is very much of the moment, favoring downbeat haze and filters and melting reverb. “Feel,” “Sirens,” and “Too Fast,” keep the mood dynamic, rather than simply dreary. —Ross Scarano
Label: Atlantic, TSNMI, HBK
Released: Jan. 27
Certain artists create magic after experiencing personal hardships. Mary J. Blige and Adele immediately come to mind. So does Kehlani. On SweetSexySavage, her debut album, she’s open about the difficult year she’s had (she was hospitalized for an apparent suicide in March 2016) on ballads like “Hold Me By the Heart.” But she’s also high-spirited and self-confident in pop-R&B songs like ”Distraction” and “CRZY.” SweetSexySavage doesn’t shy away from Kehlani’s hardships, but it also doesn’t ignore her redemption. We already know she's a talented singer who makes the kind of personal music fans can relate. It’s important to see her having fun, too. —Karizza Sanchez
J.I.D, 'The Never Story'
Released: March 10
J.Cole co-signed rapper and Spillage Village alumni J.I.D. is from East Atlanta (a.k.a. Zone 6), the same stomping grounds as Gucci Mane, Future, and Young Scooter. The allure of J.I.D. comes from his upbringing; he’s far removed from the trap, opting to make boom bap-inspired songs similar to the East Coast’s lyrical technicians. The Never Story is pure hip-hop for the old soul (good examples are “Underwear,” “EdEddnEddy,” and “LAUDER”), and demonstrates how creative of a songwriter he is. As a welcomed addition to Dreamville’s conscious-heavy all-stars, he’s off to a great start.—Eric Diep
Harry Styles, 'Harry Styles'
Released: May 12
Zayn sorta fucked up, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Upon departing One Direction, he had a plan (get grown and sexy, a la JT) and a producer (Malay, then best known for working on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange). But Mind of Mine, from its chintzy artwork to its goofy typographical experimentation, felt undercooked and without perspective (save “Flower”).
Though it’s a similar act of homage (just to classic rock and singer-songwriter folk, rather than R&B), Harry Styles’ debut succeeds in almost every way that Zayn faltered. He got the artwork right, the tracklist is neat and concise, and the writing is genuinely memorable. “Even my phone misses your call.” “Promises are broken like a stitch is.” The whole of “Meet Me in the Hallway,” which has all the portent and unspoken depth of a great short story. Under the guidance of careful producer Jeff Bhasker, 23-year-old Harry Styles managed to make a rock album that feels lived in, even with the occasional misfire (“Only Angel,” “Kiwi”). Now spike the volume on “Woman” and pray for Zayn. —Ross Scarano
Perfume Genius, 'No Shape'
Released: May 5
If you could feel content right now, what would that look like? How thorough would it be? Or would it be necessarily fleeting? Would you trust it, or panic when it started to slip? No Shape, the fourth album of exacting indie pop from Mike Hadreas, who records as Perfume Genius, reckons with these questions, making it a correct listening experience for 2017. As Eric Eidelstein wrote for Complex, No Shape is distinguished from his prior albums by its “lightness, an understanding that even when we’re feeling good, when we’ve worked so hard for happiness, there are moments when we still are not okay. And that’s okay.”
In his interview with Complex, Hadreas said that he doesn’t think of the album as happy, though. “It’s more happy in a supernatural way, where everything is good and bad and wrapped up together. That’s better than just good or bad. It seems more real.” It is real, and on songs like “Die 4 You,” “Slip Away,” “Run Me Through,” and “Alan,” written for Hadreas’ long-term boyfriend, he finds those complicated, satisfying pockets of good-bad that make so much sense. —Ross Scarano
G Perico, 'All Blue'
Label: So Way Out
Released: April 28
If you’re a rap kid who grew up on the West Coast, you have a special place for California’s G-Funk pioneers. Every once in awhile, you’ll come across a rapper who will pay homage to legends of the '90s in their music, drawing comparisons of the next Snoop Dogg or DJ Quik. G Perico, a South Central native and reps the Crips gang, has earned high praise by outlets like Pitchfork and Noisey as a revivalist of L.A.’s golden era. All Blue is a solid entry into his life as a reformed gangster, spinning tales of his past on quintessential listens “All Blue,” “Keep Ballin,” and “Bacc Forth.” —Eric Diep
John Mayer, 'The Search for Everything'
Label: Columbia, Sony
Released: April 14
Album after album, John Mayer has tweaked and refined his approach while also implementing different genres—blues, Americana, etc.—to extend his sound. With The Search for Everything, he gets into his bag and hits fans with an amalgam of flavors, making it his most expansive project yet. There's the beautiful piano-laden ballad "Never on the Day You Leave" of the Born and Raised variety, the bluesy and superb “Moving on and Getting Over” (JM3/Continuum), and "Rosie" knocking you over with a horn section and guitar licks that sound straight out of a Heavier Things session.
The Search for Everything also offers some of his best songwriting in recent times, with "In the Blood" and its examination of family and identity being an obvious standout. Of course, love and love lost is also a theme, as it tends to be on a Mayer project, but his execution on tracks like "Emoji of a Wave" and "You're Gonna Live Forever in Me" are less about heartbreak and more about resilience and understanding. For someone who could be described as young at heart, John Mayer is navigating adulthood well. —Edwin Ortiz
Kodak Black, 'Painting Pictures'
Released: March 31
Before the release of Painting Pictures, Kodak Black was locked up for violating his probation, which could have forced this album to fall under the radar. But luckily for Dieuson Octave, Painting Pictures is too an engrossing debut to miss. (Of course, if you refuse to check on Kodak because of his cases, that's a different story.) He takes on glossier production by Ben Billions, Mike Will Made-It, plus others, weaving detailed descriptions of his life and finding solace in the few he trusts. “Tunnel Vision” is the hot single, but songs like “Patty Cake,” “Corrlinks and JPay,” and collaborations with Future and A Boogie with da Hoodie cement himself as an exciting voice with more to prove—if he can keep his life together.—Eric Diep
Freddie Gibbs, 'You Only Live 2wice'
Label: ESGN, Empire
Released: March 31
If great art comes from great hardship, it’s no wonder You Only Live 2wice, Freddie Gibbs’s full-length, is so damn good. He wrote it in an Austrian prison, where he was facing 10 years on rape charges—charges that were later dismissed. When he finally got home, he went straight to the studio and recorded this compact yet powerful eight-track project. Gibbs didn’t shy away from his experiences—“Crushed Glass,” the lead single, addresses them in the bluntest possible terms: “I just beat a rape case, groupie bitch I never fucked/Tried to give me ten for some pussy that I never touched.” Gibbs has one of the most solid flows in rap, and he’s never been the type of MC to mince words. He lays down uncompromisingly self-aware street tales over sparkling beats. It ends, as redemption stories can, with a look to the future. On his outro off “Homecoming,” Gibbs states, “I’m back/And I ain’t going nowhere this time.” We hope not. —Russ Bengtson
The xx, 'I See You'
Label: Young Turks
Released: January 13
It’s been nearly five years since the xx released an album. And, for a band that’s been around for less than eight, that’s an eternity, especially when they burned brightest on their debut (the still-fantastic xx) before sighing into a mild sophomore slump (2012’s underrated, but still underwhelming, Coexist). For another group, things would be looking dire. This isn’t any other band, though; not many outfits have a solo member release a breakout album during an unofficial hiatus, then come right back.
That’s what happened when Jamie xx ventured on his own to make the stunning In Colour, exploring his long-running dancefloor ambitions with one of 2015’s best. He brings many of the best elements of his solo material to I See You—muscular drums, samples, a voracious appetite for experimentation—and marries them to the soul of the band. The result is a new xx, one that’s recognizable, still, but the most exciting they’ve been since they arrived, seemingly fully-formed, back in 2009. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Charli XCX, 'Number One Angel'
Label: Atlantic Records UK
Released: March 10
Everyone knew Charli had the chops. The pop songwriter has been churning out irresistible songs—for herself and others—since her career began. But she’s always had an eye for the strange; never content to write the next Katy Perry song, Charli is a relentlessly inquisitive artist with the sort of mind that vacuums up influences, grinds them up, and expels them into daring potential chart-toppers. Recently, she’s turned her eye to the avant-garde pop of London’s PC Music, beginning with last year’s muscular Vroom Vroom EP. It was an interesting piece of experimentation. Then she released Number One Angel.
A blitzkrieg of a mixtape, Number One Angel is ostensibly part of the process towards her next official full-length. After hearing it, though, there’s only one question: Why wasn’t this the album?
Number 1 Angel unfurled with the suspended excitement of watching a pitcher throw a no-hitter. Every song on here is compulsively listenable, and genuinely exciting. By the final song, which features a star turn from avant-nasty Chicago MC Cupcakke—all the features here are from too-often-overlooked female artists—it’s clear that Charli did the damn thing. The album made a splash, but it deserved a tidal wave. —Brendan Klinkenberg
GoldLink, 'At What Cost'
Released: March 24
At What Cost was such a departure from the “future bounce” of And After That, We Didn’t Talk that you might have made the mistake of not getting all the way through it. But do yourself a favor: Revisit this album, if only to revel in Jazmine Sullivan’s subtle scatting on the KAYTRANADA-produced “Meditation,” or to bounce along to the damn-near disrespectful flows on “Crew.”
At What Cost is notable for being a time capsule of sorts, with Goldlink trying to capture growing up at the tail end of D.C.’s vibrant go-go scene and telling the story of the genre’s forced decline amid the area’s gentrification. You feel that, as Goldlink gets assists from native sons Shy Glizzy, Wale, and Mya (!). Politics aside, the album shows musical growth and versatility, and makes you wonder where Goldlink will go from here. —Dria Roland
Released: March 14
Smino, the St. Louis-raised, Chicago-sharpened MC, has been a name to watch for a few years now. After a series of attention-grabbing songs, each showcasing an accelerating creative vision, he resoundingly answered the call of the debut full-length. Blkswn is one of the year’s most assured feats, a densely lyrical and deeply felt piece of music, with hip-hop’s most unassuming new star at the center of it all. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Released: Feb. 24
An album as diary, Thundercat’s Drunk doesn’t conform to any generic expectations; rather, it uses its 23 tracks, most of them short, to introduce, almost at random, the disparate alleys and pathways of the bassist’s brain. There are songs about masturbation, social media, nerding out in Tokyo, how dope it would be to be a cat, immaturely lashing out over unrequited love, and drinking. Musically, Thundercat raises from the depths the specter of yacht rock by reuniting Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald for the essential “Show You the Way,” in addition to the brilliant morsels of funk, jazz, and R&B he plays so well. If American black music is the history of black people in America, Drunk is an utterly idiosyncratic and personal entry, thrilling for its belief that anything is deserving of song. —Ross Scarano
Joey Badass, 'All-Amerikkkan Badass'
Label: Pro Era, Cinematic
Released: April 7
A running criticism of Joey Badass has been whether his affinity for the golden era of hip-hop has isolated his sound and, to an extent, subject matter. On All-Amerikkkan Badass, the 22-year-old Brooklyn rapper refuses to be pigeonholed. Socio-political themes like Trump's presidency ("Land of the Free") and racism in America ("Y U Don't Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)") rise to top, and while elements of '90s boom bap are still present, Joey makes it work in concert with his new narrative. He also loosens up his usual knotty flow to make his message more accessible, like on "For My People." And if you're still looking for #bars and a third eye opening, he's got you covered on the six-minute album closer. Joey truly challenged himself this go around, and it shows with work that realizes his full potential. —Edwin Ortiz
Released: Feb. 3
If you’re surprised that one of 2017’s illest R&B releases is from homegirl who used to DJ for Odd Future back when they were disrupting the industry, you haven’t been paying attention to Syd’s rise. While fronting the Internet yielded some impressive hits (who was expecting their single “Girl” to ring out like it did?), Syd’s unassuming solo turn felt different. She’s not the illest vocalist, but understands her lane and has been unafraid when it comes to grabbing all of her influences and stuffing them into a 48-track board. With obvious nods to acts like Aaliyah and Timbaland, Syd crafted a love letter to the '90s. Syd’s here, and she knows how to pen a precious project that’s liable to steal your girl. —khal
Label: A1, Freebandz, Epic
Released: Feb. 17
Future was easily Future’s best project since 2015’s DS2, a title it would hold for all of a week before he dropped Hndrxx. Like DS2, Future is all about trap anthems, most perfectly suited for the mini-cinematic video masterpieces he turned out for DS2’s tracks. You’ve got money machine sounds (“Zoom”), drugs (“Super Trapper”), and even more drugs (“Mask Off”), and that only takes you through the first seven tracks of the 17-track project. What you don’t have is features—check Hndrxx for those—it’s just Future’s syrupy flow over beats from frequent collaborators Metro Boomin, Southside, and other members of the 808 Mafia. There’s a lot of laid-back, relaxed stuff here, lots of name-brand brags and boasts, but the opener, “Rent Money,” kicks things off hard just in case you forgot who runs Atlanta these days: “Treat me like I'm Al Capone, n***a, f**k you/John Gotti, Illuminati, n***a, f**k you/I put a middle finger up, because, f**k you.” —Russ Bengtson
Rick Ross, 'Rather You Than Me'
Label: Maybach, Epic
Released: March 17
Rick Ross doesn't make worthless albums. I challenge anyone who would be quick to deride, say, Hood Billionaire, to revisit "Brimstone," "Quintessential," and "Phone Tap.” But there's no denying Ross was Curry two feet behind the 3 pt. line in the trifecta of Albert Anastasia, Teflon Don, and Rich Forever—and he's been trying to find that sweet-spot footing ever since. Not every shot has been a swish, some barely touched rim. How glorious, then, that his ninth album is once again nothing but net, finally.
This is everything we want from Renzel, give or take a new entry to the Maybach Music series that strangely adds Dej Loaf to the roster. (Wasn't there word that he recorded one with Bobby Womack before the legend's passing? Where the hell is that at?) Regally emphasized head-spinning couplets over lush beats that sound like Jay Z's net worth; a contrast of booming, chest-thumping bangers that wouldn't sound out of place in a Wingstop parking lot; a brash devil-may-care attitude to go at whoever deserves it; a Nas feature that yet again makes you wonder why he won't just task Ross with A&R'ing an album for him already. The best part: nothing about this album sounds or feels like it was some big, exhaustive strain to get back to this zone. Doubting Rozay? Couldn't be me. —Frazier Tharpe
Label: Young Turks
Released: Feb. 3
The years-long wait for Sampha’s debut was beyond worth it. He sings with so much raw emotion, it’s hard not to catch feelings when he’s baring his soul on a track. Process will have you staring at the ceiling fan wondering where you went wrong with your life. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is a song about his mom sung in the tone of an angel. His voice melts over piano keys like butter on a hot stack of flapjacks. This is for the thugs who prefer to chase their Henny with tears, ya heard? Inconsolable. His album is majestic, like a durag cape flying freely in the wind. —Angel Diaz
Label: QC, 300, Atlantic
Released: Jan. 27
Some people want you to believe that Donald Glover is responsible for Migos breaking into the mainstream in 2017. Sure, Glover shouting them out during the Golden Globes introduced the Atlanta-based trio to white people who didn’t know what a “Bad & Boujee” was. But the thing is, “Bad & Boujee” was already climbing the charts at that point. And when we got Culture, it wasn’t even the best song there, necessarily; don’t discount the intoxicating drug-dealing lament “T-Shirt.” Or the hypnotic, organ-drenched “Call Casting.” Migos finally came into their own on this album, fully realizing their potential as braggadocious, triplet-spitting trap boys who stunt and shine better than you. Culture is chock full of anthems for the culture, and will go down as being a proper representation of the best of 2017. —khal
Drake, 'More Life'
Label: Republic, OVO Sound
Released: March 18
Let's start with this: I am a Drake stan. And, even as an avowed Drake apologist, I will say that Views was not the one. I enjoyed the album, but it just wasn't up to par with what he's delivered in the past. More Life, though, is a redemption moment after the lackluster album and an immensely important solo project (or playlist) to the OVO captain.
The pressure was on, and Drake delivered. More Life is exactly what I (and probably you) want from Drake in 2017. He gives fans a bit of everything he does best, from mellow, radio-friendly jams like "Passionfruit" to the candid bars on "Do Not Disturb." He sends shots at Meek Mill and Tory Lanez, and does his best to reaffirm his position at the top of the leaderboard. While Drake still hasn't fully made up for Views, More Life is one of his best projects. At the very least, it bought him more time to come correct with his next one, whenever that might come. —Zach Frydenlund
Label: A1, Freebandz, Epic
Released: Feb. 24
Hands down, no arguments, no debates, Future's best song is "Throw Away." (Okay, fine, it's 1.1 with "March Madness," but I digress). [Ed. Note—Actually, it’s “Codeine Crazy.”] The first two minutes of "Throw Away" are perfectly fine, but it doesn't become transcendent until Future's alleged nihilism and hedonism give way to his very real and raw despondency, feelings I didn't know existed outside of HBO's The Leftovers.
"Throw Away" retroactively works as a perfect backdoor pilot to Future's double album experiment this year, and if it were say, HNDRXX versus, say, DS2, then we'd have a harder debate. As it stands, though, if we're ranking Nayvadius' 2017 output I don't see how anyone doesn't vote the album that has a stretch as incredible as "Damage" to "Keep Quiet." Future can make a "Mask Off" in his sleep, but, out of all of his different zones, exploring the emo side of his inner demons in front of a pop backdrop has proved most difficult. (See the mildly successful albeit overhated Honest.) But after refocusing, Hendrix successfully charged himself up to take a stab again and what we have as a result is nothing short of a crown jewel.
Truly, there isn't one bad or mid song. HNDRXX is one self-lacerating cycle of guilt, regret, remorselessness, shamelessness, and back again. Future's contradictions are on full display—how can the guy who croons so beautifully about hot yoga be the same one starting the record off with a concept so ugly as "even if I hit you once you part of my collection"? Whether soaring off lust or mired in bitterness, he's in his bag melodically throughout so thoroughly even the album cuts are an earworm unto themselves. This album is so rich I still find myself [re]discovering a moment in a different song worth obsessing over months later. Pop Future may not be Your Favorite Future but the softer side of the monster he explored on "Throw Away" is in too fine a form here to deny. —Frazier Tharpe
Kendrick Lamar, 'Damn'
Label: TDE, Aftermath, Interscope
Released: April 14
Sure, there were other contenders for the album of the year so far—and there were NBA teams who could challenge the Golden State Warriors. Much like his California counterparts in Oakland, 29-year-old Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has not only dominated the rap competition in 2017, he’s made it look downright easy. Leading with two singles, the standalone “The Heart Part 4” and the relentlessly knocking “Humble,” Lamar released Damn in mid-April, immediately rendering all other releases irrelevant. The one-word title also served as a review.
Everything about Damn is a statement, projected in the same emphatic capital letters as the tracklist. He not only got Rihanna to guest on a track, he got her to guest on a track called “Loyalty,” which may or not be the greatest sub of all time. He got U2 as one of the album’s only other features on “XXX,” the equivalent of getting President Obama to appear on a skit (which, would anyone be surprised if K-Dot made this happen?). He wraps it all up with a clever retelling of his origin story on “Duckworth,” seamlessly weaving the history of TDE with that of his own family, tying it off with a gunshot mirroring the one at the album’s opening.
With Damn, Lamar produced an album every bit as genre-defying and revolutionary as the sprawling To Pimp a Butterfly, but with a more traditional hip-hop structure. He’s got the aforementioned Rihanna feature, the undeniable bangers in “DNA” and “Humble.” And he knowingly nods to the past—any rap aficionado had to appreciate his impromptu Juvenile tribute on “Element”—while relentlessly pushing the whole genre into the future. That doesn’t even get to what may be the best track on the album, “Fear,” which breaks the emotion down by decades of life, at seven, 17 and 27, and how different those fears can be (and reveals that, even at his creative and commercial peak, Lamar still has things that keep him up at night).
Is it too early to start discussing whether Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper of all time? After all, he’s still younger than Jay Z was when he released The Blueprint. But Kendrick’s already older than Tupac ever got to be, released more albums than Biggie. If they’re in the discussion—and no one doubts they are—then Lamar needs to be there too. He’s in it on the strength of Damn, his best project to date, and the best of this year by far. But think about this: What if his best is still yet to come? —Russ Bengtson
More from Complex
- The Cavaliers' Locker Room Definitely Smelled Like Weed After Game 2
- ComplexCon Releases Exclusive and Limited Takashi Murakami Merch
- Exclusive: Watch Demetrius Shipp Jr. Audition for 'All Eyez on Me' in New HBO Special
- This Video Celebrates Hip-Hop's 40-Year History in 4 Minutes
- 'Zebra' Adidas Yeezy Boosts Will Be Easier to Get This Time