I’m not a listicle individual, a blurb nerd, NONE OF THAT. In fact, we’re not even ranking these anymore. Why? For what? If it’s fie, it’s fie!
The dope-rap mastermind reconvenes with the Beat Konducta to unleash another cocaine masterpiece. Name a rapper that extends a “Flat Tummy Tea” metaphor into the American legacy of genocide and plunder. Name a beat that effortlessly pivots between trap and massive sample like “Half Manne Half Cocaine.” I know most folks assume that Piñata remains the untouchable of the two, but Bandana grants Gangsta Gibbs a vulnerable edge that rounds him out with a graceful maturity that’s only come from experience.
As drill continues to embrace its melodic Eastern mutations, Chicago-bred Polo G emerged from the trenches to bring a sobering light to the struggle. He plays the melody everyman game with a sharp wit that prioritizes directness and vulnerability with a songwriter’s edge. And having a mega-hit will always help, rendering him appropriate for the kickback and the dark nights alone. Polo G’s a product of addiction, poverty, and struggling with faith. Die a Legend is a young man’s chronicle of the Chicago we thought we knew, rooted in the weight of the consequences and delivered with a melancholic vigor that breathes new life into the subgenre. Truly special.
In 1968, tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and his octet went down into a basement in Bremen and recorded one of free jazz’s seminal albums, the raucous and radically improvisational Machine Gun. Among those players was drummer Han Bennink, who joins his frequent collaborator for this spirited return to that very same venue five decades years later. Finishing up this trio to celebrate that moment is pianist Alexander Schlippenbach, a German contemporary of theirs and fellow member of the Globe Unity Orchestra. Given that history and pedigree, it’s little wonder that Fifty Years After… provides such a faithful revisiting of that 1960s chaotic energy via “Short Dog Of Sweet Lucy” and the mad dash of “Bad Borrachos.” On the lucid title track, they simmer slow rather than flash fry.
Jean size jokes aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Thug protege as influential as Gunna’s been in the past two years. Drip or Drown 2 is merely the icing, finding Sergio Kitchens quarterbacking the cadences and references that set the trend for a sizeable fraction of MCs slowly populating the fringes of rap. There’s a reason why folks joke about how Gunna’s first name is Feat. And there’s plenty of borderline self-help bars if you sift through the Birkin. Gunna said “I know my purpose!” He also said “They won’t respect you ‘til you try!” These are Fendi facts, indeed!
It’s wild to consider how LUCKI came in the game as a faded teen with otherworldly ability, and improved upon his craft by whittling the theatrics away for a borderline-deadpan accuracy. He’s a marksman of economy, which is why he resonates with hella groups that wouldn’t be at the same table at lunch. LUCKI’s always fancied himself a romantic — toxic or not — so it’s a treat to see him flesh out the theme. He really leaves himself on the floor this time, his most grown and honest shit ever. Blink, and you miss the SRT comin’ down Lake Shore Drive.
Little Simz spent this whole album rapping like she had to let everything go, and she was tired of being skipped over in the picture. Impressive oeuvre aside, she’s not fuckin’ around this time, and rightfully so! GREY Area gives us the Simz 10-track treatment, weaving a breakup story into a first-person therapy session. She spits like she’s ready to gut her opponent, like she’s on the brink of losing herself to the static of the world. When she lets her guard down, she traces every scar for us. Pay her what the fuck she’s owed!
The methodical billy woods came through with his masterpiece this year, flanked by a Kenny Segal that never even considers missing. Together though? Never has a lifetime of processing trauma and paranoia felt so submersive and beautiful. Comical, even, the way woods fake laughs his way through the ways the body remembers, and the way he’ll never forward his mail. It’s not all spider holes and phone cards; there’s a joy of simply being, even when being here isn’t enough. Masterful rapping, masterful beats, and an intensity always on the brink of brimming over.
The Charlotte golden child wasn’t fuckin’ witcha when he told us it was Nation Time! This record sounds like the rallying cry for real niggas worldwide, set in the brightest sparks of our future and the darkest recesses of ourselves. MAVI keeps his fingers on our pulses like a hair-trigger, spittin’ until his soul threatens to exit the bones he walks around in. He’s concerned with love and legacy the way many young men are, but never take him for immature. He raps like his life depends on it, and we depend on each other. Name the last homemade rap record that made you feel like that… Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
You think Roc will run outta ways to interlock words, describe his daily activities, describe the color of his car seats, or find another restaurant to commit some debaucherous activity inside. He won’t, and at this rate, he never will. This is first-person mack rap, a capstone for a decade where he defined the current of the underground by saying the most exuberant shit through the simplest elements. This drop feels more psychedelic and pensive, even as Roc can never locate the autopilot. The nigga is singular to the umpteenth degree. He dropped this shit in December like he wanted to single-handedly derail the decade convo! The audacity!
It appears that slowthai is the latest of MCs in a recent spree of spitting in fans’ mouths per request. A casual glance at his debut LP, and one will quickly understand how his purview enables such an incident. (Granted, that might’ve been King Whitey out there.) But it’s not all hawkspit and cheap pints: Nothing Great About Britain wraps a nationalist critique into a livewire autobiography of a biracial wildchild from a town of cobblers. He runs the gamut of the underworld, and comes out cleaner than he should. Ultimately, slowthai wants to love and be loved in return. Thankfully, we can spend half the time raging to his desires.
How does Benny the Butcher follow up an outstanding album like Tana Talk 3? An outstanding EP that elaborates on his promise on “Broken Bottles.” If you’re still sick about him rappin’ ‘bout the drugs he stretched, you’ll need fluids and a colostomy bag for how Benny expands his world. He leaves no room for breathing, making us feel as claustrophobic as he does during a flashback in his mom’s kitchen. He also revels in the spoils, but hunger underscores every note. And the gotdamn 38 Spesh verse on “Sunday School?” May the fork continue to click and Griselda continue to reign!
Two months after hearing this album, I was silently tucked in the back of the Uber, roaming around Atlanta for A3C. Naturally, the driver turned Thug on; we bopped quietly, two Black men and our Thugger on a pleasant afternoon. We had our questions, and I still do: Whom does Thug have that’ll kill you for a pack of noodles? Why so many lines about killing people’s moms, and fucking grandma? Furthermore, what made NAV sound so ** motivated **? All that and more… make So Much Fun the enigma it’s been for Thug listeners who’ve waited patiently for him to reach a commercial mass that matches the way he’s been critically revered. The title describes precisely what we came here for.
In what’s proven to be his most engrossing work to date, MIKE lends his heart to us for a meditation on grief and joy in the wake of his mother’s passing. As he’s only sharpened his pen over the years, this tape glides along like fuzz from a daydream, MIKE weaving between self-motivations and reeling from the new world unfolding. It’s human as hell, so human: the twitching, glitching energy left raw for whomever to catch the feeling. It’s a triumphant memorial, starring MIKE in a clinic on how to rap like one’s rooted in oneself.
Imagine how blown I’d be if a Mach-Hommy project so succinct was trapped behind the art dealer paywall… The past two years seem to have opened him up, giving sermons for the streamable low since he’s no longer floating in obscurity. We’re better for it. This is everything Mach on overdrive, chilled to the right temperature with enough callbacks to the jazzier, soulful elements of eras past to lead newcomers into his universe. Not by intention, but by being the impeccable MC he is. It’s short, dense, and perfect for the permanent slate grey taking hold over the next few months.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.