2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: Run the Jewels 3 – Run the Jewels

Listen: YouTube (Playlist of Full Album)

The critical success of Run the Jewels’ 2014 album RTJ2 would certainly warrant depicting their most recent effort a victory lap. In many ways it is: it feels like a celebration of the excellent music and the eternal friendship that El-P and Killer Mike have created amongst one another. This is incredibly faulty however – a victory lap is never as good as the lap it’s commemorating and that is where this metaphor becomes moot. RTJ3 (2017) is in every way just as quality as its predecessor and in many ways exceeds it. The production at its heaviest bumps unprecedentedly containing nuance and intricacies that raise the album’s bangers to complex compositions on songs like “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” and “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix).” These larger-than-life tracks are complimented with some of El’s most beautiful productions like “2100” and “Down.” The latter serves as album opener and is an unexpectedly tame track that features gorgeous synths and what sounds like a filtered guitar strumming at the low end of the mix. The use of this track as the album’s intro is a testament to Run the Jewels’ vision for this album – whereas their previous two albums were simply fantastic displays of their mastery of their craft: focused, vicious production and expert lyricism and flow, RTJ3 (2017) attempts to showcase those skills in addition to their ability to assemble a cohesive and consequential album. The songs on this record are tied to one another closely in sound and theme. Their sequencing is an essential aspect of the project – take away any track, change their order and the album becomes something less and it feels like that is exactly the duo’s intention. The greatest brilliance of this album however lies in its ominous and foreshadowing nature for the dark year that succeeded it. While the album came out digitally Christmas Eve 2016, and had its physical release in the following month, it serves as a soundtrack for 2017 rather effectively. Listening to this album you can feel an unearthing of dark and disgusting secrets. Run the Jewels has developed a notoriety for lambasting the powers that be and with the now lucid display of corrupt politicians and sexual abuse in Hollywood, El-P and Killer Mike’s critiques are in a sense sadly prophetic. RTJ3 (2017) is the duo’s most interesting album musically and perhaps their best showcase of chemistry – but even more importantly it’s a relic of its time. For better or for worse, this record stands as a pointed representation of the unfortunate state of society in 2017.

FAVORITE TRACKS: Down, Talk to Me, Legend Has It, Call Ticketron, Hey Kids (Bumaye), Stay Gold, 2100, Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix), Thursday in the Danger Room, A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters

2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: 4:44 – JAY Z

Listen: YouTube (The Story of O.J.; Official Video)

Following the messy, uneven, and rather pandering Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013) a lot of the interest in JAY Z’s ability to create a great late-career album diminished. No one wanted to hear a 40+ year-old rapper forcefully insert himself into the hip-hop tropes of his younger counterparts – it’s just unnatural, and it seemed that that might be what the latest act of JAY’s career would dwindle into. 4:44 (2017) completely rips this possibility as Shawn delivers one of the most mature and candid records in his discography. The album is truly a testament to JAY’s talent for songwriting and composing as well as his already deified ability to string together witty and provocative raps. Clocking in at a short 36-minute runtime and a tight 10 tracks there’s not much room for anything other than focused craft. “Kill Jay Z,” sets the tone of this album without mistake displaying immediately an urgent self-deprecation and brutal honesty that sees its way into every track on the album. His vivid introspection is paired with an acute awareness of larger societal issues on tracks like, “The Story of O.J.” and “Moonlight,” the former being an absolute standout. The titular track serves as the album’s centerpiece fittingly. No I.D. samples Hannah Williams on the tune whose voice throughout sings, “I’m never gonna treat you like I should,” as an affirmation of JAY’s regret and sadness in betraying his wife and by extension his children. The maturity and self-awareness expressed in bars like, “and if my children knew, I don’t even know what I do,” witness to the place from which JAY is creating this album. But for all of the growth displayed lyrically on the record, the place it may be most apparent is in his decision to allow No I.D. the complete reins in its production. Rather than work with a team of producers, JAY knew his vision exactly and his focus for creating that vision is apparent in realizing that No would, and absolutely did, sculpt the perfect sound for him. With 4:44 (2017) JAY paves a route for the old man in a young man’s game. The grown-up topics of family, finances, and infidelity JAY deals with respectfully and with a perspective that he’s clearly pondered actively for some time. His insightful musings over No I.D.’s stunning production create yet another timeless record for his legacy and though the era of JAY Z is certainly over, Shawn Carter’s has just taken root.

FAVORITE TRACKS: The Story of O.J., Smile, Caught Their Eyes, Family Feud, Marcy Me, Legacy

2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: Neō Wax Bloom – Iglooghost

Listen: YouTube (Playlist of full album)

Iglooghost’s début full-length on Flying Lotus’ zany, boundary-pushing label, Brainfeeder, is an eclectic collection of songs each full of adventurous ideas and relentless attention-to-detail. Leading up to its release the producer tweeted out that one of his goals with the album was to abstain from simply looping phrases, and instead to chase new ideas with each passing bar of music. If nothing else, this album should be praised for the ridiculous amount of dedication such a task would take. Nevertheless, the actual music that comes out of this creation process is truly incredible. There are moments that induce awe like the ancient and inspirational chords throughout track “Teal Yomi/Olivine”; moments of wandering curiosity exemplified on “Sōlar Blade” which sounds like an explorer walking through a magical forest, and moments that relax only to suddenly cut to a dark room with flashing lights full of sweaty dancers like on the album’s penultimate track “Peanut Choker.” One of the year’s most intriguing consecutive run of tracks can be found in this album’s first five songs. From opener “Pale Eyes” through SOTY “White Gum” each tune seamlessly flows into the next creating a foundation for Iglooghost’s outlandish world by completely bulldozing over traditional musical sounds. The album lulls for a couple tracks thereafter, not so much out of boredom but more out of introspection – it seems like it’s trying to find its footing once again and on the album’s climactic song “Infinite Mint” the album succeeds. The track features a beautiful, non-lyrical sung contribution from vocalist cuushe. Iglooghost’s percussive, haunting production on the track and cuushe’s melodious, stirring vocals weave into one another to create a gorgeous centerpiece for the album – listening to the track leaves a longing for more intimate and emotive tracks from the budding producer. And that is the beauty of Neō Wax Bloom (2017): the potential of a young, incredibly talented producer shines brightly, and there is certainly only upward movement in his future.

FAVORITE TRACKS: Super Ink Burst, Bug Thief, Sōlar Blade, White Gum, Infinite Mint, Teal Yomi/Olivine, Peanut Choker

2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: Without Warning – 21 Savage, Offset, & Metro Boomin

Listen: YouTube (Full Album)

The southern-based hip-hop sub genre, trap rap, definitively gained its mainstream success throughout 2017 with universal hits like “Bad and Boujee,” “Bank Account,” and “Bodak Yellow.” Without Warning (2017), whose performers are responsible for 2 of the 3 above tracks, quickly proves itself as one of the genre’s standard-bearers. It only follows that Metro Boomin would be at its helm – his production has become a sort of gold standard and this album is certainly no detractor. Opener “Ghostface Killers” provides a menacing bounce with cemetery bells and Halloween-inspired melodies that set the mood flawlessly. The album is filled with dark and brooding textures complimented by drums with a drunken bob. The production is definitely the highlight of this record, but 21 Savage and Offset both deliver enticing performances that cater to their own unique styles, which are vastly different, while maintaining an incredible amount of chemistry. 21’s flow was essentially made for these beats: dazed out, villainous, and unsparing with annoyance for his deniers and fakers. And just when his monotonous flow becomes tiresome, 21’s partner Offset dips in with what could be considered the definitive trap flow. Triplet rhymes spew out of his mouth without break over Metro’s roomy beats – he makes use of every available space relentlessly. Technically the more skilled MC of the two, his standalone track “Ric Flair Drip” can certainly attest to this, Offset works as the compliment of 21’s sleepy flows. The two rappers each handle their share of hooks as well – another highlight of the project. On, “Still Serving,” 21 raps, “I aint’ never been no bitch, and I stand up when I piss,” creating a somewhat unwarranted sense of pride but also an unforgettable line to recite. Without Warning (2017) is top-tier trap production that two of the genre’s most distinct MC’s utilize to create an unattested chemistry proving to be both wildly entertaining and truly impressive.

FAVORITE TRACKS: Ghostface Killers, Rap Saved Me, My Choppa Hate N*ggas, Mad Stalkers, Run up the Racks, Still Serving, Darth Vader