20 Rap Songs We Loved In 2017

Rap music felt as vital as ever in 2017, regaining its dominance on the charts and securing its stranglehold on the pop cultural zeitgeist. As such, there was a lot of rap music to get mad or dispirited about this year, but there was also tons of it to love. What you see below is a small sampling of the latter: not the best rap songs of the year, but 20 of our favorites that may have slipped under your radar, even during the grand resurfacing that is year-end list season. No tracks from our Top 101 Songs of 2017 appear here, and this list is presented alphabetically. Please enjoy.

03 Greedo – “Mafia Business”

03 Greedo is arguably the greatest emerging talent in L.A. rap and certainly the most insanely prolific. Two of his three mixtapes this year feature 30 songs or more, but “Mafia Business” stands as probably his easiest and most distinctive standalone single, thanks to its mythic, submerged production and mournful crooned hook. The balance Greedo is striking on his new music, particularly his more R&B-focused October First Night Out mixtape, is between stoned-‘tuned crooner and fiery, playful MC, blending Boosie-esque storytelling with Suga Free’s fiery shittalking. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Chief Keef – “Kills”

Chief Keef is perennially underestimated and underrated, despite many of his videos and singles continuing to rack up millions of views and many of the most popular freshman rappers of today constantly borrowing from his playbook. As shades of emo and less elephantine beats creep into the work of his Soundcloud rap progeny, Keef culls from rap’s past as much as he shapes its future. On his stylistically diverse new tape Dedication—his third of a very solid year, which also saw him collaborating with one-time trap production luminary Lex Luger—Keef’s lyrics are as funny and sharp as they’ve ever been. His style seems to be moving closer to the golden age (2007-2010) of a man who briefly served as his impresario, Gucci Mane. “Kills” is one of the most overt examples of this effect in his catalogue, with Keef mixing implicit tributes with his own self-styled one-liners (“I’m rocking Louie sandals, my son got on Louie pampers”) and stylishly mutating flows. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Gucci Mane – “Met Gala” (ft. Offset)

There’s an instant thrill when a guest rapper suddenly runs away with a track, especially when the stakes are low. Offset finished Gucci Mane and Metro Boomin’s gentle alley-oop with a mid-game tomahawk, breathlessly switching between autobiography (“I was that nigga locked up in the cell and they treated me like I was normal”), bizarre pop culture references (“Pockets blew up, Monique”), and some painterly ad-lib usage (“You hit this dope and your heart gonna stop [dramatic inhale]”). Quavo may have already emerged as Migos’ star, but Offset’s performance here was arguably the best solo work from any of them this year. — BRIAN JOSEPHS

Jay Critch & Famous Dex – “In My Coupe” (ft. Rich the Kid)

There’s an undeniably infectious quality to “In My Coupe,” with this tri-regional crew of young rappers forming a cypher to celebrate their newly awesome lives, trading lines about the clarity and colors of their diamonds and where exactly they will be fucking your girlfriend. But the song rises above the rest thanks to a stunner of a beat by the producer OG Parker, who loops sampled coos together with fluttering plucks of a harp and neo-soul percussion. There was nothing in rap or anywhere else that sounded like it, colorful and light with the touch in a year that needed it. — JORDAN SARGENT

Kodak Black – “Transportin”

It was hard to love Kodak Black this year, who hardened his persona in the shadow of an accusation of violent sexual assault. But a song like “Transportin” also make it hard to look away. Floating over the Isaac Hayes guitar lick made iconic by the Geto Boys, Kodak laughs at his own tenuous success, winking at his other legal troubles: “My dawg got gun license but he let me hold it.” His goofiness here is charming (“Pockets so fat call me orbit / Norbit, I mean”), at least until the closing line reminds you that he treats sexual misconduct allegations with the same flippancy as he treats cops. If engaging is unethical, it’s also a trap: Kodak’s songwriting is still uncomfortably catchy. — TOSTEN BURKS

Lil Uzi Vert – “Sauce It Up”

In a year when Uzi’s suicidal wails dominated the radio, “Sauce It Up” was a reminder of how infectious he can be even when he’s having a good time. Over Don Cannon’s nouveau trunk rattle, the punkish call-and-response hook is pure emotional release, ambiguous and stylish enough for any sort of good mood. What are we throwing up? What are we saucing down? These are questions for historians, not the panicked masses desperate to go dumb. — TOSTEN BURKS

Lor Choc – “Fast Life”

20-year-old Baltimore rapper and singer Lor Choc’s melodic sensibilities and flow recall what makes the work of Dej Loaf, Fetty Wap, and autotuned Lil Durk so immediately appealing. On “Fast Life,” Choc’s beatific tribute to her city and counting up stacks, she blends the autobiographical detail and local flair of her other loose tracks and freestyles with grounding, pithy lines (“If it ain’t about a dollar, it’s irrelevant”) and an inescapable schoolyard chant of a hook. Pitted against Tinkertoy congas and synths that sound like a hyperactive crib mobile, Choc’s rapping is raw charisma on display. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Noirillusions – “Glock Box” (ft. Fijimacintosh)

In a sense there’s nothing exceptional about “Glock Box,” in which two teenagers rap invincibly about their weaponry and drug use during a time overflowing with that very specific sort of thing. But “Glock Box”  is simply just better than most. This is thanks in large part to a delightful beat from the producer Izak (you’ll recognize his incredible Spongebob tag from YBN Nahmir’s “Rubbin Off the Paint”) that bounces around squeakily like a helium balloon, imbuing the rappers with a joyfully manic sort of energy. In a year where many young rap stars cultivated bad vibes forever, “Glock Box” radiated an antidotal optimism. — JORDAN SARGENT

Mach-Hommy – “Brand Name”

Newark rapper Mach-Hommy became a cult figure this year by releasing nearly a dozen lo-fi mixtapes exclusively available for hundreds of dollars through Bandcamp. Those who ponied up or worked around the fuck-you-pay-me model were left dizzied by a trilingual Shaolin revivalist in the tradition of Roc Marciano—noirish slick talk in which every word seems to rhyme. The publicly available standout “Brand Name,” produced by Alchemist, opens like this: “Midnight oil burning / Bouillabaisse with London Broil stirring / Making all the lawyers nervous.” Mach proceeds to detail prison yard economics and throws federal officers off a helicopter before closing with a snotty description of his native Haiti’s flag, focusing, of course, on the drums and cannons. Over Alc’s spare loop, it’s basically a movie. — TOSTEN BURKS

Mozzy – “Sleep Walkin”

Sacramento’s rising star had another year full of releases, including a strong collaborative tape with fading but terminally talented MMG icon Gunplay. His solo release this year was the long-anticipated LP 1 Up Top Ahk, which blended poppier, grab bag experiments with the proficient, slang-heavy storytelling that first garnered him more widespread attention in 2015. “Sleep Walkin” is a highlight from the album, pairing customarily bleak anecdotes in the verses (“Affidavits and them statements, waiting game, so I waited / The numbers double up when n*ggas labeled gang related”) with a chorus that’s a potent tongue-twister of Bay slang over throwback R&B production. It’s one of the best examples of his singular style: subtle, detail-oriented, emotionally brutal. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON

OMB Peezy – “Porch”

Alabama-born and Sacramento-raised, OMB Peezy’s syrupy drawl has a way of sticking into your memory. “Porch” is a case in point. The 20-year-old’s voice contrasts and expands into near-R&B cadences as he delivers vivid descriptions of inescapable mortality and paranoia, even with a wink: “Just fucked a bitch in the car can’t let her find out where I stay.” “Porch” also shows that Peezy is as good at singing an earwormy hook as he is at laconic songwriting, his joyful presence juxtaposing the threats: “Do you know the risk you taking when you jumping off that porch?”– BRIAN JOSEPHS

Open Mike Eagle – “95 Radios” (ft. Has-Lo)

Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a searing tribute to Chicago’s torn-down Robert Taylor Homes and the phantom limb of demolished childhood. It’s an ambitious exercise made accessible through lullabies like “95 Radios,” a catchy slice of bitter nostalgia for the days when physical music required more effort to hear and therefore might have meant more, too. Philadelphia’s Has-Lo quotes Tribe and De La and admits its from memory—the central theme—while Mike, who now lives in Los Angeles, contrasts his rise to Chicago airwaves with his own experience of covering his hands with tin foil and pointing them toward project windows in search of musical escape. Tinkly keys and fuzzy surf guitar capture the track’s boyish wonder; juxtaposed with Mike’s weary sense that so many memories have no archive, they might make you cry. — TOSTEN BURKS

Queen Key – “Kung Fu”

Chicago’s Queen Key began to make a name for herself this year with “My Way”—as in, that or the highway—a big, bouncy song that sported some of the year’s best middle fingers (“If that n*gga got a problem he can suck his own dick”). But even more electric is “Kung Fu”—as, in “kicking n*ggas to the curb” (you may be sensing a theme)—which applies a decidedly feminine swagger to the sort of gleaming, sticky organ riff made famous by Zaytoven. Imagine Gucci Mane’s “Bricks,” but instead about putting some joker out on his ass. — JORDAN SARGENT

Quelle Chris – “Buddies”

It was a great year for candid, droll confrontations with the difficulty of self-love, from Zach Villere’s funky confession (“I’ve always wanted to be cool / But I’m not that cool”) to Ka5sh’s pitch-perfect anthem (“Man, I’m depressed / Man, I’m depressed, baby”). Then there was Detroit underground veteran Quelle Chris’ “Buddies,” a snarky mirror-mirror-on-the-wall exercise in personal acceptance that laughs at self-loathing. Over jazzy bass and goofy sax stabs, Chris splits his personality and courts himself: ”I take myself out for drinks, myself and I lit.” It’s a mellow number without sap that doesn’t bullshit—”He stylin’, I’m stylin’ / I’m broke and he broke”—and forms the foundation of Chris’ wonderful album, Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often. Rapping “I fucks with myself” works like medicine. — TOSTEN BURKS

Rico Nasty – “Block List”

An artist’s self-styled genre tag is usually meaningless nonsense, but it would be hard to find a more perfect justification for New York rapper Rico Nasty’s so-called “sugar trap” than “Block List,” the best track she released across a strong 2017. Over a twinkling beat that resembles the childlike jingle of a music box, Rico Nasty is so enthusiastic about blocking lame guys’ phone numbers that it almost feels like mere fun and games. Of course, this is all a set up for subversion, though she can’t exactly hide her glee there either. “He wanna smoke / Well I think I want to rob him,” she raps, the beat dancing around her. “And once I get back to my crib then I will block him.” — JORDAN SARGENT

Shy Glizzy – “One”

Back in January, resilient D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy tried to change his name to Jefe and released a modest but infectious little EP called The World Is Yours. The songs demonstrated the rapper trying to expand his musical palette. His straightforward, bright tenor and stark storytelling has garnered comparisons to Lil Boosie since he began to get national shine roughly five years ago. On songs like the highlight “One,” driven by a gleaming, motorik piano line that only Zaytoven could situate into a street rap beat, he effectively juggles melodic flows, smoothing out the nasal edge that dominated past hits like “Awwsome,” “Funeral,” and “Money Problems.” — WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Smino – “Anita (Remix)” (ft. T-Pain)

Chicago-via-St. Louis vocalist Smino exists in that liminal space between R&B singer and crooning rapper that’s probably no longer worth distinguishing. Tagging T-Pain to reprise “Anita,” the most pop-ready song from his debut album Blkswn, was a perfect match. They’re both cornball romantics, over-exerting themselves with the same endearing enthusiasm, relishing in selling silly seductive metaphors, plus their harmonies on the outro alone have more chemistry than T-Wayne. Smino is also a nimble emcee with a flair for bending language to his will—“volume” rhymes with “hallelujah” now—and he slithers through the open space left in Soulection phenom Monte Booker’s neo-Timbaland grooves like he’s been practicing for years (he has). Released in November, this still has the makings of a hit. — TOSTEN BURKS

Yhung T.O — “Slidin”

Yhung T.O. is the breakout star-to-be from the Bay Area foursome SOB x RBE, who quietly but quickly established themselves as one of the hottest new acts in rap this year thanks to a uniquely atmospheric take on classic California rap, in which the rhyming seems to hover just above the beat, unmoored from the thick, rubbery basslines pulsating beneath them. “Slidin” puts a fun twist on that formula via a sample of Miguel’s “Adorn,” with the singer’s voice rendered small and distant like he’s out floating in space, not encouraging or counteracting Yhung T.O’s rapping but instead orbiting around it. — JORDAN SARGENT

 

Wiki – “Made for This” (ft. Ghostface Killah)

His musical influences are various, but at its core, Wiki’s solo and Ratking material has been about drawing cinematics from New York’s minutiae. What makes it stick is how his sense of nowness isn’t necessarily exclusive from that sense of throwback reverence. The deep exhale of “Made for This,” an early highlight from No Mountains in Manhattan, arrives as a an encapsulation of this ethos. Over sepian production, Wiki offers a pointillistic ground-level view of the city with weary restraint, as if he’s wiping off eye crust in the back of a cab. Ghostface comes through to temporary relieve him and ends up turning back the clock, to a time when he, too, was a young gun fighting against the boroughs. But after sending a shoutout to his main partner-in-crime Raekwon, he wisely lets Wiki have his moment: “Leave the spot bathed and kissed / By angels we made for this / Hip-hop we made of this.” — BRIAN JOSEPHS

ZMoney – “Two 16s” (ft. Valee’)

A collaboration between two like-minded Chicago rappers, “Two 16’s” is nonetheless a study in contrasts. Presented as a simple diptych of 16-bar verses over a beat that’s barely even there, the song conveys a certain freedom with its self-prescribed formalism, giving both MCs a blank canvas and no theme to adhere to. ZMoney—rapping in his typical swinging sing-song flow from the very top of his throat—leans into the beat’s creaky eeriness, his slurred threats carrying a dope boy’s swagger thanks to his easy playground melodicism. But it’s Valee’ who undoubtedly steals the show, completely foregoing his own curlicue rapping style in favor of a verse that is essentially one very long sentence written not just past the margins but off the table and out of the room. It feels like an instant free associative masterpiece, nearly impossible to digest let alone recite, its long string of proper nouns and clipped imagery causing flaming pile ups on your brain’s highways. — JORDAN SARGENT

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