I grew up in the golden age of East Coast hip-hop. Jay-Z, Nas and Biggie told stories about the neighborhoods I grew up in. They were also sly and fun, as much about the hook and the come-up as the projects that formed them.
Their music was part charm and part trapping. But the East Coast album that has stayed with me for 20 years is Nas’ “Illmatic.” His was an album both of and apart from his geography. New York has never really delivered a predecessor. California has.
For me, the year’s two best albums are bleak West Coast narratives, two men laying bare what it means to be a black man in Southern California now. Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples deal in similar fare on “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “Summertime ‘06.” Both rap about violence and vulnerability and the conundrum of having to live two lives at once. The appointed good guys are bad and the bad guys are both savior and wrecker.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is dizzying and relentless, the kind of album that can only be summed up with variations on the word genius. His yelps are anthems, his pain and fury the rallying cries that will grab life back from oppressors. But it’s “Summertime ‘06” that stuck with me this year. Never has violence felt so close at hand. Staples’ narrator is a boy with no good options, a boy suddenly a man still reaching for any anchor. He’s not as fast a rapper as Lamar is, but his lines are dense ( "My momma was a Christian, Crip walkin' on blue-waters" ) and nimble (“From the city where the skinny carry strong heat”). And if the lyrics left any doubts, the creeping beats remind you: There is no light here. Parks are turf to dominate, seagulls sound like vultures.
Lamar’s album, too, is full of darkness, but he’s writing from a later vantage point. “Butterfly” is the work of a man in his prime, a man for whom success and deliverance have only further complicated life. His narrator doesn’t need those outside validations. He will claim success for himself. When “i” came out, people lobbed so many criticisms that Lamar had gone soft and cheesy. But it’s the perfect climax to “Butterfly.” We’ve felt that awful struggle. We know how hard life will continue to be. The tension is so thick that when Lamar sings, “I love myself,” it feels like the year’s most radical statement.
My other favorite albums range from lush, funky disco ("Currents," "Multi-Love") to neo-soul both long-gestating and quickly formed ("Black Messiah," "But You Cain't Use My Phone.") The year's best instrument was either Kamasi Washington's sax or Brittany Howard's voice. It was a fun year in pop, too, and I'm just the kind of mass consumer that listens to all of those Bieber songs with a goofy smile on my face.
1. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
2. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
3. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
4. Tame Impala - Currents
5. D’Angelo & The Vanguard - Black Messiah
6. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf
7. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love
8. Erykah Badu - But You Cain't Use My Phone
9. Drake - If You're Reading This, It's Too Late
10. Jeremih - Late Nights
11. Grimes - Art Angels
12. The Internet - Ego Death
13. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
14. Carly Rae Jepsen - E*MO*TION
15. Justin Bieber - Purpose
Honorable mentions: Kamasi Washington - The Epic, Kerbside Collection - Boganger