While 2016 may be remembered as one of injustice, a failing government and total chaos, music, like always, somehow got us through. Whether you were stepping into formation with Beyoncé, whining your worries away on the dance floor to the likes of “Work” and “One Dance” or relishing in the #BlackBoyJoy Chance the Rapper purveyed, there was no denying that 2016 brought us undeniably good music.
But as always, it’s easy to get lost in the sauce at the unprecedented rate music is released, meaning albums and records from both respected artists and complete unknowns can fly under our radar. Yes, that’s possible because we’re humans just the like the rest of you.
After compiling both our own year-end lists of best albums and songs, we here at BET felt there were some exceptional records and albums that weren’t talked about enough this year and warranted not only another listen but some much deserved shine.
Below, relive (or get hip to) some of the lesser known and talked about gems of 2016.
Fact: Saba made one of the most cohesive, lyrically-inclined, richly-produced hip-hop albums of the year. Bucket List Project is a delight from start to finish, as the Chicago MC takes his listener on a sonic journey through the age-old adage “You only live once.” Complete with hard-hitting bars, consistency is king on the project, as the story earns skip-no-track status with Saba’s mixed delivery of staccato punchlines and melodic proclamations. Equally inspired by his own outlook and his heterogenous city, Bucket List Project is a look into Saba’s psyche and foundation it stands on.
While Anderson .Paak’s sophomore album Malibu made waves amongst many, it seemed as if his second release of the year was a tad bit slept on for those unfamiliar with his various musical endeavors. Apart from his solo career, .Paak is one-half of NxWorries alongside producer Knxwledge. With anticipation built for their debut full-length release after the success of last year’s Link Up & Suede EP, whose lead single “Suede” caught the attention of Dr. Dre, the duo didn’t disappoint. A smooth, 19-track listen brimming with old school funk and contemporary flair, Yes Lawd! duplicates the success they had on their first go 'round. It’s safe to say these guys are sculpting the blueprint for the next sound to take over and it’s grown and sexy without feeling cliché.
When it came to hip-hop artists sharing their political views this year, YG didn’t bite his tongue for a moment. Instead, he made a catchy protest anthem that spoke directly to how he felt: “F**k Donald Trump.” But aside from the fiery message-driven single from his sophomore album Still Brazy, he continued the narrative of socio-political issues on “Blacks and Browns.” The track is undeniably the hidden gem in the tracklist. Featuring Chicano rapper Sad Boy, who is signed to YG’s 400 Records, the two share their alternate yet similar realities that stem from the color of their black and brown complexions. But instead of promoting violence, YG finds a solution to improve their situation, rapping, “We need to come together, f**k they system/Tired of being a victim, tired of racism/So I'mma spit this ism 'til this s**t stop.” While YG’s G-funk flavored party tunes keep us two-stepping, songs like this prove that he’s still got much more to offer the game.
If clocking Soundcloud like a 9 to 5 isn’t your forte, then the name Kaytranada probably doesn’t ring a bell. A Haitian-Canadian DJ and record producer who began his career in 2010 by putting his abstract and uptempo touch on throwback jams, his popularity finally bubbled over into the mainstream this year. The release of his debut album, 99.9%, alone presented him as a bold producer unafraid to take chances and tip the scales of electronic, hip-hop and alternative R&B. That same ambition showcased on the LP, which featured guest contributions from the likes of Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, Little Dragon, Syd, Craig David, AlunaGeorge, and BadBadNotGood amongst others, earned him the 2016 Polaris Music Prize. And he didn’t slow down after the release, continuing to produce one-off tracks like Chance the Rapper’s "All Night" and Mick Jenkins’s "Communicate." Music heads, if you’re in search of a fresh producer whose bound to blow, take anything Kaytranada produced this year for a spin and prepare to be amazed.
Falling in love with GoldLink isn’t too hard. Although the DMV-bred rapper’s 2016 was fairly quiet after the release of his album And After That, We Didn't Talk in late 2015 and landing a spot on XXL’s Freshman cover that same year, he grooved his way back into the forefront and our hearts with with a brand new single. “Fall in Love,” which features fellow rising DMV rapper Ciscero, falls in the same vein of GoldLink’s self-described future bounce sound. Flaunting bouncy production paired with a poetic, sing-song delivery, the energy on this track is magnetic and a reminder that GoldLink’s charm is truly unwavering.
When Jhené Aiko and Big Sean teamed up as a hip-hop and R&B duo, we weren’t too sure just how successful they’d be. But when the album dropped this spring, we couldn’t take it off of repeat. With a lack of male and female duos, their steamy battle-of-the-sexes narrative played out well and became our musical fantasy. On wax, their chemistry was dynamic, Aiko’s graceful inflections complementing Sean’s bravado. And whether you flew solo dolo or were boo’ed up for 2016, the ups and downs of a modern relationship hit home from “On the Way” to “Push It.”
Deep cuts don’t always get the shine they deserve, but true ScHoolBoy Q fans instantly recognized the greatness of track No. 10, “John Muir,” And yes, that was before Q shared that he freestyled all the lyrics. While trying to mimic Ice Cube’s sound (his words, not ours), he found his own sweet spot. With Sounwave concocting a wiry gangsta symphony booming with brass and Chicago singer-songwriter Sam Dew providing background vocals to soften the harshness of Q’s street style bars, his artistic abilities reached a new high.
For Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$, it seemed as if his sole goal was to carry the torch of New York’s beloved boom-bap sound for the new generation. But in 2016, it became apparent that he’s ready to exercise the full spectrum of his unique and promising talent after he premiered his new single “Devastated” on Coachella’s main stage. While he’s still spitting raw bars, the Adam Pallin, Kirk Knight and Powers Pleasant-produced track, it’s radio-friendly, Rap&B vibe stands out most. Bada$$ even tries his own rendition of the melodic, sing-song flow on the chorus and doesn’t sound half bad, rapping, “I used to feel so devastated / At times I thought we'd never make it / But now we on the path to greatness / And all it ever took was patience." If anything, the track proves that Bada$$ has his ambitions set high with no plans of stopping anytime soon.
We first fell in love with the atmospheric sounds of Los Angeles-based alternative R&B group KING back in 2011 when Kendrick Lamar sampled their claim to fame, “Hey,” for Section.80 track “Chapter Six.” But when their long-awaited debut that was set for release in 2014 never transpired, many of us were left wondering if we’d ever hear from them again. Then, this year, they resurfaced and finally made good on their promise of gifting their fans with a full-length release. Titled We Are King, the ladies’ creative minds blend into one harmonious, warm-blooded sound that breathes new life into soul that we’d all been missing.
While their debut album Begin didn’t shine as bright as many of their one-off singles we’ve had in rotation since 2012, Lion Babe’s sparkling talents hit a home run with “Got Body.” On the infectious and uplifting track, focused on combating the narrow image of beauty, frontwoman Jillian Hervey employs a free-spirited and diva mentality about her “big curves, big bones, honey skin tone.” And with body-positive campaigns spreading like wildfire this year, this celebratory track was right on time.
It’s hard to believe that we’d been waiting nearly three years for Vic Mensa’s first full-length project since his breakout project Innanetape. While buzz that the Roc Nation signee’s debut album, Traffic, was on the way, fans were instead delivered a seven-track EP entitled There’s A Lot Going On as a prelude to his long-awaited LP. Scrapping Traffic entirely, Mensa, who has shared that he’s had a revolutionary mindset since the age of 16, decided to use his voice to speak largely to the present that was submerged in injustice. Waxing poetically about his own experiences as a young Black man in America and national events like Flint, Michigan's water crisis and the shooting of Laquan McDonald, we saw a bolder and more vulnerable MC emerge for the sake of reaching people in the form of music.
DVSN is truly OVO’s mystery gem, but if Drake gave them his stamp of approval, we knew we’d better listen closely and keep an eye on their whereabouts and releases. Although their anticipated Sept. 5 failed to crack the Top 100, peaking at No. 133 on the album charts, the duo, comprised of Daniel Daley and Nineteen85, brought a unique and passionate approach to alternative R&B, assisting in some of the most exciting sonics the genre has delivered this year. Tracks like “Too Deep” and “In + Out” sealed their statement of purpose as sexy, stand-out joints that feel like striking gold.
Ro James may be a new name to some but for those in tune with the underground R&B scene, he’s been grinding for quite sometime. And his debut album ELDORADO put his smoldering soul sound on a pedestal. The LP’s lead single "Permission" reached No. 37 on the US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, but what made epic waves was his handcrafted artistry that leans from indie to classic with influences from Prince. He’s sensual in all the right ways and isn’t afraid of throwing gospel tunes with organs our way either. We see you, Ro.
R&B singer-songwriter Gallant was poised for stardom from the start. Graduating from New York University, where he studied music, he moved to Los Angeles to turn his education into sold out shows. Today, he’s done just that. Gallant released his debut studio album Ology in April and was greeted with critical acclaim for his versatile sound and vocal prowess. There’s a vulnerability in his music and infectious nature that blends seamlessly and can command any stage. So much so that British soul and R&B singer Seal joined him on stage during Coachella for a duet of his iconic 1991 hit “Crazy.” Our verdict? Gallant is an irrepressive talent who's just getting started shaking things up.
Smino is a fairly new name ringing bells on the internet, but it’s only time before he does serious damage across the globe with his home-cooked sound. The Chicago-based MC, by way of St. Louis, is a Grade-A blend of hip-hop and soul. While his blkjptr EP came out in late 2015 via Soundcloud, he re-released the project on various streaming services this year, re-introducing himself to the masses. Smino’s lyrical capabilities and jollity persona paired with Monte Booker’s beats, outweighs the fact that the EP only has five tracks, cementing the fact that he’s got something special to offer.
(Photos from left: Brad Barket/Getty Images for MTV News, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, Andrew Chin/Getty Images)