The year of our Lord 2017 was probably the most diverse 365 days for hip-hop and R&B in recent times. Stars were born, resurrected and reiterated. Anthems were provided for every walk of life. Vocals mattered, bars mattered, yet neither of them kept “mumble rap” from topping the charts. Black pride was expressed, while professions of ratchetness still got ample airplay. A new level of “there’s something for everyone” was reached.
With this being the case, rounding up a “best of” list for 2017 presented its own set of challenges. Does lyricism supercede a good vibe? Does a great message top the unstoppable force of a song we heard everywhere? Is timelessness a factor?
It was a hard job, but somebody had to do it. Behold, the top 20 songs of 2017.
If you are near, at or over the age of 30, Lil Uzi Vert may be the hip-hop equivalent of a thorn in your side. But setting aside all biases and judgment for a millisecond might turn you on to the appeal of the 23-year-old’s breakout hit, “XO Tour Llif3.” Laced with a TM88 beat that is equal parts melancholy and trippy, Uzi elucidates the dangerous qualities of a young love gone wrong. Littered with mentions of suicidal thoughts, drug use, and conflict, the track is a display of the very real downsides to emotional immaturity. Though your generation may be more evolved (which is wishful thinking), a pubescent throng of fans can relate to this very messy point in life. Hate it or love it, it’s still platinum. – Iyana Robertson
Can you name one time that Memphis’s head hustler Yo Gotti and Queens rap royalty Nicki Minaj linked up for a collabo that didn’t do numbers? Neither can we. As his go-to remixer for hit songs like “5 Star” of ’09 and “Down in the DMs” of 2016, the duo raked up bars and coins for the lead single of Gotti’s I Still Am album, which earned Gotti his first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 entry. As catchy as it is contagious, “Rake It Up” boasts his propensity for radio-waving smash singles that gets bottles popping and cash throwing. With a dose of Nicki Lewinski for a verse and Atlanta’s crowned sound genius Mike WiLL Made-It on the beat, it’s without a doubt that this hit would keep the trap force in hip-hop going strong for 2017. – Diamond Alexis
A$AP Ferg’s reverence for hip-hop titans who have paved the way before him is nothing new. The rap collective from which he earned his namesake, A$AP Mob, has drawn comparisons to the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Dipset, and the “trill” lineage of UGK. So, the Harlem spitter paying homage to the ubiquitous sound of 3 6 Mafia doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But, it’s Ferg’s energized revival of the Memphis trio’s “Slob On My Knob” that is both refreshing and exciting to hear in 2017. Over amplified drums and ad-libs that carry the severity of a suplex, Ferg skates on the Kirk Knight production guerrilla style. – Kai Miller
After peaking at No. 3 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, a first time occasion for French Montana as a track’s lead artist occupying a top 10 seat, grabbing vocals from one-half of Atlanta’s hi-fi rap duo Rae Sremmurd, Swae Lee, and nabbing multi-platinum status in over seven countries, “Unforgettable” lives up to its name. Sonically, the single is a moment: it’s desirous, vivid, and passionate while lyrical narration intensifies its steamy temperature. Unlike the typical sex-laced hip-hop banger, French gives lust a personality for “Unforgettable” so much that he deems it his own Marvin Gaye classic, “Let’s Get It On.” And like the timeless ring of the Prince of Soul’s 1973 classic, 2017 will remember “Unforgettable” forever. — Diamond Alexis
As one of the first singles released from Chris Brown’s eighth studio album, Heartbreak on a Full Moon, “Privacy” set the foundation for what fans could expect on the rest of the album. The three-minute track is a delightful blend of contemporary R&B melodies and hard-hitting, up-tempo beats that can move through the bedroom to the car. Its sexiness comes through in lyrics, which paint a picture of intimate moments between him and a woman. “You know that I just wanna make love / Want you to scream and shout.” And its hypnotic and irresistibly danceable nature shows up in the chorus (“Ay you, gal, with all the tight up skirt”) and his catchy raps on the third verse. – Jessica McKinney
Whether or not you’ve bought a brand new coupe in recent months, Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih have a way of making you feel ignorantly rich with “Dawsin’s Breek.” Yet another track blessed by the stylings of Mike Will Made-It, the standout Beach House 3 offering is easily a go-to for unabashed turnt-ness. Without a single vocal flex from either singer, the song proves that vibes reign supreme. There is just something about cooing “Drop top freeeeak” that lends itself to a damn good time. – Iyana Robertson
At this point, the Migos reign is both undeniable and inescapable. You can’t turn on your radio or shuffle through your own streaming playlist without pressing play on at least one Migos track. But in this case, we’re more than happy to put “T-Shirt” on repeat.
As a sharp follow-up to “Bad and Boujee,” the trap trio struck gold with another addictive anthem. As expected, it’s not exactly what they say, as it is how they say it. The single’s hook is like a waterfall, with each word or phrase perfectly cascading onto one another, while the start-and-stop flow on each of the verses provides a rhythm you can bop to. Add the auto-tuned vocals, matched with a series of thought-out ad-libs, and the trio certainly flourishes over the Nard & B-produced beat. – Jessica McKinney
Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi already had a hit on their hands when they dropped the original version of “Despacito,” but matched with Justin Bieber’s intoxicating and effortless vocals, they created an international sensation. It’s clear why this single spent several weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 or it’s the first primarily Spanish single to top the charts since 1996’s “Macarena.” In a time where the industry is oversaturated with wannabe Caribbean bangers, the reggae-pop anthem seemed to be the most authentic sound of its category out this year. The vigorous plucking of guitar strings complimented Fonsi and Bieber’s sweet Spanish vocals and Daddy Yankee’s gritty verses.
It’s a shame that it took a Canadian singer to put a Reggaeton single –– spearheaded by two talented Puerto Rican artists – on a global platform, but its success has proved that bilingual tracks have a place in mainstream music. And if it weren’t for it’s chart-topping numbers, it wouldn’t have opened the floodgates for more artists to collaborate on similar hits. It’s clear that “Despacito” is no “Macarena.” Hence, it proves that Latin artists don’t have to create redundant singles that offer a fun dance routine for it to reach a global market. Instead, they can be rich with tongue-rolling lyrics and sensual flows. – Jessica McKinney
The title track on Jay-Z’s 13th studio album peels back the layers of Shawn Carter like never before. The on-wax confessional –– which directly lays to rest the “did her or didn’t he?” question about whether or not he cheated on his wife, Beyoncé –– not only confirms the crime, but gives context to its motive.
Backed by the wailing of Hannah Williams’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak,” “4:44” is an illustration of how pain begets pain. The hip-hop vet admits his own novice when it comes to love, affection, honesty and reciprocation. Minus the artful metaphors of Lemonade, listeners are also invited into The Carters’ marital struggles more plainly than ever before: Jay and Bey sleeping with their backs turned, Jay begging for Bey to answer the phone, the loss of multiple children, a menacing menage a trois, another woman knowing “something about” Jay that Bey did not.
It is the tearing open of a wound as a conduit to its healing. – Iyana Robertson
“The Story of O.J.” is the audible equivalent to the slow drip of an IV. As No I.D.’s piano cruises at a slow creep and a Nina Simone “Four Women” sample drags itself in to reiterate the line “my skin is Black,” Jay-Z’s voice is melodic and measured as it releases the medication: “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga/ Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga/ Still nigga.” Making its trek through the veins, the track spreads its gospel delicately.
Using O.J. Simpson as his poster child for the denial of identity by the Black upper class, Hov comes from behind the pulpit to deliver his sermon. Removing his robe, he meets the congregation at its level, sits among them, and professes the truth about Black wealth, the power of togetherness, and how it could bring us closer to freedom. The result? A potent dose of reality. – Iyana Robertson
What happens when East Coast meets West Coats on wax? There’s truly “No Limit” to just how much of a banger the song might result in. Returning to the mic after a brief hiatus, A$AP Rocky takes lead on the hook as he boasts about his sexual trysts and is followed up by the cheeky one-liners of Oakland’s own G-Eazy. But, the true show stopper here is newcomer Cardi B as she gifts fans with yet another code of ethics to live by: “f*ck him then I get some money.” – Kai Miller
There may have been some reservation from fans when news broke that N.E.R.D was making a comeback in 2017. Would they still be able to create the alternative hip-hop tunes that experimented with funk and rock sounds that we all loved so much? Could their music adapt to this current musical climate? Those were some of the questions we might’ve asked ourselves. But after the band dropped their single, “Lemon” featuring Rihanna, we regretted even fixing our brains to go against Pharrell, Chad, and Shay.
“Lemon,” while a complete redirection from the trap-produced beats that are out now, was a slam dunk and a perfect stepping stone as fans await the release of their upcoming studio album, No One Ever Really Dies.
“The truth will set you free… but first it will piss you off.” Pharrell’s short PSA at the track’s beginning feels like the most appropriate opening and a nice tie into today’s current political and social war zone. The group thrives with this track by using a layer of high drum kicks and electronic synths, but it’s most memorable addition is Rihanna’s rapping. Rihanna doesn’t just spit rhymes; she finesses each line with such ease and swagger that is undeniable. “Tell the paparazzi get the lens right,” she raps. The world may be burning around us, but thanks to Rihanna’s convincing flows, we’re ready to twerk our ways into 2018. – Jessica McKinney
“HUMBLE.” proves that none of us are capable of boxing Kendrick Lamar in. Following the not-so-easy-to-digest To Pimp A Butterfly, rap heads and spectators alike had no idea what was next for TDE’s front-runner. And then, dropping like an Acme anvil, “HUMBLE.” resurrected the bravado and unearthed the braggadocio. Masterfully attacking the pocket of Mike Will Made-It’s monster production, K. Dot lets it be known that the beast is not asleep.
He still will take you down, right on your mama couch, in Polo socks. – Iyana Robertson
When you rekindle a four-time platinum, Grammy Award-winning, electric guitar-stringing R&B classic like Carlos Santana and The Product G&B’s Latin-laced “Maria, Maria” for a 2017 update, you’d better do it right. Amazingly, hip-hop optimist and superproducer DJ Khaled pulled it off for the fan-favorited “Wild Thoughts,” and with the vocal help of Rihanna and Bryson Tiller. RiRi is drunk in lust as an irresistible paragon of her true seductress form while Bryson plays the passion-stricken cavalier languishing after her. Their on-wax chemistry and joint ability to bounce verses off of one another makes the multi-platinum single a No. 1 not only on the Billboard charts, but on the bedroom playlist for both ladies and gents from this year forth. –– Diamond Alexis
Along with a laundry list of other notable accomplishments, Future turned a throng of hip-hop fans on to how beautiful the flute sounds over a trap beat. “Mask Off” became the stuff of 2017 internet legend, as it birthed its own hashtag with the #MaskOffChallenge, with flutists taking their talents to social media to recreate the infectious melody. Flexing over the sounds of Southside and Metro Boomin, the Atlanta favorite delivered a catchy –– albeit, controversial –– hook that had everyone professing their love for drugs they may have never even taken. It was a job well done for most connoisseurs of ratchet activity. – Iyana Robertson
Revered (and rejected by some) as the “side-chick anthem” of 2017, it’s easy to misread the soulful compromisation in “The Weekend” by TDE’s R&B and soul gem SZA. Perhaps the shameless bargaining with the main chick for polygamy on SZA’s terms isn’t exactly “ladylike.” Perhaps it’s too close for comfort that a woman (*gasp*) of all people would dare boast such sexual taboo, dangling fidelity over the other woman’s head. They’ve got it all wrong, though, because it’s actually a mere reminder for her man (and her man, and her man, too) not to let his weekly rendezvous confuse the matter at hand: he’s not the one with the options, he is the option. Solana may have forfeited control in other relationships, but she’s got this one — and him — by the balls. Ladies, you’re welcome. – Diamond Alexis
The partition between the nation’s capital, D.C., and Maryland’s largest metropolis, Baltimore, is a separation only DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) natives would understand. That’s all it took for Goldlink to bridge the divide by virtue of a wavy, platinum-certified single titled “Crew.” The tri-state area’s rap and rhythm wallflower dropped the R&B-infused hip-hop anthem that beats to a similar vibe and eponymy as Drake’s “Crew Love.” The DMV trifecta is united in a way never quite seen before with Brent Faiyaz gracing “Crew” with his Baltimore art-centric touch and Shy Glizzy disturbing the peace with the grit of D.C. And you know it’s a banger whenever Atlanta’s trap homesteader Gucci Mane offers up bars for a remix. Welcome back to the map, DMV. – Diamond Alexis
The epitome of a rags to riches story, Cardi B’s breakout hit is a rallying cry for anyone who’s ever been underestimated. At the start of her career, the Bronx-born rapper drew in fans with her unfiltered jokes and larger-than-life personality. Now, much of the same can be said of her music, which is what makes “Bodak Yellow” so exhilarating. Cardi’s unabashed honesty in acknowledging how her former profession as a dancer is quite the contrast from making actual “money moves” is what ultimately makes you root for her. By the last verse her confidence is spilling over, as her cadence matches that of a high-speed joy ride, making it remotely impossible not to feel like her story says something positive about the future of hip-hop. Her 2017 was so incredible, it’s as if we all won. – Kai Miller
Enlisting the synth-like delivery of Travis Scott, SZA invites us to join her on a searing emotional escapade. Her airy vocals blanket the track as she bluntly sings, “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?” It’s this same honesty that rings true throughout CTRL, an introspective project that holds a magnifying glass to all the gray areas between absolutes. “Love Galore” is a grizzly reminder that rebirth following a failed relationship is never easy. But, what’s a better way to declare you’re putting yourself first than going “skkrt skkrt on n*ggas”? – Kai Miller
After providing the masses with a soundtrack for their resistance with 2016’s “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar doubled down on his Black pride with “DNA.” Unapologetically tearing through the silence to proclaim the “loyalty” and “royalty” in his own genetic makeup, K. Dot also proceeds to own the “cocaine quarter piece” nestled within the same story. A beautiful mashup of the duality of Black existence, Kendrick pairs power with poison, pain with joy and war with peace to paint the heterogeneous nature of the struggle. Complete with Geraldo Rivera’s tone-deaf take on the effect of hip-hop on African-American youth, Kendrick Lamar stands firmly in the flawed state of his Black being.
Buried beneath the breadth of its subject matter, “DNA.” also possesses all of the makings of a great rap song. Impeccable flow? Check. Masterful backdrop by one of the year’s hottest producers? Check. Throw in a modulation that introduces a new flow and a new backdrop, and “song of the year” is no longer up for debate. – Iyana Robertson
(Photos: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images (2), Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)