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A look back at the music of 2017

Emmanuel Omodeinde

Emmanuel is a 21-year-old English Literature and Film student who loves films, TV, books and pop culture. He is particularly interested in postcolonial literature.

2017 was an eventful year for music. Kendrick Lamar continued his dominance of the rap game, releasing another critically acclaimed and commercially successful album, DAMN. Drake released a playlist called More Life which introduced the world to UK rap legend Giggs and baffled listeners with his ever changing accent. UK actor and comedian Michael Dapaah, in character as Big Shaq, became one of the biggest memes of 2017 and released the biggest UK rap song ever ‘Man’s Not Hot’ after the success of his viral ‘Fire in the Booth’ freestyle with Charlie Sloth. Syd, Kelela, Daniel Caesar, Brent Faiyaz released some of the smoothest alternative R&B albums in a while. JAY-Z got everyone talking when he admitted he cheated on Beyonce, and released some of his best music.

For me, 2017 was also defined by a wealth of amazing black British music, with new releases from J Hus, Stormzy, Skepta, Dave, Little Simz, Krept & Konan, MoStack, Giggs, AJ Tracey, Kojey Radical, Wiley, Not3s, Nadia Rose, Chip, 67, Kojo Funds and more.

So with this in mind, let’s get into it. These are my top 10 favourite albums released in 2017.

10. Moses Sumney — Aromanticism

One might be tempted to label Moses Sumney as an R&B or alternative R&B artist because he’s a black singer, but he’s much more akin to an Elliot Smith than say a Chris Brown. On his debut album Aromanticism, Sumney softly coos in falsetto about loneliness and isolation, backed by ambient and indie folk instrumentation. Think Dirty Projectors or Arca. His voice, often a quiet whisper, is the perfect vessel for delivering his beautifully written poetic lyrics. Sumney joins other current soulful black singers like Sampha and Benjamin Clementine in pioneering some of the most unique music to date, melding the genres of electronic, indie, soul, baroque, folk and R&B music in a distinctly black style.

9. LCD Soundsystem — American Dream

In February 2011, LCD Soundsystem disbanded and it was made official following a large farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. The farewell concert was chronicled in the documentary film Shut Up and Play the Hits, so it came as surprise when in January 2016 the band announced their reunion and a day later their fourth studio album American Dream. In this newest release, LCD Soundsystem returns without a hitch, maintaining the quintessential LCD sound but with some bells and whistles. Their distinct dance-punk and new wave sound still feels current, updated and refreshed for 2017. Front-man James Murphy muses on the current turbulent political climate with his unique brand of lyricism. It’s a great return to form and shows that no one does dance-punk/rock better than LCD Soundsystem (but nice try, Arcade Fire).

8. Slowdive — Slowdive

Legendary English shoegaze and dream pop band reunited in 2017 for the first time in 22 years since the release of their last album Pygmalion in 1995. Along with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive are regarded as one of the best and most influential dream pop and shoegaze bands ever. Their latest album released after more than two decades proves why they’re so critically acclaimed. When an album is self-titled it sets very high expectations, and Slowdive definitely exceeded them this time. They sound as dreamy as ever but their new songs are even more vibrant and fresh; the wash of guitars and reverb entrancing you in bittersweet memories and nostalgia.

7. Jay-Z — 4:44

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jay-Z; I got into hip-hop as a young teen, so the first Jay-Z album I listened to was Magna Carta Holy Grail which was massively disappointing – I always preferred Nas and Biggie to Jay. After the disappointments that were Magna Carta and The Blueprint 3, Jay-Z is back to prove why he’s still considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. 4:44 goes back to basics, leaving behind the braggadocio and ego and being more vulnerable and honest than ever. The album is brief, and the production is stripped back, solely handled by long-time collaborator No I.D., and Jay-Z himself. The album is immensely successful thanks to tracks like ‘The Story of O.J.’ being among the best singles of this year.

6. SZA — Ctrl

SZA’s debut album could have arrived a few years earlier, but faced delays due to confidence issues. But the release of Ctrl in 2017 couldn’t have been better timed, because this has been SZA’s year. Almost every black woman I know has loved SZA’s album and related to it in some way. As the sole female member of independent hip-hop label TDE, (which has produced some of the biggest artists in hip-hop, including Kendrick Lamar) she’s an odd fit. But like most members of TDE, she is incredibly talented. The production on Ctrl is very smooth and reminiscent of 90s neo-soul, yet simultaneously contemporary and unique. The album also has an indie spirit with dreamy guitar riffs such as the one on ‘Drew Barrymore’, the anthem for misfit girls everywhere. Her voice is expressive and her lyrics are poignant, especially relatable to the experience of young black girls who feel weird and awkward.

5. Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory

After the critical acclaim of his debut album Summertime ’06, Vince Staples could have easily played it safe with his sophomore effort and repeated the success. However, Vince does the opposite on Big Fish Theory. Big Fish Theory is one of the most unique hip-hop albums in recent years and as experimental as a relatively mainstream hip-hop artist can get. Of course, Vince isn’t going to be topping charts any time soon, but with his infamous interviews and hilarious Twitter account garnering a lot of popularity. Big Fish Theory is a truly unique work; with production being totally electronic, there isn’t a single beat I could call traditional hip-hop. Staples has managed to imbue in his music a mix of different electronic genres, including UK garage, house, techno and EDM. Vince flows incredibly well on these unconventional beats and enlists Kendrick Lamar on ‘Yeah Right’ – one of the best bangers of the year.

4. Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy

Flower Boy, also known as Scum Fuck Flower Boy, is exactly what I wanted Tyler to make after Cherry Bomb. Whilst Cherry Bomb wasn’t a bad album, Tyler’s experimentation with production meant it was often a difficult listen and he didn’t always pull it off. But there were glimpses of the greatness that flourishes in Flower Boy. When Flower Boy leaked, it prompted a flurry of speculations about Tyler’s sexuality, referring to some not-so-subtle lyrics on the album. Tyler has still not confronted these rumours, despite some which point to tweets he’s made in the past. The thing about Tyler is that no one takes him seriously because sometimes, he’s just too much of a joker. But I think Tyler wants us to take him seriously on Flower Boy and let the music speak for itself; on this album, he doesn’t hide behind the persona of Wolf Haley, it’s just Tyler Okonma – and Tyler Okonma is very talented. Flower Boy has some of the most beautiful production, soulful singing and honest poignant lyrics on any album this year. It’s been great watching Tyler grow into a mature artist, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

3. J Hus — Common Sense

J Hus has been making massive waves since he broke out in 2015, and it’s great to see that he’s been able to turn that talent into a great album. Common Sense is the perfect encapsulation of young black Britain in 2017, capturing the mad raves, the dance-hall and afrobeats hall parties, and the roads – the essence of young black British African and Caribbean life. The production work on Common Sense (most of which is handled by JAE5) is fantastic, from the jazzy title track ‘Common Sense’ to grime rave banger ‘Clartin’ and UK garage tunes like ‘Plottin’. J Hus is undeniably one of the most talented artists in the UK and I’m excited to see what this year does for him.

2. Sampha — Process

I’m so glad to have another black British artist not just in my top 10, but in the top 3. This year, Sampha finally released his debut album Process which won the Mercury Prize, and captured the world with his beautiful soulful voice. Sampha has caught people’s attention since appearing throughout SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album in 2011, stunning everyone with his angelic and soulful voice. I’ve seen Sampha live and honestly, he sounds even more incredible live (unbelievable, I know). Process could have had average production and I would still have loved listening to it. Thankfully, this is not the case, as the production work was in the capable hands of both Sampha himself and Rodaidh McDonald. Throughout the album, he bares his soul singing about his anxiety, fear, loneliness and grief, with an electronic sound similar to James Blake but simultaneously soulful. A standout track is the piano ballad ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’; dedicated to his late mother, it’s the most touching song in an album full of heart-warming moments.

What an incredible album Process is, and well worth the wait. In any other year, Process could be my number one, but a certain someone had to release another masterpiece…

1. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

Despite some fierce competition, it’s no surprise that my number one album of 2017 is by Kendrick Lamar. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a Kendrick Stan but I genuinely think DAMN. is the best album of 2017. No other album in 2017 affected me as much as DAMN. After To Pimp a Butterfly which is my favourite album ever, I eagerly anticipated what Kendrick would do next. I don’t think he will ever top To Pimp a Butterfly, at least for me, but he came pretty DAMN. close. On DAMN., whose concept I still haven’t fully begun to unpack yet, Kendrick gets introspective, examining his now messianic status, his fears and anxieties and the state of the world we’re living in, and with excellent results. “FEAR.” the album’s centrepiece, is one of the best Kendrick Lamar songs, a 7-minute epic detailing his life from the age of 7 to now. “HUMBLE.” proves that he’s capable of making chart-topping bangers, without sacrificing lyricism. On “DNA.” he goes in on his critics with some lyrical acrobatics. The album is full of highlights, and while there are some more poppy songs like “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE”, Kendrick continues to prove that he’s the greatest active living hip-hop artist. After To Pimp a Butterfly was released, there was no doubt Kendrick Lamar was one of the greatest rappers of all time and there’s absolutely no reason why anyone should think otherwise after DAMN.

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