A decade ago, Nasir Jones declared hip-hop as a culture was dead. It was arguably one of the worst Nas statements among a treasure trove of them. Hip-hop was never dead; our senses as listeners, fans and more instead walked off to very peculiar and particular corners. If you liked something, you told the world about it. If you hated something, you told the world about it with a bit more vinegar and ammunition attached. In 2016, hip-hop as an art form was once more on full display as the last bastion of creativity in current music. There hasn’t been a generational wave quite like it and in the 40 years since its creation, nothing has come to replace it.
2016 introduced us to “mumble rappers," reclaimed that Migos were more than “Versace” and led to arguably one of the strongest collective years of music in memory. In movie terms, if 2016 was a lousy, bloated three-hour epic full of dread and death, then at least it had one hell of a soundtrack. In Houston, the children fought and toyed with not only the political structure locally but nationally as well. Black voices, Latino voices, white voices all banded together to not only reject whatever happened before November 8 but also feel as if they still exist. And still matter.
I’ve dedicated nearly 20,000 words or more to covering Houston music in 2016. These are the 12 best albums to arrive from January 1 to December 23.
12. GUILLA, Children of the Sun
Somewhere in the middle of the first half of the year, Guilla decided to experiment even more with his sound. The rapper/producer took the Cloudopolis flag and aimed to take his voice beyond NASA. Children Of The Sun peaks when Kam Franklin adds her voice to the esoteric “Cosmic Heart Beat” but before then? An avalanche of different sounds, moods and operatic feels.
11. LYRIC MICHELLE, MissDirection
The city’s most Woke wild child broke out in 2016. Broke so much so that she skated off to Los Angeles to further build on her career. Lyric Michelle and her off-kilter, poetic delivery decided to peel off different layers of herself. From past abuse, the fight as the child of an immigrant seeking a different path and more, MissDirection stomped, kicked and roared its way to exist in 2016. And it solidified Lyric as more than just the afro woman who rocked combat boots, staying ready without the need to get ready.
10. UNDERGRAVITY, Space Age Funk, Vol. 1: The Crash Landing
Playstation controllers, FUBU jerseys, Big Red Soda, Motorola phones. These are the little things that operate within the world of Undergravity, the last of a dying breed. For those who have stitched their name to the halcyon days of Houston rap being flat out married to bubbly G-Funk, Undergravity stands in a different air. Sure, Space Age Funk, Vol. 1: The Crash Landing could have existed on the back end of a Wreckshop release schedule in 2000. But “I Don’t Need Ya” and “Scott St” carry those bloated, squelchy horns and raps from Adam Bomb & M.A.C. that are Yellowstone staples. With a guest list that feels plucked from a catalog, SAF is too retro to ignore.
9. DON P, Lagniappe
Donnie Houston and Hot Peez had a premonition. The two of them, Southern boys through and through, decided to marry all of the sounds of their childhood. For Donnie, that meant toppling any and all of the KLC (neé Beats By the Pound) and Mannie Fresh his eardrums could take. For Hot Peez, it meant doubling down on what last year’s White Hall gave in regards to New Orleans, freedom and the next possible step. Lagniappe created a bubble, where everything felt like a 1999 Cash Money album, conceptual skits and all. “Magnificent” kicks up the bounce and “Really” chops up Ginuwine’s “So Anxious” for a late-night creep. All in all? A concise LP that married the past with the present.
8. MAXO KREAM, The Persona Tape
Let's count how many boroughs and areas Maxo Kream let his voice touch over The Persona Tape. There’s East Coast grit brought forth by Wolfe de Mçhls on the boards. There’s UK grime thanks to the massive and spacious sounding “Big Worm”. Chuck Inglish brings his chunky, down right disrespectful drums to a couple tracks as well. Yet the tape’s center involves Maxo and these soulless, almost noir ready acts of drug dealing, robbing and maybe killing people if need be.
7. DOUGHBEEZY, Reggie Bush & Kool-Aid 2
There’s zero doubt in anyone’s mind that from 2010 to ’14, the Houston rap world belonged to Doughbeezy. Personable, clever, witty and more than sincere, he was the punchline rapper in a world where they almost became extinct. RBKA2 was his first release since he almost lost his life last year and instead of recoiling, he came back fiery, even more pissed off and cranky. The landscape shifted completely while he was recovering and records like “Trust In My Gun” and the tape’s “Intro” signified that he still had something to take. Half new singles, half freestyles, all Dough.
6. SHOW LOUIS, Love & Drugz
There are personal rap tapes but Show Louis gave the world a full-blown audio confession on Love & Drugz. It arrived in early January and serves as an omen that the former Loud Howard is a) a smart ass who can also be grim as hell; and b) a poetically devastating street rapper born from the ways of Scarface and, to an extent, J-Dawg.
5. LE$, Olde English
On his own and happy about it, L-E-Dolla saved his best for his first. Olde English may be his “true” debut album, but all of the little things that made Le$ great in the first place exist — the odes to G-Funk, old Houston hip-hop and freewheeling about attainable excess. None of it’s frantic, but the seeds of what fuels Le$ are way too obvious to ignore. Wavy samples, cued up bass and production tailor-made for massive speakers, smoke sessions and the occasional trip to Whataburger. If there were a graduate studies course on the flow of G-Funk from its ‘90s beginnings to its current place in rap, Le$ is the one teacher you’d probably enjoy the most.
4. SLIM THUG, Hogg Life Vol. 4: American King
Last year, Slim Thug attempted to corner the market with four tapes for every quarter. The Hogg Life series let Slim play multiple roles. One, he was the businessman, cold yet still affable when the time called for it. Two, he could dig deep in creating straightforward party raps. Whether it be label decisions or him wanting to give life to arguably the best of the bunch, Hogg Life Vol. 4 let Slim not only fully embrace the rap Joel Osteen motif he’s grabbed hold to since “Chuuch,” but also understand his role as an elder statesman. There are letters to his sons and also letters to friends in jail. There are life lessons and there are also parables for those who still may want to test the Big Boss of the Nawf. What Slim achieved on American King was shaking off sycophants, the trappings of big-label fame and more. In order words, Slim Thug made a rap album in a comfortable state of mind. Which is the most appealing, fun Slim Thug of all.
3. Z-RO, Drankin’ & Drivin
Twenty albums in and somehow Z-Ro is getting better. The vitriol that dominated the first half of his catalog is still there, only rerouted in different manners. Joseph McVey is an elder statesmen now, an artist who plugs in where he’s needed. Need a record offering a middle finger to haters? He’s got you with “My Money.” Need an offering you could play both as church gospel but also a painful moment of remorse? Try “Since We Lost Y’all” with Krayzie Bone. Want Ro to black out and just rap his ass off until he can’t go anymore? There’s the tape’s opener, “Devil Ass City,” where Ro once more dons that bulletproof rap vest that has emboldened so many of his fans to read his raps like scripture.
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2. DOEMAN, Outer Body Experience
Had it not been for our number one album showing up in the middle of the fall, Dodi would have finished the year as not only the mid-year candidate for best tape of 2016 but the overall winner as well. A rapper’s kind of wiseass, Doeman not only kicked everyone out of the studio to get his angst and emotions across on “No Limit ’91,” he built an army to follow him to the ends of the Earth. The more Doeman bore his soul, the more Outer Body Experience leapt from being a good rap album to a great one.
1. TRAVIS SCOTT, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight
I made no secret that in 2015, I was no fan of Travis Scott’s Rodeo. Thought that his actual voice was far too buried in the copy attempts of his idols. The best moments didn’t belong to him. A year later, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight shook a few things up. It arrived louder, more focused and for once gave an idea of who Travis Scott is: an emerging curator. Quincy Jones got the best out of Michael Jackson on MJ's solo records. Kanye West got the best out of all of his guests on albums. They’re less feature players and more directors who know how to gravitate towards the right moments. “goosebumps,” “way back” and “sweet sweet” are three of Birds' more rousing tracks. Travis not only took his sound and found an exact home for it, he found himself as the first Houston rap star to have a No. 1 since 2006 and the city’s current big rap name. Even someone like me can be won over.