The group dynamic isn’t the driving force behind hip-hop anymore, for better and for worse. In a world where every artist is a Soundcloud link or Spotify playlist placement away from success, few are eager to split a check multiple ways or sacrifice their vision for the greater good. That being said, well-oiled machines still exist in the world of hip-hop: Killer Mike and El-P‘s ear-shattering Run The Jewels project set a new creative and financial precedent for duos that they’re about to rewrite all over again with their third album at the top of next year. Detroit collective Clear Soul Forces hits as hard and often together as they have separately (Noveliss and Illajide both dropped tight projects this year). 2016 also saw foundational groups De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest drop albums decades in the making to the tune of money and even Grammy nominations.
Groups may not be the go-to way to get your stuff out there anymore, but these 19 joints prove that magic can still happen when a handful of people put their ankles into some music as a unit.
Fudge (Prefuse 73 & Michael Christmas) – Lady Parts
You have to be a special type of rapper to keep pace with Prefuse 73’s celestial production: Aesop Rock, MF Doom, Mr. Lif, and Busdriver are some examples, but when asked by Lex Records last year who he wanted to record a group album with, he added Boston’s own Michael Christmas to the list. From dreaming about lunch with Ciara during a car crash to run-ins with cops on Saturday mornings, Christmas brings his lyrical A-game to 73’s lavish candy-colored beats; a Rolo in a sea of Hershey’s Kisses.
21 Savage & Metro Boomin – Savage Mode
For all his feel-good vibes as a personality, Metro Boomin’s production harbors a dark energy that’s drawn Future, Pusha T, and even Usher into his orbit. With apologies to Mr. Hendrix, 21 Savage was born to plum the depths of Metro’s hellacious synths. “I made it off the block, bitch I beat the statistics,” Savage snarls on Savage Mode opener “No Advance” before the bass throws the second gut punch. Both Savage and Metro lost nearly as much as they’ve gained on their rise through Atlanta’s ranks, and Savage Mode tries to find victory in that pained regret.
Ugly Heroes – Everything In Between
Apollo Brown, Red Pill, and Verbal Kent found beauty in the environs of blue collar Detroit on the first Ugly Heroes album, and this year’s second effort is no exception. The group finds glints of hope in patches of dirt between Brown’s trademark boom-bap and Pill/Kent’s hard-learned stories. Don’t let this one slip through the cracks of Tru*p’s America.
L’Orange & Mr. Lif – The Life & Death Of Scenery
Tru*p’s America is a world where a President-Elect can appoint the CEO of the WWE to his professional cabinet. No pop culture satirist should be able to compete with that, but Mr. Lif and L’Orange’s collaborative EP created its own bleak and beautiful vision of the future a whole month before this country tore itself apart. On the wave of a comeback after seven years of silence, Lif’s tales of oppression and censorship in a world where all art is banned and destroyed find a kindred spirit in L’Orange’s noir-infused boom-bap. The Life and Death of Scenery may not be as far removed from reality as it was two months ago, but it’s still a eerily serene collab.
Smoke DZA & Pete Rock – Don’t Smoke Rock
Pete Rock is a production legend who helped usher in what I’m hoping we all stop calling “jazz-rap.” Smoke DZA is one of New York’s most cocksure and lifted spitters. But when these two came together just a few weeks ago, I was hit with a rush I haven’t felt since DJ Premier and Royce 5’9″ joined forces for PRhyme. What DZA lacks in Royce’s lyrical acrobatics he more than makes up for with flow and some wicked punchlines (“Take Eric Garner killers, give me Sean Price back” from the Rick Ross assisted “Black Superhero Car”); and Rock packages it all in some of the smoothest and hard-hitting beats of his career. Don’t smoke rock, but try to enjoy it.
Sade & MF Doom – Sadevillain
Alright, this isn’t technically a group project. But Seanh’s mashup project is proof that the two suit each other better than anyone could’ve expected. Who would’ve guessed MF Doom’s vocals from “My Favorite Ladies” would slide so perfectly into a legendary R&B cut like “Jezebel”? This was a surprise when we stumbled upon it earlier this year, and if you’re a fan of either party, this might wedge its way into your rotation.
Dae Dae & London On Da Track – The Deafanition
From freestyling lyrics while working as a contractor to recording an album with one of Atlanta’s premier beatsmiths, Dae Dae’s come a long way. The Deafanition is alive with the same infectious rhymes and bumping rhythms that shot “Wat U Mean (Aye Aye Aye)” to the top of the charts last year. Let’s hope Daw and London don’t stray too far from each other.
Payroll Giovanni & Cardo – Big Bossin, Vol. 1
Cardo had beats everywhere in 2016, from 2 Chainz, Drake, and D.R.A.M. to Snoop Dogg, ScHoolboy Q, and Kendrick Lamar. But a lot of his best work of 2016 came from this gem he dropped with Payroll Giovanni back in May. The pair hail from Detroit and Texas respectively, but Big Bossin Vol. 1 is proof that they’re hearts are over on the West Coast. Synths, vocoders, and background vocals give Giovanni’s hard-nosed rhymes the same West Coast flavor that Terrace Martin and Swish gave YG on this year’s Still Brazy. You might need to pull the tar from the street off your face after this one.
Open Mike Eagle & Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
If you could turn your life into a whole series of short films, what would they be about? Mike Eagle settles for stories about perpetual death, casual racism, and checking your goddamn phone too much on he and producer Paul White‘s Hella Personal Film Festival. You can feel the clouds fighting for dominance over White’s sun-soaked soul loops and crunchy guitar riffs and Mike’s stories find the humor, sadness, and hope in his own insecurities.
Dave B & Sango – Tomorrow
Outside of Sir Mix-A-Lot, Shabazz Palaces, The Blue Scholars, and Woke White poster boy Macklemore, Seattle’s hip-hop scene isn’t exactly the most distinct. This year, Soulection’s Sango and rapper/singer Dave B take their shot at being northwestern torchbearers and came away with a project buoyed by contemplative thought and bouncy production that only a fraction of Soulection could cook up. Tomorrow is a trip worth taking on the road or in your bedroom.
Blu & Nottz – Titans In The Flesh
From a deal with Warner Bros. Records to pumping out no less than four collaborative projects this year, Blu has weathered the bullshit of the music industry in his own way. The best of his bunch from this year has to be the sequel to he and producer Nottz’s thunderous Gods In The Spirit EP. Titans In The Flesh is more traditionalist boom-bap loosely revolving around Greek and Roman mythology that will more than likely please the stubborn rap gods out there.
NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
Anderson .Paak capped off his incredible 2016 with not one, but *two* of the year’s best albums. His raspy croon and gospel influences mesh perfectly with Knxwledge‘s muddy sun soaked beats, creating a trunk-knocking odyssey for the ages. I came down hard on the misogyny earlier this year, regardless of how deliberately overblown it might be, but this is still two of the most exciting artists on the scene at their funniest and most relaxed yet.
Gensu Dean & Denmark Vessey – Whole Food
Gensu Dean’s brand of boom-bap has been roughage for the ears for a minute, but the connection he and Denmark Vessey have on Whole Food is another game altogether. Vessey’s approach to the bleaker sides of the Black American experience has always been tongue darting through cheek, but stories of loved ones lost (“Whole Food”), police brutality (“Black Love”), and religious influence (“The Meek”) stick in your ears with Dean’s lush production surrounding them. Eat your vegetables.
Flatbush Zombies – 3001: A Laced Odyssey
The Zombies occupy the same psychedelic corner of the Beast Coast movement that The Underachievers do, but sometimes we forget that Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick Arc Elliott can rap their asses off. Their chemistry goes even deeper on their commercial debut; hearing the trio trade bars on tracks like “R.I.P.C.D.”, “A Spike Lee Joint”, and “This Is It” is a rush of smoke straight to the brain. Elliott abandons the eclectic production style of their last project BetterOffDEAD for some hazy boom-bap here and closing track “Your Favorite Rap Song” is a level of self-congratulation that makes “Last Call” seem downright modest, but A Laced Odyssey is proof that the Zombies are still clawing at that ubiquity.
Short Fuze & Uncommon Nasa – Autonomy Music
Autonomy Music is a trip through the glitchier side of New York City grit that few have touched since the heyday of Definitive Jux. Short Fuze’s flow bends off kilter into its own pocket all over Uncommon Nasa’s fuzzy clanking beats; I can imagine a middle-aged mosh pit breaking out when “Breakdance For The Def” drops at any rap show. Much like their first joint Toxicology Music, Autonomy powers on with a strange energy, an iPhone with a pay phone chord and plenty of reverent soul.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
What else needs to be said about the first ATCQ album in 18 years? Phife Dawg captured in top form before his untimely death; Q-Tip’s drum loops and sample choices are still second to none; Busta Rhymes sounds more awake here than he has since The Big Bang. Tribe’s naturally progressive sound has grown well into a new age of Afrocentricism, so it’s only natural that they still sound like themselves on their swan song.
Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere
Heems, Riz MC, and Redinho have been watching the TSA checks and border concerns that continue to inform post-9/11 America and are tired of hanging on the sidelines. Riz’ grime butts heads with Heems’ relaxed witty barbs over Reindho’s production for yet another batch of serious fun for the second Swet Shop Boys album.
Atmosphere – Fishing Blues
After Southsiders from two years ago, I was afraid that Atmosphere had run out of things to say. Slug and Ant have been following their hearts all their careers, and Fishing Blues is just another layer to the group’s exposed heart. Even as a young man, Slug’s storytelling has communicated a world weariness far beyond his years, but hope pokes its nose from the corner of every track here, especially the closer “A Long Hello,” an anti-breakup song. Politics haven’t been foreign to Atmosphere music before, but songs like “Seismic Waves” and the punishing “Pure Evil” – told from the perspective of a police officer – prove
Injury Reserve – Floss
I’ve been singing praises of this Arizona trio since I was turned on to last year’s eclectic and fun Live From The Dentist Office. Ritchie With A T, Steppa J. Groggs, and producer Parker Corey wear their influences on their sleeves (A Tribe Called Quest, Three 6 Mafia, Little Brother, Kanye West) but never limit themselves to mere imitation, and much like Tribe’s new album, Floss is a reminder that they’re not content to stay in one place for too long. Ritchie and Groggs rage to “some shit from ’06” on the opening track “Oh Shit!!!” before trading bars about twelve steps and being “the Black Ben Carson” over a chilling “This Way” sample on “Bad Boys 3.” The beats are a touch darker this time around but reach even further left field, with features from Cakes Da Killa and Vic Mensa tying it up with a bow. If you like rap music, this is yet another chance to get in on the ground floor of the new gold standard in rap groups. Don’t sleep on Injury Reserve.