By Eóin Donnelly
2017 was the year rap took over. Many obituaries have been written on hip-hop, perceived for so many years by intransigent philistines as a transient fad lacking artistic merit. For the first time ever however, hip-hop and RnB accounts for the highest proportion of listeners of any genre, accounting for almost a quarter of all music consumed. Saturating the music industry with not just quantity but quality- as the 2018 Grammy nominations have recognised- the stage is set for hip-hop’s increasingly malleable sound and RnB’s songwriters’ renaissance to continue far into the future. Unlike my admittedly hip-hop and RnB dominated top 50 albums list, my top 50 songs of 2017 will exclusively be derived from the year’s champion genres. Otherwise, 50 songs would just never be enough. As with the albums list, only the top 25 songs will carry a description. For diversity’s sake, a maximum of three songs for any one artist will be permitted. I know listening to these songs just isn’t the same without my words to explain their magnificence, so as a consolation prize I’ll recommend five of these music videos you absolutely must watch: Jay-Z’s mind-blowing cartoon ‘The Story of O.J.’, Tank’s weirdly hilarious ‘When We’, Kendrick Lamar’s euphoric ‘LOVE’, SZA’s sexual descent into horror ‘Love Galore’ & Sylvan LaCue’s über-cool ‘Grateful.’ You can listen to all 50 songs in one playlist on Spotify- with the exception of Apple Music & Tidal exclusive ‘The Story of O.J.’- here.
Happy watching and happy reading!
Without further ado…
50. Future- Mask Off Remix (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
49. Syd- Know
48. Hare Squead- Flowers
47. Daniel Caesar- Blessed
46. Vince Staples- Big Fish
45. Post Malone- Rockstar (feat. 21 Savage)
44. Rapsody- Sassy
43. Cardi B- Bodak Yellow
42. Ty Dolla $ign- Droptop In The Rain (feat. Tory Lanez)
41. Khalid- Saved
40. J.I.D.- NEVER
39. DJ Khaled- Wild Thoughts (feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller)
38. Jhené Aiko- While We’re Young
37. A.CHAL- To The Light
36. SZA- The Weekend
35. Oddisee- Things
34. Alina Baraz- Electric (feat. Khalid)
33. dvsn- Keep Calm
32. Brother Ali- Special Effects (feat. deM atlaS)
31. BROCKHAMPTON- JUNKY
30. N.E.R.D.- Lemon (feat. Rihanna)
29. Frank Ocean- Biking (feat. Jay-Z & Tyler, The Creator)
28. Drake- Get It Together (feat. Jorja Smith & Black Coffee)
27. Brent Faiyaz- L.A.
26. Tank- When We
25. Majid Jordan- My Imagination (feat. dvsn)
If you love 90’s RnB, Drake’s OVO Sound protégés may just be the duo for you. ‘My Imagination’ is a sensual supplement to making babies under neon lights and is their best song to date.
24. Daniel Caesar- Best Part (feat. H.E.R.)
“If life is a movie then you’re the best part.” And the award for Best Pickup Line of 2017 goes to Daniel Caesar.
23. Frank Ocean- Provider
Any song with a Goku reference is an automatic pick. The artistic plane flown by Frank Ocean’s Super Saiyan voice is akin to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. No co-ordinates can pin down where exactly he is, escaping all attempts at categorisation like a modern-day Houdini on auto-tune. Every note and production trick on ‘Provider’ shoots for past, present and future with laser precision, sparking sentimental yearning, oneness with the moment and hopeful imaginations of the future all at once.
22. Calvin Harris- Slide (feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)
Kudos to Calvin Harris. Like any DJ worth his salt should, Harris more often than not has his finger on the pulse for the latest sounds and trends and he has the chops to pull them off. Despite its status as one of the most ubiquitous hits of the year, ‘Slide’ is likely to get the party started far into 2018.
21. Big K.R.I.T.- Drinking Sessions (feat. Keyon Harrold)
How do you perceive fame? You probably thought of the good things first. Dehumanisation, however, is part and parcel of the celebrity package. Are any of my friends real? Would my family still support me if they couldn’t rely on me? K.R.I.T. is not afraid to commit his darkest diary entries to wax. His fearless confrontation with the taboo of male mental health serves as a timely reminder that there is more to hip-hop than vacuous hedonism and its glamorisation. ‘Drinking Sessions’ reckons with K.R.I.T’s infatuation with mortality, but it is his willingness to expose his emotional scars that will make his art immortal. Ali G would get along with Big K.R.I.T., he does nothing but keep it real. Always remember: if you can make it through the night there’s a brighter day.
20. Miguel- Sky Walker (feat. Travis Scott)
Forget the bullshit and enjoy yourself. An infectious groove like War & Leisure’s lead single can make it that simple. Naive as it may be, I aspire to live a life as carefree as this music video. I have one more month of singing “in my 23’s, having a Jordan moment” and I’m gonna savour it. Ridiculously flamboyant Hawaiian shirts, morning cocktails, days at the beach and all great things summer will feel that much better with ‘Sky Walker’ as the backing track.
19. Tyler, The Creator- See You Again (feat. Kali Uchis)
It’s a shame that the dominant conversation on Tyler, The Creator has been his apparent coming out of the closet. As one of the most gorgeously composed albums of the year, Flower Boy deserved more. Neptunes-influenced ‘See You Again’ is one of its most heartwarming highlights. Coming out around the time I got laser eye surgery and left behind glasses for good, I’ll never not sing the “20-20 vision” hook without a flood of endorphins coarsing through my veins.
18. Lil Uzi Vert- XO TOUR Llif3
I should’ve been at the XO Tour. Myself and three friends travelled all the way to Amsterdam to see The Weeknd, supported by Lil Uzi Vert, only to discover our tickets were counterfeit. Bastards. While the whole world seemed to be waged in ideological war, the rest of us sang “all my friends are dead”, in pain together but partying on as one nonetheless. An insular, drab and dystopian trepidation hung over 2017, reflected in music no more so than ‘XO Tour Llif3’. Just as there are pre-Socratic philosophers, there are pre-Kanye rappers. Almost a decade on from release, 808’s and Heartbreak’s influence- check my 808’s-inspired playlist out- has circled the world a hundred times over. Named as one of Rolling Stone’s 40 most groundbreaking albums of all-time, ‘XO Tour Llif3’ simply wouldn’t and couldn’t exist without it. Lil Uzi Vert’s initials may be LUV, but his biggest song is about all his friends being dead. Standing on the precipice of pressing the self-destruct button, Lil Uzi Vert wails through warbling auto-tune about problems without solutions and heartache as sustained and probing as a dentist’s appointment. And we all partied to it… so who’s more fucked up?
17. SZA- Love Galore (feat. Travis Scott)
Top Dawg Entertainment can do no wrong. SZA’s Ctrl made her an overnight superstar. Not a woman to be trampled upon, like much of the album ‘Love Galore’ is a wearied yet empowering admonishment of men who exploit SZA for only one thing. More Rihanna than Beyoncé, SZA is not quite a powerhouse vocalist, but with radiant sensuality oozing from every sudden melody switch she doesn’t have to be. SZA’s brand of pussy power is quickly amassing a legion of fans male and female alike, and with a smash single like this it’s no wonder.
16. Khalid- 8TEEN
I wish this came out in the summer before I started college. ‘8TEEN’ is a simultaneous admission of imperfection and abdication of blame. Accepting that transitioning to adulthood will be full of mistakes and regrets, Khalid comes across as much wiser than his 18 years without losing any of the sense of fun along the way. Youthful exuberance and wide-eyed innocence highlight Khalid as a much-needed injection of positivity in a pop music landscape increasingly stricken by anaemic pessimism.
15. BROCKHAMPTON- GOLD
West Coast hip-hop will remain one of rap’s prime carnivores as long as artistically nourished youths are hungry enough to evolve it. Easily one of the year’s catchiest hooks. ‘GOLD’ is tailor-made for cruising windows down in the sunshine with your friends. It’s the biggest splash rap’s newest and most exciting supergroup have made yet.
14. Sylvan LaCue- 5:55
Two months ago I didn’t know who he was, but I couldn’t be more exicted for Sylvan LaCue’s Apologies In Advance dropping this Friday. It is an album I suspect may well anoint him as the first disciple of Kendrick Lamar. Sylvan LaCue is all of us. Have you ever let the past hinder your progress? Have you ever let what people think stop you from being the best version of yourself? Have you ever suffered in silence? Miami rapper Sylvan LaCue’s mission statement is simple: suffer, heal, educate and inspire changes in his listeners. He is a 21st century rap everyman going through the same problems we all do, and like the beautiful sunset backdrop that adorns the video, 5:55 represents the jump from the shadows to the spotlight. You could have hands as big as Wreck-It-Ralph’s, but you’ll catch no breaks waiting for them to fall. Moody nostalgia and wistful contrition envelops the stringed instrumental, propelled by forward-looking raps that close a door to the errors gone by and walk openly into a new world. Free your mind and your ass will follow.
13. Kendrick Lamar- ELEMENT
As much as I love Kendrick Lamar the socially conscious rap missionary, every time he takes a siesta from the sermon to lay siege to his snoozing competition I can’t help but wish he did it more often. When Kendrick’s pitch gets high, he means violence, threatening to put the Bible down and backslide into his virulent adolescent self in the opening bars. ELEMENT is urgent, bombastic and cooler than Samuel L Jackson sipping a slush puppy in sunglasses. There’s barely even a beat. How he transforms James Blake’s stuttering piano ambience into this beastly anthem is beyond me. With a few subliminal putdowns of Jay Electronica, Big Sean and Drake thrown in for good measure, ELEMENT is new territory for Kendrick Lamar and the equivalent of Super Mario strutting into Bowser’s castle and kidnapping the princess himself just to show he can.
12. Sampha- (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano
Personification is an age-old poetic device, a useful tool that broadens emotional expression via sentient attribution to inanimate objects. ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ is a heartbreaking conversation between Sampha and his piano that he doesn’t feel comfortable having with anyone else. At 27, and having collaborated with the likes of Kanye West & Drake, it’s strange that this is only his debut album, but sometimes it takes the greatest hardship to unleash the creative catharsis that simmers within. Simply and beautifully arranged, Sampha’s desolate ballad in tribute to his dead mother works because his achingly poignant vocals are so mired in hopelessness that you can’t help but empathise with his plight. Let’s hope he can find some happiness between now and his next album.
11. Jay-Z- The Story of O.J.
Throughout 4:44, Jay-Z waxes lyrical like a man who has located an entire carton of creative juice behind his fridge full of champagne. To say all black people are black people is a truism that may engender many’s a tensed pair of eyebrows and rolled eyes, but it is a salient fact that black people have a shared historical bond unlike any other race. Not content with separating himself from the travails of the average black citizen a la O.J. Simpson, Jay-Z’s parallel of the 21st century rich black man to the house n***a’s that betrayed their kind during slavery reiterates the obvious: no matter what level of success you ascend to, one six letter word can shatter your humanity. Look no further than LeBron James. Much more than a reminder of the African-American’s tortured past, ‘The Story of O.J. is merely outlined in history but with broad strokes of foresight, advising black Americans to unite in pursuit of black-owned things. It’s a welcome message for everyone, regardless of your hue. Fuck living rich and dying broke, financial freedom’s my only hope.
10. Choker- Diorama
Like Sylvan LaCue, Choker is a relative unknown with a big future ahead of him. Autonomous sensory meridian response (AMSR) is a physical sensation that can make your entire body tingle, but for experiential insight just stick this on. From the harsh imagery of his showerhead crying on his bones to imploring the listeners to take an extra dose and have an epiphany, Choker is the zenith of stoned thought. ‘Diorama’ will either take you to another dimension or baffle you. Its second half is reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s ‘Self Control’, both beat switches designed not for dancefloor mayhem but for inner exploration and astral wonderment under moonlight. In line with Frank Ocean’s Blonde, much of Choker’s debut album hints at a palpable yet intangible ‘something’, his soul intermittently fully exposed but indefinitely just out of reach like the inner peace he seeks. Subtly penetrating lyrics shimmer from the nucleus of this abstract plasma. The first half of ‘Diorama’ is a collection of fragmented memories and emotions spliced together as one stunning portrait, while the second seeks to shatter the doors of perception into the thirteenth floor of reality. It’s a fleeting feeling you’ll either feel or you won’t, but if you blink you just might miss it.
9. Sylvan LaCue- Grateful
The more Sylvan LaCue dances like nobody’s watching, the closer he will be to having the world’s attention. I love this song so much I missed a flight because of it, watching the video over and over in my friend’s Madrid apartment until I’d left it touch-and-go that I’d even make it on time… I didn’t. Independent artist Sylvan is the product of working hard on yourself. His ability to effortlessly accelerate from melodic harmonising to kicking double-time rhymes marks him as a prodigiously talented prototypical modern rapper. Only label politics will prevent LaCue from succeeding. ‘Grateful’ positions LaCue as a benefactor of wisdom, championing the embrace of change, shedding of insecurities and above all gratitude for what you have. Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass.
8. Travis Scott- Butterfly Effect
For the full experience watch the video please. It’s Miami Vice on LSD pushed through Instagram and Snapchat filters from the year 3000. The butterfly effect is the concept that minor events can have far-reaching consequences, and it has absolutely nothing to do with this song. It is lyrically inept, but who comes to Travis Scott for lyrics? ‘Butterfly Effect’ is the year’s most addictive trap banger. Sometimes you go to the shop with good intentions of buying nothing but the weekly groceries, but once you get to the counter you’ll see that bag of sweets you love. You’ll come up with some ridiculous reason to justify the ‘treat yo’self’ cop-out and munch away ‘til your heart’s content and your arteries clogged. Travis captures that moment in song form with this brain-rotting ear-worm. Pop your shoulders and let that beat bang.
7. Joey Bada$$- Land of the Free
All writers are consumed with the strange, persistent feeling that someone else is speaking through them, an overwhelming urge to convert the mundane into meaning and illuminate the extraordinary. We peer into the abyss of nothingness and see paragraph upon paragraph squinting back. Joey Bada$$ knows what I’m talking about. The ghostly howl that commences this track is both a summoning from past idols and a summation of the abonimable political logjam that doomed 2017. On ‘Land of the Free’ bulletproof Joey assumes leadership of New York rap’s rebirth, a vessel put on Earth to inspire the next generation of disadvantaged youths. “I’m just a black spade spawned out the nebula.” When the universe deals you a perfect hand it’s harder to avoid being consumed by the saviour complex. It just so happens that Joey Bada$$’s birthday falls on the date of Donald Trump’s inauguration. It just so happens that the first single on ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ was a call to action to reclaim the true spirit of the ‘Land of the Free.’ Clenched fists clasped round spellbinding pens can only keep writing when circumstances are this serendipitous. You can’t change the world until you change yourself, Joey raps, but nor can you change it until you change its epicentre, the United States of America.
6. Big K.R.I.T.- Layup
Kings are Remembered In Time. When I reach the top, this will be one of the first songs added to the queue. Big K.R.I.T.’s Layup’ is not an indulgent hoisting of fame and its vices to a gaudy and ostentatious pedestal, but a meditative and tranquil reflection on the sacrifices it took to arise from humble beginnings as well as a proud celebration on providing the simple pleasures of security and leisure for those close to him. Its title is a double entendre, the basketball analogy representing scoring easy while laying up and toasting success. Sonically, ‘Layup’ is the sunshine coming through the blinds at the end of a long night’s writing. “Promise that I’ll do it big for my family and my friends”, he sings. Me too K.R.I.T., me too.
5. Frank Ocean- Chanel
Frank Ocean- your voice is extraordinary, your sound is extraterrestrial and your critics should be extradited. Any artist that can have a room full of straight men gleefully singing along to the lyric “My guy pretty like a girl” deserves to be celebrated. Of course, I sing “I need that bitch to grind on my belt “ a little more fervently, but that’s as much to do with its placing in the most instantly gratifying and rousing verse of the year as anything else. Frank Ocean’s openness about his fluid sexuality is directly complimented by his welcoming attitude to all potential artistic influences. The result, like much of ‘Blonde, is a singular product that can’t be categorised by any genre. Luxury by name and luxury by nature, ‘Chanel’ is an ethereal all-you-can-eat of moods created by a mind that sits on the ledge beyond the edge.
4. Kendrick Lamar- DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid: Do Not Accuse, Do Not Approach and definitely Do Not Anger. Like Black Mirror’s ‘Hang the DJ’, for 99.8% of Kendrick’s discography his worldview is perfectly matched with the reverence of New Testament Jesus. Ancestral allegiance could damn us all. ‘DNA’ is a solitary hint at sinful relapse, a descent into the eye-for-an-eye chaos of the Old Testament God that could cremate Satan. “He’s rapping like a man possessed” is one of hip-hop’s greatest clichés, but I seriously can’t listen to this song without thinking it every time. Even when listened to without consideration of Kendrick’s quiet demeanour in interviews, ‘DNA’ is mind-bogglingly aggressive, a ferocious fee-fi-fo-fum to Kendrick’s culturally ignorant detractors at Fox News that may call to mind Eminem’s ‘The Way I Am’ but with a second half that nevertheless makes it look like a chihuahua to DNA’s Decepticon. Buddha never would’ve existed if he heard this track. Several million light years from now, advanced telescope technology will analyse the reverberations of Kendrick’s flow on ‘DNA’ as the moment of a whole new Big Bang. Universe means one song after all, and if there’s one song capable of creating one it’s the enormous energy of ‘DNA.’
3. Tyler, The Creator- Boredom (feat. Anna of the North & Rex Orange County)
Thank you Tyler. Without this song, this website may not exist. Back in July, my foray into music writing was just a curious flirtation, a constant urge in the back of my mind that downright laziness & creative stagnation prohibited me from acting upon. ‘Boredom’ is the aspirational light at the end of a sullen and disinterested tunnel, the motivational anthem for anyone who sinks into nutritional neglect and pensive pondering any time they find themselves home alone for an extended period. Like Tyler, at my worst I’ve often went days on end just eating cereal and whatever else is lying around, thinking about the future while wasting away the present. The melancholic craving for company and how things used to be feels straight out of the Frank Ocean lyric-sheet, offset by a lush melody that could get Sid the sloth off his ass. The highlight of an album that enchanted my ears all summer, ‘Boredom’ is a timely reminder to men everywhere that candid vulnerability is a thing to be embraced if you can make something inspiring from it. “Find some time, find some time to do something.” What a mantra for 2018. When the scourge of boredom tightens its grip, loosen up and do that thing you always wanted to do, write that thing you always wanted to write and make that thing you’ve always wanted to make.
2. Drake- Passionfruit
If I could bottle the feeling the first time hearing this song gave me I’d drink it every morning for breakfast. Of all the many musical guises Drake embodies, island Drake probably gets the most flak, but without any of the cringeworthy fake patois I can have no complaints. If Drake had made a similarly iconic video as ‘Hotline Bling’ this could’ve been the biggest song of the year. Its producer claimed that he was imagining clouds in a jungle filled with love when he made the beat and I couldn’t put it better myself. Drake’s low register is the perfect accompaniment to the highest of sexual tension, merging with the addictive allure of the house beat behind him with the charming precision of a professional dancer. The mellow tropical joy of ‘Passionfruit’ will forever be a mainstay of the Eóin Donnelly predrinks experience: y’all get some drinks going, this shit will sound a whole lot better.
1. Kendrick Lamar- LOVE (feat. Zacari)
My peanut butter, chocolate cake and Kool-Aid. Future wife, if you’re reading this I’ve gotta let you know this is our first dance song. You can use Al Green- ‘Let’s Stay Together’ with your second husband when we inevitably don’t. I should now not to doubt him, but of all the strings to Kendrick’s songwriting bow, I didn’t believe that a melodic serenade was one of them. ‘LOVE’ is the feelgood track of 2017, an irresistibly pure RnB ode to Kendrick’s high school sweetheart and now fiancé Whitney Alford that lulls you into a paradise of candy-coated spaceships and unambiguous adoration for a cherished partner on Cloud 10. On To Pimp A Butterfly Kendrick had to first fight suicidal thoughts in a hotel room (u’) & then preach peace to a violent crowd (‘i’) to find love of himself. The fiercely political and self-flagellating journey to personal and communal redemption simply didn’t allow for romance. Only now, with the demon within vanquished and his angelic aura embraced, can Kendrick profess his yearning for the affections of his significant other. After ‘u’ & ‘i’, ‘LOVE’ is the final instalment of a trilogy of world premieres centring around the concept of love. From self-hatred to self-love, from self-love to romance, ‘LOVE’ is the ultimate bliss that could entice an angel from the gates of Heaven to the party that won’t end. There’s a war outside; as always, love is the answer.