The last month of 2016 treks on, and while the end-of-year retrospectives continue, the new music does not stop coming out. Today's picks include two rappers from two of this decade's great West Coast rap collectives, and folk rock's favorite cool uncle. I should acknowledge that I haven't heard the new J Cole album yet, but my hopes aren't very high for it anyway. Am I missing out?
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Black Hippy have been having yet another incredible year. Schoolboy Q put out one of 2016's best rap albums with Blank Face LP. Kendrick Lamar went on a victory lap after last year's world-conquering To Pimp A Butterfly with an album of scrapped verses from TPAB that was a great record in its own right, and standout guest verses on some of this year's best albums. Now just before the year ends comes a surprise-ish new Ab-Soul album, announced just a week ago. When he's at his best, Soulo is the surrealist of the group, and that's the mode he's in here. He's delivering dizzying wordflow and wordplay over always-psychedelic production, and sounding as great as ever. He opens the album on its hardest note ("'RAW' backwards on all you rappers"), making it clear right away that he means business.
DWTW has Ab-Soul rapping about a lot of his usual topics -- the third eye, drugs, bragging rights -- but it's also got a new recurring theme, women, and it's not exactly what you'd expect. On "Threatening Nature," Soulo criticizes the injustices and sexism that women face in America. As he says in the song, "We don't speak on sexism much as we really should." Sometimes it seems like Ab-Soul wrote the year's most outwardly feminist rap album by a man, but it's not easy to tell if his intentions are always good. At least three songs on the album refer to God as a woman, but one of them does it like this: "God gotta be a thot, the blood from your erection come from your brain and your feet, so you can't think and you can't run." Hm.
Some questionable lyrics aside, Soulo brings the heat on every track. A handful of the songs on DWTW are two different songs that segue into each other (something Kendrick is exceptionally good at), which really add to the capital-A Album feel here. In a year where Drake popularized the album-as-playlist model, Ab-Soul is still favoring creative decisions over good marketing. The guests all feel super well-curated too. Standout verses come from NWA affiliate Kokane, Schoolboy Q, and frequent Ab-Soul collaborator Rapsody (returing the favor after Soulo appeared on her recent Crown EP). Still, Ab-Soul is the star of the show. His vision remains as clear as ever.
Back when Odd Future first blew up, Hodgy was one of its most notable members. He was then known as Hodgy Beats, was a member of the OF groups MellowHype and MellowHigh, and appeared on all the early Odd Future classics like Tyler the Creator's Bastard, Earl Sweatshirt's Earl, and the whole collective's Radical. Now that the collective is mostly split, a handful of the members are finding their own voices and departing from the group's initially raucous style. Hodgy is the latest to do this on Fireplace: TheNotTheOtherSide, his first full-length solo album. Compared to Tyler and Earl, Hodgy's become the most soulful rapper. He's got a Knxwledge beat on "Dreaminofthinkin," which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who digs Kendrick Lamar's "Momma" and NxWorries (Knxwledge's duo with Anderson Paak), both of which are closer to Fireplace's world than classic Odd Future stuff. Busta Rhymes is on the album (on "Final Hour"), fresh off making tons of contributions to the Tribe Called Quest comeback, which also had Kendrick and Paak.
It's not just Hodgy's collaborators shaping that sound though, far from it. Take a listen to "Glory" for instance; it's rooted in neo-soul as much as it is in rap. And Hodgy's really looking outward on this album. "Same time I had got my solo deal, around the time me and my child’s mother were at wit’s end, I was in search for a higher ground," he says. You can really hear it -- the whole thing feels deeply spiritual.
Of all the aging rockers Neil gets associated with, he's the one with the most creative juice left in him. His last great album was 2012's Psychedelic Pill, but he's done some odd stuff since then: a covers album, a big band album, an album entirely dedicated to the Monsanto corporation, and then a live album of the tour for that Monsanto album. When he revealed he'd be capping 2016 off with the primarily acoustic Peace Trail, it sounded like his next great album might be on the way. There's nothing like some acoustic Neil.
Fortunately, a lot of the album delivers. The one peculiar choice he makes here is a heavy use of auto-tune on a couple songs. Nothing wrong with an auto-tuned folk album -- Lambchop did it -- but Neil's use of it is rather head-scratching. That said, if anyone can make totally weird decisions and get away with it, it's Neil Young. And more often than not, Peace Trail is exactly the Neil Young we know and love. From Harvest to Harvest Moon, he's been able to sound larger than life with just an acoustic guitar, which is exactly what he's doing on most of Peace Trail. "Can't Stop Workin'" and "Show Me" should especially appeal to fans of Neil's classic folk side, while the raggedy title track and "Glass Accident" remind you that people call this guy the Godfather of Grunge. And since it's a current-day Neil Young album, it voices suspicion of fake news ("Texas Rangers"), fascination with technology ("My New Robot"), protest of the Dakota Pipeline ("Indian Givers"), and other topical lyrical content. He's singing for 2016, but the sounds are timeless.