Was 2016 that bad? Well, yeah. Yes, it was. But if you just focus on the music, 2016 was undeniably badass.
Dancehall sounds became mainstream, independent artists stole the spotlight, old-school funk and New Jack grooves were revived, and artists were not shy about using their platform to express their beliefs — whether it be spiritual or controversial. We’ve listed just a few of our favorite tunes of 2016 below, to remind you how not-so-bad the year was after all.
Ultralight Beam – Kanye West featuring Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and The Dream
It has been quite a roller coaster year in the weird world of West, but one thing that was a huge win for the artist is his album The Life of Pablo. Though the album sounded somewhat disjointed and unmastered on some tracks, the overall project was wonderfully curated with many guest producers like Metro Boomin and Rick Ruben, and vocalists like Chris Brown and Frank Ocean. A clear favorite among the tracks in TLOP is “Ultralight Beam”. The faith-filled song takes us on a spiritual climb with the help of Kirk Franklin’s preach, The Dream’s singing, Kelly Price’s SANGIN’, and arguably one of Chance the Rapper’s best verses on record.
Work – Rihanna
Bad Gal Riri wasted no time bringing us heat in the winter. In January, the Bajan vocalist released “Work”, a sexy patois jam about love and lust. Two different music videos for it emerged, featuring her then-rumored lover-turned boyfriend-turned ex, Drake. One version just features the two vibing in a purple hued room, but the version we liked more was set at a divey dancehall party and had us craving day-party season in the dead of winter.
One Dance – Drake
Drake’s single off of Views was the artist’s first number-one single in 10 countries as the lead artist, including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. Dropped in April of this year, the dancehall jam gave us summertime vibes in the spring. It’s hard to say whether the Caribbean influence came from the strong Jamaican presence in Toronto, or from his involvement/obsession with Rihanna. Either way, “Once Dance” turned out to be a go-to for many DJs in hip-hop and dancehall clubs this year.
Black Beatles – Rae Sremmurd
Typically, standing still while a song plays is a clear indication that a song is straight trash — NOT the case with “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd. The song behind the infamous #mannequinchallenge that swept all of Instagram in the summer and fall of this year, is Rae Sremmurd’s first number-one single on the US Billboard Hot 100 and their first top ten appearance in countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
Redbone – Childish Gambino
It has been an incredibly creative year for Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino. Following the successful first season of his FX series Atlanta, Childish stunned us all with his eclectic lp Awaken, My Love! When news of a new Childish Gambino album was buzzing earlier this year, many fans were excited yet confused, as the artist announced his “retirement from rap” back in 2015. But being the wordsmith that he is, it was all semantics. Awaken is anything BUT rap. Reviving the sounds of 70’s psychedelic funk and soul, CG has us grooving for 49 straight minutes. While “Me and Your Mama” was the first single off the album, the second single “Redbone” was that jam that left you with the meanest stank-face.
Pink + White – Frank Ocean
The ever elusive singer gave us what might have been the most anticipated album of the year. With promises of a new album in the works since 2013, and several rumored and failed release dates, it was starting to feel like Frank Ocean was dangling an imaginary carrot before the faces of his fans. But alas, fans rejoiced in August when Frank dropped two projects: the visual album Endless, and the raw, abstract album Blond. Though “Nikes” is the only official single off of Blond, “Pink + White” gives us a poetically emo tale of love and nostalgia that only Frank can deliver.
Formation – Beyoncé
Beyoncé is never ever struggling to make a hit, and “Formation” is no exception, but unlike any other song she’s made, this one was met with some controversy. Released in February, the single and it’s music video featured references to Hurricane Katrina, Creole culture, police brutality, racism and black pride. That same weekend, Beyoncé performed the single at the Superbowl half-time show, accompanied by backup dancers clad in Black Panther-esque attire. This seemed to set off some authorities, claiming the performance and music video was “anti-law enforcement”, with some departments even asking the public to boycott Beyoncé’s upcoming tour. Needless to say, their efforts were futile, and Queen Bey earned well over $100 million in ticket sales for that tour.
24K Magic – Bruno Mars
The album 24K Magic is proof that the gods of New Jack blessed Bruno Mars with the ability to emulate the flavor of that generation so damn effortlessly. Mars premiered the title track in October of this year and left us salivating till the album’s release in November. The entire album is a banger, but “24K Magic” was the perfect lead song; from the Teddy Riley-esque vocoder intro to the hilariously cocky lyrics (” Second verse for the hustlas, gangstas, bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends/ (Haha) Can I preach? Can I preach? I gotta show ’em how a pimp get it in”) 24K Magic is pure gold.
Ooouuu – Young MA
Big up to female rappers who aren’t ultra-femme. “Ooouuu” by Brooklyn’s own Young MA dropped in the spring and quickly spread from being a local hit in the clubs to reaching FM radio stations all the way in California. Two main reasons why this song was so successful is that it is reminiscent of the Bobby Shmurda smash “Hot Nigga”, and also, she says that one memorable, petty ass line “You call her Stephanie? I call her Headphanie (OOOUUU)” Shout out to all the Stephanie’s of the world. Y’all took a huge L on that. That line was so popular that a small boutique crafted their own “Headphanie” liquor labels and stuck them on Hennessy bottles for sale. Permission was never requested and Young MA and her people quickly filed a cease and desist order on the boutique. L’s all around.
No Problem – Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper might be the most popular and successful independent artists of 2016. His mixtape, Coloring Book, was released in May and was the first album to chart on the Billboard 200 solely on streams, peaking at number eight. The spiritual rap album received widespread acclaim and Chance has garnered 7 nominations at the upcoming 2017 Grammys. One of the most popular songs on the mixtape is “No Problem” featuring 2 Chains and Lil Wayne. This is fitting, being that the song is about defiance against music labels, and Lil Wayne is still having issues with Cash Money.
Glowed Up – Kaytranada ft. Anderson .Paak
Kaytranada’s debut album 99.9% is one of the hottest albums of 2016 and showcases an arsenal of many gifted voices in music, which even rivals the caliber of features found on TLOP. Our favorite track is “Glowed Up” featuring Oxnard, CA’s very own Anderson Paak. The slang term “glo up” made its rounds this year, and basically means growing up to be more successful, more attractive, etc. This is definitely the case for Kaytranada, as he’s already received several accolades for this album, and Anderson Paak was recently signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment and is currently nominated for 2 Grammys. If that isn’t a glo up, I don’t know what is.
In Common – Alicia Keys
This year was an active one for Alicia Keys. The beauty was a judge on season 11 of The Voice, and she released her first album in 4 years, entitled Here. “In Common” is the first single off the album and was a bit of a departure from Keys’ signature sound. The tropical thump and electronic touches matched with gentle, almost whispery vocals remind us of a chilled down “Rock With U” by Janet Jackson, and we’re totally feeling it. With this new sound came a fresh look. Alicia Keys has been part of the #nomakeup movement and has no intentions of going back. “I hope to God it’s a revolution.” Keys stated,”‘Cause I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.” More power to Alicia, and if I looked that good au naturel, I’d toss my make-up bag in the trash too.
Everybody Dies – J. Cole
Damn, Cole. Let them know how you really feel! J. Cole recently released 4 Your Eyez Only, but prior to the drop, he debuted videos for “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies”. These two songs caused a bit of a stir. In “False Prophets” Cole talks about a rapper who was once his hero, who now bites the styles of younger rappers, and has fallen from grace. Many speculate that Cole was coming for Kanye West in that verse, but that has not been confirmed. In “Everybody Dies” the rapper targets the “little” rappers, and it’s clear J doesn’t care for the “mumble rap” style. “Bunch of words and ain’t sayin’ shit, I hate these rappers/Especially the amateur eight week rappers/Lil’ whatever—just another short bus rapper.” Rappers such as Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and 21 Savage are suspected to be the targets, but no one has tried clapping back at Cole. The two songs didn’t end up on 4 Your Eyez Only, but definitely sent a message out that J. Cole is not one to be played with.