2017 was a great year for hip-hop, musically. Contrary to archaic arguments surrounding the mumble rap phenomenon, real shit flourished this year—from seasoned veterans to relative newcomers. In the mainstream, JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar both dropped stellar albums, arguably influenced by underground aesthetics. No I.D. laced 4:44 with some soulful, dusty, chopped up sample-driven beats that theoretically sound right at home within the underground landscape, as JAY spit some of the most thoughtful and relatable bars of his career over those soundbeds. DAMN. featured Kung Fu Kenny’s impeccable artistry, drops by legendary DJ Kid Capri, and production by underground powerhouses 9th Wonder and the Alchemist. Even Action Bronson managed to keep his major label deal without crossing over or switching up his style, releasing his sophomore Atlantic Records project Blue Chips 7000 this year as well.
But you already know about those albums. Instead of providing yet another bloated list of expected titles (sprinkled with a couple of offbeat selections for good measure), UGHH’s year-end wrap-up features a healthy mix of the 2017’s most celebrated independent releases—some overlooked gems, as well as an under-appreciated, yet a well-publicized joint or two—because we’re fair and balanced like that.
Disclaimer: UGHH primarily functions as an online record store, so we only considered LPs that are available for sale on our site. If we’d considered others, we might have included Conway’s G.O.A.T. project, The Seven by Talib Kweli and Styles P, Cashmere Dice by Da Villins and DJ Skizz or any one of the many strictly digital underground releases that dropped this year. Also, lists are subjective by nature, so take this for what it is: a suggestion of dope shit to check out, if you haven’t already. Hit the forum if you think we forgot something more deserving.
10. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$
Less dusty than his debut studio album, evolving young Joey Bada$$ still keeps it unequivocally hip-hop on his sophomore release. He also forays into overtly sociopolitical subject matter, tackling issues like police brutality and our nation’s abusive relationship with the Black community [metaphorically on the song “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)”]. A couple of our other favorite tracks are “Rockabye Baby” featuring ScHoolboy Q and “Super Predator” featuring Styles P.
9. Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues
Though technically not all that underground, we still decided to include The Saga Continues on our list because we feel it deserves more credit than received in its generally mixed reviews. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a proper studio album; it’s really more of a producer project assembled by longtime Wu-affiliate Mathematics—who forged a sound somewhat reminiscent of 36 Chambers, only not as organic or raw (most likely a result of the process by which it was made). Still, the beats knock, all participating Wu members come correct and the refreshing nod to their roots should be appreciated by true Wu fans. In addition to new collaborators like the late Sean Price and Chris Rivers, longtime Wu associates grace the album, as well—including Streetlife and, most notably, Redman (who is featured on multiple songs). Some of its strongest joints are “Fast and Furious” featuring Hue Hef, “Pearl Harbor” featuring Sean Price, “G’d Up” featuring R-Mean and Mzee Jones, as well as “People Say” featuring Redman.
8. The Alchemist & Budgie – The Good Book, Vol. 2
The Good Book, Vol. 2 isn’t your typical producer album or beat tape. In fact, it’s a fusion of both, with only some of its songs featuring rappers. Furthermore, Alchemist produces one half of the project, while Budgie handles the other, resulting in a Grindhouse-like double feature made cohesive by the fact that both sides are composed using samples of religious-themed music (the double CD even comes packed in a Bible-shaped case). While Alchemist rains down the fire and brimstone—providing some grimy, soulful, chopped-up, minimalist raw shit to scrunch your face to—Budgie supplies a juxtaposing funky, R&B-driven vibe that’ll have you clapping your hands harder than the congregation. “A Thousand Birds” featuring Conway and Westside Gunn, “Message For The People” featuring Durag Dynasty, “Pray For You” featuring Royce Da 5’9,” and “Looking for a Blessing” are some of Alchemist’s toughest tracks, while Budgie shines on “Ride For Me” featuring Traffic and Dreebo, “By My Side” featuring Evidence and “Bel Air Baptism.”
Statik Selektah accomplishes the near-impossible with his eighth studio album by achieving a perfectly balanced polished, yet gritty sound. He also bridges gaps, featuring a diverse mix of MCs representing different schools of hip-hop—from legendary to emerging and underground to mainstream—all over his signature jazzy, boom bap production. The LP’s standout cuts include “Put Jewels On It” featuring Run The Jewels, “But You Don’t Hear Me Tho” featuring The Lox and Mtume, “No. 8” featuring Conway, Westside Gunn, and Termanology, “Go Gettas” featuring Sean Price, Wais P, and Tek, “Nobody Move” featuring Raekwon and Royce Da 5’9,” and “Disrespekt” featuring Prodigy (who we tragically lost this year).
6. Milano Constantine – The Way We Were
Perhaps one of 2017’s more slept-on bangers, this is one of those rare albums you can listen to over and over again without having to skip a single song. From start to finish, DJ Skizz and Marco Polo lay down a boom bap soundtrack that’ll make you nod your head so hard you’ll need a neck brace—on which the D.I.T.C.-affiliated “Barbaric” MC evokes Golden Era New York rap, reminiscing on “The Way We Were”—without feeling tiresome or gimmicky. This is that shit to reverse gentrification. Our favorite joints include “British Walkers,” “Cocaina,” and “Rasclat” featuring Big Twins and Conway.
Some might argue that its Grammy nomination should automatically exclude Laila’s Wisdom from our list, but considering the extensive dues Rapsody has paid in the underground (and the overall quality of her work), we felt it not only appropriate, but necessary to include this album. Featuring production from underground staples and longtime collaborators 9th Wonder, Nottz, and Khrysis, the LP is a soulful sonic masterpiece—and, as always, the Jamla artist delivers pensive, poignant, razor-sharp rhymes in her distinguishable Southern drawl. She really goes in on songs like “Chrome (Like Ooh),” “Black & Ugly” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, “You Should Know” featuring Busta Rhymes, “OooWee” featuring Anderson .Paak, and “Nobody” featuring Anderson .Paak, Black Thought and Moonchild, as well as the album’s title track.
When Roc Marciano emphatically states, “Motherfucker, this is art,” he isn’t lying. One of hip-hop’s most imaginatively twisted minds, Marciano vividly depicts familiar, grimy, street visuals in an entirely original style. On Rosebudd’s Revenge, the MC pimp-struts the line between insanity and genius over bare-boned, largely self-produced beats that effectively showcase his laid-back, monotone flow. Though often pegged as a storyteller, he doesn’t simply tell tales. Instead, Marci himself is the story. “History,” “Better Know,” “Gunsense,” “Marksmen” featuring Ka, “Pimp Arrest,” and “Here I Am” are among the album’s most memorable tracks.
On Gems From The Equinox, DJ Muggs varies between minimalist and boom bap production techniques, driven by heavily altered and distorted samples that range from soulful and funky to ominous and menacing—a style that pairs nicely with Meyhem Lauren’s baritone vocal timbre. Slightly experimental and almost psychedelic, the combination of vibes results in an overall trippy listening experience that manages to sound both classic and visionary at the same time. Some of the LP’s defining cuts include “Camel Crush,” “Hashashin” featuring Conway, “Aquatic Violence” featuring Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire and Sean Price, “Redrum,” and “Tension” featuring Action Bronson and Muggs’ Cypress Hill group-mate B-Real.
Planet Asia and Apollo Brown are both in rare form on their beautiful collaborative effort. An immaculate blend of streetwise raps and stripped-down production, Brown shows just how much can be done with sampling alone—composing a symphonic experience void of added drums, relying solely on the source material for percussion. The result compliments Asia’s poetically aggressive lyrics and stream-of-consciousness style, helping his vocals shine. Another strong showing for the minimalist movement, Anchovies’ bars and beats are in perfect harmony. “Panties in a Jumble,” “The Aura,” “Dalai Lama Slang” featuring Willie the Kid, “Deep in the Casket,” “Fire” featuring Tristate, and “Nine Steamin'” featuring Guilty Simpson are a few of our favorite tracks.
Despite having passed two years ago, Sean Price proved to be hip-hop’s MVP in 2017. Besides appearing on a few of this list’s entries (as well as a couple of the year’s other prominent releases), he also dropped one of 2017’s best albums, hands down. P’s posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex sounds as deliberate and thought-out as any of his traditional studio releases, and features some of his most exciting work to date. On “Clans & Cliks,” two of hip-hop’s most respected super groups—Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik—form an alliance that would extend to other 2017 releases by P’s Heltah Skeltah group-mate Rock (Rockness A.P.) and Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa (Loyalty is Royalty), as well as Wu’s aforementioned project (The Saga Continues). Imperius Rex also pairs Ruck with other legends like Prodigy and Styles P on “The 3 Lyrical Ps,” as well as DOOM on “Negus.” Of course, his Boot Camp brethren and a few other longtime associates are featured, as well; Alchemist, Nottz, Harry Fraud and Marco Polo are among those who bless it with hard-hitting boom bap beats. Regardless, P spits some of his most memorable bars on solo offerings like “Definition of God,” “Rap Professor,” “Refrigerator P!” and the title track. Imperius Rex is full of straight bangers, back to back, from one of the underground’s most prolific artists—earning it the number one spot on our list. riP!