1. “The Rain,” Noah-O and DJ Mentos (Charged Up Entertainment)
Noah-O’s latest release is the best hip-hop album of year, combining nonstop bars and crisp production. Partnering with DJ Mentos, Noah-O has found his best musical foil since Kleph Dollarz and “All Souled Out.” Steeped in classic soul samples and evoking RZA’s mid-’90s soundscapes, “The Rain” finds Noah-O at the height of his lyrical powers. He considers his experience as a Richmond hip-hop lifer throughout, while creating an album providing a template for the city’s hip-hop future.
2. “Beautiful Losers,” Ben FM and Ant the Symbol (Gritty City Records)
Hip-hop is rooted in dancing, in having fun and the party. The first litmus test of hip-hop was whether your friends — and then an ever-widening circle — liked your music: hip-hop as an inclusive inside joke. This looseness and sense of fun permeates “Beautiful Losers” in all its lo-fi, spaced-out glory. Ben FM and Ant the Symbol, formerly known as Just Plain Ant of the Just Plain Sounds collective, have created the feel-good album of the year through a shared sensibility of the absurd.
3. “No Hands Out,” Karmah (Goth Money Records)
Richmond’s Karmah makes music in the minor key. Full of dark, ominous beats, surprising production and impassioned vocals, this album shows how exciting and exhilarating trap music can be. Eschewing the monotone performance style of the likes of 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty, Karmah’s songs of paranoia, fear, drugs and violence are always on the edge of spinning out of control. “No Hands Out” shows Karmah’s promise as being the heirs of Gravediggaz and the Geto Boys.
4. “Escaping Reality,” Ms. Proper (Soundcloud, #HipHopMadeMeCool)
On her debut, Richmond’s Ms. Proper presents hip-hop as a method and practice of art and living. For Ms. Proper, “Escaping Reality” is the ability to speak about her life through music. Moving from somnolent R&B reminiscent of Tinashe to sped-up lyricism of Cam and China and everything in between, the release allows the space for Ms. Proper to showcase her artistry. Her album reinforces hip-hop’s ability to allow artists to imagine and re-imagine their history to make room for the future.
5. “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” Sik Sense (Fugitive 9)
This is a beat tape from Sik Sense of the Fugitive 9 collective based in Norfolk. The album encompasses a diverse range of sounds and ideas, showcasing Sik Sense’s production chops. Included are arrangements and quotations that borrow from smooth jazz and more traditional boom-bap hip-hop. With song titles such as “Break Building” and “Spray Can Trigger Finger,” Sik Sense locates his album within a longer hip-hop musical tradition. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” illustrates that hip-hop’s use of appropriation, sampling and commingling remain the touchstone of vital music making.