I have a very poor handle on what is popular. I don’t listen to the radio, but rather discover music by stalking the Spotify playlists of a few select tastemakers who will remain unnamed. While this leads to some embarrassing situations—such as freaking out when I discovered the beauty of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” at a party almost a year after its debut—I also happen to be the Deep Cut Queen.
As I wrote in my article on The Nastiest Women in Hip-Hop, 2016 has been phenomenal for music. We have all fallen in love with Lemonade and The Life of Pablo and Anti and Blonde and A Seat at The Table—if you haven’t, get out from under that rock (I guess I shouldn’t judge; I still have no idea what Westworld is). But for every “Fade” and “Needed Me,” there is a lesser-known track that bumps in equal measures.
Below, check out a list of 10 exceptional cuts from 2016 that you may have missed.
Listen to all of them here.
Solange - “Scales” ft. Kelela
Music in 2016 has been exceptional for everyone, but it’s been especially great for the Knowles sisters. A Seat at the Table and Lemonade are both sonically exciting celebrations of black excellence, as well as poignant expressions of pain. While I appreciate Beyoncé as a fellow Virgo and crafter of hits (“Drunk in Love” remains among the greatest songs to ever grace my ears), I’ve always preferred the less robotic and more free-spirited Knowles sister (I’ll never forget reading the 2012 Vultureprofile portraying Solange “dodging stray cats and leaping over puddles” while weaving the writer through Brooklyn projects). On “Scales,” Solange joins fellow indie R&B goddess Kelela in what Pitchforkdeemed “a slow-burning duet,” simultaneously a “sex jam” and a display of “shine-theory”—the following maxim coined by The Cut in 2013: “When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her.” Amen.
Young Thug - “Harambe”
“Harambe” isn’t his most famous song of 2016, but it feels the most quintessentially Thugger (now, Jeffrey). Named for the silverback gorilla whose slaughter at the Cincinnati Zoo went viral this spring, no track better showcases the artist’s hypnotic flow, which the NPR called “Lil Wayne meets Looney Tunes on acid,” likening his “vocal contortions” to “mid-career Thom Yorke.” At 2:10, Thug begins to sound like a non-human creature as he belts: “Fuck it, I’m changin’ up on ‘em / but my fans, not changin’ on ‘em.” He’s shed Young Thug in favor of his birth name (at least for now), but as his unhinged flow suggests, his style remains as strong as ever.
Kaytranada - “Bus Ride” ft. Karriem Riggins & River Tiber
I could have sworn I was listening to MF Doom’s Special Herbs when I first heard Kaytranada’s “Bus Ride,” a quietly beautiful single off the Montreal artist’s killer album, 99.9%. I’ve been tracking the Canadian-Haitian producer’s career since 2012, when his remixes of Missy Elliott’s “Sock It 2 Me” and Nelly Furtado’s “Say it Right” stole my heart; a fangirl heart that swelled last year when The Internet’s exceptional album Ego Death contained, as a highlight, a Kaytranada-produced single (“Girl”). And this year, I experienced serious stage-mom pride when Kaytra’s debut studio album dropped to widespread critical acclaim, eventually snatching the 2016 Polaris Music Prize. While 99.9% is chock full of bangers (“Glowed Up,” “Drive Me Crazy,” “Lite Spots”), “Bus Ride” shows Kaytra’s softer side: the artist’s aim was “to make a Jazz sounding song to listen to while I take the bus/subway to go Montreal downtown.”
Danny Brown - “Pneumonia”
The haunting music video for “Pneumonia” depicts Danny Brown suspended by metal chains interposed with ‘80s footage of Ronald Reagan. Deemed by critics as “unsettling,” “outré” and “impenetrable,” the songs on Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition aren’t exactly club-ready (Brown cites Joy Division, Björk and Talking Heads as his primary inspirations), but their energetic outlaw spirit is perfect for feeling powerful—which lord knows outsiders need right now. Brown explained to Rolling Stone why he chose to name the album after the Joy Division song of the same name: “[Ian Curtis is] pretty much talking about how he feels like he's part of a freak show almost [….] I totally relate to that.”
Vince Staples - “War Ready”
Like Danny, Vince Staples is another artist who woos critics yet shows no interest in crafting radio hits. This year’s Prima Donna continues Staples’ knack for stark beats and a nihilistic portrayal of violence. On “War Ready,” the project’s strongest cut, British post-dub producer James Blake chops up a sample of “ATLiens”: “softly as if I played piano in the dark […] put my glock away, I got a stronger weapon.” André 3000’s poetic lyrics provide a flicker of hope on Staples’ otherwise desolate album: maybe words can set us free.
Kodak Black - “Can I”
Kodak Black’s Lil Big Pac—one of 2016’s strongest albums—has a tender, emotional depth surprising for a Florida rapper who lists Boosie Badazz and Chief Keef as his heroes. While “Vibin in This Bih” (which features Gucci Mane) is the obvious banger, on “Can I,” Kodak taps into his softer side. In a song about his tough street life, he asks his potential lover: “If I tell you how I feel, can I fuck? / I’m really in the field so I need someone to hug / I’m out here for real so I be needin’ a little love.” Sadly, the 19-year-old MC is currently serving time in a Florida jail after being sentenced for drug charges this fall. Free Kodak!
Duckwrth - “Rare Panther”
I'm still shocked that Duckwrth’s “Rare Panther” hasn’t blown the fuck up. I had the privilege of interviewing the self-proclaimed weirdo this summer, chatting while Duck skipped around Highland Park being photographed and eating gluten-free donuts. He DJ’d while I drove him back to his birthplace and current home in South Central, playing everything from hardcore ‘80s punk group Bad Brains, to post-minimalist composer John Adams, to his own music. Duckwrth hits his phantasmagoric stride in “Rare Panther,” which melds Skateboard P’s vivid wordplay, André 3000’s melodic flow, and Frank Ocean’s decadent croon.
Jeremih - "Belgium (Get Down)"
Jeremih’s Late Nights: Europe reveals a poor grasp of geography (the mixtape opens with tracks entitled “Dubai” and “Lebanon”), but is filled with bangers I’m shocked haven’t received more attention. While “Oslo” and “Paris” bump, the mixtape’s standout track is “Belgium (Get Down),” a riff on footwork hero Traxman’s “Get Down Lil’ Momma.” On it, we see Jeremih energetically embrace his Chicago roots on a juke beat that could light up any dance floor with aplomb.
Rae Sremmurd - “Do Yoga”
The lyrics are silly (“All my girls do yoga, hey / then get high at night”), but Mike WiLL’s woozy synths and sparse piano infected my ears from the first time I heard the SremmLife 2 closer. While the brothers are based in Atlanta, I can’t imagine a more Los Angeles song: at least as I’ve experienced the City of Angels—the land of crystal healing chainsmokers, where it’s believed that any drug consumed can be eviscerated by the right cocktail of probiotics and downward facing dog. While “Black Beatles” dominated the charts (and nabbed a Nicki remix), “Do Yoga” stole my heart. Stretch!
NxWorries (Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge) - “Best One”
I’ve been eating up Knxwledge’s J Dilla-esque beats for years. I also watched Anderson .Paak rock a tiny Oakland music festival just a few months before Malibu dropped, paving the way for him to rock the festival circuit and tour the world in 2016. While .Paak (“The Dot Stands For Detail”) has since been thrown into the spotlight, both musicians have historically thrived behind high-profile curtains. .Paak was heavily featured on Dr. Dre’s Compton, while Knxweldge co-produced “Momma” from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. On Yes Lawd!, .Paak’s energetic vocals and Knxweldge’s glitchy beats find perfect harmony—”Best One” appropriately finds their collaboration at its best.
By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.