Last month, Nathan and Yoh debated whether albums are still alive in 2016. Nathan had a point: albums like Blonde and Coloring Book (I’d throw A Seat at the Table and Atrocity Exhibition in there, too) proved that full-length projects can still make a huge impact, commercially or conversationally (sometimes both).
But Yoh was also right when he said album sales are sinking to historic lows and playlists are becoming an increasingly common way for people to consume music in today’s streaming-dominant landscape. Even Drake, who dropped one of the biggest albums of the year—if not the biggest—understands the importance of catering to the playlist market.
We’re in a weird place in music, where albums create moments and spark conversations but are still dissected and pilfered for playlist purposes. You’d think this singles-driven mentality would make album intros more obsolete, but some of the biggest moments this year came from opening songs. From Kanye West bringing “Ultralight Beam” to life on SNL to Gucci Mane making his grand (and sober) return on “No Sleep,” albums—and album intros—still matter.
Here are the 10 best rap album intros of 2016, ranked.
10. Mick Jenkins - "The Healing Component"
For an artist so sophisticated, Mick Jenkins has a relatively simple message: spread love. This concept is often buried in metaphors and double entendres that make a Genius annotator’s job a nightmare, but it’s always wrapped in truth. “For this water, for this truth / Tryna put some love into everything I do,” Mick raps on “The Healing Component,” the blood-pumping intro to his latest album. The song showcases the Chicago native’s soothing vocals, versatile flows and devious penmanship over wavy production from THEMPeople and Rascal. But more importantly, it functions as a mission statement for who Mick Jenkins is as an artist, person and lover: “I don’t think everybody even agrees on what love is or what love looks like, whether it be in the street or personally,” he says on “The Healing Component”’s conversational outro. “And that’s just a conversation that needs to be had and that’s just what I wanna do, is start a conversation.”
9. Joey Purp - "Morning Sex"
There are few things better to wake up to than morning sex, and there’s few better ways to kickstart your breakout mixtape than with “Morning Sex.” Forget canoodling under the covers, though; the only pleasure Joey Purp takes is from him and his loved ones staying alive for another day: “I pop a toe tag and buy the bag for you / Hope they don’t forget you / Hope the bullets miss you.” You’ll be screaming out for eye drops (pun intended) if you’ve seen what Joey’s seen (“I done seen a n*gga killed, and seen a n*gga killing a n*gga”), but he channels that trauma into a crafty, confident verse. OddCouple’s Phoenix Express-sampling production, meanwhile, hits hard like a Just Blaze special and sets up SaveMoney’s secret weapon to drop one of the best sleeper projects of the year.
8. A$AP Mob - "Yamborghini High" ft. Juicy J
Cozy Tapes Vol. 1 was an album made by—rather than for—A$AP Yams, but it was only right that the Mob poured one out for their late leader on the thumping posse cut, “Yamborghini High.” The album version begins with hilarious dialogue that you might hear in any Harlem bodega on any given day, where corny dudes misusing the term “cozy” is discussed over a chopped cheese and some frontos—a nod to Yams’ heart and heritage. The song's subtle celebration of lean ("Dibble dabble with the lean / Hi-Tech with the cream soda") feels problematic considering it contributed to Yams’ death, but this is exactly how he’d want his brothers to be living in his absence: rocking Raf, fornicating with foreign hoes and getting Yamborghini high.
7. Skepta - "Konnichiwa"
The sounds of slashing swords, splashing water and a soothing Japenese voice—“Konnichiwa” opens like a leftover from GZA’s Liquid Swords. Turns out it was just the calm before the storm as Skepta bursts in with all the tenacity of a grime legend who’s finally found his voice (“Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin cause that’s not me,” he rapped on 2014’s “That’s Not Me”). From ex-girlfriends and rival emcees to politicians and the police, the BBK boss leaves no enemy unbruised as he reclaims his place at the top of grime’s totem pole on this ferocious intro. His Konnichiwa album may not have made the same dent in the states as it did in the UK, but Skepta’s days of saturating his sound for bigger success are over: “And if you don’t like it then fuck me.” And fuck you if you don’t.
6. Young Thug - "With Them"
It’s impossible to separate “With Them” from Kanye West’s spectacular/surreal Yeezy Season 3 show/The Life of Pablo listening session at New York’s Madison Square Garden. After running through his own album, Yeezy handed the aux cord to Young Thug (which must have felt like when Harry Potter held Fawkes' wand for the first time in The Philosopher's Stone), who debuted this very song for the MSG audience. The Yeezy models were under strict instructions not to dance, smile or even make “sharp movements” (fashion game crazy, bro), but some of them just couldn’t help themselves from breaking character when “With Them” started playing. Who could blame them? With the combination of Young Thug’s slippery flow and Mike WiLL Made-It’s bouncy beat, “With Them” should only be played at ignorant levels in public.
5. Danny Brown - "Downward Spiral"
Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most unique, gripping albums of the year, and that was made clear from the jump. On “Downward Spiral,” we find the Detroit rapper holed up in a dingy room, living in squalor and self-loathing. His imagery is graphic, unflinching and downright disgusting: “Couldn’t it get hard, tried to stuff it in soft / Had to fuck em both raw, keep my fingers crossed.” It’s like that scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt has loud, filthy sex with Helena Bonham Carter, only Danny is both sides of Tyler Durden’s character. There are heart-breaking lows behind the head-spinning highs (“Cause when I’m all alone, feel like no one care / Isolate myself and don’t go nowhere”), but Danny proves he hasn’t completely lost his sanity when he snarls, “I eat these fucking rappers like fucking last steak.” No other rapper alive could cook a dish like this.
4. A Tribe Called Quest - "The Space Program"
We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service was the group’s first album in almost two decades, but “The Space Program” was proof that neither time, tension nor tragedy could diminish the doctrine of A Tribe Called Quest. “It’s time to go left and not right,” are the first and most fitting words uttered on the album by Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, together, signifying the end of a long feud between the two Queens kids who used to kick routines on the boulevard of Linden. Even before the album had properly launched, “The Space Program” was designed to get us thinking. “They taking off to Mars, got the space vessels overflowing / What, you think they want us there? All us n*ggas not going,” raps Jarobi, sounding sharper than ever after a 26-year hiatus from recording with the group. Whether that’s literal or metaphorical, Tribe hijacks the ship and take us into the stratosphere anyway on “The Space Program”’s soaring outro.
3. Chance The Rapper - "All We Got" ft. Kanye West & the Chicago Children's Choir
After giving the stage—literally—to Chance The Rapper on The Life of Pablo’s celestial intro “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West returned the favor a month later on “All We Got,” the beautiful, bombastic opener of Chance’s long-awaited mixtape Coloring Book. The songs feel fraternal, only “All We Got” is an ode to Chance and Kanye’s love outside of church: “Music is all we got, so we might as well give it all we got.” The poor mixing and Kanye’s Optimus Prime vocals may be a little rough on the ears, but it’s impossible to not take joy in Chance calling Beyoncé “Auntie Yoncé” and teasing the Devil with a swirly.
“All We Got” is not just a song about finding what you love and giving it your all, though; it’s a testament to Chance The Rapper's Messiah-like mission to heal the world: “The last two months before the project came out, [the line was] ‘Life was never perfect,’” Chance toldGQ. “And I remember, the last week I was like, ‘Let me go in there and do a dub’ and say, ‘Man, I swear my life is perfect.’ Because I don’t know if I really want people repeating that and thinking that and shouting that to me from the crowd on a stage. ‘Life was never perfect.’ Life is perfect! You know?”
2. Gucci Mane - "No Sleep"
This year felt like one long funeral for music legends with Prince, David Bowie and Phife Dawg all passing away. But 2016 also marked the return—better yet, the rebirth—of another icon, Gucci Mane. Leaner, meaner and freer, all eyes were on Radric Davis as he made his post-prison comeback with Everybody Looking in June. “No Sleep” sounded like a familiar M.O. for a rap kingpin who has over 70 mixtapes under his belt, but the thunderous opener introduced us to a brand new Gucci Mane, sober and sharper than ever. Mike WiLL Made-It and Zaytoven’s shimmering production boomed like an ATLien invasion, while Guwop shot down any absurd claim that there was a government clone hiding behind his newly athletic frame: “Fuck the feds, fuck the police, fuck the DEA!”
1. Kanye West - "Ultralight Beam" ft. Chance The Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price & Kirk Franklin
Kanye West describedThe Life of Pablo as “a gospel album,” but with a shrieking Nike diss song and talk of bleached assholes, maybe that wasn’t entirely accurate. Still, “Ultralight Beam” was the most divine moment in music in 2016. Joined by The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and four-year-old Natalie Green who caught the Holy Ghost with both hands, Yeezus delivered a touching prayer that the world—not least Kanye himself—needed more than ever this year. However, it was Kanye’s best prodigy who silenced the congregation (“This is my part, nobody else speak”) and stole the show with a verse that radiated with the same soulful spirit of his college dropout hero. “Ultralight Beam” was the first in a string of special collaborations between the Chicago pair this year, but it’s hard to remember what it felt like when Chance The Rapper and Kanye West weren’t spreading the gospel together. This really was everything.
By Andy James. You can follow on Twitter.