My father always said “You can’t spell crap without rap,” and though, like a good teenager I suspected he was wrong, I stayed away from hip-hop for most of my young life. It might’ve been the haunting time I first heard Eminem’s “Stan”--at thirteen, in an acquaintance’s basement, the lights for some reason off, while outside it poured--that soured me. It might have been that I was a middle class white boy, and something told me, rightfully so, that this music wasn’t made for me. It might have been curse words. Whatever reason, I instead got really into music with screamed lyrics, where meanings and phonemes were indecipherable. Serious, dark, death-obsessed hardcore/metal was my safe place. But rap? That was scary.

Something, like so many things, changed in college, and I fell weirdly in love with this rapper who wore a metal mask. This was also when I began reading seriously, closely, deeply, and when I started considering sentences, connotations, jokes, jibes, and irony. Words suddenly mattered, and I needed more of them in my music.

Eight years later, I’m still hooked. The reasons are myriad, but I’ll just say: there’s something goddamn rhythmic about the word “motherfucker.” Though I still lean more toward rap that’s clean, toward lyricists who stick to the linguistically gymnastic, I’ve grown to appreciate (most) all of it. My favorite rappers inspire me to write better, and I don’t care how corny that sounds. I also don’t care how corny it sounds that I sometimes wish my dad would use that crap without rap line on me again, just so I could say, “You know what else you can’t spell without rap? ...


Anyway, here are some rhymes that have stuck in my head the most this year.

1| MIKE, “Somebody Please” from May God Bless Your Hustle

Moving stunned and alone; there’s one percent on my phone

I should use it to call mama, tell her I wish she was home

MIKE is eighteen. MIKE is the most honest rapper I’ve heard. His album is my favorite anything released in 2017 (even more than Stephen Florida).

2| Brockhampton, “Chick” from Saturation II

I ain’t afraid of the heights, they all afraid to appall

I’m just afraid of exciting being a trip to the mall

Brockhampton is a 14-person rap group who call themselves the internet’s first boy band. They met on a Kanye fansite message board. They’re wild and hilarious. A fuck-you to hollow glam rappers, this rhyme by Don McClennon makes me laugh every time.

3| Smino ft. Noname, “Amphetamine” from blkswn

Thank you Jesus, whoever you are

I know you gifted me the gift of gab and simile

And simpleness, the solitude is loneliness

Been good to me

This is an 8-minute track with so many different acts that this one song feels like its own album. The high point is when featured rapper Noname (my rapper of the year in 2016) delivers a verse bursting with gratitude and joy.

4| Milo, “Yet Another,” from Who Told You to Think?!?!

Yet another, American Apparel tune

Feral coon, cat scratch fever in a sterile room

Reviewing Tim Kaine's relationship goals while peril looms

My materials will fail me soon

And yet still complete as a apple core

Rap remind me of the Apple Store

Too many geeks selling trinkets in uniform

Clay under my fingernails

Etched it in cuneiform

Break out the nae-nae, then the Methuselah pop

And I feel like Arthur Miller when The Crucible drop

The tragic mulatto is neither

Ajamu Baraka with a scyther

We are no longer an ordinary peoples

Occupy myself like an off-roading vehicle

Milo is probably not the rapper for you. That’s actually his catchphrase. He’s heady, associative, and could care less if anyone understands (or likes) his off-kilter music. Me? I love it. Honestly, I tried to pick a smaller snippet, but this whole verse is pure gold. The allusions alone are wild, funny, confusing, cosmic, and I notice something new in it every time I listen.

5| Kendrick Lamar, “XXX” from DAMN.

It’s nasty when you set us up

Then roll the dice, then bet us up

You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us

Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera

America's reflections of me, that's what a mirror does

Kendrick is the best rapper of my generation. Don’t @ me. This was my most anticipated album of the year, but when I saw that he had a song featuring U2, I was like, “Oh God, this is going to be worse than when he featured on that Maroon 5 song.” Turns out, this song has some truly incredible movements in it, and K’s final verse is the best moment on the album. (Bono’s hook doesn’t even suck.)

6| Jay-Z, “The Story of O.J.” from 4:44

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m OJ.”


If Kendrick is my favorite rapper right now, Jay-Z is my favorite of all time. 4:44 was more disappointing than it was impressive, but the first bar on this song is the funniest thing I’ve heard this year—it’s sublimely clever and so voicey.

7| Rhapsody, “Laila’s Wisdom” from Laila’s Wisdom

I was told to be the flow and not follow it; why y’all acting?

I’m the better version of what you used to think and call talent

I been bankin, check my balance

You a bet away from skidrow

I owe Sallie Mae but owe my people way more

Rhapsody’s new album is herculean in so many ways. The fourteen songs are all long, in-depth, packed to the gills with slick rhymes. She’s been around for awhile, but it seems Laila’s Wisdom has put her on the map. Love that she can brag in one line and admit to dealing with school loans in the next. I think that the common denominator among the rap I listen to is honesty.

8| Deem Spencer, “Eve’s Titties” from We Think We Alone

When the love who taught me how to dance left,

I stopped dancing and died quickly

I wanna come back as a small leaf of a fig tree

covering Eve’s titties

and I save the world by whispering “Don’t do it”

Deem Spencer is another young-as-hell rapper who only writes songs bereft of artifice. Following his mind through a verse is like riding a roller coaster in the dark. The first sentence in this song (“When...quickly.”) could easily be the opening line to an Amy Hempel story.

9| MF DOOM (ft. Kool Keith), “Notebook 04,” from The Missing Notebook Rhymes

In the mix of trapping and gun-clapping

DOOM, 25 years in, sun-slapping

Wrote the key to life down on some napkin

In the intro I mentioned a masked-rapper. Meet MF DOOM, if you haven’t already. And if you haven’t already, read this amazing profile by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the New Yorker. Anyway, MF DOOM will always be my rap hero—an imitable but authentic character whose vocabulary can go from high-brow to low-brow within a single phrase.

10| MIKE ft. Johnny U, “Paul” from May God Bless Your Hustle

When it break your jaw, mandible

Make your face Hannibal

Face it, we all animals

Facing a whole handful of something random

And damn it’s hidden

I had to choose two songs from this album. (Sorry, but I almost chose three.) Anyway, these lines don’t come from MIKE but from his feature, Johnny U, who appears twice on the album and kills it both times. My favorite thing about featured rappers is when they come on and out-do the main artist. Listen, you can get this album FOR FREE, but once you hear the whole thing, you’re going to want to pay at least ten bucks for it.

Tyler is the author of the LF story, “Backwards Advice” and is the co-founder of FEAR NO LIT, a literary organization doing some very cool, very needed stuff (you might know them from their Submerging Writer Fellowship or their Show Your Work podcast). Maybe one day we’ll all also know Tyler from his career in literary hip-hop (soon to be a thing).

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