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While hip-hop has thus far been scarce on the music charts, this might just be the year for hidden gems and music that pushes the boundaries of its defined category. The Okayplayer staff returns with another mid-way check-in on the best albums that have been in heavy rotation in our headphones and wifi speakers spanning genres and tastes. Our staff picks highlight artists we haven’t seen in a while, like Janelle Monae, Killer Mike and Kelela, as well as those who released follow-ups to 2022 projects, like HiTech, IDK and Lloyd Banks.

In the year of hip-hop’s golden anniversary, as naysayers question the future and aptitude of the genre, the question is, does hip-hop really have to prove itself? Hip-hop’s roots and influence, which stretch back far beyond its official 1973 inception, are apparent across genres — from Black metal band Zulu to Liv.e’s melodic soul project, Girl in The Half Pearl. Still awaiting what the remainder of the year will offer, here are our current and collective best albums to date.

Elijah Watson, Sr. Culture and News Editor

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Zulu, A New Tomorrow
  2. Kelela, Raven
  3. Sexyy Red, Hood Hottest Princess
  4. Dinner Party, Enigmatic society
  5. HiTech, Détwat

I can’t really say there’s any real connective tissue between these except that I simply enjoy them, and they each have moments that have given me a rush. Zulu powerfully declaring “Everybody wants to be a nigga ’til it’s time to be” on “Fakin’ Tha Funk (You Get did).” Kelela sensually crooning “Oh, it’a sauna, here if you wanna,” over one of the best beats of the year — and in recent history — on “Contact.” The fucking hook of Sexyy Red’s “SkeeYee” (proceeds to randomly yell “Skee-yee” at no one in particular). The meditative groove of Dinner Party’s “For Granted.” And HiTech hilariously dedicating a catchy hook to all the Ghettotech aunties on the frenetic neck-breaker that is “Teetees Dispo.” Black artists across genres are making some of the most interesting music of the year (yeah, duh), and this sample selection is a reflection of that.

Shelby Stewart, Contributing Writer

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Navy Blue, Ways of Knowing
  2. Larry June & The Alchemist, The Great Escape
  3. Kari Faux, Real Bitches Don’t Die
  4. Young Nudy, Gumbo
  5. Don Toliver, Love Sick

This year has unquestionably fulfilled its promises for hip-hop enthusiasts. Despite the constant barrage of new releases, there is a distinct collection of albums that have genuinely captivated me and urged me to hit that repeat button. The common thread lies in the unique sonic presence of each album — from the weighty aura of Navy Blue’s Ways of Knowing to the brilliance exhibited on The Alchemist and Larry June’s The Great Escape, there’s an undeniable artistry that shines through in each one of these projects.

Geo Hagen, Editor-in-Chief

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Killer Mike, MikeMike
  2. Larry June + Alchemist, The Great Escape
  3. Skyzoo, Mind of a Saint
  4. Lloyd Banks, COTI 3
  5. IDK, F65

Honorable Mentions: Tyler the Creator – The Estate Sale, Ransom + Nicolas Craven – DC4

In my humble opinion, it’s been somewhat of a disappointing year to date for new hip-hop releases. With all the noise and excitement surrounding the 50th anniversary of the culture, perhaps my expectations were set a little too high. I was expecting the collective rap world to step up to the plate to prove that the state of the culture was strong, and also assure us there was tons of talent in the wings to propel us through the next half-century. A couple of months into 2023, I wisely re-calibrated my haughty expectations. But it’s not all bleak—the projects that have resonated with me and captured my imagination are the ones that displayed honesty, courage, creativity, good ol’ rhyming skills, and a willingness to buck the trends and break new ground.

Jaelani Turner-Williams, News Writer

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Brody Brown, The Kickback
  2. Popstar Benny, University!
  3. Kelela, Raven
  4. Maxo, Even God Has A Sense of Humor
  5. Ni’Jah, Kirby & Childish Gambino, Swarm
  6. Kari Faux, Real B*tches Don’t Die!
  7. Daniel Caesar, Never Enough
  8. Metro Boomin, Metro Boomin Presents Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
  9. Janelle Monáe, The Age of Pleasure
  10. Amaarae, Fountain Baby

Midway through 2023, my top picks emit a carefreeness that listeners have sought in the months post-lockdown. Compton-born R&B singer-songwriter Brody Brown – known for his work with Bruno Mars – impressed with the throwback West Coast sounds of his debut album, The Kickback. Atlanta producer Popstar Benny chose his best fighters in underground rap across video game samples on the whimsical University! Assuming the role of fictional artist Ni’Jah, Mississippi-raised funkateer KIRBY let her creative freedom ride high on the Swarm EP. These ten releases show artists within hip-hop, Afropop, electronic and more pushing the envelope in new and unexpected ways.

Ashley Simpo, Managing Editor

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Janelle Monae, The Age of Pleasure
  2. Kali Uchis, Red Moon in Venus
  3. Larry June + The Alchemist, The Great Escape
  4. Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Real Book
  5. Killer Mike, Michael
  6. Bonus: When the poems do what they do, aja monet

This year so far, music has carried me through a lot of healing and growth as I stepped into a decade-defining birthday (the big 3-9). As someone who leans heavily into classic throwbacks and is still processing the musical salad of 2022, my picks are a selection of the few new projects I consume and return to over and over without apology. The forgiveness evoked by Kali Uchis I Wish You Roses; Killer Mike’s striking storytelling in SOMETHING FOR THE JUNKIES; and because I live and breathe prose, aja monet’s, black joy, felt like a balm against a constantly wounding news cycle.

Travis Grier, Contributing Writer

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Jordan Ward, ‘FORWARD’
  2. Mac Ayres, Comfortable Enough
  3. Khamari, A Brief Nirvana
  4. Maeta, When I Hear Your Name
  5. Don Toliver, Love Sick

While the uninformed tirelessly debates if “R&B is dead,” there are seasoned and new acts who are continuously proving that the genre is alive and well. With vulnerability, self-awareness and love being common themes across some of the genre’s best in 2023, what shines the most is the vastly expanding sound of R&B that further showcases its versatility. From Jordan Ward’s genre-bending on his FORWARD debut to Kamari’s nostalgic presence on A Brief Nirvana, it’s not a reach to say that R&B is running laps around everyone else.

Dimas Sanfiorenzo, Editorial Director

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Sexyy Red, Hood Hottest Princess
  2. Asake, Work of Art
  3. Young Nudy, Gumbo
  4. Liv.e, Girl in the Half Pearl
  5. Kelela, Raven

Humbling to admit, but at this sedated stage in my life, I don’t have the patience for music that is too conservative. I need stuff that’s going to melt my brain a bit. The albums I played the most in 2023 came from two types of artists: fearless rookies and sophomores on the fringes who are still figuring their shit out, and veterans operating on their own time, who have not been beaten down by the relentless content ecosystem. Each artist, and their respective albums, share a sense of reckless abandonment that is mostly missing from music.

Brandon Hill, Editorial Assistant

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. B. Cool-Aid, Leather Blvd.
  2. Navy Blue, Ways of Knowing
  3. Jack Harlow, Jackman.
  4. Arlo Parks, My Soft Machine
  5. Black Thought & El Michels Affair, Dangerous Game

My mid-year best-of betraying just how inside I’ve been this year. The smooth and psychedelic Leather Blvd. was best in the background, burning through a desk lamp on deadline. Though, singles like “soundgood” still found their place on phone speakers in circles behind my favorite post-shift pub. Navy Blue and Black Thought accompanied commuter introspection, whether parsing their minds or my own. Arlo Parks stays beautiful, and Jack Harlow really did his thing with this one.

Tommy Gamba-Ellis, Editorial Intern

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Dominic Fike, Sunburn
  2. Daniel Cesar, NEVER ENOUGH
  3. Tyler, The Creator, CMIYGL: The Estate Sale
  4. Lil Uzi Vert, Pink Tape
  5. redveil, playing w/ fire

Each of my favorite albums so far this year could not be more different than each other. However, the one thing that does connect them all together is the fact that they play on excellent instrumentals for their respective genres. Every album creates an immersive feeling when listening through your headphones which is definitely from the instrumental being complete. Each artist has evolved so much throughout their tenure, truly creating their own unique sound in the process.

Zo, Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Artist

  1. Arthur Russell, Picture of Bunny Rabbit
  2. Liv.e, Girl in the Half Pearl
  3. billy woods and Kenny Segal, Maps
  4. Maxo, Even God Had a Sense of Humor
  5. Kelela, Raven

If there’s anything that threads the albums I’ve returned to this year, it’s probably some combination of intimacy, experimentation, and demonstrated growth. The latest Arthur Russell compilation presents yet another precious portrait of the DIY pop godfather distilling new wave, disco, and modern classical, into singular, searching, and nearly-divine deconstructions. On Girl In The Half Pearl, Liv.e grapples with her own processing, pushing through cold truths and embracing even her most unsavory tendencies in a transformative exploration of high-voltage dance music and self.

With their warm and weird destination-rap odyssey, Maps, billy woods and Kenny Segal, trade in the claustrophobia of their previous collaborative outing, Hiding Places, for open roads, dusty rest stops, and uneven access to appropriately-priced weed. On Even God Has a Sense of Humor, Maxo sits in the discomfort of the terminally unresolved, mining grief, gratitude, and an expanded sense of life’s complexity, in a stirring, sobering, and vital, sophomore outing. And on her 2023 entry, Raven, Kelela reemerges amidst a full-blown house and techno renaissance as one of dance music’s modern masters, briskly gliding over a stunningly fluid, tender, and seamless, 15-track opus of deep synth spells and drum-and-bass testimonials.

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