Schoolboy Q, 'Blank Face LP'
Kanye West, 'The Life of Pablo'
As strong as it is, “Controlla” is a borderline sequel mandated by the blockbuster success of Rihanna’s “Work.” Tough talk tracks like “Hype” feel prerequisite, retreading the ground covered by "The Language" and others “Child's Play” and “Still Here” coast on superior production. “9” and “Redemption” are the rare tracks that seem to genuinely probe Drake’s current state of mind. Nothing on Views is bad per se—Drake is too talented for that—but it’s rarely enough. Drake's set the bar too high with his past work.
If anyone pulled a big 180 this year, it was Rihanna. In the long, teasing wait for Rihanna’s eighth studio album, it was easy to get excited for another energy-filled, dance-floor-packing album, the sort that we’ve come to expect from the pop queen. Instead, Anti reimagined what Rihanna can do and what we should expect from her. The album is perfect bedroom pop, what you listen to while sprawled on your bed lamenting a lost love or fantasizing about a new one. Anti feels more complete than any of her previous albums, which often seemed like mere vehicles for No. 1 singles. Anti is the opposite of that (aside from "Work" her collab with Drake). It’s an album that’s worth listening all the way through, for the deep cuts and unexpected moments; you don’t want to miss the excellent cover of Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes” or the whiskey-soaked, last-call anthem, “Higher.”
Vocally, she’s never sounded better, and the stoner vibe makes so much sense, it’s amazing it hadn’t arrived earlier. But don’t be worried about the lack of bops—the bonus track “Sex With Me” is one of the best pop songs of the year.
Travis Scott, 'Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight'
“Find your balance,” Travis $cott intones on the fourth, and depending on the day, best track on his sophomore album. It’s advice the G.O.O.D. Music artist feels comfortable imparting to his rowdy constituents now that he’s finally found his own. The song is “Through the Late Night,” and it features Scott at long last rapping alongside his professed idol, Kid Cudi. After years of making his desire to collaborate plain, it’s hard not to fist pump for La Flame when he opens his verse with an homage to Cudi’s seminal breakout hit “Day n Nite.” It’s a triumph on an album that contains many, as Travis Scott finally delivered the real full-length crowd pleaser we knew he could.
No offense to Rodeo (still a great, wild ride that contains his best song to date), but it’s clear opening for the Weeknd and Rihanna while crafting Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight gave Travis a Kanye, Graduation-esque epiphany. The songwriting here is more precise and fine tuned, resulting in bangers that go bigger; there’s no doubt he’ll be refining his Rodeo Tour moshing for stadiums. More importantly, he’s reclaimed his ability to command attention solo. Sure, he gets out of the way to let André 3000 and Kendrick Lamar do their thing (as anyone should), and cherry-picks the best of the youth (21 Savage and especially NAV) for added sauce, but some of the album’s best songs—“Way Back,” “Sweet Sweet,” “Lose”—are done dolo. And in terms of production, only Kanye West himself could coordinate this many cooks in the kitchen to create such a unified, seamless sequence. Just try listening to one of the first four songs without having to play them all together.
During his set at Made in America shortly after the album dropped, Travis, who had been assigned only the festival’s second biggest space, commanded the crowd to turn up because he “ain’t no opening act.” With Birds, the protégé has definitively proven he’s main stage material.