Let me start this off by saying this is a list of favorites. These year end lists, while interesting, are sucking the life out of my music intake this year. I have ignored most of them, but I can’t help looking at some of the articles. The one I enjoyed and agreed with the most was Pigeons + Planes. The most God awful one was Hip Hop DX. But I digress.
I would also like to state that I’m sure I missed some noteworthy projects. One of the rules I put into place while making this list was to ONLY include free projects (either streaming or free download.) I didn’t include the obvious like Coloring Book (Chance The Rapper) Bucket List (Saba) and anything from Vic Mensa, Towkio, Noname, Sterling Hayes, Mick Jenkins, The Chance x Jeremih tape etc etc. If there was a noteworthy album/project that you don’t see here…trust me, I probably loved it. I wanted to focus on the tapes that deserved more shine and that you may not be aware of.
The output this year from the Chicago scene was absolutely incredible. I quiet honestly couldn’t keep up…hence why I’m sure I’ve missed tapes that even I’ve played from time to time. Below are the ones that I have kept in pretty frequent rotation. I also put some standout cuts at the bottom of the write up, so if you don’t want to play the whole thing you can have some songs to start with. I hope you enjoy it.
ALSO – We made another year end list…our 50 favorite loose cuts out of Chicago this year. Check that out here.
Josh K – Black Balloons
Josh K delivered one of the most overlooked quality r&b/hip hop projects of the year. The production is incredible; mostly handled by C Sick. I compare the project to 6lack’s FREE 6LACK project, but quiet honestly Josh covers more ground and stays more consistent throughout the LP. His vocal range is deeper and there is more substance to his voice. He’s even got a feature from Fab and outshines him.
Essential: If You Don’t, Ashamed + After
Adamn Kills – Back 2 Ballin
Adamn is an acquired taste. He has gained quiet a lot of attention (although the buzz has gotten quieter in the last few months) and it all started with this tape. If you’ve heard any of his work you’ll know he doesn’t sound like any other artist… not only in the hip hop spectrum but in music period. I throughly enjoyed this project. He came out with Mr. 650 at the end of this year, but B2B will always hold a special place in my heart.
Essential: Luol Deng, Shawn Kemp, + My Stance
Air Credits – Broadcasted
Damn, I love this project. When the singles started hitting SoundCloud I knew it was going to be something special. Air Credits is made up of ShowYouSuck and The Hood Internet whom are legends in their own right. So many genres are covered in the 15 track project…listening in full is a trip. It is meant to be played all the way through so I highly recommend doing that. The group has been touring like crazy and their performance on stage is out of this world. They are actually hitting Lincoln Hall in Chicago today which should be a great way to kick off the new year. There are still a few dates coming up so check them out here.
Essential: Camaro, All I Need Pt. 2 + Passport
Appleby – Down Dance
The mysterious sensation Appleby has been drawing attention since 2015 when he released some singles off SoundCloud. Everyone from The Source to Pigeons and Planes to Maxim covered him, singing his praises but also trying to understand who this guy was. His debut Mask + Lies was set to drop in late 2015, but instead we were hit with Down Dance at the top of the year. I’m not complaining… the 4 track EP was incredible. It was a lo- fi wonderland (excluding Castles which happens to be my favorite track on the project.) Elias Abid has his hands all over DD (production wise), and Iris killed his feature on Random Love. Here’s hoping a full length comes in 2017.
Essential: THE ENTIRE THING
Castro – Arrogant
I hadn’t heard of Castro until the good people over at FSD posted his tape in May. He eerily sounds a lot like King Louie but is clearly not biting as dude shows up on the third track Dirty Money. The project will keep you amped up for the entire 10 tracks thanks to BlockOnDaTrakk’s excellent production across the board. Castro has tons of energy with a squeaky yet passionate voice. The subject matter is a little limited, but it’s one of the best street tapes of the year.
Essential: Arrogant, Money All I Need + Standby
DGainz – Oddball
Oddball is such an underrated project…I can’t stress that enough. Gainz has been a staple in the Chicago scene with his music videos but has really proved himself as an artist. This tape is him at his best. Manipulated and auto-tone vocals can be overplayed, but Gainz makes it sounds extremely catchy. There are many songs that don’t use any of those elements including my favorite song, 1017. He has such a nice range of styles and can execute any beat with ease.
Essential: 1017, Ain’t Been + Potholes
femdot – fo(u)r. thr (we). to (u.)
If you are a hip hop fan, you’ve probably heard of femdot. He dropped 3 incredible projects just this year and I couldn’t pick one over the other. I’ve had all of them in heavy rotation and for good reason. He is a bright voice in the Chicago scene and has made it on the national level as well. His production choices are impeccable. Dude is soulful and enjoys samples. He’s called D. Phelps on for a ton of songs over the 3 EP’s and it’s clear they mesh well. If I HAD to choose between the three it would be to (u). As I wrote about in my extensive review of the project, it’s his most focused tape to date speaking on his most relatable topics. He delves deep into relationship issues evoking a narrative in a certain part of his life. He’s made all of the tapes available for free download so hop on that while you still can.
thr (we). – onourown
fo(u)r. – doomsday/shawnee’s intro
to (u.) – The EP is meant to be played all the way through
Jaro – La Bleue
Jaro is quiet possibly my favorite producer out of Chicago. He works his ass off every year, but 2016 saw some of his best work yet. He dropped two EP’s this year (along with a slew of singles with production credit) titled La Bleue and la rouge ep. Both were great, but my favorite was Bleue. I did hear it as a more accessible project. All of the featured artists did their job extremely well. The cool thing about Jaro is he seems to have an organic relationship with everyone he puts on his songs. His work with Beach Jesus was my introduction to the beat smith and I enjoyed his electronica tinged tracks. he’s really been stepping up his instrumentals, and is as versatile as ever.
Essential: Low Lights + Bad Guy
Jayaire Woods – FREETHEFALL
Getting a premiere on Compex.com is pretty dope. They seemed to love FREETHEFALL and I enjoyed it just as much. I would call it a psychedelic trap influenced project that has a host of different instrumentals. Jayaire is a unique artist incorporating rap and some crooning. He sounds confident in whatever he records. He even got a feature with Lil Yachty that stands as one of the strongest tracks on the tape. Just a few months ago he dropped my favorite song in his discography titled Feel which I highly recommend checking out.
Essential: PSA, Man Of The Year, Breathe
Jeremih – Late Nights: Europe
I haven’t found a Jeremih project that I haven’t liked (even his debut project was great.) He really stepped it up on his mixtape Late Night: Europe. There is so much to love here. He is the master of the “new wave” of r&b. The tape came out in the summer and I heard it bumping out of cars all around Chicago. The dude is obviously respected far and wide. The tape was created in just a few weeks as a celebration all of the time he has spent abroad.
While there are some issues with features (Wiz + K Camp) the project is very polished. Friends of mine said the songs were too one sided as they are mostly about sex. While this is true, it sounds great from the production to his always on point vocals.
Essential: Paris (Who Taught You), Berlin (She Wit It), + Belgium (Get Down)
JR Donato – Why So Serious?
I’m going to get this out of the way. I’m not a fan of Taylor Gang. In my humble opinion they have fell off and nothing they are putting out sounds well thought out. Their acquisition of Lil Uzi seriously made me cringe, but it is what it is. Putting that aside, JR is one of the most promising artists out of the collective. Why So Serious? is a short but sweet project where JR shows his best self. This isn’t a flawless tape by any means, but it was a guilty pleasure for me. Some cuts were just not good, but I sincerely enjoyed playing it through when I wanted some background noise. There are some songs to pay attention to which I’ll list below.
Essential: I’m Back On It + Lemme Show You
K.eYe.D – Pools Closing
This project is so dope. It’s 8 tracks of pure hip hop goodness fueled by Thelonious Martin’s sample heavy production that is just getting better and better. K.eYe.D has an impeccable way of spitting poetics in a way that keeps you captivated all the way through. He has a laid back flow, but can get energetic like on track #6. There is also some vocal variation. I would call the album abstract, but is also easy to play through. I am PRAYING this comes out vinyl, but until then stream above.
Essential: Rotation, Flashing Lights/AMiDROWNING + POOLSCLOSING.
Lil Trav – Trav Goku
The first time I heard this I played it so much it was a bit sickening. I truly saw it as a pop album.. almost every song was catchy. It makes sense as Trav is one half of Sicko Mobb, one of the best duos out of Chicago. They make great party music so it was only right Trav continued the theme. He keeps the melodic approach going throughout the tape and damn it’s addicting. I will say some cuts were a little rough, but overall it was pretty flawless.
Essential: Addicted, Trap Shit + El Chapo
Malcolm London – OPIA
When OPIA dropped it caught waves. That’s a bit of an understatement as it was picked up on almost EVERY relevant music blog. Seriously. Google it. To catch you up, Malcolm is an activist, poet, educator and artist that has been a constant in the Chicago scene. He runs the Chicago Youth’s Open Mic Series with Chance The Rapper and continues to give back to the community. OPIA reflected his activist nature. The project touches on self love, healing, and acceptance. It’s executive produced by Save Money producer EB with features from Vic Mensa, Nico Segal and Jamila Woods (among others.) This is truly a Chicago affair… and was featured in our top 5 projects of the week back in late October.
Essential: Opia, Cigarettes and Coffee + Charlie
Musa Reems – Another Dos(e)
Not only has Musa become one of my favorite Chicago up and comers, he’s become a trusted friend. We premiered his video Not With Gang along with an interview which was such a great experience. He’s gotten premieres everywhere, including a radio interview. Let’s not forget his loosie Get It (Bussin’). He dropped his first solo EP, Another Dos(e) in the summer, and lets just say it’s doing numbers. Although it’s only two tracks, its accumulated over 100K views in just 4 months.
It’s easy to see why. His flow is smooth as butter and his control over the mic is insane. This guy is only 19, but has the confidence and talent of a OG. Both songs show his range of potential and I’m sure his upcoming project Where The Sun Never Rises will give us a full taste of what he has to offer.
Essential: 2 tracks…play both.
Pavy – Me, By Jonathan McCoy
Pavy needs more credit for his artistry. This project dropped just a few months ago and I’m still taking it all in. I enjoyed the album so much that I decided to collaborate with him on a breakdown of each song, which you can read here. He can sing, he can rap, he can get jiggy, and create introspective tracks. It’s important to get it a thorough listen as it might sound a little odd on the ears at first. It’s poetic and artistic as it is.
Bonus: We hosted a dissection interview with him in mid October of this year on his excellent music video Drift.
Essential: Until The Morning, Drift and Alcoholic
Rico Recklezz + DJ Cortez – Realer Than Wordz 2
Rico has been making headlines throughout 2016. I’m not going to go into it…here’s an article if you want to somewhat catch up. I like to focus on the music (in most cases) and Rico makes a lot if it. Mixtapes are always abundant and he’s dropped a heap of them this year. My favorite of the bunch is the second part of the Realer Than Wordz series with DJ Cortez. He gave us the first in 2013, but this one is undoubtedly stronger. It’s a hefty project clocking in at 23 tracks, but it’s a riveting ride. This is as hardcore as it gets. It’s purely a street mixtape that bangs. I hope a non tagged version will come out (maybe it already has – if so link me please.)
Saint Millie – Adderall
Adderall surprised me. Millie departed from his lyrical dexterity and approached this project is a new way. Back in May when it dropped Millie talked to Noisey about his new sound.
It’s definitely been a journey. I wanted to be more melodic this time around. I wanted to focus on having bigger hooks this time around. Having a vibe that like—even if I’m not in the room, the music itself can carry.
He did just that and created one of his strongest projects to date. Noisey also called it a “high energy positive influence” which is exactly how I would describe it. I was a huge fan of his Glory album back in 2014 (Money Motivation was my shit for a year) but I appreciate his experimentation. He brought in some great company with Sir Mikey Rocks, Mano, Logan Cage and Sicko Mobb. Also, if you haven’t done so, check out the No Heauxs video. God damn.
Essential: No Heauxs, ET Phone Home + Thinking Of You
Supa Bwe x Sunny Woodz – ISSA EP
I’m always looking out for some newness from Supa. Dead Again 3 was a classic. Since it dropped every song has gotten at least 140K views…some going into the millions. While I really enjoyed the project it was the ISSA Ep that did it for me. It was entirely produced by Sunny Woodz who always contributes well to the Chicago scene. Supa sounds angrier on the tape which, accompanied with features from Warhol.SS Fight Me and JUJU, meld for a flawless and fun EP.
Essential: No Napkins
Na$im Williams – Sometimes God Has A Kid’s Face’
Na$im has been tearing up instrumentals for awhile now, but this is my favorite work from him to date. We conducted an exclusive interview with him along with the release of SGHAKF which you can check out here. There is a lot more to the project than what meets the eye, so definitely give it a read. Overall it’s a diverse project, but very cohesive. He is undoubtably one of the hardest working producers in Chicago and it shows.
Essential: Play all the way through
theWHOevers – R U Down
These guys don’t get enough credit. The duo of Je$$e and Lloyd Dotdot are constantly delivering in their tracks and projects. One of the highlights of the year was R U Down, a 7 track EP. It just sounds classy, like it could be played at an upscale bar. It’s funky, it’s energetic, and it has just the right amount of the hip hop element. There is even some r&b vocals (specifically on Waiting Game). While it can go a little slow, I urge you to give it a full spin. You’ll definitely find something you like.
Essential: 4 Ring Finger
Thelonious Martin – Late Night Programming
I just can’t get enough of LNP. Dude, I even got it on vinyl from Amazon. It is by far my favorite instrumental project of the year. This guy is getting better and better…it’s almost scary. Yoh from DJ Booth put it best. To gain a quick understanding, here is an excerpt:
Late Night Programming, Thelonious’ sophomore album, is an ode to television, Adult Swim, and his musical influences. From the first track to the last, the runtime is 24 minutes long—the length of a half-hour television show not including commercials. If you let it run from last to first, it’s a smooth transition, as if the listener allowed the next episode to continue even though it’s a rerun. Every song is strategically placed—there are familiar skits and bumps from Adult Swim, a song that represents when it gets so late that you start to see infomercials, and the album ends with a hilarious Everest commercial, which is usually a sign you’ve been up too late.
Essential: Play all the way through
Tink – Winters Diary 4
Tink is a legend here in Chicago. In just 4 years time she’s put out 7 mixtapes including her celebrated Winter’s Diary tapes. Her debut album, Think Tink, was supposed to impact this year…but unfortunately we didn’t get anything. To hold us over the 4th installment dropped this August. I’ve never enjoyed a Tink project so much. As always her singing and rapping game are off the charts, and now she’s starting to make pure pop hip hop (in the best way possible.) She worked with Timbaland, Cookin Soul, and Jahlil Beats on the project and it shows as her voice and rhyming style bounce perfectly over the production. She speaks on some changes in her life and the emotions that have come up for her. An excellent project all around.
Essential: Your Side, What Is Real + Pullin Up (Interlude)
Ty Money – Cinco De Money 2
The first Cinco De Money tape was one of my favorite projects of last year. As many Chicago publications mentioned, it deserved way more attention. Part 2 dropped this year and thankfully more people picked up on it. Ty once again excels at bringing real life issues (his and others) into the center of his music. He contemplates life, but isn’t afraid to ride over some high octave production. While the original Cinco tape is still my #1, the 2nd is a great addition to his growing discography.
Essential: Fake, Feet On Neck + Charisma
King Louie – Tony 2
I don’t think anyone was expecting this to drop. Quick story: on my way to a concert in Chicago I got a Lyft from downtown and my driver was one of Louie’s best friends. He actually told me something was coming soon, and even got him on the phone after snap chatting me reciting lyrics to some of his songs. Small world. So, I kinda new something was coming.
I’ve never heard a bad project from this guy. Everything he puts out is solid. You can find at least 5 tracks to blow out of your speakers on every tape. Tony 2 is no different. It is 15 tracks of exhilaration with L’s signature flow. The subject matter is straightforward and he sounds more focused than ever. There are tons of producers all over the tape that make this exciting to listen to. Make no mistake, these aren’t just loosies thrown together to make a full project. Take time to digest this.
Essential: Shorty, 32 Bars + Bounce It (best beat on the tape…sheesh)
Brian Fresco – Casanova
This is a beautiful EP. As he told Billboard when the project dropped:
“The fact that I can make a song like “Higher” and then come all the way on the other end and make a song like “Bussin’,” and then go in-between and make a song that’s eight minutes in “Dandelion,” then make a song that sounds like a sunny day in “Together,” it’s versatility. People are starting to notice it and pick it up, really, off of this last album.”
He has shown true growth from his Mafioso project dropped back in 2013. While the tape is still one of my favorite releases from that year, Casanova gives us a full taste of his versatility as an emcee. The bars are there, but he’s trying out new beats such as the dancehall inspired Higher and the hard rock element of Elimidate.
Essential: Higher, Call + Fam
Wil Akogu – Language Of The Soul
Wil is on another level with his artistry. He puts everything he has into his music videos, singles, albums, and artwork. This year he put out his best project yet in Language of the Soul. It’s 5 tracks of dark, soulful, and introspective tracks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Exodus…its all encompassing and cinematic. This is thanks in part to the wonderful producers dispersed throughout the project. Shlohmo even makes an appearance.
There is so much to Wil…I’ve gotten to know him a bit. Just look at his Buried Alive video. It’s NINE minutes…truly an epic short film. There was a listening party for LOTS which you can check out here.
Plainro – Leaves
This EP blessed my ears off a submission (that, for the record, wasn’t from Plainro himself.) Leaves is a gorgeous piece of work. His vocals echo and sway, giving off an airy and chilling vibe. Whether he meant to or not, Plainro gives us advice on life, seeming confident in what he does know and what he has yet to figure out. He definitely gives us bars on this, but not in a straightforward manner. It was great to see Ausar and Josi on the EP…they gave it another punch.
Essential: Play all the way through.
Meech – Saints
While Chicago blogs picked up on Saints, only a few online publications outside of the city gave it a write up. It’s too bad. Opening song Saved may be my favorite song of the year. It’s infectious and complex. I can’t even imagine how long it took to perfect that one. The remaining 4 tracks pack just as much umph. The production is what got me…from Mic Lee, Brandon Blanton and Demetrius G everything sounds grand. It is impressive to hear the growth from his 2014 project Violet. It’s only up from here.
LISTEN TO SAVED!
Ajani Jones – Astrals EP
Another flowsfordays favorite came out with a solid 4 track EP just in time to make it into this list. To get familiar with this Chicagoian check out one of our many posts on him here. He’s already dropped a host of impactful cuts such as Liberators and The Fall (with Femdot.) so it was only right to get a (somewhat) longer piece of work from him. We did a review of the project right when it came out…excerpt below:
He just dropped his 4 track EP astrals entirely produced by BanksTheGenius (who has been working non-stop.) It is a self reflective record and easily listening hip hop at it’s finest. Don’t be fooled – it is full of dizzying bars and wordplay. He seems to rap with ease and doesn’t let up in energy.
The title beautifully reflects the production and theme of the project. Banks is one of the most versatile producers (and rappers) out of Chicago and proves it throughout these 4 songs.
Yung Ja$per – UnoThrash EP
You may be tempted to label Ja$per’s music right away, but give this EP a full listen. He approaches the sub-genre of “street rhymes” in a totally unique way. There is actual melody in this tape (the highlight being Boss Boy.) In our interview with him back in October revealed that he creates music in whatever way he feels fit. A lot of it is free-styling, which I get a sense of in UT. I don’t mean this in a bad way…his personality shines through on every track. He makes it his own.
Essential: Guns N Lean
Ausar – The 6th Page Letter
My absolute FAVORITE “lesser known” tape of 2016. Hands down. Ausar literally dropped this two days ago, but I can’t get enough of it. Others agree as he trended on Twitter the night of the release. It definitely reminds me of Coloring Book, and quiet honestly is the exact same amount of quality. It’s knowledgable, it’s positive, its reflective, and vulnerable. Ausar is struggling with life along with us, relaying his questions and fears throughout the 10 tracks. I told him as soon as PSA Pt. 1 and 2 hit my ears that he was getting his Kanye on in which he replied (I wanted to do something for the kids.) He is an extremely humble and appreciative dude. He even dropped off hard copies of the project yesterday and is sending one to me in the mail.
A huge highlight of the EP is Plainro. His contribution to Dirty Laundry especially was chilling to hear. of course Josi, Freejay, Christian JaLon and every other artist involved gave their all and assisted Ausar in such a great way.
10 songs is just the perfect amount to reel people in without suffocating them with airtime. Just listen guys.