By Thomas Johnson, December 1 2017 —
Rap’s been a romantic genre since LL Cool J donned a white Kangol hat and told the world about his unfulfilled heart in “I Need Love.” Nowadays, some of the most tender admissions of affection are snuck in between plugging alcohol brands and karat-counting. Here are the best rap ballads of the year.
Jidenna – “Bambi”
Jidenna’s debut, The Chief, follows a loose narrative where the Lagosian-American protagonist rises to chieftain status within his tribe, making the ghost of his father proud. At its centre is “Bambi,” an afro-beat lullaby chronicling the downfall of Jidenna’s emotional romance. A melange of genres including highlife, trap and doo-wop, “Bambi” reflects on a failed endeavour and lack of closure. As the song progresses, Jidenna’s decorum dissolves as his relationship withers, culminating in a slurred breakdown of emotions and syllables at its climax. “Bambi” bravely explores all the trips and stumbles that come with losing your heels over your head.
Future – “Selfish” ft. Rihanna
“Selfish” is probably the prettiest song to ever come out of Atlanta. The Rihanna-assisted duet wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie — prescription-drug references notwithstanding. Providing a fittingly stark denouement to his most intimate album, Future’s pop sensibilities and knack for balladeering are on full display. The greatest tool at his disposal is the elasticity in his voice and his incomparable ability to turn a rugged, earthy croak into a soaring falsetto and back again. Beside Rihanna, he swings his vocals into the most accomplished singing of his career. When he whispers, “I just need the blessin’ from your family/Broken lies, ain’t no love without us,” his featherweight high notes are ready to snap.
Kendrick Lamar – “LOVE” feat. Zacari
DAMN. will go down as a classic because of the unflinching nature in which Kendrick Lamar — maybe the most compelling artist of his generation — psycho-analyzes himself. Cover to cover, DAMN. explores every crevice of his labyrinthine persona, from his fears to his origins to his heart. Lamar keeps his off-the-record life famously guarded, so to hear him shed his hardened exterior and pour his soul out is show-stopping on its own. The cherries on top are some of the most intricate rhymes our most intricate rhymer can muster, seemingly pulled from the heart on Lamar’s sleeve. The song is dedicated to Kendrick’s longtime partner, who he asks on the hook, “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” We never get an answer, not that we need one — simply asking says all we need to know.
Smino – “Wild Irish Roses”
Smino’s blkswn came and went without garnering the attention it deserved. A fellow Chicagoan and Chance The Rapper disciple, Smino’s idea of a day well spent includes weed, free time, a drink or two and the company of a significant other. On an album filled with them, the most touching ballad is the first one. “Wild Irish Roses,” named after the bottom-of-the-shelf wine, aspires to represent nothing more than a delightfully wasted afternoon. Smino’s voice brims with a youthful, enamoured-with-first-love quality that turns an invitation to run errands into a magic carpet ride. Smino’s infatuation, innocent yearning and casual flirting are some of the most heartwarming moments on record this year. It would almost be naive if it weren’t so sweet.
Young Thug – “Feel It”
“Feel It” is the most romantic song of the year. On Young Thug’s increasingly experimental solo outings, the rapper has pushed the idea of what a ballad can be. “Feel It” is the culmination of these trials — a beautifully vulnerable confession where, among his requisite braggadocio, Thug sprinkles some of the most tender writing of his already prolific career. “I don’t wanna buy her love, I want to build it,” and “I never ever met a girl like you/I’m lovin’ every single curve about you,” are two of the most beautiful sentiments you’re likely to hear all year, regardless of genres. It’s love in its purest expression, unfiltered and untamed. If that’s your man, you better hold him down.