While 2018 was a year of titans re-entering the fray — we got albums last year from very nearly every heavy hitter, from Drake to Nicki and Kanye West to Jay-Z — 2019 was all about new names. DaBaby bookended the year with two thunderous statements in Baby on Baby and Kirk; Megan Thee Stallion established herself, quickly and confidently, as one of the most charismatic lyricists of her young generation; and Roddy Ricch broke through seemingly every month with a new hit, before dropping his uniformly excellent Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial. A new cadre of Chicago rappers emerged, led by Polo G and Calboy, who put an emotive twist on the city’s traditionally nihilistic scene, and crafted two of the best albums of the year in the process. Meanwhile, near-veterans Young Thug and Tyler, the Creator put out statements that, in retrospect, served as coronations. They, along with the chaos-courting Brockhampton, put out their most assured work to date, and established their commercial weight alongside critical consensus. These are our picks for the best hip-hop albums of the year, now that all the introductions have been made.
Post Malone barely moved a muscle for much of 2019, but he dominated the year anyway, racking up streams by the hundred million on 2018 singles like “Sunflower” and “Wow.” While some stars hew closely to the sound that brought them commercial success, afraid of alarming listeners with endless options at their fingertips, Malone decided not to pack his new album with attempts at “Wow, Part 2.” Quite the opposite, in fact — Hollywood’s Bleeding can evoke Tame Impala (“Circles”), classic rock (“Take What You Want”), and pop-punk (“Allergic”). Malone’s commercial pull is so strong that whatever he touches right now becomes a hit. Case in point: Ozzy Osbourne is currently the oldest performer appearing on Top 40 radio by several decades, thanks to his guest appearance on “Take What You Want.”
Snubnose is the rare concept album that manages not to drown under the weight of its own pretension. Brisk and violent, East Atlanta’s Grip fashions a tight project about the magnetic allure and repulsion of firearms. The demonic and high-pitched voice of the anthropomorphized “Snubnose” appears across the album. At points the alien-like vocals dip into territories of annoyance, but what always saves the proceedings is Grip’s deceptively complex level of detail. “Where I come from, well I can’t say, my serial number filed down/It’s been like that for a while now, wear and tear show you I got high miles,” he spits on “He Is…I Am.” The rest of the album unfolds like a thriller as Grip travels from his upbringing to his current reality as an artist on the cusp. Through moments of nostalgia — episodes of Gargoyles and Goof Troops, bowls of Fruit Loops and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — Grip begins to come to terms with his survival, those who weren’t as lucky, and the inanimate object that wrought so much destruction.
NoCap is defined by melancholy. His AutoTuned warble quivers with regret even amid triumph. The Alabama rapper’s lyrics often mine the nuances of loss, from death to incarceration. His production tends to favor the slow, downbeat, and foreboding. On The Hood Dictionary, NoCap spends the majority of his time trying to explain his present and come to terms with his past. In September, he turned himself into the police for allegedly shooting into an occupied dwelling and was released from jail in November.
During the aptly, if uninspired song, “First Day In” he details how he landed in his current predicament, but more directly underlines the real tragedy of his existence — “In the hood, don’t know how to leave / It’s a crime that nobody seen.” Over 16 songs, NoCap tries to decipher the claustrophobia of his past mistakes as he’s on the precipice of a more promising future. On the album intro, he raps “Got me back and forth to court ’bout somethin’ I want behind me” and three songs later doubles down stating “You tryna change, but they still hold you on your past life.” By the end of the project, NoCap seems no closer to answers. Such is life.
Foto is warm and unhurried, filled with mellow boom-bap, sparkling keyboards, and cooled-out drum programming. Kota the Friend produced many of these songs himself, and he has a knack for finding a killer sample, whether it’s the bossa nova haze underpinning “Hollywood” or the rushed jumble of guitar notes in “Mommy.” On “Backyard,” the Brooklyn artist puts together a cheerful, lolling beat; this sounds like a sleeper hit. But Kota the Friend refuses to be pushy. “It’s a vibe,” he raps. “You could dance — if you want to.”
After a tumultuous (and lucrative) two years, a series of delays, and a fervent pivot to Christian music, Kanye West finally released his long-awaited ninth solo album this fall. There’s no avoiding the fact that Jesus Is King won’t top many of his fans’ lists when ranking his canon, but it’s a clear case for why we still listen to Kanye — even when he deliberately frustrates. Jesus Is King is filled with moments of genius — nearly every song on the record contains a musical phrase, an idea, a line that makes it clear he’s still one of the best to ever do it — without often attempting to stretch those out for an entire song. The end result is a curiosity, an impulsive piece of art that seems to spring, quickly formed, from West’s mind to your streaming service of choice. It’s not his best, but a disappointing Kanye album is still better than what almost anyone else is capable of.
Rod Wave can sing. It’s not just hitting or holding a few notes, but unleashing his voice upon the world like an angelic avalanche. On Ghetto Gospel, Wave demonstrates a deft control over his vocals as his coarse and guttural raps transition into a sweet and smooth tenor. Both drip with the unmistakable veneer of the black church. There are confessional screeds (“Dark Conversations”), devotional love songs (“Brace Face”), and soulful odes to God’s grace (“Cuban Links”), over mournful keys, tender guitars, and dusty saxophones. It’s virtuosic, but at its core, Ghetto Gospel is a 14-song exhumation of one man’s demons.
Rapsody made the stakes of her latest opus clear from the beginning: Over a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” the very first words out of the fellow North Carolinian’s mouth were, “Emit light, rap, or Emmett Till.” On this dense 16-song concept album structured around paying homage to the diverse strands of black womanhood, the MC crafted a sprawling masterwork that nevertheless feels like her most intimate offering to date. Set to samples that range from Phil Collins to GZA to Björk, the 36-year-old traditionalist confronted a music industry that remains hostile to voices, like hers, that refuse to conform. “White men run us/They don’t want this kinda passion,” she offered, “A black woman story?/They don’t want this kinda rappin’.”
From the dusty sample to Freddie Gibbs’ world-weary baritone, the opening of “Freestyle Shit,” Bandana’s first track, sounds well-worn and familiar — it’s easy. Then Gibbs, just for a few bars, slips into a double-time flow. It’s the kind of deceptively tricky move that defines this album from two veterans. Bandana is couched in nostalgia, hearkening back to times when MCs really rapped, and producers really flipped samples. But while the record often sounds like a traditionalist’s deepest, darkest fantasy, Gibbs and Madlib do plenty of inventing on this brief masterclass. Instead, it makes the case that all good art, even when pulling from familiar elements, is the creation of something that’s never been made before — and that this rapper-producer duo are two of the best working.
The shocking death of the young rapper Juice WRLD in December was a tragedy, not least for what the world lost musically. “People say that they can hear the rock influence, the Blink-182 influence, the emo influence in my music, but on this album you can hear ev-er-y-thing,” he told Rolling Stone prior to the release of Death Race For Love, his second album. “I have songs for the trap house, songs for the sock hop, songs for the Caribbeans, songs for raves, songs for slow dancing.” It was a bold claim, but he was right: Death Race is the sound of a curious and inventive musician pushing in every direction he can think of. For all of his scattered influences, Juice WRLD was largely able to catch all of the balls he daringly threw into the air, infusing a wide range of sounds with his mournful take on rapping with confidence. It wasn’t the best album of the year, but it’s the kind of album that makes you wish you could hear what this kid was on his way to doing next.
Calboy’s “Envy Me” erupted on streaming services at the end of 2018 thanks to a nagging vocal sample and a mesmerizing vocal delivery — hushed and reverent even as Calboy issued murderous threats. Wildboy did a savvy job of spreading this concept over ten succinct songs with help from like-minded melodists (Lil Durk, Polo G, Young Thug) along with emphatic veterans (Meek Mill, Yo Gotti). The album moves quickly from tragedy to defiance and back again. On the brooding, creeping “Ghetto America,” Calboy is “traumatized” one moment and commanding (“ain’t no feelin’ hopeless”) the next. In “Caroline,” the switch happens in a single sentence: “Told my brother, ‘I love ya, cross me, I’ll take you out.'” The quietest moments here are also the hardest-hitting.
Across 18 minutes and nine songs, Maryland rapper Rico Nasty boiled over. The anger inherent in Anger Management — a collaborative project with producer Kenny Beats — was more accurately a righteous fury. Over jagged and intense beats, Rico screamed, screeched, and yelped about everything she’s had to fight for and against on her path to rap stardom: the men who tried to control her, the people who desperately wanted to hold her back, fake relatives, copycat rappers, and the spoils that come along with never relenting. On “Cheat Code” she proclaims, “I can never wait on a nigga to come save me,” and on the “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”–sampling “Hatin,” she builds a chorus around the sage advice, “You know these niggas be hatin’ on bitches/You got your own shit, you ain’t ever gotta listen to him, girl.” But as the project progresses, the enmity begins to dissipate and the high-octane beats become more reflective. Rico lyrically admits what’s sonically unfolding: “Had a lot of built-up anger that I had to let out.” Her fury helped secure her spot in hip-hop, but it’s far from her only story.
Less than two minutes into Terror Management, you’re asked to imagine yourself with antenna jutting from your head, your family anxiously awaiting your demise while you laugh contentedly, “ordering movies with your spiny legs splayed.” This is fitting for billy woods: imagine Kafka if Kafka grew up with one ear tuned to Chuck D. The mysterious, Brooklyn-based rapper released two albums this year; where March’s Hiding Places is tightly wound around a couple of animating themes, its follow up is like light refracted in a thousand different directions. At one point woods turns his ancestors’ lives into what sounds like scriptural parable, while at another he recoils from a butcher who recognizes him by voice (“I forgot white people is born police”). Throughout, he flexes his remarkable command of tone, syntax, and the ways to laugh amidst the rotting food while your family counts down to a slow death.
Brockhampton, the internet’s native boy band, had a meteoric rise. Then they paid for it. Following a dizzying three-album run in 2017 that powered the unusually large collective to stardom, they began to fracture. “I had an identity crisis,” said Joba, one of the group’s producers. “I didn’t know how to exist.” Ginger finds the group on the other side of a chasm: more sensitive than before, less willing to give into anger, more influenced by Nineties R&B. It’s a mature album from artists who made their name going full-tilt at every opportunity, and the kind of cornerstone they could build a career upon. Until the next crisis.
“Nine times out of 10, I’m the realest bitch you know/If you ain’t want a pimp then what you fuckin’ with me for,” raps 24-year-old Megan Pete on her first LP. Megan Thee Stallion’s realness is never in question, as she connects the feminist rap tradition of Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte to the throbbing sounds of her native Houston, putting her own intimate pleasures front and center on pointillistically detailed dirty-talkin’ flexes like “Sex Talk” and “Pimpin’.” She brags about moving to the burbs and slips into some R&B softness on “Big Drank” and “Best You Ever Had,” but still keeps it resolutely ratchet, spraying commanding verses all over every track.
In a normal year, having an album as good as Kirk would be enough to establish yourself as a star, and come close to topping this list. But DaBaby didn’t have a normal year. The breakthrough North Carolina star raps with a force that’s wholly unnecessary — he often sounds like he’s trying to overpower the beat — but makes him mesmerizing to listen to. Similarly, DaBaby didn’t need to put out two of the year’s best albums in a matter of nine months, but we know now not to expect anything less. Kirk is every bit as accomplished as Baby on Baby, but misses out on its ranking since, by then, it lacked the element of surprise. Everyone knew DaBaby was coming, what we didn’t expect was for him to keep that same energy.
When Tyler, the Creator first earned a devoted following as a member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All early in the decade, his raps were often abrasive, full of confrontation and provocation. Fast forward to 2019, and Tyler is making some of the year’s prettiest pop, often eschewing rap altogether and choosing to sing with disarming sincerity (“Don’t leave, it’s my fault/’Cause when it all comes crashing down, I’ll need you“). IGOR is idiosyncratic and surprising — “I Think” is an unexpected turn to nu-disco, while “Are We Still Friends?” pays tribute to soul great Al Green — without an obvious radio hit. In the old days, this combination would have ensured that IGOR remained a cult album. But in 2019, Tyler, the Creator managed to out-sell DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd, the expensively marketed and produced equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and debut at Number One.
Hyper-regional, blunt, kinetic, and self-assured, DaBaby’s Baby on Baby marked the arrival of a star. The North Carolina rapper with a gleaming, jewel-encrusted smile brought a myriad of skills into 2019. His singular, raspy voice boomed over simple, bass-boosted beats, and his flow contained enough gravitas to assault the senses. “Suge” became the rare 2019 rap hit that forgoes melody in favor of a torrent of bullish bars stacked atop a ceaseless, unending flow. “Walker Texas Ranger” was the funniest Western-themed hip-hop song of the year (yes, even including “Old Town Road”), while “Goin Baby” was a monument to the ability of raucous ad-libs to make a normal song seem transcendent. Baby on Baby was merely an opening salvo — nine months later, that shot is still ringing.
Roddy Ricch is the rare new star who sounds like he’s been popular for years. While some of the rappers that emerged this year, like Megan Thee Stallion or DaBaby, pulled hip-hop towards them, pushing denser flows than have been dominating airwaves in recent year, Roddy’s approach has been to synthesize everything that can set a room off and put it into one package. He sounds at home over a Mustard beat, who is close to fulfilling his promise to dominate 10 summers in a row; he found a crossover crowd by collaborating with the still-fanatically-popular Marshmello; his collaboration with the late Nipsey Hussle on “Racks in the Middle” feels so natural, even now, that the tragedy of Nipsey’s death is further heightened. And, on top of that, Roddy was able to craft an album that encapsulates his central appeal — an unnervingly effective ear for melody and a chameleonic ability to adapt to different beats — and imbuing it with an incredibly personal body of work. The result, on Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, is the announcement of a star.
For six years, Young Thug was an uncontainable force: The otherworldly linguistics, the riotous ad-libs, and borderless melodies, along with the dresses and skirts and gender fluidity, broke a genre in need of breaking. But after a string of critically lauded yet commercially disappointing releases, Thug’s momentum stalled. Then So Much Fun resuscitated the mercurial musician. Direct and digestible, the album is Thug at his most streamlined. There are no heady concepts or genre detours; instead, the track list is loaded with major stars (Future, J. Cole, Travis Scott), and every beat is uncomplicated and dynamic. Thug ceded the floor on “Hot” and “Bad Bad Bad” to his streaming behemoth protégés (Lil Baby, Gunna), engaged in a rare press run, and dropped video after video. After years of deconstructing hip-hop and remaking it in his image, Thug spent 19 songs playing the game, and in the process became the commercial star he was destined to be.
“I’m a killer, girl, I’m sorry/But I can’t change,” Polo G raps in the chorus of his hit “Pop Out,” the centerpiece of the Chicago rapper’s debut, Die a Legend. In someone else’s hands, that apology would be cursory; in Polo’s, it’s a thematic concern. Chicago rap is having a moment this year — its sound is melodic, pained, beautiful — and Polo G is the emerging leader of a new class of rappers from the city. It’s easy to see why. Die a Legend is a remarkably confident full-length, marked by both a sensational ear for beats and a near-reflexive sincerity. Just as he can turn a party track regretful in a second, Polo’s delivery is perpetually nimble, always searching for the gap between rapping and singing — it’s not a new approach, but in Polo’s hands, it feels like an announcement.