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30 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2018

This year saw releases from rap’s biggest names, but it still felt like a changing of the guard for the genre

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2018 was a monumental year in hip-hop. Every marquee star the genre has put out a project (if you include Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, which you should), from Kanye West’s frenzied five week rollout of G.O.O.D. Music artists, to Jay-Z and Beyoncé finally dropping their long-hinted at collaboration album Everything Is Love, and Drake doing that thing that Drake does, which is own the charts for most of the year with cuts from Scorpion. Usually, this would be all we have time for. But this year felt different — just as important as the A-List names that have been at the top of the game for most of the 2000s were the new stars being minted seemingly every month. Travis Scott, longtime king of the youngest fans in hip-hop, put out his career-best Astroworld; Cardi B surprised everyone with the diamond-solid Invasion of Privacy; Tierra Whack announced her presence with the stunningly creative calling card that is Whack World. It was a big year for the big names, but it also felt like a changing of the guard. It’s not likely to slow down now.

Saba, 'Care For Me'

Saba, ‘Care For Me’

In Care for Me, everything is broken: Saba, his friends, the “Broken Girls” he tries and fails to find build relationships with, Chicago itself. The way his spoken voice floats into anguished harmonizing is familiar enough in an era dominated by rap singers. More unique, though, is the way he portrays depression as more profound than self-pity, and the result of deep introspection and life changes. “I tell death to keep a distance, I think he obsessed with me,” he raps on “Life,” wary of a racist political system that indirectly led to his cousin’s stabbing death (which he retells with heartbreaking detail on “Heaven All Around Me”). His catharsis is this album, a moment when he can create beauty out of the horrors that inform his daily existence. It’s soulful and sad, and full of melodic beauty like “Calligraphy.” “Write it away, write it away,” he sings. He thinks he’s running away from his problems when he sets word to sound, but he’s really confronting them so the whole world can understand his pain.

Kids See Ghosts, 'Kids See Ghosts' album cover art

Kids See Ghosts, ‘Kids See Ghosts’

Kids See Ghosts is an album of dichotomies. It’s simultaneously the story of a recovering drug addict re-entering society afters years spent sequestered from it, as well as one about a man newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder being pushed out of a world that no longer cares to deal with his antics. Subdued and wounded, but still resilient, Kids See Ghost was a means of holding on for Kanye West, and for Kid Cudi a reintroduction to a world and genre now built in his image. The apocalyptic, western sound marked the journey of an apprentice turned peer, ready to be the person his mentor needed at his lowest point. “Reborn” is not only the epicenter of the album, but it’s close to the best song West and co. had to offer over their five album summer sprint. It featured West’s most coherent and candid verse of the season  — “I was off the chain, I was often drained / I was off the meds, I was called insane / What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame” — but it was Cudi’s hook that cut to the emotional core of the times, “I’m so—I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward / Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward.” Even at the brink, Cudi proved there is always something more to march towards.

Various Artists, 'Black Panther: The Album'

Various Artists, ‘Black Panther: The Album’

It would be an odd sort of tragedy if this were the album that won Kendrick Lamar his Album of the Year Grammy. It’s not his best album; it’s barely even his album, what with him ceding the spotlight to the rappers he’s excited by whenever he gets the chance. It’s a Disney tie-in, meant to soundtrack a Marvel movie — it’s an improbable sell for a grand work of art, and has none of the thematic weight of a Kendrick solo project. And yet, somehow, it still works. It’s an invigorating, versatile listen from front to back, more powerful with its blockbuster companion than without. Kendrick, it seems, just doesn’t miss.

Brockhampton, 'Iridescence'

Brockhampton, ‘Iridescence’

Brockhampton slowed down the pace this year, in part due to the allegations of assault that led to the departure one of the band’s founding members, Ameer Vann. It was unclear how, or if, they would bounce back. Iridescence comes on the heels of the groups breakout Saturation trilogy — three albums, all released in 2017 — and it maintain the raucous, revealing energy of the group’s defining work. But while Saturation I-III felt like variations on a theme, Brockhampton expanded the palette here into something approaching transcendence. There’s still the bruising bass and pass-the-mic cypher enthusiasm, but there’s also drum’n’bass and strings and children’s choirs. The confessions, when it’s time for them, hit harder, and the big moments are unabashedly gooey. The album’s title works: there’s a lot of color here.

J.I.D., 'DiCaprio 2'

J.I.D., ‘DiCaprio 2’

Atlanta rapper J.I.D. explodes with classically technical hip-hop rhyme-stacking, a dizzying display of lyrical showboating in a year when rappers were increasingly judged by more fluid and subjective things like flows and melodies. Unlike, say, Eminem’s critically maligned Kamikaze, J.I.D. isn’t telegraphing his meticulously crafted punches, instead flowing with a nasal post-Kendrickian spill: “J.I.D, dipshit, the spliff lit, I’m lifted/I’m finna hit the zip lick for Ziploc bags so keep your lip zipped.”

Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs, 2018

Earl Sweatshirt, ‘Some Rap Songs’

One of the few complaints about Earl Sweatshirt’s fourth project is that his voice is buried in the mix, turning his lyrical flurries into a muddy blur amidst hallucinatory, enigmatic sample loops. Indeed, Earl makes the kind of music that demands repeated and close listening, and despite concluding at a relatively short half-hour across 15 songs, Some Rap Songs proves more than enough to sustain interest. Each playback reveals new insights: the way Earl conjures a world where hip-hop culture untarnished by pop gimmicks thrives, the audible sadness with which he reminisces about his late father, and the bemused wonderment that tinges his reflections on those “Free Earl” memes that have, thankfully, dissipated. Now a grown man in his early twenties, he’s still a “savage” and incisive lyricist, though mature enough to abandon the angry teenage nightmares of his Odd Future for life-affirming avant-rap that celebrates friends and family. When his father and mother take over “Playing Possum” and deliver spoken word with surprising deftness, it feels like a triumph.

CupcakKe Ephorize

Cupcakke, ‘Ephorize’

A mix of 2 Live Crew’s sex talk, Lil Wayne’s sideways metaphors, Cardi B’s boss boasts and pure, unadulterated rap skills, Cupcakke’s music has made her the bawdy bard of modern hip-hop — a skill on display in songs like “Duck, Duck Goose” (“Turn double-dutch with yo’ balls while I’m jumpin’ on your dick”) and “Spoiled Milk” (“I love midgets but the dick need some inches”). But Ephorize is much more, as the rapper explores her poor upbringing (“Wisdom Teeth”), chews out a cheating beau (“Exit”) and shouts out giddy pro-LGBT lines (“Fuck a tuxedo/Tuck your dick, mijo”) over some pixelly dancehall (“Crayons”).

The Carters, 'Everything Is Love'

The Carters, ‘Everything Is Love’

After three albums, 34 songs and 129.85 minutes, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s marital woes trilogy concludes with an exhale.  Triumphant, warm, but often muted Everything Is Love is a reset and reconciliation. Bey and Jay make love on the beach and reminisce on better days that weren’t gripped by emotional scars. Although, it’s telling that the album’s best moments   — “Boss,” “Ape Shit” and “Friends” — diverge from the repaired marriage narrative. After spending so much time in the sonic equivalent of marriage counseling, it’s nice to see the Carters punch back into their day jobs as two of the world’s greatest hitmakers.

Lil Wayne, 'Tha Carter V'

Lil Wayne, ‘Tha Carter V’

Lil Wayne needed a win almost as much as the world needed Lil Wayne. After nearly a half a decade in legal limbo, he came back with Tha Carter V, a feat of rusty rejuvenation. Tha Carter’s fifth installment features every type of experiment: pandering to the SoundCloud set on the XXXTentacion-featuring “Don’t Cry,” the viral dance-inducing “Uproar” and the lyrical miracle sparring match that is “Mona Lisa,” featuring Kendrick Lamar. When it works, it’s transcendent. When it doesn’t, it’s still entertaining. The former Best Rapper Alive’s sheer talent and charisma managed to end one era and hint at the start of another.

whack world, tierra whack

Tierra Whack, ‘Whack World’

In anyone else’s hands, the idea behind Whack World would feel like a gimmick: 15 songs in 15 minutes, an album optimized for your Instagram