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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

year end hip hop

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'
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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
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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'
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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'
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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'
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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
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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
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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'
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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'
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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
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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 feed. That it feels instead like a wholly original piece of art is a triumph for Tierra Whack, the young Philadelphia rapper who made it. It’s an album you can listen to like an album — over and over and over again — is an even bigger achievement. It’s a darting, versatile piece of work, with Whack at the center as a reckless, joyous conductor of her own creative impulses. Listening to her bend genres and tackle deceptively complex themes is a delight, and her short, captivating albums is one of the most arresting debut projects of recent memory.

Noname Room 25
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Noname, ‘Room 25’

What does one do with a cult classic? That’s the situation Chicago rapper-poet Noname found herself in after the success of Telefone, her independently released 2015 album. Her response was to double down and make a project that’s denser, darker and more personal — and an undeniable artistic step forward. Her penchant for live instrumentation is still there — the album is tight but retains an air of improvisation — and her knack for storytelling, has evolved. On Room 25,she turns her eye to more autobiographical verses, detailing the specificities of her own life while slipping between everyday observations and universal truths: “I know everyone goes someday / I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay,” she sings on the string-bathed “Don’t Forget About Me.” It’s the sound of an artist discovering new heights for her music.

RaeSremmurd SR3MM
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Rae Sremmurd, ‘Sr3mm’

2018 did not want for very long albums but few used their wide-open spaces as wondrously as Mississippi twin brother duo Rae Sremmurd. The last time a Southern hip-hop duo released an album as ambitious as this 101-minute psychedelic trap-music exploration, they were called OutKast. Whether Lamborghini-slick (“Powerglide”) or sky-high and sad (“Hurt to Look”), brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi give every song a unique mix of openheartedness and indulgence, without losing the youthful energy that made their first pop-rap hits so addictive.

Vince Staples, FM album cover
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Vince Staples, ‘FM!’

At just 22 minutes, FM! is Staples’ slightest album — less tossed off than instinctual — and a sharp departure from Big Fish Theory, his ambitious, experimental previous full-length. Where Big Fish explored how dexterous Staples’ rapping could actually get by picking the most inhospitable beats he could get his hands on, FM!’s primary focus is a pummeling dedication to making your head nod. It’s a less heady goal, but just as noble, and when you have someone as sharp as Staples rapping over beats as densely satisfying as these, it’s something special. He’s telling the same stories, detailing the tragic mundanity of gang life, with the same melancholic, whip-smart humor as always, but he’s letting people in on the joke just a little more.

Drake Scorpion
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Drake, ‘Scorpion’

This was the year Drake finally shed his role as hip-hop’s petulant crown prince. He became the biggest name in pop thanks to the best singles of his career in “Nice For What,” “In My Feelings” and “God’s Plan.” They’re the high points of Scorpion, a sort of magnum opus for the rich and disaffected, the most lengthy and polished entry in Drake’s ever-expanding canon of detailing how being Drake doesn’t make you happy, in the end. It’s a double album with no low points, and if you do find it beginning to drag a little, simply turn it into a playlist of your favorite tracks; Drake’s savvy enough to know that’s how you’d end up listening to it, and he pockets the streams either way.

Pusha T Daytona
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Pusha T, ‘Daytona’

Pusha T is rap’s most justifiably arrogant master craftsman, like an Italian cobbler who spends years crafting one perfect espadrille. “They tweet about the length I made ’em wait/What the fuck you expect when a nigga got a cape and he’s great?” he raps on this seven-song, 21-minute triumph. He’s got a point: Nine years after he and his brother No Malice released their last album as Clipse, ending their fantastic run, there’s still no one better at toasting their own successes and talking extravagant shit about their enemies (see his shots at longtime rival Drake on “Infrared”). Daytona is Pusha’s finest moment as a solo act, a wise, funny, ruthless performance. With its audaciously chopped soul, rock and prog samples, it’s also the only truly great record Kanye worked on this year.

Travis Scott, Astroworld
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Travis Scott, ‘Astroworld’

Astroworld is a monument to excess in a year overcome with bloat. What it took Kanye West five albums to do, his protege accomplished in 17 songs. Grandiose, intricate, and ferocious, Travis Scott’s quixotic epic honors the past and present of his hometown Houston with the biggest beats, smartest transitions and best guest list he’s ever come up with. “Who put this shit together, I’m the glue,” Scott defiantly proclaimed on “Sicko Mode.” The Glue has built the best rap album of the year.

Cardi B, invasion of privacy
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Cardi B, ‘Invasion of Privacy’

“I’m a rich bitch and I smell like it,” Cardi B announces on her instant-classic debut. Cardi could’ve followed up the bloody-shoed success of “Bodak Yellow” with an LP of funny Twitter snaps. Instead, Invasion of Privacy established her as an innovator with her own instantly influential voice — whether she’s claiming the Dirty South in “Bickenhead” or celebrating her Dominican flash in “I Like It,” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin. In a year when hip-hop seemed mopey and insular, her neon-bomb charisma and willingness to stomp on our pop pleasure buttons was incredibly refreshing. She starts out in the strip clubs, wears off-white to church (“make the preacher sweat” rhymes with “Jesus wept”), makes her man stutter in “Be Careful” and teams up with SZA for the climactic “I Do,” proclaiming, “I think us bad bitches is a gift from God.” Amen, Cardi.