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.
Here’s the thing: Ye is likely Kanye West’s worst album, depending on how you place something like Cruel Summer in his discography. Here’s the other thing: Kanye West, at his worst, is still making more fascinating music than almost anyone else. In a year where he dominated headlines for less-than-stellar reasons, Ye was supposed to be his redemption album. It wasn’t, but it’s still a dense and, at times, brilliant piece of music. Its seven tracks fit more ideas into it than nearly any other project this year, and even the missteps are worth watching. That’s what Kanye West, still, does.
Pusha T made seven tracks of what he called “high-taste-level luxury drug raps,” but Roc Marci was the grittier game-spitter, complete with of cold winters, pimp talk and bulletproof vests: “I don’t feel the love at night, I hug my guns,” he raps on “Amythest,” “Might touch you with the same razor I use to cut my drugs.” His sixth solo album reliably utilizes his singular version of New York rap — cinematically flickering beats, ice-cold crime rhymes and gymnastic wordplay like “These are tryin’ times but I’m timeless/But still we buyin’ watches like we runnin’ out of options/Catch me rocking ostrich constant.”
Rico Nasty has a couple different modes. In the tradition of rappers with alter-egos, she alternates constantly between ferocious and open, dark and flourescent. On her mixtapes (she’s had five) she usually picks one character and sticks to it for the project, but on Nasty, the 21-year-old’s first major label release, she displays just how deftly she can shift gears. The result is her fullest project to date, and a fitting introduction to one of rap’s brightest new talents.
The rumbling success of Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba” was no fluke. The teenaged New Yorker tapped into the id of the culture this year, and his full-length project, released by zeitgeist-tappers Travis Scott and Kanye West’s respective labels, showed that Wes is a fascinating new talent with an ear for beats that’s unrivaled. Tracks like “Gmail” prove that the formless, instinctive approach to songwriting is an effective mode for Wes to continue in, and the formlessness of his writing is so compelling that, even when it doesn’t hit, you want it to.
City Girls had their breakout when they appeared on Drake’s Number One hit, “In My Feelings.” You get the sense, though, that it was just as exciting for him to have them on his song as it was for them to jump on a Drake song. The Miami duo, signed to Atlanta’s Quality Control Music, are a charismatic bunch, and Period puts that on full display. That it was recorded furiously in anticipation of one half of the group — 26-year-old JT — going to prison for a two year stint on credit card fraud charges makes the effort more astounding.
At an hour and 45 minutes, Culture II is the length of a movie, and its haphazard, kaleidoscopic and kinetic energy only adds to the effect that they were chasing something overwhelming. In a year of excess, of course the Migos would be the most excessive. The Atlanta trio’s third studio album features everything that makes them riveting — unearthly melodies, percussive ad-libs and blockbuster beats. It just happens to be mixed with everything that doesn’t — meandering song structure, lack of narrative drive and cobbled together concepts. Luckily, when Quavo, Offset and Takeoff hit, they really hit. The galactic sound of the Pharrell-produced “Stir Fry” is the group at their most adventurous, while the sweet tropical bend of the Takeoff-led “Gang Gang” proves he’s the current artistic focal point for the group.
Kenny Beats likes to make full albums with artists. This year, that approach paid serious dividends — his fingerprints are all over this list — and one of the best examples of how cohesive the approach of pairing one rapper with one producer from this year was his work with Atlanta rapper Key!. 777 is a straightforward album, just 35 minutes of muscular autobiography. It’s unconcerned with frills, and Key! is a masterful narrator, charming and laid back, and after years on the periphery it would appear he has the breakthrough project he was always capable of.
Meek Mill has a lot to say. It stands to reason: his path from freedom to prison to freedom was a fraught one, a real-time illustration of the cruel absurdities our justice system inflicts on people every day. But the Meek here is unbowed; Championships is a victory lap. He’s always been the most intense rapper in the game, and that single-minded approach to rapping serves him well at nearly every turn here — no one can sell a bar quite like Meek. When that’s paired with some of the best songs he’s ever made (and one of the best Jay-Z verses in recent memory), he earns the audacious title of this record.
Everything’s Fine might be the funniest hip-hop album of the year. It’s not just in Quelle Chris and Jean Grae’s hilarious adlibs about “femcees” and “what you know about the originals, fam?” on the prickly satire “My Contribution to this Scam,” or a title intro that hearkens to the game-show theme of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising. It’s how the rapper-producer couple weaves a lyrical comedy of dismissive punchlines and unexpected revelations – check how Jean Grae rhymes disarmingly on “Gold Purple Orange” about feeling out of place as a young New York teen with an identity crisis – with bubbly sampled loops full of quirky, odd noises and sharpshooter cameos from Your Old Droog and Dapwell. It’s a leap forward for Quelle, a Detroit musician who has evolved from the grungy raps of 2013’s Niggas is Men into a legit indie rap star. Meanwhile Jean Grae, one of the best rappers of her generation, finally gets a stage worthy of her lyrical brilliance. Her “Zero” showcase (as in “zero fucks to give”) is a whirlwind of unrepentant hardcore flexing: “I’m the original nasty motherfucker.”
Lil Baby is a quiet, magnetic force. His voice and delivery tumble from his mouth like a waterfall, but he’s not a particularly gifted wordsmith. Baby knows how to stretch his syllables with the assistance of Auto-Tune to the point his future as a Future-esque heartthrob seems preordained. He can hold his own against his peers with alchemic brilliance (Gunna) and avoid getting swallowed up by his mentors (Young Thug). On Harder Than Ever he honed all of these talents, creating a mixtape that sounds better than most rappers’ albums. Whether it was the fiery delivery of “Spazz” or the melodic brilliance of “Life Goes On,” one thing was clear — Quality Control’s prince is destined to one day become its king.
The second solo album from Los Angeles-via-Baltimore noise-bringer JPEGMafia is a political rap record with the logic of a fever dream and the focus of the internet. Peg, a fan of Ice Cube and Arca, makes beats that have the noisy, glitchy ADD of early Aughts electronic labels like Tigerbeat6 and Mille Plateaux. His lyrics similarly refuse to sit still, a shrapnel spray of videogames, WWE, rap internet wormholes and anti-MAGA sentiment.
There is no dead space in the world of Die Lit. A year removed from his self-titled breakout mixtape, Playboi Carti proved that the best way to avoid getting labeled a fluke is filling your music with everything your detractors might claim you lean on — more ad-libs, better beats, bigger guests. Carti opens up his anarchic and chaotic world to new and old friends, even when they threaten to outshine him. Lil Uzi Vert’s “Shotta” verse crackles with so much energy it felt like he was briefly the Best Rapper Alive. Bryson Tiller lyrically runs circles around Carti like he forgot his day job is singing. However, that’s the enduring appeal of Playboi. He’s a gifted producer in the traditional sense, operating in the body of a SoundCloud rapper. Across the entire album, Cardi sees and hears qualities in others that they often don’t see in themselves. He can make the galactic sounds of Pi’erre Bourne beats sound even more otherworldly, and forces Nicki Minaj to deliver one of her best features of 2018. Die Lit proved Playboi Carti is no fluke.
The last Mac Miller album to be released during his life feels like the culmination of years of career development, of fermentation in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles’ rap scenes, and then, finally, reaching a measured state of grace. Past knucklehead nonsense has been expunged; now there’s only verses about reflection and recovery. “Climbing over that wall…but the height be too tall, so like September I fall, down below, now I know that the medicine be on call,” he rhymes on “Self Care,” deploying a metaphor about his struggles with addiction. He splits between singing and rapping, and his voice is soft and comforting throughout. The molten, soulful production soothes and heals like a calming wave, and only occasionally builds into the funky, horn-laden fireworks of “Ladders.” Swimming is a quiet beauty of an album, a beautifully crafted realization of peace.
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 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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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”).
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 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.
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