Rap needs to exhale in 2019 — last year was a hectic one — but it probably won’t. We’re a few weeks in and it’s already looking like the nonstop pace set by the genre’s biggest artists in 2018 is here to stay. A simple rule of thumb for the new way of life: Rappers either compete with an endless stream of new releases or they cease to matter. Last year, we saw once-major acts like Kanye West and Eminem hit false notes in an attempt to keep up, while newer stars like Travis Scott, Cardi B and Tierra Whack pushed through to define a year in which the expected was consistently subverted. As 2019 goes on, look for A-listers to try to win back some of their critical capital and recent arrivals to the top of the game attempt to continue to seize their moment, all while more emerging artists seek to devour even more of the pie.
Chance the Rapper‘s 2018 was pretty quiet. His strategy of dropping loosies like “I Might Need Security” and “Wala Cam” sated his base, but they weren’t hits in the traditional sense. Even his features on DJ Khaled’s “No Brainer” and Tee Grizzley’s “Wake Up” left much to be desired. Capitalizing on the wild success of Coloring Book is still the next move. Professionally, Chance is in the middle of distancing himself from R. Kelly, who he once brought out at Lollapalooza in 2014, but has now conceded that “making a song with R. Kelly was a mistake,” in an appearance on Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly docuseries. Days later, he separated himself from associates accused of “domestic abuse, sexual violence and rape” on Twitter. It’s been a rough few months.
The Acid Rap MC is in need of a new chapter, and an album would go a long way in making that happen. Plus, it’s time to retire the “3” hats.
Aminé’s breakout hit, “Caroline,” put him on a pop rapper trajectory, but his music since then has been harder to pin down, and suggests an artist with ambitions beyond that lane. Last year’s ONEPOINTFIVE (presumably titled for its position as the halfway point between his debut and sophomore albums) seemed like a reset for the Portland rapper, and an opportunity for him to muddy the waters of what happens next. “Dr. Whoever” found him giving one of the more candid and emotional performances of his career, and he adeptly proved he could hold his own against newcomers known to steal the spotlight like Gunna and Rico Nasty. Where he goes in 2019 in anyone’s guess, but it’s going to be fun to hear what he ends up cooking up.
Valee has an incredibly solid base to work from. His “Two 16’s” flow was the most copied in 2018; “Womp Womp” featuring Jeremih scratched the surface of the unchartered places rap/R&B/pop still can go; he turned a song with teen meme sensation Matt Ox into a banger. Apparently, there’s nothing the Chicago rapper can’t pull off, it’s just a matter of figuring out where his instincts are going to take him next. GOOD Job, You Found Me teased where the Chicago rapper can go within the confines of 6 songs, but the public is ready for something more — a full-length could solidify him as rap’s next step in its evolutionary chain.
Dreezy doesn’t pull punches. Her last few releases, “RIP Aretha” and “Where Them $ @,” proved her kinetic flow and wit have only improved with time in the game. It’s “Chanel Slides,” though, featuring Kash Doll, which makes the imminent release of Big Dreez (January 25) exciting. Over a Pi’erre Bourne beat, Dreezy and Kash throw out hilarious punchlines and intricate flows with ease. The first quarter of 2019 is wide open and, hopefully, it’s Dreezy that takes it over.
Rico Nasty’s 2018 was a breakout year for the young rapper. She channeled her raw energy and bubbly personality into the critically acclaimed Nasty, a mission statement that works from front to back. Alongside producer Kenny Beats, she delivered the vicious, but infectious “Smack A Bitch,” and gave N.O.R.E.’s “Superthug” a facelift on “Countin Up.” The prerequisite major co-sign came when A$AP Rocky made sure to educate Angie Martinez on the rising star when he visited the radio host on-air. Rico’s cult following continues to grow, which makes her breakthrough to the mainstream feel like a matter of when, not if. It wouldn’t be a surprise if her next project is the one that pushes her over the edge.
Danielle Bregoli started as a meme who wanted to be a rapper. Despite the vitriol, snickers and general disbelief, Bhad Bhabie’s first song became a hit. Then she quickly made another one. Now, it would appear to that Bhad Bhabie is here to stay, despite all the evidence to the contrary. She’s easily one of the most popular female rappers entrenched in the streaming wars and, finally, her skills are catching up to her ambition. Her latest song “Babyface Savage,” featuring Tory Lanez, is a swift and dexterous class in simplicity masquerading as something complex. If she can carry this momentum across an entire album we’ll have our most unlikely success story to date — and it’s worth the price of admission to see if she can pull it off.
Megan Thee Stallion is a rising Houston talent, signed to 300 Entertainment, with some serious heat to her name. The brand of empowered, occasionally raunchy bass-rattlers is strong, and the wave of support that’s cresting for her right now is primed for a statement piece. If she delivers in 2019, we have another breakout star on our hands.
Kanye West and Chance the Rapper could use each other’s talents now more than ever. Both Chicago artists weathered PR crisis after crisis, and more times than they would like they weathered them together. For both, their individual output in 2018 left something to be desired, and they just happened to both tease that they were working on Good Ass Job in the middle of last year. It never came to fruition, and it’s hard to know if Ye and Chano have an “Ultralight Beam” left in them (or even something approaching that level of coherence), but if the promise of this collaboration ever pays off, it’s the path that could lead to salvation.
Pusha T made the best solo album of his career and one of the best rap albums of the year on Daytona. It was his most uncompromising statement to date, a tightly wound world of dusty samples, awkward trap doors and Big Meech tigers. It netted the Virginia rapper and G.O.O.D. President his first Grammy nomination. Now he’s in the studio with Pharrell after letting Kanye West guide his magnum opus.
Pusha T has classics in different eras, now as both a member of Clipse and a solo entity — what is there left to prove? Only Terrence Thornton (and hopefully Skateboard P) knows.
Vince Staples has an enviable problem. His outsized personality is so tailored to the internet age that he’s successful no matter how well his music performs. Critically, there isn’t much more praise left for the Long Beach rapper to receive. However, it still feels like Staples is working his way toward creating music that matches the comedic intensity of his persona. FM! molded his songs in the shape of California rap classics of old. Big Fish Theory was his synthesis of a black experimentalism’s past and potential future. His next album could fuse the two elements and create something wholly indebted to the singular world of Staples — or it could be something else entirely.
Rick Ross has had many eras — a perennial urban radio star, a mixtape killer, a solid album artist and a transcendent talent scout. 2017’s Rather You Than Me proved that the MMG mastermind still has plenty to say after a string of releases that received tepid responses from fans and critics. When Ross is operating at his peak, he’s in the upper echelon of rap. It’s time for the boss to return.
Offset has a Confessions in him. Ever since he proclaimed “Y’all won” after months of rumored infidelity and a Cardi-led divorce, it felt like the second best rapper in Migos was on the clock. He’s the last of his groupmates to release a solo project and, arguably, the one with the most to address. Coach K and Pee need to call up Jermaine Dupri, crank the AutoTune up and light some incense. Offset has a lot to answer for and “Confessions, Part III” won’t write itself.
Invasion of Privacy was an anomaly. It’s the rare major label album that doesn’t sacrifice commercially viable hits for substance, and doesn’t rob the artist of what made them captivating in the first place. The edges were kept intact and ultimately formed a new aura around Cardi B. She’s weathered a Nicki Minaj beef and the dissolution (and potential rekindling) of her marriage to Offset, all while staying on the road to Grammys. However, the more difficult proposition — and real reward — is if the Bronx rapper can accomplish the same feat twice. Cardi teased that her follow-up is coming soon and, surprisingly, she has far more to address on her sophomore album than she did on her debut.
Pardison Fontaine is trying to make one of the most challenging leaps in music — from songwriter to solo star. His style, cadence and lyrics were an instrumental component of many of Cardi B’s most successful songs (“Bodak Yellow,” “Be Careful”), and he gifted Kanye West with the emotional — albeit troubling — core of ye on “Violent Crimes.” Gruff, comical and direct, Fontaine’s style is a callback to late-90s and early 2000s New York-style hip-hop. Besides his writing contributions, his biggest moment-to-date is “Backin’ It Up,” featuring Cardi B. Unsurprisingly, his female counterpart steals the show, but Fontaine’s charisma keeps him in the game. That’s more than we can say for most rappers who share tracks with Cardi.
Lil Pump is a proven hitmaker. “I Love It,” featuring Kanye West, helped the embattled Chicago legend net his only hit of 2018 despite many, many attempts. “Arms Around You,” featuring XXXTentacion, Maluma and Swae Lee, is number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Pump’s “Butterfly Doors” is netting millions of views despite its racist history. The rumored one-hit wonder became more than that in 2018. Unfortunately, the SoundCloud community that fostered the success of Pump is diminished, a result of multiple deaths and prison sentences amongst his peers. Pump, though, still has the momentum, and is among the last of a shrinking class of rappers. It’s up to him what he does with the clear lane.
Schoolboy Q’s 2018 was quiet. In September, he revealed he wasn’t ready to release his album after the death of his friend and close collaborator, Mac Miller. “I just don’t feel right putting out an album,” he told a crowd. “I’mma go back, and I’mma figure out when I’mma put this fucking album out, because y’all are going to get this album. I promise that. I’m just not ready to walk into the radio station and the first thing they ask me is ‘So, Mac Miller?’”
His recent verse on 21 Savage’s “good day” was as sharp as ever, and one of the standout features on that entire project. Whenever Q is ready for the spotlight, it’ll be a moment.
Rae Sremmurd briefly broke up in January. “I’m not Rae Sremmurd I’m slim jxmmi and ima sink or swim by myself,” Jxmmi wrote on Twitter, in a string of since-deleted tweets. “Not SremmLife. Y’all won it’s a wrap. Y’all still got ya mans swae y’all a be skraight.” The dissolution didn’t stick for long. However, it did speak to the precarious nature of the Tupelo, Mississippi duo. Their last release, Sr3mm, was an ambitious but stretched attempt to reconcile Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi’s diverging career paths into something cohesive. Swae’s melodic inclinations as a solo artist have netted him two number one hits as a featured artist (“Sicko Mode,” “Sunflower”), while Jxmmi’s more aggressive stylistic contributions are often overlooked. It’s unfair, but it’s a tale as old as OutKast.
Put some respect on Slim Jxmmi’s name, because the world needs Rae Sremmurd together more than it needs their solo projects.
Childish Gambino doesn’t have a classic album: No, Because, The Internet is not a classic. Regardless, he holds the same rarefied air as his musical predecessor (Kanye West), critical darling peers (Kendrick Lamar) and pop juggernauts (Drake). The Atlanta polymath has had his moments — “3005” proved his chart potential, “Redbone” was a bonafide, long-lasting hit and the “This Is America” was a thing that a lot of people watched — but it still feels like Gambino hasn’t fulfilled the promise of his potential, or what his standing would suggest. Supposedly, this album will be his last and, hopefully, that means Glover will finally emerge from the shadows of his influences. The throne is there for the taking.
At this point, Kanye’s exhausted a lot of goodwill. He was bluntly offensive and willfully ignorant for most of last year, and the good feelings about him are unlikely to return. However, this is still Kanye West we’re talking about. 2018’s ye was a weak outing for him, but if it was anyone else’s output it would stand as one of the more interesting rap releases of last year. If Yandhi has as many interesting ideas, it’ll be worth listening to. If it’s executed any better — and this one’s removed from West’s five-albums-in-five-weeks plan — it could be an album of the year contender.
Kendrick Lamar is in surprisingly good shape to win a Grammy for his least-focused album to date. His nomination isn’t really an acknowledgment that his soundtrack for Black Panther was the best album of last year, so much as a belated reward for making three of the best albums in recent memory before that. Whatever he follows up DAMN., and the Pulitzer Prize, with is going to be special.
Full disclosure: This month, Lil Uzi Vert announced that he was retiring from music, and he’d deleted everything he’d been working on from his hard drive. If that’s true — bearing in mind that no one really retires from rap — it would be a real tragedy. Vert is one of the most electrifying voices in rap today, in many ways the lone breakout of the SoundCloud Rap class that emerged just a few years ago and a genuinely thrilling talent. If the album (at one point called Eternal Atake) never shows up, that’s a huge loss. If the retirement turns out to be a pump fake and we do get a new project, it could be one of the best rap albums of the year.