30 Best Rap Albums of 2018
2018 was an insane year for rap — it’s hard to think of a major rapper who didn’t release something this year. And while some of the major players struck gold, the truth is that most of the year’s biggest rap albums were just okay at best. But boiling beneath the surface was a countless amount of creative rap albums, from newcomers proving themselves, to veterans figuring out how to age gracefully; from expertly executed throwbacks, to thrilling innovation; from lively jazz rap, to unique concept albums to genre-hopping epics to out-there experimentation. And while many of the big albums continue to clock in at taxing running times in order to game streaming numbers, 2018 had a clear trend of rappers making the artistic choice to go in the opposite direction and practice the art of brevity. It was nearly impossible to narrow down all of the great stuff that came out this year, but I finally ended up with a list that I think are the 30 best (with 16 honorable mentions at the end). Some of these albums also appeared on BrooklynVegan’s main, non-genre-specific Top 50 Albums of 2018 list, and blurbs from that list have been repurposed for the albums that appear on both lists. Blurbs were written by me unless otherwise specified, and ranking is also by me so the order may not coincide exactly with BV’s main Top 50.
Read on for my picks. What were your favorite rap albums of 2018?
Hermit and the Recluse – Orpheus vs. the Sirens
Ka’s story is well-known by now. He’s a New York rap vet who spent the ’90s in the group Natural Elements, before disappearing from music and becoming a firefighter, and for the past few years he’s been having a major comeback. He’s released a handful of deservingly acclaimed albums under his own name, as well as under the name Dr. Yen Lo with producer Preservation, and now he’s got yet another new duo: Hermit and the Recluse with LA producer Animoss. If the album title didn’t give it away, Ka constructs a narrative that relates his own experiences to Greek mythology, and it functions as both an epic and as traditional rap music. Ka has the same grizzled delivery he’s had on past recent albums, and Animoss provides him with a cinematic backdrop that perfectly suits the themes of this album. It seems like it could get too gimmicky or too ambitious, but Ka makes it sound as natural as can be.
YBN Nahmir, YBN Almighty Jay & YBN Cordae – YBN: The Mixtape
Rap crews used to be regional groups formed by people who grew up together, but lately we’re seeing rappers from all over the country (or world) meet up and form over the internet. The members of the young YBN collective met while playing Grand Theft Auto online, and there’s actually ten of them, but the core trio of YBN Nahmir, YBN Almighty Jay and YBN Cordae joined forces for the group’s first mixtape, YBN: The Mixtape. YBN Nahmir was the first member to really start taking off, thanks to his addictive singles like “Rubbin’ Off the Paint” and “Bounce Out With That” (both of which are on this mixtape), though lately YBN Cordae has been emerging as a new favorite. He’s less pop-minded but arguably the most technically skilled. Meanwhile, Almighty Jay holds things down just fine with his groupmates, and he’s started to come out with some fan faves of his own as well (“Chopsticks”). At 23 songs, YBN: The Mixtape is overstuffed, but it proves these guys are an exciting, unique, super talented collective worth keeping an eye on, and that they’ve got way more where “Rubbin’Off the Paint” and “Bounce Out With That” came from. The tape’s long but there’s no real filler; almost every song could work as the next big single if it just gets the right exposure. Their songs are very modern, very accessible and radio-ready, but they manage to avoid sounding like everyone else out there. They nail a balance between showing off their own weird personalities while also making songs that are easy to like and sound instantly familiar.
Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y and The Alchemist – Fetti
Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y are two guys who stay loyal to sounds that aren’t very in fashion anymore (hard-edged gangsta rap and permastoned jazz rap, respectively), and they’re both prolific artists whose outputs range from good to great, even if they can be hard to keep track of. So it’s a real treat to hear them bringing their different but complementary styles together for Fetti, over psychedelic production from The Alchemist (another retro-yet-forever-relevant artist) no less. All three of them brought their A games to this brief, no-filler project, making it rank among each artist’s most essential releases. It’s often a warm, relaxed project that’s easy to thrown on any time, and Gibbs’ and Curren$y’s styles work so well with each other, with Alc’s airy, jazz-inflected beats tying everything together seamlessly. Gibbs favors a tough, booming delivery while Curren$y often sounds high as a kite, and here they meet in the middle. They play off each other’s strengths and know how to hold back from going too far in their own direction, but they also both sound as distinct as ever.
Reason – There You Have It
Technically a slightly longer version of this album was released in 2017, though that version wasn’t met with much publicity and it’s mostly been scrubbed from the internet, and Top Dawg Entertainment gave this shortened, remixed, and remastered version a wider release after signing him earlier this year. Reason says that since There You Have It was what convinced TDE founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith to sign him, Top wanted the world to also be exposed to Reason via this album before he makes his proper TDE debut with presumably bigger-name producers and guests. I’m glad Top made that call; I’ve got plenty of faith that Reason can make something even bigger and better but Reason is already a fully formed artist on There You Have It and the world needs to hear this album. Like his labelmate Jay Rock (who he toured with earlier this year), Reason is a classically skilled rapper who makes the kind of rap that dominated the ’90s and early 2000s, and though There You Have It is void of modern flourishes, Reason is so good at what he does that it doesn’t matter what year this thing came out. He’s a storyteller rapper, and when he gives you the cold, hard details of gang life and the guilt that lives with him years later, it’s impossible not to hang onto his every word. There’s a real depth to the way he raps about everything, and he has such a commanding delivery that no matter what he’s rapping about, you’re inclined to listen.
Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
Anderson .Paak has been honing his sound for a while, but it seems pretty clear that he intended Oxnard to be something of an introductory statement. All of his albums have been named after a city, and this one is named after Paak’s birthplace. It’s also his first album executive produced by and featuring Dr. Dre (whose Compton album introduced a lot of the world to Anderson .Paak), and Paak wanted this to be his The Documentary, his Get Rich or Die Tryin’, his The Slim Shady LP, his Doggystyle — albums where Dre took the reins of an artist on the cusp of greatness and propelled them miles forward. It doesn’t seem like Oxnard is getting received like it’s going to be a classic on the level of those albums (though it’s only been out for like a month so it’s still got time to prove itself), but even if it’s not, Paak deserves credit for trying. He went into this album with an insane amount of ambition, and he pulled off most of his ideas. He’s got real-deal rap songs (and he raps better than ever), danceable funk songs, psychedelic soul songs, and more all worked into the overflowing yet cohesive album. He’s got lush harmonies and fiery instrumentation, he’s got quality guest verses from Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, J Cole, and Q-Tip, he’s got fun and simple songs (like “Tints”), and he’s got dead-serious stuff (like “6 Summers”). Paak is shooting for the stars, and it’s exciting to be here witnessing him do it.
SOB x RBE – Gangin’
Vallejo rap group SOB x RBE had one of the most significant breakthroughs and one of the most prolific outputs of any artist in 2018. They started the year off with one of the best songs on the Black Panther album (“Paramedic!”), then quickly released their own new album Gangin’, then members released notable solo projects, then the Gangin’ II album came out, then more solo projects. There’s a lot to like about the group’s output this year, but the most consistently great album they did all year was the first Gangin’. It introduced them as one of the hungriest new groups around, and it made it very clear that they’d be here to stay. The album is all over the place in the best possible way. There are throwbacks that sound like N.W.A (“Carpoolin’,” “Paid In Full”) and auto-tuned sing-rap songs that sound like 2018 rap radio (“Lifestyle,” “List”), and somehow they both work perfectly on the same album. They’ve also got songs that mix the old and the new, songs that don’t sound tied to one specific era, and more, and they came out with songs that have so much staying power in the process. Not everything the SOB x RBE guys touched this year was memorable, but the Gangin’ songs have already stuck with me for 10 months and I imagine they’ll continue to do so.
Phonte – No News Is Good News
While 9th Wonder helped Black Thought make “grown man rap” on his first of two 2018 EPs (more on that very soon), 9th’s Little Brother groupmate Phonte was off making his own version with No News Is Good News. It’s Phonte’s second solo album ever and first in seven years (though he made soul/R&B albums with Foreign Exchange and Eric Roberson in between), which should tell you something: Phonte takes his time and he only comes out with something when he’s ready. And going by the 33 rock-solid minutes of No News Is Good News, Phonte was clearly ready. Over warm, throwback production, Phonte dishes out bars that remind you he’s the same expert rhymer he was 15 years ago (“Y’all scorin’ a game that I don’t care about / ‘Cause if you ain’t droppin’ that cheap weakened shit / Every week and shit then they wonder ’bout your whereabouts”) and bars that remind you how emotionally resonant his songs can be (“Put my pops in the ground, then hit the repast and ate the same shit that killed him”). It’s Phonte doing what he does best, but it’s also more than that. It’s a wiser, more mature album than Phonte has ever written, the kind of album that you really can’t write until you’ve been around a little longer and seen some more shit. Listening to it reminds you how much the game needs Phonte when he’s inactive or off working on his soul/R&B stuff, but hey, as long as he ends up making albums this good, I’ll wait another seven years to hear his next one.
Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vols. 1 & 2
The Roots are so omnipresent and their level of talent is such a given that it’d be understandable if you started to take them for granted. They’ve also done so much non-exclusively-hip hop work recently (The Tonight Show, their Jam Sessions, their album with Elvis Costello, etc), that you can almost forget that frontman Black Thought is one of the most razor-sharp veteran rappers still going. He reminded us of that this year with the release of his first two solo records ever, the Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 EP (produced by 9th Wonder) and the Streams of Thought, Vol. 2: Traxploitation EP (produced by Salaam Remi). “The art of lyricism is now in its greatest decline. That’s why it’s like, somebody comes out and you drop some bars of substance, it’s like it’s amazing. It’s like a unicorn,” Thought told NPR earlier this year, and it seems fair to assume that Thought’s perception of a lyrical void in modern hip hop left him fired-up and drove him to drop some of his hardest bars in a while. He doesn’t come off like a curmudgeon though; he sounds lively and enthusiastic, like he couldn’t be happier to be back in the vocal booth. And he just kills it again and again and again on these EPs. His rhyme schemes are exhilarating, his word choices are unpredictable (he rhymes “FML” with “béchamel”), and his punchlines hit like home runs. Formerly considered a young person’s game, we’re now seeing the ways in which rappers can age gracefully, and other vets could take a few notes from Black Thought.
Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Ever since Kanye West and Kid Cudi began working together regularly in the late 2000s, fans have been clamoring for a full collaborative project. These hopes were initially dashed after Kid Cudi left G.O.O.D. Music in 2013, later leading to a public feud between Cudi and Kanye, which made fans question whether a full album from the two would ever materialize. Fast forward a few years, the two rappers have ended their beef, and come together to create Kids See Ghosts, a record that not only showcases both Cudi and Kanye’s personal strengths, but reveals an unexpected level of chemistry that makes the duo seem greater than the sum of their parts. For Cudi, Kids See Ghosts is probably the strongest work he’s been involved in since Man on the Moon II, and for Kanye, it’s easily the best he’s sounded lyrically and flow-wise since Yeezus. From the lush, psychedelic instrumentals to lyrics heavily focusing on mental health, spirituality and faith, the album has the two rappers at the top of their respective games, embracing self-love and religion along the way. The album seems like a journey through both artists’ inner struggles towards improving themselves; Cudi and Kanye have both been very outspoken in recent times about their battles with mental illness, and Kids See Ghosts is at times an extension of their voices on these issues. During album highlight “Reborn,” both artists tell their stories of overcoming personal obstacles, with Cudi describing his emergence from a period of depression, and Kanye discussing his newfound resistance to adversity. The track’s repeated refrain of “keep moving forward, keep moving forward” encapsulates the record’s over-arching themes of surmounting past struggles, there always being a way out of suffering,, and the journey towards the goal beginning with the self. [Jeremy Nifras]
milo – budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies
Rory Ferreira has become one of the leaders of modern-day indie-rap, and 2018 was yet another insanely prolific year for him, with a new album under his scallops hotel moniker, a collaborative album with Elucid as Nostrum Grocers, and what may be the last-ever album under his most popular moniker, milo. If he really does retire milo for good, budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies is one hell of a way to go out. It may actually be my favorite album of his yet. As a rapper, milo’s got a wordy, abstract style full of tongue twisters and in-jokes and weird references and callbacks to his own work (one of my favorites is “Hoisting poetry / Big bags of Nostrum Groceries”). He’s a rare modern artist that brings me back to early 2000s alternative/underground rap like Aesop Rock and other stuff on Def Jux/Rhymesayers, while also sounding new and original. And production-wise, milo’s on a new level with budding ornithologists. He delivers his raps over beats that split the difference between psychedelic electronics and warm, organic jazz. It’s just as easy to get mesmerized by one of his instrumentals as it is by one of his rhymes, and considering a handful of these tracks are self-produced, budding ornithologists is a real testament to how effective milo is as an all-around artist and visionary.
Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap
Nipsey Hussle became one half of a modern-day protest anthem when he appeared on YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump,” and the two joined forces yet again for Nipsey’s 2018 single “Last Time That I Checc’d.” Like “FDT,” it’s a G-Funk reviving banger, but instead of a political song it’s a come-up story, and it comes out of the gate swinging. It opens with the kind of booming hook that sounds built to start a party the second it comes on, and it stays on that level for the rest of the song. Nipsey’s got a handful of other chest-puffed anthems like that one on this album (“Rap N*****,” “Succa Proof,” “Grinding All My Life”), but he also shows off a knack for more intricate stuff like when he holds his own against Kendrick Lamar in “Dedication.” Like YG, Nipsey is a student of classic West Coast rap and it shows, but he’s not stuck in the past. He’s just as good at G-Funk revival as he is at modern-day R&B ballads like “Real Big.” Victory Lap isn’t without its filler, but the highs massively outweigh the lows and it’s the most refined statement yet from an artist who’s been grinding for years.
Open Mike Eagle – What Happens When I Try To Relax EP
Underground rapper Open Mike Eagle has been prolific for a while and basically everything he touches is worth hearing, but something makes this year’s six-song EP What Happens When I Try To Relax just a cut above the rest. He sounds more energetic than usual, the songs are more immediate, and his rhymes are more delightfully weird than ever. He says stuff that you’d never expect to hear like “I don’t wear a monocle / I don’t know which sequels are truly canonical,” and it’s so fun to listen to the way words like those roll off his tongue. He makes you laugh, but he also hits you with something dead-serious shortly afterwards. What Happens When I Try To Relax isn’t a full length, but it’s got a wider range of emotions across these six tracks than most of those major label 22-song albums have. Brevity with depth was a recurring theme in rap this year, and Open Mike Eagle was among the best to do it.
Saba – Care For Me
It’s always tough to listen to an album about grief, and Saba’s sophomore album Care For Me — which was largely inspired by the death of his cousin and co-founder of his rap crew Pivot Gang, Walter — is one of those albums. There are songs about other topics too (though no matter what Saba’s rapping about, his lyrics are always deeply personal), but death is all over this album, and it all comes to a climax on the album’s penultimate song, “PROM / KING.” It sees Saba in suspenseful, tension-building storytelling mode, rewinding a few years and then leading right up to Walt’s death. This album — and that song especially — isn’t music I can listen to often, but every time I do put it on, I’m left with chills. Saba favors laid-back production, eschewing big hooks and danceable beats, instead putting all the focus on his words. It’s the album where he goes from a good rapper to a great rapper, and I suspect it’s going to secure him a legacy as a strongly compelling artist for a very long time.
Sheck Wes – MUDBOY
As the story goes, Sheck Wes had his breakout moment by accident. His 2017 song “Mo Bamba” was allegedly uploaded to SoundCloud by producer 16yrold without Sheck’s knowledge, and months later it had caught the attention of Kanye West, Travis Scott, and eventually the world. By November 2018, it entered the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10. It sees Sheck attempting to sing and going charmingly off-key with each stretched-out vowel, and somehow it’s absurdly addictive. After repeating and repeating the hook for half the song, Sheck sings “Sheeeeeeeck Weeeeeeeees got so many flooooooooows,” and then the beat cuts out and Sheck goes onto prove it, switching to a heated shout-rap. It’s the perfect example of an artist who knows how to write a pop song, but also knows how to change it up when you least expect it and keep everything sounding raw. And Sheck Wes ended up doing that for the entirety of his debut album MUDBOY. “Mo Bamba” is still his crowning achievement, but there are at least five or six other songs on the album that provide the same type of rush and sound primed to be his next major single. The album never strays from the dark, raw, bare-bones vibe of “Mo Bamba,” so you could accuse it of being too samey, but it also never drags and Sheck finds subtle ways to change it up again and again. He’s also already got a handful of trademark ad-libs that help make his work unmistakable from the moment you hear them — impressive for an artist whose first single only came out a year ago. And thankfully, his label bosses Kanye West and Travis Scott seemed to stay out of Sheck’s way creatively. His album was mostly made with the Harlem producers he worked with since before he was famous and it has no features. It’s unlike anything from Kanye’s Wyoming sessions or Travis’ Astroworld, and it’s better for it.
Maxo Kream – Punken
Maxo Kream’s proper debut album Punken is the definition of deceptively simple. The Houston rapper’s got a radio-ready flow on most of these songs, and he packs in hook after hook as effectively as anyone who actually spent 2018 dominating the radio. But these aren’t empty pop songs; just the opposite. Maxo Kream is an expert storyteller, and he fools you into absorbing the depth of his lyrics while you think you’re listening to an average club banger. Take album standout “Roaches.” It starts with a hook that reminisces on the days before fame and takes some shots at mumble rappers, but it turns into a tragic story about how his parents fought for their lives during Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Katrina. If you’re just nodding along to how catchy the song is, you might miss it completely, but when you realize what Maxo’s saying, you’re stopped in your tracks. That kind of thing happens all over Punken, and he delivers his lines with an insane level of stamina that he makes look effortless. See “Grannies”: hooks turn into verses which turn into hooks and back again, and I don’t think Maxo stops to take a breath for the entire song. He’s got a lot to say, he’s got a unique way of saying it, and he never loses sight of the value of a good hook. It’s not everyday that you hear all three of those traits on a debut album.
Leikeli47 – Acrylic
When a true original like Leikeli47 shows up, she deserves to be celebrated. On her breakthrough 2017 album Wash & Set and this year’s impressively quick — yet just as multi-faceted and ambitious — followup Acrylic, Leikeli proves herself to be a true post-genre artist, navigating hip hop, art pop, R&B, electronic music, reggae, and more, and always making it her own. She’s a genuinely great rapper as well as a genuinely great singer, and she consistently paves her own path. When she raps, she completely avoids trends and clichés, coming out with something totally against the grain yet so strangely accessible. That’s true for Leikeli both as a performer and a lyricist; not only do her raps sound unique, but she jumps from an ode to the powerful women in her life (“No Reload”) to an ode to fashion (“Full Set [A New Style]”) to a tale of growing up and witnessing gun violence and drug trade (“CIAA”), and she does so with a perspective that you don’t hear every day. Her hooks are often simple, repeated phrases that drill their way into your brain before the song ends, but her verses reveal a greater depth. And the production on this album is just as off-kilter and diverse as Leikeli’s rapping. A lot of her beats wouldn’t even qualify as hip hop beats, and the ones that do are still nontraditional in exciting ways. And then there’s really out-there stuff like “Roll Call,” which sounds like an experimental, non bro-y take on Jock Jams. Like a lot of songs on this album, it seems like it shouldn’t work, but in Leikeli47’s hands, it does.
CupcakKe – Ephorize & Eden
Here’s what we said about CupcakKe’s two 2018 albums in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
“Most people already skipped this song ’cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” CupcakKe raps on “Self Interview” off Ephorize, her first of two albums released in 2018. And in her case, that’s sadly even truer than it would be if another rapper said it. CupcakKe built a reputation off of raunchy, sex-fueled rap songs, and those songs still tend to overshadow the rest of her work. But as a song like “Self Interview” makes very clear, CupcakKe is too multi-faceted and too talented to be pigeonholed. If you didn’t skip that song, you’d hear that CupcakKe goes on to take a very serious tone and battle sexist double standards. And that’s the kind of thing that happens all over Ephorize and Eden. For all the fun and liberating raunchy songs, there are songs that fight for gay rights, for feminism, for respect for children with autism. It’s really deep stuff. And while CupcakKe’s lyrical topics tend to be the most talked-about aspect of her work, it shouldn’t go overlooked that she’s a great rapper. On a song like the aggressive, shit-talking “PetSmart,” she shows off a quick, biting delivery that could leave your average ’90s battle-rapper with their jaw dropped. There’s not much she can’t do, and at the fast rate that she’s releasing music, it doesn’t seem like we’ll have to wait long for even bigger and better things to come.
Jay Rock – Redemption
It’s fitting that Jay Rock named his third and best album Redemption. A full decade after releasing his Lil Wayne-featuring breakthrough single, his moment has finally come. Rock spent the time in between staying true to the booming, throwback style he’s had since day one, and while his first two albums had quality stuff, TDE’s breakthrough artist was quickly overshadowed by labelmates like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and SZA, who were making more accessible and more modern records than Rock. Fortunately, Jay Rock stuck to his guns once again for Redemption, but the production is richer, the hooks are catchier, and Rock went in just a little harder than he ever had before. He still raps like it’s no later than 2003, but he manages to sound right at home over Redemption‘s 2018-style beats. And I don’t want to take any credit away from Jay Rock, but maybe the timing of coming out the year after Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. helped Redemption. DAMN. dominated the current rap mainstream with raw, aggressive, ’90s-style rap and maybe that prepared the world to be ready for an album like Redemption. Kendrick also pops up on Redemption a few times, and every time he does, he sounds like he’s having the time of his life. He’s got the over-the-top confidence of a guy who just released their third consecutive classic, and the enthusiasm of a guy who’s helping shine a light on one of his favorite underrated artists. Just watch the way he runs out to join his pal in the video for “WIN,” Jay Rock’s best song yet. Kendrick appeared on a lot of albums this year, but he never seemed as thrilled as he seems on Redemption. When you hear how much Jay Rock snaps on this thing, who could blame him?
Kendrick Lamar and Various Artists – Black Panther: The Album
Kendrick Lamar (who had the best album of 2012, 2015, and 2017) is still in his “everything he touches turns to gold” phase, and even though we didn’t get a proper Kendrick Lamar album in 2018, Black Panther: The Album is pretty damn close. It’s technically a various artists album (and more of a companion to the Black Panther movie than a soundtrack), but Kendrick is on every song, the bulk of the album was produced by TDE in-house producers Sounwave, and it’s clear that this was an expertly curated album by Kendrick to play out like an album and not a compilation. It resulted in another huge and awesome single by SZA (whose Ctrl was a close runner up to Kendrick’s DAMN. last year), helped introduce the world to SOB x RBE and Reason, helped get the world ready for Jay Rock’s new album (its lead single “King’s Dead” first appeared on Black Panther), and it gifted the world with a handful of killer Kendrick Lamar verses, as well as killer verses by Vince Staples, Schoolboy Q, Anderson .Paak, and more. Sometimes these Major Rap Compilations As Soundtracks can just function as another ingredient in making the whole thing a too-big-to-fail blockbuster smash (see: Creed II or Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse), but Black Panther is truly a cohesive, artistic album that stands on its own. Even when the hype dies down and some other superhero movie takes over, it feels like we’ll still be talking about Black Panther for years to come.
Rico Nasty – Nasty
Here’s what we said about ‘Nasty’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Lately it feels like there’s a hot new rapper worth paying attention to every week, but few of 2018’s breakout artists were as distinct as DC-area rapper Rico Nasty. After shaping her sound over the course of a few mixtapes and singles, everything came together for Rico on this year’s Nasty, her best project yet and currently the finest introduction to her work. She splits her time between two alter-egos, the emotional sing-rapper Tacobella and the raging, punk-inspired Trap Lavigne. The latter is her most instantly satisfying, and she’s in Trap Lavigne mode for the bulk of Nasty, but the Tacobella side is necessary and adds a depth and a diversity to her sound. On Nasty, she’s often out for blood, offering up muscular raps that destroy half the people on the radio. But she’s an expert at hooks too. Sometimes you’re getting knocked off your feet by her blitzkrieg of bars, other times it’s impossible not to hum along. And no matter which alter-ego she’s using at any given moment, nobody sounds like her. The tone of her voice alone sets her apart from the pack, and she’s figured out so many ways to toy around with it, rarely going a verse without changing up her mood or personality at least once.
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Here’s what we said about ‘Some Rap Songs’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
After a relatively quiet three-year absence since dropping his great, nocturnal sophomore LP I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl Sweatshirt made an unexpected, bold return with Some Rap Songs, an album that’s even more impenetrable and scatterbrained than anything he’s done before. Like on Earl’s past studio albums, the mood on this record is dark and foreboding, and explores the inner workings of his psyche; this time around, however, the instrumentals are far more dense and cerebral, as Earl delves into issues he experienced since the release of his last album, and on several occasions mentions his relationship with his parents who both appear on the track “Playing Possum” (the album was mostly written before Earl’s father’s death earlier this year). The record requires a few listens to fully digest, but once it finally clicks, the payoff is extraordinary. Once again, Earl manages to mirror his disjointed, slanted flows and at times surreal lyricism with properly off-kilter, paranoia-inducing instrumentals, and even though the record only clocks under half an hour, the auditory path Earl leads listeners on throughout the record makes it feel much, much longer, and in turn, even more rewarding. [Jeremy Nifras]
Mick Jenkins – Pieces of a Man
The best jazz-rap album of the year is Noname’s Room 25, but a very close second is (past Noname collaborator) Mick Jenkins’ Pieces of a Man. Even without Mick’s rapping, the raw, lively instrumentation of this album would light up a jazz club on its own. Much of the album is an homage to spoken-word legend and rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron, from its title to the handful of Heron quotes peppered throughout the album. He’s got an entire song dedicated to the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” too. And like Heron, Jenkins is poetic and socially conscious and a truly gifted artist. But there’s a lot more going on here than homage. As much as Jenkins looks outward at society and tackles issues like race and sexual consent, he looks inward at himself too. It’s a very personal album, too personal to be boiled down to Mick’s love of classic poets and spoken-word artists. And whether Mick is advocating for social change or focusing on himself, he’s doing it with clever wordplay, intricate inner-line rhymes, and a commanding delivery. His choice of jazzy instrumentals is a big part of what sets this album apart from the rest of his discography and the bulk of 2018’s rap albums, but his improved rapping seals the deal. More than on any of his past projects, the complexity of his verses sink in over time, and his hooks hit you immediately.
Brockhampton – Iridescence
Here’s what we said about ‘Iridescence’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Brockhampton were one of the biggest hip hop breakouts of 2017, with not one but three albums that introduced the self-proclaimed boy band’s boldly unique, self-made sounds and fearless lyricism. They hit some roadblocks (including the removal of a member who was accused of sexual misconduct), but ultimately they overcame all obstacles and came out with a major label debut that was even better and more cohesive than anything they’d done before. The “three albums in one year” model resulted in some filler, but Iridiscence is fat free. It’s also their most fleshed-out and successfully ambitious project yet. The production is still in house, and Brockhampton continue to ignore mainstream hip hop trends in favor of a variety of unexpected sounds like breakbeat, trip hop, glitch, IDM, and more. They’ve got string sections and choirs (they recorded this at Abbey Road Studios, after all), and the whole thing is a wonderfully weird, larger than life, art-rap opus that stuns from start to finish. On top of all the dizzying instrumentals, the group’s raps look even further inward than they did on the Saturation albums. It’s a truly powerful album that looks at mental health, growing up gay in a society that judges you for it, and other anxieties that plague the nation. It’s a true coming of age masterpiece, with lyrics that speak to impressionable kids everywhere and a sense of musicality that should guarantee that it sticks around.
Vince Staples – FM!
Here’s what we said about ‘FM!’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018:
Vince Staples is far from the only major rapper reinventing himself with each release, but I don’t know if I can think of anyone else doing it this frequently and making it look this effortless. From his rock-solid, comparatively traditional, 2014 breakthrough EP Hell Can Wait, to his cold, hard, storytelling 2015 debut/double album Summertime ’06, to his explorative 2016 EP Prima Donna, to his experimental dance-rap 2017 sophomore album Big Fish Theory, and now his brief, claustrophobic concept album FM!, Vince has been all over the place and he’s a natural at all of it. Vince insists that FM! isn’t a proper full-length album, but it’s certainly complete and cohesive enough to count as one. As the title implies, it mimics listening to FM radio — complete with songs getting cut short and interrupted by LA radio personality Big Boy — and it functions as commentary on how we listen to rap music, as well as commentary on the violence Vince grew up surrounded by in Long Beach. Don’t let song titles like “FUN!” and “Feels Like Summer” fool you; Vince Staples’ summer is one filled with shootings and untimely deaths. He offers keen, incisive lines about losing friends and witnessing murder on nearly every song, and he does so with forceful, intricately structured verses that never sound like anyone else. But as with actually listening to the radio, FM! is designed in such a way where the songs can fade into the background and turn to white noise if you’re not really paying attention. Where the politicism on Big Fish Theory seemed intended to grab your attention (see: Vince yelling “tell the president to suck a dick!” on the album’s lead single), FM! holds back and obscures its dark themes with a deceptively relaxed exterior. It’s an unusual approach to making music, less immediately jarring than Big Fish Theory but just as experimental in its own way. And yet, it’s one of Vince’s most accessible projects too.
Denzel Curry – TA13OO
Here’s what we said about ‘TA13OO’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
It’s been a long time coming for Denzel Curry. Having started out at the beginning of this decade as a member of Raider Klan with SpaceGhostPurrp (remember SpaceGhostPurrp, the cloud rap era A$AP Rocky affiliate who signed to 4AD and then kinda fell off the face of the earth?), Denzel is now credited for pioneering SoundCloud rap, both in the way he helped establish it as a viable platform for young DIY rappers and the way he helped shape its mosh-rap sound. SoundCloud rap is still mostly a singles game, but TA13OO may be its first classic album. It’s not entirely accurate to group TA13OO in with what we now think of as SoundCloud rap, though. On it, Denzel sort of straddles the line between godfather and participant. He still champions young SoundCloud rappers (like TA13OO guest ZillaKami), but he also deservingly asserts that he’s better than all of them (“Don’t need a tattoo on my face, ’cause Denzel is a different race”). TA13OO‘s got easily-digestible thrills like “Clout Cobain” where Denzel beats emo-rap at its own game, but it’s also got complex, masterful stuff like “Black Balloons” that only a classically skilled rapper could pull off. With 13 unskippable tracks broken down into three “acts,” it’s clear that Denzel intended this to be a grand, defining statement of an album — not a mixtape or a playlist or anything else — and he succeeded. Denzel’s been building towards this for his entire career; it’s like his eighth or ninth project, but it feels like it’s only the beginning.
Joey Purp – QUARTERTHING
Here’s what we said about ‘QUARTERTHING’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Once a promising voice in the SaveMoney collective (alongside famous friends like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa), Joey Purp has carved out a lane of his own on QUARTERTHING, which follows and blows away his 2016 breakout iiiDrops. It’s an album that defies trends without ignoring them completely, offering up soulful throwbacks (“24k Gold/Sanctified,” “Hallelujah”), radio trap (“Karl Malone,” “Paint Thinner”), and some out-there experimental dance-rap shit (“Elastic,” “Aw Sh*t!”) in equal measure. Purp offers everything in moderation, and strikes a balance between frequently changing it up but keeping the whole album cohesive. On top of that, he’s got hooks for days. The more club- and radio-ready songs got stuck in my head this year as often as the weirder ones did. “Elastic” is the clear single, but as evidenced when I caught Purp in NYC just a month after QUARTERTHING came out, it didn’t take his fans long to learn every word to every song. And in those words, Purp packs a lyrical depth as wide ranging as his choice of beats. He’s somehow just as convincing on the few songs where he brags about money, cars, and women as he is on “Look At My Wrist” when he pokes fun at people who brag about money, cars, and women. He offers up a contrast between the flat-out fun songs and the more serious ones where he raps about witnessing violence on the streets of Chicago, or praying for a good future for his son. Purp’s a stronger rapper and lyricist and ever, but even more importantly, he crafted a stronger album than ever. QUARTERTHING ebbs and flows and never overstays its welcome or stays in the same place for too long. It’s structured like a classic, but not like any particular one. QUARTERTHING succeeds most of all because it really doesn’t sound like anything else.
Noname – Room 25
Here’s what we said about ‘Room 25′ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
With Room 25, Noname has achieved the rare feat of writing one of the year’s best rap albums, best jazz albums, and best spoken word albums. Her 2016 debut Telefone was promising, but on Room 25 she sounds ready to take over the world. It’s music that sounds like it’d be destined to remain underground (one of the most direct comparisons is Digable Planets), but Noname continues to blow up and she just might end up infiltrating the mainstream with her heady, complex music. She doesn’t have some grand scheme like that though; she’s just being herself. “A lot of my fans… I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not. I’m just Fatimah,” she told The FADER earlier this year. And she rejects coming off as some kind of corrective to mainstream hip hop stereotypes on the album itself (“I’m problematic too”). She fills the album with songs that look inwards and songs that look outwards. Sometimes she tackles race and gender issues, other times she raps about how good she is at rapping, or about how her pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism. Her mild-tempered delivery and the album’s intricate jazz instrumentals can make it seem intimidating, but one of the best things about Room 25 is how incredibly listenable it is. Her style may be informed by poetry and spoken word, but she really does rap and she does it better than a lot of her peers. She doesn’t write bangers, but her lines drill their way into your brain and stay there longer than a lot of bangers do. The same is true of her instrumentals. Just as memorable as a line like “He gon’ fuck me like I’m Oprah” on “Montego Bae” is a bassline like the one on “Blaxploitation.” She writes songs with layers upon layers to unpack and she finds strange and exciting ways to make them accessible. She’s a true original.
Pusha T – DAYTONA
Here’s what we said about ‘DAYTONA’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Ever since the label’s inception, Pusha T has remained G.O.O.D. Music’s most consistently engaging artist, ranging from his underrated solo debut My Name Is My Name, to basically any feature he’s done within the last few years (and that’s not even counting his work with Clipse). As good as his past work has been, it seems Pusha’s solo career has finally reached its creative peak with DAYTONA. On the album, which features production from Kanye West on every track, Pusha rides grimy, hard-knocking beats that flawlessly complement his nasty, signature flow, and everything about DAYTONA manages to perfectly fall into place. Aside from featuring the strongest production of any Pusha solo album to date, DAYTONA also has Pusha delivering some of the most vindictive bars of his career, especially in the last lines of the Drake-dissing “Infrared,” where Pusha calls him out for his association with alleged ghostwriter Quentin Miller: “How could you ever right these wrongs/When you don’t even write your songs?/But let us all play along/We all know what n***** for real been waitin’ on/Push.” (And even that’s nothing compared to Pusha’s standalone Drake diss track “The Story of Adidon.”) All over this endlessly listenable and seemingly universally loved album, Pusha tells the world he’s someone not to be messed with, and down to the final bars, it’s a fact that’s indisputable. [Jeremy Nifras]
The Carters – Everything Is Love
Here’s what we said about ‘Everything Is Love’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Everything Is Love seemed so engineered for success, that it was really tempting for even the most casually cynical person to roll their eyes at it. Music’s most powerful power couple teaming up for a collaborative album which doubled as the happy ending to the “trouble in paradise” saga of Lemonade and 4:44? It all looked way too much like a publicity stunt, reality TV as an album, the unnecessary third sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster, or a combination of all three at once. But no level of cynicism could compete with how much fun this album is to listen to. On one hand, nobody needs to hear bragging from a billion-dollar couple, but on another, “APESHIT” was the best braggadocio rap banger released this year. Jay Z saying “fuck you” to the Grammys, making the NFL look powerless, and Beyonce beating Migos at their own game? It doesn’t get much better than this. And Everything Is Love didn’t stop there; it followed “APESHIT” with three more consecutive braggadocio bangers that are nearly as good. The way Beyonce spits “I’m better than the hype!” on “NICE,” as if anyone doesn’t agree with her, is pure ear candy. It’s the best rapping Jay-Z’s done on an album in years (sorry, 4:44), and Beyonce’s got bars on this thing too. For those who missed the Beyonce The Rapper of “***Flawless” and “7/11″ on Lemonade, Everything Is Love has got you covered. And it’s also more than just boastful raps and crowd-pleasing bangers. The lush instrumentation of Lemonade shows up on “SUMMER,” some of the year’s finest political music shows up on “BLACK EFFECT,” and Bey and Jay put the nail in the coffin on this whole publicized couple’s therapy session on the gripping album closer “LOVEHAPPY.” Everything Is Love is overflowing with great ideas, and you’re hit with those ideas in quick succession given the album’s brevity, which really works to its advantage. The only downside of its brevity is it may have presented The Carters from achieving Drake’s streaming numbers, but hey, if Beyonce gave two fucks about streaming numbers, she would’ve put Lemonade up on Spotify.
Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
Here’s what we said about ‘Invasion of Privacy’ in BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Invasion of Privacy was the year’s biggest breakout debut album, on both a critical and a commercial level, and whoever would land at #2 isn’t even close. She broke a few records with it, scored two No. 1 singles with it, and at one point she had all 13 of its songs in Billboard’s Hot 100. At the end of 2017, there was still some fear that “Bodak Yellow” was destined to be a one hit wonder that Cardi would never top. Now, it’s almost hard to remember a time when that was the case. “Bodak Yellow” was once the biggest and best rap song in the world; now it isn’t even the biggest or best rap song on Invasion of Privacy. Cardi made the kind of debut that’s built to satisfy nearly every type of rap song, but it comes off like it was made out of a love of hip hop and not by business-savvy Suits trying to check off boxes. It’s got the epic, tell-all autobiography intro track (“Get Up 10″), the trap song (“Drip” ft. Migos), the sentimental ballad (“Be Careful”), the R&B songs (“Ring” ft. Kehlani and “I Do” ft. SZA), the buzz-creating hit (“Bodak Yellow”), the song that kinda sounds like the buzz-creating hit (“Money Bag”), the Latin hip hop song (“I Like It” ft. J Balvin & Bad Bunny), and others peppered in that rival almost all of the aforementioned songs. There’s really no song you could accurately call filler, and almost no song that you didn’t hear all year just by walking out your front door or turning on the TV or the radio. And it already feels dated to call “Bodak Yellow” the “hit,” as the “hit” for the majority of 2018 has been “I Like It.” The Latin trap/reggaeton movement was already gigantic before Cardi B (and Beyonce) got involved, but there’s no question that Cardi helped introduce it to English-speaking audiences, and that she helped Bad Bunny and J Balvin (and Ozuna and Anuel AA, etc) gain more English-speaking fans. And “I Like It” isn’t just a gateway song, even it has been met with some cynicism. It was one of the biggest songs in America this year because it really was good enough to be. That’s true of Invasion of Privacy in general. It’s been a long time since there’s been a rapper this omnipresent with lyricism this gripping, a personality this massive and irresistible, and a delivery this classically skilled yet entirely modern. The first time you heard Cardi rap “ain’t no bitches spittin’ like this since ’08” it might have seemed like a big claim. Now it seems unnecessarily modest.