Just about every hip-hop critic and cognoscenti has had the same response about the amount of new music released in 2018: Too damn much.
As the genre continues its dominance on streaming services, it seems like artists are in overdrive to capitalize on the moment. If you’ve been a rap fan at any point between 1994 and now, regardless of your age, chances are high someone in your top five dropped something this year.
Tack on the fact that artists are making their albums 3,048 tracks long because streaming numbers are used as a metric for sales, and what should feel like a positive embarrassment of riches is more an overwhelming fusillade of empty, uninspired material. We’re asked to consume and analyze lengthy albums that we’ll forget before the next pay period, and in some cases, we never get a chance to hear potentially dope albums because it’s so difficult for a rap fan with a life to get to it all.
For the amount we got, there were not many truly memorable hip-hop albums in 2018. I probably appreciated more R&B projects this year. However, there were plenty of album cuts and loosies to pad out some solid playlists. For my best-of-2018 list, I’ve taken the minimalist approach: a tight, 10-track list of cuts I absolutely loved in 2018. If brevity is the soul of wit, a trim tracklist is the soul of a good four-mile jog.
The only commonality among the playlist—outside of how long each track spent in my rotation—is that each rapper on each song shows respect to lyrical exercise, a vital element to almost all hip-hop that ages well. I have a well-documented aversion to most new rap niggas, so you won’t find any triplet flows, gunned-down woman abusers, Auto-Tune or rainbow-haired idiots headed to a federal witness protection program on this playlist. Sorry in advance.
1. “All The Stars” – Kendrick Lamar & SZA: Black Panther was 2018’s definitive black cultural event, so it only makes sense that the lead single from the film’s soundtrack compliments the spectacle of the film itself. It was hard not to walk around belting SZA’s hook, but you’re a damn liar if you knew what she was saying the first few times you heard it. (“All the stars are toking?” “All the stars Hoboken??”)
2. “The Purpose” – Skyzoo (feat. Kay Cola): The boom-bap journeyman dropped his ninth and most personal album, In Celebration of Us, at the top of the year, managing to command non-Skyzoo-fan Panama’s attention. I always enjoy hearing earnest expressions of love woven throughout bars, and it never hurts when eternally slept-on producer !llmind scores the track. Also, peep the prologue.
3. “2009” – Mac Miller: The death of Miller, who was beloved for his skill on the mic as well as a general bonhomie that earned him love from artists across several generations, was easily the year’s saddest event in hip-hop. He’s my favorite white rapper, dead or alive. On this plaintive and introspective Chante Moore-sampled track from his album Swimming, Miller employs metaphor to describe how he moved through a life of addiction and heartbreak. Dude was a standout in an era when most rappers his age de-emphasize lyrics.
4. “Trippy” – Anderson .Paak (feat. J. Cole): Even if Paak, as a 32-year-old man, should consider more evolved lyrical material, his instrument-driven production has always been the most compelling part of his music. “Trippy,” the best track on Oxnard, benefits from an ethereal melody, as well as a dagger-sharp verse from J. Cole. The track is far more compelling than anything on Cole’s K.O.D. album.
5. “Loved Ones” – PRhyme (feat. Rhapsody): Rapsody’s verse, as a woman fed up with her gangsta husband’s bullshit disloyalty, is probably my single favorite of the year. Exceedingly rare is the hip-hop track with a couple both rapping about their side of the same relationship. Royce 5’9” (who along with DJ Premier makes up PRhyme) had a banner year: If this list were 15 tracks, more of his music would definitely be on it.
6. “If You Know You Know” – Pusha T: Those hailing Pusha’s Daytona as album of the year won’t get much of an argument from me. The first track of the first release from Kanye West’s five-album summer production run was never outdone in that run, and we got a zeitgeisty catchphrase from the title. Pusha had a case study-worthy year for an emcee who’s been in the game for more than two decades.
7. “713” – The Carters: Let’s keep it a buck: A Jay-Z/Beyonce collaboration album was always going to crumble under the weight of the expectations everyone put on it. Everything is Love basically took one weekend in June by storm with its surprise release and the eye-popping visuals in the “Apeshit” video and was forgotten shortly thereafter. However, it’s still a respectable project; my favorite cut is “713,” named after the area code of Beyonce’s hometown of Houston, in which Jay raps about the early days of their courtship. The Cool & Dre beat bangs, and Hov’s still got the magic as he inches closer to his AARP card.
8. “Haile Selassie” – Lupe Fiasco (feat. Nikki Jean): Lupe is a willing anachronism: He still crafts concept albums in an era that barely appreciates album cohesion. Drogas Wave is about a group of slaves living underwater who take down slave ships. Despite the Aquaman-ass premise, the album will likely remain as criminally underappreciated as 2015’s Tetsuo & Youth. “Haile Selassie” sounds like Lupe at his Enemy of the State-era best.
9. “Gonna Love Me” (Remix) – Teyana Taylor (feat. Ghostface Killah, Method Man & Raekwon): Taylor’s album was the last, and surprisingly one of the best, of Yeezy’s summer run. This remix has the same Taylor lyrics and standout West beat of the album version but includes a Wu-Tang guest run that matters in 2018. It evokes classic Wu “love” tracks from the 1990s, like “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Camay.” We even got a throwback video out of it. Taylor has an established track record of dope tracks with rappers—this one just happens to put me in my nostalgic feels.
10. “New Thangs” – Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist: It seems like I fall in love with at least one beat-free cut every year; often it’s courtesy of The Alchemist, the high priest of such beats. Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs don’t rap about much, but they both do it so damn well. Spitta bragging, “I pulled up in a what’s this, I came back in a what’s that” is one of my favorite bars of the year and makes me smirk every time I hear it.