Best Of

Notable Hip-Hop Albums of 2018

Here’s a brief list of notable rap albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.

  • Armand Hammer – Paraffin
  • Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 1

It’s remarkable that – after nearly 25 years in the music industry – this EP is Black Thought’s first solo project. (He planned the solo debut Masterpiece Theater in 2000, but it was eventually absorbed into The Roots’ 2002 Phrenology.) Musically, 9th Wonder and the Soul Council’s production is spare and subtle, with tracks like “Making a Murderer” notable mostly for their hard, totemic percussive notes. That leaves the focus on Black Thought’s words.

True to the title, he doesn’t offer any choruses, just streams of verses that cover his own lyrical prowess, history and politics, and whatever else comes to mind. His voice sounds gravelly – two decades of constant touring will do that – and substitutes tonal nuance for raw power, like a horn player blowing his lungs out. “These rappers are Peter Pan/I’m pan-African,” he raps on “9th vs. Thought.” A mic-trading session with Rapsody on “Dostoyevsky” is a notable highlight.

  • Buddy – Harlan and Alondra
  • Busdriver – Electricity is On Our Side

Thank Busdriver for much of the art-rap renaissance. As a mentor for Hellfyre Club, the late, lamented L.A. collective headed by Nocando that nurtured Anderson .Paak, Milo, Open Mike Eagle and others; the L.A. rapper’s independent-minded ethos and freewheeling, jabberwocky-styled speed-raps has become a cornerstone of modern underground hip-hop. His new album, Electricity is on Our Side pays tribute to that West Coast spirit — as well as L.A.’s watershed Good Life Café scene of the early 90s — by resurrecting the spirited jazz-rap style of subterranean classics like Freestyle Fellowship’s 1993 effort Innercity Griots and his own 2002 album Temporary Forever. It includes tracks like “Kiss Around the Note” and “me vs. me” where he whizzes through dizzying free-association metaphors and cryptic topics that take several listens to untangle. The only guiding aesthetic is art for art’s sake and, more importantly, art untainted by commercial considerations. For Driver fans, it’s an impressive performance by a veteran whose talents don’t always get due recognition.

  • Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
  • City Girls – Period
  • Drake – Scorpion
  • Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

“Sho you right, it took some passages to get grown/They been called me savage from the get-go,” rhymes Earl Sweatshirt on Some Rap Songs. The rapper has been absent since 2015, when he used I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside to plumb the depths of his depression. Now 23, he gives us his third album (fourth if you count the iconoclastic 2010 mixtape Earl) generates discomfort for a different reason: his voice is barely distinguishable amidst a maelstrom of disorienting soul loops, and while his technique remains flawless, his subject matter embraces everyday life, albeit distorted. A reminiscence about his late father turns into the dream-like “Red Water,” and sleepwalking into a river of blood. He dedicates “Nowhere2go” to personal growth, but the sonic effect is so slurry that it feels like weed talk. Some fans have recoiled at his strangely enigmatic performance here, but for those of us who have followed his progression from angry, foulmouthed provocateur to hermetic innovator, Some Rap Songs is more than satisfying. As he puts it on “The Bends,” “Game isn’t cheap.”

  • Flatbush Zombies – Vacation in Hell

Flatbush Zombies are the enigmas of the Beast Coast generation: They’re committed to classic boom-bap tropes like Joey Bada$$, but also like to indulge in post-genre, streaming age dynamics like A$AP Mob. The best thing about Vacation in Hell is that even when they write a nominally crossover track like “U&I,” it sounds strange and grungy, like a Gravediggaz outtake. Vocally, the three rappers are cut from the rowdy, rah-rah wing of ‘90s rap, and unleash a flood of rhymes about minds twisted by psychedelics, dirty sex and, on “Trapped,” suicidal despair. “This world is backwards/We still in shackles,” raps Meechy Darko on “Chunky,” which was apparently inspired by OutKast’s “Chonkyfire.” Meanwhile, “Reel Girls” takes inspiration from David Banner’s “Like a Pimp” and boasts a verse from Bun B.

  • Hermit and the Recluse – Orpheus vs. The Sirens

Since his remarkable 2012 breakthrough The Night’s Gambit, Brownsville rapper Ka has released volumes of whispery street poetry through the lens of a concept. His new collaboration with producer Animoss as Hermit and the Recluse, Orpheus, finds him comparing his journey into musical criminality to Greek myths such as ancient Orpheus’ voyage with Jason and the Argonauts. Animoss’ arrangements sound like a cold, wintry breeze, and often don’t have a beat at all, just harsh synths and eerie loops circling around asymmetric drums. Ka’s keen, perceptive lyricism sits at the eye of this thug quiet storm as he drops vivid lines like “This tainted math ain’t a class at MIT” on the title track. He attempts a few experiments, like slipping into a sing-song voice on “Sirens,” and inviting soulful early Aughts singer-songwriter Citizen Cope to guest on “Hades.” But mostly, Ka sticks to past form, and his fans wouldn’t want it any differently.

  • Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine

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.”

  • JID – DiCaprio 2
  • Jpeg Mafia – Veteran
  • Juice WRLD – Goodbye and Good Riddance
  • KIDS SEE GHOSTS

You’d be forgiven for assuming the worst from Kid Cudi’s album with Kanye West: The former hasn’t made a decent project since 2013’s Indicud, and West has…well…no need to explain. Yet this The Sixth Sense-inspired title may come closer than any other installment in West’s Wyoming series to realizing his unstated vision of collaborative, empathetic, and emotionally childlike hip-hop music. On tracks like “Feel the Love” and “Reborn,” you can hear the pair embracing the bipolar expressions of love and anger that underline their widely reported struggles with mental illness. Guest vocals from Yasiin Bey and Pusha T float in and out, and there are android gospel flourishes on “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2) that extend for a few seconds too long, straddling the line between inspiration and self-indulgence. But the duo’s engagement—and Cudi in particular—is palpable. Their presence is so energizing that the album’s lack of memorable verses is irrelevant. Just the sound of West and Cudi shouting at the heavens is moving enough.

  • Lil Baby – Harder Than Ever
  • Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V

The best thing about Tha Carter V is that it simply exists. For the past five years, Lil Wayne has floated in a netherworld of lawsuits and accusations against his former mentor Birdman – with his projects like Free Weezy Album and Dedication 6 suppressed after leaking to online outlets. His fight to extricate himself from Cash Money’s red tape has clearly left him exhausted; he has rarely sounded as vulnerable as he does here. “I am not number one, it’s true/I am 9-27-82,” he says in reference to his birthday on “Don’t Cry.” Ten years ago, when he truly was the Best Rapper Alive, he would have never admitted to such self-doubt. Lil Wayne’s newfound maturity is what elevates this uneven yet still triumphant comeback. It’s thrilling to hear him test his skills against relative newer talents like Kendrick Lamar on “Mona Lisa” and the late XXXTENTACION on “Don’t Cry.” Lil Wayne may already be rap history, and a permanent installation on the genre’s post-Golden Age Mount Rushmore. But he’s still hungry.

  • Mac Miller – Swimming

The last Mac Miller album to be released during his lifetime 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 like “suck my dick before I slap you with it” 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 passive 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, and even if Miller ultimately did not find peace in his life, he most certainly realized it here.

  • Meek Mill – Championships
  • Mozzy – Gangland Landlord

Since his 2015 breakthrough Bladadah, Mozzy has tapped into a deep yet under-explored vein of West Coast street rap with consistently interesting results. Belying its media rep as simplistically violent “gangsta rap,” the Sacramento lyricist’s music is full of regret for past actions, entrepreneurial hope and hustle, and marked by a keen social conscience. “It’s like the slums got a hold on me,” he says on the hook for “Black Hearted,” a track from Gangland Landlord. The album’s “No Way (intro)” includes Kendrick Lamar’s shout-out at this year’s Grammy Awards – “Like my man Mozzy say, God up top” – and numerous mainstream stars pay tribute with cameos, including A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Schoolboy Q, Yo Gotti, and Dej Loaf. Ty Dolla $ign and YG help score a remake of 2Pac’s “Thugz Mansion.” “I got love for them bloods out in Sac, homie,” says Blac Youngsta appreciatively on “Bands on Me.” But Mozzy’s grizzled, sandpapery voice and matter-of-fact tone lies at the album’s center.

  • Milo – Budding Ornithologists Are Weary of Tired Analogies

Being the king of Bandcamp rap has helped and hurt Milo. His acolytes make sure his limited-edition cassettes and vinyl sell out in hours, but too many critics dismiss him as a bright but unremarkable product of a boundless and sometimes derivative rap underground. Yes, Budding Ornithologists, like all of Milo’s work, nods towards the glory days of L.A. freestyle aesthetics. But he has an impressively poetic imprimatur that’s all his own. When “Nominy” undulates with a soft-focus 70s disco-soul loop, he drops rhymes like stanzas, and certain twists of phrase like “My muse is bilingual,” “My bongwater brackish” shine like stars. The bopping hi-hats of “Mid Answer Trying to Remember What the Question Is” pushes his voice forward, and he responds with wordplay such as “When I lie in bed it feels like the ocean is on me.” He’s a superior writer, and the quietly appointed boom-bap production – from himself as well as Kenny Segal, Steel Tipped Dove and others – turn his 15-track chapbook into a late-night chop session, with Milo sounding like the smartest guy in the basement.

  • Noname – Room 25

Noname’s new album refines many of the qualities that made her 2016 debut Telefone such a gem. She raps in a voice just above a whisper throughout like the second coming of Bahamadia; but her voice is noticeably stronger, her diction is clearer, and her wit is as sharp as ever. Importantly, she spends most of this 35-minute suite rapping instead of singing, as if she intends to affirm her lyrical bona fides. “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” she jokes on the dazzling opener “Self,” an understated neo-soul groove that allows her to stack bars on bars. Her emphasis on rhyming in quick, poetical couplets makes those moments when she delves into introspective melody truly stand out, as if spoken words can’t fully express her feelings. Room 25 spans a number of topics, from winning a modest amount of fame to traveling to distant locales and random hookups. But what’s remarkable about this finely detailed jewel of an album is how quiet it sounds. Not quite a bedroom project – numerous Chitown guests like Smino, Saba, Ravyn Lenae and others support her –it’s an update on the cool jazz ethos, full of introspection and wonder at the world that’s expanding around her, eager to embrace her vision.

  • Nostrum Grocers

Nostrum Grocers is a collaboration between Milo and Elucid, two rappers who excel at the Bandcamp-financed model of crusty, elliptical beat loops and abstract, literate lyrics. Elucid’s style leans towards the glory years of early Aughts super-scientific New York, while Milo has revitalized the noodling, jazzy jabberwockies typical of the Los Angeles underground (although he now lives in Maine). But as a small slice of “black brilliance,” as Milo puts it, Nostrum Grocers is hardly a nostalgia project. Instead, it reveals an underground world far removed from the opiate indulgence and macho toxicity that afflicts mainstream rap in 2018. Tracks like “Where’ing Those Flowers” and “’98 Gewher” travel on a different kind of planetary logic, a place where Elucid can talk shit and rap “I’m a hex breaker for hire” and it makes sense. The freedom of rapping for rap’s sake without the pressure of generating fake streaming hits and corny viral memes is the point here.

  • Open Mike Eagle – What Happens When I Try to Relax

Since releasing his widely-acclaimed autobiographical work Brick Body Kids Still Daydream last fall, Open Mike Eagle has launched a side gig as a pro wrestler as well as continuing to develop his forthcoming Comedy Central series The New Negroes. He’s aware of his growing cult fame: on “Southside Eagle,” he brags that he’s ballin like a member of the 1993 Chicago Bulls, and that “I’m getting bread but I’m still living in the red.” In short, he’s maximizing an audience with an “independent hustle” that will never approach Drake levels. With a quirky flow that can shift between a singsong lilt and a sly, sarcastic tone, the L.A.-based rapper threads a line between mockery and self-deprecation, especially on bizarrely indescribable songs like “Single Ghosts,” which describes an affair with a dead person over a synth-horror beat. But he’s more Pagliacci than an insult comic: when he raps, “Vampires don’t fuck with my genius” on “Microfiche,” he’s more likely to indict himself than a rap industry that underrates his talent.

  • Playboi Carti – Die Lit

Playboi Carti repeats phrases with an incantatory command over beats that mimic Japanese video game composers, resulting in songs that feel oddly yet infectiously rhythmic. It’s a style template that blossomed on last year’s self-titled album; Die Lit is more of the same as the Atlanta rapper strikes the repetitive chords with audible glee. He’s not in danger of wearing us out yet, although at 19 tracks Die Lit is better at establishing a dopamine-pumping red-eyed gamer vibe than coalescing into a concise body of work. “Long Time (Intro)” sounds like an 8-bit melody emanating from a broken cartridge as Carti chants, “I ain’t felt like this in a long time.” Skepta’s hard spitting nearly overwhelms “Lean 4 Real,” while Young Thug’s atonal crooning adds visceral intensity to the hallucinatory keyboard stabs of “Choppa Don’t Miss.” Despite a plethora of cameos including Nicki Minaj and Lil Uzi Vert, no one upstages Carti, who looms above it all, pleasantly lost in his own Mushroom Kingdom.

  • PRhyme – PRhyme 2

“Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in the wrong motherfuckin’ era,” claims Royce Da 5’9” alongside Dave East on “Era.” It’s a curious complaint to make: Royce first collaborated with DJ Premier on turn-of-the-century 12-inches like “Boom,” just as big-budget mainstream rap was consigning golden age hip-hop to the rearview mirror. His relative proximity to a genre-defining ethos – somewhat close, but removed from the heart of it – has both defined his career as a almost-rap star and fueled some of his best work. Sometimes the complaints about the SoundCloud generation get distracting on this entertaining sequel to Royce and Preemo’s surprisingly successful 2015 pairing. (Anyone who listens to grown-man rap knows the deal: lots of griping about “skinny jeans,” being “soft,” etc.) But the best cuts – Royce recounting his life’s twists and turns on the triumphant nu-funk of “Black History” and the orchestral soul of “Do Ya Thang,” and trading bars with an animated Yelawolf on “W.O.W. (Without Warning)” – shine brighter.

  • Pusha T – Daytona

There’s a story that in his private life, Prince was much closer in personality to The Time’s comic mastermind Morris Day than fans realized: quick with a corny joke, crassly opportunist, and prone to convincing women to wear camisole lingerie in public. Perhaps the same may be said of Pusha T in relation to Kanye West. Pusha T’s music is seemingly the opposite of what Kanye’s work has become. It is sharp and precise, utterly lacking in sentimentality, and viciously poetic. His volleys at unnamed and named rap personalities feel like unvarnished truth; his D-Boy tales feel lived, no matter how tall and outlandish. In effect, Pusha T communicates things that Kanye cannot, much as The Time nurtured a kind of raw street funk that Prince couldn’t quite conjure on his solo projects (though, of course, those were pretty good, too). 

It’s ironic, then, that Pusha T’s Daytona is celebrated as a singular achievement for the Virginia coke rap slinger despite Kanye’s heavy involvement in its production. We can’t quite imagine that the same MAGA hat-wearing doofus whose pathetic collabs with Lil Pump and 6ix9ine have turned him into a post-millennial Sammy Davis, Jr., his pure showbiz phoniness making us nostalgic for the glory days of 808s and Heartbreak, also produced what may be the finest half-hour in trad hip-hop music this year. But the Kanye magic is here, in the distorted prog-rock loop of “If You Know You Know” that he makes stutter and bounce like a dub reggae rave-up, and the deep, gutbucket funk of “The Games We Play.” Everything sounds like a dancehall battle moderated by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Kanye drops a rhyme himself near the end of “What Would Meek Do,” but it’s not necessary. We can hear that he and Pusha T are in communion as they reassert hip-hop as a disruptive art form, the kind that doesn’t get token Grammy statuettes. 

“I’m no different than the priest. Santeria!” cries Pusha T. Yes, Kanye has been resurrected, if only for Daytona’s seven tracks, the best of a GOOD Music summer bummer overshadowed by dragon energy rants. We hate the new Kanye, but the old Kanye is out there, somewhere, even if he only appears as the sound behind Pusha’s voice, smacking the speakers like woofer bass.

  • Rico Nasty – Nasty

Hip-hop’s Internet-mediated underground currently teems with talented women like Maryland MC Rico Nasty. While her debut mixtape for Atlantic Records doesn’t feel like a major creative breakthrough, it’s a solid introduction to a dynamic, hard-charging voice in what Rico herself dubs “sugar trap.” She raps with adrenalized passion on the Blocboy JB-assisted “In The Air” and freestyles with vigor over N.O.R.E.’s “Superthug” beat on “Countin’ Up,” evoking the spirit of vintage Crime Mob and Gangsta Boo. She takes time out to be playful, too, dropping subtly funny ad-libs like a verse-punctuating “Duhhh?” Nasty has a lot of raps about the power of pussy, naturally. But she’s most impressive when she occasional downshifts from her guttural, angry shout to unveil different flows — a cool, provocative whisper on “Pressing Me,” and a sing-song Auto-Tune lilt on “Won’t Change” – and a surprising versatility that’s worth further development.

  • 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 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.

  • SOB x RBE – Gangin II
  • Tierra Whack – Whack World
  • Travis Scott – Astroworld
  • Various – Black Panther: The Album
  • Vince Staples – FM!

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