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Who knows how 2019 will be remembered in the talisman of hip hop history? Two decades into rap’s internet era, and all seems less wild and less west than ever before. Where Golden Era artists were inspired by Scorsese-style storytelling — an age where television and movies were the only screens capable of broadcasting what’s happening in the world around us — social media is now the measure the culture most often reaches to for inspiration and communication.
A week-long Instastory plays a more prominent role in how MCs contextualize life, and death, and tragedy, and triumph than any brick, and mortar instrument or locale ever has. And, expectedly, art continues to emulate that life. For example, less longform storytelling, more 15-second expressions of various artistic expressions.
This list is derived through a paradigm where stories are told at least three-fold, and embraces the fact that even if isn’t viral, it can still be visceral.
Take a look at REVOLT TV’s 9 top rap albums of 2019 below.
9. Polo G: Die A Legend
One part aggressive, one part introspective; Polo G lives loads of life on his Columbia Records debut album, Die A Legend. The 20-year-old one-time drill rapper portrays a Chicago where “it’s normal to hear 40s clapping” (“Effortless”) and “even though you got God (on your side) it’s hard to do right” (“Finer Things”) in such visceral clarity it’s as if you’re force-bonding with him straight through his hometown’s 1300 block. And then, at the speed of thought, he’ll unleash a controlled aggression, flexing how he’s a killer and can’t change (“Pop Out” feat. Lil Tjay) while never separating from humanity. “We ain’t aiming for your body. Shots hit your brain,” Polo G raps. Whether metaphor or otherwise, Die A Legend lingers long after last listen.
8. Quelle Chris: Guns
America’s national fire arms debate can feel mind-numbing. Every year, there’s an inevitable wave of mass shootings followed by inevitable “thoughts and prayers,” followed by a laborious dispute on whether guns or people are responsible. Quelle Chris tackles that weighty discussion on his latest Mello Music Group release, Guns. Often eerie and multilayered (“PSA Drugfest”), often shifting perspectives (“Spray And Pay” and “Mind Ya Business”), always off-kilter and unrelenting (“Obamacare” and “It’s The Law”); Chris impressively represents all sides of this hyper-charged national conversation.
7. Little Brother: May The Lord Watch
If award shows had a “Best Skits” category, Little Brother’s May The Lord Watch would notch a trophy case full of hardware. The EMPIRE release takes place in the same universe as previous exalted albums The Minstrel Show and The Listening — sewn together through fictional television network UBN. There’s Questlove’s hilarious one question interview on “Inside The Producer’s Studio” with the comical Roy Lee. There’s the argument that Bill Russell is the best basketball player ever because he “singlehandedly beat the Lakers and racism at the same time” on “Niggas Hollerin,” the sports show with attitude — all of which are draped in LB’s magical reality raps. Aging gracefully is a conscious effort for every artist, and Phonte and Big Pooh continue to do so by offering insight and remarkable openness. Where Big Pooh confesses the bittersweet feeling of having to drive Uber to keep his money tight — and in the process the passengers don’t recognize him (“Right On Time”) — Phonte delves into the emotional turmoil when you’re the old dude in the club (“Sitting Alone”). On May The Lord Watch, adulting is both humbling and hilarious.
6. Earthgang: Mirrorland
Earthgang’s long awaited debut album, Mirrorland, brings all the soulful, psychedelic weirdness fans love about the awesomely oddball duo. Johnny Venus and Doctor Dot feel equally at home over “La La Land’s” church-ready organs and handclaps, as they do over “Swivel’s” skeletal keys and haunting bassline, as they do crooning over “Tequila’s” brooding horns. “Good God so stressed, perfect day to drink tequila,” Doctor Dot bellows on the latter, which is the connective tissue binding this expansive trek. Earthgang weathers life’s catchy hooks and uppercuts head on, confronting their traumas directly, somehow sounding celebratory in their self-awareness.
5. YBN Cordae: The Lost Boy
YBN Cordae tight ropes between generations on his Atlantic Records debut, The Lost Boy. Where tracks like “Thanksgiving” and “Thousand Words” brim with the thoughtfulness of throwback boom bap, “Have Mercy” bops with new school flare. There’s an undeniable aspiration and appreciation for hip hop in all forms throughout the album. And regardless of style or subject, Cordae doesn’t waste bars. “Whoever said shit was easy forever lied,” the 22-year-old raps on “Wintertime.” “I mesmerize when Martin Luther cheated and looked in Coretta’s eyes. This is lyrical exercise. Told my idols to step aside,” he spits. Cordae’s putting the culture on notice.
4. DaBaby: Baby On Baby
Maybe DaBaby is the tiniest super alpha male in modern rap. The Charlotte, North Carolina native can’t be taller than 5’9, can’t be more than 160lbs; but arguably, no one has left a more massive crater in the culture than the Queen City King. Baby On Baby, the first of his dual 2019 releases, reinvigorates hip hop through brolic, super teflon stanzas that bop relentlessly in and out of your whip and/or the VIP. “I’m like the Tupac of this new shit / 100,000 hoes and they like the way I do shit,” he raps on “Celebrate” feat. Rich Homie Quan — but, maybe T.I. is a more apt comparison. DaBaby is hilarious and raps about his real life — word to Wal-Mart. His style differs from his contemporaries, which makes it easier to exalt the similarities within his offerings. His sound is his soley. And most importantly, he’s arguably the only new rapper from the south consistently rapping about being the best rapper—something T.I. represented, expeditiously. In that sense, Baby On Baby is as much of a nod to hip hop’s competitive past and it is the culture’s affluent present.
3. Griselda: WWCD
Place Griselda on top of 2019’s most under-heralded heroes. The Buffalo collective rocked the zeitgeist through Westside Gunn’s marketing genius, Conway The Machine and Benny The Butcher’s jagged narratives, and a visceral connection with the culture. They don’t merely shop at Bergdorf’s on their Shady records debut, WWCD, they empty clips on their way out. Griselda’s longform coke tales — littered lovely with excessive gun sounds surfing an avalanche of quotables — are especially potent in an InstaStory era. To paraphrase Westside on “May Store,” people are talking culture but not like this.
2. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Bandana
On broad brush, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana feels like a brilliantly concocted ode to coke rap. What else would you expect when you see track titles like “Crime Pays” and “Half Manne Half Cocaine.” But, the beauty behind Madlib’s soulful, yet ratchet madness comes on joints like “Patience,” where Gibbs freely admits to getting too attached to his side chick — once he heard she was kicking it with Floyd Mayweather — and needed to refocus on family. Or joints like “Flat Tummy Tea,” where Gibbs questions why Hollywood releases so many movies about slavery. Gibbs raps: “Slave movies every year, yeah master gon’ remind us. If we don’t it take it, we don’t deserve it back. And six thousand years done ran up, the kings of the earth is back.” Bandana is a snow capped view into all the world’s ills, set to the soundtrack of one of hip hop’s greatest producers.
1. Rapsody: EVE
It’s possible to make a strong argument that Rapsody’s EVE is the best rap album a woman has ever made — depending on how you feel about the R&B centric MisEducation Of Lauryn Hill. Conceptually, the album uses historical figures like Nina Simone, Aaliyah, Cleopatra, Michelle Obama, Iman, Afeni Shakur to tackle life from all angles while remaining lyrically tangible to the masses. “Give the homeless homies money so they eat well / Went and copped the Audi. Gotta go and get it detailed,” Rap raps on “Oprah,” reminding all that success isn’t synonymous with selfishness. “I ain’t a new slave / My new wave is the new negro,” she delivers on “Nina,” reminding all that past chains can evolve for the better over time. EVE is a righteous example of how “tomboy femininity” can be sexy and pack a powerful message.