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There have been so many rap releases this year that it’s been mind-boggling to try and keep up. Often times, they launched on the same day, too. There were so many good albums in 2018 that pinpointing the top 11 took much research and re-evaluation. Luckily for you, I took on the challenge. Here are my 11 best albums of the year. Tell us your thoughts!
11. Die Lit by Playboi Carti
There’s not one rapper on this green earth who does what Carti does, how he does it. Sure, you have your imitators – mainly Matt Ox who tries to emulate the cartoonish shtick, but comes across as straining too hard. But, no one’s truly been able to make heads or tails of the aesthetic that has come to define the Atlanta rapper’s personality, rap style, and public persona. He made “my stummy hurt” a top-ten phrase of the decade by dancing around a parking garage for Christ’s sake. Die Lit is definitive proof that Carti isn’t a mistake, he’s a force of iconic youth energy. From front to back, even with more industry standard collaborators than his debut self-titled mixtape, Die Lit sounds alien. The bombastic bass sounds like it came from outer space, and the horror movie sounds that sound straight out of “The Addams Family” theme song decorate his attached voice like ornaments on a Christmas tree. He makes Gunna and Nicki Minaj bring their best work to songs and it works. Executive producer Pi’erre Bourne deserves some credit for establishing a carnivalesque atmosphere for Carti to play in. Carti’s rhymes make it more mesmerizing than a lot of rap’s artists and pretty much all of the “I’m chilling” lyricists who populate new age rap blogs. Die Lit is effortless and that’s why people like to critique it so much. But, it’s iconic, impactful, and more than anything, memorable. That’s saying something.
10. Room 25 by Noname
The neo soul elements of Room 25 already make it a compelling sophomore album from Chicago-rapper Noname. The fiery monologues that happen to be accompanied with smooth instrumentals make it legendary. Noname comes from Chicago’s beautiful poetry scene. Her sophomore album reflects her obsession with the right words over and over. “Don’t Forget About Me” uses precise words to explain being broken and “Blaxploitation” begins with striking alliteration that goes on to attack politics. Her focus is on the immediate world that she’s involved with and it shows in her beautifully intimate body of work. We come away just as aware of her many faults as her pluses, enabling us to connect over sultry jazz at a new level.
9. NOIR by Smino
Smino’s NOIR encapsulates the eccentricity that makes the St. Louis rapper’s jazzy strikes crackle with electricity. His album is a step weirder than anything that various rappers in the culture like Lil Pump and Anderson .Paak tried to do with their own signature tiks. Smino took the sensual explosiveness that made his 2017 album, blkswn, an adventurous listen for the bedroom and elevated that aesthetic far pass estimated limits. From the mesmerizingly warbled “KLINK” to the woozy stylings of “MERLOT,” the energy fluctuates tremendously. But, what doesn’t change is the commitment to consistent shocks that makes the album a captivating listen each time it’s streamed.
8. Redemption by Jay Rock
Jay Rock’s status as TDE’s most underrated member changed this year with the arrival of Redemption. The winding motivation of retaking his time came after a motorcycle accident that threatened to end Jay’s life. Because of this newfound appreciation for life, Jay’s new album is an endeavor of the finest craftsmanship. It’s a shame that it came at such a bloated part of the already bloated 2018 rap cycle, having to compete with the GOOD Music summer experiment.
There’s a luxe nature that permeates the production and guest features. Everything here is of the highest grade — from the soothing flutes of “Wow Freestyle” where Kendrick Lamar spit a stellar verse that showcased their camaraderie to the bass-thumping anxiousness of “OSOM.” Redemption shows that you shouldn’t take silence or scarcity for weakness. Jay Rock may be a member of Black Hippy and Top Dawg Entertainment that has gotten the least cumulative spotlight. But, he’s also one of the most well-versed rappers in the aesthetic that works for him.
7. Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B
“Bodak Yellow” wasn’t a great song. It was standard trap rap. But, the ensuing moment that it created — thanks to goodwill built up by viral antics — made Cardi B rap’s most prominent face for women. Her album Invasion of Privacy had to be bigger than “Bodak Yellow,” harder, and more original. When the LP released in April, it was exactly that. Cardi sounded like a student of the game. You could hear the effort that went into twerk anthems, emotional cuts, and hard-hitting club bangers. Through it all, her lyricism never lacks. But, what’s the real selling point here is her charisma that makes lines like “Went from makin’ tuna sandwiches to makin’ the news” on “Get Up 10” drip with emotion instead of cringe. On her debut studio album, Cardi placed herself in elite territory. It’ll be hard for a follow-up to be able to replicate this prestige.
6. Swimming by Mac Miller
Mac Miller’s opus came out a little over a month before his death. It’s a fitting sendoff for rap’s friendliest paragon, albeit it is a little creepy. It reeks of finality in the most beautiful sense. He licks his wounds; coming fresh off the breakup with Ariana Grande and bares his soul about fame, addiction and, of course, that infamous heartbreak. Mac was never more personal than he was here. “Swimming,” the album’s centerpiece, goes over the demons he’s reckoned with post-fame. The subtle tranquility of orchestral swells and heavenly strings replace gigantic bass drops of previous projects, going for an atmospheric sound that isn’t synonymous with weird or spacey. But, more than anything, Swimming is about finding comfort in one’s journey – even when the journey stops, or isn’t moving at the pace that one wants. This could possibly be because nothing’s shaking or because you’ve had too much success. Swimming is a glimmer of hope that things are improving, or at least, indicative of change to come. It’s a fitting final outing for Mac because — if anything — we knew that he was comfortable.
5. K.O.D by J. Cole
The speculation for what K.O.D stood for before it was unveiled had the rap world on edge. When J. Cole dropped the album, it was an event that brought together fans of contemporary rap, as well as fans of the older hip hop vibes who focus more on thematic and conscious ideas. His new album, mysterious as it was, also featured an unheard-of artist named Kill Edward. Combined with an oddball picture that made him appear as some kind of king of children, we wondered just what Cole was up to.
Turns out everything was carefully put in place with a magician’s touch. On his fifth studio album; which stands for Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, and Kill Our Demons; Cole finally managed to successfully mix the medicine in the candy. No longer did it feel like he was adamantly preaching to us about the dangers of secular, hedonistic living on our doorsteps. On the album, he raps more energetically than ever before, frequently switching up his conscious rap tactics to create an album that’s as much of a fiery exhibition of flows and subtle shots (see “1985”), as it is a lyrical sermon. Highlights “ATM” and “Kevin’s Heart” showcase his ability to rip beats to shreds no matter how fast or slow, testosterone-fueled or soft they are.
4. Championships by Meek Mill
Meek Mill touched down from prison in April and has been on go ever since. Although he released the Legends of Summer EP in July, it wasn’t until December that we received a studio album that summarized the experience. Championships is darker than Meek’s previous albums. It really digs into who he is and why he’s done what he’s done. But, even if the thematic content dips more into serious territory than previously boast-heavy albums, the production is more diverse than ever before. The horns on “Uptown Vibes” give a lively vibe that contrasts with the gritty nature of stand out “What’s Free.” Drake even joins him for “Going Bad” and that makes for a welcomed reunion with the former feuding artists. It shows that Meek hasn’t missed a step. And if anything, we see that Meek is fully forming into the artist he always needed to become.
3. Astroworld by Travis Scott
Travis Scott’s more than a rapper, he’s a curator. His songs often morph multiple times, and enlist collaborators that go above and beyond their typical contributions for guest appearances. He’s the creative director who actually creatively directs. Astroworld is proof of this, although this is not the first time that he’s showed the extent of his capabilities. His August album is, however, the most refined. The album pays homage to the Six Flags Astroworld park that Scott grew up going to in Houston, Texas. That calamity that exists in amusement parks can be found across the album’s lengthy tracklist and its number of features. No two tracks sound remotely similar. It’s like wandering around different hubs inside of a real park and listening to the ambient music playing in the background. In the streaming age, music tends to get old rather quickly. But, with everything going for Astroworld, it’ll be around for a long time.
2. Daytona by Pusha T
Pusha T raps about cocaine like the girl who got away. His solo career away from Clipse has been comprised of both subtle and direct jabs, and they’ve been well-received. Cocaine or not, when it comes to sneaking punchlines and tongue-in cheek wit, Pusha’s in a world of his own. Daytona placed Pusha in a brief world of Kanye West’s productions, being fully produced by the acclaimed rapper/producer. It’s only seven songs, too, and Pusha pushes the format to the limit. “If You Know You Know” is its biggest song and a biting showcase of when everything aligns just right: The flow, the beat, and the aesthetic. Of course, its bars on “Infrared” sparked the year’s most interesting feud. But, let’s not remember it for just that. Daytona is a near perfect showcase of what makes Pusha one of rap’s most iconic figures.
1. Victory Lap by Nipsey Hussle
Nipsey Hussle’s debut couldn’t have come at a better time. The rapper — an authentic, believable, inner-city version of Gary Vaynerchuk — had spent around a decade on the mixtape circuit, showcasing his commitment to coming up his way. His music, a hard-hitting version of G-funk and trap together, enchanted the public. But, the stars took time to align. When he finally released the album in February, he was in the perfect position to establish his claim for West Coast rap supremacy.
The power in Nipsey’s music is how he managed to inspire without going the way of preaching. “Last Time That I Checc’d” and “Million While You Young” were motivational anthems by way of forceful declarations. Elsewhere, he explored gang life in an intelligent way, which was sparked by reflective manners that made clear the horrors the lifestyle brings, while also reveling in its simplicity. Hitting this balance is near impossible. But, Nipsey managed to do it because of his lengthy tenure in rap’s underbelly. With the release of Victory Lap, he placed himself into rap’s supreme circle.
Artwork courtesy of Cameron Knight.
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