Hip-hop is unequivocally the biggest genre in modern music, and it has arguably remained as such for the last quarter-century. That position was confirmed in recent years as hip-hop’s reigning monarchs released sweeping, chart-busting masterpieces, albums that proved popular with listeners and critics alike. Last year, there was no question about it: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., the first ever non-classical album to win a Pulitzer, was the album of 2017. A year earlier, in 2016, a heap of rap and hip-hop titans, like Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Chance The Rapper, Solange, Kendrick, Anderson .Paak and even Kanye West, released monumental works that topped both the year-end lists and the charts. In those two years so fraught with political unrest and the rise of extremist conservatism, hip-hop rightfully dominated.
It’s strange, then, that we should live in a world where Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Anderson .Paak and, most puzzlingly, Kanye West all released music in 2018, and not a single one of them is on this list. The Carters’ EVERYTHING IS LOVE has been largely overlooked in the year-end conversation, and we’re still over here trying to figure out what the hell happened to Kanye. Kendrick did oversee one of our favorite rap/hip-hop albums, the Black Panther soundtrack, but, for the most part, your Beyoncés and your Kanyes weren’t the ones making big moves this year (save for that “APESHIT” video—we’ll be talking about that for decades). In other words, 2018 was difficult to neatly classify. As best-of lists continue to flood our timelines, it’s becoming more clear that there’s not a real consensus for best album of the year, even though Cardi B and Pusha T are probably the most viable contenders from the hip-hop universe. Despite Kanye’s usual feuding and Drake’s gold rush of singles, hip-hop wasn’t about names this year. It was about stories.
A hip-hop album with Disney in charge sounds like a recipe for a sell-out. But when the album is for the first big-budget black superhero movie, the passion around its making matched the passion around the film’s reception. Featuring 14 original tracks from Kendrick Lamar—along with guest appearances including SZA, 2 Chainz, Khalid, Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak, Future, Travis Scott, The Weekend and several South African artists—this is the soundtrack Black Panther deserved. It may not be as charged as To Pimp a Butterfly or personal as DAMN., but coupled with the Shakespearean arc of the film, it’s often just as affecting. Sometimes big moments in entertainment like a comic-book movie are worth celebrating, and Lamar’s accompanying album is just that—an all-star line-up marking a long-overdue moment in pop culture with an album that’s actually worth putting on repeat. —Josh Jackson
Hip-hop’s psychedelic era may have reached its peak with Travis Scott’s third studio album. The 26-year-old artist feels barely in control throughout, holding onto a thin thread of reality as dozens of figures float in and out of the room by way of samples or guest appearances. They take on the form of headlining legends (Stevie Wonder, Beastie Boys), pop superstars (Drake, The Weeknd), genre fluid cult heroes (James Blake, Björk, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala) and rising hip-hop stars aplenty. Scott and his team somehow maintain focus, connecting to a throughline that allows him to dangle explorations of his personal life, his somewhat dangerous embrace of fame and his often tenuous grip on the real world. —Robert Ham
The musical collective—or as they refer to themselves, “boy band”—known as Brockhampton is not short on ambition. Nor are they afraid to let all the musical styles and artists that they’ve absorbed in their young lives come pouring into their work like a faucet on full. How else to explain away their willingness to squeeze an Arcade Fire-like ballad, sung by a children’s choir, in between a pair of equally heartfelt but much harder hip-hop/soul hybrid cuts? Or their ability to flip samples of Radiohead and Beyonce with equal acuity? These boys have no filter and have evidenced the kind of fearlessness that more established artists daren’t strive for. This is their most sprawling and wild release yet and bodes well for their future and the future of the genre. —Robert Ham
There were flashier stories from the Windy City this year. There was Noname’s victory lap, CupCakke’s unabashed self-love, and Valee’s world-conquering flow. But no artist embodied what 2018 meant for Chicago more than Saba. In a year of often overwhelming national cruelty, the city found itself looking toward some sort of light on the horizon. Embattled mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced he would not be seeking re-election. Jason Van Dyke was convicted of murder. It’s not much, but it’s something. Saba’s Care For Me takes a similar tack through tragedy and toward grace. The rapper’s cousin and fellow Pivot Gang member John Walt (aka Walter Long Jr.) was murdered in 2017, and his death shadows every corner of the record. From opener “BUSY/SIRENS,” where Saba ponders how “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat,” to album high-point “PROM/KING,” a harrowing, heartbreaking account of he and his cousin’s friendship, death hangs over all here. But despite it all, he hasn’t given up. “I just hope I make it ‘til tomorrow,” he says at the end of “PROM/KING.” Saba and the city that raised him are growing through darkness. They may still be far from the light, but they’re also far from done. —Justin Kamp
Long Beach provocateur Vince Staples described his third album as “no concepts, no elaborate schemes, just music” upon its surprise release in November, adding, “Because nowadays, who needs more bullshit?” You won’t find any on FM!, an all-too-fleeting 22 minutes of Staples making his listeners feel the heat without ever breaking a sweat himself. “Summertime in the LB wild / We gon’ party ’til the sun or the guns come out,” Staples raps on opener “Feels Like Summer,” setting the razor’s-edge-riding tone of an album only he could toss off, though he did have plenty of help, with liquid-metal menace coming courtesy of producers Kenny Beats and Hagler, and colorful features from E-40, Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Rock, Tyga, Ty Dolla $ign, Kehlani and Kamaiyah. Stylized as an episode of L.A.’s own Big Boy’s Neighborhood, FM!’s spontaneity gives it a live-wire energy, reflecting a world in which tensions rise with the temperature. Staples has yet to cool off. —Scott Russell
For just a moment, I want you to forget about Offset. Forget about Kulture, Cardi’s instagram rants and those rad Bardi Gang earrings you bought your roommate for Christmas. Cardi B’s celebrity may be an well-earned aspect of her now famous rags-to-riches story (and oodles of fun to observe), but it’s completely irrelevant to enjoying Invasion of Privacy, one of the most uproariously fun rap albums of the year. The worst thing you can do is dismiss Cardi B because you’re skeptical of her oft-outrageous star text and/or Offset’s recent stage crash. The Bronx-born entrepreneur first attracted attention after speaking openly about her work as a stripper on social media. Then, in 2017, she released “Bodak Yellow,” only the second single ever by a solo female rapper to top the charts and a “look at me now” anthem that even rivals Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” in its unapologetic bragging. Turns out, Cardi had lots more “money moves” where that one came from, and her highly-anticipated full-length debut made good on the promise of more self love lyrics, Latinx-influenced rap and twerk-worthy trap. There are too many great one-liners to count on album kicker “I Do,” one of Paste’s favorite songs of the year. “My little 15 minutes lasted long as hell, huh?” Cardi observes, later followed by what might be the best imperative sentiment in music this year: “Leave his texts on read, leave his balls on blue.” “I Do” is Cardi B’s way of saying “I’m done explaining myself,” and in doing so she speaks on behalf of all women who’ve ever been told to shut up. Cardi B does not need a man to make music (or do anything else), and heaven help the fellow who tries to stand her way. SZA anchors the song with the nonnegotiable chorus: “I do what I like.” In 2018, an unapologetic woman was the most powerful voice we needed. —Ellen Johnson
Tierra Whack’s Whack World video/album instantly blew us away. The Wonka-esque visual release from the Philadelphia rapper sees 15 tracks spread across 15 minutes, each with a unique theme, and there’s a distinct sense of evolving maturity from Whack as the tracks unfold. The beats are off-kilter, and her vocals are both delicately and aggressively manipulated in a range of ways to fit the scene. But it’s the confidence with which the 22-year-old delivers an unprecedented creative leap across these songs that shows what a rare breed she is. Whack World is a shapeshifter. It’s clever. It’s zany. It’s mundane. It’s surreal. It’s grotesque. It’s rugged. It’s escapist. It’s introspective. It’s lavish. It’s trendy. It’s worldly. It’s millennial. It’s playful. It’s vibrant. It’s radiant. It’s stunning. It takes art to another level, and in a lot of ways, it was the most unpredictable and incredible 15 minutes of the year. More please. —Adrian Spinelli
Hip-hop has always been the proving ground for turning cultural bugs into features. So as the attention spans of the world continues to shrink, artists like Earl Sweatshirt have steered into that particular lane, honing their lyrical ideas to sharp points and punching them skin-deep quickly and efficiently. Hence why these 15 woozy, warped tunes rarely crack the two-minute mark and waste little time jumping to a conclusion. For this rapper/producer, that has to do with a lot of internal reckoning about his errant youth and watching his elders get old and leave this mortal coil. That’s a lot for any 24-year-old to deal with, but Earl finds the dark humor and universal truths in every scattered memory and mouth-watering desire for chemicals of all kinds. —Robert Ham
In 2016, Chicago rapper Noname, née Fatimah Nyeema Warner, made a brief but unforgettable appearance on the penultimate track on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, the unapologetically joyful collaboration “Finish Line / Drown.” That song also featured T-Pain and Kirk Franklin and others, but Noname, relatively unknown at the time, administered one of its best lines: “The water may be deeper than it’s ever been / Never drown.” On Room 25, the follow-up to her 2016 debut album/mixtape Telefone that she surprise-released in September, Noname helms a collaborative jingle of her own, the empowered “Ace,” which features fellow Midwestern rappers Smino and Saba. They waste no breath in declaring their summary of hip hop in 2018: “Smino Grigio, Noname, and Saba the best rappers / And radio n****s sound like they wearing adult diapers.” It’s on the album’s first two tracks (“Self,” followed by the observatory “Blaxpoitation”), however, where Noname forges more political waters, delivering deeply important lines of poetry about racism and sexism. “Self” is her documented questioning of everything that’s absurd in 2018 and a breakdown of what it’s like to wade through the music industry as a woman rapper. “My pussy teaches ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” she raps, before later asking, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” Through Room 25’s calculated wisps of groove rap and studied waves of neo-soul, Noname proves she’s wise and fortified, and not to be questioned. —Ellen Johnson
The first album to come out of Kanye West’s Wyoming sessions was also the best: Pusha T’s third solo studio album Daytona, originally known as King Push. The lean and mean seven-track LP was the first of five West-produced albums released this summer, but it’s an unquestionable career highlight for the former Clipse rapper. A laser-focused Pusha makes every lyric count, deftly depicting the luxurious life of a drug kingpin-turned-rapper who hardly recognizes the genre he’s spent two decades in (“I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair, ooh / Still do the Fred Astaire on a brick”). Meanwhile, West’s sample-heavy beats provide Pusha the ideal soundscape—sometimes opulent, others menacing—to swagger over. If you know, you know. — Scott Russell