Ten to Fifteen years ago, the body of work in Hip-Hop & R&B went through a stretch where it was almost meaningless in the mainstream. The rise of ringtones and dance crazes made it so that very few were invested in sitting down and consuming an entire project. The singles ruled and Artists leveraged all their talents into creating one. You were considered niche if you focused on projects and not singles. Fast forward to 2018 and you can barely create a fan base without having a great body of work. The "project" has morphed and changed completely. Streaming is forcing artist to be more creative, deliberate, and thoughtful on their releases. A myriad of techniques are being used, such as, 35 song projects to maximize streaming profits, splitting projects in 2 parts to build anticipation, releasing visual projects, and even releasing projects less than 30 minutes to hold the audience's attention. However, artist can never escape the fact that quality will always rise to the top. Below are the bodies of work that we enjoyed the most in 2018.
As always, these are the albums we've enjoyed, no particular metric has been considered in this list. In addition, all of the albums considered were up to November 16th, 2018. So as great as Meek Mill's Championship is, it was released too late to fully digest in the context of where it fits amongst everything released before it. So check it out, and let us know what are some of the projects you loved this year.
25. Future: Beastmode 2
Released: July 6th
Label: Freebandz. Epic
In 2018, Future was in the news for all types of reasons, most of them were scandalous. Amid all of the fuckery, he kept his prolific streak as an artist going. Beast Mode 2 was the prime example. The sequel to his lauded Beast Mode mixtape that was released in 2015, Future followed the same formula. Zaytoven produced every single track and delivered the goods. Future locked in and sounded as focused as we like him to be. Tracks like Red Light and Hate the Real Me explores his paranoia, insecurities, and his self-destructiveness. DOH DOH (feat. Young Scooter) and Cuddle My Wrist are bangers that rang all year. When I Think About It found him at his smoothest. Beast Mode 2 is not a triumph like his other projects, but it does a lot to continue the legend that he is cultivating. Maybe the fuckery is what begets the gems.
24. Noname: Room 25
Released: September 14th
I must admit, it took a while to get to the No Name train. I can say that I’m happy that I’m here. The Chicago MC delivers thought provoking music with a spoken word delivery. What’s important about that, is that it never comes across forced, gimmicky, or even anything beyond who she is. Room 25 is a myriad of turns and unorthodox choices. The pockets she falls in are never predictable or discernable. Her beat choices are not mundane, but she always has something interesting to say. A song like Prayer Song, a dissertation of our country’s fascination with violence, sex, religion, and capitalism. Yet it’s so subtle and beautiful, that it’s hard to get past the groove. Then she follows that with Window with beautiful instrumentation and Noname speaking of love serenely. The entire album is a treat and a look into an immensely talented artist. The scariest part is, it does not sound like she’s hit her stride yet.
23. Black Thought: Stream of Thought Vol 1 and 2
Released: June 1st/ November 26th
Label:Human Re Sources. Passyunk Productions
We received Black Thought’s first solo projects in 2018. It’s really a technicality since he has been destroying beats for over 20 years. If you’re a fan of Black Thought, then you know what these records would bring. He’s as dexterous as ever and still focused as ever. His bars are never wasted, his topics are always important, and there is no sign of regression. Both volumes combine to make 14 songs. 9th Wonder produced the entire first volume, Salaam Remi produced the whole 2nd volume. The cohesion provided by two legendary producers gives Black Thought an empty canvas to speak on Philadelphia, drugs, destruction, and the overall madness of inner-city life. His success as an entertainer never seem to make him lose grasp of his original surroundings.
22. Dave East & Styles P: Beloved
Released: October 5th
Label: Def Jam
The joint album has become so over-saturated that when one is announced, it’s hard to determine if it will happen or if it will even be worthwhile. But because Dave East and Styles P. are artists of similar cloth, they delivered on Beloved. The album is classic NY music. Boom bap heavy beats with no attempt at commercial success. Lots of in and out verses, and gritty bars. They take some chances on songs like Do You Know What Time It Is and We Got Everything but for the most part, most of the tracks consist of tough bars over smooth, east coast production. Styles P. hasn’t missed a step and sounds as gritty as ever. Dave East sounds focused rapping next to who he calls his favorite rapper. After a year of some lackluster releases, it’s clear that Styles P really helps Dave East stay sharp throughout. It’s a throwback to those who love late 90s and early aughts New York rap music.
21. Summer Walker: Last Day of Summer
Released: October 12th
Label: LVRN Records
If you can get past the fact that Summer Walker’s Last Day of Summer is annoyingly short, (28 minutes for 12 songs, wtf?) the music itself is stunning. Summer Walker never breaks stride and all the records flow together smoothly. Anchored by the singles like Girls Need Love and CPR, the other songs follow the same flow and Walker clearly has a grasp on how to put together beautiful music. Baby, Smartwater, and Deep are gorgeous salvos of love. Karma is a great take on a woman scorned and Prayed Up is a well-executed ballad on temptation. The entire album is easy listening. The improvements can be had in the writing, but when you hear songs like Shame you know that her writing has a base to stand on and should only see more improvement.
20. Lil Baby & Gunna: Drip Harder
Released: October 5th
Label: YSL. Quality Control. Motown. Capitol
If you’re not paying attention, you will think that Drip Harder is run of the mill Trap Music. The problem with trap music is that everyone thinks they can do it. Everyone thinks it’s easy, and it’s monotone. What Drip Harder shows is that, to truly stand out in trap music, something must stick out. Something must separate you from the rest. Drip Harder separates itself, because Gunna and Baby never fall out of pocket. They never sound lazy and complacent. Every song is performed with proficiency, and every bar is so matter of fact, that they sound true. No song describes that more than Business is Business. The two exchange verses and don’t sound hurried or phased at any point, even as they finish lines for each other. Drip Harder is a showcase of their styles. It highlights how similar the two are while the subtleties of the difference between them help elevate the records. There is a reason why you’ll be hard pressed to visit a strip club that a song from the album is not present in.
19. Wale: It's Complicated
Released: March 13th
Label: Maybach Music Group. Every Blue Moon
Since the lines between albums, EPs, mixtapes, or playlist (FOH Drake) is completely blurred, a project like It’s Complicated makes it as one of the best projects at just 13 minutes. It’s Complicated is well written and highlights the confusion in deciphering how one should approach love and relationships at a stage in time. In 13 minutes, Wale manages to display vulnerability, apathy, infatuation, and incisiveness. He longs for his ride or die and is as hopeful as he can be in one moment (Black Bonnie), but he’s jaded in the next (It’s Complicated). The beats are soft and smooth and allows Wale the space to perfectly narrate his hopes, insecurities, and how the women around him contribute to it all. It is why Wale must gets frustrated at times, but he is still one of the best writers in rap music.
18. The Weeknd: My Dear Melancholy,
Released: March 30th
Label: Republic. XO
The first notes of The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy is a clear sign of what’s to come: unrelenting sadness. In Weekend’s 22-minute EP, even the moments of debauchery are steeped in emptiness. He takes the darkness that he is known for and adds sadness to it. The entire EP lends itself to pain and even at the high points, (like Wasted Times) it’s rooted in turmoil. One thing is clear though, the place that it comes from sounded real. It’s telling that My Dear Melancholy is the only release that came from him outside of a few features. The four-song project felt like it defined most of his recent years and the relationships surrounding it.
17. Kali Uchis: Isolation
Released: April 6th
Label: Rinse. Virgin. Universal
Isolation is a whole album of lush sounds, breezy singing, and interesting concepts. Kali Uchis is a versatile artist and every twist and turn Isolation takes is worth the effort. The album takes a swing at nearly every genre and never comes across forced. She jumps from reggae (Tryant with Jorja Smith), to Raggaeton where she sings in Spanish (Nuestro Planeta with Reykon), includes traditional Soul and R&B (Flight 22), and funk (After the Storm and Just a Stranger). The best part is that it never comes across like a forced attempt. It comes off naturally and every turn and leap she takes, she manages to keep elements of what makes her distinct on it. A truly can’t miss project.
16. 6lack: East Atlanta Love Letter
Released: September 4th
Label: LVRN Records. Interscope
6lack flies under the radar because of his personality, yet East Atlanta Love Letter is still as highly anticipated as can be. After his debut, Free 6lack, obtained so much acclaim, it was worthwhile to see how real a sophomore slump can be. East Atlanta Love Letter did not surpass its predecessor, but it surely showed that 6lack is not a fluke of an artist by any stretch. He reprises his sound and hones it even better and the lyrics continue to be bittersweet and melancholic. Every guest feature comes into his space and falls into the aesthetic and compliments it greatly. He never deviates from his strengths and the lyrics are pensive and yet nearly pessimistic. There’s something to be said about finding your groove and sticking to it.
15. Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs, and The Alchemist: Fetti
Released: October 31st
Label: Jet Life. ESGN. ALC. Empire
Fetti is everything a rap fan should want in a rap album. It has one of the greatest producers to ever live lacing every single beat for two gifted lyricist to rap over. Fetti doesn’t disguise what it is. It’s not an in depth, complex songs with ranges of emotion. It’s Currensy and Freddie Gibbs kicking dope verses over immaculate beats. It flows so smoothly and the deep tone of Gibb’s voice mixed with Currensy’s laid back flow sounds seamless. The three collaborated since their epic song Scottie Pippens, and Fetti was the continuation that the fans hoped for. The two MCs were on top of their game throughout and no one overshadowed each other. Short, sweet, smooth, and succinct characterizes Fetti.
14. Reason: There You Have It
Released: September 27th
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Very early into his career, Reason is as polished as they come. A prototype of a rapper, he possesses all the skill sets that would allow him to enjoy a long career. There You Have It shows why he is just scratching his surface. The project is like watching Anthony Davis playing for Kentucky. You see all the tools there and it’s shocking that the package is polished so early. A true west coast tale, Reason speaks on inner city tragedies like he lives them, records and post online daily. He explores concepts as naturally as one can expect of a seasoned artist. He even has the acumen to make knockers that most will like (play F*ck With Me in your car and report back to me). The TDE stamp will bring the interest, the talent will keep them there.
13. H.E.R. : I Use to Know Her the prelude. and Vol 2.
Released: August 3rd / November 2nd
Label: RCA Records
The word prodigy gets thrown around loosely but H.E.R. is the true definition of that. A 21-year-old with the seasoning of a 45-year-old legend. Like her show stealing two-part self-titled releases, she returned this year with two more volumes of music. I Used to Know Her, the prelude and part 2 showcases the talents of a blossoming superstar. She is vocally stunning, and her writing is enthralling. She touches topics of loss, love, and pain with the confidence that’s foreign to someone her age and sings with technical skills surpassing every artist in her radius. The prelude is the stronger of the two volumes and songs like Could’ve Been with Bryson Tiller and Feel A Way are beautiful. We’re watching a once in a generation talent.
12. Sir: November
Released: January 19th
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
It’s a shame that November dropped at the top of the year and Sir does not yet have the stature to help it remain a fixture throughout the year. Those who were paying attention, will be quick to tell you there were few albums as good. November is further proof that TDE has a complete grasp of quality control and any artist that they get behind, has plenty to offer. The entire record is sultry and understated and allows Sir to explore to the full spectrum of love. The biggest evidence of this is Something Foreign feat. Schoolboy Q. Q raps a descriptive verse of love and lust while Sir croons about making his own path in the chorus. D’Evils samples an old Raggae classic and is as smooth of a weed smoking anthem you can come across. War is a heartfelt song about ruining love and yearning to get it back. There is so much of these beautiful songs to dive into and he orchestrates most of this with perfection. The projects weave in interludes of a spaceship packed with artificial intelligence that guides Sir along which makes sense as November feels like the smoothest flight you can take.
11. Vince Staples: FM!
Released: November 2nd
Label: Def Jam
FM! finds Vince Staples firmly back into gritty, dark rap music. There are fewer experiments, less electro, and a more centered West Coast sound. However, the griminess and violence are still omnipresent. Staples raps with sheer hopefulness and life is centered around it. It’s almost as if nothing exists outside the universe that his music describes. This year, in a panel where he sat with Deray Mckesson, Pharrell Williams, and Scott Vener for Complexon, he makes that view as clear as day. “In my upbringing, the last thing you worry about is presidential politics. We don’t care about the Senate. We don’t care about any of those things. Where I grew up, we have officer Boshnick, Officer Zamora, Officer Castro, and Officer Venezueala……. that’s our President.” FM! embodies that sentiment. Sure, it weaves in skits from Big Boy’s Neighborhood, the syndicated radio show out in Los Angeles, but all of it feels like it’s in the context of a dark summer day in the Northside of Long Beach. It doesn’t feel like there’s an escape from it.
10. Saba: Care for Me
Released: April 5th
Label: Saba Pivot. LLC
Care for Me feels like a coming age story, but unlike a traditional coming of age story, the backdrop features the violence in the West Side of Chicago. Saba weaves a lot of stories of family, growing up in the city, and navigating relationships with friends and women alike. The music is sentimental and melodic. Most of the album is autobiographical, marked throughout with self-doubt, insecurity, and survivor’s remorse. His experiences have rendered him broken but still hopeful, looking for someone or something to pacify that pain. Parts of the album are pure grief. No moment highlights this more than Prom/King, a 7-minute story about his friendship with John Walt, his cousin and group member who was killed in early 2017. He starts by rapping about Walt hooking him up with a prom date and raps up to the moment of his death without really telling you what happened. Your left to scramble and piece together what happened through a Google search. It’s heartbreaking and a tough thing to hear. Saba gives you a front seat through his mindset all throughout the entire project.
9. Black Panther: The Album
Released: February 9th
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment. Aftermath. Interscope
How difficult is it to make a soundtrack that is cohesive, sticks to the theme of the movie, and still has the depth required for a great project? Really think back to the last time one came out. I’d bet you’d be hard pressed to find it. The Black Panther Soundtrack delivers on all the above. The featured artist are expansive and all are used for what they are best at. 2 Chainz and Schoolboy Q are paired together again (they collaborated on Schoolboy Q's album: Oxymoron) with energetic production from Sounwave and Illmind. Anyone who are avid fans know that’s where those two excel. 2 Chainz specifically lights up his verse. SZA is added to possibly the most melodic record on the album with the lead single All of the Stars and her vocals carry the record to a different level while Kendrick Lamar centers the song. On Bloody Waters we get a vintage Ab-Soul (welcome back Ab-Soul we missed you) trading bars with Anderson.Paak. with outro vocals from James Blake. Damn near perfection. Shortly after a transition occurs from Bloody Waters to King's Dead with African instrumentation and chants; a highlight of the record. Jay Rock shines on King's Dead and Future delivers a very strange yet enjoyable verse (his high pitched delivery of "ladi dadi da" in the middle of the verse is hilarious) while Kendrick delivers my favorite chorus of the year thus far. Khalid and Swae Lee sound incredible together on Sounwave and BadBadNotGood's melodic production. It’s a lot going on, but it never seems forced. Every artist put their best foot forward. Newcomers like Reason, Mozzy, and South African artist Yugen Blakrok, make the best of the spotlight, while veterans find their comfortable pockets. The entire project is a major milestone for Kendrick Lamar and TDE.
8. Royce da 5'9": Book of Ryan
Released: May 4th
Label: Heaven Studios. eOne
Royce da 5’9” has been a figure in rap music for over 20 years at this point, but in 2018 we finally learned about who he really is. The aptly titled Book of Ryan is a long autobiography of the Detroit legend but it’s less about Royce the rapper but Ryan Montgomery the person. It brings you right inside the Montgomery household. Stories of joy, pain, idiosyncrasies, domestic violence, addiction, and family turmoil flood the entire project. From Royce discussing the tension that existed between he and his older brother growing up, to how proud he was of his father even through the drug addictions and domestic abuse that he unleashed on his mother. It was at times uncomfortable as a listener to hear someone reveal that much of their personal life, but it seemed like Royce needed to let all of this out. During his press run, on the breakfast club, he said that it was the toughest project he could make. Imagine how tough it is for those involved to hear it.
7. J. Cole: KOD
Released: April 20th
Label: Dreamville. Roc Nation. Interscope
J. Cole's KOD has a high ranking simply because he accomplishes in KOD what is very difficult to accomplish. Cole made an entertaining album with depth, that speaks on a moment in time, provides a guideline, yet does not come across preachy. Cole manages to speak on the ills of a society and culture bombarded with self-indulgence and drugs without coming across self-righteous. As a matter of fact, he came across having empathy. He weaves in many personal experiences with self-medication and depression while providing a guideline on ways to get out. The beauty in KOD is that drugs are not the only forms of addiction that are touched on. Kevin's Hart, for example, uses the comedians publicized infidelity to highlight the temptations that come with the opposite sex. Cole touches on the difficulties of remaining loyal and monogamous when having any sort of fame or stature. ATM touches on the addiction of chasing money and status while Friends, the seminal and best song of the album and our best song of the year, touches on addiction and alternative ways of dealing with it. All the while, he weaves personal stories about his family, the strife that others have had to deal with, and society in general. It’s thoughtful, entertaining, and still lyrically dexterous. A great piece of work from one of the most important voices of our time.
6. Pusha T: Daytona
Released: May 25th
Label: G.O.O.D. Music. Def Jam
Daytona is the solo project that we expected from Pusha T and Kanye after all of their time working together. This was the perfect storm, and the perfect mix of minimalist production with coke raps. They’ve attempted it before, but it never hit quite like this. Daytona is American Gangster without Frank Lucas doing any hard time, or Tony Montana making it out of that mansion. It’s Pusha celebrating having gone through it, seeing the other side, and more importantly reminding you that you will never be of that cloth. Throughout the album, he references details that only a D boy might have understood or been around for like holding dance contest for the fiends for entertainment or getting a table at the club and make your table waitress engage in frivolous competition. If you’ve ever been around any hot boy whether that is a D Boy or scammer, you’d understand why Daytona sounds like a documentary of that lifestyle. Pusha T has said multiple times that Kanye West completely reworked the beats around the songs that were already created, which makes sense that he never really reached this height in production the rest of the year.
5. Travis Scott: Astroworld
Released: August 3rd
Label: Cactus Jack. Epic. Grand Hustle
This year, we got to see Travis Scott cross from phenom to rap superstar. For a brief moment, Nicki Minaj wanted you to believe that Astroworld’s success and its reign as the number 1 album in the country was predicated on bundles with merchandise. I’m sure that helped, but Astroworld is also an incredible album. It has 17 songs of heat with at least 10 songs that can qualify as the best song on any given day. An album where a bunch of songs sound similar but completely different at the same time. An album that linked together artist from Kevin Parker of Tame Impala with Pharrell Williams and the Weeknd, to Don Toliver and the Migos. Travis does not have many meaningful or profound lyrics to gnaw on, but the way he curates the project and his ability to read the listeners pulse and take turns that always satisfy is just short of brilliant. A master performance for an interesting artist.
4. Jay Rock: Redemption
Released: June 15th
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment. Interscrope
Jay Rock is one of Hip Hop’s favorite underdogs and Redemption is the championship ceremony. Hip Hop celebrated this release not just because Jay Rock put in a lot to lay the groundwork for TDE, but also because this is clearly his best work up to date. It’s a mix of vibes with personal lyrics of struggle and triumph. The cover art with Jay Rock standing in his Watts neighborhood looking up the sky pensively is a good representation of the music. He reminisces extensively about his motorcycle accident that nearly took his life, with appreciation and gratefulness of being given another chance that sometimes comes across like he wasn’t sure he deserved. Lust, paranoia, and dealing with success are all chronicled with deft rhyming and delivery. Throughout those themes, there’s always a reminder that he is Watts bred. No better example than ES Tales, a gutter tune that brilliantly samples a Super Mario Brothers level up sound. Not many rappers deserve the acclaim and success more than Eastside Johnny.
3. The Internet: Hive Mind
Released: June 20th
Label: Columbia Records
The Internet make beautiful music together and Hive Mind is no exception. Full of smooth vibes and groovy rhythms, Hive Mind is the most enjoyable album you’ll hear all year. Ranging from sultry cuts to funky music, the band never misses a step throughout the 13-song opus. It’s not bogged down by heavy subjects, but it is still well written and interesting enough to hold your attention throughout. Syd the Kyd is a powerhouse vocalist that floats on every song regardless of the tone and mood. She croons sensually on Hold On but displays indifference in Look What You Started a couple of songs before. She sets the stage perfectly and the confidence of her words heighten every moment. Do yourself a solid, cut this on and take a drive with your top down to the beach with Hive Mind blasting and feel what pure euphoria is.
2. Nipsey Hussle: Victory Lap
Released: February 16th
Label: All Money In No Money Out. Atlantic Records
Everything about Victory Lap sounds like success. Nipsey Hussle visualized this moment and when it came, he simply stepped to it and let it embrace him. Victory Lap came out at the top of the year and remained better than most if not all that came after. The themes are what we come to expect from Nipsey, a lot of talk about success, independence, loyalty, and love of self. The difference with Victory Lap is that it’s fleshed out over amazing production throughout and every word carries the weight of someone who has waited their entire life for this moment. When he raps about not being like these rappers, or raps alongside Kendrick Lamar about purpose on Dedication, there is not a hesitation of what he stands for. It’s a debut album in the sense that, it’s a true mission statement about the man that Nipsey is and where he wants to go. Beyond all of this symbolism, the music is gotdamn great. It doesn’t lack bangers and does not lack an insightful record. It’s a classic rap record and a monument to what a focused mind can produce.
1. Mac Miller: Swimming
Released: August 3rd
Label: REMember Music. Warner Bros
Besides the obvious pain of losing someone as talented and as young as Mac Miller, one of the most frustrating results of his passing is a lot of praise he receives will be attributed to the fact that he’s no longer here. Let’s make one thing clear, Mac Miller’s Swimming is not the best album of the year because he passed away shortly after. Swimming is the best album of the year because it’s fucking amazing. A beautiful project littered with lush sounds, daring melodic attempts, and undeniable grooves. That’s before we even get to the writing on this album, which finds a man grasping to understand recovery and self-worth. Throughout Swimming, Miller shares conflicting melancholic thoughts about trying to understand the hardships he’s experienced and how to avoid them in the future. Recovery is never linear and never straightforward. As much he understands it, Swimming is him trying to grasp it and hold on to it for dear life. When he raps on the near tear jerking 2009 about looking forward and not back, he sounds refreshed and inspired. “A life ain’t a life till you live it” he raps in a tone of an exhausted man who finally has clarity. Swimming is not only weighted down by only heavy thoughts. Thundercat rides shotgun on several songs, including What’s the Use which is funky and melodic and is hard to listen to without two stepping. Conversations Pt. 1 and Hurt Feelings are dope beats with Miller in his pocket as an MC. Those moments though where he’s faced with his mortality and the challenges of being a better person is what makes this album special. It’s a shame that he never got to see what these words mean to people, but Swimming is a hell of a way to go out.