Photo: real-napster | Pixabay

The 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2018

From Kanye tweets to Drake and Pusha T diss tracks to literary masterpiece "This Is America", 2018 was quite the year for rap. But if we had to boil it all down to just 10 albums, we think these are the cuts that truly rose above and summed up 2018 the best.

10. Migos – Culture II (Capitol/Motown/Quality Control)


In 2018, Migos didn’t risk overexposure, they indulged in it. They were everywhere, as a group and solo acts. Their double-disc, ridiculously long Culture II may have been treated like chart-bait for our streaming era. But in reality, it felt more like a self-contained universe, with a degree of infinity to it, created by a group dead-set on world domination. Their strengths – swagger, interplay, humor – were all on display. And the length allowed for some pretty strange and indulgent twists and turns (like the song about turning emojis into gold chains), plus guest appearances by the biggest hip-hop artists of the moment (Drake, Post Malone, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott and more). A celebration of Migos’ regal status in the hip-hop world (“Crown the Kings“, starts the second disc), Culture II is packed with instant-classic anthems and unique detours. – Dave Heaton

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Narcos” / “Stir Fry” / “Too Playa” / “Walk It Talk It”

+ + +

9. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic)


Though the album’s lead single “Bodak Yellow” already won Cardi B unanimous acclaim in last year’s year-end lists, Cardi B was able to carry the momentum into across the entirety of Invasion of Privacy, a masterwork of pop rap which oozes of self-confidence and awareness of exactly who she is trying to be as an artist, which is quite the feat for a debut full-length release. For those who thought Cardi peaked on “Bodak Yellow”, here comes the Latin-flavored absolute jam “I Like It” topping the charts and making Cardi B the first female rapper in history to have two Billboard number ones. It was a milestone to be sure, but the rest of the record is just as consistent, from the vulnerable “Be Careful” to the carefree collaboration with Chance the Rapper “Best Life“. Cardi B proved she’s not just a meme on Invasion of Privacy, perhaps offering the biggest surprise on this list. – Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Be Careful” / “Bodak Yellow” / “I Like It” / “Ring”

+ + +

8. Various Artists – Black Panther (OST) (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)


A year removed from the impressive Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., Kendrick Lamar had a fairly quiet 2018. But his job as curator and contributor for Marvel’s February smash Black Panther was enough to keep King Kendrick on top and spotlighted many of the best in the game. From the Kendrick/SZA smash “All the Stars” to Future’s meme-worthy “slob on me knob” in “King’s Dead“, the soundtrack was perhaps one of the biggest culture impacters in music this year. Though decidedly a compilation of superstars as opposed to a cohesive album, the infusion of Ludwig Göransson’s African-inspired movie score into tracks from Kendrick’s opener “Black Panther” to the Weeknd’s closer “Pray For Me” held the tone together. It’s a Who’s Who effort oozing fun from beginning to end and reminds us that there is room for creativity even in the pop-rap scene. – Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “All the Stars” / “Pray For Me”

+ + +

7. Jay Rock – Redemption (TDE/Interscope)


Even with the success this year of his Black Panther soundtrack track “King’s Dead”, with Kendrick Lamar and Future, Jay Rock remains an underrated figure in the TDE family. An underrated artist, period. Redemption may not have the level of overall focus or biographical interest of his second album, 2015’s 90059, but it’s just as stellar a platform for Jay Rock’s ability to rhyme hard with a purpose.

He’s less resting on his laurels than relaxing into his talent and accomplishments after two albums that screamed of hunger. Redemption‘s approach is more purposely universal, multipurpose, and everyday. It’s strongest at a downtempo creep, but then there’s the instant-classic “Wow Freestyle” with Lamar, the reappearance of “King’s Dead”, and the album-closer “WIN”, the smartest dumb single of the year, which seems to contradict his strengths, and is all the better for it — a triumphant anthem that shows him to be a hip-hop jack-of-all-trades. – Dave Heaton

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “OSOM” / “Shit Real” / “Tap Out” / “The Bloodiest” / “WIN”

+ + +

6. Trouble and Mike WiLL Made-It – Edgewood (Duct Tape/Ear Drummer/Interscope)


It’s been seven years since the Atlanta rapper Trouble’s first mixtape, but Edgewood is essentially his debut album proper. The name is significant – this is a vivid, dark snapshot of the Atlanta projects where Trouble hails from. He’s a precise storyteller who pulls no punches, while focusing on themes more than details. It’s all work, hustle, struggle. His style is rugged and rough, but also surprising – like the little sing-song litanies he likes to turn into choruses. There’s more of a pop sense that at first seems. That balance of darkness and melody is also the combination producer Mike WiLL Made-It thrives off. Receiving co-billing, the rich atmosphere of the music is the perfect complement to Trouble’s rhymes, and successful on its own (an instrumental version would be deep). – Dave Heaton

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: Edgewood / “Real Is Rare” / “Selfish”

+ + +

5. (TIE) Kanye West – ye – (Good/Def Jam) / Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts (Good/Def Jam)


It was quite the year for any music critic or fan trying to follow the phenomenon that is Kanye West. From assertions of slavery being a choice to MAGA hats to Perrier costumes on SNL, 2018 was just bizarre for Yeezy. Despite it all, however, he managed to prove why we grudgingly concede his greatness as a hip-hop producer and artist. Promising five seven-track albums produced in as many weeks, West changed our conception of album length and offered a minimalist approach which bucked hard against the “more tracks = more streams” philosophy utilized by Drake, Migos, and Rae Sremmurd in 2018.

Both his solo album, ye, and collaboration with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts, hit the mark: the former offered a raw look at Kanye in the midst of Twitter controversies and grappled with his bipolar disorder (or superpower, whichever you’d like). The latter offered uplifting gospel messages and a carefree attitude over wonderful musical selections ranging from Louis Prima to Kurt Cobain. Kanye loves controversy, and that’s annoying. But time and again, he proves himself in spite of it. – Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube

+ + +

4. Denzel Curry – Ta13oo (PH/Loma Vista)


Though closely related to the SoundCloud rap subgenre often assaulted with criticisms of lacking content and dismissing hip-hop’s broader historical journey, it would be foolish to accuse 23-year-old Denzel Curry of committing these crimes. His third studio album Ta13oo is indeed able to harness the best qualities of fellow SoundClouders, whether it be extreme hookiness (“Sumo“) or unbridled aggression (um, again, “Sumo”). But Curry carries with this a wonderful understanding of melody (“Black Balloons“) and a way with wordplay which only comes from being steeped in the great lyricists of the ’90s. Curry’s expressive voice is another highlight, at one point singing smooth and silky, then growling with crunk era aggression, and again thundering with tongue-in-cheek gravitas as heard when he delivers the Shakespearean “To be or not to be” on “Switch It Up“. Ta13oo is Curry’s best and most varied work yet and promises he will be a force to be reckoned with in the next few years. – Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “CLOUT CO13A1N” / “Sumo”

+ + +

3. Rico Nasty – Nasty (Sugar Trap)


Nasty marks Rico Nasty’s transformation from a fun, eccentric Internet/mixtape rapper with some catchy singles into one of the most riveting and in-control artists in hip-hop. She masterfully switches modes throughout Nasty, from full-on rage at the world (it takes less than a minute into the album for her to curse Trump), to rap swagger of the upmost level, to a better, more unique distillation of hip-hop’s aspirational capitalist declarations. The production by Kenny Beats and a few others matches functionality to atmosphere, making for music to pump loud that’s also three-dimensional — pretty and tough at once. The best, most resilient pure-rap album of the year is also driven by an artist with true personality and presence who is answering her own question, “Wanna be great, what’s it gon’ take?”, with action. – Dave Heaton

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Pressing Me” / “Rage” / “Trust Issues”

+ + +

2. Saba – CARE FOR ME (Saba Pivot)


Chicago won the rap game in 2018. Though Kanye gave us a handful to process, and Chance had a mildly quiet year, Noname (who we’ll hear from in a minute) and Saba take first and second place crowns after creating undeniable masterpieces deeply informed by the city life surrounding them. For Saba, the landscape is bleak. He sits in his grayed-out kitchen with crossed arms, almost mournful (at least melancholy) on the album cover as he echoes the anxiety of Kendrick Lamar whose request on last year’s DAMN. was simply for us to pray for him.

The lonely bass line on “LIFE” may singlehandedly explain the album’s mood, while anxiety stemming from broken family, his mother’s alcoholism, and murder cause him to rap so frantically it will make your heart break. On “PROM / KING“, Saba proves his storytelling is among the best in the genre as he takes an unprecedented seven and a half minutes to share the story of his relationship with his cousin Walt who was recently stabbed and killed, fueling much of the heartbreak heard in Saba’s broken and angry voice. In the end, though, there is hope as Saba expresses faith in a painless peace after death on “Heaven All Around Me“, and it’s this hope which gives Saba strength to push forward through the most painful experiences. – Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Life”

+ + +

1. Noname – Room 25 (Self-released)


“Y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? / Maybe this your answer for that,” Chicago’s Noname poses on her opening track, “Self“. 2018 saw an explosion of talented women in hip-hop. It’s not that there haven’t been talented women all along, but this year, the talent was finally met with a recognition and praise unmatched thus far in the misogyny-plagued genre’s history. Cardi B owned the charts, Nicki Minaj had a solid year, Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé dabbled, and others from Tierra Whack to Jean Grae furthered the female voice in hip-hop. Women can rap. It shouldn’t even be a question at this point.

And at the top (of ALL rap releases in 2018) stands Noname with her self-released project Room 25. Producer Phoelix sets the stage with crisp and groovy jazz tracks, which Noname bounces all over with her conversational flow, bucking against the way-too-prominent and indistinguishable flow techniques employed by many of today’s rappers. While the vibe is decidedly lighter than fellow Chicagoan Saba’s output, Noname still grapples with the harsh realities of brokenness and loneliness, living as an “insomni-black…triggered by bad government”, and the questioning of “every god, religion, [and] Kanye.” It’s a coming of age masterpiece, where the Room 25 in question is Noname’s 25th year, a year representative of the life expectancy in the inner city, but which Noname has repurposed to be a rebirth and awakening. – Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube

+ + +