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The 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2018

Photo: real-napster / Courtesy of Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons

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.

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

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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"

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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"

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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"

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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

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