Music

The 20 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2019

Following Stormzy's run up the charts, 2019 proved to be a banner year for British hip-hop with a trio of masterpieces. America's myriad hip-hop scenes delivered the goods, and African rap gave us many stellar releases.

20. Epic Beard Men - This Was Supposed to Be Fun [Strange Famous]

Starting with the wormy bassline and chase scene piano riffs of "Hours & Minutes", Epic Beard Men prove their "love of the beats and the lyrics". Wordsmiths Sage Francis and B. Dolan will not tolerate you taking them, or yourself, too seriously, as they adopt a posture best described as "an old man shaking his fist at a SoundCloud".

Sitcom hijinks ensue when these Rhode Island lyricists are trying to get through Transportation Security to catch a flight to Europe ("Shin Splints"), visit a fortune teller ("Foresight"), and making sense of an ex-convict and codeine freak who goes by the name of Dave and has them turning a line from Slick Ricks classic "A Children's Story" into a zany motif ("Pistol Dave").

It's all fun and games until a dope lyric strikes a nerve, like when both emcees adopt the opposing views of suspicious neighbors in "Hedges". Think about how societal paranoia has become interpersonal, and we might start to worry. Yet, This Was Supposed to Be Fun is loads of fun and stays that way through all 12 of its tracks. It's that pesky undercurrent of societal and introspective irony that threatens to turn your smile upside down. We don't need anyone to see that, do we? So we hide it. That, I suppose, is the point of growing an epic beard. - Quentin B. Huff

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay

19. Gang Starr - One of the Best Yet [TTT/Gang Starr Enterprises]

The genesis for One of the Best Yet is sordid, to be sure. But, no matter how it arrived into the world, damn is it good that it's here. Gang Starr, comprised of DJ Premier and rapper Guru, is truly one of the best hip-hop duos ever. The combination of Guru's raspy, punchy vocals and Premier's pin-perfect percussion and delicate melodies is divine. But the group famously split in the early 2000s with animosity, and fans likely thought they would never be privy to new music. But, here they are, complete with guest appearances from other hip-hop legends like J. Cole, Talib Kweli, and Q-Tip.

"Family and Loyalty" tugs at heartstrings while "Business of Art" portends creative danger, to name but two standouts. You can quibble with and parse the record if you like. You can say Guru isn't on it enough. Or take umbrage with the record's troubled origin story. But that the collection of 17 songs exists - that we get to hear new Gang Starr, new DJ Premier, unreleased Guru rhymes while simultaneously reliving what we loved about the group - that's a blessing. - Jacob Uitti

18. Neak – Kwesbaar [Gold Standard Collective]

Rapper-producer Neak has the flow, the production, and the everyman ethos that makes Kwesbaar sound like an unearthed relic from 1990s boom-bap hip-hop. You can imagine it sitting comfortably somewhere after Nas released Illmatic but before Jay-Z released Reasonable Doubt. In fact, while I imagine some Nas fans disagreeing with me, Neak does a good job of putting his song "Fight" into the same category as Nas' "Nas Is Like" – calculated but energetic lyrics over a minimalist loop. The word "kwesbaar" is Afrikaans for "vulnerable", and perhaps this is where the album diverges, takes the aesthetic less traveled by, and, with all apologies to Robert Frost, makes all the difference.

Vulnerability, as a vibe, radiates from tracks about relationships ("W.Y.T.a.M" – What You Think About Me), resistance to materialism ("Gold"), and legacies (Neak's ode to iconic band Kool & the Gang in "Dreamer's Sadness"). But the centerpiece is "Lost Fathers", a song that illuminates the struggles of fathers who, despite being present to raise their children, are situationally limited by divorce, court orders, and physical distance. The success of the song resides in its sincerity, as it doesn't seek to elevate a father's parental struggle over a mother's. Rather, it merely longs to be heard. Hip-hop, at its core, offers a platform for the voiceless. Vulnerability isn't just about opening up. It's about accepting the risks associated with doing so. - Quentin B. Huff

17. Megan Thee Stallion - Fever [300 Entertainment]

Old-heads may decry "mumble rap", but pay attention: youthful hip-hop is diverse, and not anathema to tradition. Houston 20something rapper Megan Thee Stallion might be the hardest MC of 2019 – fighting on wax, viscerally and eternally. The Blaxploitation/pimpin' veneer of the Fever mixtape is stylish window-dressing. Her hip-hop credo is summarized on the first track, "Keep it realer than real." But we already knew that, from the first few words out of her mouth. She's cognizant of her place in Southern hip-hop, always; Three 6 Mafia appear as her heroes, through two prominent samples and a guest spot by Juicy J. But for all of that, she's not looking backward. Her attention is on competition, on showing, over bass-heavy club beats, that she's the one to beat. - Dave Heaton

16. Little Brother - May the Lord Watch [Imagine Nation/For Members Only/EMPIRE]

Life can change quickly. An innocuous text message can, for example, lead to a new record that hits #11 on the Billboard charts. Or your new favorite album can seemingly drop out of the sky unannounced. That's exactly what happened when rappers Phonte and Big Pooh reconnected after an extended hiatus. Collaborating as the front men for the acclaimed rap group, Little Brother, the duo released their latest full-length, May the Lord Watch, to near-unanimous applause. The 2019 album, which does not feature former DJ and producer, 9th Wonder, who has since gone solo, harkens back to the days when hip-hop wasn't overblown.

Instead, May the Lord Watch feels like reconnecting with old friends, hearing stories, sharing memories and making new ones. It's a series of conversations. While the record isn't bombastic, it's no less effective. Between the songs are skits (another 1990s throwback), which include the fake UBN TV network and the funeral of Phonte's alter ego, singer Percy Miracles. And 9th Wonder's absence notwithstanding, the record feels like a surprise welcomed reunion. - Jacob Uitti

15. L'Orange & Jeremiah Jae -- Complicate Your Life With Violence [Mello Music Group]

For North Carolina producer L'Orange and Chicago rapper Jeremiah Jae, their 2019 album title is either a suggestion or a direct order. How we interpret that title and the brooding but meticulously wrought music this album contains, will tell us a lot about ourselves. There's a haunting feeling you get when Jeremiah unassumingly repeats the year 1984 at the end of "Dead Battery" -- not only is Big Brother watching, but he's daring you to stare back.

L'Orange stitches movie dialogue, guitar plucks, low-end horns, and heavy percussion into a quilt that's as troubling as it is entertaining. Or perhaps it's the entertainment value that makes it troubling. As good as it is, Jeremiah is so laid-back as he describes "summer camps in asylums" ("Summer Camp") and how "your best friend in the world is the carbine rifle" ("My Everything Is Bulletproof"), you almost forget that he's presenting a dystopian vision of the military-industrial complex. By his tone of voice, he could be talking about a breezy and sunny afternoon instead of best friends getting "turned into zombies" ("Devil's Piano").

In 1994, when Gil Scott-Heron sardonically intoned, "The military and the monetary / get together whenever they think it's necessary," he aimed to communicate his stance against war and in favor of peace. When PJ Harvey's 2011 album Let England Shake (2011) took a similar position on war, you could feel the dread and horror behind it. Here, it's our complacency about violence that begs complication. - Quentin B. Huff

14. Dreezy - Big Dreez [Interscope]

Chicago up-and-comer Dreezy has grown into a superstar, in presence if not stature. On Big Dreez she's all-business, a quiet show-off who cares about little besides blazing her own path to world domination. Bass-heavy, lush productions serve her well, as she alternates between hard-edged raps and lovelorn slow jams. Both are her forte, and one is never far from the other. As a vocalist, she excels at melodic, sing-song rap that's not wildly different from, but better and more wide-ranging than, many of her peers. Her mind is on her money and her skills, but her heart is also on display. - Dave Heaton

13. Lizzo - Cuz I Love You [Nice Life/Atlantic]

Perhaps no musician ruled 2019 more than Lizzo. The artist inspired millions with her humor, powerful voice, and even more powerful message that, when observed, seems so simple: Be your best self. 2019 will be remembered for many things, but maybe that there are so many prominent artists like Lizzo saying, "Don't hide your face anymore!" will be top among them. Lizzo set the tone for her latest record before anyone even opened it - her body on display. "Wow," we thought, "what beauty, what bare honesty."

And then we got to the tracks. Cuz I Love You opens with a song by the same name and the song, as is the contemporary vernacular, slaps. It's not fire; it's molten. "Juice" is the definition of a hip-shaker. "Jerome" scathes, full of soul. "Lingerie" titillates. But baked into the Lizzo world is the idea that much of the public wasn't ready for her even a few years ago. And, in that way, more than the music she released, Lizzo stands for a moment in time. The woman who went from homelessness to Prince collaborations to Grammy wins now stands as a marker that says, "Open your eyes and ears!" And with something like a billion or two streams on YouTube, Lizzo's voice is heard loud and clear, far and wide. - Jacob Uitti

12. EarthGang - Mirrorland [Dreamville/Interscope]

The cinematic Atlanta duo Earthgang sold limited-edition tarot cards to accompany their third album Mirrorland, a mystical carnival ride taking them (and us) places beyond the beyond. The album starts hyper, gets surreal, and is funk-driven through and through. The warped view is very Funkadelic-esque, yet the music is steeped in the current hip-hop moment (with sharp guest appearances by Young Thug, Kelhani, and T-Pain). Filled with creative energy, it's not as escapist or fanciful as it first appears, but rather a colorful portrait of their hometown community and culture ("these filthy sweet Atlanta streets"), through their distinct, kaleidoscopic lens. - Dave Heaton

11. Tyler, the Creator - IGOR [A Boy is a Gun/Columbia/Sony]

Tyler, the Creator is as much mood as he is musician. Which is saying something when considering the staggering productivity and unique lens that is the rapper-producer-composer. As his power grows, so does the gravity around his music. We are pulled in from our orbits to become closer to his. With his latest offering, IGOR, Tyler sucks us into the life of the character Igor and the love triangle he's found himself in. But while the theme of the record can be parsed at length, listening to its musical composition, its layers and sound choices, is marvelous. "What an imagination! What risk!" These are the phrases that pass through our minds (see the song, "EARFQUAKE"). It's at once minimalist and, at the same time, lush. And while the record can feel like a hazy dream - somehow part-Wu Tang and part-Mac DeMarco - it can still stop listeners in their tracks. "A Boy Is a Gun" stuns in its anger and soul. And that's the point: Tyler, the Creator can be so many things at one time. Contrast and harmony. Love and aggression. He, like Igor, contains multitudes. - Jacob Uitti

10. Yugen Blakrok - Anima Mysterium [Iapetus]

The South African rapper Yugen Blakrok titled her 2013 debut album Return of the Astro-Goth, an explicit sign of her style. Six years later – with an attention-getting appearance on the Black Panther soundtrack in between – she's doubled down on the "astro" part. Anima Mysterium is an exhilarating deep-dive into astrology and astronomy, into sci-fi hip-hop that spins up its own mythology/puzzle for us to soak in and explore. Produced mostly by Kanif, as was her debut, the music plays up both the mystical, intergalactic atmosphere and the extent to which hard-hitting 1990s hip-hop is an essential part of Yugen Blakrok's fabric. Think Def Jux/Cannibal Ox futuristic soundscapes blessed by a word-twisting, idea-filled MC who can light tracks on fire with the best of them. - Dave Heaton

9. JPEGMAFIA - All My Heroes Are Cornballs [EQT Recordings]

On All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA continues the visceral nature of his prior works, but it's not as you might expect. On "Papi I Missed You", he guesses, "I'm pretty sure I coughed on every fucking song." And, this is how he attacks All My Heroes Are Cornballs. It is a scatter of coughs that could not be contained, an overwhelming purge of a sickness that bubbled within. These frantic coughs spill out of an unfiltered mouth, relinquishing resentments over glitched out, melodic beats that almost resemble the frantic nature of memetic rhetoric. On "Beta Male Strategies", he dares, "say what you said on Twitter right now" to call out racists, political extremists of either end, groupthink critics, and online shitposters.

Simply, All My Heroes Are Cornballs embodies a very human reaction to the inhumanity of oppressive politics and online culture, an interconnected trend that has, unfortunately, usurped the end of this decade. So, as he lets go on the standout track "Free the Frail", which features Helena Deland, "Break it down, the shit is outta my hands." - Hans Kim

8. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Bandana [Keep Cool/RCA]

We are in the era of the comic book, so perhaps then it makes sense that one of 2019's best hip-hop albums reads as much like a graphic novel as it does a traditional music record. Between the frenetic rhymes from the incomparable Freddie Gibbs or the stuttering and epic production from the legendary Madlib, Bandana traverses your mind's eye like feverish cartoon panels from a Marvel or D.C. franchise. The songs are detailed, the mood etched. "Crime Pays", the video for which features Gibbs directing white laborers to shovel shit and tend to the horses on his farm, is a beautifully produced track, soulful, disco-like, and empowering in its subversion. The song's video ends with Gibbs riding away on a real-life zebra. Above all else, though, the gift of Bandana is that it's so detailed an effort from the two musicians that you won't ever listen to it the same way twice. - Jacob Uitti

7. Clipping. - There Existed an Addiction to Blood [Sub Pop]

Clipping. followed up their 2016 sci-fi epic Splendor and Misery with this conceptually looser foray into horror-rap. Apocalyptic, claustrophobic, with danger in the air ("Nothing Is Safe"); in other words, reminiscent of our current moment in US history. Horror movie themes float amidst the background, but this is hip-hop, riddled with allusions to classics of the past while living in a now setting of vampires, zombies, and ghosts. Daveed Diggs raps nimbly and piercingly as ever while the two producers – William Huston and Jonathan Snipes – drench everything with noise and fear. The album ends, as it should, with the sound of something ablaze. It's a piano, a recording borrowed from experimentalist Anna Lockwood, but it could be the world. - Dave Heaton

6. Sampa the Great - The Return [Ninja Tune]

If you remember what an answering machine message is, maybe you've heard the lone 1993 album from "gangsta" rapstress Boss that was bookended by phone messages from her parents admonishing her for cursing on her outgoing announcement. Hip-hop is fascinated by phones and voicemails for the same reason we love obscure samples and lyrics that reference (but don't bite) other lyrics -- because we adore the similarities between disparate things and we especially love an opportunity to cross boundaries.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Sampa the Great's The Return, a 19-track journey that merges self-empowerment ("Mwana") with artistic empowerment ("Time's Up"), self-contentment ("Grass Is Greener") with resilience ("Don't Give Up"). The third track ("Wake Up") is a voicemail interlude urging Sampa to wake up, not only to answer the phone but perhaps also to the fact of being "black within the music industry". The message continues, "I don't think you have time for all this, finding yourself spiritual shit."

But that's what the album is all about. While it's not exactly the hip-hop version of Eat Pray Love, what resonates is the courage to love and decide for oneself where home is located. Born and raised in Zambia and Botswana, respectively, and having resided in Australia, Sampa has geographic and emotional journeys to share. The best art illuminates, rather than imitates, life. That's why The Return is such a treat. - Quentin B. Huff

5. Little Simz - GREY Area [Age 101]

British-Nigerian artist Simbiatu Ajikawo, known in rap circles as Little Simz, is ferocious. Listen to her barrage of rapid-fire lyrics, and you can almost hear Burgess Meredith's character from Rocky III saying, "This guy is a wrecking machine!" Little Simz could fit that description, but on Grey Area, she considers the extent of the fallout after things get wrecked.

Every action sparks a reaction, and she dives right it on album opener "Offence". Over a metallic knuckling beat, Little Simz extends each line of her verses, as if in a duet with the soundscape. She's forthright and full of bravado, like any skilled emcee might be, but there's the recognition that when she goes for broke, she's going to be judged for it.

A good offense can sometimes be a good defense, but not if it leaves you open to someone else's attack. We see this dramatized through the album, from one's misguided reliance on gunplay ("Wounds", featuring Chronixx) to the idea of submitting to unproductive counseling ("Therapy"). Love relationships don't fare any better ("Sherbet Sunset") and even the famous have fallen after sharing too much of themselves ("Flowers", offering Hendrix, Winehouse, Joplin, and Cobain as notable namechecks). While the album's title refers to the grey area of life, particularly in one's mid-20s, there's much to suggest that it's also a search for a golden mean, some way to strike a balance between character and chaos. - Quentin B. Huff

4. Kano - Hoodies All Summer [Parlophone/Bigger Picture Music]

East London grime MC, Kano is a legend in British hip-hop by now, but he should be a "legend in hip-hop", period. He's got a killer flow and a whole career full of tunes that bang the beats while making you think, starting with 2005's Home Sweet Home. Hoodies All Summer is a brief album at 39 minutes, but it's so perfectly edited that every second matters and there's not a moment of wasted space. That means the music's message has a greater impact with its clear focus. It also happens to be the perfect length for the modern attention span, which is key if you want to have your message heard.

Hoodies All Summer is a deep look at Black British life in the age of Brexit. "Trouble" decries the ongoing "postcode warring" in the UK with female voices urging that they don't want any trouble anymore. The blend of musical forms from across the African diaspora on the album is mesmerizing. Popcaan joins Kano on "Can't Hold We Down" for the British grime/Jamaican dancehall mashup that addresses cyclical violence and the systemic oppression of Black people from London's "bad manors". Meanwhile, Kojo Funds, who employs West African and Caribbean sounds in his music, joins Kano on another album highlight, "Pan-Fried".

The album concludes stirringly with the soulful "SYM" that condemns imperialism, colonialism, and the lack of political and economic power amongst Black British people and immigrants. These lines are just one reason that you must hear Kano's Hoodies All Summer, a masterpiece of British hip-hop.

They tell us to go fuckin' back to our own country
But they won't even give us back our own countries
Every entrance to a door, has a footprint left by the ones that came before

- Sarah Zupko

3. Rapsody – Eve [Jamla]

Rapsody's Eve represents the moment you finally exhale after you've been waiting to do so for what seems like forever. At ease and self-assured, the North Carolina lyricist creates an album similar in concept to this year's Legacy! Legacy! by singer-songwriter Jamila Woods. Just as Woods named each song after a person of color ("Octavia", "Miles", "Muddy", "Basquiat", and the like), Rapsody names her songs after women of color.

These inspirations hail from the music world ("Nina" and "Aaliyah"), modeling and fashion ("Tyra" and "Iman"), and sports arenas ("Serena" and "Ibtihaj"). But this concept album -- painstakingly produced by Eric G, Khrysis, Mark Byrd, Nottz, and longtime collaborator 9th Wonder -- isn't only a vehicle for tribute. It's actually quite introspective, and wildly inventive too, as Rapsody inhabits the spaces between titles and lyrics with revealing intelligence, dexterity, and wit. She's crafted an album that sounds like it was extracted from the same creative force as Nikki Giovanni's poem "Ego Tripping": "I gave my son Hannibal an elephant / He gave me Rome for mother's day."

Some of the songs reference their namesakes with clever wordplay. There's the "make a sister act up" line in "Whoopi" (as in the Sister Act movies). In "Maya", the chorus declares, "I can't be no bird in a cage." We get a neat twist on the First Lady in "Michelle" ("It's ladies first tonight"). Perhaps my favorite is "Oprah", built around Rapsody's refrain "dollars, dollars, dollars circulate", where the word "circulate" might remind you of the letter O. Nevertheless, it's the essence of these giants that activates the music, along with Rapsody's willingness to locate their virtues within her own.

Better still, she doesn't do it alone -- she shares the throne with a wise and battle-ready Queen Latifah ("Hatshepsut") along with crooner K. Roosevelt ("Maya"), GZA and D'Angelo ("Ibtihaj") and even a raw sample of Tupac quoting a line from his hit "Keep Your Head Up" ("Afeni"). This is heady stuff, an elegant elaboration on something Chaka Khan told us way back when: "I'm every woman -- it's all in me." - Quentin B. Huff

2. slowthai - Nothing Great About Britain [Method]

In Leviathan, philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described life outside of society (in the "state of nature") as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". While his mid-1600s contemporaries opposed this view, what no one in the 17th century could have foreseen is that slowthai (born Tyron Frampton), a British rapper of Bajan and Irish descent, would release a 2019 album decrying life within society instead of outside of it! "Nasty boy, it's my nature," slowthai says in "Toaster". "There are no rules, just societies." That's for you, Thomas Hobbes.

Slowthai's advice? "Don't get old, be bold," he suggests on the Jaykae-assisted "Grow Up", but lack of money is a recurring theme in his world. "Cream, get the money, then the cream got clotted," he quips. The beats are boisterous, noisy, absolutely perfect for a sonic Industrial Revolution, but what's most impressive is his control over the soundscape, sometimes flowing with it, at other times resisting it. Deftly, he slows the rhythm, speeds it up, raps between beats, and glides over all.

His signature is rapping like every word is part of a battle cry. But, as he declares from the start, he "ain't Dizzee" (Rascal, that is). That's true enough -- he's more like an amalgam of the poignant ("Northampton Child", "Rainbow") and the risqué (see his takedown of the Queen at the end of the title track). Where the two meet, there's an intersection of greatness. - Quentin B. Huff

1. Dave - PSYCHODRAMA [Neighbourhood]

Music is often understood as therapy. But South London rapper, Dave, takes that idea to the next level on his latest LP, PSYCHODRAMA, which begins with the rapper's therapist speaking into a recorder during their first session. All of a sudden, we're transported to Dave's twisted, violent, sensitive world. On the record, the forceful lyricist depicts everyday problems in his everything-but-everyday life.

Switching flows and keeping a foot in both modern trap and hip-hop as much as he does classic boom-bap, Dave divulges mental health issues and insecurities that harken back to early Kanye West mixed with aggressive Eminem storytelling. On "Black", Dave investigates what the word means, sociologically, a pointed investigation in 2019 made even more interesting coming from a non-American hip-hop success. In total, the record is as much an exercise in people watching as it is a piece of entertainment. - Jacob Uitti

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