2018 In Hip-Hop: A Year Of Quantity Over Quality
No matter who ranks in your Top 10 living hip-hop faves, they almost certainly released music this year. From young stunners and new jacks to career spitters and grizzled vets, rap poured down in proverbial buckets, dousing listeners Friday after Friday, with not infrequent ghost showers during select weekdays and weekends, too. Whether you vibe with the lyrical miracles or rage along with the screamers, your Spotify account got one hell of a workout in 2018.
Many rap listeners interpreted all this as an embarrassment of riches, the irrefutable evidence of hip-hop as the prevailing genre of the digital age. Stans collectively reveled in the new album smell of their chosen faves like J. Cole and Nicki Minaj, while emergent contenders including Cardi B and Brockhampton amassed major fan bases around the very existence of their full-length projects. Indicative of this recorded overabundance, LPs from consensus G.O.A.T.s shared release dates with fresh mixtapes by popular upstarts and emerging SoundCloud kids, as was the case when Lil Wayne’s long-awaited Tha Carter V arrived in the same frame as Logic’s Young Sinatra IV and Lil Gnar’s Gnar Lif3. Bruised by a critically panned comeback record late last year, Eminem applied shock tactics by releasing Kamikaze without warning, stunning the dueling chart toppers of Drake’s double-album Scorpion and Travis Scott’s Astroworld.
Collaborations, particularly high profile ones, proved more common and competitive than ever, with the Kanye West-helmed Nas project Nasir arriving the very same weekend as Everything Is Love, a surprise album from erstwhile rival Jay-Z co-headlined by Beyoncé herself. Buzzworthy trap climbers Lil Baby and Gunna tag teamed their way into the Billboard 200’s upper rung, making them essential guests on what seems like dozens of subsequent singles, albums, and mixtapes for the remainder of the year. One week brought the intergenerational codeine swap meet of Future and Juice WRLD while another partnered up cloud rap survivor Curren$y with Midwest lyricist Freddie Gibbs. Producer showcases exploded the phenomenon altogether, with Metro Boomin’s Not All Heroes Wear Capes obsessively collecting Hot 100 hit-making rappers like coveted Pokemon critters. Hell, even The Diplomats got back together.
Further magnifying matters, some record labels made sport out of being prolific. G.O.O.D. Music kicked off a much ballyhooed six week experiment of successive mini-albums with imprint president Pusha T’s DAYTONA and wrapped with Teyana Taylor’s buzzworthy dark horse K.T.S.E. With less fanfare and, admittedly, a more reliable schedule, Quality Control Music has kept the autumn on lock with new full-lengths and EPs from its stable of talents including Lil Baby and Lil Yachty along with solo sets from two of the three Migos.
Event albums begat event albums begat even more event albums. That blockbuster spirit inevitably manifested as actual movie soundtracks, often with key rappers as executive producers. Mere months before winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music for last year’s DAMN., Kendrick Lamar turned the Black Panther soundtrack into a glorified Top Dawg Entertainment compilation. Coupled with the fanfare around the Afrocentric comic book film, it shot to the top of the Billboard 200. Coinciding with an altogether unwanted reboot of the 1970s cult exploitation flick, Future’s Superfly featured a dozen of his songs, comprising about half of the record’s total run time. Less effective in the category were soundtracks for the Rocky Balboa Cinematic Universe’s Creed 2, helmed by Mike Will Made It, and the Pepsi Max brand extension vehicle Uncle Drew, which included good enough tracks by A$AP Ferg, G-Eazy, and Wiz Khalifa.
At times, things got kinda weird, as should be expected when dealing with such creative profusion. Snoop Dogg compiled a whole gospel album, with appearances by notable vocalists Kim Burrell and Marvin Sapp alongside ones from his usual suspects Daz Dillinger and Uncle Charlie Wilson. Channeling his inner Clarence Carter, the Baton Rouge native Boosie Badazz dropped an hour’s worth of relatively conventional blues tunes, a decidedly hard left turn away from his typical trill fare. Zaytoven brought out pop icon Usher for an eight-song tribute to Atlanta, Lupe Fiasco concocted a movie-length audio fantasia about African slaves who survived sinkings by adapting to undersea life, and Tyga outed himself as a possible furry with the cover art to his pre-comeback flop Kyoto. Even Golden Age godhead Slick Rick slid into Mariah Carey’s (!!!) mentions with a low-key verse for her Caution highlight “Giving Me Life.”
While there’s no disputing that 2018 delivered in terms of quantity, quality was much harder to come by. More often than not, it seemed like labels and rappers were dumping hard drives worth of material onto the market, inundating listeners with a supply that obviously outpaced demand and our capacity to receive. In addition to the Superfly soundtrack and his WRLD On Drugs collab, Future dropped the Zaytoven-produced Beastmode 2, another eleven songs for DJ Esco’s Kolorblind, and features for everyone from Freebandz affiliates Doe Boy and Young Scooter to major label pals DJ Khaled and Rick Ross. Migos and Rae Sremmurd needlessly crossed the hundred minute mark with their sequels Culture II and SR3MM, each overstuffed with the unsubtle intent to game the weight given to digital consumption in both Billboard and the RIAA’s respective unit sales methodologies. The same went for Drake’s Scorpion, the latest blatant attempt by the streaming scofflaw to make every full play of his album count as 2.5 plays.
Say what you will about any of these aforementioned albums right now, but when it comes time to rank them in your iTunes record collection few if any will rise above as catalog contenders. Everything Is Love obviously brought excitement in that first weekend, but it assuredly won’t supplant The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, or The Black Album the next time some blue-checked Twitterer poses the question. Despite The Carters’ status in music, the ephemeral thrills of their record undeniably evaporated barely two weeks later when Scorpion arrived to crowd the conversation. Barely a month later, Astroworld finally hit. A week passed then Minaj’s ˆ came, followed a couple weeks later by Kamikaze.
The relentlessness of such a schedule, which obviously included dozens more projects from hip-hop artists with comparatively less fame, leaves scarcely any time to even attempt to fully appreciate these records. Apart from the most fixated of stans, who treat their factional fandoms with all the gravitas of reality show melodrama, the majority of listeners hopped around and sampled the wares at the streaming platform of their choice, perhaps weighing in online with glib one-listen reviews to demonstrate that they’d paid at least a modicum of attention. While so many rappers ruled the Billboard charts week after week, much of that success proved short-lived, with steep second week declines making the road to RIAA gold and beyond all the longer. Though problematic faves like 6ix9ine and XXXTentacion fueled hits off their legal woes and controversies, most artists found themselves quickly crowded out by the next wave of releases seven days later.
A lot of lip service has been paid to the shortness of attention spans in the social media era. Yet even if we weren’t all consuming our information in short-form videos and pithy tweets, the day still only lasts 24 hours, and only a fraction of that time can reasonably go towards listening to music. That may have made manageable EPs and sitcom-sized outings by Vince Staples, Young Thug, and others all the more enticing, but again the overall volume and steadily heavy flow of new material soon negated those projects too.
With only two New Music Fridays left in the calendar year, the amount of remaining 2018 releases continue the taxing trend. Last week brought albums by Kodak Black, Method Man, and Vic Mensa, while this one promises records by 21 Savage and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. A hip-hop soundtrack for animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is also on the way. Last minute surprises drops can’t be ruled out either, though Kanye’s twice-delayed Yandhi appears more idle threat than promise at this point.
Amid all the glut, admittedly, were some beautiful and memorable works. Noname’s coming of age word jazz odyssey Room 25 earned righteous acclaim, and the untimely passing of Mac Miller added greater gravity to his Swimming album. Hopefully something that dropped over the last 12 months connected with you enough to have staying power in your listening life. But looking back, 2018 felt like some sort of capitalist con, a calculated group effort to keep us dependent on streaming platforms backed by corporate tech giants at home and abroad. Back in the day, when sales meant physical media purchases rather than shorthand calculations guesstimating the value of a song play online, the industry wouldn’t have dared to unload this much music all at once. Now, however, they’re incentivized to force feed, leaving rap music listeners perpetually stuffed but somehow never ever satisfied.