What a year 2018 has been for music lovers.
Listeners enjoyed a buffet of diverse melodies, savoring in the choice of curating the tunes they craved as opposed to consuming more than they can digest. Rumored albums from veterans like Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V and The Carters’ first joint project battled its way to the top of our personal charts alongside music’s innovators like Noname, The Internet, Buddy, and Janelle Monae.
Within that aforementioned list of artists, a new generation of lyricists and vocalists found their footing with fans and critics alike. The rising crop of talent released projects that should motivate each of them to carve out space for forthcoming awards. While we took into account the albums released from Dec. 1, 2017 to Nov. 20, 2018, that moved us emotionally, we also checked off a list of requirements like replay value, overall production, critical reception, and cultural impact.
Here are the 30 albums (in alphabetical order, not ranked), that instilled pride in our culture, made us take a look within, and encouraged us to appreciate music all over again.
READ MORE: 25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018
‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ – 6lack
With East Atlanta Love Letter, 6lack makes heartbreak worth the replay. Over a 48-minute run time, the 14-track debut album plays like a doomed confessional for the LoveRenaissance artist, who straddles a fine line between the expectations of fame and responsibilities of fatherhood.
Born Ricardo Valdez Valentine, East Atlanta Love Letter awarded 6lack his highest charting release, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 — a 31-spot jump from his 2016 musical debut Free 6lack, which peaked at no. 34 in 2017.
Mixing his self-branded sound of R&B with a hip-hop core on “Scripture,” the project takes the East Atlanta native out of his comfort zone and further into the realm of rap, where he also harbors notable talent.
The standout, J. Cole-assisted track “Pretty Little Fears” has earned the 26-year-old his third career Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Performance, in recognition for its fusion of introspective bars and soft-trap melodies.
Over minimalist beats comprised of electric guitar riffs and bouncing synths, 6lack’s grainy vocals carry the project in all its crooning glory. Aside from his personal battles with Cupid, 6lack displays the perspective of the women he’s done wrong and makes use of spoken monologues to drive the intimate album forward.
With intros and outros courtesy of Tierra Whack, LightSkinKesisha, and mother of his daughter Jaycina Almond, 6lack takes a stylistic and captivating approach with the ins and outs of love and loyalty. — Lydia Arevalo
‘Iridescence’ – Brockhampton
On Iridescence, the boys of Brockhampton created a diverse concoction of sounds, lyrics, and stories. The 15-track project feels like a young man’s narrative about coming up through success, fame, and money. But with all those triumphs comes melancholy and emptiness. Still, there’s satisfaction in being able to pay for your mom’s phone bill, because Kevin Abstract was once “…that ni**a in a room/With no motherf**kin’ cable and no table/Now my mom call me whenever she need her car note/Cellphone, whatever bill paid too, y’all ni**as losers,” he reveals on “Fabric.”
The hip-hop collective’s transparency on wax about everything from possibly dealing with erectile dysfunction (see: “Weight”) to feelings of nostalgia and missing the simpler days, has garnered them much appeal. Iridescence ranked No. 1 on Billboard’s coveted 200 album charts. It’s a major feat that catapulted the group into ubiquity, proving they’re doing something right, especially with their last project Saturation II peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 chart. “When we dropped Saturation, we charted, and it was pretty high,” JOBA told The Fader. “It wasn’t for very long, but it was long enough to validate what we’d been trying to achieve.”
The validation surpassed all their expectations and made the world believe a new kind of American Boy Band can co-exist in today’s hip-hop landscape. Sure, there was Wu-Tang Clan, but we’ve never heard something like this before. — Richy Rosario
‘Harlan & Alondra’ – Buddy
Almost 10 years after first being discovered by Pharrell, Buddy finally got his moment to shine with the release of his debut album Harlan & Alondra. The Compton native is loyal to his city, joining Kendrick Lamar, YG and ScHoolboy Q in the wave of contemporary West Coast hip-hop artists who keep the zeitgeist of classic G-funk music alive. The album also proves to be a stellar success with six of its tracks reaching the million-streams mark on Spotify and peaking at No. 22 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.
Throughout each song, Buddy swaggers through high-energy verses about his intent to make it to the top of the industry and stay there on songs like “Shameless” and “Real Life Sh*t.” The Idle Time-rapper is also one step ahead of most up-and-coming lyricists thanks to collaborations with A-list artists like A$AP Ferg and Snoop Dogg.
Buddy is only 25 years old but is confident in what he wants as a rapper. On the track “Hey Up There,” he and featured artist Ty Dolla $ign emphasize their wish to be radio staples who are living out their creative dreams (“Pay up, pay up / Tryna get rich don’t wanna be famous / With my day ones, 75 cents to catch that bus”).
Harlon & Alondra is a modern West Coast hip-hop classic, thanks to fresh songs that give off vibes reminiscent of a late-night drive on the L.A. Freeway. — Khaaliq Crowder
‘Invasion Of Privacy’ – Cardi B
After topping the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017 with the monster hit “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B set her sights on 2018 and delivered beyond expectation. The frenzy surrounding the Bronx, NYC rapper shows no signs of halting anytime soon as the former reality TV star continues to rack up multiple accolades whilst making history in the process. With the release of her critically-acclaimed album Invasion of Privacy, the projected 2019 Grammy frontrunner dominated the Billboard Hot 100 earning 255,000 album equivalent units (103,000 of which were pure sales).
Since debuting in April, the LP has been certified double platinum by the RIAA and produced a wide variety of hit singles including “Bartier Cardi” featuring 21 Savage, “Be Careful,” “Ring” featuring Kehlani and “I Like It” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin which topped the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the entertainer’s second No. 1.
While breaking records seems like second nature to Cardi at this point, the album is atop most, if not all End of Year lists for a reason. Invasion of Privacy showcases the rapper’s infectious personality and equips listeners with flashy anthems including “Drip” featuring Migos and “Money Bag.” However, the rapper’s vulnerability remains one of her biggest strengths as Cardi lays it all out on the line, especially on “Thru Your Phone,” (“My heart is beating like it’s bleeding out / You sleepin’, you sleepin’, you sleepin’”). Presenting a fusion of sounds ranging from trap, reggaeton and R&B, Cardi B’s hunger from her mixtape days is present throughout her debut. Opening the album with a flow reminiscent of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” the Atlantic Records signee proves that she’s still that “regular, degular, shmegular” girl living her dreams on “Get Up 10.” (“And I got enough bras, y’all ain’t gotta support me / I went from rag to riches, went from WIC to lit”). Other notable standouts on the album include twerk-friendly “Bickenhead,” “She Bad” featuring YG and “I Do” featuring TDE heavyweight SZA.
Since her smash hit “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B has inched her way to the top without letting pregnancy or controversy stop her grind. As of now, Invasion of Privacy remains in the Top 5 highest selling rap/hip-hop albums in 2018 with over 1.5 million sales. While the entertainer gears up for the project’s deluxe version, if her new single “Money” is any indication, more hits and accolades will follow the modern-day Binderella. — Wanna Thompson
‘Everything Is Love’ – The Carters
On the third Saturday in June, The Carters responded. There wasn’t a need to rehash the past. We saw Beyonce grieve and heard Jay apologize, so when it came time for their collective professional offering, the result was EVERYTHING IS LOVE.
The nine-track LP ran the gamut on a host of topics all pertaining to love including the wonders of lovemaking as outlined on the seductive “SUMMER,” love for their black skin on “BLACK EFFECT” or how their own love story came about on “713.” The Carters are veterans and don’t need to cater to radio, so for anyone looking for more than their arena-rumbling “APESH*T,” the other eight tracks may leave the untrained listener writing off the album as a dub.
Beyonce and Jay-Z didn’t have to give us a joint album. Between them, we have enough music to last us well beyond our years, but EVERYTHING IS LOVE, more than their respective individual projects, showed that pain is temporary but forgiveness can be eternal. — Shenequa Golding
‘Scorpion’ – Drake
In this new wave of fast-paced music, a double-disc album seems rather exhausting, but then again, when you hear it’s Drake, his die-hards would happily oblige.
Drake was able to conquer a double-disc strategy by showcasing his dual artistry — a side that primarily focuses on crisp rhymes about being the most hated or attacked rapper in the game and another flexing emotionally-rich vibes, usually targeted at his girl of the hour.
While Drake addressed the headlines with songs like “March 14,” which confirmed rumors of his son, the project is also spangled with gems like “In My Feelings” and “Nice for What” (which paid homage to NOLA) and instantly became twerk classics and brunch bops. Drake clearly has his finger on the pulse. He was obviously forced to ponder the idea of fatherhood due to Pusha T’s venomous diss track “The Story of Adidon,” but in light of his ongoing feud, he was able to funnel his energy into strongly produced anthems which proved that even when he is the loser in rap battles, he is a winner in the eyes of fans and music metrics.
Say what you want about Drizzy himself, but Scorpion demonstrates the rapper’s iconicity, not by the individual songs, but by what the project was able to accomplish as a whole in the midst of all the chaos. — Jessica McKinney
‘Ella Mai’ – Ella Mai
From YouTube to record labels, Ella Mai’s self-titled debut album is a shining star in her success story. Following the release of her smash single “Boo’d Up” and the remix-inspiring “Trip,” Mai began to garner attention when her tracks peaked at the No. 5 and No. 11 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, respectively. After spending 35 weeks on the boards, “Boo’d Up” earned the rising songstress her first two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Song and Song Of The Year. A smaller standout in Mai’s junior project, the 23-year-old also brings back traditional R&B with John Legend on “Everything,” a track that meshes the strong vocals of the two singers over a low-tempo love song.
The accolades kept pouring in for Mai when her self-titled LP attained platinum status two weeks after its premiere. Executive-produced by DJ Mustard, Ella Mai documents the singer’s take on love, sex, and emotion. The 55-minute audio experience also plays on the poetic skills honed by the British artist. Spelling out her short-winded moniker, E-L-L-A M-A-I, the letters influence brief verses associated with self-love, lust, adoration, and affection. Although the 10 Summers/Interscope Records-signee collaborates with R&B heavyweights like Chris Brown, H.E.R., and more, Ella Mai is a cohesive sound through-and-through and a worthy addition to the notable R&B albums of 2018. — Zoe Johnson
‘Lovers Rock’ – Estelle
After focusing on other aspects of entertainment since True Romance’s 2015 debut, Estelle agreed it was time to feed fans a melodic platter to satisfy their appetites. On the Steven Universe actor’s Lovers Rock album (VP Records/Established 1980 Records), the English songbird presented listeners to track-after-track of sounds derived from reggae, afrobeats, and dancehall.
“So Easy” featuring Luke James sets the tone effortlessly by ushering you into a 48-minute escape to Estelle’s version of love at its most transparent. In an interview with VIBE, she shared the album was inspired by her parents’ relationship, but throughout the process, Lovers Rock proved to mimic the “American Boy” singer’s personal life when it comes to intimate partnerships.
That sentiment is felt on “Love Like Ours,” “Lights Out,” and the outro “Good For Us.” You can’t help but feel hopeful listening to the album, which is partly thanks to the rhythms that lay within. Just try to not tap your foot to “Ain’t Yo Bi**h,” but don’t hurt yourself trying to fight it. “Slow Down” is another deep cut with Alicai Harley that will encourage you to look up the next and nearest party. The bass line on “Karma” with HoodCelebrityy doesn’t go unnoticed while their lyrics reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” also ring loud and clear.
For Estelle’s fans, Lovers Rock could easily soundtrack the end to their 2018. — Camille Augustin
‘Hive Mind’ – The Internet
What makes The Internet such a captivating group in the digital-era of urban music is how palatable and timeless their tunes come off.
The Los Angeles-based band never rode the coattails of the current subgenres that make up the face of today’s R&B such as trap&B, talk-singing or springy hip-hop. Instead, the five-piece band opts for a simplistic approach to their album’s production while still leaving a considerable impression.
On their 2018 effort Hive Mind, the group infuses funk, neo-soul, quiet storm, and light jazz, musical cues from black music’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. The icing on the album’s cake is lead vocalist Syd, who identifies as queer. She sweet-talks and flirts with women throughout the 13-track effort, as much of Hive Mind follows the theme of romantic longing.
Highlights include the head-nodding, ‘70s wah-wah licks of “La Di Da,” the stompy beats of “Come Over,” where Syd’s breathy vocals lay over a smooth jazz-rhythm guitar, and the ‘80s roller-skating bop “Roll (Burbank Funk).”
Hive Mind proved to be a step-up in the commercial success for the Odd Future-founded band, becoming their first album to reach the top 40 of the Billboard Pop charts. — Khaaliq Crowder
‘KOD’ – J. Cole
J. Cole’s fifth album took rap method acting to the next level. The enlightening KOD centered on a few meanings at the time of its creation like “Kill Our Demons,” “King Overdosed” and “Kids on Drugs.” Addiction keeps all these ties bound as lust lies on tracks like the telling “Kevin’s Heart” while “KOD” mocks the troubling trends of drugs in and out of the industry.
In between the bars, Cole refuses to take on the role of a preacher. Instead, he emulates the despised figures. On “ATM,” his meta approach is heard while mocking those on a victory lap to fame and fortune. In addition to laying out his fears on “Window Pain,” his most destructive traits are echoed as kiLL edward, his alter ego on “The Cut Off” and “FRIENDS.” The biggest takeaway was the fireside chat that was “1985,” his rebuttal to artists like Lil Pump who used his name for trolling purposes. This might be one of the most effective diss tracks in this decade as Cole provided Pump with a therapy session shortly afterward.
Cole continues to live in his own world without losing sight of the game evolving around him by delivering one of his most well-rounded albums yet. KOD is a movie with social undertones of financial literacy, black mortality and Cole’s fate in the game. The album was adored by fans, giving the rapper his fifth No. 1 album and scoring a gold plaque just 24 days after its release. We may never get a Cole this honest again, but at least we learned about the joys of meditation and most importantly, the triumph of emotional healing. — Desire Thompson
‘DiCaprio 2’ – J.I.D
One year after captivating the music industry with his debut album, The Never Story, J.I.D took over 2018’s fourth quarter with his critically acclaimed sophomore album DiCaprio 2. Inspired by his favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the 14-track LP is more like a compilation of different stories from his past that were enticing enough to make the Billboard 200 chart.
With production from Dreamville’s go-to beatmaker Elite, J. Cole, Wondagurl, the late Mac Miller, and others, the East Atlanta native ensured the follow-up to his 2015 DiCaprio EP would supersede the first with unforeseen collaborations and memorable tracks like “151 Rum,” “Off The Zoinkys” and “Slick Talk.” Throughout the album, J.I.D manipulates his unique rapid-fire flow into rare festival-ready songs like “Off Deez” featuring Cole and DJ Drama, who also hosted the LP. Other artists like A$AP Ferg, Ella Mai, 6lack, Joey Bad$$ and Method Man also join J.I.D for his most enrapturing album of his career.
His melodious record “Skrawberries” featuring BJ The Chicago Kid stands out as a smooth track for the ladies as well as “Tiiied” with 6lack and Ella Mai. Meanwhile, other intoxicating B-side bangers like the A$AP Ferg-assisted “Westbrook” and “Hot Box” — the album’s anthem for every weed connoisseur featuring Joey Bada$$ and Method Man — shows us that the Spillage Village lyricist from ATL can keep up with two generations of MCs who were born and raised near the birthplace of hip-hop.
Overall, DiCaprio 2 serves as a clear example of J.I.D’s sonic versatility and solid proof of the 28-year-old’s potential longevity in hip-hop. — Tony Centeno
‘Village’ – Jacob Banks
For those who by the end of 2018 are still unfamiliar with Jacob Banks, the Birmingham, England singer-songwriter whose vocals could damn near cut through a piece of timber, we offer our condolences. Many housed on U.S. soil were likely introduced to Banks’ robust artistry via the STARZ hit show Power, where two of his songs, “Unknown (To You)” and “Unholy War,” were featured on the soundtrack. The textured growl of this six-foot-some-odd man’s voice is enticing and one that, for some, may take some getting used to. But Banks’ full-length debut Village is all balm, no bite, meant only to soothe.
“Kumbaya,” “Be Good To Me,” “Witness” and “Peace of Mind” smooth down the rough edges singles like “Unknown” and “Chainsmoker” provide. Evidence of the British-Nigerian’s diasporic roots pulse throughout the electric “Keeps Me Going” and even the sunny “Mexico,” while the festive sway of “Prosecco” offers added bounce. While the album seems to hold Banks’ own personal experiences at an arm’s length (or, at most, it elicits a cooler sense of familiarity than we’re used to on a debut album), there is a palpable tenderness tucked into the folds of “Slow Up” and “Nostalgia.”
While not yet a Billboard chart record-breaker, when the time comes for Banks to look back on a career well spent, Village will hold up as a shining example of a running start. (Banks has already scored placements for major movies like Fifty Shades Freed, The Equalizer 2 and Creed II). — Stacy-Ann Ellis
‘Dirty Computer’ – Janelle Monae
In an era where the civil liberties of minorities are threatened each day, Janelle Monae’s artistically-ambitious third studio album, Dirty Computer, is a welcome “F-U” to the patriarchal powers that be. The 14-track project also serves as a testament to the importance of being true to oneself.
Through thematic exploration and genre-hopping between energetic pop, Prince-plucked funk and hip-hop that radiates electric feminine energy, the LP—which peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Album Chart to nearly universal-acclaim—allowed Monae’s true self to shine through without the guise of her longtime Archandroid persona Cindi Mayweather.
In early-2018, Monae opened up about identifying as a queer woman, and her candid, sexual liberation is front-and-center on tracks like “Don’t Judge Me,” “Make Me Feel,” and “Pynk”; the latter two songs were accompanied by viral music videos which both have garnered over 10 million views apiece. Throughout the album, it’s evident that Monae also wants her fans to tap into their own independence and “Crazy, Classic” freedom via self-love anthems like “Americans,” “I Like That” and the Pharrell-assisted “I Got The Juice.”
To omit Dirty Computer on this list of the year’s best albums would be an irresponsible miss on our part. Society needs more rabble-rousers with high positions of influence to stand up and declare their unapologetic approaches to life while inspiring others, especially in the music world. Much like her idol Prince, Janelle Monae’s ability to stick it to the man through her artistry is well-needed, powerful and very much appreciated. — J’na Jefferson
‘Redemption’ – Jay Rock
On Redemption, TDE’s first frontman Jay Rock is stuck between the lavish trappings of being a rapper and a man with a troubled past. But more than anything, the Watts native is thankful for his accomplishments. “Dear God, I wanna thank you for this bad bi**h I got on my side/Dear God, I wanna thank you for letting me be a real ni**a/Dear God, I wanna thank you for giving me a second chance,” he spits on “Knock It Off.” While he’s grateful that a higher divine power has been his saving grace, his past demons have made malicious segues into his vulnerable psyche.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to rap or still be in the streets,” he told Billboard earlier this year. “I was straddling the fence.” Amid the deep introspection, Rock — born Johnny Reed McKinzie, Jr. — makes room for some fun midway throughout the album, with assistance from Jeremih on “Tap Out” and Future, James Blake, and his TDE label-mate Kendrick Lamar on “King’s Dead.”
Redemption’s production is laced with mellow trap-infused beats, small hints of raw instrumentation, and a laid-back West Coast feel, making you feel like you’re under a gazillion palm trees inside a smokey bungalow with chill vibes.
Above the stellar production value, Rock’s lyrical prowess makes leaps into great storytelling. Who else gives you a stark visual of his homies doing pushups in a cell, while flaunting the number of dead presidents in his bank account? — Richy Rosario
‘Tha Carter V’ – Lil Wayne
While sitting on a black leather couch underneath a pink neon “Tunechi” sign, Wayne gave his two days’ notice. It was part of a savvy release strategy (see also his kids’ promotion of the #UproarChallenge) that highlighted how much work he’d put into the project (nearly five years of recording!) and effectively washed away the repeated setbacks and seven years of largely-forgettable releases we’d gotten since the last Carter installment. Wayne had our attention, finally, plus a new album prepared to hold it and secure his fourth No. 1 on The Billboard 200 chart.
Tha Carter V is front-loaded with such ferocity, lyrical prowess, speed, personality — all peak Wayne traits — that it was easy to forget he hadn’t sounded this charged in quite some time. The early sequence of songs between the dazzling, dexterous, and playful first verse of “Dedicate” and the equally-proficient and fascinating second verse of “Can’t Be Broken” (which also includes the Swizz Beatz’-produced standout “Uproar”) is one of the best of Wayne’s career, and his extraordinary gifts for delivery, cadence, and wit are as captivating as ever throughout the record.
While over the course of its 23 tracks, it certainly lacks some cohesion both in its sonics and its sequencing. A seamless album isn’t what Wayne is after. What he’s created is a compilation of what’s made him so prolific: his wordplay, his storytelling, his introspection, or — in most cases — just his exceptionally charismatic and talented self. — Jeff Baird
‘Swimming’ – Mac Miller
Although he recently earned his first Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album, Mac Miller’s Swimming LP was a highly underrated project following its initial release. Premiering in August 2018, the 58-minute odyssey documents Miller’s high-profile break-up and other battles within his personal life.
“Self Care,” the album’s fan favorite and leading track, speaks to the healing process’ slow and tedious parts as the 26-year-old tries to prepare for life’s unpredictability. Throughout the 13-track playlist, Miller attempts to turn the somber lemons life has gifted him into lemonade. “Hurt Feelings” is a testament to that lemons-to-lemonade approach on this J. Cole produced track dedicated to self-improvement.
Despite Miller’s untimely death, the “Donald Trump” emcee’s final album breathes new life into the artistry he left behind. A month after its debut, the LP shot from No. 71 to No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart. Produced by Larry Fisherman — the late rapper’s alias — guest vocals by Dev Hynes, J. Cole, Syd, Snoop Dogg, J.I.D, and Thundercat make his final project one to remember, showing that the rapper was surrounded by great friends.
Following Miller’s premature passing, dialogue sprouted within the hip-hop community on topics like depression, drug use, and opioid addiction. Speaking openly about his drug addiction, Mac Miller mentioned his fears of overdosing and his battles with staying clean. Swimming dove deep into the Pittsburgh native’s heart with repeated themes of evolution and sadness. — Zoe Johnson
‘Lady Lady’ – Masego
Welcome to Masego’s world of “TrapHouseJazz.” The second you hit play on the singer-songwriter’s debut album, Lady Lady, you get the sense you’ve been invited into something special. On this release, the Jamaica-born, Virginia-raised artist not only pays homage to women but also offers his ponderings on love.
Masego showcases his comedic side on the Kehlani-assisted “24-Hr. Relationship,” an interlude inspired by Andre 3000’s “Where are My Panties,” and on “Old Age,” a song prompted by his past relationship with an older woman. Then, there’s the smooth groove “Queen Tings,” on which he shouts out women he admires including Solange Knowles, Lupita Nyong’o, Regina Hall, Danai Gurira, Sharon Leal and Rashida Jones. Masego’s skills as a multi-instrumentalist are on full display on his lead single, “Tadow,” which closes out the album. If you’re not moved, then you must not be listening.
Track after track, Masego offers listeners a chance to step into a musical space that’s romantic, chill and fun. Lyrics that are at times playful then seductive are paired with silky notes and resounding beats throughout this underrated classic, an album that should draw more praise as new listeners discover it. After its release in September 2018, the 13-track effort landed on four Billboard charts, boasting collaborations with SiR, Tiffany Gouche, Ari Lennox, De’Wayne Jackson, and FKJ.
On Lady Lady, R&B, trap, hip-hop, and jazz coexist, and it’s clear Masego and his unique vocals bring something to the table that’s fresh, mature and entirely his own. — Macy Freeman
‘Championships’ – Meek Mill
“Meek Mill raps too loud,” was the jokey consensus a while back. Now, with the release of his fourth studio album Championships it’s, “Meek Mill raps really well…and loud.” All jokes aside, it’s refreshing to see a rapper in his young prime, four albums deep, and getting better at his craft.
Championships presents Meek at his best lyrically. It showcases a hardcore/hood rapper that has many dimensions to his plight, navigating the dual worlds of corporate structure and street corner politics.
To understand Meek’s wild world of sorts, you only have to do a quick search on “prison reform” and “rapper from Philly.” He is the poster child for black and brown individuals that are unfairly treated by our judicial and correctional institutions. Meek’s unfortunate jailing in November 2017 to his release in April 2018 sparked songs like the haunting “Trauma,” the hard-knock life “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies,” and the Biggie-inspired “What’s Beef?” beat featuring Rick Ross and verse of the year candidate Jay-Z on “What’s Free?” On the latter, the hustler trinity highlights the ills of society and how the world is stacked up against poor and rich black people. An interesting take on the ways Jay-Z, in particular, can acquire tracks and turn rap bars into deathblows of fire on any topic he desires is fascinating. Meek’s learning from his close relationship with the Roc Nation head honcho and finally bears the fruit of their bond.
All of the features have a purpose on Championships. Ella Mai brings that sexy tone on “24/7” to 21 Savage adding to Meek’s bolstered up bad man chants on “Pay You Back.” All are welcomed, yet the slight for some purists is the knock that Meek leaned heavily on some mainstay hip-hop samples that other rappers made famous. Namely, “What’s Beef” by Biggie and “Politics As Usual” by Jay-Z, among others. In a past rap life, that would be frowned upon, but Meek holds his own on these classics and steps to the plate to hit home runs on the faves of flavor.
Regardless of song flips, let’s be glad someone is willing to give us that good ole hip-hop that makes you feel rather than cringe. Meek dispelled that tough guy for tough guy sake bravado and dug deep through his collection of foul experiences with his current lifestyle to expose the underbelly of prison corruption. Salute to the voice of the streets’ growth and gains in artistry. — Datwon Thomas
‘Victory Lap’ – Nipsey Hussle
What happens when a gang member/rapper turns his energy and street smarts toward business and wealth building? You get the L.A. boss Nipsey Hussle at the best he’s ever been on an album with a winning title to match.
No one prophesized the ultimate success of Victory Lap when it debuted in February 2018. All we knew as a community of longtime Nipsey followers was that he finally made the album his talent grew into. His previous projects showed he could make car bumpers and thug motivation anthems, yet they weren’t as amplified, totally informed and confident as the voice Nipsey amplified on Victory Lap.
On his official first major label album — now nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy — we have a man consumed with being victorious over his naysayers, hood haters and anyone else (eh hem, Donald Trump) not aligning with the young king.
There is also an air about the album…a millionaire air. Nipsey speaks about financial gain, community service and putting his foot in your a** if you mess around. All of these themes are fluid throughout. Where you can sense a push for respect, you can tell he doesn’t need it to get what he’s aiming for which is the bag and the opportunity to create for his people.
An entrepreneur in these modern-day madness times is a hard role to amplify but he does it smoothly. With what was once an abrasive chant, pause, shout flow style which stifled his cadence, is now a trademark of sorts for the ones that lock in and rock out. The beats are West Coast-y to prime radio yet raw. New tones for Nipsey to flow over challenges his style, but the fact that he added real spitters like Kendrick Lamar, Dom Kennedy and YG to the mix made Nip step his game up even more. The track listing is a bit long and could be trimmed for a hard impact but it’s mild in comparison to a man doing his zone work and letting it live in length.
The Grammy board has a real one in the building for February’s telecast. Everyone will be waiting to see if Nipsey shouts “Damn it feels good to be a gangster,” while receiving the award. — Datwon Thomas
‘Room 25’ – Noname
There’s an existential rebirth that occurs after heartache. Thrust into emotional fragility when abandoned, the trust of deflowering is no longer gleamed as sacred, but rather gutting when there’s loss behind the love. Following her 2015 debut Telefone, the tightrope act teetering between pure and conscious, Noname opens the portal into Room 25, an orchestra-driven inundation within the depths of looking-glass self and unrequited love.
There’s a vintage air to Room 25, beginning with the soulful wails of “Self,” in which Noname prepares listeners for what’s bound to become the molding of the album (Maybe this your answer for that good p***y/I know ni**as only talk about money and good p***y). Somersaulting headfirst into the chilling enigma of “Blaxploitation,” Noname peers into the stereotypes of black Americans that even ’70s-nostalgic forefathers Digable Planets and Camp Lo would tip their hats to.
After the dust has settled, lost ones find their way to the pulpit during the nighttime revival of “Prayer Song,” exposing America’s façade of freedom and the trauma of police brutality. Assertiveness is also a relational factor that Noname knows all too well, as she plans to replace the cover of Room 25, originally created by artist Bryant Giles after he was accused of domestic abuse and rape. Despite the gray cloud that seems to follow Noname in reality and on wax, she still allows light spots to shine through, escaping the misery of a previous relationship by rendezvousing with a travel companion on “Montego Bae.” Fellow Chicagoan Ravyn Lenae replicates Noname’s flow on the chorus, but her sopranic caresses are unmistakable.
A card table cypher with Smino and Saba ensues on “Ace” celebrating their humble beginnings and the places it’s taken them, but Noname doubles back into the original pace of the album (“I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out”). Resting on the edge of survival and oblivion, Noname seemingly pens her own eulogy, isolated in the false reverie of Los Angeles, away from the familial comfort of home. The crux of Room 25 stems from the harp pluckings of “Window,” and if you listen too lightly, you’ll almost mistake it for a fairytale. Instead, violins corral Noname into a recollection of a full-speed relationship that sent her flying, eventually landing into a pit of despair. Sparring with the past, Noname comes to accept her journey, locking the door of Room 25 as a solace to heal. — Jaelani Turner-Williams
‘Daytona’ – Pusha T
Drama and theatrics surrounded the string of Kanye West releases this summer: star-studded listening parties in varied locations, music being completely scrapped days before deadline (Ye), and releases that artists themselves weren’t happy with (Teyana Taylor).
But despite sparking the biggest beef of the year, Pusha T’s DAYTONA was notably drama-free: just sharp, nose-numbing rap by one of the best to ever do it. Pusha is in top form with his signature steely, luxurious drug raps on songs like “If You Know You Know” and “The Games We Play,” while the angry, ominous “Santeria,” which pays homage to his slain tour manager De’Von “Day Day” Pickett, adds a bit of unexpected emotional depth.
DAYTONA is also the only release of the year where Kanye truly sounds at the top of his game, providing his appointed G.O.O.D. Music president with a collection of soundscapes that are focused and dynamic all at once. Kanye’s seven-song credo also helps DAYTONA the most out of all the releases he produced this year, with its lean 21-minute play length distilling the younger Thornton brother to his most potent and cutting out anything unnecessary.
Pusha isn’t going to bring many surprises, but predictability doesn’t mean much when you can’t stop what’s in his path. — William Ketchum
‘There You Have It’ – Reason
TDE is one of the best crews in music: Kendrick Lamar is touting Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize, ScHoolboy Q has his own gold and platinum plaques, Jay Rock is one of the most respected street rappers in the biz, and SZA became a star in her own right in 2017, with the whole group eating off of the acclaimed Black Panther soundtrack.
But along with that respect from the prospering members comes expectations for its new associates — and REASON, the latest TDE signee, exceeds those expectations with flying colors. There You Have It, according to the Carson, Calif., spitter’s VIBE Next interview, is the same mixtape that convinced Top Dawg to sign him, and it’s clear why he made the decision. REASON uses his gruff, smoky voice to deliver rhymes that are more striking because of their conviction and energy than they are for their cleverness.
Single “Better Dayz” sees REASON somberly regretting the need to cut off friends and family members whose path diverts from his own; the Usher-sampling “Situations” chronicles him creeping on his girl while knowing that she doesn’t deserve it; and “State We In” fearfully wonders if his son will turn out like Trayvon Martin.
But the most stunning moment of the album is “Colored Dreams,” where REASON depicts a man in prison for murder writing a regretful letter to his mother and his brother, who was slain for following the same path that his brother set him on. The song is one of the most stirring you’ll hear all year. “It’s so much to get up off my chest, but that’s when I flow best,” REASON rhymes on “State We In.” Luckily, he lets us listen in. — William Ketchum
‘Book Of Ryan’ – Royce da 5’9″
Royce Da 5’9’s Book of Ryan is a sonic testimony of the clarity the 41-year-old MC has been searching for years. From the second you crack open the audiobook — inspired by his son’s query — the Detroit native pours his scarring life stories on wax.
The PRhyme rapper fills up each page in his life prose by rehashing the scandals and madness that transpired from his childhood into adulthood. Touching skits and heart-wrenching songs like “Cocaine,” “God Speed” and even the album’s lead single “Boblo Boat” featuring J. Cole paint a vivid picture. In an effort to put his battle with alcoholism behind him, Royce also delivers powerful records like “Stay Woke” in which he reflects on his extensive journey to sobriety and embraces the last five, alcohol-free years.
With critical tracks like “Dumb,” Royce topped off his most brutally honest album with “Caterpillar,” arguably one of the hardest singles of 2018. With production by S1 and Epikh Pro, the former Slaughterhouse spitter goes off on a tangent with savage bars alongside Eminem, King Green, and Logic, who hopped on the LP’s bonus remix track.
Despite the album’s deep and personal themes, Royce was able to rely on several iconic rappers and singers to contribute to the project like Pusha T, Jadakiss, Fabolous, Marsha Ambrosius, Robert Glasper, T-Pain and more. Producers like Streetrunner, !llmind, Boi-1da, Mr. Porter, Cool-N-Dre, Key Wane, AntMan Wonder, and Frank Dukes also bring Royce’s metamorphic stories to life, not only for his fans but also for his own heir. — Tony Centeno
‘Care For Me’ – Saba
Saba hopped on the fast track with 2016’s Bucket List Project, putting himself at the forefront of a blossoming scene of Chicago youngsters making creative, emotionally resonant hip-hop. But when your best friend dies, the world stops, and on Care For Me, an ode to his slain cousin/best friend, Saba conveys grief better than any politician or online debater’s contrived “but what about the violence in Chicago?” quips ever could.
“Jesus died for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat,” he angrily shouts on the somber album opener “BUSY / SIRENS,” wondering aloud how long he’s suffered from depression before this all happened and where he’s going from here. “I’m trying to cope, but it’s a part of me gone, in this packed room I’m alone.” The rest of the album finds Saba questioning his spiritual beliefs, tracking the issues he’s had before and since his friend’s death, and looking to make sense of it all.
The quotables here are aplenty, though they focus less on wit and more on heart. “I tell Death to keep a distance, I think he obsessed with me,” he pleads on “LIFE.” “I ain’t mad at God, I just can’t get out of bed,” he tries to convince himself on “CALLIGRAPHY.” But the emotional climax of the album is the penultimate “PROM / KING,” which sees Saba telling the story of how he and Walt got close as high school kids, before transitioning into a panicky recollection of finding out that he was in trouble years later.
Saba’s grief is palpable, but thankfully, he relied on his pen to get him through it — and, hopefully, his powerful writing can help others process their pain as well. — William Ketchum
‘November’ – SiR
At the top of 2018, Darryl Farris quietly released what would become one the year’s smoothest albums with November. Known by his stage name SiR, the loc’d up singer-songwriter and pianist opened the passenger side door for all listeners and took them for a ride down the 405 Freeway.
To describe the formal freshman debut as chill may be predictable, but it’s also the best definition of an album laced with an intentional, but not overbearing energy. As a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York, anxiety is budgeted into the utility bill. Some people enjoy the relaxation of weed, I’ve never fancied it. But November offers a high, or better yet, a sense of calm my “colorful” Crown Heights neighbors continuously deny me.
Mr. Farris didn’t lean on the help of too many features. ScHoolboy Q makes an appearance on “Something Foreign” while British singer-songwriter Etta Bond appears on “Something New.” Everything else is intimately shared between the Inglewood native and the listener. Top Dawg Entertainment is a stacked roster with quality being the bare minimum, and artistry acting as the expectation. SiR delivered that and more with his 11-track opus. It’s unfortunate more of the world didn’t take notice. But it’s cool, an I told you so is also a dope high. — Shenequa Golding
‘K.T.S.E.’ – Teyana Taylor
Four years, a marriage, an adorable baby girl and a shift in sound led us to Teyana Taylor’s sophomore album K.T.S.E. As the final rollout in Kanye West’s Wyoming Sessions, the album featured heavy rhythm and soul influences thanks to a variety of R&B samples from the doo-wop vibes of the Delfonics, the soulful spirit of Billy Stewart and the sensuality of Sisqo. But the samples don’t drown out Teyana’s raspy melodies. In a world where situationships and toxic relationships are mirrored as goals, tracks like “Gonna Love Me” and “Issues/Hold On” are reminders that love can bloom in the digital age.
Like we mention in our R&B Songs list, “Gonna Love Me” lays accountability of a love waned on both parts while “3Way” opens up Pandora’s box of curiosity. “Rose In Harlem” was a clear standout and somewhat of a foreshadow of what happened with Jeremih over their tour and Kanye West for his swift choice to release her album without planned samples (Sade’s “By Your Side”) and an outro by Ms. Lauryn Hill. In the end, Teyana has stuck by her work by releasing nostalgic remixes (“Gonna Love Me” with Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Raekwon) and lively sets.
People around her may have switched up but at least the talented star kept that same energy. — Desire Thompson
‘Whack World’ – Tierra Whack
2018 has been an interesting year for rap/hip-hop and you can thank Tierra Whack for that. The born and bred Philly rapper, originally known as Dizzle Dizz, is without a doubt one of the most talented voices to emerge in the last few years, whose creativity is on par with her distinctive wordplay. Not a stranger to excellence, the rapper released an equally stunning visual titled “MUMBO JUMBO” in 2017 that is quickly approaching 500,000 views.
Dazzling the internet with her critically-acclaimed debut album, Whack World, Tierra invites us on a visually stunning trip into a universe that is uniquely hers. Presenting 15 tracks exactly one minute each, the album differentiates itself from the traditional format and successfully satiates your musical palate despite the length. To reduce Whack World to just an album forfeits the brilliance of Tierra’s creative prowess which many believe mirror the legendary Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes’ visual concepts. Earning over two million views on YouTube, the vignettes showcase a wide variety of shapes and dimensions, reminiscent of the pastel color palette in the Tim Burton classic Edward Scissorhands.
Serving as a recurring theme throughout the audiovisual album, Tierra masterfully conveys the art of surrealism and fantasy. While there are various standouts on the EP, “Bugs Life,” “Flea Market,” “Pet Cemetery” and “Fruit Salad” are personal favorites. Mesmerizing both in sound and sight, Whack poetically sings and raps about love, loss and familial ties that take listeners on emotional highs and lows. On “Pretty Ugly” Tierra laments about her “ugly” flow being the reason why people are intrigued by her, despite the peculiarity (“Bet you ain’t heard no flow like this / Make you say yo excuse me miss / Go against me I’ll beat like Swizz / I like my paper nice and crisp“). In a recent interview, Tierra spoke about her sound and why she likes to deviate from the norm. “In the industry, you’re told that you have to stick to one sound, but that’s boring to me. So I’m like, ‘Yo, I have to give people a taste of everything.’ I’m thinking about myself performing live, and I don’t wanna do the same type of song 10 or 20 times. I wanna mix it up.”
While Whack World is rightfully being heralded as one of the best albums of the year that deserves every inch of praise and glory, namely for the production and rhythmical flows, I anticipate the whimsical world Tierra Whack plans to reveal to us next. — Wanna Thompson
‘Astroworld’ – Travis Scott
Travis Scott‘s rockstar demeanor was cemented in hip-hop history with the release of ASTROWORLD. Coming in as the second-largest debut of the year, ASTROWORLD was the 26-year-old’s third platinum album and most refined project in his five-year discography.
Spending two consecutive weeks at No. 1, ASTROWORLD has remained within the top 10 on the Billboard charts since its August 2018 release. Thanks to all-new merch bundles — that arguably awarded Scott his first crown — his latest studio effort reclaimed its spot and jumped back to the top spot.
Pulling its title from a since-shuttered Houston amusement park, the H-town native let his nostalgia drive the record and deliver a body of work that strays further from his drug-induced song-singing and closer to a more personal, bar-driven La Flame.
Standout tracks “Sicko Mode” and “Stop Trying To Be God” recruit music’s most talented faces, including Drake, Kid Cudi, Stevie Wonder, Philip Bailey, and James Blake, ultimately pushing Scott’s artistic boundaries to new levels.
After a slur of swirling synths, fuzzy guitar lines, and mid-song beat changes, outro-track “Coffee Bean” stands in juxtaposition with the rest of the project, adding daydream-like boom-bap to the long list of nightmarish sounds that already embody the Travis Scott experience.
Sonically, the album explores eerie territory in its well-fitting yet unexpected arrangements. Packed with showy samples and all-star features, Scott boasts solid skills as a music curator. — Lydia Arevalo
‘Black Panther: The Album’ – Various Artists
Given the record-shattering success of Black Panther, it was only fitting that the Grammy-nominated soundtrack matches the film’s intensity. Under the direction of award-winning artist Kendrick Lamar and his label home Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), the collective called upon music’s most creative names to take a spin on sounds grown from Africa’s soil.
Saudi, Zacari, SOB X RBE, Mozzy, Babes Wodumo, and others from different musical regions blended their styles with chart-toppers like Travis Scott, Khalid, Anderson .Paak, Vince Staples, SZA and her other TDE label-mates Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul. During the film’s production in South Africa, director Ryan Coogler found a striking commonality between those directly from the continent and blacks on American turf. While he interpreted his captivating revelation in the Marvel flick, the soundtrack aimed to keep those sentiments alive in music form.
Black Panther: The Album enlisted the lyrical support of SA’s finest like Sjava, Eugene Blakrok, and the aforementioned Babes Wodumo and Saudi. The instrumentation on the project also documents the continent’s rich and historic melodic inventions. The Djembe drums felt throughout the title track to “X” blended with the strings and bass line of “Bloody Waters” and “Seasons.” There’s the heartbeat-rhythm of “Redemption Interlude” before it leads into its full-length version. Even the flute chords on “Big Shot” are reminiscent of the Lekgodilo African harmonic flute, showing that each melody on this soundtrack pays homage to the base of civilization.
If Wakanda is as futuristic yet pragmatic as depicted in Black Panther, then this soundtrack is a positive sign that the music of the future will look to its past for inspiration and collaboration. — Camille Augustin
‘Stay Dangerous’ – YG
YG’s third studio album, Stay Dangerous, is a melting pot of reflective, funny, and flashy tracks paired with club-friendly beats, which particularly boom through your speakers thanks to DJ Mustard.
It’s a departure from his past projects as it focuses on his success and the challenges that follow as opposed to growing up in Compton (My Krazy Life) or his perspective on political consciousness (Still Brazy). Nevertheless, songs like “Too Cocky” keep that same bouncy energy that was present on his first albums. But for every fun single, there are also tracks that introduce layered storytelling. The Lil Rich-produced “Deeper Than Rap” is one in particular that explores beyond his career title and questions those who only have their hand out for something.
On yet another solid album from YG, Stay Dangerous demonstrates his unpredictable flows and flexes over hard-hitting instrumentals. — Jessica McKinney