Whether you’re white, black, brown, yellow, orange (we’ve gotta include that now in the Trump era), gay, straight, bisexual, male, female, shemale, pre-op, post-op, mid-op, or any of the other 70 genders, there’s one certainty of life that none of us will escape:
And like anyone else with hopes and dreams, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life disappointed. I’ve been disappointed by myself, disappointed by my friends, disappointed by my family, disappointed by my co-workers, and, of course, disappointed by musicians.
And that “musicians” part? Well, rappers have taken care of most of that so far this year.
There was Migos’ underwhelming Culture II, J. Cole’s lifeless and excessively insular KOD, there was a double Drake LP that tortured listeners by offering a promise of “Drake when he raps good” in the first 15 percent of its 90-minute runtime but quickly settled back into mediocrity, and then, perhaps most heartbreaking, there was the directionless Nas album, in which one of the greatest MCs in the history of the genre got outshined by a few Kanye beats.
But by NO MEANS is that to say I’m feeling uninspired by the genre. 2018 has also given us tons of exciting Hip-Hop to feast our ears on. Much of it made this list, while some of it– A$AP Rocky, Smoke DZA, Kids See Ghost, etc. – barely missed a spot but certainly made its presence felt.
And while this year’s XXL freshman cover made me feel incredibly old and out of touch, I’m psyched to see Hip-Hop continue to inject fresh blood and build on itself stylistically. Only a true cynic would disagree with me when I say that some of the best Rap music of all time has yet to be made.
In that same spirit, here are 10 of my favorite Hip-Hop releases of 2018 thus far! All of these artists made substantial contributions to this evolving art form that we love so much, and I want to thank them for bringing so much happiness to me and other Hip-Hop heads alike in the past few months. Keep in mind, the release date cut-off for this list is the end of June, so anything that dropped in July is not eligible. And without further ado:
10. Dave East – P2
One of several potential heirs to the NY Hip-Hop throne, Dave East makes a strong case for himself with P2, his most satisfying project yet. It only takes one listen to tracks like “Talk to Big”, “Corey”, and “I Found Keisha” to see that he’s elevated his storytelling game, and his beat selection – in particular, jazz-tinged cuts like “What Made Me” and “Powder” – continues to paint a picture of an MC obsessed with the genre’s Golden Age, and intent on reviving it in his own distinct way
9. Flatbush Zombies – Vacation in Hell
Let’s face it, a sophomore slump was never really in the cards for one of the East Coast’s most exciting Hip-Hop groups.
On album number two, Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick Arc Elliot continue to make hard-hitting, colorful, old-school inflected Hip-Hop that provides the kind of listening experience that can only come from a rap GROUP. There’s a reason that listening to N.W.A. and Wu Tang is such a radically different experience from, say, Nas or Biggie.
Of particular note is the clever “Headstone”, in which the three MCs weave together the titles of numerous Hip-Hop classics into their bars. And features from the likes of Denzel Curry, Joey Bada$$, Bun B, and yes, Portugal. The Man (on the surprisingly melodic “Crown”) aren’t wasted either.
Oh, and I didn’t even notice the titties on the album cover until, like, WEEKS after I heard it. So I can’t like it just ‘cause of that.
8. Phryme – Phryme 2
On “Made Man”, Royce da 5’9 spits, “I show up, kill it, then disappear like Andre Benjamin”. But the guy has done anything but disappear. In fact, he’s already pumped out out multiple projects before the halfway point of 2018 (SPOILER ALERT: that other one may or may not get discussed in a bit).
On Pryhme 2, there won’t be much for listeners looking to get to know Royce the PERSON, but they sure as hell get to know Royce the MC, as he churns out by the hundreds the type of bars that would make 90 percent of rappers give up the moment they heard them.
And DJ Premier (with sampling help from AntMan Wonder) is the perfect backbone, and the loops on cuts like “Respect My Gun” and “Flirt” add a slight dose of musicality to Mr. 5’9’s unshakeable confidence on the mic.
7. Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys
Six months ago, if I had to name the artists least likely to appear on this list, Post Malone’s name would’ve been brought up in the first five seconds.
It’s not that I don’t like Post – I definitely heard potential on several mopey yet tuneful moments on 2016’s Stoney – it’s just that I never expected him to be able to manifest his Sad White Boy-isms into an album full of earworms like Beerbongs & Bentleys. Yet, I found the choruses to songs like “Rich and Sad”, “Better Now”, “Spoil My Night”, “Same Bitches” and “Candy Paint” to be among the catchiest of the year. The guy really has learned to construct a hook.
He still needs to stay far away from the acoustic guitar though. Please see this LP’s lone lowlight, “Stay”, for evidence.
6. Cupcakke – Ephorize
A tour de force of witty sex-positive feminism, Cupcakke spends Ephorize comparing her genitals to the following: a Dorito, the statue of liberty, a goose, a garage, and… well, the penises in her life don’t fair much better.
While it’s mostly the lewd, graphic, in-your-face sex anthems like “Duck Duck Goose” and “Post Pic” that initially grabbed me and cracked me the fuck up, Cupcakke also shows that there’s much more depth to her on introspective moments like “Self Interview”. Ephorize proves that this foul-mouthed fem-C is here to stay, and given enough time, might even surpass her more traditional, by-the-book contemporaries.
5. Jay Rock – Redemption
After three years and a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Top Dawg Entertainment O.G. Jay Rock came back with the simple but satisfying Redemption – an album that makes no attempt at being anything other than a collection of great songs.
You see, people have come to expect such artistic depth from the TDE camp that they’ve forgotten the value of a concise batch of unrelated thoughts. Many of the reasons people are hating on Redemption are the same reasons I love it – it’s refreshingly straightforward. I can just soak in highlights like the title cut, with its reflections on mortality, “Wow Freestyle”, with its Eastern-tinged production and Kendrick Lamar assist, “The Bloodiest” with its Fuck You energy, and “OSOM” with a J. Cole feature that’s better than anything Cole did on KOD. And you don’t always need some interwoven narrative or concept to make it all worthwhile.
To be fair, Redemption is a project that feels so current and so “of its time” sonically, that it remains to be seen how it’s going to age. But right now, it’s been a soundtrack to my life this summer. Jay Rock’s brand of Gangsta Rap is one that’ll never truly go out of style.
4. Kanye West – Ye
As I explained in this video, I resisted and resisted and resisted including this album on my mid-year lists. It’s basically 20 minutes of emotional chaos, and depending on what you’ve read about Yeezus, it’s the worst critical reception a Kanye album has ever gotten. The Guardian called it “the worst record in Kanye’s previously unimpeachable catalogue.”
But then I quickly realized that this was ALL I listened to for the month of June. And for good reason. Ye is the most vulnerable Kanye has been since the landmark auto-tuned crooning of 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak. He bares his soul on this LP, and since he’s such an unstable, restless personality, that means that he gives the listener more emotionally-charged content in 20 minutes than most artists can provide in an hour. There’s the dark and twisted opener “I Thought About Killing You”, we get a more hype/agro Kanye on “Yikes”, we get tear-inducing paternal sentiments on the closer “Violent Crimes”…this album gives you so much in such a short time span.
Not to mention the more practical appeal of a short project like Ye in a world of increasingly short attention spans – I’ve ended up returning to it more often because I know it’s only 20 minutes and I’m gonna walk away full satiated.
3. The Carters (Jay-Z & Beyonce) – Everything Is Love
When music’s biggest power couple dropped this record out of nowhere a day after my birthday, I was expecting to hate it. What are the hell are these two gonna rap about, how successful they are and how much they wanna fuck each other?
Well, not entirely. I’ve talked about the whole “Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop” trend – how older MCs like Jay, Nas, and Eminem are beginning to rap about more mature, adult-like topics like family, fatherhood, and a need to distance themselves from their younger selves. Well, Everything is Love takes that concept a step further. By rapping as husband and wife about their marriage, their children, their business dealings, their elder statesmanship of the music industry and more, Jay and B have opened up a whole new world of content.
It’s real inspiring to hear such a unique album come from two industry vets like The Carters. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Hip-Hop song like “LoveHappy”, where the two discuss their relationship and Beyonce concludes that “we’re flawed but still perfect for each other”. And to hear them flexing side-by-side on bangers like “Apeshit” and “713” (the latter of which interlopes Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E., which Jay ghostwrote) is something to behold.
In a way, this is one of the realest Hip-Hop album’s ever written. It’s not about two stars making a collaborative album for the sake of exponential hype – i.e. Drake and Future, – it’s about a husband and wife using music as an outlet to work through their marriage.
2. Pusha T – Daytona
C’mon, this is the easiest pick to explain. If you don’t understand why Daytona made it here, you’re probably not a Hip-Hop fan, in which case I apologize for wasting your time with the previous hundreds and hundreds of words.
The first release of Kanye’s “Wyoming Sessions” was also quite possibly the best received – I mean, after all, who could argue with a short and sweet seven tracks that found Pusha and Kanye in top form as a rapper/producer combo?
Daytona reminded me of the way Hip-Hop records USED to be made. Seriously, think about Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full – excluding instrumentals, it’s effectively seven songs, one producer, and one rapper. And it’s one of greatest rap albums ever. Daytona brings that same sort of energy. Plus, Pusha’s ensuing beef with Drake only poured fuel on an already scorching fire.
1. Royce da 5’9 – Book of Ryan
Two years ago, I praised Royce da 5’9’s Layers for its intimate storytelling and how much it revealed about Ryan Daniel Montgomery the person.
If only I knew that Layers was just the tip of the fucking iceberg. Holy shit.
While it manages to dish out obligatory bar fests like the Eminem collaboration “Caterpillar”, and the fiery posse cut “Summer On Lock”, Book of Ryan at times feels like a full-blown concept album about Royce’s life, with a particular focus on his childhood. On the stunning “Power”, for instance, Royce paints a picture of the broken home he grew up in with a novelist’s eye for detail. And tracks like “Cocaine” and “Boblo Boat” give further insight into the experiences that shaped him, good and bad.
Royce even uses the skits to his advantage – a rare feat for a Hip-Hop album – with “Who Are You” and “Protecting Ryan” providing further windows into the stories being told across the album.
It’s amazing that over 20 years into his career, Royce is still scaling towards his artistic peak, making noticeable strides with every release. And judging by the music on Book of Ryan, it doesn’t seem like he’s got much longer to climb.