2018 was a big year for hip-hop. All-time greats like Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Ice Cube made triumphant returns to relevance, while newer artists like J.I.D., Cardi B, and Denzel Curry found themselves in the spotlight for the first time. Rap beef became more prominent than it has been since the ’90s, with Drake and Pusha T, Joyner Lucas and Tory Lanez, and Cardi B and Nicki Minaj all going at it in the public spotlight. Most importantly, instant classic albums were released just about every other week. From Drake’s R&B-rap fusion on Scorpion to Playboi Carti’s new-wave SoundCloud stylings on Die Lit, the genre expanded its boundaries more than ever in 2018. With all that has come out of rap in the last year, we can only hope for 2019 to keep the ball rolling. Without further delay, I present the best albums of 2018 followed by the most anticipated of 2019.
Honorable mentions: Swimming, Championships, Tha Carter V, Not All Heroes Wear Capes, Dying to Live
5. Future, BEASTMODE 2
Future’s BEASTMODE 2 feels like the most complete project he has released in years. While technically released as a retail mixtape, the project still feels like a studio album because of the way it cohesively flows from track to track. The Zaytoven-produced mixtape feels less like its 2016 mumble-rap predecessor and more like Future’s 2016 collaboration with Metro Boomin, Monster, which combined these elements with a certain vulnerability rarely seen in hip-hop. Songs like “CUDDLE MY WRIST,” “DOH DOH DOH,” “31 DAYS,” and “WIFI LIT” are some of the songs from the project that are considered more typical of the artist. Lyricism is not at the forefront of the songs, as they are more promotions of Future’s lavish lifestyle, while the strong bass in the background makes the music ideal for the clubs of Atlanta. Where BEASTMODE 2 really makes its case for being one of the best albums of 2018, however, lies in its more meaningful songs. In songs like “RED LIGHT,” Future reveals the trauma he suffered growing up poor without a father. In the song, he credits this emotional scarring for his issues with self-medication as an adult. Future builds upon this in “HATE THE REAL ME,” which details how his drug addiction issues led to his divorcing Ciara. The messy divorce proceedings, particularly those involving the custody of their children, only worsened these issues for him, rapping, “A sober mind wasn’t good for me, 'cause I loved you way more than the music.” He continues his tale of the vicious cycle of self-medication by talking about the voices he hears in his mind, likely an effect of prescription drugs and lean, that put suicidal thoughts inside his head. This is Future at his most vulnerable, and it is this raw depiction of drug addiction, emotional trauma, and depression that makes BEASTMODE 2 one of the best albums of the year.
4. 21 Savage, I AM>I WAS
21 Savage. The Atlanta rapper with a knife tattooed on his forehead known for albums such as Slaughter King as well as his lean habits. When he claimed his new album, I Am>I Was, would focus on his personal growth, many were skeptical. However, he proved these skeptics wrong as early as the album’s opening track. In “a lot,” 21 and J. Cole reflect on their success as well as the pain they have suffered throughout their journeys to the top. 21 mourns the loss of his brother to gun violence and gives thanks for the blessings he has received since then, while Cole focuses more on social issues. In the tracks “all my friends (ft. Post Malone)” and “monster (ft. Childish Gambino),” 21 speaks on how the money from his music has caused alienation within many of his relationships. The former tells the audience how his wealth changed the people around him by making them jealous and greedy, while the latter explains how the same wealth and power has made him materialistic and hedonistic. On “letter 2 my momma” and “ball w/o you,” 21 Savage further reflects on the relationships in his life. On “letter 2 my momma,” 21 apologizes for failing to value all his mother did for him. While “ball w/o you” is about the loss of love, it is more importantly about the way the lack of loyalty in this relationship made 21 uncomfortable trusting his own feelings of love anymore. While I Am>I Was does show a much more introspective side of 21 Savage, the old Savage that brought his rise to fame is still present on the album. In tracks such as “gun smoke,” “out for the night,” and “4L,” 21 gives his audience the trap anthems celebrating the themes that brought him his original commercial success. After an album that has tracks that can appeal to such a wide variety of audiences, it will be interesting to see if 21 Savage continues to trend towards conscious rap in his future projects.
3. Travis Scott, Astroworld
Astroworld is widely considered one of the most disappointing albums of the year. To an extent, this claim would be correct. After the release of his sophomore studio album, Birds in the Trap, Travis Scott spent nearly three years building hype for Astroworld. When it finally arrived in August, many dismissed it as a failure. This claim has proved to be absurd, as the album has just entered its 20th consecutive week in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart (including three weeks at #1). It is apparent that he spent the last three years meticulously crafting his vision for Astroworld down to the most minute details, such as Swae Lee’s four-word feature on “SICKO MODE (ft. Drake and Swae Lee).” Scott knows just where to switch the beat and include features on each track. While the album produced other hit singles such as “STARGAZING” and “YOSEMITE (ft. Gunna and Nav),” it is important not to overlook the consistency of the rest of the album. Travis speaks to the importance of remembering where you come from on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD.” The track, which features the Stevie Wonder and the soothing humming of Kid Cudi, warns of the dangers of narcissism that come with money and fame. “COFFEE BEAN” shows us an exposed side of Scott not seen in his previous albums as he describes the difficulties in his marriage to Kylie Jenner over an uncharacteristically peaceful and calming beat. The way Scott’s sound transitions from trap to pop to lyrical rap throughout the album is something unseen before in hip-hop, making Astroworld an album that will not be soon forgotten.
2. Jay Rock, Redemption
Most years, if Kendrick Lamar releases a project, you can at least assume that it will be the best project to come out of Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). This is not one of those years. On Redemption, Jay Rock appears sharper than ever. The album reflects on his past, from his youth in Watts to his motorcycle accident in 2016. While the two most successful singles, “King’s Dead” and “WIN,” are braggadocious anthems that align with rap’s current trend away from lyricism, they were not representative of the rest of the album. The first track on the album, “The Bloodiest,” explains how he feels his motorcycle accident was retribution for his past criminal activity while growing up in Watts. He brings a more mellow vibe on the next track, “For What It’s Worth,” as he reflects on the negative impacts of substances, money, and violence on his personal identity and relationships over a soothing sample of Ori’s “Solo.” Tracks like “ES Tales” and “S*** Real (ft. Tee Grizzley)” describe the trials and tribulations of growing up in Watts, with drugs and violent crime playing a major role in who he was back then as well as who he is now. “OSOM (ft. J. Cole)” broaches the same issues, but it does so with a softer and more reflective tone. Growing up in Watts, it was difficult for Jay Rock to escape the harsh realities around him, so self-medication allowed him to put the chaos around him out of sight and out of mind. While Jay Rock describes the use of drugs such as marijuana to ease his paranoia, J. Cole warns of the dangers of prescription drugs such as Zoloft in a verse that aligns with his own 2018 album KOD, which served as a PSA against drug use. Overall, Redemption feels like a reiteration of Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Without feeling repetitive, Jay Rock immerses his listener into the world of drugs, crime, and gang activity in Watts just how Kendrick does with Compton. Yet, Redemption in no way feels like a cheap simulacrum of his label mate’s classic but instead feels like it was inspired by and expanded upon it.
1. Pusha T, Daytona
Although many have attributed the album’s relevance to the highly-publicized beef between Pusha T and Drake, it is hard to deny upon listening to the album that the Kanye West-produced work is a masterpiece. In many ways, the album is the antithesis of Drake’s 2018 release Scorpion in terms of length, sound, and audience. Even the most minute details of the album are critical rhetorical choices. The title, a reference to the Rolex Daytona watch, represents the luxury of time he had to create the album. The album cover, a photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom taken after her death, represents what he describes in an interview with Trevor Noah as symbolizing the organized chaos found within his brand of luxury street rap. Each track on the album is packed with punchlines, vivid storytelling, and lyrics that require multiple listens to peel back all the layers. In the opening track “If You Know You Know,” Push describes in-depth his drug dealing ventures before the success of his rap career. The song is filled with references that will go right over the heads of casual listeners, oftentimes forcing those unfamiliar with the genre to look to outside resources to understand all the double entendres and punchlines. King Push takes a more conventional approach to modern rap in the next three tracks, flaunting his luxurious lifestyle with an assist from Rick Ross on “Hard Piano (ft. Rick Ross)” and a well-selected sample of The Mighty Hannibal’s “The Truth Shall Set you free” on “Come Back Baby.” On “Santeria,” Push showcases his versatility by describing the murder of his friend De’Von Pickett. In the song, Push pleads to De’Von’s spirit for advice, debating whether or not to seek vengeance on his killer. Push shows his audience the pain he suffered from this tragedy, while also giving a sense of his edge. The album concludes with “Infrared,” a diss track in which Pusha attacks Drake for his use of ghost-writers, and Young Money Records CEO Birdman for his unfair treatment of those signed to his label. This song conceived the summer of rap beef and resulted in the release of “The Story of Adidon,” another diss track aimed at Drake that will go down as one of the greatest examples of battle-rap ever recorded. It combined flow, lyricism, and shock value in such a way that it permanently altered the way the public perceives Drake. Just as he claimed the day it was released, Daytona is, in fact, the album of the year.
Most Anticipated Hip-Hop Albums of 2019
5. Black Star, TBA
In 1998, Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) released Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. Despite never achieving major commercial success, the album was praised by critics and is still held up as a lyrical masterpiece 20 years later. Since the release of this album, the two had not made any mention of a follow-up album until last year, when Bey announced at a DJ Madlib set in Denver that a new Black Star album would be coming soon, this time also featuring DJ Madlib. It is important to note that the album has not been confirmed, as Kweli told The Fader that he, “found out on the internet the same way [everyone else] did.” With this in mind, Kweli did not completely dismiss the idea, and Bey claims to have already recorded a significant number of verses for the album, so if Kweli were to sign on, the album should be ready for release very soon. If the album is to release, it will likely provide the genre with a lyrical stimulus that many fans of classic rap feel has been missing since the rise of mumble rap.
4. Future, THE WIZRD
On January 18th, Future is set to release THE WIZRD, his seventh studio album and first since Hendrxx, which was released nearly two years ago. This will be the longest break he has taken between studio albums since 2014, when he released Honest nearly two years after his debut album, Pluto. Honest was a breakout album for Future, and is considered by many to be a trap classic. What this means for THE WIZRD is that with the added time spent working on the album, we are likely to see an increase in quality. Future’s previous three albums have each fallen further and further short of the standards set by his double-platinum DS2, with his most recent album selling nearly 300,000 fewer units. The success of Future’s upcoming album is important not only to his relevance in music today but also to his legacy as one of the greatest trap artists of all time.
3. ScHoolboy Q, TBA
At long last, it appears that ScHoolboy Q is finally ready to release the follow-up to 2016’s Blank Face LP. ScHoolboy Q seemed to confirm that the album will be released early in 2019 via an Instagram story on January 8. The album was originally set to release in 2018 but was delayed after Mac Miller, Q’s close friend and collaborator, overdosed in September. The Los Angeles rapper will likely address this loss on the album, and is also expected to be heavy on prominent features, such as labelmates Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and SZA. Coming off two consecutive albums nominated for Best Rap Album at The Grammy Awards, fans of the TDE flagship artist are clamoring for new music and expect nothing less than another classic.
2. Kanye West, Yandhi
Throughout his career, Kanye West has always been a controversial artist. From his claim that George Bush doesn’t care about Black people controversy to his interruption of Taylor Swift’s MTV VMA speech, the public has always had mixed feelings when it comes to Kanye. He has only become more polarizing in recent years with his endorsement of Donald Trump, his feud with former collaborator Drake, and his increasingly outrageous comments made via Twitter. That being said, all of these seemingly negative factors only build anticipation for his next album. Whether you love him or hate him, you probably are at least to some extent interested in what he has to say on his upcoming album Yandhi. Longtime fans are desperate for some sign that the old Kanye is still in there, with each of his previous three albums falling short of expectations. He has shown flashes of talent, with his production on his collaboration album with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts, and Pusha T’s Daytona receiving praise from fans and critics alike. With fans getting fed up with his social media antics, Kanye has to deliver a classic with Yandhi.
1. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
Even for those who do not appreciate Lil Uzi Vert’s music, the hype surrounding the album is undeniable. Originally slated to drop in August, five months have passed and there is still no official timetable for Eternal Atake despite Uzi’s December tweet claiming the album was completed and ready for release. Yet, people are still hungry as ever for Uzi’s sophomore studio album. Don Cannon, Lil Uzi’s producer, is considered responsible for the lack of music released by the Philadelphia rapper despite claims that he records over 700 songs each year. As a result, he is bombarded with vicious Instagram comments demanding the release of Eternal Atake. While some are hesitant to listen to the album due to claims that Uzi is affiliated with the devil, a claim furthered by references to the Heaven’s Gate cult in the album art, they are far outnumbered by those yearning for more of Uzi’s unique brand of emo mumble rap. With a surplus of time to work on the album, the fans expect nothing less than another series of club bangers on the new album. While Uzi has recently stated that he will no longer be releasing the album, fans are still hoping for a change of heart from the 24-year-old artist.