Rap music existed in a dark fog in 2018. Mac Miller, XXXTentacion, Fredo Santana, and Jimmy Wopo all died. Tekashi 6ix9ine might be the biggest new star in the genre, but he’s also a self-destructive sexual predator whose gang affiliations reportedly came very close to killing him, and who might spend a very long time in prison. Kanye West lost his mind. Many of the year’s most popular songs were heavy-hearted anthems of depression and self-annihilation.
And yet in a lot of ways, rap music is healthier than it’s ever been. The music industry’s turn toward a streaming economy has revealed just how overwhelmingly popular rap is. For at least a couple of generations, rap is the dominant form of popular music, and nothing else is close. Drake might be the most dominant commercial star the genre has ever produced. The jittery hi-hats of Atlanta trap are as omnipresent now as disco kick-drums were in the late ‘70s. Rap arena tours and festivals are thriving. Its stars cast a long shadow over online gossip and rumor-mongering, and they are forever finding new ways to tell their stories.
More importantly, rap music continues to expand artistically, the genre continuing to split into hundreds of mini-genres, each offshoot finding its own brand-new audience. Those trap drums might be everywhere, but people are still finding new ways to rap over them. At the same time, broken and fractured and hyper-literate rap stokes online cults. Frantic and sneery SoundCloud rap serves the same cathartic exploding-hormone functions that punk rock fed in previous decades. Women and LGBTQ voices are more prominent than they’ve ever been.
In previous years, I’ve counted down my picks for the 40 best rap albums of the year. Even in a changing landscape, one that prizes singles and EPs and “song bundles,” there have been plenty of great rap albums in 2018, and I easily could’ve done the same thing again. But we’re aiming to keep things tight and digestible this year, so we’re keeping it to 10. Apologies to Playboi Carti, Maxo Kream, Denzel Curry, 03 Greedo, Brockhampton, Saba, Earl Sweatshirt, SOB x RBE, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs, ALLBLACK and Kenny Beats, Key! and Kenny Beats, Cupcakke, Payroll Giovanni and Cardo, Jay Rock, City Girls, Open Mike Eagle, Joey Purp, Tierra Whack, the late Mac Miller, and all the other rappers who made great music in 2018 but who didn’t make this list.
As always, this is my own personal list, and it’s entirely beholden to my own tastes and blind spots and oh, shit! reactions. There are inconsistencies between this and Stereogum’s final year-end list. There are also inconsistencies between this list and your own. It’s one rapidly aging, deeply stubborn man’s opinion. It’s also entirely factually correct. Let’s get it. -Tom Breihan
10 Vince Staples – FM! (Def Jam)
Vince Staples has said that he’s not even sure whether FM! is an album. It’s a short, sharp shock of a record — 22 minutes, padded out with skits that imagine an alternate-universe Los Angeles rap radio landscape where Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga are equal peers. And yet it works as a whole new turn from one of our most relentlessly creative and malleable rap minds. Over hard, brittle tracks from Kenny Beats and Hagler, Staples digs deep into the contradictions that come with circa-2018 rap almost-stardom. And in the process, he makes the argument that he’s a real star, no “almost” required.
9 Milo – Budding Ornithologists Are Weary Of Tired Analogies (Ruby Yacht)
Recently, Milo announced on Twitter that he was “officially finished” and that Budding Ornithologists would be his last album. It’s hard to say what that means, since Milo released three albums, under different names, in 2018. But Budding Ornithologists, the last and best of them, makes it clear exactly what we’ll be missing if he really is done. Milo raps in dense and allusive clumps of evocative verbiage — “My style like if Langston didn’t edit,” he says, in an uncharacteristically direct moment — over sighing, sputtering, jazz-inflected beats, many of which he produced himself. It’s a thoughtful, ruminative, dazzlingly eloquent inward odyssey, a triumph of quiet introspection.
8 Hermit And The Recluse – Orpheus Vs. The Sirens (Obol For Charon)
For years now, the Brooklyn DIY rap baron and fire chief Ka has spun whole worlds out of dank, flickering samples and half-muttered rap reflections. Ka generally does everything by himself: Rapping, producing, shooting videos, shipping out vinyl packages, selling records on street corners on release day. On Orpheus Vs. The Sirens, he has outsourced the minimal, moody beats to the producer Animoss, and they fit his hard and haggard voice well. But the real show is in the lyrics. Ka spends the whole album drawing on the imagery of Greek mythology, using those stories about disinterested gods and doomed heroes to build a complicated and deeply felt metaphor about what it’s like to grow up black and endangered in America. It’s heavy, it’s beautiful, and it will stick with you.
7 J.I.D – DiCaprio 2 (Dreamville/Interscope)
The first time you hear J.I.D achieve full rap velocity, it’s like the first time you see someone land a double backflip or pull a truck with his teeth. It’s just an impressive human physical achievement. The Atlanta rapper goes faster and faster, intricately rifling through flows with otherworldly precision, never losing track of the beat no matter how twisty his rhyme schemes get. But on DiCaprio 2, J.I.D makes it clear that he’s a lot more than just a monster technical stylist. He’s also a strong songwriter, capable of explosive emotion or quiet introspection. He’s got a great sense of his own aesthetic, knowing exactly with kind of erratic-but-organic beat he sounds great on. He keeps his voice varied and dynamic. DiCaprio 2 is presented as a full-flex mixtape, not a cohesive album statement, but it’s got enough going on to qualify as that, too. It’s a clear sign of unlimited potential, an early glimpse of what could become historic greatness.
6 Noname – Room 25 (Self-released)
Noname’s full-length debut is the out-and-out prettiest rap album of 2018, the only one that could conceivably soothe your addled brain during a hungover morning. The young Chicago native’s voice is hushed, conversational, melodic. She’s got an otherworldly command of language and rhythm, but she also sounds like she doesn’t want to bother anyone who might be trying to read a book one room over. Her live band gives her warm, jazzy clouds of music, building on texture rather than thump. But within this vastly appealing sound, Noname also gets deep into sexual politics, racial disenfranchisement, and the struggle of a young lady to define herself in the world. It lulls you into a state of bliss, and then it gives you a whole lot to think about.
5 Rico Nasty – Nasty (Atlantic)
There is so much potential in the idea of SoundCloud rap. Urgency, grainy lo-fi textures, heart-ripped-open emotional expressiveness, random grabs from other genres of music, moshpits — these are all good things. And yet so much of the SoundCloud rap that has made it out of the underground is turgid and ugly and shitty, all these proudly halfassed two-minute shit-talk sessions from pink-haired teenagers who haven’t developed their aesthetics beyond “Hot Topic in 2002.” The great exception is Rico Nasty, who raps with passionate verve and technical force even through digital distortion and drowning metal guitars. She’s a hugely compelling presence with a lot to say about depression and betrayal and bad faith. And when it comes time to flex over a reconstructed loop of Nore’s “Superthug,” she becomes a force of nature.
4 Armand Hammer – Paraffin (Backwoodz Studioz)
“I’m in a constant state of rage,” billy woods mutters on “Rehearse With Ornette,” a perfectly titled death-sputter. And with Paraffin, woods and fellow New York underground astral traveller Elucid have made an album that sounds the way constant rage feels. Paraffin isn’t an album of direct or anthemic protest music; it never offers that sort of catharsis. Instead, in their jagged and broken post-boom-bap odyssey, Armand Hammer have made an album that, through sonic chaos and evocative thought-shards, translates the feeling of surviving in a society determined to deny your humanity. Nearly every line is a dense and head-spinning haiku about indignity: “To be seen and not seen at the same time is a mindfuck / Black buck.” But in their craggy seen-it-all existentialism and their avant-garde mastery, Armand Hammer still radiate strength in the face of everything that would seek to take it away.
3 Pusha T – Daytona (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)
Kanye West’s month of Wyoming releases was a heavy, chaotic time — moments of greatness occasionally peeking through the messy drama, the PR disasters, the inexplicable decisions, the general sense of a titan unmoored. And yet that whole saga began with a note of icy, bracing precision. Pusha-T has been mining his drug-dealing past with clinical eloquence for the better part of two decades, and his verbal economy turned out to be perfect for Kanye’s seven-song concept. Over the negative space and prog-rock organ sounds of Kanye’s production, Pusha found a new gear, his laconic voice and allusive writing style making every one of the album’s 21 minutes count. And in the process, maybe even by accident, Pusha also launched a headline-grabbing rap feud against the world’s biggest pop star. And he won. This took careful war-room planning, but it also took the sort of hard-earned mastery that Pusha displays on Daytona. Drake should’ve taken one listen and realized he was out of his depth.
2 Lil Baby & Gunna – Drip Harder (Quality Control)
2018 might be the year that a certain strain of Atlanta rap became oppressively dominant — the year that Migos released a bloated and fatuous album and then all three members released their own bloated and fatuous solo albums. But if you focus, find a chemistry, and catch some kind of impossible-to-plan zeitgeist-wave, you can still do some truly great things with that sound. Lil Baby and Gunna, Migos’ young Atlanta-trap Quality Control associates, are proof. Both are rising stars on their own, and both have been releasing solo music that’s worth hearing and guesting on big songs. But together, they’re stronger than they are apart. On Drip Harder, Baby and Gunna find heady, evocative melodies and slickly off-kilter punchlines over music that boils that Atlanta sound down to a minimal twinkle. The music on Drip Harder is weirdly pretty and hypnotic, but it can still immolate a club or shake your trunk right off of your car. It’s one of those exhilarating, magical moments: Two instinctively creative young rappers finding their sound, and each other, at exactly the right point, everything gelling into a beautiful fluid blur.
1 Cardi B – Invasion Of Privacy (Atlantic)
For a while, it seemed like Cardi B might never release an album. Why should she? She was cranking out one monster single after another, jumping on other people’s songs and sending those songs stratospheric. Cardi’s out-of-nowhere mainstream-pop crossover moment last year was a beautiful anomaly and an unprecedented triumph. Strip-club stages to Instagram infamy to reality TV to a #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100? Who does that? And yet Cardi’s style — brash, unrefined, meme-generative — didn’t seem especially well-suited to the album format. What could she tell us in an hour that she hadn’t already told us in a gloriously nasty 16-bar verse? But we should’ve never underestimated her.
It’s been years since we had a rap debut like Invasion Of Privacy. Cardi doesn’t have a signature sound or aesthetic. She has the world. On her first album, Cardi takes all the strains floating around in the air today — Atlanta trap, Latin pop, downbeat and disclosive relationship diaristics, fervent shit-talk — and she bends them all to her will. Cardi’s gift turns out to be almost shockingly versatile, given to sophisticated power-dynamic breakdowns and joyously exultant sex-boasts. And she’s a star, her voice exploding off of every song and overwhelming whatever more-established star is brave enough to rap next to her. Cardi’s pop moment wasn’t a fluke. It was a warning, a promise. And with Invasion Of Privacy, she’s made good on all of it.