Whew! 2018 was a beast. I can’t remember a year like this. I was texting a friend who is in the music industry and he remarked that the best artistic production occurs during times of societal conflict. So one of the benefits of the year we have had is that there was a ton of good music released. A lot went down in 2018. I recently watched a February 2018 NBA highlight of Lebron hitting a game winning shot over Jimmy Butler. Lebron was in a Cavs uniform, Jimmy Butler was in a Wolves uniform, and it felt like the video was 3 years old. Looking back over 2018 in entirety, I felt like albums that dropped when Lebron was with the Cavs were released under a completely different society than albums released in November. So rather than a straight list this year, I decided to break down 2018 into four quarters and discuss which album “won” that quarter with a bonus OT winner. Without further ado, my 2018 Hip Hop Year In Review...
1st Quarter: Death is better than bondage
Winner: Wakanda Nation (Black Panther Film)
Honorable Mentions: Culture II, Migos; Victory Lap, Nipsey Hussle
The first quarter of 2018 was dominated by the global phenomenon that was Black Panther. All black American culture (hip hop included) was laser focused on anticipation and celebration of this movie. Opening weekend, my social media timeline looked like an X-Clan video shoot. That was followed by countless M’baku Challenge Scene videos. It was a beautiful thing. There was a soundtrack for the movie that I listened to a bunch. Not because it was great per say but because of WAKANDA FOREVER! Let’s just not talk about what happened in Wakanda a few months later in Infinity War (2018 had no chill).
2nd Quarter: These is Bloody Shoes
Winner: Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B (Released 5-April)
Honorable Mention: PRhyme 2, PRhyme; KOD, J Cole; Streams of Thought Vol 1, Black Thought
I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance
I like proving n---s wrong, I do what they say I can't
They call me Cardi Bardi, banging body, spicy mami, hot tamale
Hotter than a Somali, fur coat, Ferrari
Hop out the stu', jump in the coupe
Big Dipper on top of the roof
Flexing on bitches as hard as I can
Eating halal, driving the Lam’
--I Like It by Cardi B
There were a few 2Q album releases, but the most dominant was Cardi B’s debut album. Though I have been guilty of describing it this way, I think it is a disservice to call the album “surprisingly good”. It’s a good album [hard stop]. The album is kicked off with a Meek-Mill-style intro, “Get Up 10”, which sets the tone for everything else to come. It is brutally honest, funny, clever (The thing on my hip whip b-----s into shape, That's what I call a f----n' waist trainer), and, of course, peppered with trademark Cardi B adlibs. The album is the perfect length and there isn’t a weak link in the track listing. In fact, what impresses me the most is the range that Cardi demonstrates. There are several subgenres tracks on the album and they are all executed either well or really well. First, at a time when there are million trap-drums songs, Cardi finds a way to make one that stands out to become a runaway hit (“Bodak Yellow”) and a few others (e.g., “Money Bag”, “Bartier Cardi”, “She Bad”) that are fairly entertaining (meaning if I am in the club and it comes on, I won’t be mad). Second, it is also difficult to make a good R&B-Rap combination track without sounding like a fake Drake, but here again Cardi beat the odds with “Be Careful”, a sneaky good song with a great beat and Lauryn Hill sample/interpolation; “Ring” and “Thru Your Phone” are also well written songs with strong featured vocals that soften up Cardi’s harsh words for all the dudes in her life that keep messing up. Third, I believe that the mark of a good artist is that they can make songs no one else can make. “I Like It” is a track so good that I can only imagine Big Pun doing as well on it. Last, my favorite Cardi tracks on this album are the boastful optimistic tracks like “Best Life”, with Chance The Rapper bringing his A-game, and “I do” with Sza. Time will tell if Cardi can replicate this success in the future but for now, she has a signature sound, flow, and ethos that has become a cultural mainstay. Normally, an album like this, dropped in late spring, would have owned the summer, but alas that was not how things played out..
3rd Quarter: Surgical Summer
Winner: Daytona, Pusha T (Released 25-May)
Honorable Mentions: Scorpion, Drake, Kamikaze, Eminem
See through it, neck, igloo it
Hablan en español, I "y tu" it
Let Steven talk streaming and Shazam numbers
I'll ensure that you gettin every gram from us
Let's cram numbers, easily
The only rapper sold more dope than me was Eazy-E
How could you ever right these wrongs
When you don't even write your songs?
But let us all play along
We all know what n----s for real been waitin' on
--Infrared by Pusha T
Daytona is widely considered the best album released this year, though it might technically be an EP. There is very little redeeming about the content of the album. It’s about drug dealing. The album cover art is the picture of the bathroom where Whitney Houston overdosed and died. That is what Pusha T raps about. He doesn’t pretend to make anything but trap music and with Jeezy’s musical decline, Pusha is the best doing it right now. If this was a 21 song album, that might be an issue. But if you cap his flow and charisma at 7 tracks and add a some focused Kanye production you get a classic. But it’s not just the album length. Kanye released 5 EP-length albums and none of them were even in the same league as this one. That is a testament to how good an artist Pusha has become. Now of course the story doesn’t end there, because the last track of Pusha T’s album, “Infrared” was a diss track aimed at Drake and Cash Money. Drake responded with a pretty strong diss track, but it was a trap. Pusha executed the finishing move with “The Story of Adidon”, the most vicious diss track in a generation (Sidebar: Nas’ Ether was released 17 years ago. Seriously. 17 years ago). Rumors swirled as Drake prepared an alleged response that was so brutal that J Prince made him shelve it, and Drake went back to making pop songs and launching viral video phenomenons. As much as I wanted this tete-a-tete to continue and similar to Jay-Z’s wisdom to not release a rebuttal to Ether 17 years ago, it is probably for the best that this 2018 rap battle ended where it did
4th Quarter: Philly, Philly
Winner: Championships, Meek Mill (Released 30-Nov)
Honorable Mention: Tha Carter V, Lil Wayne
Pipe down, throwin' up shots
First we shut them down, then we open up shop
Realest n---a ‘round just in case y'all forgot
They've been tryna stop the wave, but the wave don't stop!
-Uptown Vibes by Meek Mill
America loves a redemption story, and while Drake was being served humble pie all summer, his previously decimated rap battle opponent was channeling all the negative events of2017 into a standout album. From the moment that tracks were released the reaction was positive. I read various versions of “that Meek Mill is tough” on within different group chats. I gave it the prime listening spot during my weekday lunchtime runs and the album succeeded in keeping my off my burning lungs which is a really good sign. With a closer listen the album holds up. Meek demonstrates some growth and awareness. He has figured out how to apply his patented ‘black out flow’ to different types of songs, most notably songs about systemic injustices targeted towards the the black community. Meek is a underrated story teller. The first nine tracks to this album are incredible. He gives us classic Meek on “Intro”, shows his range on “Trauma” and “Respect The Game”. Features are also really strong on the front end by Fab, Cardi B, Future, and Drake. I was really impressed when his verse matched (surpassed) the verses of Rick Ross and Jay-Z on “What’s Free” (Sidebar: While I love the use of Biggie’s “What’s Beef” for the song, I was fully expecting a Freeway cameo on this track). The tracks on the back half of the album are a bit more experimental. None are awful but there a few that are not memorable to me (e.g. “Almost Slipped”, “Stuck In My Ways”, “Dangerous”) The production is a great mix of east coast rap (I am a sucker for the Jay-Z “Dead Presidents” beat) with Maybach Music milieux of southern bass with distinctive piano riffs. Much like the Philadelphia Eagles last year, this was an incredible performance that I honestly didn’t see coming. I’m just impressed.
Book of Ryan, Royce Da 5’9” (Released 4-May)
You ain't no artist, you're what I would call a concept
Made to inspire gossip like Shade Room or like Bossip
Welcome to the Grammy's where your likeness is used
For promos, hypeness and views, okay, I hope that you knowin'
That if you voted, you might as we have not voted for no one
They knew when they made that category where that trophy was goin’
-Dumb by Royce Da 5’9
I have one more album that didn’t dominate a quarter but I feel the need to highlight. This selection may surprise some folks, but I think this album is really good. Borderline opus.Royce is working himself into the upper echelon of all-time hip hop lyricists. There are few people that have been as good for this long. The only other artists I think can currently match Royce’s lyrical virtuosity and career catalog is Black Thought and Eminem both of whom have experienced significantly more fame and fortune. That is largely the reason that I think he can still produce an album this good as his 7th studio album. Royce is an artist that has always been fairly open about his life including his struggles with drinking and relationships, and yet he created an album that provides even more depth to his story. In sum, this album is about a man who finds new insights into his own upbringing due to his experiences seeing his children grow up. There is no radio single, no club single. Just songs that form chapters in an vivid autobiography: “Cocaine” is a haunting tribute to his father’s struggle with drugs; “Life is Fair”and “Boblo Boat” reminisce about the bittersweet memories he had as a kid; “Dumb” is punchy critique about the rap industry. But it’s the skits that really separate this album from other albums. He talks about the rocky relationships with the men in his family, including his father, his son, and his brother. The content is heavy, but simple and digestible. He also peppers in a few standard rap braggadocio tracks to remind everyone how good he is (e.g., “Woke”). The Detroit sounds run through the entire album with Denaun Porter handling most of the production. The cameos are all solid, though it’s a telling sign that “Caterpillar Remix” is better than the original when Logic’s verse replaces Eminem’s. I think this is the album that Nas has been trying (and failing) to make for a decade. It is an authentic heartfelt introspective rap album that is also an entertaining listen.
That’s it for me. Happy New Year folks. Looks like 2019 is going to be another wild one. Buckle up! Rest in Peace Lovebug Starski, Craig Mack, Mac Miller, John “Jabo” Starks, and the incomparable Aretha Franklin