Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it’s meant to highlight the best work in the genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
Not to keep beating a dead horse, but … [flexes crop] Look, if you’re still saying anything along the lines of “hip-hop is dead” in 2018, you must be an embarrassed ostrich, word to Eminem’s unnecessarily long freestyles. There is so much hip-hop music out these days that it’s literally impossible to label all of it any one thing.
Fortunately, we here at Uproxx have made it easy for you. We’ve narrowed your selection down to just these 20 guaranteed winners. There’s a lot of variety of tap here, so even if everything isn’t exactly what you crave from your beats and rhymes, something here must be. Dive in, sample the goods — emphasis on the “good.” There’s mind-bending lyricism and heart-wrenching emotion; there are trunk-rattling, kinetic beats and smooth, practiced instrumentalism. There are feel-good tunes and songs to make you think about death and get sad and stuff (shout out to Scott Pilgrim). There are paranoid hood tales and sunny, uplifting anthems and guttural ad-libbing that doesn’t incite deep thought but may get your heart pumping.
In 2018, hip-hop keeps your mind racing and hips rocking, booty bouncing and fists flying. Instead of trying to make it be any one thing, let it be all of it. Dive in. Enjoy the ride.
20. Kirk Knight, IIWII
In explaining his philosophy during the creation of IIWII, Brooklyn rapper-producer Kirk Knight expressed a simple but sometimes, overlooked observation for rappers: It’s about the feeling, not necessarily who has the most the bars. Fortunately, he managed to cram a philosophically appropriate amount of both into his latest album, bringing a boom-bap spitter’s thoughtful theories to a trap rapper’s melodic aesthetic. The result is an album you can bump in your car or in your headphones from the Pro Era co-founder.
“M.O.,” “Leverage,” and “Duffle Bag” find him flexing his newfound wealth in the wake of prominent production placements, while “Run It Back” showcases his ever-sharp penmanship and gift for wordplay. “Not For Nothing” concludes the album on a contemplative note, wondering if all the success he’s achieved is enough and deciding, no, it’s not. The title of the album may stand for “It Is What It Is,” but Kirk Knight’s already looking forward to all the potential of the future.–Aaron Williams
19. Payroll Giovanni & Cardo, Big Bossin’ Vol. 2
Cardo and Payroll Giovanni united in grand fashion on Big Bossin’ Vol. 2, the sequel to the well-received project they dropped in 2016. It sounds like Cardo put two years of effort or more into these beats, as he augmented Payroll’s reflection of Detroit, “where the lions and tigers roam daily,” with a lush soundscape that stands with any singular work of production all year.
It’s a testament to 2018’s post-regionalism that an unabashed Detroit rhymer and a Minnesota-born producer could drop a project that fits in an LA Gangsta rap playlist with tracks like “Stack It, Stash It” and “Dopeman Dreams” with Jeezy. Other songs like “Thing Or 2” and “Dopeman Dreams” perfectly soundtrack Payroll’s brand of Bossin’, where you can be in the lap of luxury but “still have nightmares that my phone tapped” as he lamented on “Deep.” Payroll manages to poetically radiate the rushes of the life, but make it firm that those days are behind him. With a producer like Cardo in tow, why wouldn’t they be?–Andre Gee
18. Joey Purp, Quarterthing
Joey Purp is one soulful dude. He’s from Chicago, so you know that whatever is going on in that particular corner of the midwest has soaked into his very bone marrow. But while his peers have all adopted more of a low-key, jazz-centric vibe, Joey hews a little more closely to the blueprint laid by Chance The Rapper, borrowing a gospeldelic approach that brings a uniquely optimistic perspective to his uplifting, motivational raps. He’s no less reflective or brainy in his rhymes’ construction, but he’s more willing to embrace those organs and pianos and choirs, often to his benefit.
That’s why he can feel “Sanctified” and throw a “Hallelujah” alongside the more gritty, RZA-featuring “Godbody.” But he also sticks super close to his Chicago roots. You’re going to want to juke to “Aw Sh*t,” as much as you may want to fight to the album’s drill-inspired back half, featuring heavy-hitting bangers like “Paint Thinner,” “Karl Malone,” and “Bag Talk.” Amen.–A.W.
17. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter V
After years of legal wrangling between Lil Wayne, his father figure Birdman, and Universal Records, the long-awaited conclusion to hip-hop’s canonical Tha Carter series dropped in September. The launch night was an event, but it wasn’t merely a ceremonial moment — the music is damn good.
Wayne delivered his most personal album yet, delving into the obstacles that bolstered his resilience on “Can’t Be Broken,” pondering that “I just hope I die for a reason” on “Open Letter,” and even exploring his teenage suicide attempt on album closer “Let It All Work Out.” It’s ironic, and fitting, that the poignant revelation came on an album that he fought so hard to get out, on a song sampling Sampha’s plea to let everything fall into place. That’s exactly what happened for Wayne, who strutted back into his kingdom to let everyone from Travis Scott (“Let It Fly”) to Kendrick Lamar (“Mona Lisa”) know who set the tone for this era of music.–A.G.
16. 6lack, East Atlanta Love Letter
6lack‘s debut Free 6lack was so good, it didn’t seem possible to top. Sophomore slump, guaranteed. And then East Atlanta Love Letter came along and the whole concept of sophomore slump might need rethinking. It can’t possibly exist. There’s no way. There must be some other explanation for every other artist whose second project didn’t live up to the potential of their first. East Atlanta Love Letter disproves the entire idea that any artist could ever fall off. They just float off into the atmosphere, becoming the best version of themselves in the process and if they don’t, maybe they’re not a real artist.
Trying to play this album through all the way is a Herculean task. The first song, “Unfair,” might require at least seven plays. The title track, at least ten. By the time “Pretty Little Fears” gets through its final listen you look up and it’s morning. At least there’s tonight to look forward to.–A.W.
15. Buddy, Harlan & Alondra
Buddy has been in the game a long time. It’s weird to think about Harlan & Alondra as his “official” debut, but it also feels… right. On prior projects, like his series of producer-focused EPs that permeated 2017, he was constructing himself, putting together the personality that would eventually become the bold, self-assured and thoughtful version that appears here. This version is “Shameless,” this version knows he’s destined to be a “Legend.”
He’s able to reminisce about days when he got into “Trouble On Central” as adeptly as he could celebrate his history and unique social markers on “Black.” Hearing him say “Hey Up There” and rock alongside west coast legend Snoop Dogg on “The Blue,” or the journey that he details on “Find Me 2” feels like a hero’s tale. He’s earned this. Everything he went through to get here is worth it and if he plans to “Shine,” it’s with good reason. It’s good to be home.–A.W.
14. YG, Stay Dangerous
YG hit us in the head with another collection of gritty street bangers on Stay Dangerous, a project that showcases his formula of slick, uncompromising lyricism over thumping production is intact and still winning. The album can be encapsulated by his declaration that “I’m in Bompton, still hitting’ corners” on “Bomptown Finest.” YG is swervin’ corners and firing on the sparse stage that DJ Mustard sets as Stay Dangerous‘ dominant force behind the boards.
The operative phrase to take away from this one isn’t “F*ck Trump,” but “Suu Whoop,” which is the battle cry of one of his standout singles and implicit in lines like ‘Two young n—-s going too brazy” on “Going Brazy” with Mozzy. But the album isn’t full of menace, as he gets flashy on “Big Bank” and raunchy on “Too Cocky.”–A.G.
13. Metro Boomin, All Heroes Don’t Wear Capes
Metro Boomin seemed about ready to leave rap behind late last year after railing at Atlantic Records, but he got it together in time for Without Warning with Offset and 21 Savage and Double Or Nothing with Big Sean. After mixed reviews for both albums, Metro decided to recollect and curate a project with a wider range of artists on All Heroes Don’t Wear Capes. The 13-track album is a collection of what made Metro an in-demand producer in the first place, showing off his knack for smooth, alluring trap burners with tracks like “No Complaints” featuring Drake and Offset, “Dreamcatcher” with Swae Lee and Travis Scott, and “Don’t Come Out The House,” which shows off 21 Savage’s ASMR vibes.
Metro’s production is the methodical binding of the project, which may have been evident to him when he decided to offer up the album’s instrumentals.–A.G.
12. Reason, There You Have It
So, Reason released his “debut album” himself last year, but it was so good, Top Dawg was just like, “Hey, we should just put this out again as is. It’s already perfect.” Who am I to argue with Top Dawg?
The Del Amo native already has that signature TDE sound, that muffled, filtered, distorted, whomping soul. He already has that voice, gruff, raspy, worn, lived-in. He already has the story, been through it all, seen some things, lost some homies. He has the gift to relay not just the content of the murky narratives, but the raw emotion of them, the loss, the paranoia. Songs like “Kurupt” and “Drive Slow” and “Better Dayz” already bleed through with that unique balance of thoughtful introspection, regretful nostalgia, and determined optimism. It’s probably safe to say that Top Dawg made exactly the right decision, not just in signing Reason, but in reintroducing him to the world exactly the way he is.–A.W.
11. Masego, Lady Lady
Masego, the grown-and-sexy loverman from Virginia by way of South Africa, isn’t here to complain about the state of hip-hop. There wasn’t enough instrumentation for him, so you know what he did? He brought his sax and played that thing on Lady Lady. There wasn’t enough romance in hip-hop, so he threw on the silkiest of silks and suedes and velvets and any other luxurious fabrics he could get his hands on and bedecked his studio in candles and his album, Lady Lady, in soulful odes to the fairer sex.
Songs like “Lavish Lullaby” bring quiet storm sensibilities to modern trap, er, trappings and smoothed-out, playalistic funk grooves to “Old Age” to spill some of that old-school game to his May-December romantic partner. On “Queen Tings,” he lets guest Tiffany Gouche provide an unconventional perspective and on the title track, he goes for broke, singing praises to the object of his affection. A master class in seduction, this is. Take notes.–A.W.