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.
10. Lil Baby And Gunna, Drip Harder
Lil Baby and Gunna are the epitome of what’s made — and kept — Atlanta on top of the rap game for more than a decade. They’re two of the city’s brightest lights, the next generation of the venerable QC and YSL brands respectively. But instead of getting coerced into any needless rivalry, they coalesced as one of the year’s most needed duos. Drip Harder is modern trap at its finest, as the two take turns crooning and harmonizing tales of flash and force over thunderous 808s. “Belly,” “Off White Vlone,” “Seals Pills” and “Never Recover” with Drake set the tone for the project, which displays their ability to complement each other’s gifts with a finesse that previous trap collaborations haven’t executed.–A.G.
9. Swizz Beatz, Poison
It’s showtime! On his first album back from hiatus, the former Ruff Ryders go-to producer assembles both longtime collaborators (Lil Wayne, The LOX, Nas) and relative up-and-comers (2 Chainz, Pusha T, Kendrick Lamar) with some truly left-field additions (Giggs, Jim Jones) to create a project that is somehow appealing to every demographic of rap fan all at once.
Do you like devastating, crowd-pleasing club anthems designed to put footprints in couches and bottles in the air? “Something Dirty/Pic Got Us” got you. Do you like streetsweeping tunes to creep slowly up the block in your blacked-out range? “Preach” will soundtrack your late-night schemes and scams. Did Kanye’s Nasir production leave you just a little cold? “Echo” returns the Nasty One to his former glory. And hey, for the kids we’ve even got a viral challenge in the form of “Pistol On My Side” the more-menacing fraternal cousin to Lil Wayne’s “Uproar.” Swizz Beats throws everything in the pot, and this time, it works.–A.W.
8. Vince Staples, FM!
It’s no secret that Vince Staples is one of the funniest, most charismatic personalities to ever come from the west coast shores (call it a legacy of growing up in the shadow of the Doggfather), and FM! might be the first of his albums to truly live up to it. Eschewing the somber, desolate nihilism of Summertime 06 for a thematic structure that actually sounds like summertime in the LBC (SING IT!), Vince achieves his final form and creates his most accessible project yet.
Hijacking clips from local radio and keeping each song to an easily digestible, upbeat two-minute limit, Vince adapts his cold-eyed ghetto trauma narratives to some absolute slappers like “Feels Like Summer” and “Don’t Get Chipped” and for the first time, shares much of his record time with big-name guests, from Bay Area party starter Kamaiyah to the grimy underground melancholy of Earl Sweatshirt. Joining Vince for some fun in the sun is one of the best ways to keep that winter chill off.–A.W.
7. Brockhampton, Iridescence
Brockhampton is down one member heading into 2018, but they’re still a pretty big group with a range of influences. The whole of the musical ground they’ve collectively tread is apparent on Iridescence. They get experimental on “J’Oveurt.” And “Thug Life” sounds ironic on a surface level, yet they’re channeling their inner-Pac by getting sentimental over melancholy keys and a whirring synth. “Weight” starts off as quintessential drum and bass, then devolved into a dire vibe that embodies the percussive headrush. This kind of creativity and movement is the only thing that makes an album with so many members a bearable listen-through, and Iridescence pulled it off.–A.G.
6. Playboi Carti, Die Lit
Who said trap music was dead? If it is, it died lit. While younger artists have shown cracks under the pressure of being vilified as scourges of hip-hop, Playboi Carti made a diamond. He unabashedly trumpeted that he “Made a mil’ off that, uh, off that mumblin’ sh*t / Bought a crib for mama, off that mumblin’ sh*t,” on “R.I.P.,” and delivered one of the most fun albums of the year with his studio debut.
That observation is one of the few times he addresses critics or anyone else on the subversive album. Dense lyricism clearly wasn’t invited to this party. The young scene of so-called Soundcloud rappers are ideating themselves as rockstars, and Playboi Carti stated their best case on a project dominated by nihilistic, purposely repetitious verses over ruckus production.–A.G.
5. Jay Rock, Redemption
Jay Rock finally came into his own on Redemption, displaying both his keen eye for observation and a knack for introspection on some of the finest beats the TDE production crew has ever come up with. For my money you won’t find too many better albums at detailing the very specific intricacies of growing up on the east side of Los Angeles, where a burger run could be the start of a very, very bad day.
I grew up approximately five miles from the Nickerson Garden in Watts, so while I’m not one hundred percent sure what day to day life looks like there, I know enough to know that Jay’s revelatory tales on eerie, almost mournful tracks like “OSOM” are accurate as f*ck. That’s why when the triumphant chorus of “Win” kicks in, I celebrate with Jay, because I know what it took to get out, and just how proud of himself he has every right to be.–A.W.
4. Smino, Noir
There’s been an absolute explosion of unconventional, yet thoughtful rappers from the midwest in recent years. With Chance The Rapper leading the charge, a whole gaggle of syllable-juggling street philosophers has emerged from the shores of the Great Lakes, but there’s one who stands out, even among his peers.
Smino is the guy who’ll rent a lemur for his video shoot just to stunt, whose merch site includes silk lined hoodies for natural hair followers, who sinks into the Funkadelic affects of late ’90s Dungeon Family affiliates as comfortably as Leon Phelps does his houseboat waterbed.
His sophomore follow-up to 2017’s low-key electrifying debut Blkswn is a perfect distillation of this persona, with an injection of smoky, bounce-laden sunshine. “Tequila Mockingbird” sprinkles in an ounce of roots reggae textures, “Merlot” is a lyrical lava lamp, and “Fenty Sex” featuring Dreezy is equally suited to late-night cruising or romantic rendezvous. It’s all a celebration of Smino’s eccentric, Afrocentric tastes and like the satin du-rags he sells on his site, it is so, so smooth.–A.W.
3. Anderson Paak, Oxnard
Good luck finding any project as fun or as funky as Anderson .Paak’s loving celebration of his hometown. From the opening strains of “The Chase” to the sweetly celebratory “Cheers,” Anderson puts his heart and soul — and his sole, all the way up to the ankle — into this bubbling brewing stew of eclectic ideas and oddball west coast witticisms. A jumpy, shoulder-shimmying, body-rocking, roller rink rocker from beginning to end, Oxnard finds Andy lyrically sniping at the president on the slumping “6 Summers,” spitting the slickest of pimp game on the tribal “Mansa Musa,” and singing the praises of road head — literally — on “Headlow.”
The crown jewel here is, of course, “Tints” the groovy Kendrick Lamar-featured bop that finds .Paak ruminating on the trappings and necessities of fame, narrowly avoiding catching a fix-it ticket with someone’s lady. That the album can so easily turn around and celebrate the life and tragic end of Mac Miller is a testament to Anderson’s incredible versatility as an artist.–A.W.
2. Flatbush Zombies, Vacation In Hell
In the year where emo-rap truly became a thing on a mainstream level, Flatbush Zombies aren’t here to make you get sad and think about death. They’re here to remind that while life may be an interminable slog through myriad miseries, you can take moments of escape or comfort from it. But you have to take them by force, defiantly, boldly, kicking and screaming before you go off into that good night. Hence, Vacation In Hell is their aptly titled offering to the canon, an apocalyptic diatribe that sounds like one part Armageddon, one part aftermath, and one part punk rock kids spraypainting anarchist logos on the school lockers as they kick over the trash cans and flip off the principal.
They’re not here to teach you anything; they’re here to rage against the machine, rant, rave, and upend your idols. No cow is sacred in their bombed-out, wasteland fantasyland; your favorite rappers’ names belong on a “Headstone.” They’re the new rap supervillains, as declared by the title and content of the fiery “M. Bison.” We’re all “Trapped,” so if the best you can hope for is a “Vacation,” take one anyway you can, even if it’s just by thumbing your nose at the powers that be.–A.W.
1. J. Cole, KOD
The adage is that when you’re trying to help someone, you have to meet them where they’re at. That’s exactly what J. Cole did on KOD, an ambitious album that takes on the weighty task of exploring addiction. There’s myriad definition to the term overconsumption, and Cole uses his knack for storytelling to explore the ones that matter most to him, weaving social commentary throughout the album.
He explores his mother’s issues with alcohol on “Once An Addict.” The Instagram baddie phenomenon gets explored on “Photograph,” which calls out social media addicts. He then chides himself for his craving for infidelity on “Kevin’s Heart,” and being addicted to splurging on “ATM.” Through his empathy and knack for philosophical summations, he’s looking to project his understanding of their plight, casting an olive branch both to those suffering and to those he made suffer. That’s bigger than hip-hop, but it’s also music at its very best.–A.G.
Some albums on this list are by Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music.