With the seemingly nonstop rush of new music constantly being released on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, and Soundcloud, it can feel like some truly fantastic, underground hip-hop slips through the cracks. After all with big names like The Carters, Kanye West, and Drake taking up all the air in just the month of June, the middle class of rap seems easy to overlook in the constant effort to stay aware of what else is new.
That means that some real gems can get ignored. With all the new music coming out all the time, who can keep up right? Fortunately, in our modern era of streaming and digital releases, its easier than ever to revisit and get caught up with the rap music you may have missed in the rush, from boom-bap, backpack rap to transcendent, prolific, new wave trap. Here are just a few of the albums from this year that deserve a listen alongside all the top-heavy releases.
Black Thought, 9th Wonder & The Soul Council — Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1 (Jamla)
The news that the iconic MC would be pairing with the gifted producer for a full, five-song EP set the internet abuzz with interest. After all, Black Thought is one of hip-hop’s premier rappers, but over the past few high-concept releases from The Roots, we’ve never really gotten to hear him cut loose lyrically, the way he did with his viral freestyle. Fortunately, that’s exactly what he’s done here, over razor-edged funk samples from 9th Wonder and his crew of Jamla producers. The feather in the EP’s cap is the aptly titled “Dostoevsky,” where Thought and guest rapper Rapsody wax philosophical in dense, metaphor-laden verses that require multiple listens and plenty of annotation to break down each jewel that’s dropped.
Pac Div — 1st Baptist (RBC Records)
Pac Div’s first project as a group since 2012’s GMB received only muted hype upon its release but surpassed expectations in every way. Over hard-as-nails beats produced by group member Like, DJ Dahi, and Swiff D, the West Coast rap trio spits pointed, multisyllabic rhymes full of regular guy wit and hard won, real life observations about growing up, staying loyal, and turning up over the course of a ten year career that has, at times, felt unheralded despite their evident ability to craft understated bangers. The highlight comes on “Circle,” a soulful jam that catches the crew acknowledging their absence and persistence in the game.
Wale — Self Promotion (MMG / Every Blue Moon)
The surprise, four-song EP from the DC veteran rapper strips away the bells and whistles that have come to be associated with his full-length releases to remind listeners that it was Wale’s rhymes that first established him as one of hip-hop’s first blog rap pioneers. Rather than full-fledged, conceptual songs like “White Shoes” or musical experiments like afrobeats departure “Fine Girl,” here, Wale just raps, displaying his chops with some of his hungriest, sharpest lyrics of recent years. Clear-eyed references to revolutionary athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali show exactly where the rapper’s head is: “Pro-Black isn’t anti-white, but if a Nazi try me, catch these Ali hands on sight.”
Asian Doll — Doll SZN (Beecher Boys / Doll Gang)
The rising star from Dallas doesn’t play around on her debut mixtape, spitting fiery threats and confident boasts cut with confessional honesty and biting autobiographical narratives. She proves to be versatile in both flow and content, swapping double time, trap-inflected tracks such as “Crunch Time” and “Clout” with slower, more introspective, autotuned singsong earworms like “Rush” and “Lay Up” “Queen Of Nightmares” is the clear standout, as Asian details her come up from eating trash in middle school to dropping passionate raps that would eventually draw the attention of 1017 Records boss Gucci Mane.
03 Greedo — God Level (Alamo Records)
Drake may have the highest-profile 25-song project, but 03 Greedo’s swan song might be the best-supersized album of the year to date. Over the course of the sprawling project, Greedo demonstrates his full range as an artist and an MC, making his case for one of the greatest rap tragedies of 2018. On the record, Greedo tries to leave his fans with as much music as possible before his 20-year stint in prison on gun charges. The sweeping God Level covers so much sonic ground that it’s impossible to nail down a singular concept or theme outside of Greedo’s established need to make the most of the time between his conviction and his mandatory stay in custody. There are menacing bangers like “Basehead,” mournful ballads like “Prayer For My Lost,” uptempo West Coast jams like “Floating,” and triumphant street anthems like “Never Bend (Remix)” featuring Lil Uzi Vert. 03 Greedo turns out to be a versatile talent and with his career being cut short, God Level is a testament to both outsized creativity and relentless work ethic.