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The best hip-hop albums of 2018

The best hip-hop albums of 2018
Photo: Cardi B (Jora Frantzis), Vince Staples (Def Jam Recordings), Earl Sweatshirt (Steven Taylor), Graphic: Libby McGuire
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Holy shit, what a year for hip-hop! Could it actually be that this year saw the release of new albums by (deep breath) Drake, Kanye, Kanye again, JAY-Z and Beyoncé, Nas, Meek Mill, J. Cole, Rae Sremmurd, Nicki Minaj, Playboi Carti, and Eminem, as well as the long-awaited release into the wild of Tha Carter V? It could. Could it be that there were 20 albums released this year better than those glossy, massively anticipated LPs? So we are arguing. In truth, any of these picks is merely the tip of an iceberg: If you like Saba and Noname, god, please listen to Smino and Mick Jenkins; if you like Hermit And The Recluse, you’ve got to hear Roc Marciano and Hus Kingpin; if you like Earl, check out Medhane and Adé Hakim and the two excellent albums this year by his friend Mike. If you like Sheck Wes, have you been on SoundCloud lately? If you like 03 Greedo, did you know he has roughly one billion other albums?

We could go on and on like this. If you listen to a lot of hip-hop, the below list certainly excludes some of your favorite albums of the year. If you don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop, the below list certainly includes some of your new favorite albums of the year. Loving hip-hop is a gloriously Sisyphean quest to stay up-to-date, every platform and channel an endless algorithmically generated flood of new scenes, new voices, new ideas. Here’s a snapshot of this year’s bounty.

03 Greedo, God Level

03 Greedo has a sprawling back catalog of hours-long LPs, making this year’s omnibus Wolf Of Grape Street an appealing starting point. But it’s the all-new God Level—which the Watts rapper recorded in a breathless stretch of studio time before beginning a 20-year sentence on trafficking charges—that finds the rapper at his most manic and luminous. Like, say, 2014 Young Thug, Greedo shape-shifts over every beat, sometimes crooning (“In My Feelings”) or gliding (“Dibiase”) or spitting at a low-key bounce (“Different Flavors”). Ultimately, though, he only sounds like himself, an American original now cruelly trapped in its carceral state. [Clayton Purdom]

Armand Hammer, Paraffin

Like a lot of the years’ best records, Paraffin is full of noise, rupturing unbidden out of tracks, with beats that bang like golden-age loops left to run ragged and dissonant for two decades. It’s jagged, ferocious, purposeful; on their third record together, Billy Woods and Elucid have finally nailed it, creating a sonic backdrop for their taut, poetic lines about police brutality, the weight of history, “pearly gates and dystopic visions.” Next time you’re pining for some of that old Def Jux fire, look no further. [Clayton Purdom]

Cardi B, Invasion Of Privacy

Charisma, thy name is Cardi B. After conquering the earth with a string of singles in 2017, Cardi made good with Invasion Of Privacy, turning explosive fame, a volatile personal life, and always-on social media stardom into a string of tough, witty verses, all delivered with her inimitable Bronx bluster. That 2018 has been no less eventful for the rapper bodes well for her future; she’s the rare star that transmutes attention into art. [Clayton Purdom]

Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs

The demurely titled Some Rap Songs betters its haunting predecessor, affirming Earl Sweatshirt’s status as one of our greatest living rappers. Over a string of densely sampled, psychedelic beats, equal parts Madlib and William Basinski, Earl weaves together grief, pride, depression, family, fear, and sheer ecstatic wordplay into a portrait of awakening intellectualism that has more in common with Illmatic than the work of his former Odd Future compatriots. It may only be 24 minutes long, but it sounds like a lifetime. [Clayton Purdom]

Lil Baby and Gunna, Drip Harder

“Drip Too Hard” is the stunner here, Lil Baby’s flow like a brook moving in jump-cuts, but the rest is a hell of a hang. On the one hand, it’s just a mess of brand names, and on the other, it’s so blissed out you may wonder if a two-tone Patek is all you need to conquer your depression. Friends help too; the chemistry between our heroes is easy and strong as they flex each other into abstraction, traveling as one toward nirvana, or at least the next Bentley dealership. [Colin McGowan]

Listen to songs from The A.V. Club’s best albums of 2018—from punk, country, metal, electronic, and more—on our Spotify playlist.

Noname, Room 25

If hip-hop were a rowdy room dominated by shit-talkers and attention-seekers, as it sometimes feels, Noname would be the quiet one in the corner who, when prompted, torches everyone with a quick, understated line. People lean in when she speaks her mind, partly because of the easy way she delivers sharp, heady observations and partly because she raps at the volume of an intimate conversation. Technically her debut LP, Room 25 finds her opening up about her newfound success, sex life, and home in L.A.—a coming of age in jazz-rap watercolors. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Pusha T, Daytona

From deep within the dust-choked pocket of “The Games We Play,” Neighborhood P offers Daytona as his “purple tape.” It’s not quite that—for one, it’s short as a sneeze compared to Raekwon’s kingpin epic—but the menacing verve is there, as are references to “[doing] the Fred Astaire on a brick.” Kanye has always excelled as an editor. Daytona is him paring the sharpest nihilist in the game down to novella length: nothing but action, barbs, and heat. [Colin McGowan]

Saba, Care For Me

Saba’s been one of Chicago’s hardest-working rappers for years, turning every mixtape or cameo alongside friends like Chance The Rapper into opportunities to raise his profile and his game considerably. But even after a strong solo debut in 2016, few could’ve predicted the impact of follow-up Care For Me, a devastating meditation on loss that marks Saba’s much-deserved breakthrough. Here his agile, emotive flow and life-and-death lyricism reach new heights, nowhere more so than on the epic eulogy “Prom/King.” [Kelsey J. Waite]

Vince Staples, FM!

Few people can do more in eight bars than Vince Staples, whose verses are always these diamond-tight pieces of craft, every syllable placed exactly where it should be. The 22-minute FM! finds our crown prince of concision at his most caustic, turning a stretch of spring-loaded tracks and exclamatory song titles (“Outside!”) into a bracing snapshot of Long Beach life, full of evil-genius hooks (“No Bleedin,” “FUN!”) and hauntingly taut verses (“When Johnny died, all I had was shows booked,” from “Tweakin’”). [Clayton Purdom]

Tierra Whack, Whack World

It feels a little like cheating to call Whack World a rap album, so elastic are Tierra Whack’s style and flow. It’s even weird to call it just an album when it’s an equally brilliant visual experience and shrewd marketing move, its one-minute tracks tailor-made for Instagram. This subversion of expectations is essential to Whack’s art, of course—is she mourning an actual “dog” in “Pet Cemetery” or her “dawg” Hulitho?—and it’s why we’ve all been returning, beguiled, to push Whack World past 2 million views this year. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Honorable mentions

Cupcakke, Ephorize and Eden 
Chicago’s queen of sex-positive rap self-released two albums this year, both full of her signature hi-hat beats and funny, filthy couplets. [Katie Rife]

Hermit And The Recluse, Orpheus Vs. The Sirens
Ka raps exclusively in 70mm, here turning the myth of Orpheus into another midnight saga of lonely samurai, scorched landscapes, and bars that deserve to be whispered, like a prayer. [Clayton Purdom]

Jay Rock, Redemption 
Jay’s the bedrock of Kendrick’s longtime label, Top Dawg Entertainment, and Redemption is his best album, an unflashy, haunted, and ultimately triumphant Watts come-up story. [Clayton Purdom]

J.I.D., DiCaprio 2 
The very music of DiCaprio 2 seems to defer to J.I.D., its big, opulent productions morphing and making way for his snaking black-out flow. [Clayton Purdom]

Maxo Kream, Punken
For all its skittering trap hi-hats, Punken’s got a surprisingly old heart, full of recurring characters and shaggy-dog stories and hyper-specific, diaristic detail. [Clayton Purdom]

Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap 
After a decade of grinding out mixtapes, Los Angeles stalwart Nipsey Hussle finally took his Victory Lap, full of exuberant beats and verses wrenched out in that inimitable, weathered howl. [Clayton Purdom]

Rico Nasty, Nasty 
Kenny Beats throws Neptunes funk, screaming electric guitars, and atomic bass booms at Rico Nasty, and she tears literally every one of them to shreds. [Clayton Purdom]

Sheck Wes, Mudboy
Mudboy’s the rare massively hyped debut that delivers on its promise, introducing a wild-eyed shit-starter of an emcee with a killer ear for beats. [Clayton Purdom]

Travis Scott, Astroworld
Travis Scott finds the middle ground between Grimes and Rae Sremmurd, somehow making the Beastie Boys, Thundercat, John Mayer, Drake, and Stevie Wonder all melt together like hallucinations in a never-ending Houston night. [Clayton Purdom]

SOB X RBE, Gangin
Gangin is the type of shit you crash a rental car to, a careening, headlong blast of music delivered by four young rappers who, in the tradition of so many young men before them, keep egging each other on to increasingly delirious heights. [Clayton Purdom]