It wasn't all good news for Drake in 2018 -- his new double album Scorpion debuted to mixed reviews, and he tapped out of a dramatic feud with veteran rapper Pusha T and his GOOD Music label head Kanye West after the two revealed he had hidden a son from the public, among other things. But Drake's solution to everything was always just more success, and once "In My Feelings" had generated the year's most viral dance challenge and helped him break the record for most weeks spent atop the Hot 100 in a calendar year -- while Scorpion became the year's best-performing set -- it was clear he was not just the most untouchable rapper, but the biggest artist in popular music altogether.
Drake actually appeared on a fourth No. 1 single in 2018 as well, but his name didn't appear in the credits -- nor did any of the guests on Travis Scott's Astroworld set, one of the year's less-expected commercial behemoths. Scott, a former protege of West's who had built a growing cult fanbase off his psychedelic-leaning albums and his incendiary live shows, officially graduated to hip-hop's A list with the long-anticipated album, which hid its stacked guest list (Frank Ocean, Stevie Wonder, The Weeknd) on its streaming tracklist, forcing fans to listen and figure out its credits for themselves. Plenty of 'em did, as the album moved over half a million units in its first week, and produced the aforementioned Drake-featuring Hot 100 champ in "SICKO MODE" -- a three-part prog-rap odyssey that would've been unimaginable as a radio single years earlier, but which got audiences so hyped with its unexpected beat switches and back-and-forth hooks that the pop world had no choice but to meet it halfway.
Rule-breaking was the name of the game for many of the fastest-growing rappers in 2018, many of whom had their initial breakthrough through the same user-friendly streaming platform, thus getting the entire scene dubbed "SoundCloud rap." In 2018, 17-year-old MC Lil Pump had the shortest Hot 100 top 10 hit in 42 years with "Gucci Gang," the most extreme example of how smashes in the streaming era were getting shorter and punchier, lest listeners have a chance to click away to something else. Singer-rapper Juice WRLD scored big with a poppier model of the emo rap that Lil Uzi Vert had crossed over the year before with the iconic "XO Tour Llif3," even getting himself on top 40 radio with his No. 2-peaking, Sting-interpolating Hot 100 smash "Lucid Dreams." Controversial rapper 6ix9ine circumvented radio altogether, building his stardom through the streets and the Internet with a series of aggressive, bullying rap anthems that dovetailed with IRL headlines about his growing gang involvement, and viral videos of him talking s--t and flaunting his success.
The artist who most defined both what fans loved and what critics hated about the SoundCloud rap moment was XXXTENTACION. The Florida rapper had broken out in late 2016 with the clumsily mastered, nauseously produced and lyrically aggro "Look at Me!," puzzling the hip-hop establishment and electrifying younger audiences. Influenced by rock as much as rap, X's success blended the most visceral and emotional parts of the two genres for a series of albums and singles that could be both frightening in their violence and soothing in their tenderness. His talent was prodigious, but his off-record behavior was disturbing, with the rapper admitting to nearly beating a gay juvenile detention cellmate to death as a teen and being accused of further horrific acts of brutality and abuse by his then-pregnant girlfriend, allegations that made some of the more misogynistic and threatening lyrics of his songs particularly hard to stomach.
Nonetheless, in 2018 XXXTENTACION was still one of the fastest-rising stars in hip-hop, as his sophomore album ? became his first set to top the Billboard 200, while its lead single -- the highly melodic, self-pitying "SAD!" -- also became his biggest crossover hit to date, making the Hot 100's top 10. But debates over whether a young man of such heinous admitted and accused actions deserved a place in hip-hop's star system -- and what it said about us that he was being given one regardless -- were rendered largely moot when he was shot to death at age 20 as a part of a robbery in his Florida home state that June. X's premature death further cemented his legend in late-'10s youth culture, with countless rappers paying tribute to their slain peer throughout the year's remainder, and "SAD!" rising to No. 1 on the Hot 100, the first posthumous chart-topper since The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems" over 20 years earlier.
While X and some of his SoundCloud brethren represented hip-hop at its most antisocial, another rising star was breaking new ground for conscientiousness at the Hot 100's apex. Not that anyone would confuse Childish Gambino (a.k.a. multi-media superstar Donald Glover) and his totemic "This Is America" for a throwback to prime Common or Mos Def -- "America" had more in common sonically with the twisted beats and elliptical rapping of the younger MCs who provided ad libs on the track (Young Thug, BlocBoy JB, Quavo). But thematically, both the song and its shocking, instantly iconic music video addressed topical concerns of gun violence and racial strife in a way that late-'10s audiences (and critics) had long been calling for popular music to do more of during such a turbulent time for society. Propelled by its video's conversation-starting virality, "This Is America" debuted atop the Hot 100, and set new benchmarks for hip-hop at the Grammys the next February, becoming the first rap song to win either song of the year or record of the year -- though Glover, long of two minds about his own mainstream acceptance, did not show up to accept the awards.