The 20 Best Hip-Hop Songs of 2018: Critics' Picks

Jenny Regan
Travis Scott onstage at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 28, 2018.

Though we were blessed with plenty of bops in 2017, this year, the hip-hop world truly gave our ears the royal treatment. Not only did we catch ourselves chest-bumping strangers because of Sheck Wes' raging ode to an NBA rookie, but we were also left entranced by the spellbinding ride of Travis Scott and Drake's three-part chart-topper. 

Don't sleep on the ladies either, because they were spinning off bangers while on the clock, too. Miami's City Girls kept the ladies engaged with twerk-worthy anthems, while Noname peppered a fistful of empowering gems to help women trek their way through 2018.  

Everyone made a splash, but only 20 songs truly had our hearts during this ultra-competitive year. See which ones made the cut below. 

20. Migos, "Stir Fry"

Migos had already mastered beats fit for the grimiest trap house in the Nawf, so it was a little surprising when they linked up with Pharrell to grab a decade-old beat that sounds straight out of Soul Train. Built around Mohawks’ 1968 funk classic “Champ,” the buzzing jam highlights each Migos’ individual talent: Quavo lets his soul glow on the glossy hook, Offset delivers his signature tongue-twisting flow and Takeoff finishes the tune with a ton of brilliant metaphors (“No casket, drop dead fresh and I got dead guys”). You’ll be too busy getting your groove on to “Stir Fry” to notice they’re actually rapping about cooking crack. -- BIANCA GRACIE

19. Metro Boomin feat. 21 Savage, “Don’t Come Out the House”

Leave it to 21 Savage, hip-hop’s resident taking-the-joke-too-far guy, to not only give you the heebie jeebies with whispered threats over Metro Boomin's underwater bass drops, but to snap back to his regular register to taunt you for your scared face: “Y'all musta thought that I was gon' whisper the whole time.” Just one of the many evil delights to be had on “Don’t Come Out the House,” the year’s most menacing melange of grimy pianos, anxious drums and boasts so bizarre they almost feel like confessions (“I had a wet dream about beef”). No other producer-rapper pairing has chemistry quite like this right now, allowing both the freedom and comfort to be their best weirdo selves. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER

18. City Girls feat. Cardi B, "Twerk"

With only two albums under their Gucci belts, City Girls have already mastered how to make epic twerk paeans. So when they finally dropped a single called “Twerk” that samples Choppa’s 2002 southern classic “Choppa Style,” it had no choice to be the ultimate club anthem that makes you want to BOUNCE DAT ASS. The song gets an extra dose of energy thanks to Cardi B, who snaps with the best line of all: “This pussy wild, they should throw it in a cage!” -- B.G.

17. Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Future & James Blake, "King's Dead"

Originally crafted as a single for the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album, Jay Rock also included this super-teaming as the centerpiece to his 2018 album Redemption. Anchored by Lamar's bouncy refrain, Rock hopscotches his way through the Teddy Walton & Mike WiLL Made-It-crafted beat with immaculate footwork. Future leaves his imprint on the track with his trippy delivery and falsetto’d Three 6 Mafia lift, while Lamar spits a stunningly frenetic closing verse after a brief interlude from James Blake neatly sets the table. -- CARL LAMARRE

16. Lil Uzi Vert, "New Patek"

Lil Uzi Vert is interested in Heaven’s Gate, the Comet Hale-Bopp death cult whose members departed this life in hopes of extraterrestrial transcendence in March, 1997, all wearing identical Nike Decades. The artwork for “New Patek” features the cult’s keyhole logo superimposed over a screenshot from Uzi’s Instagram, where he first previewed “New Patek,” a sprawling, nearly six-minute long song held in place by a sample from the anime series Death Parade. What does any of this have to do with a song where Uzi takes pride in expensive timepieces and rudely suggests a prospective sexual partner should shower first? Maybe nothing. But there’s no mistaking this for the work of anyone but Uzi, who is one of rap’s weirdest young stars. Increasingly, that’s all I want from art: the sense that it wouldn’t have been made by anyone else. -- ROSS SCARANO

15. Jay Rock, "Win"

Jay Rock put a stamp on his road to Redemption with the Grammy-nominated single “Win.” The celebratory anthem finds the Watts rapper backed by Kendrick Lamar vocals oozing with unrelenting confidence. The horn-laden production brought Rock’s puffed-chest rhymes to life, thanks to the behind-the-boards dream team of CT, Vinylz, and OVO’s Boi-1da. “Fuck everything else, win, win, win, win,” the TDE signee boasts on the track’s chorus. A motto that has the late Raiders owner Al Davis can look down upon from the heavens with a smile. -- MICHAEL SAPONARA

14. Meek Mill feat. JAY-Z & Rick Ross, "What's Free?"

Flipping a classic Biggie track like "What’s Beef" should be considered cheating, but if you can manage to pull an all-time verse from JAY-Z for it, you can get a pass. Ross floats over the beat like he was born for it, before ending his verse with an awkward and avoidable misstep, but "What’s Free" stands this tall on the strength of Meek and Hov and their withering commentary on the criminal justice system, among a slew of other topics. Jay takes time to give all his critics half a bar -- yes, even Billboard -- while Meek raps about sending kids to college over the instrumental that defined the parameters of rap beef. It’s iconic. -- DAN RYS

13. BlocBoy JB feat. Drake, "Look Alive"

Drake raps, “901 Shelby Drive, look alive, look alive,” and just like that, Memphis hip-hop was back on the mainstream’s radar. After failing to get Trippie Redd on his early-’18 smash “God’s Plan,” the 6 God threw his first alley-oop of the year when he introduced the lethal combination of childhood friends BlocBoy JB and Tay Keith to the world via the minimalist “Look Alive.” The song dominated radio airwaves, and cracked the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 in April. “I'ma get the money, I'ma get the money/ Dr—Dr—Drizzy get the loot,” BlocBoy raps. Well, the 22-year-old can hit his signature “Shoot” dance all the way to the bank with the extra coin that poured in from his first hit record. -- M.S.

12. Rae Sremmurd feat. Juicy J, "Powerglide"

Rae Sremmurd’s talents glow the best on production that's more bonkers than family-friendly, so it was only a matter of time until they sampled Three 6 Mafia, swiping “Side 2 Side” for this year’s “Powerglide” single. But instead of keeping those original strings intact, producer Mally Mall accelerated it to head-twisting levels, transforming the sample into razor-sharp synths that only the brave would dare rage (or twerk) to. To top it all off, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee brought Juicy J to the party, who throws in a “RIP Lil Peep” shoutout in his incredible guest verse. -- B.G.

11. Noname, "Don't Forget About Me"

“Who holds my hand tonight?” Noname has questions on “Don’t Forget About Me,” her professed favorite song on her latest project, Room 25, but very little in the way of answers. For an album about getting older and trying to untangle the confusions of love, sex, fame and responsibility, that’s the point; a side-effect of maturity can be less certainty -- or rather, the only certainty is the inevitability of uncertainty. Over gentle Phoelix production, Noname’s wordplay is exemplary, especially a few early bars about cancer and Disney movies. Her conclusion: “All I am is everything and nothing at all… all I am is love.” -- R.S.

10. Lil Wayne feat. Swizz Beatz, "Uproar"

Weezy’s back. And not just any Weezy -- the carefree, off the cuff, genuinely joyful Wayne that hasn’t been around in nearly a decade. When he’s at his absolute best, Wayne can rap endlessly about anything and still somehow unleash an unending run of clever wordplay, and Swizz Beatz’s flip of G Dep’s Bad Boy classic "Special Delivery" serves as the perfect jumping off point for Tune to drop gems like "Yellow diamonds up close, catch a sunstroke" and "Put the green in the bag like a lawnmower/Hair trigger pulled back like a cornrow." -- D.R.

9. Pusha T, "The Games We Play"

At the ripe age of 41, Pusha T eviscerated the competition with the best year of his solo career. Prior to the famed Wyoming sessions, King Push holed up with Kanye West at a lavish five-star resort in Utah, where the origins of DAYTONA began to take form. One of the first songs that came together happened to be the bristling “The Games We Play.” The G.O.O.D. Music president’s drug-laced raps sound as fresh as ever over the knocking Yeezy chop, and he even makes sure to pay homage to a few legends that paved the way: “This ain't for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters/ Who grew up on legends from outer Yonkers/ Influenced by n---s straight outta Compton.” -- M.S.

8. Lil Baby & Gunna, "Drip Too Hard"

Lil Baby and Gunna were the breakout tag team of the year, and "Drip Too Hard" was their hybrid catchphrase/anthem. Baby in particular has an effortless ability to sound both earnest and indifferent at the same time, embodying the song’s central theme -- "Doin' all these shows, I've been on the road/Don't care where I go, long as I get paid" -- over an expansive Turbo beat. -- D.R.

7. Tyga, "Taste"

Tyga became the butt-end of jokes from online trolls following his high-profile breakup with teenage reality star Kylie Jenner in 2017, as his rap career was also brought to a crossroads. After an unsuccessful pivot with his attempted singing Kyoto album in February, Tyga returned to his strip-club roots. Enter the Offset-assisted “Taste” to provide the soundtrack behind T-Raww’s Comeback Player of the Year run, and become a song of the summer candidate with an eight-week run in the Hot 100’s top 10. The D.A. Doman-produced earworm of a beat was so catchy, it even had the often grumpy Joe Budden singing.  -- M.S.

6. Drake, "Nice For What"

In a time when women are not always given their proper credit, Murda Beatz adroitly sampled Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor" to help build a booming anthem centered around women's empowerment. Drake's bars call for women to properly recognize the “real one” in their reflections, but also to treat themselves by stunting hard at the club after working a double shift ("Doin' overtime for the last month/ Saturday, call the girls, get 'em gassed up."). A woman's superpowers should never be undermined, and thanks to Drizzy's "Nice For What," they were given an appropriate spotlight in at least one place in 2018. -- C.L.

5. Sheck Wes, "Mo Bamba"

The centerpiece of “Mo Bamba,” 2018’s breakout club banger turned chart smash from Harlem teen Sheck Wes, is a string of profanity. Fuck! Shit! Bitch! It’s the aural equivalent of elbowing your way through a crowd to make room to do something truly memorable and dumb. Hear it once and you’ll want to hear it again, so that next time you can participate. Maybe it’s an obvious lesson, but turning up is about becoming part of the room, and an easily memorized phrase, like Fuck! Shit! Bitch!, is your membership fee. From there, you can move onto to advanced placement recognition: Young Sheck Wes and I’m getting really rich! See how I caught it cuz I’m really with the shits! “Mo Bamba” is blunt force trauma as song; it unites people. -- R.S.

4. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

It's no secret that President Trump is public enemy No. 1 in the rap world -- ask Shady -- but rather than poke fun at the demonstrative leader of the free world, Donald Glover takes a different approach on his first-ever Hot 100 No. 1 hit. "This Is America" not only highlights the turmoil and struggles endured by African Americans on a daily basis, but cleverly juxtaposes those plights with its simple, catchy lyrics and hooks: While Gambino raps about his community dealing with "guns in my area," he also urges the black man to get that paper. With a bevy of ad-libs sprinkled throughout the record by a who’s who of 2018 rap, the anthem gives us reason to be nervous about our future as a country, but also reason to jam. -- C.L.

3. The Carters, "Apeshit"

Beyonc√© has always snuck in flashes of her rap skills over the years, but she really proved she was better than your fave when she went completely “APESHIT” on this Everything Is Love firestarter. Even her superstar husband has to take a back seat on the wild, trappy, alien rave of a track (produced by frequent collaborator Pharrell) as King Bey rips into the frenetic triplet flow that made Migos famous. JAY-Z also makes an imprint with a verse dripping with sarcasm and Patek watches, but when he shuffles side-stage to play his partner’s hypeman (“SHE WENT CRAZY!”), you know it’s something serious. - B.G.

2. Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin, "I Like It"

Haters really thought Cardi B would be a one-hit wonder after the success of her thunderous single "Bodak Yellow"? Cardi matched the success of her breakout hit with this year’s Latin-tinged summer banger "I Like It." With Latin heavyweights Bad Bunny and J. Balvin in her corner, the Bronx firecracker pounced on the Peter Rodriguez-sampling beat to gush about her love for million dollar deals and Balenciagas -- you know, “the ones that look like socks” -- as she dropkicks sorry exes seeking a second chance (Sorry Offset!). In July, Cardi ousted Drake's "In My Feelings" from the top spot on the Hot 100 and landed her second No. 1 record. What'd you expect? This "hot tamale" loves "proving n---as wrong." -- C.L.

1. Travis Scott, "Sicko Mode"

If 2018 was the year that Travis Scott finally arrived as a fully-formed superstar in his own right, then this is the song that put him over the edge. Scott’s creativity was always bubbling just under the surface, but on "SICKO MODE" he was able to break down the traditional barriers of what constitutes a hit song to create this three-part epic that stitches together pieces of Drake epics with a goofy-yet-quotable bridge section that all adds up to one of the best, most original songs of the year -- regardless of how you feel about the geography of Calabasas. -- D.R.

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