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

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Pusha T performs onstage during the 2018 Made In America Festival - Day 2 at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 2, 2018 in Philadelphia.

The year 2018 saw everybody, yes, everybody, fighting for a seat at the table in the rap world. We had luminaries such as Nas, Kanye and Nicki Minaj returning to the fold with much-anticipated releases, while emerging talents such as Saba, J.I.D. and Tierra Whack carved new lanes for themselves with indomitable projects.

And though Drake and Pusha T got embroiled in a searing lyrical showdown, both separately doled out stellar albums showcasing their exemplary skills on the mic. We even watched the thrilling return of Philly's prodigal son (and Drake's former main foe) Meek Mill, who celebrated his comeback this month with his Billboard 200 chart-topper, Championships.

Walk along with us as we dish out our top 20 rap albums from an unforgettable 2018. 

20. Royce Da 5'9'', Book of Ryan

Known for his exemplary wordplay, the criminally underrated Royce Da 5'9'' crafted his most complete album with Book of Ryan in March. While his lyrical dexterity remains unmatched ("Godspeed") it's his unrelenting honesty that cuts the deepest throughout this 22-track endeavor. On "Cocaine," Royce painfully reflects about his father's drug addiction, while also addressing his own fears as a man on the blissful "Outside." Though Royce relishes his title of elite lyricist, on Book of Ryan, he shines brighter as an intrepid soul unafraid of embracing his muddy past. -- CARL LAMARRE

19. YG, Stay Dangerous 

Over the past three years, YG has discovered his ideal lane and gotten down to the nitty gritty work of honing and sharpening his craft within it. The sound of 2018's Stay Dangerous is defined by longtime collaborator Mustard, meaning everything is in its bouncy, West Coast place, while YG busts out his rolodex to coax attention-grabbing guest turns from Quavo on the old-school "SLAY," and 2 Chainz on the star-studded single "Big Bank," along with Nicki Minaj and Big Sean. What this album does best is bring listeners into YG’s world, and there’s enough to love about it to keep them there. -- DAN RYS

18. Vince Staples, FM!

Vince Staples goes back-to-back after landing the futuristic Big Fish Theory on this very list in 2017. The shrewd Long Beach native returns with more ingenuity, crafting his third LP in the style of a radio show (with elements of L.A. morning show Big Boy's Neighborhood leading the way), to make the effort a total West Coast affair. In an era where the playlist dominates, the 25-year-old goes against the grain with a concise body of work meant to be played front-to-back, where features from a range of secretive guests (Tyga, Ty Dolla $ign, Kehlani, Earl Sweatshirt) show up throughout the 22 minutes of airtime. FM! is sure to appease the energetic youth that packed out his Coachella set, but also should earn the approval of rap's OGs -- hardly a common occurrence these days. -- MICHAEL SAPONARA

17. J.I.D, Dicaprio 2

J.I.D.'s slow burn to prominence has allowed him to continuously sharpen his rapping ability while becoming one of the most unique storytellers the genre has to offer. The 28-year-old successfully delivered the long-awaited sequel to his fan-favorite Dicaprio mixtape that dropped back in early 2015, which featured some post-production and arrangement by the late Mac Miller prior to his tragic passing in September. The ATL native goes toe-to-toe with Dreamville honcho J. Cole, exchanging bristling rhymes over ChaseTheMoney production for "Off Deez." J.I.D. switched gears to vulnerably open up about the holes in his lifestyle despite his growing fame on "Workin Out." He then boasts the ultimate versatility on the J. Cole-produced "Skrawberries," which he dedicated to female empowerment, and manages to even weave in a shout-out to former NBA star Stephon Marbury. The future is bright over at Dreamville. -- M.S.

16. Future, Beastmode 2

One of the finest pieces of Internet content this year was a fan-made video celebrating Future’s return on Beastmode 2, via a doctored clip from Breaking Bad of the character Jesse Pinkman shooting heroin with his then-girlfriend, Jane Margolis. Jane cooks up the dose for Jesse and the liquid inside the syringe transforms into the cackling purple face of Future from the “sensational” meme. She injects Jesse as the opening refrain from “Hate the Real Me” plays: “I’m tryna get high as I can, I’m tryna get high as I can, I’m tryna get high as I can.” Jesse’s eyes blow up wide and he levitates off the dingy bed. It’s ghastly and awesome, crass and inspired, which is to say it’s just like Future’s music -- art from a man whose demons know no rest, who attempts to medicate his pain away with drugs and sex, even as he knows that they are futile devices and that his twisted heart and soul will never be corrected. Zaytoven brings this out of him on Beastmode 2, where he makes powerful admissions about feeling abandoned by his father and how “a sober mind wasn’t good for me.” Business as usual, then, and totally essential. -- ROSS SCARANO

15. Saba, CARE FOR ME

Pain begets pain but in the world of Saba, his grief and turmoil were integral pieces needed to power his meditative album CARE FOR ME. After his cousin John Walt was stabbed and killed in Chicago last year, Saba allowed his pen and the blood of his confidant to bleed through the melancholy project. CARE FOR ME is gripping, somber and essential for those seeking solace after being strangled by the pain of loss. The album's standout, "PROM/KING," allows the 23-year-old to ruminate about his troubling prom experience, but also how he and Walt became a tighter tandem before his cousin's untimely demise. -- C.L.

14. Lil Baby & Gunna, Drip Harder 

Even in an era where joint albums are more common than they’ve ever been, the combination of Lil Baby and Gunna produced the most refreshing and cohesive collaborative effort since Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s Tha Tour Part 1 in 2014. "Drip Too Hard" was the standout single, but there are plenty of gems to be found throughout, like the earnest Baby showcase "Deep End" or the singsong warnings of Gunna’s "Style Stealer." By the time Drake comes along for the project closer "Never Recover," it almost feels like overkill -- who needs who the most in that scenario? -- D.R.

13. Drake, Scorpion

After having his personal life exposed on Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” (seriously, was there a more scathing line this year than “You are hiding a child”?), Drake decided to combat his rap foe’s disses by flipping the script (flip flip) to overload us with a celebratory and gargantuan double-album. While some of the songs simply don’t work (see: “Ratchet Happy Birthday”), the bangers really BANG: “Nonstop” is a menacing lesson in flex, the zippy “Mob Ties” finds him completely exhausted with everyone on the planet, “In My Feelings” is peak emotional Aubrey, and “After Dark” even leads a ‘90s-inspired quiet storm. While we didn’t really need another Drake album, the success of Scorpion shows that The Boy can do whatever he wants at this point -- he’s still going to win regardless. -- B.G.

12. Mac Miller, Swimming  

Depression fucking sucks. It rips you into tiny little pieces of despair, tips you over the edge at any given moment and forces you to stare into the black eyes of your inner demons. But when you’re able to find the light, it gives you hope that better days are ahead. The late Mac Miller knew just what that felt like, and on Swimming (his fifth and final album), it seemed like he found a way to keep his head above water. The warm strings on “2009” envelope you like a childhood blanket, the funky grooves of “What’s The Use” make you want to dance and “Self Care” is a valuable lesson in optimism. Mac was on a road to recovery, and it hurts to know that journey was cut way before its time. -- B.G.

11. J. Cole, K.O.D.

On what's undoubtedly his most ambitious project to date, J. Cole's fifth studio album finds the rapper test-driving different flows created by SoundCloud all-stars like XXXTentacion and Lil Pump while also cautioning the new generation against their affinity for instant gratification. On K.O.D. -- which carries three different subtitles (Kidz On Drugz, King Overdose, Kill Our Demonz) -- Cole wrestles with temptation ("Kevin's Heart"), money woes ("Brackets") and relationships in the era of social media ("Photograph"). But the Dreamville mastermind is at his best on the visceral closer "1985," which scolds today's trendiest rappers about their lack of music-biz knowledge. "Just remember what I told you when your shit flop/ In five years you gon' be on Love & Hip-Hop, n---a."  - C.L.

10. Meek Mill, Championships

After spending seven months in prison, Meek Mill was hungry for not only redemption, but rap supremacy. With his eyes set on cutting down the net, last November, Meek conjured up a slam dunk with Championships. The celebratory project finds Meek not only rejoicing with his comrades on party anthems such as "Uptown" and "Going Bad," but also pummeling a phalanx of samples for recreational purposes: his penchant for explosive intros continue with him bodyslamming Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" on the album's first track. "Streets said they need that dope, they having withdrawals." Welcome home, Meek. -- C.L.

9. Jay Rock, Redemption

The 33-year-old TDE rapper continued to rise to the occasion in the midst of Kanye West's flurry of June G.O.O.D. Music releases to emerge victorious with 2018’s Redemption. Jay Rock's Redemption tour began when he woke up in the hospital following a near-fatal motorcycle accident the night of the 2016 Grammys, which he was supposed to attend alongside K. Dot. The Watts rapper channeled the life-changing night on wax to kick off his cinematic LP with the scathing "The Bloodiest." He flips the tragedy into triumph toward Redemption's closing bell with the celebratory Kendrick Lamar-assisted "Win" that will also compete alongside "King's Dead" for best rap song at the 2019 Grammys. TDE's all-star cast seems to look more robust with each passing year. -- M.S.

8. Noname, Room 25

“Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you driving home late at night, really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches…” On Room 25’s opener “Self,” Noname described the introspective vibe of her debut album perfectly. Atop producer Phoelix’s lush jazz rhythms, she also dips into her slam poetry background to embrace vulnerability (“Don’t Forget About Me”), shines a light on her blackness (“Blaxpoitation”) and lets herself be giddy in love (“Montego Bae”). While most coming-of-age stories that we’re used to revolves on suburban white teens of Middle America, the Chicago rapper (born Fatimah Warner) flips the script to share her journey in becoming a fully grown black woman. -- B.G.

7. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter V

After half a decade of drama and false starts, saying that Tha Carter V was highly anticipated is clearly an understatement. But it’s just as accurate to say that this album was met with trepidation before it came out, too -- after so long, would Wayne still have it? Or would it be better for us to just remember him as he was? Luckily, there wasn’t any reason to be worried: Weezy roared back in fine form. Even if he’s no longer the singular, world-shifting artist he was in the mid-to-late 2000s, "Dedicate" still reminds everyone that the current form of hip-hop wouldn’t exist without him breaking down the barriers to allow it, while tracks like "Mona Lisa" with Kendrick Lamar and "Dope Niggaz" with Snoop Dogg see him going toe to toe with some of the greatest to ever do it -- his true peers, by that metric. Yes, it’s a bit too long, but there’s something for everyone among its 23 tracks. -- D.R.

6. Tierra Whack, Whack World

A focused sugar-rush that gets richer with each listen, Whack World is one of the most surprising and creative debuts of the year in any genre. Its 15 minute-long songs (and accompanying music videos, which first debuted on Instagram) immediately signalled Philadelphia’s Tierra Whack as a rising star. And her approach puts her in the company of some of the best album-crafters in hip-hop. The best rap albums of 2019 are all exercises in concision, singling out ideas and then expressing then without unnecessary excess. Thus, “4 Wings” is a song about loss; “Hungry Hippo” is about pride in your work; “Fruit Salad” is about taking care of yourself; and so on. It’s the rare debut that all but guarantees the sophomore project will be even better, as Tierra Whack lets us further into the inside of her singular mind. -- R.S.

5. Travis Scott, Astroworld

This right here is astronomical. Scott completed the vision of bringing his childhood theme park to life through his experimental art with Astroworld, which completed his gradual rise from underground darling to mainstream global superstar. At its core, La Flame proved to be the ultimate collaborator with his third LP, precisely unleashing a prolific lineup of guests in prime opportunities for success, all of while remaining the star attraction. Cactus Jack's commercial success outpaced even the loftiest of predictions for Astroworld, posting the second-largest first-week numbers of 2018 with 537,000 equivalent album sales, while the Drake-assisted three-piece composition "Sicko Mode" may go on to be the most atypical radio hit the genre has seen in recent memory, landing Scott his first placement atop the Billboard Hot 100. With Travis having everything he could've dreamed of when he set out to pursue music, all we can do is wonder what he could possibly have in store on his next ride. -- M.S.

4. Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap

Years in the making, Victory Lap puts Nipsey Hussle in the enviable position of already having fully established himself as a powerful talent upon the release of his debut. The album is a blockbuster that sounds like wealth and hard work; its engineering and production is as clean and crisp as VVS diamonds. Nearly every verse is a chiseled ode to empowerment and betterment; you could mount the lyrics in guidance counselor’s offices across the country. At his best moments, though, Nipsey is perfectly calm and collected as he demonstrates how your life can’t see his. “What you know about the dope game?/ Was you born in the ’80s, did your mama smoke cocaine?” He’s so cold when he delivers those rhetoricals on “Double Up,” produced immaculately by Teddy Walton and featuring one of the best Dom Kennedy verses in years. “We keep doing fly shit when the cameras cut” -- that’s the mantra. -- R.S.

3. The Carters, Everything Is Love

A surprise gift from the couple that has everything, the long-rumored collaborative album from Beyonce and Jay-Z arrived on a Saturday afternoon in June. Everything Is Love was by turns languid and sweet (“SUMMER”), spiny and sneering (“FRIENDS”), righteous and moral (“BLACK EFFECT”) and just plain thrilled by the potential of two geniuses united in love and art (“HEARD ABOUT US”). The hesitancy and timidity that marked Jay’s flows on 4:44 were replaced here by liquid confidence (see his barn-burning missive to Kanye West on “FRIENDS”). Beyonce rapped and sang her ass off, sheer displays of fun that stood in stark contrast to the tortured emotion of LEMONADE, prompting Jay to provide one of the most concise reviews of the diva’s abilities: “It’s Beyonce, n---a.” Nothing we can can say to top that. -- R.S.

2. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy

Did you think Cardi B was going to let you get away with calling her a one-hit wonder? After the immense success that was “Bodak Yellow,” many were a little too quick to brush off the regular degular shmegular girl from the Bronx’s staying power. But Cardi put all her naysayers in their place with her triumphant debut album, Invasion of Privacy. In just under 50 minutes, the rapper unleashes numerous facets of her complex talents. Whether it’s pointing her sharp talons in the face of a cheating boyfriend on “Be Careful,” heading to the dirty south for the twerk-tastic “Bickenhead,” calling upon Chance the Rapper to bask in the riches of her Binderella story on “Best Life” or celebrating her Latin roots on the incredibly infectious “I Like It,” Cardi proves that she’ll be running this rap shit like cardio for years to come. -- B.G.

1. Pusha T, Daytona

Trust Pusha T to pack maximum invective into an economical 21 minutes and still pack so much of a wallop that no other rap album could touch it in 2018. Push has always been blessed by the best producers in the game, dating back to the early days of the Pharrell-backed Clipse, and here Kanye West doesn’t disappoint -- just the beat to "The Games We Play" is enough to cause ordinary people to give up everything and embark on a life of crime. But it’s Push’s lip-curling sneer that leaves the biggest impression on the listener throughout the seven-track project. It says something when even headline appearances from Rick Ross and West just seem to detract from the project -- their presence means less time for Pusha’s snarl, a forever mood for 2018. That its final track sparked the beef that defined the year in hip-hop is merely a footnote to this set's accomplishments. It’s the rap album of the year, without a sliver of doubt. -- D.R.

Billboard Year in Music 2018


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