Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
J. Cole, onstage in Oakland this summer, refracted hip-hop through an absurdist lens on KOD.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
J. Cole, onstage in Oakland this summer, refracted hip-hop through an absurdist lens on KOD.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
It was the year that trolls and tabloid fodder took over. It was the year that beef became the chief marketing strategy. It was the year that hype trumped truth. And we're not even talking politics yet.
In these absurd times, rap provided an equally surreal soundtrack. This ranked year-end list — which includes the hip-hop albums voted onto NPR's original 50 Best Albums of 2018 list, with writing that was originally published there — provides an unintentional reflection of the overwhelming weight we bore in 2018. It's full of personal rumination, grief and grit, escapist fantasy, hyperreality and some serious melody making. The following order is our dire attempt to extract some meaning from it all.
CARE FOR ME
Anyone who's experienced death up close knows the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — don't come in such a neat, orderly fashion. They crash like waves, unrelenting and unforgiving. CARE FOR ME is the sound of Chicago hip-hop artist Saba trying not to drown as he grapples with the aftermath of his cousin John Walt's 2017 murder in Chicago. If it sounds like a familiar story, it's not. The specificity with which Saba renders his personal inventory of survivor's guilt, toxic relationships and internal struggles, while swimming against a rising tide of systemic injustice, elevates CARE FOR ME from mere tragedy to living tribute. And when the album finally reaches the point of surrender ("Heaven All Around Me"), after climaxing with Saba's seven-minute, cinematic recounting of his life with Walt ("Prom / King"), you'll be wiping away your own tears. —Rodney Carmichael
Chantal Anderson/Courtesy of the artist
A week after releasing one of the best albums of the year, Noname tweeted out a missive that perfectly encapsulated the frustration of being a wildly creative, independent artist without major-label backing in 2018. "This f*** around and be my last tape," she wrote in a since-deleted tweet. "The way n***** consume music is so weird. I hope Room 25 means something to someone. If not, I tried." Her timing coincided with the weekly release of the Billboard 200, where Room 25 failed to debut among the week's 200 best-selling and -streaming albums. It's a vivid reminder that, despite rap being the most-consumed genre, the industry has yet to devise a metric capable of accurately measuring the value of black genius.
Raised in the same Bronzeville neighborhood that birthed Gwendolyn Brooks' Pulitzer-winning work, Noname is hip-hop's unabashed poet laureate. On Room 25, she continues the coming of age narrative she began with her 2016 Telefone debut by letting us ride shotgun as she journeys and journals from the South Side of Chicago to uncharted territory. But it's really a trip to her soul, as she counts the wages of American sin, bartered success, oppressive politics, unrequited love and sexual liberation. "The secret is I'm actually broken / I tried to raise a healing, kneeling at the edge of the ocean," she raps on "Don't Forget About Me." These are redemption songs, forged by Noname's attempt to reconcile newfound independence with the knowledge that her people will never truly be free.
Her voice is intimate, revealing, satirical, cerebral, always clever and forever questing. All this bone-deep work she's doing out in public to construct a world out of equal parts diligence and sacred indulgence isn't really for us: "Nah, actually this is for me," she raps on "Self." We're just fortunate enough to reap the benefit. Meanwhile, the algorithm to chart her soul's progression has yet to be created. —Rodney Carmichael
3. Cardi B
Invasion of Privacy
Cardi B is a breath of fresh air full of car horns blasting as they crawl up Jerome Avenue. She's every sense at once: the visual shock of white lace and red velvet Jordans on a dancer's body; the lip-smacking lure of plantains and pastelitos from a truck; the fragrance of White Diamonds, like your grandma use to wear. Cardi B somehow incorporates this multi-sensory experience into every one of her raps, and that's what makes her debut album so much more than the year's most impressive commercial breakthrough. Whether spitting street style in her debut album opener "Get Up 10" or trash talking with the stars (propositioning Rihanna and Chrissy Teigen for a threesome, NP) on "She Bad," the rapper always seems to go beyond mere words to attain a tangible presence in the room, or head, of any listener. Her words (sometimes co-written, which she freely admits) would be enough; as Invasion of Privacy proves on every track, Cardi can be as funny as Eminem, minus the hate and self-seriousness; as sensual as Drake and as casually musical as the guys in her rap family, Migos.
Cardi demanded to play on whatever field she wanted from the beginning. From social media to reality television to the recording studio, she learned something crucial at each step – the flash of memes, the improvisational skill of comedy, the impeccable memory rap requires. What impresses on the surface is her versatility as Cardi travels from trap to R&B to salsa on one of the biggest Latin crossover songs of the year, "I Like It." Cardi's bilingual, multivalent way of being is more than just adaptable: She walks into a song and it changes. —Ann Powers
Cactus Jack / Epic / Grand Hustle
Cactus Jack / Epic / Grand Hustle
4. Travis Scott
You cannot watch Travis Scott perform live and be indifferent. He draws you in instantly: His presence demanding attention, his gaze often a stare-down, his verses melodic, telling stories. He never screams his words — he raps methodically, painstakingly. Astroworld, his third album, is named for a Six Flags park in his hometown of Houston that shut down over a decade ago; Travis Scott said the closure took joy away from the kids, so he wanted to bring it back, at least metaphorically. The album is a highly produced experience: The beats surprise, phase in and out, abruptly stop. But Travis Scott's words are simple and honest, tackling parenthood, relationships, his success, the competition, daily life. Astroworld is 58 minutes that won't disappoint, from an artist who may well be the most most exciting hip-hop act working today. —Monika Evstatieva
Young Money / Cash Money / Republic
Rappers take notice: Drake put on a step by step clinic on how to withstand a potential career damaging PR nightmare. Record your most consistent work and do it with ambition. If you drop an album in 2018 clocking at nearly ninety minutes, it better be undeniably great. Address the tabloid fodder that inquiring minds want to know. Respond to your opponent 8 Mile final battle style, magnifying your own shortcomings, and get back to the hits. Link one of your hits to a popular Instagram comedian and catapult said hit to an audience who couldn't care less about a rap battle. It's simple, right? —Bobby Carter
Dreamville / Roc Nation / Interscope
6. J. Cole
When I think back on J. Cole's fifth studio album, there isn't one song or 16-bar verse that'll stick with me as much as the newly viral footage of a rapper caught in a drug-induced lean as he nods out in the middle of his Instagram Live broadcast. Opiates are a helluva drug. On KOD, rap's cultural critic J. Cole doesn't stop at diagnosing our ills. He assumes a shamanistic role, hell-bent on driving out the demons. He holds up a mirror to the addictive behaviors mindlessly perpetuated in trap and Soundcloud rap. He mocks the absurd quest for external validation we seek on social media. He roots out the systemic cycles of inequality that fuel our post-traumatic stress disorders. He even relives his own mom's formative battles with the bottle. By the time J. Cole offers up his simplest advice ("meditate / don't medicate"), it's clear that he isn't interested in prescribing a cure-all for the culture. He's just trying to give his "FRIENDS" — and a generation laid to waste — one of the coping skills that's kept him from killing himself. —Rodney Carmichael
"Why should the world be over-wise / In counting all our tears and sighs?" 19th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote. "Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask." His timeless advice has served Leikeli47 well. On her sophomore outing, she stars as the ski-masked heroine of a hood-chick lit masterpiece more colorful than a rack of nail polish. Acrylic is not a typical LP; it's a choreopoem for colored girls (and discriminating b-boys). Leikeli47's masked anonymity enables her to give voice to a rotating cast of outcasts: the hustlers, the boosters, the teenage lovers, the bishops, the rooks, the baby mamas. A nail salon serves as ground zero for a site-specific exhibit where black America is nearly insulated from white America's racial scapegoating. In this alternate universe, low culture is haute couture for the unapologetic ("Tic Boom," "Post That"), independent women form self-reliant girl gangs ("No Reload," "Girl Blunt") and environmental racism raises hella black fists ("Talkin' To Myself").
An L.A.-based hip-hop artist and producer with origins in Brooklyn and Virginia, Leikeli47 is well-versed in the regional lingua franca of the hood. Her dialect shifts like sonic geography, from Caribbean dancehall to Chicago house, Memphis trap to New Orleans bounce, with inflections of R&B, jazz and blues sprinkled in. All the while, she subverts the dominant gaze by crafting counter narratives. On the second verse of "Droppin'," she uses the discarded newborn immortalized in Tupac's teen-pregnancy classic "Brenda's Got A Baby" to contextualize the metaphorical climb from ghetto to fabulous: "I'm the baby from the dumpster / Brenda was my mama / Free lunch in the summers / Now I'm stacking commas." From the salon to the swap meet, Leikeli47 wears the mask so we don't have to. Somewhere, I imagine, Paul Laurence Dunbar is thanking her from beyond the grave. —Rodney Carmichael
8. Tierra Whack
Language can be so extraordinary, yet insufficient, a flaming arrow shot into a rainstorm. Likewise, art has become unpredictable, blitzed and rewarding in bursts of noise and color as we hurtle toward information saturation. Unable to keep speed with the change both language and music spew, artists are just trying to stay a step ahead. Sure, Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe have dropped sweeping audiovisual albums that reconfigure narratives about themselves and how music is presented, but nothing quite infiltrated the people's swipe-happy medium like Whack World. Released as 15 one-minute videos straight to Instagram, Philly rapper and singer Tierra Whack gives instant gratification its playfully surreal platform. In one minimalist dirge set at a Chinese take-out, she compares her swagger to hot wings ("Salt, pepper, ketchup and hot sauce / Fry hard cause I do not like soft") and mourns the death of a friend, her hardness hindered by a broken wing. In an over-the-top synth-pop kiss-off, she cuts the ribbons keeping red balloons tethered to the floor, delivering darkness with twangy glee: "I wrote this 'cause I feel ten feet tall / I know you don't ever wanna see me ball." Tierra Whack wraps searing critiques of the industry and doubts about herself and her direction in a remarkable economy of words and music and visuals that recognize her own short-attention span, but also reflect our own. —Lars Gotrich
9. Pusha T
Pusha-T has set such a bar since his days of rhyming with his older brother that we've come to expect nothing less than greatness. The excellence of DAYTONA came as a surprise to no one. The real revelation here is that the album is still lauded in spite of the tumultuous five-album G.O.O.D Music rollout courtesy of Kanye West. Slow clap for timing. --Bobby Carter
J.I.D is like that kid in your high school gym class who, when it's time to run the mile, laps everybody in the class. And this is after you just saw him smoking behind the building 30 minutes before the bell. The double entendre-filled, motor-mouth flows of the East Atlanta rapper come off so effortlessly on his sophomore album — the level of natural talent is amazing.
Hosted by DJ Drama and including features ranging from Dreamville label boss J. Cole to rap vets like Method Man, J.I.D makes a major play for the position of the next lyrical king, before the Coles and Kendricks of the world are even past their apex. On "Westbrook" (featuring A$AP Ferg), J.I.D reminds himself of his initial hunger to succeed. On "Just Da Other Day," he raps about feeling apprehensive to spend his signing money now that he's successful because of very recent and real memories of being broke. On "Tiiied" (featuring 6LACK and Ella Mai), he relives fallout with a love interest because of jealousy and his mounting success. "Off Da Zoinkys" is an audible turning point in the album's sequencing where J.I.D promises to get himself off drugs like lean and Xanax, substances that have become unfortunate accessories in the genre and contributed to the death of his friend Mac Miller earlier this year. But no matter what song you shuffle to, J.I.D delivers his bars with syncopated precision, heart and gumption. —Sidney Madden
Parkwood / Sony / Roc Nation
11. The Carters
Everything Is Love
Beyoncé and Jay-Z finally dropped a collaborative album, and it's triumphant in the truest sense of the word: jubilant, victorious. Everything Is Love functions as a state-of-our-union victory lap after a pair of solo albums (Beyoncé's Lemonade and Jay-Z's 4:44) that picked through the debris of a widely publicized marital crisis. Next to the wrenching public reflection of its predecessors, Everything Is Love might feel comparatively slight, especially given how frequently the lyrics back-burner personal revelations in order to rejoice in the accumulation of wealth and status. ("My great-great-grandchildren already rich," Beyoncé notes in "BOSS," adding, "That's a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.") Still, the breathless celebration in Everything Is Love feels hard-won, as music's dominant power couple crafts an infectious, album-length tribute to marital solidarity as the ultimate expression of power. —Stephen Thompson
Harlan & Alondra
Following a few false starts, one of the youngest veterans in hip-hop finally came through with his debut album Harlan & Alondra, named after the Compton, California intersection where his childhood home sits. Producers Mike & Keys handle the bulk of the production and encapsulate a present day West Coast sound, while Buddy graphically depicts the many trials during his ascent toward success. The lyricism and delivery is top notch and he sits as one of the few MC's able to convincingly and naturally hold a note. Harlan & Alondra is one of the strongest rap debuts in recent memory. —Bobby Carter
REMember Music / Warner Bros.
13. Mac Miller
I miss Mac. I missed him when his death was first reported in September — just a month after dropping Swimming and coming to NPR to perform at the Tiny Desk — and when he was memorialized with a live-streamed concert in October.
An artist in the middle of his development, Mac was always evolving. Certain tracks on Swimming, specifically "2009," "What's the Use" and "Ladders," play hopscotch with Mac's emotional extremes over funk, jazz and R&B-tinged beats. Swimming will be remembered as Mac's premature goodbye note to his beloved fans. The balance between his hopes and despairs are foggy on this album and probably won't ever find their equilibrium. Maybe they're not meant to. --Sidney Madden
All Money In No Money Out / Atlantic
14. Nipsey Hussle
As a well-respected West Coast spitter with impenetrable ties to the streets that influence his sound, Nipsey Hussle has always been a voice of tenured reason. After more than a decade of one-offs, collaborations and mixtapes, Nipsey's Victory Lap is a triumph 13 years in the making. Each track warrants resounding applause. The album's chest-puffing single, "Last Time That I Checc'ed," finds Nipsey playing the position of a street smart professor who almost pummels you into submission with his lessons on leveling up. —Sidney Madden
15. Juice WRLD
Goodbye & Good Riddance
Forget the familiar Sting sample that helped "Lucid Dreams" peak at No. 2 on the Billboard 100. Remember instead when a high school heartbreak could shatter your entire world. When you relied on the wrong kind of coping mechanisms to make yourself whole again. When the thought of ending it all over love lost wasn't as melodramatic as it might seem in hindsight. If Spotify is right about emo-rap being the fastest growing subgenre in 2018, Juice WRLD is its poster boy. And his debut, Goodbye & Good Riddance, is the most depressing, drugged-out consolation prize of a teenage breakup album ever. Or, at least this year. --Rodney Carmichael
YSL / Quality Control / Motown / Capitol
16. Lil Baby and Gunna
Atlanta is shifting the rap paradigm once again, thanks to rising stars like J.I.D, Young Nudy and more. But no ATL duo excited me more in 2018 than Lil Baby and Gunna. This pair rose under the wings of Young Thug and Quality Control, struck gold with their lyrical chemistry and made one of the best rap projects of the year. Drip Harder is 13 tracks of undaunted cool, delivered as smoothly (and as necessarily) as a Henny shot in transit to the house party. The collaborative album was spearheaded by the breakout single "Drip Too Hard," which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but hidden gems on the track list include the spiraling, flute-fluttering "Underdog" and the grizzly "Never Recover," featuring Drake. —Sidney Madden
No News Is Good News
Once considered no country for grown men, hip-hop has spread its wings since hitting middle age. Thank God. Though the generation gap persists, these babies have godfathers who can spit the gift in 2018. Not quite an elder statesman, Phonte is more like the cool uncle who can still rap circles around his nephews. (Just ask Drake.) He graced us this year with a stellar solo album that excavates the depths of parenthood from both ends of the spectrum. It's a meditation on mortality as he deals with divorce and death, remarriage and the mourning after. While artists half his age are infatuated with dying young, Phonte reminds us that maturing is the real struggle. —Rodney Carmichael
18. Rejjie Snow
Reggie Snow's been characterized as a derivative of Odd Future and N.E.R.D., but considering the whimsy and vulnerability he displays on Dear Annie he might be better cast as a third-gen descendant of hip-hop's original progressive collective, the Native Tongues. His studio debut ranges from unrequited love to suicidal ruminations, all while he maintains an understated cool over beats designed to make terrestrial radio vibrate. It's a mashup as unexpected as his Irish accent. —Rodney Carmichael
19. Royce Da 5'9"
Book of Ryan
It's taken twenty years in the rap game for Royce Da 5'9" to unveil Ryan Montgomery — with good reason. There's a lot to unload and it's not easily processed in doses. He's previously offered glimpses of his through songs like 2011's "I've Been Up, I've Been Down" and 2015's "Security," but they've been miniscule. Book of Ryan runs the gamut of emotion with precise thought and harsh execution. Tackling deeply intimate topics like mental anguish, childhood trauma and addiction all in one sitting makes Book of Ryan downright exhausting at points. Above all, Royce's brilliant and brave storytelling ability, fused with top notch production, make it a career defining album. World: Meet Ryan. —Bobby Carter
20. Vince Staples
When Du Bois wrote about double consciousness — "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" — he said it was "dogged strength" alone that kept African-Americans from being "torn asunder" by it. FM! is in part about the effort to keep oneself together. The album is formatted like a commercial radio show, and it's full of bangers. But as in so much of Staples' work, the meta-commentary is about what happens when trauma is up for mass consumption. There are few artists better at speaking to a mixed audience: Staples shows love for his people by documenting, but not glorifying, the violence they deal with. He deals with the outsiders who throng to his music by putting a mirror to them and forcing the question: Why are you bopping your head to this? He references OutKast on "Relay," asking "Do you really wanna know about some gangsta s***?" like it's a dare. But the last song, "Tweakin'," is the falling apart. It's slower, and it lays the sadness out there with no cushion. Kehlani sings the hook: "I'm tweakin', I'm tweakin', I'm tweakin'." It sounds like the moment when you can't muster any more irony — or when you acknowledge snark has its limits. —Jenny Gathright
Monika Evstatieva, Jenny Gathright, Lars Gotrich, Ann Powers and Stephen Thompson contributed to this list.