Even though hip-hop dominated our Best Albums of 2018 list, there were so many more nominees from the genre that it necessitated this second list—a testament to the fact that quantity (if not quality) in the rap game is at an all-time high. These 10 albums prove that there is quietly great stuff out there—if you know where to listen.
Jay Rock, Redemption
Standout song: “WIN”
Sean Fennessey: I assigned a short magazine profile of Jay Rock in November 2008, shortly after the release of “All My Life (In the Ghetto).” This was near the tail end of Lil Wayne’s rampage through the feature game, and “All My Life” was a kind of West Coast victory lap. I’m not sure I thought Jay Rock was the second coming, but his nimble delivery and vocal tone—he sounds a bit like DMX ate Proof—made me think he was tapped for something special. It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago. A decade later, Jay Rock is best known as the least-known member of TDE, but he has quietly amassed a formidable discography and thrived in the shadow of Kendrick Lamar. Rock’s third album, Redemption, is a gut-check, recorded after he survived a devastating motorcycle accident in 2016. It’s a grave, practical album. On “Broke+-” he raps plainly, unfussily, calling himself the Marlon Jackson of the TDE family.
Morphine and novacane dull pain, still don’t change the diagnosis
Pessimistic thoughts, carryin’ the bricks, we tryna find some hope
Most my counterparts be feeling the same, give me a light, let’s smoke
You either chasin’ this dirty money, or living righteous broke
There’s something admirable and grounded about the record, involving but unobtrusive. It makes you lean in a little closer. By the time you get to the end, and the monstrous “WIN,” the theme is just as plain—and powerful—as the approach. But it gets loud: “Win, win, win, win, win / Fuck everything else, win, win, win, win.” Ten years on, he has.
Hermit and the Recluse, Orpheus vs. the Sirens
Standout song: “The Punishment of Sisyphus”
Justin Charity: Ka turns producers into soulmates. The semi-anonymized Brownsville rapper joins Animoss to form Hermit and the Recluse, the mysterious duo behind Orpheus vs. the Sirens. Animoss surrounds Ka with crashing cymbals and wailing strings. Ka drops gems—yes, that’s the cliché way to flatter a rapper who trades in Greek mythology and Gary Wilson samples, but it’s also true to Ka’s instructive mode: He really does rap like an exiled guru. Ka registers a cut above menace (hell, Drake can be menacing) to achieve an alienation so absolute that credible threats and mean mugs are now obsolete. Ain’t bold enough to hold your gold? Well, hey—you out your element. That’s a gem. The gems amount to a rich and ragged treasure. The wisdom is coarse and the flows are smooth, and that’s Ka for you—purified. Animoss works with Roc Marciano, and Ka sometimes resembles Roc Marciano, who also dropped a strong, unsung album this year. But Ka’s music is always more tense and interesting than the basic inclinations—the Wu-Tang nostalgia, the middlebrow verbosity—might suggest. Rarely do you hear a musician sounding so weary, angry, and paranoid while preaching generosity and restraint.
Roc Marciano, Behold a Dark Horse
Standout song: “Sampson & Delilah”
Keith Fujimoto: If there was a perfect soundtrack to pair with the harsh and grimy NYC winter, it’d be one of Roc Marciano’s albums. The Hempstead MC paints pictures one punch line at a time, usually over looped-up soul stabs and very minimal drums. To Roc, it’s clearly more important for the listener to home in on his metaphors rather than to be overwhelmed by triplet high hats and layered snares. Though he’s previously dabbled in a similar formula of lo-fi harmonics, the progression of Behold a Dark Horse is impossible to skip through. Each track builds anticipation for the next one, and appearances from the likes of Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and Black Thought only accent the project’s richness. The more experimental Marci gets, the better the end result. My only request for the next project: more Ka and at least one Freddie Gibbs collaboration. Stamp this line, from “Diamond Cutters,” on your noggin: “If we ain’t gelling, accept it and don’t be desperate.”
Le$, Trouble in Paradise
Standout song: “Japan”
Shea Serrano: My grandmother used to drive this beat-up Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme through when I was in middle school. And I’ve never really been a “car guy,” but I will remember that one forever because one day, while we were out running around together on a summer afternoon, I set a pack of crayons and coloring book in the area by the back window and forgot about them. (I was, I’d guess, something like 8 years old.) When I finally remembered that they were there a couple hours later, the sun had baked the crayons, melting them into this waxy puddle of bright, bright colors. She was (obviously and understandably) mad about it (it had, in effect, ruined the upholstery there), but I was transfixed by those colors. I felt like I’d never seen anything like that before. They were beautiful, in the purest sense. And that’s what I always think about whenever I listen to Le$, a rapper from Houston who has built himself a mini empire in the city. His music feels like those melted crayons. It feels like an amalgamation of sun and color and spirit, and I know that’s an odd way to talk about music, but that’s just what it is, and what he is, his hazy voice just sort of lightly scraping across the top of a cloud, or a new container of whipped cream, or a puddle of melted crayons. He does it on Trouble in Paradise, same as he’s done it on each of his tapes for the past several years. Nobody sounds like him, or like his music.
Maxo Kream, Punken
Standout song: “Grannies”
Danny Chau: Putting out an album in the first month of the year, especially in the age of system-gaming 24-track mixtapes, is a risky proposition. Punken, Houston rapper Maxo Kream’s proper studio debut, was released in the second week of 2018, but it’s had staying power in my rotation. It’s 44 minutes of some of the best storytelling you’re liable to find this year, broken up into mesmerizing syllabic arrangements. On first single, “Grannies,” Maxo finds himself in show-and-tell mode, describing his family with the kind of breathless drone a 6-year-old might employ on a book report in front of class:
My Granny oldest son is Alvin Jr., call him Uncle Main
That’s my favorite uncle, on occasion he smoked crack cocaine
Petty thief and junkie, but he always had my most respect
When I was 6, I seen him stab a nigga, and he bled to death
The past informs every facet of Punken (which, on penultimate track “Roaches,” we learn was his childhood nickname through clips of family members singing his praises), but the album isn’t necessarily nostalgic. Nostalgia is defined by a sense of longing and positive association; Punken is a personal history lesson, diffusing both the mundane and traumatic in a matter-of-fact tone across 14 tracks.
Buddy, Harlan & Alondra
Standout song: “Shameless”
Richie Bozek: Maybe you live in Los Angeles. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you have never even visited the city. Maybe you don’t know anything about Los Angeles other than the fact LeBron James plays for the Lakers now. Or maybe you don’t even know that. But no matter your relationship to the city, when you listen to Harlan & Alondra by Buddy you feel like you are with him “going downtown on the Blue Line Metro” or in a “broke-down Chevrolet, sitting on Central,” or “comin’ down Melrose, runnin’ a checkup for cardio.”
Harlan & Alondra is the debut album from the Compton-born artist, titled after the intersection where he grew up. Buddy is only 25 years young but has been making music for nearly a decade. As a teenager he was signed by Pharrell. His previous two EPs, Ocean & Montana and Magnolia, were also named after streets in L.A. neighborhoods where he lived. On the 12 tracks of Harlan & Alondra, Buddy displays uncommon versatility, from hard-hitting songs like “Black,” featuring A$AP Ferg, to more melodic numbers like “Trouble on Central” and “Speechless.” Throughout, it exudes the experience and confidence of a much more established artist. My personal favorite is “Shameless,” featuring Guapdad 4000, which has one of the year’s most entertaining music videos and a hook that gives you the urge to drive at least 15 mph above the speed limit on the freeway—in L.A. or otherwise.
Young Thug, On the Rvn
Standout song: “High” feat. Elton John
Justin Sayles: Young Thug started 2018 by saying he wouldn’t release any music as a tribute to his brother Greg, who is deaf. Chances are you thought that he made good on the promise. As he was passed commercially by his progeny this year, the Technicolor rapper quietly released a trio of projects. Hear No Evil and Slime Language paid tribute to Greg but produced few memorable moments, while the third—the crisp, six-song On the Rvn—is his best since his star-making 2014-to-2016 run.
Recorded shortly before Young Thug turned himself in to authorities in September, On the Rvn brims with you-can’t-catch-me taunts (the title track, most notably) and sincere vulnerability (the 6lack-featuring “Climax”). Reunited with London on da Track—his greatest muse—for three songs, Thugger breezes through the EP, delivering his trademark absurdism (see: “Catch up, calamari dinner with a cougar”) while never sounding absurd. But On the Rvn peaks with its most audacious moment: the Elton John–sampling “High.” The pair have embraced each other, and it makes some sense: Like Sir Elton before him, Young Thug is a flamboyant iconoclast making some of his era’s best music. But as Thugger becomes an increasingly minor mainstream concern, “High” assures that he won’t go away quietly.
Mick Jenkins, Pieces of a Man
Standout song: “Padded Locks” feat. Ghostface Killah
Mose Bergmann: Your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper’s third full-length project lifts its title from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 album, but Jenkins avoids direct comparison to that politically charged classic by turning the lens inward, showing us pieces of himself. And who is Mick? Troubled, confused, and lonely, trying to figure it out. His album plays like a collection of crumpled-up journal entries—observations and thoughts on everything from fashion to fake friends to the #MeToo movement. It’s loose in structure and form but never unfocused, backed by a strong stable of producers like Black Milk and Kaytranada.
Seventeen tracks might feel heavy, but Pieces breezes along; it’s shocking how concise the album feels, given how much mental ground Mick covers. Loose, raw, and unfiltered, Pieces reveals how Mick is struggling with the state of the world in the same way the rest of us are, while rapping in a way only a chosen few can.
Tierra Whack, Whack World
Standout song: “Pet Cemetery”
Sean Yoo: To say that Tierra Whack’s debut album is underrated would be factually incorrect because the album has received praise from just about every magazine and website that covers music. But while it might not be underrated by critics, it is most definitely an underappreciated work of art. Whack herself describes the album as “a visual and auditory project”—emphasis on “visual.” Whack World is much more than a rap album. Musically, the album features 15 one-minute tracks, seamlessly blending hip-hop, R&B, pop, and even country. Visually, the album stands above everyone else like Knickers, the 6-foot-4 Australian cow, thanks to the 15 accompanying music videos crafted by Thibaut Duverneix, Mathieu Léger, and the electric mind of Whack. We should be thanking her more frequently as we sit back and watch her stardom grow.
Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs, and the Alchemist, Fetti
Standout song: “Location Remote”
Micah Peters: The first “Fetti” was on the Alchemist’s 2015 Welcome to Los Santos project, rolled out alongside the video game Grand Theft Auto V—a real song you could listen to in your fake Maserati Quattroporte V on a fake hip-hop station hosted by real radio personality Big Boy as you cruised through fake Los Angeles (Los Santos). The Alchemist’s production on “Fetti” (the song) is languid and pulpy and luxurious, so much so that you could imagine you were in 1975, in a Melvin Van Peebles film. Which is to say that it’s a perfect backdrop for Curren$y to lay game and Freddie Gibbs to rivet it down. To set the scene: We open at dusk. Spitta and Gibbs are driving, seats reclined, so low as to just be able to see over the dashboard, rapping about money that never runs out, women they can trust to be dishonest, and also Bape sweats, which technically shouldn’t exist yet.
Fetti, the project, which arrived this year on Halloween, was everything clicking into place again, for nine whole tracks this time. It is a blog-era rap fan’s dream—Gibbs, Curren$y, and the Alchemist have each found continuity and longevity outside the mainstream—but it’s also an uncomplicatedly fun 23 minutes of rap music from three artists in perfect sync, all very much in their respective bags. There’s a Far East Family Band sample (on “Location Remote”), a “Choppa Style” reference, a song named for a late Vice Lords gang leader, and a sexed up R&B freakout wherein Freddie Gibbs—elsewhere rapping with menacing focus—finally gets his “three uh-huh girls like Ray Charles.”