In 2018, amid so much extra-musical tumult, it has gotten harder than ever in the pop-music realm to distinguish between Best and merely Biggest. Kanye West has spent several months now desperately vying for our attention via various time-honored antics—political provocations and lavishly sloppy album rollouts, mostly—but no one song has come close to outlasting that initial Wyoming-release-party rush. (Peace to “Ghost Town.”) Jay-Z and Beyoncé can still stop time on a random Saturday with a shock album drop, but no one moment cracks either artist’s top tier. (Peace to “Apeshit.”) And Drake can dominate both the charts and the Public Conversation all year, only to find himself violently upended by an ill-considered and disastrous feud with Pusha-T. (Peace to “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” all but hidden from sight now that we know he is Hiding A Child.) On Friday, Drake will release a new album and likely dominate both the charts and the national discourse anew. He is guaranteed to reassert his status as the Biggest. But the Best is still for us to decide.
The challenge, even here in June, is to determine which songs will outlast their respective hype cycles, still shining even when they’re no longer trending. A few rap superstars, both well-established (shout-out Pulitzer winner Kendrick Lamar) and newly minted (shout-out future Pulitzer winner Cardi B) sneak in there. But so does classic country gone disco and vintage indie-pop gone ferociously modern, and corporate pop gone inexplicably transcendent. There are rookies here, and wily veterans with the shrewd voraciousness of rookies. And there is, above all, a monumental diss track with a clickbait appeal so outlandish that Biggest and Best fused into one cruel and awe-inspiring monolith. It is meaner than Drake deserves, maybe. But for both better and worse, the wider world definitely deserved it.
“The Story of Adidon” is a fit of rushed, dysfunctional rapping over a beat repurposed from late-career Jay-Z. Musically, it’s rickety, but “The Story of Adidon” is a diss track, and diss tracks don’t necessarily honor Top 40 conventions, “Back to Back” be damned. Pusha-T designed the song to humiliate Drake, and toward that end, “The Story of Adidon” was astoundingly effective. Pusha-T inaugurated summer 2018 with a genuinely shocking series of insults, plot twists, and bizarre revelations about his longtime nemesis, Drake. “The Story of Adidon” is the most brutal musical volley that a top-tier rapper has suffered in this decade. Indeed, the song sent Drake’s grand pop fortifications, once thought insurmountable, crashing down.
Pusha-T did that. “The Story of Adidon” is a diss track so calamitous that Drake is now forced to pretend that “The Story of Adidon” doesn’t exist, and that, in any case, he’s prohibited from responding to the song, which revealed the existence of Drake’s secret family. “You are hiding a child.” That’s the fun of this song—it’s not a summer jam, it’s a slo-mo jab gone viral. Drake may have bigger songs (see: “Nice for What” and “God’s Plan”), but he’s merely the butt of the song that launched this profoundly cruel summer.—Justin Charity
The Black Panther LP, produced by Kendrick Lamar, is surprisingly divisive—I think it’s one of the decade’s best hip-hop soundtracks, but I know some people who swear Kendrick has dreary, wordy sensibilities that turn that soundtrack into a slog. But “Opps,” tho: Sounwave is doing Brodinski better than Brodinski. Vince Staples is doing Vince Staples better than Vince Staples. Yugen Blakrok, a black South African rapper, upstages Kendrick to climatic effect. The drums are crazed and exhilarating; the synths are dark and sharp. The Black Panther soundtrack is one of the year’s most captivating rap albums, and “Opps” is its agile, brawny fight song.—Charity
It took 49 years for someone to craft a suitable response to Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and it turns out all you had to do was add a negative, and an expletive. “I don’t wanna be your fuckin’ dog,” declares Sophie Allison in a deceptively mellow deadpan, amid sweetly scabrous ’90s indie-pop updated for the subtweet era. The grouchy chime of those guitars and ominous jolt of that bassline might get stuck in your head for hours at a time, but it’s Allison’s voice that pulls you through, the way she can channel both despair (“Forehead kisses break my knees and leave me crawling back to you”) and righteous fury (“I’m not a prop for you to use when you’re lonely or confused”) without so much as raising her voice. Run for cover if she decides to update “Search and Destroy” next. —Rob Harvilla
The ferocity, and the wit, and most of all the depth of Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy, came as a lovely shock to even her most ardent admirers: Incredibly, the vicious swagger of her 2017 megahit “Bodak Yellow” did not begin to hint at her range. And with apologies to “I Like It,” the ecstatic Latin-trap summit with J. Balvin and Bad Bunny that might just dominate the summer of 2018, “Be Careful” is the record’s deepest, and wittiest, and most ferocious moment, and all the more so for how vulnerable she sounds. With no apologies to Drake, this bubbly beat is the only 2018 interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” that we recognize, and Cardi verily glides over it, singing the hook with delicate ease and using her rapped verses to excoriate an unfaithful lover with a resolute goofiness (she rhymes chasin’ culo with it’s cool though) that only heightens the sting. Bonus points for her performance of this song on Saturday Night Live, wherein she finally publicly acknowledged her pregnancy. What a time. —Harvilla
Music critics with advance copies drove so much hype for this damn album. The hype was so obsessive and unrelenting that I thought the discourse was about to turn Kacey Musgraves into the next Carly Rae Jepsen—a retconned hipster darling who abruptly flunks out of the top song charts. But Kacey’s latest album, Golden Hour, is legitimately spectacular. The third single, “High Horse,” is the surest possible shot: There’s soft singing, slick talk, and smooth acoustic guitar paired with a cool disco rhythm. I think we’ve seen enough, seen enough. Rarely do impatience and contempt, together, sound so seductive. But Kacey Musgraves ain’t playing around. —Charity
This is one of those transcendent, multi-gen jams where an artist single-handedly solves all the common hand-wringing over the state of R&B in the 21st century. For my money, it’s the song of the summer. Don’t take my word for it. Ask this dude. (Don’t ask this dude—oh, no, wait, welp, he’s sold, too.) —Charity
Don’t let the personal revelations of Janelle Monáe’s promo tour for her third full-length, Dirty Computer—“I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” she told Rolling Stone, addressing long-gestating rumors about her sexuality—distract you from the fact it’s her best pure pop album yet. The salacious bubblegum smack of “Make Me Feel,” with its tongue-clicking minimalism and hyper-melodic maximalism, marks her as a worthy descendant of Prince and Janet Jackson at their MTV-dominating primes. The singular bombast of that pre-chorus—gigantic and glittery and ever-so-slightly unhinged—is how you tell the difference between mere imitation and righteous evolution. Still, by all means enjoy the song’s video, which costars her rumored paramour Tessa Thompson and reveals Monaé to be a free-ass motherfucker indeed. —Harvilla
Mitski Miyawaki, who broke out in 2016 with the ginormous alt-rock power ballad “Your Best American Girl,” does not do small gestures, no matter how gentle her voice might first appear, no matter how modest a track’s runtime. Her best songs are jarring cocktails of intimacy and enormity, like a nuclear warhead whispering directly into your ear. “Geyser,” the first single from her August album Be the Cowboy, packs a summer-movie blockbuster trilogy’s worth of catharsis into a mere 2:24, its hushed beginnings—“You’re my number one / You’re the one I want,” she moans over churchly organ suffused with lust and longing—soon blossoming into as massive a chorus as 2018 could withstand. In the song’s video, Mitski thrashes on the beach, crawling on all fours and digging into the sand as though she’s trying to bury her own head there. But there’s no escape from a song this gripping and gargantuan. —Harvilla
There is no shame if you resisted the gravitational pull of this song for months. It started life in January as a Grammys-hijacking Target ad. It combines the talents of a medium-cool EDM guy (that’d be Zedd), a young country flamethrower making an unabashed crossover play (that’d be Maren Morris), and a raucous house party’s worth of other songwriters and producers (including the brotherly duo Grey) in a shrewd but nakedly calculated way. Also, conveniently for those intent on dismissing the result as craven, anodyne, algorithm-worshipping fluff, it is called “The Middle.” But the fizzy majesty of that hook—“I’m losing my mind just a little,” Morris wails—is undeniable and cuts through all its feeble Spotify-core contenders like a scythe. “The Middle” seizes on every element on the periodic table in a defiantly uncool way, but the result is a blast of pure oxygen. As industry machinations go, this is as graceful, and as inexplicably organic, as it gets. —Harvilla
Rick Ross is the only good post-peak rapper. Jay-Z tries; Gucci Mane has semi-retired to “a lagoon, dawg.” Rick Ross is the last great, mainstream sample-monger standing. “Capone Suite” is little bit Camp Lo, a lotta bit Earth, Wind & Fire, and a pretty neat triangulation of old-school blacksploitation and contemporary hip-hop. I love trap drums as much as anyone, but “Capone Suite” is a nice throwback to, oh, just a decade ago—when samples were a hip-hop producer’s crown jewels. Of course, there’s some strong trap records on the Superfly soundtrack, too—as with our own list, there’s a little something for everyone. —Charity