2018: the year I fell back in love with hip-hop. That’s not entirely true. Hip-hop has always been a passion of mine, but I found myself listening to more rap than ever this year. From Chicago to Los Angeles to New Orleans to Atlanta to New York and beyond, I sought out more rap than ever before. Perhaps I was too focused on the Windy City these last few years, but did New York rap make a comeback in 2018? Griselda Records and affiliated parties really impressed.
Alongside (and in between) rap albums, I listened to instrumental projects. Ambient, modern classical, lofi. Soothing listens to help calm my nerves. When the stress faded, I returned to bars and bass. Yin and yang.
Below is a list of my 50 favorite projects of the year with Spotify hyperlinks attached to each title. EPs and albums are all intertwined here because a project is a project. When I first made this list, it contained 79 projects. I had to narrow it down to 50 and so many great releases were left out. If your favorite project of 2018 is not on this list, send it my way. Chances are, I didn’t spin it. I’d love to give it a listen. My DMs are always open.
Like traveling the world and soaking in the creativity that surrounds you.
Noir hasn’t left the CD player in my car since it was released on November 8. Smino’s sophomore album is a seasoned sequel to 2017’s blkswn. It’s more playful, more indulgent. Perhaps more stoned and less drunk. While Monte Booker provides the strongest production on the album (in particular, his run from ‘Spinz’ to ‘We Got the Biscuits’) it’s great to see three songs produced by Smino, including the absolute slapper ‘Krushed Ice’ alongside Chicagoan Valee.
Noir is eighteen songs in length and feels like a journey with a passport, complete with interludes, skits, production teasers, and guest features. Songs like “Summer Salt”, “Fenty Sex”, and “Verizon” showcase how Smino can go in on any beat he’s given, often with multiple flows and harmonies in a few minute’s time. This is a new style of hip-hop and R&B that the music industry needs to research (and ultimately fail at replicating).
02. Nickelus F
Like smoking a cigarette while plotting on the next move, unsure of what tomorrow will bring.
I didn’t know about seasoned rapper Nickelus F until this year. So while Stuck clocks in at number two on this list, I also looped 2013’s Vices and 2015’s Triflin’ from summer until now. Fully written and produced by Nickelus F (who also mixed the album), Stuck is an independent testament to the Richmond, Virginian’s world. It showcases struggle, pain, doubt, but also confidence, bravado, and joy. Find me a 2018 song more lyrically strong and passionate as “Horace Hardbody the Statue”. I’ll wait.
03. Freddie Gibbs
Like buying a gym membership with a pistol in your coat.
Half produced by Kenny Beats and half produced by Rich Gains (of Blended Babies), this is a bass-heavy energy drink. It’s a mosh pit with clenched fists. It’s a football match without any pads. This is hip-hop adrenaline at its finest. The Gary, Indiana native sounds at home on every track here (including the fun yet hypnotic ‘FLFM’ interlude). While his collaborative album Fetti might have garnered Gibbs more acclaim, it’s his self-titled album that made me feel like a god.
04. Tierra Whack
Like raising a middle finger while smiling.
Perhaps the most unique and original project on this list, Tierra Whack’s Whack World is a 15 song rundown in 15 minutes. Every song is exactly 60 seconds. It’s a flex. It’s a showcase. It’s a, ‘Look at me, I can do what you’re doing, only better.’ Crossing genres and annihilating any instrumental thrown her way, it’s no wonder Tierra Whack was one of the most talked about artists this year. The accompanying music video (my favorite of the year) makes the experience that much better.
05. Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs
Like buying a mansion and disturbing your neighbors.
I’m always a fan of collaborative albums. Especially when it’s two of my favorite rappers. Especially when it’s entirely produced by The Alchemist. Fetti is weed flows mixed with coke raps. It’s cinematic, bad to the bone, and cool as hell. Hearing these two next to each other (the mellow and the aggressive) works so well, and Alc’s production remains top notch. I’d love to see these three tour together.
06. Nostrum Grocers
Like trying to one-up a 10/10 verse with an 11/10 verse.
Rappers Milo and Elucid go back and forth so well on this self-titled Nostrum Grocers project. The two released a significant amount of music this year - Milo with two other full-lengths and Elucid with one album, one EP, and one LP as part of Armand Hammer - but they’re both at their finest here. Going in over their own production, it’s a bar-heavy battle between talented friends. It’s an album that always makes me sad when it ends.
07. Moon Man & Benjamin
Like holding an aquarium while soaring through the clouds.
Moon Man & Benjamin’s full length album Vale is a masterpiece and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a 45 minute instrumental whirlwind featuring duo Joe Nora and Ayani as well as five friends on various instruments throughout. I can’t recommend this album enough. It will change you. It will make you weep. It will make you exceed 100 for the first time in your car, and then later, have you drive 15 mph on the highway. It will make you nap and then wake up dancing. Vale is auditory art. Vale is for the people.
Like taking two dozen instruments into a cave for the winter and re-emerging in the spring with an album and a beard.
Dvale is Norwegian for ‘hibernate’. With that in mind, you can expect this album to be soothing, sleepy, meant for snowfall. While Borealism steadily released singles throughout the year (as well as a 10:00 EP), this was his only full-length. It was one I played when I looked for new music and came up empty-handed (“might as well just play Dvale”). It was one I played as I was winding down at the end of the night, or waking up at the start of the day. Press play on this with an open journal in front of you and the words will write themselves.
09. Lorde Fredd33
Like raising a child as the world burns around you.
This album slaps. I knew Milwaukee rapper Lorde Fredd33 through WebsterX (who is also on this album), but this was my first time giving him a proper listen. Bar-heavy, passionate, and coming at your neck, Fredd33 approaches the mic like he has something to prove. With perhaps the best album cover of the year, this 15 song heater features pristine production from Q the Sun (who produced the entire project) as well as impeccable guest verses from Zed Kenzo and Kano. It’s a standing ovation, through and through.
10. barnes blvd.
Like holding hands as the sun goes down.
barnes blvd.’s debut full-length is an album I returned to time and time again throughout 2018. I pressed play when I wanted to read, when I wanted to write, when I needed to relax and calm my head. It’s a soothing, intimate, personal, beautiful album, one that feels like stepping into a bedroom and listening in on a quiet concert for a few close friends.
1997 // Entendre EP
Like soaking up your sorrow to help others heal.
Alicks has remained my favorite (and most consistent) producer for the last few years. He constantly releases sweeping full-lengths, tender EPs, and loose collaborations. This year was no different. He closed out the year with an ambient EP known as Entendre while his solo full-length, 1997, might be his most personal to date. At 29 songs in length, you will need more than one listen to fully digest all of the emotional beauty found throughout.
12. The Sha La Das
Like traveling back in time. Press play and find yourself in a past decade.
The Sha La Das (made up of a father and his sons) is harmonizing at its finest. It’s vintage, it’s retro, it’s smooth, it’s soulful, and it makes you feel so damn good. The cover art says it all. Daptone Records always know what’s up.
Like making an abstract film out of sound waves.
Televangel (aka Young God from Blue Sky Black Death) released one of the most layered and dense instrumental projects of the year. The album is a follow-up to his ambient mixtape, We Dream of Drones, but this time around, he adds more build ups and breakdowns, more cinematic elements, more bounce, more everything. This is one that gets better and better with every listen.
14. a l e x
Growing Up, Vol. 2 // Hollow Moon (w/ Kendall Miles)
Like sitting in an airplane with no idea where it might take you.
Alicks aka (a l e x) clocked in at No. 2 last year on my end-of-the-year list. This year, he has four projects in the top 20. Growing Up, Vol. 2 is a follow-up to last year’s lofi collection, while the collaborative Hollow Moon comes complete with work from musician Kendall Miles. Both projects sound like they should soundtrack the next time it rains.
Like raising the bass and stepping up to the mic with 200 pages of rhymes.
Chicagoan Jude Appleby described this project as ‘relentless’ and I can’t think of a better word. DJ Drama, Method Man, Chasethemoney, Kenny Beats, they all come along for the ride. Every song smacks, slaps, spins you around in a dizzying barrage of bass and bars. Exactly how I like my raps.
Like putting on a record in an apartment in Queens.
Producer Oatmello (who is also featured on this list) reworked some Duendita vocals late last year and she’s remained on my radar ever since. Her debut offering is a reflective and uplifting release, like pushing through a rainstorm with an umbrella made out of vibrant watercolors.
Like Rodrigo y Gabriela collaborating with Ratatat inside of a sweaty cafe.
We play this when we cook dinner. When we do dishes. When we drive to work and the highway is open. It’s an instrumental album that was on steady repeat all calendar year. With one of the best Tiny Desks I’ve ever seen as well as a trio of quality music videos, Khruangbin impressed and dazzled through all of 2018.
18. Pink Siifu
Like cleaning out an apartment and finding an unmarked box of abandoned tapes.
One of my favorite finds of 2018 was musician Pink Siifu. While he claims that Ensley is just him warming up, it’s a multigenre opus with crackling production and glaring narratives. Along with Ensley, Pink Siifu also released an EP of Reed Dollaz battle rap bootlegs as well as a four song EP just days before 2019. Something tells me he will have an even stronger year next year.
19. Vince Staples
Like getting sunburned in the middle of winter.
Vince Staples is one of the most consistent mainstream rappers and his newest, FM!, enhances his strong portfolio. Complete with Kenny Beats production (Whoa, Kenny!), E-40 adlibs, and an Earl Sweatshirt tease, this is a short and sweet bass-driven summertime breeze, and one of Vince’s finest.
Like finding a sword in a library with your name engraved on it.
Milo’s allegedly ‘last Milo album’ is also one of his finest. It’s one of his three albums released in 2018 but acts as a proper follow-up to last year’s Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! Yet again, Milo creates his own philosophical tongue-twisting galaxy with a pen and a microphone. Shout-out Mt. Marcy and Q the Sun for production placements on this dense gem.
Like walking down a dark alley with a pack of cigarettes and some brass knuckles.
Lofeye is full of fourteen evil ass raps. Lojii took his time and made a haunted rap album that will both boost your confidence and terrify your mother. Play this one as loud as you can once the sun goes down.
22. Sen Morimoto
Like staring at a blank canvas and recognizing its endless possibilities.
Sen Morimoto’s 2018 full-length is unique, original, and creative as hell. He stays true to his self as his LP sounds like 95 genres thrown into one glowing cauldron. Songs like “Cannonball” and “People Watching” are some of my favorites while driving in Chicago traffic. Can we consider this album to be ‘traffic jazz’?
Like listening to a rapper flexing in a room full of rappers.
Chicagoan Qari joined forces with producers Mulatto and Cangelosi for No Time to Explain, a nine song hazy barrage of lyricism and relax. Qari and Mulatto released Space Jam in 2017 and this is a nice, cohesive sequel. “Rocky Balboa” and “Harrowing Thoughts” are some of the most lyrically impressive tracks of the year, solidifying Qari as one of the most consistent rappers in the game.
24. Alaskan Tapes
Like drifting in a boat with a broken compass and a smile on your face.
With a handful of split singles, EPs, and collaborations, as well as one of the most stunning ambient albums of the year, Alaskan Tapes steadily released music for all of 2018. Place them all into a playlist, listen in chronological order, and find yourself being more tender and caring for the beautiful world around you.
Like tallying up tongue twisters with no concern for a chorus.
Obijuan’s short and sweet ten song album, Full Court Rappin’, was my introduction to the UK-based rapper, and it always comes and goes too quickly. His hazy flows over the lofi production of Fat B is top notch. Additionally, Obijuan released two other 2018 projects, one with producer dylantheinfamous and another with producer revenxnt. Rappers always work so well when they stick with just one producer and Obijuan is a prime example of that formula.
Like climbing to the top of a tree just to have a good cry.
27. Armand Hammer
Like attending a passionate poetry reading in an apartment with bullet holes that polka-dot the walls.
Like watching the sunrise with a journal in the most comfortable hammock.
29. Hermit and the Recluse
Like listening to a hip-hop audiobook in the Parthenon.
Like finding peace while napping underwater.
Like sitting in the dark corner of a studio and watching a master (and his friends) hard at work.
32. Curren$y & Harry Fraud
Like getting your passport stamped and realizing it can be summer forever.
Like meditating at midnight in your front yard with a symphony, the moon the only light around.
Like walking down the street as a wanted man and having everyone you pass politely shake your hand.
Like opening a harrowing diary of grief mixed with beauty.
36. Joey Pecoraro
Like watching your favorite feel-good movie for the first time in black and white.
37. Scallops Hotel
Like blindly battle rapping while simultaneously writing poems in a dilapidated dojo.
38. Blu Jeen
Like smoking a spliff at the skate park with the waves crashing in the distance.
40. Benny the Butcher
Like being invincible as the money, drugs, and guns pile up around you.
41. Chester Watson
Like finding enlightenment in an endless forest and preferring the seclusion.
42. Conway the Machine
Like having more money than you’ve ever had inside of the shittiest apartment you’ve ever seen.
43. DJ Muggs and Roc Marciano
Like bragging in a mansion with a buffet made just for you.
Like breaking into an abandoned church, lighting a significant amount of candles, and performing an experimental concert for polite ghosts.
45. TV Blonde
Like rising out of a depressive slump and walking through the sun swept streets.
Like stretching out in a lawn chair on a Sunday with nothing to do.