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The ultimate review: 2018’s best hip-hop albums

Meek Mill’s album CHAMPIONSHIPS (Photo courtesy of MMG/ Atlantic)

We experienced many memorable musical moments in 2018. For example, Kanye West produced five albums alone but overshadowed them all with his MAGA hat and White House visit; Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video created controversy and dialogue; 6ix9ine trolled his way into jail; Cardi B and Drake each had three No. 1 singles; and the culture lost several artists to death, including Mac Miller and XXXTentacion.

Through it all, hip-hop didn’t loosen its grip on dominating the charts and R&B bounced back into the discussion of relevance. You could sense something special was happening by the first quarter this year, as the pace of releases accelerated to the point that four or five projects were dropping every Friday. It was the year where veteran emcees returned to the charts, and a new generation cemented its position in the culture.

We had close to 100 albums that could have made our list of the year’s best and at least 50 that were really good, but we settled on 30 — that’s how much quality music was released this year.

Counting down from 30 to 1, here is our list of the best for 2018:

30. Jaden Smith – The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story
Album Releases: Third
City: Malibu, California
Vibe: Smith positioned himself in the artist-of-the-year conversation by releasing three stellar projects in 2018. The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story is the latest release and arguably the best of the trilogy. The ever-evolving artist delivers his most personal album addressing intimate moments, philosophical views and what some consider conspiracies. The production is beautifully woven together as he flexes bars one moment and harmonizes using Auto-Tune the next.
Standout tracks: “SOHO,” “A Calabasas Freestyle” and “Better Things”
This album is best appreciated while cruising along the coast or on the interstate as dusk approaches during an introspective moment.

Jaden Smith’s album The Sunset Tapes (Photo courtesy of MSTFS Music/Roc Nation)

29. DaniLeigh – The Plan
Album Releases: First
City: Miami, Florida
Vibe: You can dance, cruise or just spark up a blunt and appreciate the arrival of DaniLeigh’s debut album The Plan. The South Florida native is a Renaissance woman who’s been flexing her skills since she relocated to Los Angeles at 16 years old. Her years of dancing in music videos paid off once Prince reached out to her to direct his “Breakfast Can Wait” video. The Plan takes the listener through various moods from the signature West Coast G-Funk, to R&B, and trap music all within 33 minutes, leaving listeners motivated to persevere despite all obstacles.
Standout tracks: “Can’t Relate,” “Cruz” and “Family Only”
This album is best appreciated as the soundtrack to a beach party or cruising in your car reflecting on moments that’ll elicit a smile as dusk starts to settle on the day.

DaniLeigh’s album The Plan (Photo courtesy of Def Jam)

28. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
Album Releases: First
City: Bronx, New York
Vibe: Cardi B surprised the culture with her rise out of the exotic clubs to reality TV and to full-fledged rap star. Invasion of Privacy proves Cardi’s more than a one-hit wonder. She demonstrates her genre-hopping style throughout the album as she flips from aggressive hip-hop lyrics to a tender R&B vibe to Latin trap, capturing listeners around the globe.
Standout tracks: “Bodak Yellow,” “I Like It” and “Money Bag”
This album is best appreciated in building confidence to be yourself no matter how others judge you because your originality can lead you to success.

Cardi B’s album Invasion of Privacy (Photo courtesy of Atlantic/KSR)

27. Nicki Minaj – Queen
Album Releases: Fourth
City: Queens, New York
Vibe: After taking a four-year break between albums, Nicki Minaj is back to reign over her competition as she sits in her throne. Several female emcees have gathered in the courtyard to claim the crown, but Nicki will not relinquish it without a challenge. On Queen, every iteration of her career thus far is packaged into one project. Minaj once again rips microphones with the kind of rapid-fire tongue-twisted rhymes that made her famous on Kanye’s song “Monster.” Throughout the album, the rap diva expresses her independence using sexually charged lyrics that would make legendary emcee Roxanne Shante blush.
Standout tracks: “Barbie Dreams,” “Majesty” and “Coco Chanel”
This album is best appreciated by individuals facing adversity from challengers looking to take their position and how they respond from the top.

Nicki Minaj’s album Queen (Photo courtesy of Young Money/Cash Money/ Republic )

26. Drake – Scorpion
Album Releases: Fifth
City: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Vibe: After years of fans requesting an album with more rhymes than singing from Drake, he delivers Scorpion, a double album — one side rap, and one side R&B. The singer inside Drake will not let the rapper stand out too much; he started signing three songs into the rap side and had a few rap tracks on the R&B side. It’s hard to deliver a subpar album with so many hits, but that’s what happened with Scorpion. The album had three No. 1 hits and a few other bangers separating him further from his peer group and ensuring he stays in the conversation for the throne.
Standout tracks: “Nonstop,” “God’s Plan” and “In My Feelings”
This album is best appreciated with your significant other or going to the hookah lounge.

Drake’s album Scorpion (Photo courtesy of Young Money Entertainment)

25. Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
Album Releases: Second 
City: Harlem, New York
Vibe: K.T.S.E. captivated listeners by pulling them into the inner workings of a married woman, who is not only expressing love to her family, daughter and husband but also her sexual freedom. This is the album that R&B listeners needed but didn’t know it. It feels nostalgic, like early Mary J. Blige, and liberating, like Rihanna, but fresh enough to be all Teyana.
Standout tracks: “Gonna Love Me,” “3Way” and “Rose in Harlem”
This album is best appreciated while baring your soul and connecting with someone you love.

Teyana Taylor’s album K.T.S.E. (Photo courtesy of Good Music/Def Jam )

24. Dave East & Styles P – Beloved
Album Releases: First
City: Harlem and Yonkers, New York
Vibe: Yonkers, New York, representer Styles P of The Lox and Harlem’s Dave East both released several projects in 2018 but still managed to surprise fans with a joint album to end the year. Beloved is a 13-track banger full of nostalgic boom-bap beats, quintessential East Coast rhymes, and dark tales with both emcees bouncing off one another effortlessly.
Standout tracks: “It’s Lit,” “For All My N—–” and “Cut From a Different Cloth”
This album is best appreciated by those seeking that East Coast energy from two lyrical beasts wrecking the mic.

Dave East x Styles P’s album Beloved (Photo courtesy of Def Jam)

23. J. Cole – KOD
Album Releases: Fifth
City: Raleigh, North Carolina
Vibe: J. Cole tackles the current rise of drug use promoted by the new generation of rappers. KOD is a warning to the culture that drugs will lead to a path of destruction along with people willing to do anything for money and Instagram likes.
Standout tracks: “Motiv8, “Kevin’s Heart” and “Windows Pain (outro)
This album is best appreciated as a deterrent to drug use and losing yourself in social media.

J. Cole’s album KOD (Photo courtesy of J. Cole/ P&D)

22. Royce Da 5’9″ – Book of Ryan
Album Releases: Ninth 
City: Detroit, Michigan
Vibe: With Book of Ryan, Royce da 5’9″ is transforming his diary into rhymes and giving his fans the most personal album of his stellar career. He covers the challenges of his childhood in witnessing addiction, domestic abuse and the downfalls alcohol had on his life before getting clean and sober. Royce makes each rhyme count, weaving his flow with each beat. He sounds focused throughout the album while freeing himself from the burden of hardship and struggles that once hindered him.
Standout tracks: “Caterpillar,” “Cocaine” and “Boblo Boat”
This album is best-appreciated learning of the trials and tribulations of an elder statement offering insight to heed.

Royce da 5’9″‘s album Book of Ryan (Photo courtesy of Heaven Studios)

21. Phonte – No News Is Good News
Album Releases: Second
City: Greensboro, North Carolina
Vibe: Phonte is back with his grown man dialogue, navigating listeners through ups and downs of marriage, fatherhood and how your examples have more lasting effects on your children than your words. He also addresses issues facing African American communities by stressing the importance of proper diet, physical fitness, doctor visits and not being ashamed of seeking therapy to attain mental peace.
Standout tracks: “Pastor Tigallo,” “Cry One” and “Sweet You”
This album is best appreciated while relaxing after the daily grind and seeking a soothing introspective vibe.

Phonte’s album No News Is Good News (Photo courtesy of Foreign Exchange Music)

20. Rejjie Snow – Dear Annie
Album Releases: First
City: Dublin, Ireland
Vibe: This soft-spoken, laid-back Dublin rapper rhymes over jazzy samples and trip-hoppy beats, producing groovy tracks that resemble The Beach Boys’ stellar album Pet Sounds. Snow’s sound is reminiscent of Native Tongues, the rap collective that paved the way for free-spirited, Afrocentric and funk vibes in hip-hop.
Standout tracks: “Mon Amour,” “Oh” and “23”
This album is best appreciated while relaxing after the daily grind or if you’re seeking a soothing introspective vibe.

Rejjie Snow’s album Dear Annie (Photo courtesy of 300 Entertainment/Honeymoon)

19. Saba – Care For Me
Album Releases: First
City: Chicago, Illinois 
Vibe: Care For Me exhibits Saba’s rhythmic flow and melancholy style, weaving together tales of love and loss that have deeply impacted the 24-year-old Midwest native. Saba warrants your attention, whether rapping or singing. Throughout this album, he reflects on his cousin’s death, strained relationships with women and navigating the terrain of his hometown Chicago.
Standout tracks: “Broken Girls,” “Smile” and “Logout”
This album is best appreciated for its insight into the struggles millennials face settling into adult life.

Saba’s album Care For Me (Photo courtesy of Saba Pivot, LLC)

18. Noname – Room 25
Album Releases: Second
City: Chicago, Illinois
Vibe: Noname returns with her second installment since departing her hometown of Chicago for Los Angeles. Room 25 chronicles the journey of an artist transitioning into adulthood, addressing love, heartbreak, racism and maneuvering through the world as a female emcee in 2018 during the Me Too era.
Standout tracks: “Blaxploitation,” “Window” and “I like Ace.
This album is best appreciated as a guide as you transition from one stage of life to the next.

Noname’s album Room 25 (Photo courtesy of No/Name)

17. Black Milk – FEVER
Album Releases: Seventh
City: Detroit, Michigan
Vibe: Black Milk an elite producer and rapper who shines on his new album.  He delivers the culture a new Black revolutionary soundtrack filled with jazz, funk and hip-hop to guide listeners through the struggles currently facing society.
Standout tracks: “But I Can Be,” “Laugh Now Cry Later,” and “Will Remain”
This album is best appreciated while reflecting on the current state of African Americans and how we should strive to seek stability as a people.

Black Milk’s album FEVER (Photo courtesy of Mass Appeal)

16. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
Album Releases: Fourth
City: Kansas City, Kansas
Vibe: Monáe finally delivers her opus with Dirty Computer, an album addressing sexuality and all its intersections. There is a celebration of liberation taking place on the album, especially following Monaé’s public announcement that she is pansexual. Dirty Computer feels like an homage to Prince, Michael and Madonna, covering three decades of electric sound waves and freedom of expression.
Standout tracks: “Django Jane,” “Make Me Feel” and “I Like That”
This album is best appreciated for inspiring individuals to live their best life.

Janelle Monáe’s album Dirty Computer (Photo courtesy of Bad Boy Records)

15. Travis Scott – Astroworld
Album Releases: Third
City: Houston, Texas
Vibe: Astroworld is another a glimpse inside the mind of Houston’s eccentric rap star Travis Scott. This album pulls you slowly into the eclectic psychedelic carnival world, surprising and delighting listeners throughout the 60-minute experience. Scott smears textures of various sounds that become ear candy under his Auto-tuned vocals. He weaves back and forth between rapping and singing, covering dark several subjects, including drugs, heartbreak and the impact of loneliness.
Standout tracks: “Sickomode,” “5% Tint”  and “Stop Trying To Be God”
This album is best appreciated while searching for moments of bliss during a mundane day.

Travis Scott’s album Astroworld (Photo courtesy of Epic/Grand Hustle/ Cactus Jack)

14. Black Thought – Streams of Thoughts Vol. 2
Album Releases: Second
City: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Vibe: The lyrical terror that is Black Thought and producer extraordinaire Salaam Remi deliver the Black soundtrack to wrap up 2018. Thought touches on the destruction that drugs are having on society and how youth have become heartless regarding life with senseless killings on the rise as if there are no consequences. He covers so much more in the album’s 24 minutes, touching on slavery, the lasting effects of PTSD, misogyny, generational rap beefs and love.
Standout tracks: Fentanyl,” “Soundtrack to Confusion” and “Conception”
This album is best appreciated as an inspirational guide to maneuver through the current state of society.

Black Thought’s album Streams of Thoughts Vol. 2 (Photo courtesy of Passyunk)

13. The Black Eyed Peas – Masters of the Sun Vol. 1
Album Releases: Seventh
City: Los Angeles, California
Vibe: Masters of the Sun Vol.1 is one of best albums in the Black Eyed Peas’ discography. The album is a complete body of work that speaks to the current climate of today’s society and still will get you to the dance floor but in a conscious state.
Standout tracks: “Back 2 Hiphop,” “All Around The World” and “Wings”
This album is best appreciated in a b-boy and b-girl state of mind and while getting ready for a night out on the weekend.

Black Eyed Peas’s album Masters of The Sun (Photo courtesy of UMGRI)

12. Vince Staples – FM!
Album Releases: Fourth
City: Long Beach, California
Vibe: FM! is a concept album with Staples spending a summer’s day at “Big Boy’s Neighborhood,” the long-running, nationally syndicated hip-hop radio show in Los Angeles. The 11-track, 22-minute project feels like the listener is roaming inside one of Staples’ dreams where he is finally having his music played over the airwaves after taking over the radio station.
Standout tracks: “Feels like Summer,” “Don’t Get Chipped” and “Fun!”
This album is best appreciated while cruising in your ride or chilling with the homies in the summertime.

Vince Staples’ album FM! (Photo courtesy of Def Jam Recordings)

11. J.I.D – DiCaprio 2
Album Releases: Second
City: Atlanta, Georgia
Vibe: J.I.D’s high-pitched flow is back on DiCaprio 2, showcasing his acrobatic lyrical abilities from start to finish. The album is narrated by mixtape legend DJ Drama. The tempo, beats and frantic determination of J.I.D fuels this album enough to keep ears perked to the speakers and fingers ready to hit rewind. He touches on the current rise and celebration of drug usage by the youth, domestic violence, abortions and how jealousy can lead to death. There is something for everyone on this album.
Standout tracks: “Slick Talk,” “Off Deez” and “Mounted Up”
This album is best appreciated with a focused state of mind to fully absorb the lyrical onslaught.

J.I.D’s album Dicaprio 2 (Photo courtesy of J. Cole/ DreamVille)

10. A$AP Rocky – Testing
Album Releases: Third 
City: Harlem, New York
Vibe: There is an emotional ride of eclectic and psychedelic vibes transcending out of the speakers into listeners ears on Testing. Fans are often marveled at the range of A$AP imagination, the clashes of sounds being brought together, the depth of his lyrics and artists selected for collaborations. Rocky produces 70 percent of Testing and continues stepping away from the current trends of mainstream rap albums.
Standout tracks: “A$AP Forever,” “Fukk Sleep” and “Praise The Lord”
This album is best appreciated while relaxing in your house or chilling at your local coffee shop.

A$AP Rocky’s album Testing (Photo courtesy of A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds Music/RCA Records)

9. Kanye West and KidCudi – Kids See Ghost
Album Releases: First
City: Chicago, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio
Vibe: The beautiful mind of Kanye West and the introspective harmonizing wizard Kid Cudi finally deliver the long-awaited album Kids See Ghost to their legion of fans. Kids See Ghost arrived right as awareness about mental health was rising in communities, especially among African Americans. Kanye and Cudi are both struggling with mental health issues and alienation from others as they seek to find peace and balance in a judgmental society. Kids See Ghost sounds and feel like what you would expect when two of the greatest artists to emerge from hip-hop pair rock-and-hip-hop-infused production with insightful lyrics celebrating being free and at peace.
Standout tracks: “Feel the Love,” “Freeee” and “Reborn”
This album is best appreciated during a time of introspection or while simply rocking out.

Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s album Kids See Ghosts (Photo courtesy of GOOD and Def Jam)

8. Mac Miller – Swimming
Album Releases: Fifth 
City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Vibe: Mac Miller had a lot to say during his short span on earth, releasing more than 15 projects, five of which were major releases. Swimming — the album released one month before his unexpected death — finds Mac at the steps of clarity regarding the artist and the man he was, struggling with substance abuse and a broken heart. The production and lyrics are a perfect blend, setting the perfect tone of the emotions Mac is expressing. Some may find this album heavy due to his passing, and others might find it darker and colder than previous projects. I see it as the final offering from a musical prodigy swimming and seeking to find a way out of his own head.

Standout tracks: “Come Back to Earth,” “Self Care,” and “Ladders”
This album is best appreciated while relaxing in your house or if you need an introspective soundtrack.

Mac Miller’s album Swimming (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros Records)

7. Nas – Nasir
Album Releases: Eleventh
City: Queens, New York
Vibe: Nasir continues the narrations, attempting to enlighten the youth by urging them to watch out for drugs, guns, social media and dire choices with lasting effects and concentrate on building wealth and knowledge and the rewards of working hard work at your craft can yield. Nas is as sharp as ever over Kanye’s soulful production and sample-filled wonderland.
Standout tracks: “Cops Shot the Kid,” “everything,” and “Adam and Eve”
This album is best appreciated as insight from an elder statement’s perspective offering wisdom of how to maintain and maneuver through the obstacles facing society.

Nas’s album NASIR (Photo courtesy of Mass Appeal and Def Jam)

6. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
Album Releases: Fourth 
City: Oxnard, California
Vibe: Anderson continues the theme of naming his albums after cities in California where he lived or somehow influenced him over the years. As a musician, singer and rapper, Paak’s joyous melodies and use of instrumentation and Dr. Dre’s mixing skills combine to deliver one of the best albums this year and what I feel is Anderson’s best album to date.
Standout tracks: “Tints,” “Mansa Musa,” and “Cheers.”
This album is best appreciated reminiscing on the days of when funk and soul dominated the sound waves and music felt like love.

Anderson .Paak’s album Oxnard (Photo courtesy of Aftermath/ 12 Tone Music, LLC)

5. Swizz Beats – Poison
Album Releases: Second
City: Bronx, New York
Vibe: Swizz delivered a cohesive project woven together so well that the listener forgets they’re listening to a compilation album with 10 tracks and 12 artists such as Lil Wayne, Young Thug, Kendrick, Pusha T and Nas. The production is truly the driving force throughout Poison, showing Swizz’s talent as a great arranger along with top-tier emcees delivering high-quality lyrics.
Standout tracks: “Preach,” “Echo,” and “Cold Blooded.”
This album is best appreciated as the score to an art, music and culinary fusion event.

Swizz Beatz’s album Poison (Photo courtesy of EPIC/Swizz Beatz Production, Inc.)

4. Black Panther: The Album
Album Releases: First 
City: Compton, California
Vibe: Top Dawg Entertainment is gradually becoming the most talented label in hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar leads the charge on the Black Panther movie soundtrack, a project perfectly woven like Kente cloth for the entire diaspora of Africans around the globe.
Standout tracks: “All The Stars,” “Pray for Me,” and “King’s Dead”
This album is best appreciated while relaxing in your house or if you need a burst of inspiration to improve your day.

Black Panther: The Album  (Photo courtesy of TDE)

3. Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap
Album Releases: First 
City: Los, California
Vibe: Nipsey Hussle followed through on his promise to deliver his debut album Victory Lap — albeit five years later than expected—but, oh boy, was it worth the wait. It’s filled with tales of getting your wealth up through entrepreneurial endeavors, the pits of street life and the journey into manhood coming up in Los Angeles.
Standout tracks: “Hussle and Motivate,” “Last time I Checc’d,” and “Grinding All My Life”
This album is best appreciated when cruising in your ride to your next hustle.

Nipsey Hussle’s album Victory Lap (Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records)

2. Jay Rock – Redemption
Album Releases: Third
City: Watts, California
Vibe: Jay Rock released an inspirational album for those who represent the grit. Redemption is full of gritty street tales with melodious, catchy hooks, and Eastside Johnny, aka Jay Rock, delivers his best hook to date.
Standout tracks: “Win,” “OSOM featuring J.Cole,” and “Wow Freestyle”
This is album is best appreciated for getting the adrenaline pumping.

Jay Rock’s album Redemption (Photo courtesy of TDE)

1. Pusha – DAYTONA
Album Releases: Third 
City: Virginia Beach, Virginia
Vibe: Pusha T delivers his opus magnum in DAYTONA. It’s a masterstroke of elevated drug tales from a former dealer reflecting on adventures. He also instigated the beef of the year with Drake by sending him the calm before the storm shot on “Infrared” prompting Drake to respond, only setting him up for the southpaw knockout with the second diss “Story of Adion” that silenced the back and forth. This album was made to push replay!
Standout tracks: “If You Know You Know,” “The Games We Play,” and “Infrared”
Produced by Kanye West, this album is best appreciated for its glimpse into the life and reflections of a hustler.

Pusha T’s album DAYTONA (Photo courtesy of GOOD and Def Jam)

Well, that’s it. But before we go, here’s one we had to add as a bonus, especially for all your Meek Mill fans.

Bonus: Meek Mill – Championship
Album Releases: Fourth
City: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Vibe: Meek Mill deserves applause for ending 2018 with the release of Championships, the strongest album of his career. He went from beefing with Drake, to watching his star gradually grow dimmer, to eventually landing back in jail for violating his probation due to popping a wheelie in New York City. Meek survived what would destroy most emcees in the midst of their ascension. This album finds the street champ busting wheelies back onto the charts, with songs that challenge the judicial system, speak out against the mental impact of incarceration, and call for prison reform.
Standout tracks: “What’s Free,” “Oodles O’Noodles Babies” and “Trauma”
This album is best appreciated as a warning that one criminal act committed in your teens can hinder you in your adult life and keep you from being free in mind, body and spirit.

Meek Mill’s album CHAMPIONSHIPS (Photo courtesy of MMG/ Atlantic)