50. Machine Gun Kelly - Rap Devil
Legend states that Machine Gun Kelly wandered to a midwestern crossroads beneath a blood moon, offering a locket of man-bun in offering, and found himself face to face with a malevolent force of eldritch nature. “Give me the power to defeat my enemies,” said Kelly, probably. And thus, “Rap Devil” emerged, imbuing Kelly with the force to give Eminem the biggest slap of his career. Held aloft by the sturdy foundations of a song structure (unlike many diss tracks), in which a dope beat and memorable hook coalesce, Kelly takes the piss outta Em with the attention to detail of a lifelong fan. And though the narrative has since shifted in Em’s favor, Kelly’s return fire turned a tepid Labor Day into an unholy massacre.
49. Dave East - "Russia"
Dave East delivered a wealth of material this year, but “Russia” proved a uniquely special creation. Driven by a nightmarish string section, evocative of a hallucinogenic Max Payne sequence, East waxes poetic about the perils and perks of a battle-hardened mafioso lifestyle. Creativity is best put to use through innovative murder tactics; lovers are better between a language barrier. Throughout this Karma 2 standout, East solidifies himself as a Baba Yaga-esque presence, a vicious yet refined boogeyman prone to engage in the occasional bathhouse knife fight.
48. NoName - "Ace" feat. Smino & Saba
Noname enlisted a few homies for her highly-anticipated studio album, Room 25. Saba and Smino, her good friends who also happen to be rising stars from Chicago and St. Louis respectively, landed on one of the project’s standout tracks. “Ace” weaves together their individual experiences with mounting fame and success over a slick Pheolix-produced instrumental, painted with foggy vocal harmonies through the stitches of sparse drums patterns. The soulful composition lays an unorthodox setting for the three rappers’ come up tales.
Each artist brings their own kind of appeal to the narrative. Smino is the first to offer his blessings as he sings the song’s hook, and then transitions smoothly into his rapped verse. He flexes his vocal ability, coasting in his high register and skipping atop lines punctuated with falsetto. Noname enters with her particular brand of humor that ties up her boasting with a wink: “Room 25, the best album that's coming out/Labels got these nigg*s just doing it for the clout/I'm just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out/Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out.” Finally, Saba tops off the track with a fast-tongued verse. There's a tasty switch up to his flow near the end, sputtering then stalling in a rhythm that recalls an early-millennium Andre 3000. While they deal with subjects that have been infinitely picked apart by others, “Ace” is a novel execution of the ascension to bright lights.
47. Trouble - “Real Is Rare (Edgewood) / The Woods”
What more is there to say. To distill one idea from Edgewood is to come away reciting the mantra “Real Is Rare.” Ignore popular opinion where you can. Mike WiLL foresaw similarities between Trouble and his former pupil, the late Bankroll Fresh. The lateral sweep is none more apparent than on “Real Is Rare.”
We’re talking about Trouble, a born-leader who calls out members of his entourage when playing “Madden” gets in the way of making money. On “Real Is Rare,” the greatest transformation of his character occurs within periods of unintended silence. When he does speak again, his words are broken into batches of two or three, as a way of repelling non-believers with different codes of language.
Seven years ago, Trouble would have shown up to the video shoot hogtied, with a bunch of junior leftenants waiting at his beck and call. But that was then, and this is “Edgewood.”
46. Anderson .Paak - “Bubblin”
Anderson .Paak offers a most graceful flex on “Bubblin.” The song marked a slight shift in his artistic trajectory with its instrumental produced by Jahlil Beats and AntMan. The duo laid down a trap-infused instrumental integrating the rapper’s penchant for 70s genres into the most current sonic trend in hip-hop.
While the money anthem employs some of the usual tropes found within songs that celebrate quantifiable come-ups, Anderson’s lyrics were fashioned with the eloquent style his fans have come to expect. “Bubblin” became a standout single (although it ultimately did not even make the album...) with its strings reminiscent of cinematic heist soundtracks, soaring over the pulsing rhythms akin to southern bounce. Anderson .Paak’s dramatic flair is to be lauded too, as usual. The pattern of shouted adlibs that spring up before his main vocals provides satisfaction in itself. He switches his flow skillfully between cascading cadences, tension-building syncopation and laid-back tones that reflect the circumstantial ease of a baller.
45. Cardi B - “Bickenhead”
Anyone will be able to tell you that Cardi B had a huge year, but Three 6 Mafia’s dominance in current rap is a little less visible. From Rae Sremmurd’s “Powerglide” to G Herbo’s viral “Who Run It Challenge,” the Memphis group’s influence has been palpable on today’s hits. “Bickenhead” is a flip of Three 6 affiliate Project Pat’s “Chickenhead,” making for the second time Cardi has referenced the group in recent memory (Her verse on “No Limit” nods to “Slob on my Knob”). With that being said, Cardi brings huge personality and hilariously explicit bars that would make Juicy J blush, making for a perfect gender flip on a raunchy classic. It’s a prime example of what made Invasion Of Privacy so great: centering in on the thrills and pleasure points of the rap zeitgeist and infusing them with Cardi's one-of-a-kind charisma.
44. Eminem - "Killshot"
I remember the height of Eminem’s feud with the combined forces of Ja Rule & Benzino, culminating in “The Sauce,” “Nail In The Coffin,” and “Hail Mary” among other volleys. The merciless force of Em’s counter attacks solidified him among the most formidable forces in hip-hop. Yet like Old Man Logan, Eminem decided to sheathe the blades, save for a brief, yet venomous spat with Mariah Carey, perhaps fearful of the destruction he might sow. Perhaps it was fate that brought Machine Gun Kelly into his crosshairs. Riding the momentum of his second wind, Kamikaze, Em once again allowed his violent tendencies to manifest. The result was a magnificent, bloody spectacle, hard fought on both ends. Even Diddy caught a love tap. “Don’t get Em mad,” they said. Yes, don’t...but do.
43. Playboi Carti - “R.I.P.”
The award for the most cleverly masked Jodeci sample goes to Playboi Carti for his use of “What About Us” in rendering “R.I.P.” For whatever it’s worth, I was only mildly surprised by the verisimilitude he demonstrated in choosing a classic R&B cut, then slashing it to bits, like a doctor who specializes in transforming sensual bodies into monstrosities.
Any inkling of a soft-spoken undercurrent on “R.I.P.” unveiled itself as the song came to a close, not before. Carti chose the veneers of a monochromatic World to shoot the corresponding video, and fittingly so. “R.I.P.” is a strange concoction of intimacy, belligerence, and effeminate behavior all wrapped into one solid casing.
Die Lit’s detractors file into two lines: rap fans whose delimitations are set (sadly), and on the other hand, there are listeners at loss for hearing who can’t, for the life of them, detect a playful undercurrent. “R.I.P.” is thereby a “good riddance” to those who can’t steady their pace long enough to catch up with the times.
42. Meek Mill - "Oodles O Noodles Babies"
Over a nostalgic soul sample, Meek Mill vividly narrates his path to success from the trenches of Philadelphia on the Championships single “Oodles O' Noodles Babies.” Meek is one of the few rappers that has been consistently getting better with age. On “Oodles O' Noodles Babies,” Meek's penmanship is on full display as he details the emotions he felt through some of the toughest moments of his life. Meek recalls memories of dreaming of his father’s ghost, to kissing his aunt’s cold forehead in a casket, to the case he caught at 18-years old that he continues to fight to this day.
In a year where Meek’s own legal issues became a gateway for a bigger discussion of criminal justice reform, he doesn’t provide a solution to the problem, but brings a bit of hope to anyone who has dealt with similar situations. “Huh, you said, you would give me a chance, your honor, why would you lie to me?/ 16 more years of probation, you know you gon' get some more time on me, huh,” he raps on the second verse before bringing everything back full circle. “Whole hood goin' crazy, babies havin' babies/ She was fourteen, actin' like she eighty/ Got pregnant by a nigga that was locked up in them cages/ And the story goes on, if you make it, you amazing.”
41. Moneybagg Yo - “Lower Level” feat. Kodak Black
Moneybagg Yo delivered quite a few releases in 2018, each a strong if not slightly overlooked project. The latest and last of the year happened to be his debut album, RESET. It did not stray from Moneybagg Yo’s formula, giving fans a variety of trap-focused music, some of it quite personal. One of Moneybagg’s strengths is delivering a real sense of emotion when he shares stories of his struggle or the struggle of others, including on “Lower Level” with Kodak Black.
He told us in our interview about the album that Kodak was fresh out of prison when he recorded his verse for the record, which surely makes it that much more poignant and urgent. The song, produced by Ben Billions, isn’t uplifting, but it’s the type of song you can find comfort in nonetheless. Moneybagg confesses his own demons while wishing the best, or at least, better, for those in an even more sunken place. Meek Mill once said “there’s levels to this shit,” but this is a level we don’t often get to hear about it.
40. Lil Baby & Gunna - "Drip Too Hard"
Lil Baby & Gunna hedged a lot of their bets on the success of “Drip Too Hard,” and rightly so, the song carried an unsustainable pace. Drip Harder did not, in my estimation, measure up to its demo reel, through no fault of the songwriting process undertaken by both men.
On its own, “Drip Too Hard” carries the mystique of the great tag-team efforts in history, some of which you may recall seeing in a textbook but never hearing yourself. Think: Memph and Beanie Sigel, Nice & Smooth, and even Jim Jones and Max B before their relationship petered out. There was no shortage of inspiration for Lil Baby & Gunna to draw upon, when they finally chose to go in that direction.
In its first week on the charts, “Drip Too Hard” debuted in the 28th position and rose three spots the following week, before Tha Carter V caused a massive disruption in service.
Those who gravitated towards the song, were unequivocally under its spell for two weeks time. I will always remember “Drip Too Hard” as a massive oversell, but a personal favorite, in spite of it all.
39. Drake - “Nonstop”
Drake’s 2018 may have been defined by the earwormy radio rap singles that dominated the airwaves, but the hardest track on the rapper’s feature-length album Scorpion quietly joined the pantheon of the rapper’s canon. The fury of “Nonstop,” the Tay Keith-produced track that hits hard and early on Drizzy’s new album feels like the perfect antidote when you can’t shake “Kiki, do you love me?” from your consciousness. Brutally minimal, the song’s start-stop dynamic is as obvious as it is perfectly executed. It’s probably the best he’s done the mean-mug, shit-talking single since If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and seems destined to be a live favorite for years to come. Though his downfall has been projected for years, Drake still has his head well above water, and the song’s most memorable line -- “This a Rollie, not a stopwatch, shit don't ever stop” -- feels like a mantra reflective of his continued relevance.
38. Lil Wayne - “Mona Lisa” feat. Kendrick Lamar
After spending the last few years in legal limbo, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V arrived as something of a compilation of Weezy’s creative output in the interim between his flagship releases. “Mona Lisa,” which pairs Wayne with one of rap’s current icons, Kendrick Lamar, immediately sounds like one of the older records in the batch, but was held over for good reason. Wayne’s legacy has been defined primarily by his heady punchlines, which can sometimes distract from how great a storyteller he is. As he describes a tense set-up step-by-step in the first person, his verse functions like a slow zoom-out on a painting -- the textured brush strokes become a bigger picture, and much like the Mona Lisa, there’s a discernible grin that gives it an unexplainable character. Whether it was made in 2014 or 2018 shouldn’t matter when it’s a part of history.
37. Childish Gambino - “This is America”
Childish Gambino brought us “This is America” in the spirit of doing it “for the culture.” His effort heeds to Nina Simone’s assertion of the artist's duty to “reflect” the times. While the song deals with social issues stemming from a violent history spanning over centuries, his interpretation of the Black American’s societal plight is contextualized within the nation's current state, set apart in its technological advancements, its unprecedented abundance of resources and its cunning dissimulation of the residuals of Jim Crow.
Gambino manages to touch upon these elements in a matter of a couple of bars:
“I'm on Gucci/I'm so pretty/I'm gon' get it/Watch me move/This a celly.” He calls out the embrace of consumerism and qualifies it as a state of imprisonment, with “celly” referring to the digital era and the prison industrial complex all at once. This type of lyrical mindfulness is almost subliminal, upholding a standard of creativity that is not encountered in mainstream music as much as some of the industry's predecessors might have hoped. “This Is America” reaches back in time to bring forth a conversation that is often deemed to be polarizing while providing a straight-up bop with replay value. This is art.
36. J. Cole - "1985 (Intro To “The Fall Off”)"
Lil Pump shrieking “Fuck J. Cole” stands among the most irritating hip-hop moments in recent memory. Yet, perhaps the pain was worth it, given Cole’s measured response to Pump’s misguided act of “clout chasing.” Approached with a professorial grace, Cole penned his response with just enough disrespect to constitute “warning” status. Still, there was wisdom to be gleaned from Cole’s perspective, which he doled without the trappings of didacticism. In truth, “1985” works on a variety of levels. For one, it’s satisfying for anyone growing fatigued of unearned, “mumble-rapper” arrogance. It also happens to be a brilliant display of storytelling, showcasing another element of J. Cole’s impressive toolkit.
35. Travis Scott - “Stop Trying To Be God”
A Stevie Wonder harmonica solo is a powerful thing. On Drake’s “Doing It Wrong” it served as a devastating climax to one of Take Care’s most gutting R&B tracks. On Travis Scott’s “Stop Trying To Be God,” it’s a cloudy drop in a test tube, transforming in color and consistency as new elements are introduced. This melting pot of sounds is stretched across Travis’ ASTROWORLD as a whole, but “Stop Trying To Be God” feels like a brief moment of clarity amidst the chaos: the short gasp for air before the next drop in the ride. As Stevie’s Harmonica wraps around the uncharacteristically sweet hook and Kid Cudi’s ASMR hums, the song reaches a euphoric state of stable peace, something we don’t see often on a Travis album. It also sees him stepping out of the rager to share some lived wisdom: “Fuck the money, never leave your people behind.” Now back to the regularly-scheduled beat switches.
34. Freddie Gibbs Ft. 03 Greedo - “Death Row”
Over the past few years, Freddie Gibbs has delivered some of the most personal music to date, but that wasn’t the case with his latest solo album, Freddie. The rapper delivered a complete project filled with bangers produced by Kenny Beats containing only one feature: the incarcerated Grape Street legend, 03 Greedo. On “Death Row,” Gibbs and 03 Greedo link up to pay homage to the gangster-isms of the iconic West Coast record label of the same name, while sampling Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood.” Kenny Beats revives the classic record in a way that fits the current climate of hip-hop while Gibbs baritone, chopper flow juxtaposes Greedo’s more high-pitch, matter-of-fact flow which is reminiscent of Eazy-E at some points.
Gibbs and Greedo are arguably two of the few rappers who continue to keep gangsta rap alive through their music. Although their styles are different, they both tread into each other’s sonic territory seamlessly on “Death Row” while bouncing their undeniable chemistry off of each other.
33. Jay Critch - “Ego”
Jay Critch finally gave fans his debut album this year, Hood Favorite, which was led by the single “Ego.” The album itself offers a singular type of New York-based variety; whether it’s a gritty collaboration that recalls an era bygone with French Montana and Fabolous on “Try It,” or the sleek vibes on “Ego,” Jay Critch does it well. “Ego” in particular actually takes a cue from Critch’s mentor Rich the Kid: it’s a featureless single that utilizes empty space and a futuristic beat to great effect, not so unlike “Plug Walk.” Still, it stands recognizable as its own song with replay value easily growing upon each listen. Jay Critch is also a master manipulator of flow on the song, mimicking the slickness of the beat by drawing out his flow at times and at others, pulling it back.
32. Metro Boomin - “Don’t Come Out The House” feat. 21 Savage
Young Savage opting for the softest delivery possible over Metro and Tay Keith’s booming 808s may seem like a meme-able gimmick in theory. In practice though, it provided undeniable dynamism on this highlight from November’s Not All Heroes Wear Capes. As was the case on Savage Mode, Without Warning, and most of the best moments on Issa Album, Metro elevates 21’s craft, and in turn, the rapper gifts the producer his finest horror soundtrack moments. Pillow talk? This whisper’s more like hiding-under-floorboards-waiting-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep talk.
Then the outside-voiced climax: “Y’ALL MUST THOUGHT THAT I WAS GON’ WHISPER THE WHOLE TIME.” Savage is one of the most relaxed-voiced rappers around— and this line isn’t actually delivered much louder than usual— but the song’s feat of tension-building makes him sound like Waka Flocka in the moment.
31. Valee - “Shell”
Valee's debut EP, GOOD Job, You Found Me is an instance where all six songs are interchangeable/worthy of year-end note (or I might be mixing this up with my personal list). We at HNHH have to make tough decisions, and picking out “Shell” was among them. The record closes out the EP, a spooky self-produced cut. Valee had a hand in every beat on GOOD Job, which lends to its extreme cohesiveness, however this is the only record where Valee went at it alone.
It’s lighter in sound than songs like “Juice & Gin” and “I Got Whatever,” but it still contains the signature clapping that’s littered across the EP in different formats. It’s a jingly song, the contents of which are equally important to the production. Valee’s deliberate flow draws us into his world, as he paints clear images of his day. It seems like any other day too, at least some aspects of it do. We’re not all casually/on a whim walking into Louis and dropping six grand, or else fucking someone else’s bitch in a hotel. But Valee wisely sandwiches these activities in between ones we can all relate to, making the song even more interesting: having an upset stomach and needing to eat, running out of Swishers, or walking into a Shell gas station and sparking a joint. Salute to the mundane activities of regular folk.
30. Gunna - “Oh Okay” feat. Young Thug & Lil Baby
Gunna started off 2018 unsuspecting enough. He dropped off Drip Season 3 in February of the new year. It was the third instalment in a series that his fans loved, but he wasn’t yet a heralded figure in circles outside of YSL’s cult following. Still, there was momentum and hype surrounding Drip Season 3, which proved to be Gunna’s most polished and well-rounded work to date. We could have very well included every single song Drip Season 3 for our year-end list (or maybe that’s just my personal list, again, oops), but “Oh Okay” is important for a couple of reasons. It serves as a notch in the Lil Baby x Gunna collab series that would eventually propel them to release Drip Harder, as well as evidence of the trio’s chemistry too, lest we forget Father Slime himself, Thugger. Equally, Turbo blessed us with the guitar licks in the beat, an early look at what is basically his trademark sound now.
29. Post Malone - “92 Explorer”
“92 Explorer” was not chosen as an official single from beerbongs & bentleys but it very well could have been one. If we’re being completely honest, the majority of the album would perform well on the radio. Despite the enormous success of songs like “Better Now,” “Psycho,” and “Rockstar,” “92 Explorer” remains a favorite from the long-awaited follow-up to Stoney.
Named after his vintage whip, “92 Explorer” is the perfect song to blast as you’re riding down the highway in a drop-top convertible. The vocal emphasis in the hook is perfectly applied, which isn’t entirely a surprise. We are talking about Post Malone, after all. This man creates hits and he knows what it takes to get a melody to stay in your head for the rest of the day. “92 Explorer” appears relatively far into the tracklist, allowing the energy to peak before heading into two final offerings. This was the first collaboration between London On Da Track and Post Malone, and it has us all wishing that the two link up again in the future.
28. Pusha T - “Santeria”
Much like the rest of DAYTONA, there are a lot of ideas crammed into “Santeria”’s small package. Push could have easily thrown a couple of “YUGH”s over the familiar sample in the track’s opening. But we’re dealing with Kanye here -- back-to-basics, MPC and loops Kanye -- but still Kanye. So before the song is done, there’s a dreamy hook, a series of snare clashes, and a beat switch -- but it’s not in the jump cut “SICKO MODE” style, every play is mapped to the next handoff. With all of the scenery changes, Push never loses his laser focus. You can practically see the veins popping in his head as he leans into each multisyllabic rhyme (“I just place orders and drop dollars/Rottweilers roam the grounds, the glock hollers.) He doesn’t want one detail missed. He wants you to pore over each and every punchline. That’s why we’re still getting mileage off of the 21 minutes of music he released this year.
27. Kanye West - “All Mine”
Ye wasn’t as fulfilling of a Kanye West project as we would’ve hoped. That’s not to say it was bad, but it seems unanimous that the album ranks closer towards the bottom of ‘Ye’s discography. “All Mine” was one of the few songs that withstood the (short) test of time since the release of the album.
The majority of Ye, if anything, was a reflection of the hardships Kanye has dealt with over the past two years, from Kim's Paris robbery to his hospitalization. However, “All Mine,” is a much more of a fun, raunchy record, easier to digest, than the other 6 tracks on Ye. ‘Ye delivered a few of his most hilarious, cringe-worthy, quotables on “All Mine” like “I love your titties ‘cause that proves I could focus on two things at once,” and “Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome/ ayye, none of us would be here without cum.” The balance of Kanye’s ridiculousness and musicality is in peak form on “All Mine.”
26. Nipsey Hussle - “Hussle & Motivate”
There were a few people who compared Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap to Jay-Z’s 4:44 based on the fact that Neighborhood Nip was spitting game on life throughout the project. Interestingly enough, Nip did sample Hov’s “Hard Knock Life” for “Hussle & Motivate” which serves as the thesis statement to the album, if there is one. Reflecting on his time from hustling in the streets, the rapper dives into how the hardships from his past were ultimately life lessons that helped him pave his way as an entrepreneur. “Pull up in motorcades, I got a show today/ This all I’m tryna do, hustle and motivate/ Choppas and throwaways, hustle the Hova way,” he raps at the top of the first verse.
“Hussle & Motivate” sounds like Nipsey’s graduation in the game from underground hustler to a recognized entrepreneur and boss in the rap game, ultimately living up to the song’s title and proving that Nipsey Hussle is here to shed more knowledge and game, in order for the younger generation to dodge any mistakes he may have made in his past.
25. Young Thug - “High” feat. Elton John
My mom is a massive Elton John fan. Always has been. Two of my first concerts were EJ stadium shows, and I’ve got old, tattered vinyl copies of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Honky Chateau with her maiden name Sharpie’d inside the gatefolds. Elton represented something exciting for her generation— an electrifying talent who bucked gender norms and prioritized outlandishness. For about five years now, Young Thug has been my Elton John: same position in his cultural moment, same obsession spawned among his fans.
When Thug and Elton were photographed together at the latter’s Atlanta residence (he’s called Georgia home for years) in March 2016, I nearly shat my pants. It’s always heartwarming to see cross-generational respect between artists from different genres, but even more so between these kindred spirits. Over the next few months, I followed the saga of Thug’s rumored “Rocket Man” remix, which was initially intended for that year’s Jeffery. Years passed without so much as an unmastered leak, and I lost hope.
When “High” arrived in unfinished form in August, I was disappointed. The beat felt like a placeholder, the mix was awful, it didn’t live up to its promise. But I should’ve known better. The version that graced On The Rvn is everything I could’ve hoped for, a creative update of a classic that got Elton’s own stamp of approval. I can’t wait to play it for my mom over the holidays.
24. Kevin Gates - “Change Lanes”
Perhaps it was just the timing of this release that made it that much more impactful: Kevin Gates was finally out of prison, and the 3-song EP, Chained to the City was his first release. So, it could be that. It could be because “Change Lanes” was the first song on the EP-- our first taste of verifiably new music from Kevin Gates. All this could have easily affected Kevin Gates’ mindset when making the song too. Or, it could just be because the song is fire.
It’s an emotionally-charged and introspective look into Kevin’s mentality during prison, post-prison and prior. Perhaps as a reflection of his time behind bars, he’s toned down his penchant for flashy items, rapping, “Introverted, these days, introverted, these days / Plain Jane, I done changed lanes, Plain Jane, I done changed lanes.” Later, he takes us inside his cell: "Layin' in my cell, lookin' at the ceiling / I'm on a division, me and all the killers / Throwin' shit and piss on all the staff members / Even got the warden, that’s why they had to ship us.” All this over a beat that skitters, flutters and chimes melodically to Gates’ wavering vocal patterns.
23. Kids See Ghosts - “Kids See Ghosts” feat. Yasiin Bey
Within a week from each other, we got two projects from Kanye West. His solo effort, Ye, and the collaborative effort with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts which many argued was a Cudi album featuring Kanye West. The song’s title track, featuring Yasiin Bey, was an immediate highlight off of the project. Ye and Kid Cudi, alongside Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Plain Pat, cooked up one of the most fire beats on the project that sounds like the darkest depths of the ocean. Not to mention, Kanye West, for one of the few times on their album, came through with a show-stealing verse. Cudi proved why he’s one of the most innovative and boundary-pushing artists of this generation on Kids See Ghosts, but with the title track, he stands alongside Kanye West as an equal, and not just as someone who once served as a mentor.
22. Migos - “Narcos”
With a group like Migos, who have perfected the art of the single, it’s important not to upset the formula too much but also to come at it from new angles. “Narcos” perfectly balances everything familiar about the beloved group while still reaching new ground. Similar to Future’s 2017 smash “Mask Off,” the track succeeds by supplanting what could have been an unadventurous record onto a thrilling new palette. The Latin-flavored sample, “Espoir” from Haitian act Les Difficiles de Pétion-Ville, inspires Quavo, Takeoff and Offset to couple their trap tales with Pablo Escobar fan fiction. If Takeoff’s precise, low-center-of-gravity closing verse wasn’t enough to convince you otherwise, they also make sure to point out their rap skills beyond hitmaking: “This real rap, no mumble.” There’s no reason it shouldn’t be the theme for the next season of Netflix’s Narcos.
21. Lil Baby - "Fit In"
Lil Baby’s triplet flow is designed to break through anything in its path. It’s a technical offshoot that has YSL written all over it. There’s no question about it, Lil Baby is doing everything in his power to “Fit In.” He has looks that kill, as well as a duplicitous side that appeals to young women. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.
For the sake of clarity, we’ve chosen “Fit In” as the most evocative record off Harder Than Ever, and with good reason. In lieu of bragging about cosmetic enhancements, Lil Baby spends the bulk of “Fit In” talking up his relentless work ethic.. Everything from purchasing a gun at 15, to hitting licks in the back of a Greyhound - nothing too sacred for a young Lil Baby sporting a swollen ribcage. Don’t let the Balmains fool you, Lil Baby is right on the cusp of “feeling his oats.”
20. Rich the Kid - “Plug Walk”
If there was ever a rapper that knew how to hustle and network the rap game, it’s Rich the Kid. Early on, Rich the Kid could have winded up just "another" trap-rapper, but he managed to separate himself from the pack, not only by honing his craft -- of which we’ve seen a marked improvement in over the years -- but by aligning himself with all the right people, and features.
Despite that, “Plug Walk” is a feature-less single off Rich’s debut album, The World is Yours, which dropped at the top of the new year. Rich lazily but adeptly glides over the spaced out beat from Lab Cook, a bed of weightless, while dropping off some innocently hilarious quotes: “I don’t even understand how the fuck my plug talk,” he raps on the hook. It’s one of his best songs to date, one where he shows how minimal effort can sometimes make for maximum impact.
19. A$AP Rocky - "Fukk Sleep" feat. FKA Twigs
Insomnia is nightmarish in nature. Lying awake through the witching hour can conjure all manner of strange designs. Instead, A$AP Rocky has learned to seek inspiration while others sleep. The result is a truly masterful creation, driven by one of the year’s hardest instrumentals, an eerie representation of dazed insanity. Rocky matches the evocative tone with a deadpan performance, drawing a muted strength from the bags beneath his eyes. FKA Twigs tows the line between shoulder-mounted angel and devil, delivering a hauntingly lonely, yet lovely harmony. A personal favorite, “Fukk Sleep” is the year’s definitive dark banger.
18. Lil Wayne - “Dedicate”
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V felt like a closing chapter; a great artist looking back not only on his career, but his entire existence. On “Dedicate,” Weezy cleverly flips a track from 2 Chainz’ HollyGrove, which comes from the perspective of a student and an admirer following in Wayne’s footsteps. In Wayne’s version, he looks at his influence from the inside out, which leads to some well-justified brags: “I started this shit, you just part of this shit/I'm the heart of this shit, and the heart doesn't skip.” From verse two on, he doesn’t break from his rhyme scheme, hinting at the confessions that will come later in the album (“In the spotlight too long, should be darker than this”), but ultimately closing by planting his flag as the greatest of his time, sampling an Obama speech where he is put in the same category as Lebron James. He sees the new Lil’s but he knows there will only ever be one Wayne.
17. XXXTentacion - “SAD!”
XXXTentacion was one of those artists that can’t really be mimicked. He was truly one-of-a-kind and his fans will always be devastated that he’s gone. Thankfully, he left behind a catalog of art that won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
“SAD!” is the most popular song that XXXTentacion has ever released. In many people’s eyes, it’s also his best song. The track perfectly captures X’s mindset as you can clearly hear just how tortured the young man was on the inside. This was one of two singles that he released before his ? album came out, boosting his profile by the time of the project’s arrival. An artist that was bubbling under the radar had suddenly become a full-fledged superstar before our very eyes. Without “SAD!,” X’s legacy would not be what it is today. It gave people the best possible idea of what we can expect out of the artist in 2018: raw emotion and despair. Nobody could have predicted how things would go down on June 18, but we’re grateful to have received some of X’s genius while he was here. Long Live Jahseh.
16. J. Cole - "KOD"
The titular track to J. Cole’s KOD is the closest the rapper has come to saying: “I guess I got my swagger back.” As the opening statement of his thematically loaded album, Cole uses “KOD” to pound his chest a little. Of course he can deliver thought provoking material. He can also outrap you in his sleep, most likely. Though we’ve come to love him for his humility, there’s an intriguing charm to “arrogant Cole,” the Frankenstein-esque product of half-hearted disrespect and trend-hopping slander; like the “Shovel Man” in Christmas classic Home Alone, you might make fun of him behind his back, but should he catch you, expect a shovel to the dome.
15. Pusha T - "The Story Of Adidon"
Behind Pusha T’s devilish glare lies malice. No, not the former Clipse rapper, trapped within his former partner. But a genuine, damn-near-supernatural evil. How else can you explain the surgical precision with which Pusha T dismantled Drake, a larger-than-life figure in his own right. Not only did Push essentially put Drake’s entire life under a magnifying glass, from his alleged love child with a certain French artiste, to the health of his best friend and confidante. All while sporting a grin worthy of an ant-burning child. Yet the gleeful destruction evident on “The Story Of Adidon” made for one of the year’s most memorable moments, even if it came at the expense of another man’s dignity. Likely because of it, actually.
14. Young Thug - "Audemar" feat. Tracy T
Young Thug did not release a solo full-length effort in 2018. Instead the lanky rapper let his friends and YSL artists shine on their first compilation effort, Slime Language, he dedicated the Hear No Evil EP to his deaf brother, and he gave fans the long-awaited and near-legendary Elton John-featured “High” with the On the Run EP.
Slime Language, in a word, is a fun project. It’s Thugger and his friends all creating together, and you can tell. While the compilation as a whole was not Thug’s most genre-bending or boundary-pushing release, it proved its adventure in the stand-out Tracy T-featured “Audemar.” Before you can even figure out the mechanics of the beat, you’re instantly bombarded with Thug’s crackly and squeaking: SKRT SKRT SKRT SKRT SKRT SKRT. The malleability of Thug’s vocals here could rival only “Harambe,” and indeed, they do, as he moves from scrunching up his voice to a forceful growl. Thug’s verse is luxurious in a way only Thug can be-- eventually, it’s just word association with the word “Audemar.” Unfortunately for Tracy T, Thug’s hook and verse are so exciting that the artist gets somewhat lost in the grand experimentation of “Audemar.”
13. Juice WRLD - “All Girls Are The Same”
The first time that Juice WRLD marked his territory on HNHH was with the video for “All Girls Are The Same.” For many, this was an introduction to what the young Chicago artist could bring to the game. This track and “Lucid Dreams” have been the two landmarks in Juice’s career thus far, giving him the room to operate on an “emo-rap” playing field akin to artists like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep. “All Girls Are The Same” is equal parts angsty and melancholic, giving the listener an eye into Juice’s mind.
Crooning over production by Nick Mira, this song marks one of the moments the two started to gain notoriety. Now, Mira’s sound has been mimicked by hundreds of producers around the world. Juice WRLD and Mira created a vibe that’s desirable to most and attainable to not so many. Considering how “All Girls Are The Same” jump-started Juice’s career before he was blasted into superstardom, it earns the thirteenth spot on our list.
12. Youngboy Never Broke Again - “Outside Today”
“No Smoke” was Youngboy Never Broke Again’s definitive anthem when he first broke out, detailing his mind frame as a young artist with a foot still in the streets and dealing with the paranoia that comes with it. “Outside Today” felt like it was a continuation of the Youngboy’s story. The rapper reflects on the residual effects of leaving the street life behind while trying to adapt to his newfound fame. At 19-years old, Youngboy’s story and emotions heard in his music would make you think that he’s a grown ass man. While a catchy tune, the rapper’s pain, and honesty heard in his voice alone made this track a stand-out record in 2018. Youngboy hardly aims for a club banger, but instead, creates music that’ll speak to the souls in the streets. The Baton Rouge rapper accomplished that successfully with “Outside Today,” making it one of. the most important songs on his debut, Until Death Call My Name.
11. J.I.D. - "Off Deez" feat. J. Cole
J.I.D. has taken to styling himself after Leonardo DiCaprio. Yet the way he approaches a track is more akin to the bear from The Revenant. Likewise for J. Cole, who emerges from the sidelines to take the skeletal carcass and proceed to slam it against the forest floor, leaving bloodstains on Notre Dame hoodies. Though one can easily expect impressive lyricism in a collaboration between J.I.D and J. Cole, the idea of a double-time, zany flexing session was hardly the obvious conclusion.
Both parties immerse themselves into the concept, seeming to embolden one another on a technical level. Various flows are employed, and while many rappers sacrifice lyrical content in favor of rapid-fire delivery, Cole and JID make sure to cover every department. Consider Cole’s “Ben Frank” scheme, delivered at the height of a whirlwind stanza; clever, and technically impressive. The student and master alike make for a formidable duo.
- Mitch Findlay
10. Tyga feat. Offset - “Taste”
Tyga is, pehraps, another unsuspecting member of our top 10 Hottest Songs of 2018. Well, it would be unsuspecting if this was still 2017. It’s not, it’s 2018, and as we stated unabashedly and assuredly in August -- a Tyga comeback is imminent. At this point, it’s all but upon us. It started, however, with the sleek calm of “Taste.” “Taste” is sultry production from d.a.doman, with Tyga echoing the mumbles of a vocal sample with his own whispers of “taste, taste.” The song, which arrived in May, was thus perfectly positioned to capture summer airwaves, and complete with a feature from Migos member Offset (in case anyone wasn’t inclined to give it a chance on the merits of Tyga alone), it did.
It also ushered in a few more T-Raww comeback records, which found him settling on this new, modern West Coast sound-- all "mature" club bangers, if you will, with a light tropical twist. Albeit, the critique of his follow-up effort, “Swish,” was that it sounded too much like “Taste.” Can one really have too much taste, though?
9. Valee & Jeremih - “Womp Womp”
Jeremih managed to have a pretty low-key year in 2018, his biggest looks arriving by way of collaboration. In particular, this joint effort with creative upstart Valee became another one of those loose releases (the type of release that has not managed to find a proper home, apart from sitting disconnectedly on streaming services) that managed to replay its way into our hearts and souls. The song arrived at an opportune time -- exactly two months after the release of Valee’s GOOD Job, You’ve Found Me EP, a time when Valee’s buzz was continuing to build out beyond his native Chicago, but hadn’t quite broken through in all facets of the industry. Still, “Womp Womp” was not necessarily the reason Valee’s buzz reached its peak this year-- rather than attribute that to any one song, Valee seemed to become the critical darling of the internet and one-to-watch among fans because of his artistry as a whole. That is to say, his unique flow: soon to be scooped up and employed by everyone from Lil Pump to Tyler, the Creator.
“Womp Womp” is produced by Cassio, and so while this is not ChaseTheMoney (obviously, then!), the song still maintains that crisp and minimal style that Valee is inclined towards. It’s an onomatopoeic song, the beat echoing beautifully the sound of “womp womp”’s repeated throughout. Perhaps the song hits so well because of how fun it is too, this could have been recorded as a hilarious joke for all we know, in the span of fifteen minutes, and it could not have sounded better. Jeremih gets on Valee’s “level” as it were, following his cadence and flow for a delightful if not easily confused texture of voices. The final and third verse brings everything full circle with the two voices going back-and-forth about female relations and designer gear.
8. Travis Scott - “Sicko Mode” feat. Drake
It’s no secret that music and mathematics are closely connected. As calculus co-inventor Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz so aptly put it in the 17th Century, “Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” Songwriters like Max Martin have boiled songwriting down to a fail-proof equation, “math rock” skillfully treats time signatures like algebraic variables, and coders have even started developing algorithms capable of composing their own music. But sometimes— plenty of times, actually— music that shouldn’t work is the best music.
‘Hey Drake, let’s take what would be the best song on Scorpion, cut it off after two bars, jump to what would be the best Travis Scott song on Astroworld, then abruptly transition to a collaborative track that blows pretty much everything else on both of your recent albums out of the water. Sound good? Oh yeah, it’s a single. What’s that? You want to rap about taking half a Xanax before a long flight? Oh, that’s the hook? Sounds like we’ve got a hit on our hands, buddy!’
That’s clearly a dramatization, but just think for a second about how absurd the premise of “Sicko Mode” really is. Compositionally, this thing is a disjointed mess. The transitions are nonexistent, it just unceremoniously plops you into three different songs. There are dumb lines all over the place, chief among them, “Was off the Remy, had to Papoose” (not even Genius annotators, the world’s most generous lyrical interpreters, can believably explain what the verb “to Papoose” means). And yet.
The best music is often that which succeeds beyond explanation. It’s impossible to quantify what “Sicko Mode” does well, and almost as difficult to qualify its strengths. Count without being aware you’re counting all you want, but you’ll never explain why it’s so fun to yell about a responsible amount of benzos putting you out “LIKE A LIGHT.”
7. Jay Rock - “King’s Dead” feat. Kendrick Lamar, Future & James Blake
In his 12 years as an active rapper, Jay Rock had never so much as sniffed the Hot 100. It would take a miracle to get the gruff-voiced, street-hardened Watts native on the radio, and four years after his “Money Trees”-led resurgence, two years after surviving a grisly motorcycle accident, it seemed like Jay Rock had used up all of his miracles.
But just 11 days into 2018, he got his shot. There’s a confluence of factors that led to the top-25 success of “King’s Dead”— its inclusion on a massive blockbuster’s soundtrack, Kendrick’s presence, Future’s presence, a James Blake cameo, a Mike Will Made It/Sounwave beat, unforgettable Slick Rick and Three 6 Mafia interpolations, the “then I freaked it” meme— but most importantly, the song just goes.
Let’s talk about Jay’s verse for a second. By this point, we all know this guy’s a great rapper with the technical skills to hang alongside any one of his TDE labelmates. On “King’s Dead,” he’s way more repetitive than usual. Words and phrases pop up in consecutive bars: lil bitch, like that, bite back, I ain’t gon’, boss, been ready, I gotta go get it, my name gon’ hold up, my team gon’ roll up. It’s almost like he’s stuttering, or like a DJ’s running back every other line. Eminem fans are probably like, ‘My fave would never,’ but there’s art in repetition, and Jay Rock unearthed it here.
TL;DR: when Future squeaks out, “La di da di da, slob on me knob,” the world stops turning for a split second. And maybe that’s all that matters.
6. Young Thug - “Anybody”
Young Thug has gone from rap’s most unique vocalist to its most imitated in only a few years time. Some have even built viable, respectable careers off of his playbook. However, Thug has always had a quality to his writing and persona that is beyond replication. “Anybody,” the single that broke his hiatus-by-his-standards this year, contains some of those idiosyncrasies. “My diamonds they tusslin'/My neck and my belly on 'Tussin,” he raps in a couplet that feels as effortless as it does endlessly creative. He also delivers a squeally hook that taps into a register inaccessible to other humans.
It's not a surprise that Nicki Minaj, another artist who has pushed the way that voice is used in rap forward, has joined forces with him on multiple occasions. That's all to say the track is as catchy as anything on "Rap Caviar," but given his immense talent, Thug seems more or less uninterested in pushing into more commercial ground. Though he flirted with such success in the days of "Danny Glover" and "Lifestyle," Thug has since found a comfortable pocket within rap that comes with a passionate, if not gigantic, fanbase and a growing influence within the genre. For now, Gunna and Lil Baby will likely hold his place on the charts and Thug will continue to experiment on his own terms. Nobody will ever replace him though, and “Anybody” is just another casual reminder of that. As long as the music and innovation keep coming, we're not complaining.
5. Future - "31 Days"
Zaytoven was at his wit’s end when Future signalled for round two. Cracks in the undercoating were starting to show, and truth be told, Future could (at the time) hardly wait any longer to make the necessary departure from the rope-a-dope he exhibited on Hndrxx.
On “31 Days,” Future splits open a Fashion Nova pant leg. Right there and then, he vows to woo 31 different women in as many nights but ends up falling short of that number and sticking to one muse. By that token, you can argue that “31 Days” is a work of predictive fiction.
“31 Nights” is a phonetic masterpiece but not a discourse record - its atomic structure is that of a renaissance painting. When there’s will to stretch syllables, they are sung and conquered with ease. Then there’s the case of Future’s grade school-charm, producing enough bravado to keep the navy afloat. With each and every catchphrase he mutters, a new feeling of conquest rises up. His catchphrases don’t jump off the page unless they’re sung in a higher register.
4. Denzel Curry - “Clout Cobain”
I first discovered Denzel Curry’s music through his Nostalgia 64 mixtape, which has been sadly omitted from streaming services. Songs like “Parents” and “N64” revealed the raw potential of a talented lyricist, with an effortless charisma befitting of hip-hop’s still-emerging “new school.” Years later, TA13OO emerged, revealing the scope of Denzel’s artistic growth. Of course, his intensity never faltered. Yet lead single “Clout Cobain” revealed a different side of the young pioneer. One in tune with melody, with the nuances of songcrafting.
In an alchemical fashion, Denzel managed to craft a contemporary banger, blending thoughtful lyricism and an infectious hook. While seeming to criticize the (faux) nihilistic tendencies of his peers, he also quietly paid homage, at least in a sense; though his sneering lyrics are tinged with irony, it doesn’t stop his cries from resonating with the generation he so gleefully lambasts.
The notion that Denzel Curry is leading his generation by example feels especially accurate in the wake of TA13OO. His sense of vision is unparalleled by those parodied in “Clout Cobain’s” basest message, and therein lies its power; Denzel can speak as an authority, using his experience to acclimate himself to those he constructively criticizes. Yet Denzel’s guidance works beyond a lyrical level. By delivering such a well-crafted single, he invites his contemporaries to step into a deeper realm of artistry; imagine, entire albums constructed to function as a whole, not merely as the skeleton surrounding a singular “hit.”
3. Mac Miller - “Self Care”
This is tough. It’s also important as fuck. It’s also impossible to discuss this song without discussing the music video, because Mac Miller released the single in visual-format. Thus, the first time I listened to this song, I also watched it. This too, seems important as fuck. It starts in the middle. We don’t know how Mac got there, but he’s in a wooden box, one that fits the length of him exactly-- a coffin. He has a flashlight, later a cigarette, one match, and a pocket knife, which he eventually uses to carve the words “memento mori” (“remember death”) in the box before punching a hole through it, and subsequently, his way out of the box. But, as soon as you think he’s free; he’s outside, atop a pile of dirt; and an explosion surrounds him, a mix of fire, dirt, and embers scoop him off his feet, and he’s seen free-falling in the mess of it all.
The progression of the music video, the story it tells, follows the two-fold nature of the song. “Self-Care” begins with a warble of water-y synths and a chopped vocal sample, it’s smooth and easy, much like Mac’s flow. Before his death, Mac said in several interviews that the soundscape he found himself in during the creation of the album, Swimming, could only be described as “water.” Much like the production on this song then, so too does Mac’s flow mimick water, a slow wave up and down, sometimes deeper, sometimes more shallow. “Self care, I’m treaaattttIIIIINNNnn mEEEEeee right,” he raps, “Hell. Yeah. We gonna beeEEEee alright.” These lyrics may not hold the same sense of reassurance they once did.
In the second half of “Self-Care,” the water gets deeper, murkier, as does Mac’s flow, and the production. “Oblivion” is accurate. Even though it would seem intuitive that the first half of “Self-Care” would be the re-assuring and calming part of the song; it actually works the opposite. “Oblivion” ends up feeling safe, comforting, familiar, while the first half can be harrowing in all its intimacies about Mac and the general lack of OK-ness.
2. Drake - "God's Plan"
At a deficit of $996,631.90, “God’s Plan” might not be the best bang for your buck on this list. But as one of the 5 songs accounting for 80 percent of Scorpion’s bloated stream totals, you could do far worse than quote you some 6ix God.
At the risk of sounding trite, Drake laid out fairly straightforward guidelines for a viral trend rooted in the underlying message of his lead single. The “God’s Plan” challenge lasted about a week before our collective goodwill shrunk back to its normal size. Drake would eventually segue into a summer-long dance craze, but unfortunately not as a result of his good deed initiative.
To make a long story short, Drake covers his demographics pretty well. On Scorpion, he dedicates a song to female empowerment and another to planned parenthood, but none had the all-inclusive effect of a “God’s Plan.” The image of Drake forking over cash will be forever etched in our minds.
1. Lil Baby & Gunna - “Sold Out Dates”
In 2018, a song that was released haphazardly, by way of a premature leak, can topple the music industry and become the number-one song of the year. That is to say, a song without intentions-- or perhaps it’s more apt to say, the artists and the machine behind the song had no intentions-- no grand scheme, no seedy marketing ploy, no social media charade, of how they were going to make “Sold Out Dates” the definitive Lil Baby and Gunna collaborative effort, a career-making record for two of rap’s brightest rookies. There was, and still is, no elaborate music video shot for the record, although a luxurious Cali dreamin’ visual came about for the properly-planned and officially-released lead single “Drip Too Hard.”
With the internet, we’ve learned that “organic” can sometimes win, and that, sometimes, “organic” is not so organic after all. It’s a meticulously calculated scheme for such-and-such to go viral, or, it’s an artist who appears innocently independent, but in reality, has a major backing that includes a strategic plan of action to superstardom. However, in the case of Baby and Gunna, we received true organic; and perhaps that’s why it hit so well. “Sold Out Dates” would spiral into wishful thinking of a Lil Baby and Gunna collaborative effort, which would then result in a Lil Baby and Gunna collaborative effort. “Sold Out Dates” was an off-the-cuff release in April 2018, it dropped to little fanfare, in fact, it flew under-the-radar at the time. It was ahead of respective tours, rightfully so, but it did not necessarily predict the blow-up that would occur in the few short months following its release. As Baby and Gunna continued to dominate hip-hop conversations, the song seemingly grew a life of its own. It would also propel them to work on a proper full-length together, as they revealed in our digital cover story with the two.
“Sold Out Dates” then, acts not only as an important marker in their blossoming careers individually, but highlights their chemistry which was equally heralded over the course of the year. An important piece of that puzzle, too, is the producer, Turbo. Turbo’s sonic backdrop: the tumbling guitar loop, hollow cowbell, punctuations of drums, helped redefine our expectations of what Atlanta trap music can sound like in 2018. It also helped that it had incessant replay value-- and with two verses and the chorus x3, it managed to hit that happy medium of millennial-approved shortened run-time while still feeling like a complete song.