We count down our 50 hottest hip-hop and r'n'b songs of 2019.
As soon as December touched down, the year-in-review efforts commenced. It's common practice to do on a personal level, and even a work level; to look back on the year that's passed and evaluate it: the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Year in, year out, we take the same effort at HNHH, from the perspective of all the music we received. It's never an easy task, it takes months of weekly meetings and team discussions and debates, all to culminate in a series of lists we dub #HOTNEW19, that give our readers an overview of the year past and a hint of what we might expect for the year to come.
Today, we're excited to debut the first of our year-end coverage, the Top 50 Hottest Songs of 2019. We'll keep the introductory comments brief. There is much to debate in the below list, as we attempted to survey the rap and r'n'b landscape of '19, at a glance, while also properly reflecting the popularity and replay value of the music therein, as well as the impact and importance of the music, outside of their streaming numbers. Thus, you'll find a mix of artists and sounds represented, some being HNHH staff favorites and some simply a reflection of the Music Industry Gods.
This was a group editorial effort, with contributions coming from:
50. Dave "Disaster" feat. J Hus
Dave’s Psychodrama highlighted the Black experience in the U.K., especially when it comes to mental health issues. With the entire project playing out like a session with his therapist, J Hus and Dave swap bars on the rules of the streets. “Man don’t business, love no witness/ Hug no traitor, spud no snitches,” Dave raps over the serene production.
J Hus and Dave come from humble beginnings with similar backgrounds in the streets. As Dave dives into the complex Black experience, not relegated strictly to Britain but globally, the two artists relate on a human level-- as individuals who’ve made a better life for themselves and their families in the face of adversity. Even as they rise in fame, though, they also have the burdens from home that they carry along the way.
As J Hus and Dave have undoubtedly grown as artists since their 2017 collab, “Samantha,” “Disaster” proves that they still have extremely potent chemistry together.
49. Gallant "Sweet Insomnia" feat. 6lack
Gallant has been earmarked for success essentially since he started releasing music. He hasn’t disappointed, with his journey culminating with the album Sweet Insomnia this past year. The title track features fellow r’n’b-feature darling 6lack, and is an ode to sleepless nights, propelled over the strumming of a guitar and subtle drums, also showcasing Gallant’s consistent rock influences. Gallant perfectly captures a romantic issue while not using very many words-- 6lack has one verse, sided between Gallant’s rising and falling hook. The hook is really all we need to capture the emotion of the song, and perhaps ironically, this is actually an amazing song to rest your head to.
48. Young Nudy "Mister" feat. 21 Savage
There’s usually a clear-cut winner for song of the summer - a song that was inescapable and reflected the spirit of that period. This year, people struggled to determine which song should be bestowed with this title. Perhaps in a time when radio is no longer dictating collective taste and people are free to dance in the sun to whatever they may choose, it’s futile to try to pinpoint a single song that unified the masses. While this may seem like a bleak reality to accept for certain reasons, it also leaves room for unlikely candidates to be celebrated for soundtracking the summer. At that point, you might as well argue that Young Nudy’s “Mister” fulfilled this role in 2019.
Nudy dropped Sli’merre at the top of May, a little over two months after he was released from jail. The album was entirely produced by the beloved Pi’erre Bourne, who has a long history of collaborating with Nudy. However, Pi’erre had never furnished him with as vibrant of a beat selection as he did this time around. Just by comparing Nudy’s previous album covers to Sli’merre’s, it can be seen that he shifted from a haunting aesthetic to one characterized by blue skies. “Mister” feels like the clouds parting, which is only fitting for a song that features Nudy’s cousin, 21 Savage, who was also only a few months removed from detainment. There’s an irresistible bounce to the beat, the flutes sound like birds chirping and Nudy bursts with joyful energy. That’s what makes the perfect summer song.
47. Skepta "Bullet from a Gun"
Ignorance Is Bliss, the follow-up to Skepta’s critically acclaimed 2019 project, opens up with “Bullet From A Gun” -- a song that serves as a much-needed update on life from the seasoned grime veteran. It’s a moment of clarity from the rapper but it’s also a moment of growth and self-reflection. Spacious synth strings pluck as a thumping 808 bass drops, sucking you into the unadulterated world of Skepta. With the influx of grown-man rap in the past few years, Skepta’s latest project has moments of youthfulness to it but it is focused mostly on growth. On “Bullet From A Gun,” Skepta reflects on the ups-and-downs of the last four years, from relationships and heartbreak to the anxieties that come with fame, as he balances different aspects of his life while trying to keep his sanity. It sets the tone for the project but it’s also the type of reminder most artists should share with their audience, that is, that they, too, are human.
46. NLE Choppa "Shotta Flow"
A list of the hottest hip-hop songs of 2019 would be criminally incomplete without any mention of NLE Choppa and his breakout single “Shotta Flow.” Before this point in his career, not many people would have recognized the 17-year-old Memphis spitter on the street. Over 110 million views later, the leader of No Love Entertainment finally has the musical platform he’s dreamed of for years.
“Shotta Flow” showcases NLE Choppa at his best. The teenager is frightening both in his delivery and in his lyrical content. Still though, the record shows enough of Choppa’s personality that people caught on, making this one of the biggest blow-up tracks of the year. Without “Shotta Flow,” we likely would still have no clue who this artist is. Countless remixes later, this song remains part of the regular rotation.
- Alex Z
45. Smino "Reverend"
Smino didn’t drop a full-length in 2019, but his star continued to rise and we anxiously awaited his next move. When he dropped his first single of the year, “Reverend,” he confirmed that he’s deserving of all our attention. It showcased everything people have come to love about the St. Louis emcee: his wildly witty bars (“I’m bringing the gold to The Arch like McDonalds”), his eccentric humour (“I walk round the room, it was clear as Sprite”) and his playfulness with words (“Onoma-no-smiyah, pockets on Madea”). Smino’s most impressive feature has to be the bottomless grab bag of flows and voices that he draws from in his songs. “Reverend” is a master-class in lyrical and vocal agility. He swiftly bounces from flow to flow, propelled forward by deep drums that accentuate every switch-up. Smino will never fail to surprise and entertain.
44. Doja Cat & Rico Nasty "Tia & Tamera"
After the viral success of “Mooo!” in 2018, it seemed more likely that Doja Cat would take the Pop route. She displayed a quirky sense of humor that could be milked into relatable content and an ability to package it as deliciously-catchy songs. This expectation proved to be accurate when she released her album, Hot Pink, in November, but before arriving at this vibrant destination, she took a pitstop in darker territory.
“Tia Tamera” starts with a sinister synthline before Doja gives us our first taste of the hook that bounced off nightclub walls throughout the year. She drops a bunch of pop culture references in her bubbly tone, but sounds more domineering than ever before. Rico Nasty came through with a contender for verse of the year - one in which her lyrics and delivery were perfectly congruent with the beat. The track reaches a climax when Rico raps, “These hoes swear that they can’t stand me, but ain’t ever pulling up / I just made a 100k in two weeks, lil’ bitch / Do you need me to pull it up?” “Tia Tamera” is a fierce statement from two artists who are prepared to stomp all over the industry via any lane they choose.
43. Drake "Money in the Grave" feat. Rick Ross
In the days following the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Drake documented his elation on social media as if he’d been a member of the Jurassic Park’s 15-man roster. There was a photoshopped ode to Michael Jordan, the viral “Kawactus” housewarming gift, and a video of Guapdad 4000 posing in an inflatable dinosaur costume on the Bay Bridge after coming out on the losing end of a bet. Toronto’s global ambassador even received a championship ring to commemorate the occasion. And why not? Music’s biggest name has long repped his roots in the frozen north, even as a well-documented sports curse has trailed his every jersey swap. With the meme finally put to rest, Drake hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy and gifted the world two new singles in the form of “Omertà” and “Money in the Grave.” While the Best in the World two-pack remains unattached to any formal full-length release, the latter of the two tracks quickly took hold thanks to Drake’s unyielding “mob ties” mentality and a swift supervillain feature from Ross Ross that sustains the air of invincibility. “Money in the Grave” splits the difference between Kawhi Leonard posing in crimson slippers and a smoking robe, and the throes of a Vegas afterparty. It’s a fabulous chest-pounding that will no doubt wriggle its way into Toronto lore right alongside the clip of Drake plucking lint from Steph Curry’s head midgame.
42. Post Malone "Wow"
Say what you will about Post Malone but 2019 was yet another outstanding year for the pop star masquerading as a rapper. Posty’s year started with a bang as he dropped another chart-topping hit, “Wow.” With “Wow,” Post was setting us up for the perfect New Year’s Day banger that would serve as, not just a great winter song, but a superior summer anthem as well.
The song begins with this southern country twang that features looped guitars and banjos, eventually leading into boomin’ 808s and Posty’s signature rap-singer style. Just like his last huge hit, “Rockstar,” Post is as braggadocios as ever while singing about an upcoming party he’s hosting. His wealth, pull with the ladies, and affinity for expensive things are the basis for the song’s name as all of these elements are supposed to have you saying “Wow” in unison. Hate on Post Malone’s place in the rap game all you want. There is no denying this track was certifiable hit.
- Alex C
41. Solange "Stay Flo"
When Solange is so committed to creating cohesive album experiences, it’s hard to extract a single song from its context. When Solange operates in her own paradigms, it’s hard to speak about them in terms of our own. So to avoid overreaching, let me just say, “Stay Flo” feels so good. While this might sound like a simplistic or juvenile review, for a project whose creation process has been claimed by Solange herself to be centered on feeling – on converting impulse into chords, melodies and textures - it may not be such an injustice to frame it in this manner. “Stay Flo” is a pristine example of what drives When I Get Home: hermetic and hypnotic loops that wrap you in warmth. Every plink of the keys and throb of the bass pull you further out of the regular flow of time and closer to Solange’s intention. But When I Get Home isn’t about escapism. It emphasizes embodiment. “Take it all home, make ‘em feel it on they face,” she sings. It urges you to let the light hit your skin and feel your feet on the ground.
40. Juice WRLD "Robbery"
In 2018, Juice WRLD came out of nowhere to steal the show with his smash hit “Lucid Dreams.” As the new year came around, fans and hip-hop heads were waiting to see if Juice WRLD could build on the emo sound that he cultivated the year prior. With the album Death Race For Love, Juice WRLD was able to do just that and the lead single, “Robbery,” laid the foundation for what we would eventually hear on the album.
The song follows the Juice WRLD formula to a T. It begins with some down tuned pianos that are eventually backed up with some faint claps and rattling highlights. From there, Juice WRLD gives us his signature high pitch dramatic singing which is complemented by some equally performative lyrics about heartbreak and being in love with someone whose intentions are sketchy at best. From start to finish, “Robbery” is the quintessential Juice WRLD song and was a huge highlight of the first half of 2019.
- Alex C
39. DJ Mustard & Roddy Ricch "Ballin"
Of all the young artists in hip-hop, 2019 was truly Roddy Ricch’s year. This groundwork began in 2018 when he released “Project Dreams” alongside popular DJ, Marshmello. From there, Nipsey Hussle’s “Racks In The Middle” took Roddy Ricch to a whole other level that put hip-hop fans on notice. As we got closer to the summer, the young MC gave us yet another hit, this time with DJ Mustard’s “Ballin.’”
If you listened to hip-hop playlists throughout the summer, then you would know that this track served as a soundtrack to the entire warm season. After having made something for himself out of nothing, Roddy Ricch hopped on this piano-heavy track that is as upbeat as it is victorious. Following his track with Nipsey, Roddy Rich used this opportunity to go on a victory lap of his own. It’s impossible not to feel inspired while listening to this song as it will have you wanting to embrace all of life’s challenges, no matter how difficult they may be. Simply put, “Ballin’” is a celebration of success with some phenomenal melodies.
- Alex C
38. Future "Servin Killa Kam"
Prior to 2019’s The WIZRD, hip-hop fans were beginning to question Future’s place in the game. While he may have provided us with some of the best trap anthems of the decade, fans were waiting to see if he would continue to deliver. With this album, Future ushered in a more mature era of his music and songwriting. “Servin Killa Kam” is a prime example of this musical shift.
Upon turning on the song, you are immediately hit with some sinister sounding strings before driving pianos and bassy 808s are overwhelming. Lyrically, Future is at his most paranoid as he talks about a drug deal gone awry. Picture blood on the floor, bullets going off, and dealers who are wary of what is waiting for them on the other side of the wall. It’s a song that grips the listener from the very beginning and is peak Future in terms of, not just storytelling, but painting a picture for the listener. While “Servin Killa Kam” might not be a single on this project, it’s definitely one of the standout cuts.
- Alex C
37. Maxo Kream "Still"
Maxo Kream’s Brandon Banks is easily one of the year’s most enjoyable projects from start to finish. A polished and lyrically impactful dose of introspective gangsta rap, Maxo’s most personal album to date is stacked with premium flashes of his talent. On “Still,” Maxo wins immediate points on the strength of accessibility alone. Fueled by a spooky beat from ChaseTheMoney, Maxo pledges that rising success can do little to curtail his trap-habits. “Still gangbang, I been Crippin' like the elderlies,” he raps. “Still hit a stain, take a chain, ain't no changin' me.” It’s that very same authenticity that makes Maxo such an appealing artist, and when he snarls out threats on “Still,” there’s no denying that he’ll keep his word if provoked. So refrain from provoking him.
36. DaBaby "Going Baby"
DaBaby had his biggest year yet in 2019, and at the same time, had one of the biggest come-ups of 2019. Part of his popularity goes back to his personality -- one that radiated through on any and every record he released, especially on every single music video he dropped. To use DaBaby’s own slang against him: he went BABY. “Going Baby,” as he told us in our On the Come Up interview means “You goin’ crazy, you goin’ baby.” That’s exactly what DaBaby did on the song titled similarly, over Jetsonmade’s hype, flute-riddled production. The single off his album titled Baby on Baby (so essentially, going in x2, it’s all very meta) helped define this year, as well as cemented DaBaby’s trademark flow and style, with a music video that was equally on-brand. It comically featured a private plane littered with plastic toy babies, while elsewhere, oversized blow-up baby dolls danced alongside DaBaby, in between too-close shots of his ever-grinning face.
35. Ari Lennox "BMO"
Shea Butter Baby is as smooth as its title suggests. Ari Lennox crafted a debut that oozes with soul. The instrumentals are luxe and her vocals are satin. The album’s opening track, “Chicago Boy” possesses all these elements, but it’s followed by an antithesis of sorts. “BMO” has grit. While the former is concerned with ensuring that a lover is comfortable, the latter is selfish about pleasure. The fact that “BMO” interpolates Patti Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” in the chorus says everything about the confidence it radiates. Lennox requests that things go “nice and slow,” but this preference is contrasted with the jolt in her delivery and the forcefulness with which she demands: “Break me off.” The song emphasizes that she doesn’t need to be consistent when she’s in charge. This power is infectious for the listener and it made “BMO” Lennox’s grandest anthem yet.
34. Normani "Motivation"
Outside of the years-old Lizzo tracks that have blown up in 2019, we’ve been sorely lacking for R&B-pop crossovers over the past couple of years. It’s like, Ariana Grande, Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” and…? Although Normani’s “Motivation” hasn’t quite reached the chart heights it seems capable of (nor those achieved by her 2018 debut single, the “Love Lies” duet with Khalid), it scratches an itch that’s gone untouched for the rest of the year. Complete with a dance routine-heavy video, it’s a throwback in the best sense. Extra props for the odd, but effective, decision to throw 21 Savage on the remix.
33. Kevin Gates "Facts"
If you’ve been following Kevin Gates’ career trajectory over the last few years, you know that the Big Speaker is one of the most authentic cats in the game. Bringing street smarts to the table in each of his records, I’m Him showed the rapper getting introspective, singing directly to his daughter and addressing his wife numerous times throughout the tracklisting. “Facts” is one of the only traditional singles from the offering, having been released weeks prior to the complete body of work.
“Facts” is one of the best songs of this year, mainly because of the flows that Gates employs on the song. Cutting up his bars and using each finishing syllable in an ad-libby manner, the breadwinner comes through on one of the most hype records of 2019. “Facts” bangs in most circumstances. It can go off in the club, in the whip, at the gym, and in plenty of other settings. For that, it earns the thirty-third spot on our list.
- Alex Z
32. Summer Walker "Come Thru" feat. Usher
Summer Walker joined our mainstream consciousness after Drake remixed her record “Girls Need Love,” but she still wasn't the force she’s managed to become by this year’s end. She released her debut album, Over It, in October, and it still hasn’t left our rotation-- which is seriously saying something given the streaming culture that encourages listeners to start fresh every single day. Executive produced by on-again off-again boyfriend London Da Track, whatever their current romantic relationship is these days, one thing is certainly clear from the album: they have an amazing musical chemistry. The album acts a nod to ‘90s era r’n’b with modern flourishes for our VSCO Girl climate, both on the production side and the subject matter. “Come Thru” is essentially the perfect intersection and example of that-- it’s a mesmerizing record that features the OG r’n’b star, Usher. The producers London on Da Track, Aubrey Robinson and Roark Bailey snag the hypnotic guitar from the original Usher record, “I Just Wanna,” (1997), which creates the backbone of Summer’s re-vamped, 2k19 version.
31. Dreamville "Costa Rica" feat. Bas, JID, Mez, Buddy, Jace, Reese LAFLARE, Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurpp & Guapdad 4000
During 10 sleepless nights in January, the Dreamville roster and a hand-picked list of 343 guest artists and producers slaved away behind the closed doors of Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta. What emerged from the 142 recorded songs was a tightly wound compilation album that showcased the collaborative might of “presence and participation.” Those who answered the call from the “label of the connected age” found themselves competing for space on massive posse cuts designed to align certified sluggers with aspiring talent. No song proved to be more emblematic of this mixed company approach than “Costa Rica,” a track that coaxes together nine artists without breaking a sweat (or the four-minute barrier). While the performances from those involved vary wildly in terms of quality and commitment, the song as a whole manages to connect the dots between each rotation such that by the time Ski Mask’s verse has concluded, the entire studio is rejoicing in the refrain of “going on a date with an AK.”
30. Tyga "Goddamn"
Tyga is the biggest success story of 2019, don’t @ me. After his highly publicized break-up with Kylie Jenner in 2017, and giving us the questionable Kyoto album in 2018, the rapper made a triumphant (yes, triumphant) return in 2019, finally sounding like himself. He left experimentation (mostly) behind, in favour of what works best: that is to say, plenty of D.A. Doman production. Among the D.A. Doman beats that T-Raww was blessed with, we received the straight-forward banger “Goddamn.” His refocused sound also came with a fresh style change and a focus on visuals; the rapper flooded Instagram with his highly curated ‘90s and early 2000s-inspired ‘fits as well as debuted new twists in his hair, and gave us a series of memorable music videos (case-in-point, the only thing better than the “Goddamn” audio is the “Goddamn” music video). “Goddamn” became one of Tyga’s biggest records this year, following in the footsteps sonically of “Taste.” D.A. Doman crafted a familiar bassline on “Goddamn,” with the addition of strings setting the record apart. Tyga would go on to add A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie to the album version of the song, because the only thing missing from “Goddamn” is more of “Goddamn.”
29. Lil Durk "Die Slow" feat. 21 Savage
Lil Durk is lowkey-highkey one of the biggest influences out right now when it comes to our newest crop of rappers. He’s also among the most lowkey-highkey consistent artists out, when it comes to melodic trap bangers that you can just keep playing on repeat. While he may not get as much credit as he deserves for helping develop this blueprint, his cult-like following surely knows. Among this year’s Durkio releases, the rapper came through with another instalment of Love Songs 4 the Streets, where he serenaded both women and street life. Between stand-outs like “Rebellious” that expose the underbelly of the streets and the people it affects, there’s the more upbeat (but please don’t mistake that to mean it’s a happy record) “Die Slow” with 21 Savage. The aggressively-titled “Die Slow” became an immediate hit with fans; it’s hard not to bop your head along to ChopSquadDJ’s nimble, operatic keys. Durk raps menacingly about killing anyone that opposes him-- and anyone that touches his family or friends-- and, in the process, allows the listener to alleviate some of their own pent up anger. While we’ve heard 21’s softer side lately, with an influx of r’n’b remixes under his belt, it’s always nice to hear the gritty ATL rapper deliver some of his trademark sinister bars like he does on “Die Slow.” This one is, as they say, a certified banger.
28. YBN Cordae "RNP" feat. Anderson .Paak
Fellow YBN compatriots Nahmir (“Rubbin Off The Paint”) and Almighty Jay (“Chopsticks”) may have been the first to break ground in the mainstream, but it is Cordae who seems poised for long term success. Although he’s been honing his craft ever since he was “eighth grade backflipping on a mattress,” the 2019 XXL Freshman caught the industry’s attention with his wordplay on a remix of Eminem’s “My Name Is.” Since then, he’s found himself rubbing shoulders with hip hop elite: his debut studio album, The Lost Boy, garnered verses from the likes of Pusha T, Chance the Rapper, and Meek Mill. The project finds a headstrong Cordae beginning to carve out a career without the aid of his one-time XBox Live buddies, in one breath displaying a growing mastery of the grand rap tradition and in the other furnishing his own lane with a contemporary verve. Having secured a Grammy nomination for his efforts, success has never tasted so sweet, particularly on the J. Cole-produced cut “RNP.” With the assistance of Anderson Paak, Cordae stomps out a sort of rhythmic kid n’ play that is quite frankly irresistible. Even a few clumsy lyrics here and there from the youngster can’t derail the bounce or his bubbling potential. Rap real estate is Cordae’s for the taking, and he’s hitting his stride at just the right time.
27. Gunna "Speed It Up"
I can hear Gunna’s quick-mouthed “ShpeedItUp” refrain in my head whenever I think about this song, lending to its catchy credibility. Among the singles released from his Drip or Drown 2 mixtape, his frequent collaborator Turbo produced “Speed It Up.” The song doesn’t start particularly fast-- there’s a lazy drip of electronic beeping while Gunna tells us to “hold on,” multiple times, before he essentially does a word association type of flow for the majority of the song. Despite its overall simplicity and lack of...well, words, it’s 3 minutes of magic, something that captures Gunna’s easy, magnetic nature.
26. Lil Tjay "Hold On"
Lil Tjay has his earworm sensibilities mastered, despite his young age. The 18-year old is an artist who had a breakout year, thanks to a slew of viral records, including a collaboration with Polo G, as well as solo cuts like “Brothers” and “Leaked.” As we approached his debut album, True 2 Myself, Tjay dropped off the single “Hold On” and gave us the definitive driving record of 2019 (while competing with his other record, “Laneswitch”). “Hold On” is Tjay at his finest: a sing-song hook, guitar-plucking production, and the raw hunger to make a name for himself. Produced by Nagra and JD on the Track, the duo provide the perfect backdrop for Tjay’s emotion-fueled rapping.
25. Tee Grizzley "Sweet Thangs"
Ever since emerging with “First Day Out,” Tee Grizzley has continued to base his lyrics on the reality of his life, rather than an aspirational version of it. “Sweet Thangs” showcased Grizzley with his storytelling tools sharpened and refined. Timbaland opens the track with cinematic horns but by the time Grizzley’s verse comes in, Timbo’s production takes the backseat to Grizzley’s storytelling. From a first-person perspective, Tee Grizzley vividly details robbery with a nonchalant attitude. “If you ain’t with the squad, then you free game/ I’m done giving passes to these sweet thangs,” he fiercely raps on the gloomy production.
Scriptures is up there with some of the best rap albums of the year but Grizzley’s storytelling skills and Timbaland’s cinematic production brought the world into the decrepit streets of Detroit, highlighting the methods of survival in the city while sending chills up your spine.
24. NBA Youngboy "Seeming Like It"
One of the most consistent rappers in the game right now, YoungBoy Never Broke Again has a penchant for creating catchy bangers that are as emotional and introspective as they are melodious. The Baton Rouge-based 20-year-old has either been behind bars or on house arrest for the majority of this year but he hasn’t let his legal situation stop him from getting to the money. AI YoungBoy 2 was released after his prison release and, despite being out for months now, it still remains one of the most active albums on the charts. There are a few songs from the project that would have fit as a Song of the Year contender but “Seeming Like It” was among YoungBoy's most heartfelt and personal.
YoungBoy tells his listeners that, despite the fact that everyone is telling him that things will eventually get better, it just doesn't seem like it-- and who hasn't felt like this at some point? The incredibly relatable lyrical content helped “Seeming Like It” become one of the more popular tunes from AI YoungBoy 2 but it’s YB’s delivery that has us singing his praises. Instead of the more menacing approach that he’s adopted in other cuts, NBA YoungBoy opts to show us a more vulnerable side of his mind, truly letting the listener into his troubled thoughts and opening up more than ever before.
- Alex Z
23. Benny The Butcher "18 Wheeler" feat. Pusha T
For anyone who’s demanded that “real hip-hop” make its return, Benny The Butcher, Conway, and Westside Gunn have come through with the supply. Benny teamed up with Pusha T for a dope boy’s anthem on “18 Wheeler.” DJ Shay brings glossiness and griminess together as only a Kingpin could. “Enough glitter on my neck to make my ex-bitch bitter/ I pulled up to the ‘jects pushin’ a Lex like I’m Jigga,” Benny The Butcher flaunts on the first verse. Push heads back to the mud on this one, admittedly as the only rapper who could “coke rap this glamorous,” while reflecting on staying certified in the streets as he climbs the ranks as rap’s elite.
Griselda Records has only begun to gear up this year. With Benny The Butcher signing his management deal with Roc Nation, and the release of Griselda’s Shady debut, dope boys can very well reclaim their stake in hip-hop in 2020.
22. Young Thug "Cartier Gucci Scarf"
When Young Thug warned us that So Much Fun would be full of bangers, he definitely wasn’t lying. Aside from the more subdued opening track, the album’s energy level remains at a peak for the eighteen that follow. Thug called upon all the biggest names in trap to craft an album that lives up to its name.
In his attempt to make his most accessible music to date, some songs played it a tad too safe and came out one-dimensional. However, it should be noted that formulatic for Thug doesn’t pose the same dangers as it does for other artists since he invented the formula. So Much Fun is still a success because it’s distilling the sound he started and proving he will always do it best. “Cartier Gucci Scarf” is the album’s best example of that. It has the kind of ridiculous concept that could only be concocted by the mind of Jeffery: a song centered on the flex of cleaning your Cartier glasses with an equally-precious Gucci scarf. Its delightful eccentricity is heightened by the return of the “Harambe” flow. That garbling appearing side-by-side with his tea-kettle screeching makes “Cartier Gucci Scarf” a collage of Thugger’s many characters.
21. Tierra Whack "Unemployed"
Last year, Tierra Whack came out of next to nowhere with the most unlikely of 2018’s acclaimed releases. Whack World was novel in its organization— exactly fifteen minutes long, composed of fifteen exactly one-minute-long songs— but stunning in execution, with Whack’s ability to map complex, compelling songs onto rigid specifications standing as one of the most impressive compositional feats of the decade.
This year, she opted for something slightly more traditional, dropping five weekly singles during what she deemed #whackhistorymonth. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a weak one in the bunch. To varying degrees of moodiness, “Gloria,” “Only Child,” and “Wasteland” all evolve the sing-songy styles heard on Whack World, but “CLONES” and “Unemployed” showcase a different side. The latter, in particular, paints Whack as a ruthlessly effective shit-talking motormouth, yet again proving that this woman can make whatever kind of music she damn well pleases.
20. Lil Nas X "Old Town Road (Remix)" feat. Billy Ray Cyrus
Dutch teenager produces vaguely country-sounding beat using a sample from Nine Inch Nails/film-scoring duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. American teenager and Twitter shitposter purchases the beat for $30, records and releases it as a single, and watches it blow up on TikTok. It starts to chart. Billboard removes it from the country chart for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music.” Also-ran country star Billy Ray hops on a remix. A week later, it goes #1. 19 weeks later, it’s still #1, making it the longest-charting #1 song in history.
Sometimes, the internet and the chaotically decentralized world it’s brought upon us can be a beautiful thing.
19. Denzel Curry "Speedboat"
Denzel Curry’s “Speedboat” is the kind of song that would blare through the speakers of GTA online radio while players are infiltrating top-secret military installations, hijacking passing cars on a San Andreas boulevard in full luchador attire, and subsequently escaping the blue- and red-tinted wail of police sirens. The visuals for the ZUU single put this imagery to the test, stitching together a Miami Gardens mood piece that thrives on ornate piano keys pressed up against window-rattling percussion. Yet it is easy to overlook the gospel tonality that Curry injects into the track. He is almost pleaful in his pre-chorus chants (“I don’t wanna use my Desert Eagle”), his every word tinged with a God-fearing paranoia that can only come from close proximity to death and undue reminders of one’s mortality. Curry has an intimate understanding of the balance between contemplation and self-preservation, the two bound together by the consequences of cultural ills and cyclical violence.
18. Pop Smoke "Welcome to the Party"
The Brooklyn drill movement made waves in the last two years with artists like Sheff G and 22Gz leading the way but it officially had a breakout moment with Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party.” Pop Smoke’s voice is deep and gravelly, captivating without much effort, but it’s the texture of his voice against the electrifying production that makes the song pop. But the thing about it is, its dark subject matter is clouded by the heavy production. Elements of UK drill and grime are combined while Pop Smoke’s grim details of murder, robbery, and death serve as quotables for crowd sing-a-longs.
The UK elements of the song broke down the regional barrier of just appealing to an American audience. Remixes with Skepta and Nicki Minaj also helped it gain international appeal but the song did more than just have a hype moment -- it defined Pop Smoke’s breakout, and the summer of 2019.
17. Earthgang "Tequila" feat. T-Pain
Wowgr8, one half of Dreamville duo EarthGang, told a whole story within a single chorus. As creeping brass conjures a feverish tone, Gr8 turns to the bottle as an elixir to what ails him. “Good God so stressed, perfect day to sip Tequila,” he belts, his voice climbing into a controlled wail. As his verse manifests, the Atlanta lyricist paints a picture of his come-up rife with clever bars. “Seen lil' boy take his last breath where my lil' brother took his first, it fucked me up,” he reflects. “Life was full of catchy hooks and upper-cuts.” Olu holds down the second verse, his soulful vocals explosive and expressive. EarthGang’s ability to convey struggle in such a layered fashion speaks to their brilliance as songwriters, and “Tequila” serves as an explosive centerpiece to one of the year’s most magical and engaging adventures.
16. Megan Thee Stallion "Realer"
Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever is far from one-dimensional. Its ambition runs deep, its catchy debauchery a sponge for the same sort of attention that hoisted Gangsta Boo, Lil’ Kim, and Missy Elliott to superstardom. Although hyper-sexuality is an integral part of Meg’s appeal, there’s so much more to her than the NSFW “Cash Shit” or the myriad methods of copulation she’s fond of outlining in great detail. Of course, phallic imagery still runs amok throughout much of the imaginative songstress’s music. But raunchy lyrics be damned, Meg is a distinctly talented performer. She’s a ruthless and unapologetic freak, revving her sex drive and financial muscle with a vice grip on the steering wheel. It’s a narrative that she harnesses to great effect on “Realer,” an aggressive earworm fueled by cheetah print and the wood grain and white wall aesthetic of lowriders. A resoundingly flippant attitude toward the many suitors swooning in their shoes helps stoke the fire of Meg’s ferocity, and she doesn’t shy away from this power dynamic: “I’m a real rap bitch, this ain’t no pop shit.”
15. Calboy "Chariot" feat. Meek Mill, Lil Durk and Young Thug
It might not be the easiest track to sing along to but you’ll definitely find yourself trying. Calboy’s Wildboy EP has a few songs that could have been considered for this list. The 20-year-old is on the brink of superstardom and there are several reasons why. Combining his Windy City grit with a flare that Atlanta rappers would appreciate, Calboy is the total package. “Chariot” helps him prove that.
Featuring an all-star line-up of Meek Mill, Lil Durk, and Young Thug, Calboy holds his own while hooping with the seasoned vets. Thugger may have tried to take over Cal’s record with his “My diamonds all colors like a gay parade” line, but the 147 representative stood tall with fast flows and a presence that would shape him to become one of the most relevant young up-and-comers today. Extra points allotted because of the excellent production from Papadimitrou.
- Alex Z
14. Future "Jumpin on a Jet"
Every chef has a signature dish that defines their menu. Nobu Matsuhisa boasts a mouthwatering sake-miso marinade, Gordon Ramsey whips up a mean Beef Wellington, and Hiroaki Aoki’s Benihana restaurant chain has made a name for itself through flaming columns of vegetables that never cease to attract white urban families. For Future, a revered and relentless founding figure of Atlanta’s trap renaissance, the art of perfecting such a recipe has come to define his status and, for better or worse, his shelf life. “Jumpin on a Jet,” the second single off of The Wizrd, doesn’t stretch the imagination or attempt to repurpose the formula made in its master’s likeness. Rather, it’s a garden-variety recounting of the spoils of fame and fortune. When he’s not wallowing in Easter pink depths, Future has no problem gloating (and griping) about the perks of the fast life. He conjures forth customizable foreign transports both aerial and gravity-bound, and occasionally sticks the landing with arresting, bubblegum-tangy snapshots of his psyche. It’s the same bite that we’ve been tasting for years now, but if you’re satisfied with what continues to come by on the buffet trolley, then feel free to settle into the everlasting aroma of convention; it’s benign in its comfort if slightly underwhelming.
13. Lil Tecca "Ran$om"
One of the most popular songs of the entire year, Lil Tecca’s “Ran$om” elevated the New York-based youngster from a SoundCloud darling to a chart general. Still just seventeen-years-old, Tecca has the unique opportunity to fully take over his home state, which has become more melodious in recent years. “Ran$om” shows him at his strongest: crafting hooks with memorable wordplay, fun imagery, and an already crystal-clear character in mind.
Lil Tecca’s goofy look is endearing to a music generation obsessed with youth, relatable to a high-school audience, and eye-popping to all. There was no way to avoid “Ran$om” in 2019. Whether you were cruising the TikTok realm or listening to the car radio, the song was played heavily, and all of us pictured Tecca with his smoky glasses, braces and baby face singing along to its catchy chorus with a hollowed-out look on his face.
“Ran$om” spent a very long time inside of the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 and, while that’s not usually a fair indicator for the best songs of the year per se, it does helps validate the need for it to appear within this particular chart. A Cole Bennett-directed video and production from the buzzing Internet Money collective helped make this cut the success it is today and, at the end of the day, you’ve got to give young Tecca his props. Will he be around in a few years? We’ve yet to know. At the very least, he’s made a million dollars and a hit single.
- Alex Z
12. Polo G "Pop Out"
Polo G had a big year. It all began to snowball though, with the ever-increasing popularity of “Pop Out.” This is not only the party anthem of the year, but the song that helped define the sonics of rap in 2019. We’re not saying Polo G invented the sound, just that the sound on “Pop Out” proved to be an extremely trendy one this year. With artists now breaking out that grew up (yes, that’s how old we are) listening to Young Thug, Lil Durk, and others of that ilk, the influence is beginning to show. Each new generation, of course, offers something different to the one that follows, whether that influence is heard in lyrics (for example, getting emotional on wax and it’s not an r’n’b song) or in the production (getting melodic on wax, and it’s not an r’n’b song). Polo G is actually a combination of both of these effects, and he’s making his own mark at the same time. “Pop Out” finds the Chicago-bred rapper delivering gritty and reality-based rhymes about life in his part of town, with an overtly melodic approach to it. The juxtaposition of the two things are partially what makes the song so thrilling. He’s made an impact not only for his raw lyrics but for his vocals, he often sounds like he has a jawbreaker in his mouth that he’s pushing from from side to side (also, it’s worth noting, he talks exactly like how he sounds on song, which just lends to his veracity as an artist). Pop out, he did.
11. Dreamville "Down Bad" feat. Earthgang, JID, J. Cole, Bas & Young Nudy
The now-Grammy nominated Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 stood at the epicenter of an exciting 2019 narrative. The mystique surrounding the initial production faze kicked the year, fueled in part by exclusive invitations from the Dreamville camp, is well documented; we were actually present during a few of the sessions, bearing witness to J.I.D. and EarthGang putting in work. With a treasure trove of material amassing at a rapid pace, the pressure to deliver an impactful first listen was steadily building. And then came “Down Bad,” a posse cut stacked with Dreamville rappers...and Young Nudy. Clocking in at sub-three minutes, “Down Bad” finds J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, and Johnny Venus passing the baton in stylish fashion, kicking rapid-fire bars while a tangible competitive spirit permeates; despite everybody holding it down, it’s Venus’ closing verse that takes the crown.
10. Vince Staples "Sheet Music"
Vince Staples has not stopped working since he first stepped onto the scene. You could go back to his 2011 mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, and then trace his trail of yearly releases up to 2018. 2019 was the first year in his career that he did not provide us with a full-length project, but he pulled through in the final quarter to drop a pair of singles. “So What?” and “Sheet Music” accompanied the first two episodes of The Vince Staples Show.
Staples may have merely been whipping up some original tunes to soundtrack his web series, but they were both ambitious enough to stand on their own. The Compton rapper has often brought his blasé attitude into his music, but 2018’s FM! may have marked a switch. Even when the subject matter was grim, that project felt like summer and so does “Sheet Music”. If Staples is pivoting to bite-sized bursts of exuberance, then we’re stoked for the next chapter, whenever it comes.
09. Summer Walker "I'll Kill You" feat. Jhene Aiko
Ms. Walker burst through onto the scene this year, and her debut album, Over It, secured her a spot as the R&B It girl of the moment. The project boasts many exciting features, including Drake, 6LACK, and PARTYNEXTDOOR, but the Jhené-Aiko-starring track, “I’ll Kill You,” was among the standouts.
The explicitly violent title can be misleading; when the tracklist was revealed prior to the album release, the name had many speculating over social media whether the song would be taking on a Thelma & Louise-style theme. On the contrary, “I’ll Kill You” is a diehard love song to its core. Summer and Jhené take turns revealing just how gang they are for their man, to the point that they’d “go to jail or Hell” for him. While they may go so far as to forbid any other woman from coming near their man, the dichotomy between these threatening lyrics and the mellow, sensual mood evoked by these talented songstresses’ smooth, intoxicating voices creates the dangerous effect of making their “psycho girlfriend” energy seem alluring. This ride-or-die anthem paints a picture of pure devotion, while making it clear that both Summer and Jhené are not to be f*cked with when it comes to their relationships.
08. Danny Brown "Dirty Laundry"
On “Dirty Laundry,” the lead single from Brown’s masterful 2019 album, uknowhatimsayin¿, our debauched hero engages in some of his most ridiculous antics yet. He lives with cockroaches so long he witnesses their babies having babies; he has sex in a Burger King bathroom; he compares someone’s fellatio skills to Bounty paper towels, the “quicker picker upper”; he courts a 300-pounder (“maybe more like 280”) named Helen on the internet; he says of someone else’s fellatio skills: “Head was nasty, you’d think she had head lice”; he throws bleach in someone’s eye; he stains your record like putting bleach in the washer with your darks; he sells crack to his dad; he sells an eight ball that’s been through the laundry and now “tastes like soap”; he warns you to mop the floor after he leaves the peep show booth; he fucks someone twice and calls it deja vu; he forgets his wallet at home and subsequently fucks a stripper for some change (“Dimes, pennies, nickels— actual change”). Brown is a legend. We don’t deserve him.
07. Sir "Hair Down" feat. Kendrick Lamar
There’s something quietly captivating about SiR and Kendrick Lamar’s “Hair Down.” The beautiful guitar tone wet with a hint of reverb. The highly proficient bassline, slinking forward in an infectious groove. The fact that Inglewood’s SiR carries the TDE stamp of approval speaks to his artistic pedigree, but his lead single and opening track for Chasing Summer serves as tangible proof to his brilliance.
Vocally: SiR floats overhead, maneuvering beneath an Inglewood sunset, his fingertips mere inches from cars and passersby. Ethereal in his presence and appropriately detached in his lyricism, “Hair Down” hints at the fear of intimacy without ever devolving into a cautionary tale. Kendrick Lamar mirrors SiR’s example, expanding on the thematic groundwork with a stunning and hauntingly delivered closing verse. The way his voice swerves minor as he pledges to “sweat your edges out” speaks to his understanding of the message.
06. Lil Uzi Vert "Sanguine Paradise"
2019 was off to a bleak start when Lil Uzi Vert announced his retirement two weeks into January at the age of 24. Fighting for Uzi’s release from Atlantic Records’ Generation Now imprint became a noble cause that many were ready to rally behind. Even when the details of his label troubles were ambiguous, the masses would shout (or hashtag) “Free Uzi” if that was what their short king demanded. The campaign appeared to be successful when it was announced that the Philly rapper signed a management deal with Roc Nation, but the celebratory track he dropped was quickly removed from streaming services by Atlantic.
“Sanguine Paradise” and “That’s A Rack” being officially released as a pair a few weeks later seemed like a sign that the ball was finally going to get rolling on Eternal Atake. Fast forward eight months and we’re still in the dark regarding the whole situation. However, these tracks have been enough to cling onto for sustenance while we wait for updates.
“Sanguine Paradise” serves as a reminder that Uzi could never be held captive. It’s an example of his unhinged, structureless approach to songcraft. An intro builds into a verse only to collapse into an awkwardly-placed bridge. Right when you’ve given up all hope of predicting Uzi’s next move, he explodes with the chorus’ triumphant trumpets. This is the moment when you feel as if you’re being granted a full view of Uzi’s utopia, where he writes all the rules. He’s seen “swingin’ from a vine” while firing off endearing boasts like, “In reality, I’m 5’4” / Stand on my money, now I’m 6’6”.” After a period of him being painted as the victim, “Sanguine Paradise” assures you there’s no need to pity Uzi. He can’t lose.
05. J. Cole "Middle Child"
All good things, as they say. Somehow, within the scope of a little over one year, J. Cole managed to create a dependency for his featured verses. Looking back on 2018, from Royce Da 5’9”s “Boblo Boat” to 21 Savage’s “A Lot,” it becomes clear that J. Cole was a man on a mission. And then it came to an end, and damned if a drought didn’t ensue. Luckily, the fiends were sated following the Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 sessions, as J. Cole’s “Middle Child” emerged.
Marking his first solo single since K.O.D, Cole’s T-Minus-produced anthem asserted the complex nature of his position in the game, displaced within the greater OG hierarchy. It’s clear the themes of “Middle Child” resonate deeply with Cole, from the expectation of hip-hop competition to his own ambitions as a role model. Behind his deftly delivered bars lies T-Minus’ triumphant fanfare, easily one of the year’s most recognizable instrumentals. With The Fall Off set to arrive in 2020, “Middle Child” reassured listeners that Cole seems to be getting better with time, leading by example once again.
04. Freddie Gibbs "Palmolive" feat. Pusha T
A collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Pusha T was in high-demand but when we got the two of them swapping bars over Madlib production? Issa wrap. Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana stands as one of the best hip-hop albums to drop this year (spoiler alert). The beauty of the project is that, despite the major label hype, they approached guest appearances with quality over quantity, and “Palmolive” showcases that perfectly. With Madlib serving up a soul sample from the heavens, Freddie Gibbs and Pusha T approach the art of cocaine rap with elegance. Neither rapper is on their Tony Montana-tip necessarily, although Freddie does paint a picture of Yeezys squeaking through a basement floor covered in cocaine. The euphoric vocal sample Madlib uses sends the listener into the skies as Gibbs and Pusha T swap bars detailing the Reagan era and its residual effects from their first-hand experiences.
There are very few people who can rap about cocaine just as well as Freddie Gibbs. Pusha T is undoubtedly one of those people. Sometimes, the fans’ demand for collaborations can lead to disappointment but Freddie Gibbs and Pusha T exceeded expectations.
03. DaBaby "Suge"
It’s a simple formula and yet nobody seemed to have thought of it. A cheeky synth riff and dynamic 808 bassline thick with distortion and punch. The opening cry of “Jetson Made Another One,” leaving some wondering when he even made his first one. They would soon find out. Despite DaBaby having laid down several mixtapes prior, the ferocity with which “Suge” was unleashed equaled that of its namesake. Fueled with a video in which DaBaby’s leading man chops was the main focus, the song itself proved infectious enough to resonate with the masses.
Before long the single was ascending the charts in real-time, with DaBaby’s charismatic energy expanding like one of those dinosaurs that grows in water. It may not seem overly groundbreaking nor particularly ambitious, but consider similarly successful breakout singles in recent memory. “Suge” stands out as unapologetically unique, at once the relic of a simpler time and alive with modernity. Rather than relying on a melodic flow, DaBaby spits bars lined with punchlines and rich with character. Comparisons to bombastic presences like Busta Rhymes and Ludacris grounded him within acceptable old-head parameters.
02. Nipsey Hussle "Racks in the Middle" feat. Roddy Ricch
Nipsey’s passing earlier this year shook hip-hop to its core. The rapper not only cultivated a loyal underground following through years of mixtape releases and plain ol' fashioned hard work, but he passed game on to those around him and diligently tried to uplift his community; thus he made a name for himself that went beyond just “rapper.” He was shot and killed on March 31st, 2019, almost exactly one month after releasing this particular song with up and coming West Coast native Roddy Ricch, and producer Hit-Boy.
It’s chilling to revisit the music video for the heralded collaboration now, to see at once, Nipsey walking through a graveyard, flowers in hand. The shot only lasts a second, but it stays with you. This song is not only an amazing collaboration that we’ve kept continuously on loop all year long, it’s a passing-of-the-torch moment for Nipsey and Roddy, undoubtedly a record that has also left a lasting impact on Roddy too.
Now the song has been Grammy-nominated, giving new life to Nipsey’s words: “How you die thirty somethin' after banging all them years? / Grammy-nominated, in the sauna sheddin' tears / All this money, power, fame and I can't make you reappear.” These bars hit different. We can also try to find solace in the advice that quickly follows: “We just embrace the only life we know / If it was me, I would tell you, "Nigga, live your life and grow" / I'd tell you, "Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?”
We may never have Nip back, but you can guarantee he will live on through his music, and “Racks in the Middle” is a crowning addition to an already-certified discography.
01. Tyler, the Creator "Earfquake" feat. Playboi Carti
Tyler, the Creator wrote “See You Again” for Zayn Malik, but the former One Direction member rejected it. The reference track became Flower Boy’s standout and allowed Tyler’s music to reach demographics that would have seemed unfathomable at the start of his career. You can find a video online of him crying when hearing “See You Again” on the radio for the first time, a moment that would have seemed equally unfathomable for an artist whose lyrics were deemed too vulgar for him to be allowed in the UK.
Justin Bieber and Rihanna both passed on “Earfquake,” which went on to be Tyler’s highest-charting record. When you consider these stories, Tyler’s success in the Pop sphere appears almost accidental. He never intended to be the vehicle for his more mainstream ideas. While his imagination has proven to be boundless, at times he has doubted how far his voice could carry him. For his earlier albums, Tyler would enlist other singers to hit the notes that fell beyond his purview. But slowly, he became more confident in his ability to fulfill this role himself. Tyler may not have the most conventionally pretty voice, but his willingness to execute his own vision ended up being his superpower.
It makes sense that other artists couldn’t see themselves in “Earfquake” because it’s so distinctly Tyler. It sounds like the fated culmination of everything he’s been aiming to do over the years. It needed the off-kilter vocal pitches, the overly-ambitious runs, the staticky synths and, most definitely, it needed Playboi Carti. You think Bieber’s version would have stripped away the drums to let baby voice Carti interject with unintelligible whining? In a year that desperately lacked a Carti LP, Tyler deserves all the praise for getting him to croon purely over piano. It was a move that no one else would have thought to attempt and that’s why we need Tyler, the Creator.
“Earfquake” is the second track on IGOR, but it’s also the centrepiece. It marks Tyler’s perfection of a sound that he has been refining for years and every time someone sings along to its euphoric chorus, it’s a celebration of Tyler’s continual evolution. He has always been a risk-taker, but watching him land on something that strikes a chord with the masses is magical. The scale of his vision is finally aligned with the magnitude of his impact.