The 14 Best Hip-Hop Releases So Far In 2018 (Audio & Video)
Approaching 2018’s midpoint, the year has been absolutely incredible for Hip-Hop and Rap music. For many artists, the album is now shorter than it has ever been. Releases are more concentrated and digestible than they have been been in decades. Moreover, the MC/producer double-threat is winning, as is the chemistry shared between a single vocalist and beat creator. Songwriters are rewarded for personal courage and revelation, whether they are Forbes list toppers or stars of the Underground.
Ambrosia For Heads shines a light on 14 2018 releases that we hold in the highest regard. While there is plenty of music we have covered, enjoyed, and celebrated in a litany of ways, these are the projects that we consider the best-of-the-best in ’18, and something to note as the year promises a strong second half.
(in alphabetical order)
A$AP Rocky – TESTING
A$AP Rocky’s third studio effort is surprisingly more Hip-Hop oriented than expected, especially after Rocky told GQ that his third LP was “really about testing new sounds.” When Rocky dips into the realm of Hip-Hop on TESTING, he manages to shine. The banging “OG Beeper” sees A$AP Rocky bop alongside backward 808 drums, a-la Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” before driving right down memory lane and effortlessly flowing over a Tommy Wright III-inspired beat. “Gunz n Butter,” featuring Juicy J, might be more of the same, as Rocky pays his respects to the South that sonically raised him. His connection with Skepta on the flute-heavy “Praise The Lord (Da Shine)” feels like a natural, seamless bridge between London and New York, and “Tony Tone,” featuring Puff Daddy, weaves through Harlem like no other song in 2018. Plus, what other LP had Frank Ocean connect with Lauryn Hill on the same song?
See: “Tony Tone”
Black Milk – FEVER
Even ahead of making 2010’s Album Of The Year, Detroit, Michigan MC, producer, and DJ Black Milk has proven himself capable of making some of the best bodies of work in a given 12-month period. However, FEVER may have taken his most significant steps to date. Written and sketched after an injury kept him in bed for months after the 2016 election, the Random Axe co-founder uses inspiration such as “True Lies,” social media-fueled highs (“Laugh Now Cry Later”), and racist police brutality to make a 40-minute album for the times. While the subject matter can be heavy in places, Curtis Cross is never preachy, or the creator of wallowing music. Instead, it is easy to “Drown” in the booming sound. Instrumentation blended with splashes of House and Detroit Techno make this a dynamic and profoundly satisfying listen. Renowned for his production for more than a decade, the 34-year-old shows that he deserves mention with some of Hip-Hop’s best contemporary producers on the mic.
See: “Laugh Now Cry Later”
Black Thought – Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1
The Roots’ frontman and MC extraordinaire has kept fans anticipating the prospects of a solo album for nearly 20 years. After lots of teasing fans in the past, Tariq Trotter gave little warning when he delivered Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1 in June. Produced by 9th Wonder and members of The Soul Council, this five-song, 17-minute offering is a Criterion collection-worthy short, in audio. The South Philadelphia MC unleashes bars from his show-stopping freestyle, as well as a plethora of new rhymes of that very same quality. These songs inspire minds while demonstrating the perspiration of a lyricist at the top of his class, and craft at once. With more volumes confirmed, this 2018 demonstration of excellence in real-time promises to extend itself before our eyes and ears before the year is over.
See: “Doystoyevsky” featuring Rapsody
Evidence – Weather Or Not
Twenty years after Dilated Peoples released the game-changing 12″ single “Work The Angles,” Evidence has perfectly constructed his magnum opus of a solo album. The Los Angeles, California double-threat holds nothing back in rapping about his spouse’s cancer diagnosis and heartbreaking health decline, the pressures of raising a son, and watching his brand of Hip-Hop pinched by the margins. At nearly an hour, this album is one of the year’s best—yet still lengthy by the new standards. Stepbrother Alchemist produces four cuts, while DJ Premier, Nottz, DJ Babu and others also helm a work that is soulful, cohesive, and inventive. Ev’ owns his musical journey while showing that he has plenty of places to go as a songwriter and B-Boy. Parts of the album are inward and confessional (“Throw It All Away” / “By My Side Too”) while others are built on waxing wordplay (“10,000 Hours” / “Bad Publicity”). Michael Perretta has amassed a loyal following through consistency and cleverness, however Weather Or Not shines because of its intimacy, wisdom, and tremendous grace.
See: “Throw It All Away”
J. Cole – KOD
For his fifth consecutive #1 album (and third without any guest Rap features) J. Cole embraced multiple concepts. The Dreamville founder made an incredibly engaging 12-song, 42-minute LP in KOD that deals with “Kids On Drugs,” “King Overdose,” and “Kill Our Demons.” The North Carolina MC/producer stitches these themes together by tackling the prominent drug culture in ‘Cloud Rap, looking at addiction and pain within his own family and upbringing, and also fights back on oppressors from his past and present. This album’s sound and approach is inspired by some of the records that dominate the youth, but contains messages from a 33-year-old urging all to “choose wisely.” Jermaine Cole continues to use his resources incredibly, from little advanced warning of the album’s release, to a Kevin Hart cameo in the “Kevin’s Heart” infidelity lesson, to using his edu-diss “1985” as an impetus for a foe-turned-big-bro convo with Lil Pump. KOD intersects with 2018 prophetically, and J. Cole proves once more that he is a creative vessel and engineer for culture.
Kanye West & Kid Cudi – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
Kanye West’s album with Kid Cudi proves to be an exploratory space. KIDS SEE GHOSTS sees both parties pulling their strengths together to support their other half: Kanye sounds charged up enough to rap, giving hook and melody duties their time with Cudi and the album’s other guest features, Yasiin Bey and Ty Dolla $ign. Kid Cudi has his best production support in years, be it live guitars, Arena Rock instrumentals or a simple Kurt Cobain sample, which provides the rapper a more focused effort on his songwriting. The duo’s biggest effort and ideas collide on “Reborn,” as both artists address and lay out their personal mental issues – with each other and the world in general – and tie it all together with Cudi’s hypnotic and pleasantly repetitive mantra: “I’m so—I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward / Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward / Ain’t no stress on me Lord, I’m movin’ forward / Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward.” The marching instrumental and pacing of “Fire” sees an on-point Kanye lyrically never miss the beat, as Kid Cudi slyly and lazily follows up with a vulnerable second verse. Expressive, uplifting, sonically exciting and chock full of hums, KIDS SEE GHOSTS is the gem birthed out of this year’s ‘Ye summer camp.
See: “4th Dimension” featuring Louis Prima
Murs & Michael “Seven” Summers – A Strange Journey Into The Unimaginable
Murs’ third solo album since signing with Strange Music stands as his most complete work in years. The Los Angeles, California native, examines a difficult few years and makes sense of them through music. For a full project, he teams with Michael “Seven” Summers, known for his massive production credits for Tech N9ne, Twiztid, and Rittz. The two artists meet in the middle for a confessional, at times melancholic, body of work that is honest without being too weighty, and specific while still feeling relatable. A Strange Journey Into The Unimaginable is an examination of life’s jarring and sudden ebbs and flows. One minute, a person’s family can be falling apart in devastation. The next, he can receive blessings and the promise of new love and life. For 20 years, the Living Legends and Felt member has put himself out there. This time, Murs’ place as a husband, father, and B-Boy seems to feel different. Just as he’s done with 9th Wonder, Ant, and Ski Beatz, Murs thrives when he builds an entire project with one producer. True to its title, this LP feels like a cinematic journey.
See: “The Unimaginable” featuring Robots & Balloons
Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap
After some of Hip-Hop’s best mixtapes in the last dozen years, Nipsey Hussle upped the ante for his major label debut. Victory Lap has the exuberance of a first album with a thick coat of O.G. polish. The Crenshaw District MC made the kind of old-guard LP that dominated year-end lists while he was on his independent grind. The hour-plus All Money In No Money Out/Atlantic Records release boasts a plethora of guests, ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Dom Kennedy to CeeLo and Puff Daddy. No matter the personnel, it is Ermias Asghedom’s world of DIY aspiration, readings from the G-Code scripture, and explanation that the color-controlled streets of L.A. are not unlike politics, business, or merely hoping to make it in America. After years of being courted by a host of artists and labels, Neighborhood Nip’ was right all along: he could achieve it all himself.
See: “Hussle & Motivate”
Phonte – No News Is Good News
Nearly seven years after his solo debut, Phonte shocks and awes with No News Is Good News. This 10-track, 33-minute effort is some of the most vulnerable and personal songwriting from an MC/singer who has spoken for many of us for 15 years. ‘Tay owns his place as a 39-year-old independent musician who despite Grammy nominations, has a job to do. He raps about high blood pressure, burying loved ones, watching one’s weight, fatherhood, snoring, and trying to still be “Hugh Masekela-meets-Masta Killa” on the mic. While Rap has its canon of all-inclusive/blue-collar albums, Tigallo found a way to cover untouched ground in Hip-Hop, while showing that he is the best one suited to do so (“Expensive Genes”). It’s not about the charts, it’s about the heart (“Cry No More”) when it comes to this display of songwriting and rhyme excellence. For a decade, fans have pestered Phonte (as well as 9th Wonder and Rapper Big Pooh) about Little Brother. In 2018, Phonte handed over a bag of big brother jewels for this life and times.
See: “So Help Me God”
Pusha-T – Daytona
Pusha-T has made great albums before, both as a soloist and with brother No Malice in The Clipse. However, the seven-song format does wonders for the Bronx-born, Virginia Beach representative. Daytona, named after the MC’s favorite Swiss time-piece model shows the luxury of when one of Rap’s most ruthless MCs and renowned producers are afforded the time (and space) to create properly. With its eerie artwork, patient and precise response to Drake (which set off a new offensive), and lyrics of lavish lifestyles and Pyrex prophecy, Daytona is a cold and confident listen. The offering throws a calculated and combative elbow back at Drake for 2016’s “Two Birds, One Stone” offensive, and also proved that while Kanye West is controversial outside of the studio, he is a dynamic master beat-builder. This 20-year-veteran does more with less, in making something great for his G.O.O.D. Music.
See: “If You Know You Know”
Royce 5’9 – Book Of Ryan
After 16 years of solo albums, Royce 5’9 has delivered his most personal work in Book Of Ryan. Fifty-five minutes in length, Ryan Montgomery looks back at childhood and adolescence in search of understanding how it led to his now. From losing his virginity and taking a critical first sip of alcohol (“Boblo Boat”) to witnessing his father’s drug habit (“Cocaine”), this album cuts deep. There are plenty of opportunities for the prolific lyricist (who also dropped PRhyme 2 this year) to display his mic prowess (“Caterpillar,” “Woke”). However, it is Royce’s soul-shattering revelations that come together for a greater sense of self that make this listen something richer than other highlights from Royce’s celebrated indie catalog. Eminem, J. Cole, Logic, Jadakiss, Fabolous, and a hook from Pusha-T also serve as a high-profile reminder that MCs can do amazing things while still keeping a guest-list. Ryan Montgomery has always delivered quality albums, but Book Of Ryan is a coffee table display piece from an MC who takes his exciting life and his many gifts and beautifully and unpretentiously blends it.
See: “Boblo Boat” featuring J. Cole
Saba – CARE FOR ME
Following 2016’s acclaimed Bucket List Project, Chicago, Illinois MC Saba goes even more in-depth with the songwriting in CARE FOR ME. The DIY MC, known for his work with Chance The Rapper, uses his LP to unpack a traffic jam of thoughts inside his mind. The 23-year-old raps about losing his virginity, the dangerous allure of “Broken Girls,” and escaping the realities of the West Side of the Windy City. It is a balance of innocent subject matters and forced wisdom from circumstance. This 10-track album is both dynamic and dense, with sparse production that casts an incredible spotlight on Saba’s words and distinctly Midwestern delivery. With the same self-made approach that made artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance juggernauts in the early 2010s, Saba has amassed a following in the millions simply by exceptional art and gritty truth.
Sylvan LaCue – Apologies In Advance
The Miami, Florida MC formerly known as QuESt has previously spent time as an artist on Logic’s Visionary Music Group. However, since going independent and reverting to his government name, Sylvan is 2-for-2 in making incredible music. Following 2016’s Far From Familiar, Apologies In Advance uses the concept of group therapy to clear all the things on his chest. LaCue tells stories that read like diary entries in a way that uses no rose-colored tints. He is candid, uncompromising, and inventive in the way he describes his life and engages the listener. This one-hour listen lunges for the MC to become the “Best Me,” giving himself the hard truths (“Selfish”) and observing a litany of feelings and emotions on the spectrum. A past winner of Jermaine Dupri’s “Survival Of The MC’s” competition, Sylvan is still persevering, but doing so without needing or receiving help from others.
See: “P.O.M.E.” featuring Javonte
The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
Without warning, JAY-Z and Beyoncé struck in the last week with EVERYTHING IS LOVE. The Carters wrote a new chapter in their public perception following the revelations of Lemonade and 4:44, respectively. This time, one of pop culture’s all-time power couples makes powerful statements on their relationship, race in America, and how couples sustain in the hardest times. This nine-track, 38-minute release is hip, flashy, and the latest reminder that The Carters know how to tap into the zeitgeist of culture and raise the stakes. Featuring production from Mike Dean, !llmind, Boi-1da, and Cool & Dre, this marks a completely new sound for Jay and Bey’.
To hear more from these artists and other great Hip-Hop from the past year, listen and subscribe to Ambrosia For Heads‘ Spotify playlist: