By Eóin Donnelly
2018 was an eventful, and occasionally bizarre, year for music. We finally got Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, and it was well worth the wait. Completing the trilogy after their highly confessional classic solo projects Lemonade and 4:44, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a surprise joint album. Kanye West released five albums in five weeks but spent most of the year in the throes of a perpetual mental breakdown while wearing a MAGA hat, ending his year by ranting into the void about eternal frenemie Drake on Twitter. Justin Timberlake tried to rebrand himself as a flannel-wearing Man of The Woods and released by far the worst album of his career. A paedophile, rainbow-haired rapper with the number 69 tattooed all over his body became a viral sensation and landed himself a possible life sentence in jail all within a few months. XXXTENTACION, another rapper with a problematic past, became the posterboy of emo rap’s explosion in popularity only to be gunned down in June just as he was ascending to bona fide superstar status. Tragically, his wasn’t the only headline-grabbing death of the year, with the inimitably affable Mac Miller succumbing to his demons just a month after releasing his Grammy-nominated Swimming. With Kamikaze, a 45-year-old Eminem released arguably his best album in a decade- that isn’t saying much- yet still managed to tarnish his legacy further, just barely besting MGK in one of the most cringeworthy beefs in recent history, while his output is more and more becoming the musical equivalent of the most insufferably homophobic and unrighteously angry Scooby Doo villain moaning about “those darned kids!” And don’t even start me about that terrible freestyle. Elsewhere, The 1975 staked their claim as the world’s biggest band; Drake had the most mixed year possible, soaring to the highest of chart-dominating highs yet humiliated to the lowest of deadbeat-dad exposed lows all while releasing his most disappointing album to date; and Nicki Minaj and new rap-queen-on-the-block Cardi B spent a year denying animosity only to end up beating lumps out of each other. This is all only scratching the surface: the streaming era’s endless stream of content fed us also with showbiz scandal aplenty to keep mouths chattering and Twitter fingers bashing. Thankfully, there was more than enough to keep our ears happy too.
Here are my top 50 albums of 2018…
50. Ebenezer- 53 Sundays
I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about this album. Faith may be the central motif of Ebenezer’s debut album, but you don’t need to be religious to enjoy it. In fact, it may be best if you’re anything but. “Sometimes I wanna talk to God, he doesn’t ever answer me”, laments Ebenezer on the album opener. He’s just right. 53 Sundays is testament to a whole different kind of faith: faith in yourself. It’s a faith that is predicated on doing it on your own, investing time in work rather than prayers and trusting your own judgment first rather than relying on the help of others. The music is gospel-tinged, a fitting and sonic template for the crisis of faith that the willingly sinful Ebenezer wrestles with throughout the album as well as a triumphant backdrop for his newfound success in music. Family hardships such as dealing with immigration, four people sleeping in one bed and using water for cereal almost pushed Ebenezer closer to God. 53 Sundays asks what it all would have been for. Nothing, I presume.
Standout tracks: ‘Over My Dead Body’; ‘Glory’; ‘Mercy’; ‘Pass The Offering’; ‘What If’
49. Sango- In The Comfort Of
Serene and soothing, Sango’s opus of skittering electronic soul is like touching down in a faraway land and immediately feeling welcome. The beats are equally fitting for chilled Spring afternoons as they are icy Winter mornings; either way, the sense of comfort is the same.
Standout tracks: ‘Life Without God Is Nothing’; ‘Mateo 2.19’; ‘Khlorine’; ‘Sweet Holy Honey’; ‘Light-Skinned’
48. Father John Misty- God’s Favourite Customer
To quote the great James Baldwin: “The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that others see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. You’re bearing witness helplessly to something everybody knows and nobody wants to face.” It’s a quote I imagine Father John Misty relates to. Quite possibly the most narcissistic man in music, Father John Misty’s pretentious mix of self-aggrandisement, self-depreciation and pouring scorn on the social mores of humanity would be difficult to stomach were he not so witty in doing so. On God’s Favourite Customer, he trains the critical lens on himself more steadily than ever, examining his psyche and the love-shaped holes in knowledge he will never quite be able to fill.
Standout tracks: ‘Mr Gallows’; ‘Just Dumb Enough To Try’; ‘Please Don’t Die’; ‘Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All’; ‘The Songwriter’
47. Juice WRLD- Goodbye & Good Riddance
Emo rap exploded in 2018, and in his breakthrough year Juice WRLD rapidly emerged as one of its most prolific progenitors. Yet another spawn of the cultural earthquake induced by Kanye West’s now decade-old 808s & Heartbreak, Juice WRLD’s melodious collection of solipsistic heartbreak anthems updated for the smartphone generation are tailor-made for being swapped around teenage group chats talking about boys and girls that done did them wrong.
Standout tracks: ‘All Girls Are The Same’; ‘Lucid Dreams’; ‘Lean Wit Me’; ‘I’ll Be Fine’; ‘Scared Of Love’
46. ROSALÍA- El Mal Querer
I don’t understand a single word on El Mal Querer, but with watered-down Latin sounds exploding more and more into the mainstream I thought I may as well give some authentically Latin music a go. Comprised of traditional flamenco pop as well as more forward-thinking influences- she even interpolates Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’ on ‘Bagdad’- Rosalía’s epic second album is a sprawling, sensual exhibition of the true potential of Latin music from a talented vocalist and curator who will surely become one of Spain’s most prized exports.
Standout tracks: ‘MALAMENTE’; ‘QUE NO SALGA LA LUNA’; ‘RENIEGO’; ‘BAGDAD’; ‘DI MI NOMBRE’
45. J. Cole- KOD
A multi-dimensional acronym, KOD can stand for Kids on Drugs, King OverDosed or Kill Our Demons. Hip-hop’s wise older brother used his fifth album to educate the youth on the perils of drug abuse, depression, social media addiction, the fickle nature of fandom and the importance of cultivating longevity in the industry. KOD is as socially conscious an album as you’re likely to hear permeating the mainstream, full of worthwhile perspectives and empathetic songwriting that confirms J. Cole as one of this generation’s most thoughtful poets.
Standout tracks: ‘KOD’; ‘Photograph’; ‘The Cut Off’; ‘Kevin’s Heart’; ‘1985- Intro to “The Fall Off”‘
44. Meek Mill- Championships
True to the name, Championships is an anthemic victory replete with NBA arena-ready jams, but it’s when the newly-freed and unlikely new face of prison reform pares his bellowing vocals down and ruminates on his tribulations behind bars that Meek makes his most compelling music.
Standout tracks: ‘Trauma’; ‘What’s Free’; ‘Respect The Game’; ’24/7′; ‘Pay You Back’
43. Kanye West- ye
Even by Kanye West’s larger-than-life, too-messed-up-to-believe standards, 2018 was one hell of a year. Kanye is to controversy what bees are to honey, but the last 12 months have generated more negative Kanye press than SwiftGate and George Bush not caring about black people put together. Ever the contrarian free thinker to his own detriment; Kanye became the MAGA hat’s biggest proponent, made clumsy statements on slavery, live-diarised an uncomfortably public fallout with Drake, and became an avid supporter of the highly problematic XXXTENTACION and 6ix9ine. And by problematic, that all-encompassing euphemism for morally questionable people, I mean one is a domestic abuser of horrifying proportions and the other is a paedophile. At each point of Kanye’s ceaseless embrace of controversy I had to ask: is there a point to any of this?
Unfortunately, the music sometimes seemed an afterthought. By some distance, ye is Kanye’s worst solo album. Unlike his previous seven albums, it neither defines the zeitgeist nor flips it on its head. For an auteur of West’s gargantuan ambition, the seven-song ye is oddly refined. The first release of the spotty Wyoming sessions, it is however an ultimately rewarding album that proves even a semi-mentally functioning West is still a force to be reckoned with. Kicking the toys out of the pram was Kanye’s favourite pasttime in 2018, but ye shines light on a more grown-up perspective on family, unpolluted personal sovereignty and mental health that 2016’s The Life of Pablo touched upon in more conflicted fashion. It takes some time for the ears to adjust to an album this low-key and modest from, of all people, Kanye West. Tranquil and sincere, ye is the antidote to another year of Kanye chaos and a reminder that behind the bombast is just another man trying to make sense of who he is.
Standout tracks: ‘Yikes’; ‘Wouldn’t Leave’; ‘Ghost Town’
42. Ariana Grande- Sweetener
Is there a bigger name in music right now? As saccharine as the name suggests, Ariana Grande’s fourth studio album is her best and most mature offering yet. That Grande has perhaps the broadest vocal range of anyone alive was already established, but with Sweetener she has now married her obvious natural talent with top-tier production- Pharrell and Max Martin, who else?- and songwriting that solidifies her place as a prime hitmaker. Bouncing back from a terrifying terrorist attack at her Manchester concert as well as a high-profile break-up with the late Mac Miller, Sweetener marks a new peak for the world’s most tragedy-afflicted popstar.
Standout tracks: ‘blazed’; ‘R.E.M.’; ‘God is a woman’; ‘no tears left to cry’; ‘better off’
41. Post Malone- beerbongs & bentleys
If lyrical substance is what you’re looking for, beerbongs & bentleys is going to annoy you. For the most part, it’s exactly what it says on the Yeezus-inspired album cover, and it’s almost as morally bankrupt. Granted, beerbongs & bentleys is nothing original, offering a familiar collection of trendy trap 808s, moody synths, warbling autotune and self-indulgent songwriting that has been the mainstream rap and R&B status quo as far back as The Weeknd’s 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, or even further back 2008’s game-changing 808s & Heartbreak from Kanye West. Originality, however, can sometimes be overrated. In years to come, when auto-crooning trap music dies like every other trend and nostalgia beguiles the reality of our past, beerbongs & bentleys will be one of the first albums we turn to for comfort.
Less reliance on effects allows the passion and power of Malone’s natural vocal range to finally shine through, and the subtle elements of rock that creep into the tracklist (‘Over Now’) add to rather than distract from Malone’s sporadically bombastic take on hip-hop. Generally however, beerbongs & bentleys’ core demographics are those whose lives revolve mostly around partying, and contrary to consensus there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the songs fit the aesthetic. They do. Beyond the ubiquitous party anthem ‘rockstar’ and the exuberant, dreamlike ‘Candy Paint’, there are hits all over Malone’s new release, from the wonderfully catchy ‘Better Now’ to the Suite Life of Zack & Cody-referencing ‘Zack & Codeine’ to ‘Takin’ Shots’. Like most pop music we don’t seem nearly as eager to critique, beerbongs & bentleys is an escapist’s fantasy of luxury and libido to be vicariously lived through rather than a vapid lifestyle to be pointed at and judged.
Standout tracks: ‘Spoil My Night’; ‘Zack And Codeine’; ‘rockstar’; ‘Stay’; ‘Candy Paint’
40. Phonte- No News Is Good News
In perhaps an early sign of the impact of Jay-Z’s 4:44, Phonte’s first solo album since 2011 ruminates on the challenges of middle age. Life as a rapper isn’t always glamorous, particularly when you hit the dreaded four-zero. ‘Expensive Genes’, for example, touches on high cholesterol, sleep apnea and diabates, concluding that blackness is the “most expensive gene of all.” Clearly, Phonte is a man who’s lived a life beyond the typical rapper. Or at least he’s more willing to talk about it. Either way, No News Is Good News is another fine addition to the slowly growing sub-genre of ‘grown man rap.’ I wanna hear from you next, André 3000.
Standout tracks: ‘So Help Me God’; ‘Expensive Genes’; ‘Cry No More’; ‘Sweet You’; ‘Euphorium (Back To The Light’)
39. Takeoff- The Last Rocket
Migos’ most underappreciated member confirms a theory that’s been gathering momentum since the release of Culture II: he’s the best rapper in the group. You only need to compare Takeoff’s album to bandmate Quavo’s own debut, QUAVO HUNCHO, to come to the obvious conclusion that he is the one best-equipped of the trio to succeed outside the confines of the group. Whereas Quavo’s album sounded like half-baked leftovers from Migos studio sessions, Takeoff’s debut retains the core appeal of Migos’ best music while still remaining individual enough to set him apart from Quavo & Offset. ‘Infatuation’ is new territory for any of Migos, a charmingly retro RnB jam with an interstellar vibe, and ‘Casper’ is elite trap music worthy of a leading spot on any Rap Caviar playlist. There’s a childlike wonder and unpredictability to Takeoff that makes him worth taking a bet on as Migos’ biggest success story.
Standout tracks: ‘She Gon Wink’; ‘Vacation’; ‘Last Memory’; ‘Casper’; ‘Infatuation’
38. Jay Rock- Redemption
More man of the people than he is celebrity, I never thought I’d see the day where Jay Rock was walking a heavyweight boxer to the ring while performing one of his songs, but that’s exactly what happened when Deontay Wilder walked out to face the man, the legend Tyson Fury. It’s a mark of how far the Watts native came in 2018, manoeuvring from relative obscurity within the ranks of Top Dawg Entertainment’s impressive roster to becoming an attraction in his own right. With Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, Schoolboy Q, SZA and Ab-Soul all taking a back seat last year, it appears by design, a sacrificial chess move to hoist Jay Rock to the pedestal he deserves. Lamar and his labelmates owe much of their success to Rock, without whom TDE may never have risen from its humble beginnings as an independent label run from a garage. Watching a long-neglected rap pugilist finally earn some recognition is heartwarming, but make no mistake about it: Jay Rock will forever have one foot in the underground.
Standout tracks: ‘The Bloodiest’; ‘Knock It Off’; ‘Rotation 112th’; ‘Troopers’; ‘Wow Freestyle’
37. 21 Savage- i am> i was
Out of the nettle of danger, 21 Savage plucked the flower of safety. His story is the stuff of legend: shot six times on his 21st birthday, when his best friend was killed, the man born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph named himself after the event and began a rap career that launched 21 into the stratosphere within a matter of months. i am>i was is 21’s best project yet, exemplifying growth for the man and the artist. Still mired largely in darkness born of the trap life, there is nevertheless enough success outside of his usual comfort zone to suggest that 21 isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Standout tracks: ‘a lot’; ‘a&t’; ‘out for the night’; ‘good day’; ‘monster’
36. The Internet- Hive Mind
Live instrumentation is the heartbeat that keeps The Internet’s pulse pumping. Their old-school approach to songcraft combined with their egalitarian spirit makes them a very likeable group indeed. Sultry, lush and dreamy basslines aplenty account for one of the most chilled-out experiences in music. The aptly-titled Hive Mind, their fourth album, is the culmination of the momentum The Internet have been building as soloists and as a group ever since they splintered off from Odd Future. It’s their grooviest, catchiest and most addictive album yet.
Standout tracks: ‘Roll (Burbank Funk)’; ‘Come Over’; ‘Stay The Night’; ‘It Gets Better (With Time); ‘Hold On’
35. The Voidz- Virtue
Julian Casablancas has a simple dream that I find admirable: “I strive to build a world where the Velvet Underground would be more popular than the Rolling Stones. Or where Ariel Pink is as popular as Ed Sheeran”, he exclaimed to Vulture. In the eyes of the former Strokes frontman, all of the boundaries that exist between commercially and non-commercially viable are nothing but “cultural brainwashing.” It’s difficult to disagree. The monotonous droll of most radio stations playing the same artists over and over is a depressing state of affairs. Music is a business first and a showcase of talent second… at best. Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good, after all. The important question is whether Casablancas’ band can offer a worthwhile alternative. The answer is generally yes. The Voidz’ second album vindicates the cause for rock’s continued evolution, bursting to the seams with fresh ideas, and Casablancas remains one of the genre’s most magnetic frontmen.
Standout tracks: ‘Leave It In My Dreams’; ‘QYURRYUS’; ‘Permanent High School’; ‘All Wordz Are Made Up’; ‘My Friend The Walls’
34. 6LACK- East Atlanta Love Letter
6LACK- pronounced ‘black’, please people- makes music for late nights thinking about your ex. From the dark and sombre production to the emotive songwriting to 6LACK’s detached presence on the mic, it’s a formula he has been quietly perfecting since 2016’s FREE 6LACK. Personally, I can’t help but think 6LACK is capable of something much more sonically and thematically daring- and that he’s treading a little too closely to The Weeknd’s lane- but I can’t deny that what he’s doing right now is working. Some of EALL is too sparse and slow to stand out amongst a smattering of similarly downcast RnB and hip-hop hybrids, but when 6LACK is in his bag he really shines as a talent to watch. ‘Switch’ explores the concept of a fan switching bodies with 6LACK to understand each other’s pain; ‘Let Her Go’ sees the East Atlanta crooner pondering whether staying with his partner is worth it now his fame has given him more options; ‘Disconnect’ reflects on a barely-surviving relationship; and ‘Pretty Little Fears’ is a stellar cut that features one of J. Cole’s all-time best verses. In its best moments, EALL is quiet yet emphatic, a whispered confession on the struggles of keeping a fractured monogamous relationship together in the face of new temptations.
Standout tracks: ‘Let Her Go’; ‘Sorry’; ‘Pretty Little Fears’; ‘Switch’; ‘Stan’
33. Arin Ray- Platinum Fire
Avid music listeners will know that there’s no better feeling than investing your wholehearted curiosity in an unknown name and being rewarded by an album so instantly enthralling that you can only immerse yourself in its gorgeous collage of sounds all over again. Platinum Fire is a strange album name for a release that almost definitely won’t go platinum- for reasons of commercial viability rather than artistic merit- and is more evocative of aquatic tranquility than a blazing inferno, but I’ll not hold it against ‘The X Factor’ also-ran Arin Ray, whose unorthodox path to success follows a recent trend of prime RnB talents doggedly grinding their way to stardom.
Ray’s affinity for old school sounds is evident throughout Platinum Fire. In fact, my favourite track (‘Old School’) sums up the listening experience best of all: “I keep an old school vibe for the summer.” The sound of the 90’s is most apparent in the production, from the instantly addictive funky guitar licks (‘Who Came Up Missin’) to the organic, boom-bap drums (‘Damn’) that are so reminiscent of the earliest fusions of RnB and early 90’s hip-hop. As a singer, however, Arin Ray is much more versatile than a 90’s tribute act. He has plenty of range, and like all the best RnB vocalists he knows when to let the instrumentation breathe, sounding equally at home over the jazzy, Terrace Martin-produced title track as he does on an electro-soul jam with Ty Dolla $ign (‘Take’) and ‘We Ain’t Homies’ with Compton rapper YG. As simply as I can put it, Arin Ray plus rays of sunshine equals a day well spent.
Standout tracks: ‘Sometime Ass Nigga’; ‘Who Came Up Missin’; ‘Communication’; ‘Fuck Y’all’; ‘Old School’
32. Freddie Gibbs- Freddie
At a brisk 25 minutes, keeping it concise is a smart move for Freddie Gibbs, a technically-skilled rapper whose limited formula would grow tiresome if it were stretched out to the same albums lengths as some of his more indulgent and unrefined contemporaries. Ahem, Migos. Ahem, Drake. Drowning in heavy bass adorned with Freddie’s acrobatic flows, Freddie is a rare beast of a trap album where the rhymes are as hard-hitting as the production, and if you don’t believe me then go work out and stick on ‘Weight.’ It will unleash an animal in you. An animal, I tell ya.
Standout tracks: ‘Weight’; ‘Death Row’; ‘Triple Threat’; ‘2 Legit’; ‘Diamonds 2’
31. Janelle Monáe- Dirty Computer
Is there anything Janelle Monáe can’t do? On Dirty Computer she not only exhibits her singing and rapping skills, but the album is also accompanied by a 46-minute sci-fi narrative film that showcases Monáe as one of the most creatively rounded forces in music. Doing multiple things is one thing, but doing multiple things at expert level is quite another. Funk, pop, RnB, soul, hip-hop: musically, Monáe has all the chops. With the likes of Stevie Wonder, Organized Noize, Grimes, Brian Wilson, Jon Brion & Pharrell Williams on hand, the album was always going to sound spectacular, but it’s the album’s accepting ethos of free love that makes it a memorable one. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women- I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker”, she told Rolling Stone. It certainly shows, with Dirty Computer assuming the modus operandi of liberating the sexual autonomy of its listeners, empowering women and obliterating the American status quo. Monáe is proof positive that pussy grabs back.
Standout tracks: ‘Screwed’; Django Jane’; ‘Pynk’; ‘Make Me Feel’; ‘Americans’
30. JPEGMAFIA- Veteran
Only in the internet age could an artist like JPEGMAFIA exists. His means of making music is certainly non-conformist, but to what end? Depending on the song he can either be a highly aggressive provocateur or an immensely apathetic shit-poster. A cursory glance at the tracklist alone confirms JPEGMAFIA as a uniquely confrontational glitch in the hip-hop matrix: ‘Rock N Roll Is Dead’, ‘I Cannot Fucking Wait Til Morrissey Dies’ and ‘Libtard Anthem’ are among them. He’s a rapper who mirrors the dark corners and strange anomalies of the manifold tucked-away subcultures of the internet. The music sounds like it’s crafted in a microwave of fragmented, digitised paraphernalia, pulled from the recesses of a cranium overstimulated by information. It’s bizarre how JPEGMAFIA even finds a way to flow over these instrumentals, let alone so impressively. JPEGMAFIA is desensitised to reality, but is just about mad enough to still say something about it. Veteran is experimental to the highest degree, exhilarating in parts and always peculiar enough to raise an eyebrow in the best possible way.
Standout tracks: ‘1539 N. Calvert’; ‘Real Nega’; ‘Thug Tears’; ‘Rock N Roll Is Dead’; ‘Macaulay Culkin’
29. Burna Boy- Outside
“If you put speakers in my mind/I bet it would sound like/How could I not be happy all day?/I’m from the streets of Africa.” What a beautifully proud sentiment. Burna Boy’s Outside is one of the most animated, energetic and fun releases of the year, freewheeling from pop to afrobeat to dancehall to RnB and everywhere else across the African musical diaspora. The Nigerian’s playfully seamless fusion of disparate musical cultures is irresistibly charismatic, sounding like an authentic labour of love rather than an attempt to bridge as many demographics as possible. Burna Boy is almost a genre unto himself, and we need more bringing positive vibes like him. For songs to get the party going, you could do a lot worse than ‘Phi City Vibration.’
Standout tracks: ‘Phi City Vibration’; ‘Koni Baje’; ‘Streets of Africa’; ‘Rock Your Body’; ‘Calm Down’
28. Kacey Musgraves- Golden Hour
“Texas is hot, I can be cold/Grandma cried when I pierced my nose”, goes the opening verse of ‘Slow Burn.’ Kacey Musgraves wastes no time in introducing Golden Hour as a different kind of country album. Country music is often too parochial and rooted in tradition to be remotely interesting or enjoyable to me: if I want to hear a bunch of old white men brag about how much beer they can drink and compare truck sizes, I’ll just fly home to Ireland and walk into the local. Self-describing her style as “cosmic country”, Musgraves’ dewy-eyed optimism, infectious melodies and effortless knack for engaging engaging songwriting is a compelling trifecta that could ensure a mainstream crossover sooner rather than later. I never knew the country genre could produce a song as futuristically spellbinding and pure in imagination as ‘Oh, What A World.’ Rarely has an album so pleasant felt so rebellious, with Musgraves’ adroit writing bringing you close into her infinitely inquisitive world as she steps courageously out of the narrow confines of her own.
Standout tracks: ‘Slow Burn’; ‘Lonely Weekend’; ‘Oh, What A World’; ‘Mother’; ‘High Horse’
27. The 1975- A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
My opinions on The 1975’s frontman, Matt Healy, are complex and always changing. He is the Russell Brand of pop music. Yes, both men are recovered heroin addicts assuming quasi-generational idol status as Messiah Complex-afflicted, self-anointed intellectuals. More than that, however, both men are capable of garnering an appreciative “he really gets it” nod one moment and making me cringe at what insufferably pretentious and trite bellends they are the next. But hey- it’s better than being boring! You can’t accuse Healy of lacking self-awareness either, a trait that somehow functions as a system of reprieve for even the most maligned of shortcomings. “I’m the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques”, sang Healy on ‘Loving Someone’ from the loquaciously-titled I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. It remains the best line he’s ever delivered, summative of the band’s entire discography: fleetingly witty and infuriatingly inconsistent.
I have some of the same gripes about A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. Pop music doesn’t have to be a grand exegesis of modern society, but you can’t call your album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships and not expect to have your ideas scrutinised to the highest degree. Matt Healy sets the album up to be something it doesn’t quite deliver on, outside of ‘Love It If We Made It’, a standout contender for song of the year. It’s the kind of socio-politically aware, galvanising pop rock anthem that the dying rock genre has been starved of for years, reading like an impassioned spider diagram of the daily mayhem that implodes our timelines pointed to one core idea: modernity has failed us. It’s a memorable and powerful slogan, but what seals its magnificence is the chorus’s sliver of hope . Elsewhere, cracking open his lover’s skull to see the inner workings of her brain (‘Inside Your Mind’) is the kind of macabre yet tender metaphor that intensely intrigued infatuation can really feel like. Moreover, Matt Healy could probably employ his gadfly tendencies in less hypocritical ways than in the realm of narcissism. For the most part, ABIIOR is an ambitiously diverse assortment of moods and textures that approach life in the digital age with a logically cynical mind and￼ an idealist’s wide-open heart. The 1975 are still the world’s most polarising band, but who can deny they are the most exciting?
Standout tracks: ‘Love It If We Made It’; ‘The Man Who Married A Robot/Love Theme’; ‘Inside Your Mind’; ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’; ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’
26. Sylvan LaCue- Florida Man
Only found on YouTube, Sylvan LaCue’s all-for-charity, independently-released visual mixtape is another gigantic forward leap towards visibility for one of the internet’s most talented secrets. The happy energy he exudes is beyond inspiring, and ‘Do Not QuEStion’ highlights a beastly flow that belies his jovial demeanour. Arguably the most likeable personality in hip-hop right now, Florida Man is LaCue in his element: right in front of the camera, rapping and dancing his heart out and bringing smiles to his army of dedicated fans tracing his path from the underground to the big-time. I sense that 2019 will be a big one for him.
Standout tracks: ‘Florida Man’; ‘Know Your Cause/Roll In Peace’; ‘Do Not QuEStion’; ‘Penelope Cruise Music’; ‘Ruth Williams’
25. Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist- Fetti
There really isn’t that much to say about this album other than all three contributors do exactly what’s expected of them and it sounds fantastic. The Alchemist’s vintage, cinematic Blaxploitation-esque beats go down a treat, and Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs in particular sound born to rap over them. “My baby said if I be faithful, she gone hold me down/I’m fuckin’ these hoes, I want it all like an only child/About to take trip, I got coke and dope on my grocery list/OxyContin pack, I be switchin’ rackets like Djokovic/Stood up on my demon, the machine ain’t never promoted this/Coldest nigga you ever heard on Alan or Otis shit”, goes one memorable sequence of menacing Gibbs bars. As far as straight-up rap albums go in 2018, look no further than Fetti.
Standout tracks: ‘Location Remote’; The Blow’; ‘Saturday Night Special’; ‘Now & Later Gators’; ‘Willie Lloyd’
24. Noname- Room 25
Noname is an unapologetically autonomous individual in an industry deprived of them. It’s a frustrating consequence of how music is packaged, marketed and consumed that a female rapper of Noname’s calibre remains largely anonymous. Sophistication, class and observational wit drips from the pores of everything she does. In between 2016’s Telefone mixtape and her debut album Room 25, Chicago’s Noname lost her virginity at the lofty age of 25. New life experiences could explain the immense evolution she exhibits on the therapeutic calm of Room 25. Backed by mellow, gorgeous jazz and invitingly soulful backing vocals, Noname spits… no, whispers knowledge all over Room 25 on topics as wide-ranging as sexual autonomy, beauty standards, religion, romance, politics and racial stereotypes. Ultimately, the common thread that ties everything together is Noname’s ceaseless quest to understand who she is. An unexamined life is not worth living.
Standout tracks: ‘Blaxploitation’; ‘Window’; ‘Regal’; ‘Ace’; ‘With You’
23. Brockhampton- Iridescence
Everything Brockhampton does defies convention. The self-proclaimed “world’s biggest boyband” ripped up the blueprint with 2017’s acclaimed, groundbreaking and exciting Saturation trilogy, emerging as an uber-millennial cast of diverse members with new things to say and new ways to say them. iridescence, their first major label effort, finds the group picking up the pieces following Ameer Vann’s departure from the group due to sexual misconduct allegations. As poster-boys not only for breaking the sonic mould of hip-hop but also hyper-inclusive progressive politics, an exposed Vann and Brockhampton was never going to be a comfortable alliance going forward. As perhaps the strongest MC in the group, his absence is surely felt.iridescence is a strange album where the entire group dynamic is flipped on its head. Matt Champion is oddly subdued, while the group’s de facto leader Kevin Abstract is “feeling defeated like I’m the worst on the boyband” on ‘WEIGHT.’ On an album where the group’s collective anxieties- JOBA’s suicidal thoughts, Abstract’s frank struggles with his sexuality and Dom McLennon’s exasperation with both sides of the political spectrum- come into full focus, it is the usually peripheral JOBA and McLennon who arise from the wreckage as the standout performers on iridescence, a therapy session disguised as a mosh pit.
Standout tracks: ‘WEIGHT’; ‘DISTRICT’; ‘J’OUVERT’; ‘HONEY’; ‘FABRIC’
22. Beach House- 7
Trying to explain what makes Beach House great is one of the most impossibly futile tasks in music writing, a dauntingly difficult endeavour of Sisyphean proportions. If I talked like this in the real world I’d be cast out to die. Anyway, the author Kurt Vonnegut once said that music to him is proof of the existence of God. He’s been dead for over a decade, but were he still alive I imagine he’d be pointing to Beach House as proof of his argument.
The feelings their songs provoke are ultra-personal without ever being specific, with their transcendently ethereal sound leading you down dormant paths of consciousness that had been gathering dust for years. It’s masterful how the Baltimore dream pop duo Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand evade specificity, as if that would shatter the brittle illusion of the carefully-constructed beauty that defines their shimmering diamond of a soundscape. Analogous to Moby’s ‘Porcelain’, Beach House’s music hints at an elusive and unutterable abstract truth, an ineffably spiritual intuition of cosmic harmony that evaporates the more precisely you try to illuminate it. I’ve heard different Beach House songs that meant totally different things to me at different times of my life, but if I was to summarise the experience it would be like levitating across a kaleidoscopic daydream of blissful melancholia in slow-motion tbh. If I talked like this in real life I would be shot on sight. Mystical and alluring like metacognitive hot chicks, 7’s hypnotic, hallucinatory and coruscating centrepiece ‘Lemon Glow’ is a sapiosexual anthem for telepathic minds that live off the grid in plain sight. There’s a sentence that’s never been said. “You feel it coming right through you/It’s on the other side/It doesn’t have to be this way/The colour of your mind.” If you perceive stimulating conversation as foreplay, make ‘Lemon Glow’ your Tinder anthem.
Like anyone else, I’ve only ever lived a thin slice of life. If music is my window into the unknown, then Beach House is peering into the unknowable: the final inhale before the cathartic exhale; the clarity before peace; the metaphysical embodiment of everything you know and subconsciously deny; the beckoning of truth before the exhumation of its fraudulent antidote; and the startlingly strange and vaguely magical encounter with the beyond. The music of Beach House may not fill your lungs with shouty choruses or infuse your feet with intoxicating rhythms, but they are a band that evokes images of the divine and will awaken the truly invigorated mind. What else is out there, and what else is in here? When you reverse engineer everything back to the fundamentals, these are the only questions that matter.
Standout tracks: ‘Pay No Mind’; ‘Lemon Glow’; ‘L’Inconnue’; ‘Drunk In L.A.’; ‘Lose Your Smile’
21. ODIE- Analogue
Toronto’s got another one. Along with The Weeknd, Daniel Caesar, dvsn, MorMor, Majid Jordan, Tory Lanez, Jahkoy, anders and of course Drake, ODIE is yet another emerging face from one of music’s most relentless conveyor belts of talent. Unlike most of the others, however, ODIE does not approach his art with the neon-lit, cold and sparse melody-driven methods that Drake and his OVO Sound underlings have made Toronto’s trademark. ODIE’s debut album is warm, enchanting and full of wonder and awe at the inexhaustible variety of life. You can hear in the music that ODIE has not yet found himself, but rather than slip into existential crisis he treats this as cause for an unabashedly optimistic adventure and a muse for creating the year’s most entrancing ode to unblemished innocence, curiosity of the unexplored self and embracing each day with open arms, eyes and heart as merely another challenge to overcome.
Raised by Nigerian parents in Canada’s coolest city, the eclectic styles that have inspired ODIE’s cross-genre brand of alternative pop are not surprising: Kid Cudi, Michael Jackson, Fela Kuti, Coldplay and Sunny Ade are all cited as influences. The end result is entirely his own. “I can feel it coming on/I think I wanna change the whole world”, sings ODIE on the typically uplifting ‘Phenomenon.’ Analogue sounds like a man on the cusp of a profound and beautiful epiphany. To listen is to replicate the feeling of floating on a cloud with thoughts of nothing but a hopeful future. I’m here for more of the same. Nobody gonna crush my faith tonight.
Standout tracks: ‘North Face’; ‘Story’; ‘Faith’; ‘In My Head’; ‘Phenomenon’
20. Vince Staples- FM
The very first time I listened to Vince Staples I knew he was special. “I’m just a nigga, until I fill my pockets/And then I’m Mr. Nigga, they follow me while shoppin'”, went the opening couplet to 2015’s ‘Lift Me Up.’ Fast-forward another few lines and the idiosyncratic blend of observational humour, confrontational menace and nonchalant socio-political commentary that the Long Beach provocateur was bringing to the table was already in full focus: “Uber driver in the cockpit look like Jeffrey Dahmer/But he lookin’ at me crazy when we pull up to the projects.” Staples has came a long way since Summertime ’06, becoming harder and harder to pigeonhole with every release. His music is thoughtful, but the avant-garde musical packaging clubs you over the head more than the subtly iconoclastic philosophies within them, and Staples’ reticence to overexplain his artistic inclinations keeps his output intriguing if not immediately addictive.
Ostensibly simple, there is much more to FM! than initially meets the ear. Staples is intelligent, but he delivers his social critiques in an offhand manner that suggests he is both desensitised to the harrowing realities in his community and non-anticipating of change. “Brand new shrink, had a breakthrough/Brand new mink for the great room” is classic Staples, elucidating the duality of concurrently both being defined by and trying to rise above blackness and the archetypal identity of hip-hop star. The central doctrine underpinning FM! is that black pain is merely a commercial market to be exploited for the enjoyment of non-ghetto dwelling folks: the radio concept is merely the means by which the message is told. By some distance, FM! is Staples’ most accessible work yet, an updated refinement of the classic West Coast hip-hop template where the rhymes are as vivid as the production is hard-hitting, and the nihilistic, post-traumatic outbreak of violence is always creeping just underneath the shallow surface of the hedonistic methods that black youths rely on as coping mechanisms to escape the inherited pain of generational racial marginalisation. FM! is purposely cognitively dissonant, a tongue-in cheek mission in subterfuge that simultaneously trolls and educates the masses in one fell swoop. Only Staples could pull this off.
Standout tracks: ‘Feels Like Summer’; ‘Outside’; ‘Don’t Get Chipped’; ‘Run The Bands’; ‘FUN!’
19. Leon Bridges- Good Thing
Leon Bridges may only be 29, but he is clearly an old man at heart. Bridges’ music is soulful in the classical sense of the word, drawing from the canons of the likes of Sam Cooke, Al Green and Otis Redding. Everything from his singing style to his production choices to his fashion sense is unashamedly retro and refreshingly organic. As I’m sure he is aware, however, navigating a creative industry with one eye on the past is to walk a tightrope where becoming no more than a tribute act is more than a distinct possibility.
Coming Home introduced us to the Texas singer, a middling debut where even the best moments reminded you of other music you love more than standing on its own merit. Good Thing extinguishes the myth of the sophomore curse. We live in an increasingly frivolous culture which inevitably spills over into our love lives; for males and females alike in the right-swipe generation, the next smash is usually priority numero uno. It’s sometimes worth asking if anyone believes in love anymore. Armed with the slick-talking vocabulary and the sweetness in vulnerability that the greatest lotharios of yesteryear perfected, Bridges is the poster-boy for a bygone era where love was a real connection to be cultivated rather than a novelty to be discarded at the first sign of trouble or a better option coming along. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Standout tracks: ‘Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand’; ‘Bad Bad News’; ‘Beyond’; ‘You Don’t Know’; ‘Mrs.’
18. The Weeknd- My Dear Melancholy
Allow me my hypocrisies please, because as much as I love Leon Bridges’ message of uncomplicated love and commitment, I’m equally if not more compelled by The Weeknd fucking through heartache until his dick falls off. There’s a select range of unions between artist and musical backdrop that are so pure and so seamless that it can eventually become boring. The ease with which a new artist perfects a style of music is often mesmerising and charming at first, but this feeling is superseded by a blandly generic form of self-pastiche when a creative force attempts to feed off the same great idea for too long. I’m talking about Adele and the rousing heartbreak ballad, Snoop Dogg and sunny California-fried G-funk, Bruno Mars and funky party jams. Without risk, without experimentation and without the essential offering of something new, an artist’s appeal becomes narrow and stale and momentum can grind to a halt.
It’s no wonder The Weeknd sounds so comfortable making this kind of music: he invented it. My Dear Melancholy, a six-track EP, is a retread of Abel Tesfaye’s musical origins on the Trilogy of 2011 mixtapes that catapulted him to superstardom. The Weeknd and the darkly atmospheric hallmarks of his alternative interpretation of RnB could easily becomes tedious were he not still so skilled in executing his forté. In cuts like ‘Call Out My Name’ and ‘Wasted Times’, Tesfaye’s passionate vocals easily separate him from the pack. Inspired by his high-profile break-up with Selena Gomez, even the title hints at The Weeknd’s peculiarly lovelorn brand of romantic politics. My Dear Melancholy: partly detached, partly affectionate- nobody evades commitment like The Weeknd. Lonely, distant and piercing synths from Gesaffelstein further develop the muffled catharsis and carnal indulgence that The Weeknd has undeniably made his domain this decade. In the long run, The Weeknd’s ceiling is way too high to be constrained to the basement sounds from which he first constructed his inimitable dark and mysterious loverman aura; but for now it’s great to hear him back doing what he does best and marvelling at just how short his imitators come up.
Standout tracks: ‘Call Out My Name’; ‘Try Me’; ‘Wasted Times’
17. Mac Miller- Swimming
Music isn’t just vibrating air. Innumerable areas of context, from your own personal experience to the world around you to the lives of the artist themselves, colour the way in which you listen. There’s no dab of a brush more striking than the death of an artist. When Swimming was first released I couldn’t fully fall in love with it. The ear for arrangement was phenomenally luscious and elegant, the lyrics were typically quirky and heartfelt and the emotional peaks (‘Self Care’, ‘2009’, ‘So It Goes’) hit harder than Francis Ngannou. But something was still off. Primarily, Swimming is an album about perseverance and striving for more, but this core idea’s alliance with tones of buoyancy and recovery sounded to me like Mac Miller was wearing a mask, proclaiming his demons vanquished while his diminishing spirit and vivacity said everything to the contrary.
Just over a month later Mac was dead from his long battle with drug addiction, and now I hear the album totally differently. Beautiful and brittle just like the beloved soul behind it, what was once meant to sound inspiring and uplifting now reads as a bleak reminder of the morbid realities of neuroses in the public eye and the ephemerality of being loved by millions. One minute you’re charting routes out of depression, and the next you’re dead in a box. So it goes.
Standout tracks: ‘Come Back To Earth’; ‘Hurt Feelings’; ‘Self Care’ ‘Ladders’; ‘2009’
16. A$AP Rocky- Testing
Experimentation is the ethos that inspired A$AP Rocky’s third studio album. “People are scared to test new sounds, so they go with what’s current ’cause it’s the easy thing to do. The top 100 songs sound a certain way. People cater more to that because it’s a bigger demographic behind that, or it’s a guaranteed demographic behind that. I prefer to experiment and have my crowd grow with me and to reach new crowds. I don’t just rap- I actually make music. That’s why it takes time. These sonics represent me”, Rocky stated in an interview with GQ. Kudos to A$AP Rocky for his adventurously contrarian approach. It didn’t have to be this way. With a troupe of lucrative sponsors topping up his wallet and a bevy of famous attractive women draped on his arm, the polyamorous polymath Rocky has had the clout, the look and the je ne sais quoi exceptionalism to be a bona fide superstar since his breakthrough mixtape and his hit-laden debut album.
What is any artist but an amalgamation of their influences? Rocky wears his on his sleeve, but they are such a rare combination that the end result is something entirely fresh. Not every risk pays off on Testing, but then again the very MO of the record is to test the boundaries of the full spectrum of possibilities in high hop. Like Rocky’s sophomore album, At. Long. Last. A$AP, the year’s most challenging mainstream rap album is imbued with the hippie spirit of the 60’s, the vibe of the Dirty South and the straight-talking DNA of the Harlem streets where the man born Rakim Meyers grew up. Testing, however, has a much more diverse sonic presentation. Like its creator, it defies categorisation with its knack for the weird and the instantly memorable, the visually eye-grabbing and the sonically head-scratching. Nobody is making better music videos right now than A$AP Rocky. From transatlantic rap smash ‘Praise The Lord (Da Shine)’ to the hazy trap insomnia of ‘Fukk Sleep’ to the bluesy ‘Brotha Man’ to the ethereal psychedelic trip of ‘Hun43rd’, Testing is an eclectic exhibition of one of the most infinitely curious and maverick minds in hip-hop.
Standout tracks: ‘Tony Tone’; ‘Fukk Sleep’; ‘Praise The Lord (da Shine)’; ‘Hun43rd’; ‘Purity’
15. Choker- Honeybloom
How do you even go about describing Choker’s music? Before you can pin down what’s going on, it’s already teleported to a whole other dimension. In Choker’s uniquely polychromatic wonderland, a beat switch is never far away. Understanding how he makes it all coalesce into one cohesive composition is a brain exercise in itself. With Frank Ocean’s Blonde by his bedside as his musical Mecca, in a very remote corner of the internet Choker is quietly assembling a reputation as one of experimental RnB’s most creative and defiantly uninhibited auteurs. An old soul in a digitised world, Choker’s blend of the synthetic and acoustic is simultaneously eerie and beautiful. Rubbery cadences, a dreamy ambient aura and mildly philosophical musings envelop the intriguingly soft fabric of Choker’s sophomore album. It sounds like the baby produced by a Young Thug, Beach House and Frank Ocean threesome. Technically that’s a foursome, but you know what I mean… Moreover, ‘Windbreaker’ sounds like it crashlanded on a USB from another galaxy, while ‘Rocket’ hints at the sometimes futile endeavour at giving linguistic effect to a feeling. Honeybloom will constantly have you asking “what the hell is this?” in the best possible way. Like 2017’s Peak, the more expansive Honeybloom is a conscience-expanding piece of art where the enigma behind it remains as mysterious as ever despite laying his soul bare.
Standout tracks: ‘Starfruit LA’; ‘Windbreaker’; ‘Rocket’; ‘Suzuki Beaches’; ‘Baby Boy’
14. Various Artists- Black Panther The Album Music From And Inspired By
Curated by Kendrick Lamar and director Ryan Coogler, the soundtrack to the cultural phenomenon and thrilling blockbuster that was 2018’s Black Panther is just another applause-worthy bullet point on Kendrick’s increasingly venerable resumé. One black king’s ode to another, the parallels between Kendrick and T’Challa are too obvious to require emphasis. The outstanding achievement of the title track to the soundtrack of 2018’s most exciting blockbuster film is that the lyrics are specific enough to relate to both the movie and Kendrick’s career. Only Kendrick can claim to be the king of empathy, remorse, bloodshed, wisdom and skyscrapers on one verse and have me nodding “Yep, he’s right there” to every line. His ink is blended with the blood of ancient prophets. Even HUMBLE kings have to flex their greatness every now and then.
Credited on just five tracks, hearing Kendrick nevertheless contribute his voice to almost all 14 tracks was like when you found some forgotten present stashed in a closet on Christmas Day and you thought Santa was just being extra cute with the surprises. His omnipresence befits a guiding father à la Nick Fury rather than an insufferably overbearing tyrant AKA DJ Khaled, allowing the lead artists to impose their own aesthetic which Kendrick seamlessly slots into like a chameleon in a shape-shifting competition. Black Panther is not a concept-driven album like Kendrick’s solo work, allowing him to freely traverse his diverse tastes. Conjuring images of clattering bars and dumbbells in the midst of apocalypse, if ‘Opps’ was around in Gandhi’s day he’d have condemned pacifism as a naive fool’s doctrine and bought himself some war paint, and ‘All The Stars’ is a tasteful pop crossover made for swaying at concerts. After a 2017 dominated both in critical acclaim and commercial success by Kendrick’s fourth studio album DAMN., I was wary of Kendrick’s creative exhaustion. How many great ideas can one man execute? Thankfully, Black Panther delivered the goods. Whether Compton or Wakanda is where you wield your sword of wisdom, the preservation of will is the most vital ingredient in a hero’s journey. Steel sharpens steel, and great art is eternal in the hands of a grateful audience. All hail Black Panther.
Standout tracks: ‘Black Panther’; ‘The Ways’; ‘Opps’; ‘King’s Dead’; ‘Redemption’
13. Daughters- You Won’t Get What You Want
Run for your life, the world’s about to end. Noise rock band Daughters’ terrifyingly post-apocalyptic confrontation of the darkest aspects of life sounds utterly without hope and entirely consumed by trauma. You Won’t Get What You Want is even darker than the album artwork suggests. The album’s narrative is dystopian, misandristic and fatalistic, the guitars are psychologically unhinged, and the stark and unsettling language gives thematic context to the album’s dark, almost murderous sound. “Everybody climbs up high then falls real far/A little is all it takes/A little is all it takes/Everybody climbs up high then falls real far/And I don’t know what to say/I don’t know what to say/I don’t know what to say when people come apart/The road is long, the road is dark/And these are just the words to somebody else’s song” goes my favourite lyrical passage on the album, saying so much about human nature in just a few lines. These lines, delivered in a panicked, frantic vocal tone, are not just representative of the human experience historically, but are increasingly relevant in a time defined by mob mentality and ‘cancel culture’, where even for the most beloved public figures a lifetime of hard work can be undone by one careless Tweet. It can be hard not to be a misanthrope in these strange times.
Like all great concept albums, the album’s story is loose enough to be applied to multiple contexts across time but specific enough to emotionally resonate with the present. The bleak, terrifying tension that curdles throughout You Won’t Get What You Want feels ready to erupt at any one moment, almost like a microcosm of the anxiety-riddled, gun-happy and politically polarised modern-day America. It’s suffocating, it’s loud, and you can’t escape it.
Standout tracks: ‘City Song’; ‘Long Road, No Turns’; ‘Satan In The Wait’; ‘Less Sex’; ‘Ocean Song’
12. J.I.D.- DiCaprio 2
On Di Caprio 2, JID flows with the unpredictability of a virtuoso saxophonist. It may be several listens in before you catch up to the complexity of the rhythms he is spitting bars at, as well as the bombardment of lyrical gems he casually drops. JID is an extremely self-aware rapper, one who seems in tune with his place in the culture and the opportunity he has to take the lyricist’s throne for himself. Di Caprio 2 is a front-loaded album that immerses you in JID’s thrilling rap style from the get-go; although a little jarring at first, A$AP Ferg’s bellowing hook on ‘Westbrook’ is a welcome addition of fist-pumping simplicity after JID’s fiery, energetic verses threaten to spontaneously combust my headphones. The singles which preceded the album, ‘Off Deez’ and ‘151 Rum’, are among the most technically impressive exhibitions of pure rapping of the year.
JID is full of apt metaphors, none more so than when he likens his “infinite rhymes” style to fetching a baton and running with it to the finish line like a ticking time-bomb. In that sense, the ominous sirens that ‘151 Rum’ are the perfect soundscape for him to rap over, indicative of the sense of panic that pervades JID’s turbo-speed rhyme patterns. The stakes are much higher when you market yourself as a technically gifted rapper: JID’s rhythms are so complex; his array of vocal inflections so vast; and his flow switches so frequent and ambitious; that at any one moment he threatens to fall off beat with his tracks falling apart as a consequence. His nuanced, nimble verses are akin to a tightrope, where the slightest mistake or awkward transition is to ruin the entire spectacle. The most impressive thing about him is that he seldom seems to make one. JID can flow as fast as Twista on Adderrall, but it’s when he slows and quietens things down and gets personal that Di Caprio 2 reaches its peak. Both ‘Workin Out’ and ‘Just da Other Day’ exemplify the value in sombre piano production, which will never go out of fashion. Humanity will go extinct before rappers stop reflecting on the impoverished struggle they emerged from to be successful, but there’s a weight to JID’s vocal delivery and quirks to his storytelling that hint at the levels of depth a more polished JID could eventually travel to. Like Kendrick circa Section 80, he might be just one album cycle and a few artistic tweaks from turning the world of hip-hop on its head. For the sake of the future of lyricism, I bloody hope so.
Standout tracks: ‘Slick Talk’; ‘151 Rum’; ‘Workin Out’; ‘Skrawberries’; ‘Just Da Other Day’
11. Masego- Lady Lady
Sometimes you just need an album that makes you feel like a cool motherfucker. Masego’s album is exactly that, an uber-cool fusion of vintage smooth jazz and organic RnB instrumentation that not only functions as a welcome alternative to the prevailing ethos, sonic textures and lyrical approach of the last decade of RnB, but is also brilliant music in its own right. Masego is a throwback, a self-taught saxophonist, pianist, singer and producer that has conjured a deeply engrossing sound that becomes more and more enchanting with each listen. TrapHouseJazz, he refers to it as. Accurate. The steady percussive rhythms lure you in, and the dynamic, vibrant and colourful movement of everything else keeps you there. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I’ve never learned to play a musical instrument. When I do, the saxophone will be top of the list. Lady Lady reminds me exactly why.
Standout tracks: ‘Old Age’; ‘Prone’; ‘Queen Tings’; ‘Lady Lady’; ‘Tadow’
10. Saba- Care For Me
When you listen to a lot of hip-hop, you encounter innumerable rappers who spark your interest momentarily only for it all to fade in an instant. It could be one great song, one great verse, even a great bar. This guy’s got something going on. You. Have. My. Attention. Anddddd it’s gone. Just like that. It’s always a great moment to hear potential fully realised. Saba is one of those rappers, an undeniably talented rhymesayer whose previous work has been too unfocused and blasé blasé to keep me interested for more than a couple of tracks. Tragedy has a funny way of unleashing the best version of ourselves. For Saba, that tragedy was the murder of his cousin and co-founder of his Pivot Gang rap group, John Walt. A grieving hermit doesn’t live the archetypal rap lifestyle that the average listener wants to hear about, but with moments of private introspection and reflection can come great clarity and understanding of the events that made us who we are, the strength to move forward and, of course, great art.
You can hear so clearly how hard his cousin’s death impacted the Chicago MC, sounding like an entirely different artist from the one who made 2016’s Bucket List Project. The jazzy, gloomy and beautifully brittle production mirrors the glimmer of light that hovers over our darkest days, ending on an uplifting note (‘Heaven All Around Me’) that allows Saba to place his loss in perspective and move forward with purpose. The bravery, honesty and sheer technical skill with which Saba dissects his declining mental state is something to behold. If you’ve ever felt the cold embrace of your foot touch the floor in the morning and wondered whether it was worth it, or felt empty and directionless and missed your friends, Care For Me will resonate hard. The elegiac two-parter ‘Busy/Sirens’ will send chills down your spine, finding Saba retreating into his broken shell and struggling to pick up the pieces; ‘Broken Girls’ explores empty sex as a coping mechanism; ‘Calligraphy’ illuminates writing as a form of therapy and ‘Logout’ is an emotive, in-depth lament on the insecurities exacerbated by social media. Saba’s evolution is stunning. At a tight ten tracks, every song on Care For Me has a specific purpose and it accounts for the best, most efficient songwriting of the year.
Standout tracks: ‘Busy/Sirens’; ‘Broken Girls’; ‘Life’; ‘Calligraphy’; ‘Grey’
9. SiR- November
Sometimes you just need an album that makes you feel like a cool motherfucker: Part 2. SiR is yet another gem in Top Dawg Entertainment’s jewel-encrusted crown. Already far and away the best music label in hip-hop, it seems TDE are vying for RnB supremacy also. I knew I had discovered one of my new favourite artists when not even a minute-and-a-half into SiR’s debut album he delivered the immortal lines, “We prefer hearts to the side/And I say the same thing about her panties/All her little friends can’t stand me/’Cause they know, I would trade her love for a Grammy.” The slick nonchalance in which SiR sings about lust is counterbalanced with some of the most heartfelt and romantic music of the year, and in ‘D’Evils’ he delivered the 4/20 jam of the year. November introduces the suave SiR as an RnB talent who can play both sides of the aisle, a luxurious and rich journey into the complex soul of a ladies man. It also happens to be the perfect soundtrack for sipping whiskey- Jameson over Proper 12- with its cool, laid-back and alluring persona that every man dreams of embodying when he struts into a bar. Life is so much better when you live in slow motion.
Standout tracks: ‘That’s Alright’; ‘Something Foreign’; ‘D’Evils’; ‘I Know’; ‘Dreaming of Me’
8. Buddy- Harlan & Alondra
Of all the albums I anticipated this year, none was so exciting to me than a Californian maestro who sits right on the border between hip-hop and RnB, assembling the best collection of sunny vibes in music right now. That man was Anderson .Paak; alas, the third and final instalment in his beach series (Oxnard) barely got out of the starting blocks, finishing miles short of the high bar set by 2014’s stellar Venice and 2016’s instant classic Malibu. Luckily, Buddy’s Harlan & Alondra was there to fill a California sunshine-sized hole in my heart. The musical era and artists that inspired Buddy’s debut album are obvious all over the album. It’s clear that Buddy is indebted to his West Coast musical heritage: the sunny keys, as well as the NWA-reminiscent “fuck Donald Trump” in the opening track, scream Dr. Dre; and it’s no surprise to see G-funk’s favourite uncle Snoop Dogg appear in ‘The Blue’. He delivers one of his greatest verses in years in a song that encapsulates everything that’s fantastic about the music of Compton. Not since Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city has the sound of the city been captured so well.
Harlan & Alondra is a triumph in aspirational, follow-your-dreams music. Much more importantly than that, it’s an absolute blast to listen to. The one drawback of Harlan & Alondra is that it doesn’t take enough risks, but the more you listen the more you realise that Buddy is just making everything sound that easy. The threads are all different colours, but they are all part of one gorgeous fabric you want to drape yourself in every day. There’s black empowerment trap (‘Black’), jazz (‘Young’), summery funk (‘Trouble In Central’), West Coast hip-hop (‘Shameless’) and a vintage sex jam (‘Speechless’) that reads ridiculously on paper until you hear how brilliantly Buddy delivers the concept. As an artist name, Buddy’s music is exactly what it says on the tin: jovial, reliable and always a good time.
Standout tracks: ‘Hey Up There’; ‘Trouble On Central’; ‘The Blue’; ‘Speechless’; ‘Shine’
7. Kali Uchis- Isolation
Listening to Kali Uchis’ debut album is like walking right into wonderland. A practically flawless exhibition of look-at-everything-I-can-do charisma, style and versatility, I knew Isolation would be in my year-end list from the moment I heard it. Uchis is clearly an extremely educated musical mind, traversing sounds as diverse as reggaeton (‘Nuestro Planeta’), new-soul (‘Killer’), psychedelic RnB (‘Tomorrow’), funk (‘After The Storm’), bossa nova (‘Body Language’). Uchis is not averse to straight-up pop either, and her Steve Lacy duet (‘Just A Stranger’) is one of the most addictive jams of the year and the best gold-digger anthem since that one Kanye had. Isolation is the breeziest, most well-crafted and consistently jaw-dropping pop album of the year. If you like Ariana Grande, you’ll love Kali Uchis. It feels like a lazy comparison, as Uchis’s sonic palette is so much broader, and although her voice is not as powerful she uses it in more interesting ways, but the lush soundscapes of Grande’s Sweetener dominating the year certainly seems to hint at an imminent Uchis mainstream breakthrough. With the Latin pop invasion seemingly making more and more inroads year-by-year, the Colombian-American Uchis has a foot in both camps and is destined to be a superstar. If you’re going to the beach today, give Isolation a spin.
Standout tracks: ‘Miami’; Just A Stranger’; ‘Flight 22’; ‘In My Dreams’; ‘After The Storm’
6.Lil Wayne- Tha Carter V
At 23 tracks; Tha Carter V, the long-delayed fifth instalment of Lil Wayne’s fabled album series, is way too long. It brings nothing new to the table. The sequencing is all over the place. A few tracks are too corny for replay value, and others sound dated. I could pick plenty of flaws in Tha Carter V, but music isn’t a purely critical exercise. Emotional connection ends all arguments. Like many others I’m sure, I pressed play on this marathon 23-track album with a great deal of trepidation, expecting to hear a handful of decent tracks at best and the final nail in the coffin of a storied career at worst. The music that surprises you is the music that resonates most. C5 is not without its missteps. Nonetheless its true majesty is that even on the worst tracks, Wayne’s larger-than-life personality always shines through just enough to keep from pressing the skip button.
From the emotional intro alone Tha Carter V was clearly intended to represent a fresh direction for Wayne. A tearful monologue from his mother- who also looms over an infant Wayne on the cover- commences the album, segueing smartly into the de facto opener ‘Don’t Cry’ with a posthumous hook from XXXTENTACION. Effectively setting the tone for the album, ‘Don’t Cry’ finds a matured Wayne reflecting on his fall from grace and the road to redemption ahead over a haunting, woozy beat: “What do I do now? Who gon find me, how?/Nowhere to turn but round and round/Just another n***a that done lost his head/No, a fucking king that done lost his crown.” The album dabbles in vulnerability most memorably on the existential ‘Open Letter’, a hookless memoir of dark thoughts over eerie violins and brooding synths where Wayne lays himself more bare than ever, ruminating on everything from contemplating suicide, drug abuse, his inability to find love and his flailing physical health: “I’ll die tryin’, that’s a common death/We was such a team, we was chasing our dreams/Then it stopped, now I’m out of breath/Now they try to tell me I need rest/And I’ll find love again, I ain’t find it yet.”
To continue on this train of thought would be false advertising. Tha Carter V is, for the most part, an exhilarating album with a variance of skilfully produced tracks that will have you popping your shoulders and laughing along to Wayne’s rejuvenated way of bending words to his will. On ‘Demon’, Wayne raps with such infectious joy that a few tears rolled down my cheeks- it is the sound of a down-and-out GOAT candidate rediscovering the source of his powers. Clearly very self-aware of his impact on hip-hop culture, ‘Dedicate’ is a standout cut that has Wayne talking down to the contemporaries he influenced over a whimsical, bouncy piano riff. If anything, ‘Dedicate’ could be derided for not going far enough- face tattoos and Bugattis hardly turn a page on the book of Lil Wayne’s legacy and cultural impact.
Hip-hop adopted the bizarro musical language Weezy invented and morphed it into something altogether new, and with Wayne’s final claim to greatness forbidden from the world’s ears for so long, it surely took its toll that the world seemed to have moved on. “What the fuck though, where the love go?” goes the refrain on ‘Uproar’, a bombastic banger destined to frequent NBA locker rooms all season long. Musically, C5 is a thrilling exercise in watching Weezy throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks. It all amounts to his most versatile project since Tha Carter III, with Wayne dipping his toes in as many rap textures as possible both old and new. There’s Dr. Dre-sampling West Coast hip-hop (‘Dope N****z’), trap (‘Let It Fly’), soul (‘Demon’), 2000’s-era RnB (‘Start This Shit Off Right’), gospel rap (‘Dope New Gospel’), hardcore hip-hop (‘Used 2’), melodic hip-hop (‘Took His Time’), guitar (‘Mess’) and piano ballads (‘Let It All Work Out’) to name just a few. While the punchlines don’t come as thick and fast as they used to, the result is to remind us just how many styles he birthed as well as proving he can still shuck and jive with the new kids on the block.
Standout tracks: ‘Uproar’: ‘Mona Lisa’; ‘Open Letter’; ‘Took His Time’; ‘Demon’
5. Denzel Curry- TA1300
Like Goku before defeating Frieza once and for all, Denzel Curry has assumed his final form. Adding further sonic variety and significantly improved songwriting chops to his already impressive shtick, Curry’s third studio album establishes the South Florida Soundcloud rapper as the new leader of a scene that’s been bubbling in the underground for years. The beats are utterly berserk, and Curry brings an energy to match with some of the most effectively aggressive rapping vocals since DMX. Curry, however, is so much more than a frenzied rapper venting his anger. If Drake made the intoxicatingly catchy ‘Black Balloons’ it would’ve been one of the biggest singles of the year, and the righteous anger of ‘Sirens’ and ‘Clout Cobain’s’ timely critique of rappers-and people at large- sacrificing autonomy and individuality for popularity and material gain exemplifies Curry as an incisive and observant social commentator as much as he is a source of iron-pumping fuel. TA13OO’s hooks are sticky, the wordplay is witty and the darkness Curry plunges the listener in is as cleansing as it is disturbing, not to mention the content is thought-provoking in a way that none of his Soundcloud rap cohorts can offer.
Compared to his peers, Denzel is different and he knows it, poking fun at them with tongue-in-cheek humour and well-directed ire on ‘Percz’: “I should rap about some lean and my diamond cuts/Get suburban white kids to want to hang with us/Its your friendly neighbourhood, I don’t give a fuck!/Get it straight, I innovate, you ad-libs on a 808/Don’t need a tattoo on my face ’cause Denzel is a different race.” At only 23-years-old, and with Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole and Drake all in their thirties, Curry is just a hit single away from being a legitimate contender for the next biggest rapper alive. Musically, TA1300 is too chaotic and industrial to be embraced wholesale by the record industry, a journey through the manic depths of Hell and back that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else sounding as at home on. For a rapper as versatile and talented as Denzel Curry, however, there’s no limit on what he can achieve next.
Standout tracks: ‘Black Balloons’; ‘Sumo’; ‘Switch It Up’: ‘Clout Cobain’ ‘Vengeance’
4. Pusha T- Daytona
You can’t talk about Pusha T’s 2018 without talking about Drake. ‘The Story of Adidon’, the diss track that sent shockwaves through Jupiter where Pusha savagely revealed that Drake secretly had a child with a pornstar, may not be on DAYTONA but it permeates the entire listening experience. DAYTONA was already perfect supervillain music before the long-running Pusha-Drake feud reached its volcanic boiling point a week after release- sparked by a few more shots at Drake’s legitimacy as a songwriter on ‘Infrared’- but it’s made all the more enjoyable by the fact that Pusha is exactly who he says he is.
In a hip-hop landscape full of hit-chasing caricatures who seem more enamoured with the materialism, image and clout that hip-hop can promise rather than the soul and essence of its culture, Pusha T is a refreshing injection of authenticity and a reminder that rap centred around intelligent lyricism, a rich knowledge of hip-hop culture and history, sample-based production and an unapologetically fierce attitude can still make for hugely compelling and culturally resonant music. Pusha’s flow is downright vicious: I’m convinced he could rhyme the process of making a cup of tea, step-by-step, and still come across as the most cold-blooded macho man in all of music. I genuinely mean that. “Just add water, stir it like you’re Pablo/Leave the milk on the porch, enough white inside my condo (yuugh!).” I can hear it in my head.
DAYTONA is an album for the rap purists, and combined with some of Kanye West’s best production in years, there’s plenty of mileage to get from its deliberately brief 21-minute runtime. Long live short albums. Absent of poppy hooks, tacky attempts at genre crossovers, auto-tune or clichéd hip-hop tropes, Pusha T’s mic presence is nevertheless irresistibly hypnotic. In many ways, it’s inevitable that he and Drake would butt heads: they’re as polar-opposite as you can possibly imagine, a microcosm of the conflict in hip-hop itself. “I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair”, he raps on ‘Hard Piano’, fully aware of the disconnect between the hip-hop he has been representing since his days in Clipse and what’s popular now. Bravely, he sticks steadfast to his guns on DAYTONA. When your verses hit bullseye every time, who can blame him? The great fallacy propagated by many music fans is that numbers equals quality. The industry machine may have allowed Drake’s massively underwhelming Scorpion to shatter all streaming records, but there’s absolutely no question who made the better album. If you know you know.
Standout tracks: ‘If You Know You Know’; ‘The Games We Play’; ‘Come Back Baby’; ‘What Would Meek Do?’; ‘Infrared’
3. Travis Scott- Astroworld
On the release date of Travis Scott’s long-awaited third album, 3 August 2018, I must’ve been the only person on the planet that stuck on the new Mac Miller and Choker albums first. I’ve got friends who play Travis Scott nonstop, but outside of a handful of favourite tracks I wasn’t entirely convinced. After one of them reintroduced me to the mesmerising ‘90210’ some time last year, I went back through his entire discography again, convinced that my ears must have been broken the first time around. After many attempts, my thoughts remained unchanged. On Rodeo, admittedly still better than the vast majority of trap music, the inconsistent execution didn’t always match the gargantuan ambition. The production was phenomenal, but why doesn’t he rap like he does on ‘Pornography’ more often? Where are the memorable lines? Why does he sound like so many other artists? Who exactly is Travis Scott? His second album, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, merely doubled down on his worst tendencies, appearing as an underwritten attempt to capitalise on Rodeo’s success but sounding like its undercooked leftovers. There was an all-star cast, but the overall package was expendable. Kinda like The Expendables.
Astroworld, on the other hand, is far from forgettable. Rollercoaster analogies are totally obvious, but why avoid them when that’s exactly what the album is? The theme park concept that Travis built around his fourth album is the perfect metaphor to describe his music: from the heart-jumping changes in pace; the strange blend of dread and excitement; the outrageous sense of fun and the boundless imagination he brings to the table, to listen to Astroworld is to recapture the feeling of an enraptured child wandering wide-eyed through theme park gates.
Astroworld is the blockbuster Drake wishes Scorpion was, an unrelenting adrenaline rush that positions Scott as the heir to hip-hop’s hit-making throne. Outside of the hits- and there are many- Scott came into his own as a meticulous director of talent, expertly peppering guest features all over the album with names as eclectic as Stevie Wonder, Kid Cudi, James Blake and Earth, Wind and Fire’s Philip Bailey… and that’s just on one song! Throughout, Travis pays homage to his Houston forefathers who paved the way, while driving its famed sound years into the future. The year’s most ubiquitous album deserved the recognition. It’s a Christmas selection box full of delightful treats: you get the zeitgeist-defining, inescapable banger ‘Sicko Mode’; the wavy relaxation of ‘R.I.P. Screw’; the astral curiosity of ‘Astrothunder’; the acoustic pop-RnB hybrid of ‘Wake Up’; the charismatic, chopped-and-screwed singalong ‘Can’t Say’; the fantasy-collab-made-real ‘Stop Trying To Be God’ and the sophisticated, uber-cool jazz of ‘Coffee Bean.’ After a decade of radio domination, I often find myself asking if the oversaturated trap genre has ran out of new sounds and ideas to mine. Astroworld single-handedly put paid to that notion. Who put this shit together? Travis Scott is the glue.
Standout tracks: ‘Stargazing’; ‘Sicko Mode’, ‘R.I.P. Screw’, ‘Stop Trying To Be God’; ‘Coffee Bean’
2. Kids See Ghosts- Kids See Ghosts
The sign of a great producer is one who knows how to get the best out of their collaborator. Just as he did on Pusha T’s luxurious and gritty DAYTONA, Kanye again delivers for Cudi, serving up a cathartic collection of eerie chopped-up samples that Cudi was (re)born to hum over. Production for the eponymous debut album of Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s joint project consists of a sonic bag of treats for those who vibe to the gloomy, celestial exploration of Cudi’s early material as well as the rap rock stylings he executed memorably on Kanye-featuring ‘Erase Me’.
Kids See Ghosts is primarily centred around the mental health struggles of the two protagonists. Though publicly adored and celebrated as highly-influential artists, both men are no stranger to personal torment. It’s a fair argument, however, that the latter months of 2016 represented the nadir of both, with Cudi admitting himself to rehab for “depression and suicidal urges” and West succumbing to an opioid addiction that ended up in being handcuffed to a hospital bed and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Almost two years on, I’m sure it is no coincidence that ‘Reborn’ is the title of the best song on KSG. It’s a highly emotional track that will have many holding back the tears, a beautiful downbeat melody designed to lullaby inner demons where both Kids See Ghosts members reflect very different experiences of mental illness. For the extroverted Kanye, as a result of his bipolar disorder his mental illness manifests itself in histrionic manic episodes: “I was off the chain, I was often drained/I was off the meds, I was called insane/What an awesome thing, engulfed in shame.” The more introverted Cudi, on the other hand, is troubled by loneliness and feeling worthless as a result of a lack of purpose. As we are often told, spotting the signs of depression is difficult, but Kanye and Cudi serve as reminders that mental illness can take residence in totally different personas. At well over a minute longer than any other track on the album, the hymnal ‘Reborn’ is clearly ordained as the emotional centrepiece of KSG, a funeral for the ego and a rebirth of inner peace. “Keep moving forward”, implores Cudi. It’s a mantra that’s became fundamental to my existence. Is it weird ‘Reborn’ is one of my go-to gym songs? Pump out one more rep with a tear rolling down the cheek- c’mon now son, keep moving forward.
Whereas the beats on ye sounded rushed and underdeveloped, the beats on KSG have some meat on ’em, crafting a sonic mood board that evokes thoughts of psilocybin mushroom trips, spiritual healing and yes, ghosts. Kanye’s beats, which are a fitting canvas for the cathartic subject matter, again push the sonic parameters of hip-hop in a way he hasn’t done so consistently since Yeezus. Most notably, on ‘4th Dimension’ Kanye bends a 1936 sample from Louis Prima’s ‘What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)’, somehow turning a jolly festive jingle into a haunting banger complete with laughter creepier than a stranger’s unbroken eye contact. Elsewhere, the synth-laden opener ‘Feel The Love’ is a scattershot doorway to the world of KSG where a brash Pusha T verse can co-exist with Kanye’s erratic percussive rambling (“Grrrat, gat-gat-gat”) and Cudi’s idiosyncratic Martian harmonies. The outro to Kids See Ghosts, ‘Cudi Montage’, is stunning, actually functioning as a montage of Cudi’s best bits by amalgamating Cudi’s grunge inclinations as well as the astral wonderment that the lonely stoner made his own. Every song is flawless, meeting the dual standard of pained perfectionism and contrarian style we have come to expect from Kanye, forging a collage of therapeutic portraits designed to guide him hand-in-hand with Cudi on the pursuit of happiness.
Standout tracks: ‘Fire’; ‘4th Dimension’; Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)’; ‘Reborn’; ‘Cudi Montage’
1. Earl Sweatshirt- Some Rap Songs
Mystique is an attribute in short supply in the streaming era. There still exists intriguing figures who can command attention in the shadows, but they are an endangered species hurtling towards extinction in an oversaturated industry. Of them, one name stands head and shoulders above the rest: Earl Sweatshirt, whose long-awaited return after a nearly four-year hiatus is my album of the year.
From the moment Earl emerged as infamous hip-hop collective Odd Future’s teenage lyrical miracle, Earl Sweatshirt has defied easy categorisation, carrying the poetic baton from his late South African father, a poet and former African National Congress activist, into an entirely different era in an entirely different way. His words were razor-sharp, offensive and vile, but the appeal of his rhymes were always in the piercing delivery, evocative imagery and intricate rhyme scenes rather than the insulting content. From before he could legally drive, the precocious Earl rightly carved a reputation as one of the genre’s cleverest lyricists. Some Rap Songs brings us a fully-matured Earl, and is a polarising album likely to divide critics and fans alike for years; partly a soundtrack to Earl’s grief over the death of his father this past January, the oddly immersive SRS is also the next uncomfortable step in evolution for an antisocial introvert who is too damned talented not to attract attention. The album title is misleadingly casual and off-the-cuff, as if to intentionally bely the magnitude of effort that went into it. To call these offerings ‘rap songs’ is also a misnomer. From the moment you press play on ‘Shattered Dreams’, conventional song structure is an afterthought, with only two of the fifteen tracks exceeding a two minute runtime. Earl’s latest album is a collection of bleak vignettes that diarise his downward spiral further and further into depression. There’s no solace, no light at the end of the tunnel and no end to his pain. Far from enjoyable in an orthodox way, like the album artwork Some Rap Songs is deliberately unsettling, spooky and off-putting, with an off-kilter and distant sound of grimy pianos, spooky sampled loops and lo-fi jazz that mirrors the feeling and experience of depression itself. Some Rap Songs isn’t melancholic for the sake of satisfying a trendy mood or aesthetic; it will put off most fans of hip-hop and Earl alike, but the album is all the better and more authentic for it. “It’s been a minute since I heard applause/It’s been a minute since you seen or heard from me, I’ve been swerving calls”, he raps on ‘Veins.’ With Some Rap Songs he has found the ideal production style to pair his isolated lyrics with, making his harrowing bars that bit more impactful. On ‘Veins’, the standout cut on the album, Earl sounds utterly submerged in sadness, burying himself under muddy jazz samples with the repeated lament: “Sittin’ on a star, thinking how I’m not a star.” Elsewhere, ‘Red Water’ with its repeated mantra sounds like a cross between a performative exercise in exhuming writer’s block and a Satanic interpretation of modern-day trap, while ‘Playing Possum’ combines public speeches from both of Earl’s estranged parents in an eerie tribute that was intended to be an olive branch.
Moreover, in a highly pressurised public environment where every celebrity seems desperate to pit themselves against the President in increasingly ingratiating and transparent ploys for favourable publicity, Earl’s casual summation of the state of America is one that will stand the rest of time: “Stuck in Trump Land, watching subtlety decayin’.” There is no longer room for debate on any issue, and it’s not just in America. With the political spectrum as polarised as it is, the art of language itself is now an object of abuse and mistreatment. Dismayed at the world around him and unsure how his acquired-taste talents can contribute to our instant gratification and consumption-obsessed culture, Earl gives off the impression of a rapper on the verge of giving up on rhyming altogether, just barely keeping pace with beats that trudge along like a limping turtle in quicksand. Words are still his bread and butter, but unlike the superfluous ending of this sentence Some Rap Songs is an outstandingly effective exercise in concision and efficiency.
All over Some Rap Songs, Earl Sweatshirt is haunted by the spectre of “imprecise words”: from the meticulous struggle to articulate himself correctly; to the death of subtlety in Trump’s America; and to the painful internal monologue that accompanies the process of grief, Earl is clearly an artist who cares deeply about discovering and presenting meaning as linguistically exact as possible. Segue to a fun fact: Earl is an anagram of real. With the world more and more obsessed with sabotaging itself by oversimplification and an overabundance in content that inevitably declines in quality as demand by far exceeds the level of effort put into it; Earl Sweatshirt is a shy and conscientiousness servant of the dictionary, a cryptic source of quiet wisdom and a refreshingly unassuming alternative to the incessant noise of idiots. By resisting what’s expected of him and reclaiming the essence of what rap was truly meant to be, Earl Sweatshirt has assumed the destiny that all poets seek: throw off the shackles of the world first, become yourself next.
Standout tracks: ‘Shattered Dreams’; ‘December 24’; ‘Ontheway!’; ‘Azucar’; ‘Veins’