Divya's Top Hip Hop/Rap Songs of 2018

A compilation of tracks that I loved / was impressed by, in no particular order.

1. Ace by Noname featuring Smino & Saba

In a time when a rapper’s rise to fame is characterized by individualism (see: Drake’s All Me), endless riches (see: YG’s Big Bank), and a self-proclaimed peerless talent (see: Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow), this trio of Chicago pals come together for an honest reflection on their independent journeys to stardom. 

Smino’s velvety, neo soul chorus sets the stage for the “team”, while his little touches like the wordplay between “you okay” and “UK” (Ace Hotel) and bold parallels between the health of the nation (“Obamacare”) and his relationship elevate the track from the start. Noname follows, unapologetic as she dismisses incompetency in entertainment from new mainstream rappers in the game (“sound like they wearing adult diapers”) to established figures like Morgan Freeman who have continued careers in the industry despite allegations. Next is a seamless transition to Saba’s verse (my favorite), through which his rise to prominence is manifested in unorthodox (and sweet) concerns of agitating his landlord when he’s touring away from home. 

Thoughtful and precise artists on a melodious rap song who have much to say about beyond just themselves — I loved it.

2. This is America by Childish Gambino

Was more impressed by the video than the actual song (since Lecrae’s Welcome to America blew my mind in 2014) but still a very deserved spot on the list.

A perfect blend of ad-lib hip-hop and choral gospel, This is America is Gambino’s most ambitious social commentary yet. The video is testing in itself, with violent acts of injustice in the background (even an allusion to the Charleston church shooting) and more than ten significant hip hop / African dance moves in the foreground — a small virtual example of our selective participation in black culture: we consume often without the moral breadth to disrupt apathy around injustices endured by the very rappers, athletes, artists, etc. that make our worlds more entertaining. The song concludes with some of Young Thug’s most profound lines to date (“You just a black man in this world / You just a barcode”), and while Gambino reserves his own opinion on the matter, the irresolution is an important step for us as consumers of his own entertainment, and (hopefully) architects of a conversation bigger than us.

Donald Glover does it all, and he just did it again.

3. Fun! by Vince Staples

At first listen, FUN! sounds like a harmless kickback banger. But underneath the bouncy, swaying beats, Vince Staples weaves an alternative narrative, that of his own.

Often mistaken as a Bay Area rapper for his stylistically similar music to hyphy (I mean, E-40’s Tell Me When to Go is literally sampled in this track), Vince has a powerful gift: he entices the listener with a surface level lightheartedness, only to interject notes of contrasting realism. On this track, Vince introduces several juxtapositions. He references the “Black is Beautiful” movement’s celebration of the black individual’s beauty, which is overridden by the degradation of the entire African-American race and the countless black deaths from police brutality on the basis of stereotypes, including that of his own friend (“My black is beautiful but I'll still shoot at you, dawg / Lil buddy got murdered on a flock”). While Vince and his pals may “just wanna have fun”, the three letter word also is a dark reminder to “f—- up nothin’), because doing so can result in another “FN57” (a police handgun) being shot, or death of a black individual.

Less lighter than anything on Big Fish Theory, but an incredibly important listen.

4. Potato Salad by Tyler the Creator & A$AP Rocky

Tyler the Creator and A$AP Rocky are way past proving themselves in ostentatious, formulaic productions. This is the carefree freestyle we’ve been waiting for.

Sampling Monica’s “Knock Knock” (produced by Kanye), the track’s playful spontaneity is refreshing — a much needed, honest respite from the dark, repetitive and hyperbolic rap music on the radio. Tyler embraces the familiar friskiness of the character we take him for (“They thought I was goofy and all mouses”), emboldens himself of his sexuality (“I cop houses / And fill em with some Leo DiCap’s and some Cole Sprouses”), and likens firearm violence to aggressive video games, neither which he desires to be a part of. A$AP swings at the lyrical incoherence of mumble rappers (“super seniors mumblin' and ramblin’ / Mumblin and rappin', mumble rapping?”), and alludes to his own experimentation on TESTING from this year (a poorly executed experiment, but that’s for a later time) when he mentions being “Shabazz Palace’s last acid hit” and finding “it hard to find an actual challenge”. Here’s a challenge for you A$AP: stop! collaborating! with! mumble! rappers!

Potato Salad completes with some lyrical slams from Tyler, an ending that leaves us reveling in the potential of a collaborative album and wanting more.

5. Mona Lisa by Lil Wayne featuring Kendrick Lamar

Throughout the Tha Carter series of albums, Lil Wayne branded himself as a storyteller. He’s back, and more creative than we’ve ever seen.

Aptly named, Mona Lisa tells a vivid tale of a beautiful woman whose intentions are powerful and mysterious. Wayne’s suspenseful voice contortions and unpredictable rhythms (from choppy word spitting to undulating lines, my favorite of which is “and when they leave they get followed”) are so captivating, but Kendrick’s commitment to the story’s dramatization is even more remarkable. The transfiguration of his voice to personify the desperation and bewilderment of his character, the gasps for air between verses (or rather, tears), and the palpable helplessness of someone who ultimately discovers facing mortality is easier than infidelity — all of it is perfectly executed.

A fictitious and gripping story that refuses to sacrifice rapping talent and is best heard over and over again.

6. Reborn by Kanye West & Kid Cudi

The best track from the most anticipated release of the summer.

Reborn’s whimsical, atmospheric, and deliberate drum beats, which I loved on Erase Me and Pursuit of Happiness, immediately trademark Kid Cudi. And while both Cudi and West’s mental health issues have been extensively publicized (re: I Thought About Killing You, and pretty much every other song on ye), Cudi’s unadorned, uplifting hook (“I'm so—I’m so reborn, I'm movin' forward / Keep movin’ forward, keep movin' forward”) is perfectly coupled with the reflective realism on Kanye’s verse of unwavering acceptance (“I was off the chain, I was often drained / I was off the meds, I was called insane / What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame”). This succinctness and conviction in self-growth from Kanye has been difficult to ascertain among thousands of tweets with oscillating messages, but Cudi’s repetitiveness is reassuring and affecting.

Overall, a striking hit between idealism and realism, reinvention and retrospection, and Cudi and West.

7. Lucky You by Eminem featuring Joyner Lucas

There are few rap songs I refrain from fully learning and rapping along to due to sheer awe, and this is one of them.

A budding talent with a few successful mixtapes over the last four years, Joyner has little to lose. His wordplay is dauntless, and his 90s rap references (“Y’all been eatin’ long enough, it’s my turn to cut the food”) pave the way for Em to storm in with a completely dichotomous story of his own (“I've been eatin' long enough, man my stomach should be full”). While Joyner is young and hungry (“All my life I want a Grammy / I ain't never had no trophy”), the veteran "Rap God” is exhausted and unfulfilled with his achievements (“I done won a couple Grammys, but I sold my soul to get 'em / Wasn't in it for the trophies”). Em’s upward progression in the industry is undermined by a few toxicities: a fan base that pressures him to revert to prescription drug abuse for production of better music, an dilutive environment of lyrically incoherent rapping peers masked behind ghost writers, and the worst, a lack of character growth in himself.

And while with Eminem rapping at this speed with this clarity, mumble rap looks like the ceiling that doesn’t stand a chance of staying intact, Em has a lot of work to do — starting with himself.

8. High by Young Thug featuring Elton John

Infamous mumble rapper Young Thug sounds clearer than ever on a track made by a duo no one anticipated. 

The song samples Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (1972), a track that genuinely details both the loneliness and wonder of space travel with an astronaut centerpiece (“And I’m gonna be high / Like a rocket man”). And while Young Thug transfigures Rocket Man’s reluctance and fear of exploration into an anticipation for an ecstatic experience (presumably achieved under the influence of drugs), the ambience of the unimaginable world Elton and Young Thug create together, with the gravity of beautiful piano chords and a ceiling of reverberating vocals, is incredible. Now, anything is possible for Young Thug and while his wishes aren’t particularly complex or admirable (“I want a train, let's run a train”, “From Maine way to Spain”), the overlap of his melodies with Elton’s highlight the transcendental connection between the past and present, and between two generations of eccentricities. 

A beautiful collaboration the industry really needs more of.

9. Coco Chanel by Nicki Minaj featuring Foxy Brown

Coco Chanel, taking after Coco by Chanel (the perfume), is emblematic of the Nicki Minaj I know and love, whose work is best described by the perfume review: 

It's all in the attitude. This may have been marketed for women but when it dries down, the notes bring a spiciness to it that makes it truly gender neutral if not eminently suitable as a masculine scent.”

The hidden gem on Queen, this song carries an intensity like no other feature Nicki has ever had. Foxy, like Nicki, is a Trinidadian-American rapper from New York, and one of the only rappers Nicki has ever explicitly expressed admiration for. Reminiscent of Nicki’s earlier artistry in their versatility and technical skill, the two bounce off each other and trace through shared boroughs (“That's word to Brooknam, that's word to Bucktown” / “That’s word to Harlem World, shout out to uptown” / “That’s word to Southside, Jamaica, Queens on ‘em”) on a reclaimed riddim beat. Nicki seizes its opportunity as the penultimate track on an 19 song compilation to revisit the album's earlier peaks: LLC, Barbie Dreams, and Good Form (know my name ring, and it go “ding-ding" / I pull up on the block bumpin' Biggie "Dreams" on 'em (Woop) / “If I tell 'em eat food, then they make a snack of it”).

A formidable duo and Nicki’s best feature to date.

10. 44 More by Logic

If anything is definite in this world, it’s that Logic doesn’t breathe. 

Veering into the mainstream rap scene after the release of 1-800-273-8255, Logic brings it back to a litany of nonstop verses and unleashes his breathless flow on a golden 44 bars in 44 More (sequel to “44 Bars” on his 2016 mixtape, Bobby Tarantino).

On the lowest level of the track lives stacking beats, growing increasingly (and unnoticeably) elaborate and unpredictable as the song progresses, yet Logic’s measured, rapid-fire delivery obliterates any overwhelm in the background. And in his 120 seconds sans refrain, he manages to discredit an entire lifestyle of his peers in the industry whose focus on the superficial is nothing to be proud of (“You in the club throwin’ dollars, but I’m saving mine so my kids go to college / Or maybe whatever they want to do / just as long as they never say, ‘Daddy blew 20 million dollars, he had to flex to be acknowledged.”). His transitions are effortless and intellectual, with references of everything from basketball (“Now my phone blowin' up like ring" / “Like ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring!” / “That Kevin Durant, I'm a champion”) to sci-fi films like Guardians of the Galaxy (“Star Lord, champion” / “Know the name, now they know the alias, that's for sure”).

Beyond the sheer talent that is impossible to miss here, the video released of him candidly perfecting his craft on this song with so much vibrancy was moving.

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Honorable Mention

(read: runner-ups that didn’t make my top 10 but were still very high quality!)

I Thought About Killing You by Kanye West

Kanye rationalizing pre-meditated murder as an opener to ye is the most coherent, lucid content I’ve gotten from him in a while, especially considering how ye was a boatload of turbulence and apprehension (which I still did very much enjoy).

LLC by Nicki Minaj 

Roman’s back, oh yes. Nicki switches her flow countless times on LLC, and the precision of her delivery destroys any last strain of significance that wealthy / famous men have in a time when women are dictating the music industry (referencing Taylor, Rihanna, Ariana and Beyoncé).

If only Beyoncé ditched Jay on APESH*T and merged with Nicki’s LLC instead.

STARGAZING by Travis Scott

Stargazing is many things: the perfect psychedelic opener to the crazy rollercoaster ride of Astroworld, an ultra-produced love song for an ultra-produced lover, even potentially two different songs in one (which seems to be Travis Scott’s preferred thematic structure). The limits are endless on Travis’s album and Stargazing is a compelling taste.

APESH*T by The Carters 

This was the song of my summer, and while 30% of what I hear is Quavo’s repetitive nonsense, Beyoncé’s versatility and command as an artist — from demanding to be paid in equity (“Put some respect on my check ”) to not so humbly dropping financial transactions she’s made (“Bought him a jet / Shut down Colette / Phillippe Patek”) — is incredible. She’s made it, and if you aren’t convinced, watch the Carters reign over the centerpiece of Western art & culture, the Louvre, with black excellence in the video.

Runnin by Mike WiLL Made-It featuring A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg & Nicki Minaj

From the Creed II album is a track that wastes absolutely no time. A re-entry for Ferg, who has laid low since Still Striving in 2017, a perfect handoff from Rocky with an energetic hook, and a formidable verse from Nicki on par with the best of Queen.

The Mint by Earl Sweatshirt 

Following his devastating loss this year, Earl’s unadulterated reflection on The Mint was weaved with the same poignant retrospection / awareness (on everything from mental health to gentrification) that I loved from Earl on classics like Chum.

The Story of Adidon by Pusha T

You may be wondering — is Drake on this list? Answer is yes, he is. Rather than having his own tribute, he sacrificially serves as the subject matter (and recipient) of one of the best diss tracks of all time.