2018 may go down as the best year of the 2010s for Hip-Hop releases. It’s been a year to be known for the sheer volume of great albums, with so many dropping that it’s been a challenge keeping up. While it’s great to see the culture thriving with so many artists putting out new music, the amount of new releases makes it difficult for every album to get the listens they deserve. Trying to hear every great album that drops may leave you not fully appreciating any of them, which could make this the toughest year to pick an Album of the Year. Ask ten different Hip-Hop heads what their pick would be, and you’ll likely get ten different answers; maybe some that you only played once or twice before moving on to the next album.
While this blog has been focused on reviewing as many Toronto Hip-Hop concerts as possible, it’s that time of year when we break down the most memorable albums from the past twelve months. This is an attempt at compiling 30 favourites from 2018, a list that’s bound to still be missing some dope releases. Nonetheless, let’s get into the countdown! Here’s part 1 of 3, counting down my picks for #30 – 21:
30. Nas – NASIR
When the news first broke that Nas’ long-awaited follow up to 2012’s Life Is Good would be produced entirely by Kanye West, many fans expected it to easily be a top 5 album of the year. Pairing up one of the greatest lyricists of all-time with one of the greatest producers will automatically have expectations soaring, making it nearly impossible for the album to hit its mark. While Nas’ first album in six years wasn’t the Earth-shattering, holy-shit moment fans wanted, it’s still a solid, concise project that captures the style and classiness of Nas in his mid-40’s. From the political, Slick Rick-sampling “Cops Shot The Kid” to the slow and soulful “Everything,” Kanye laces Nas with a wicked soundscape within a seven-song span, and yet the chemistry between the two just didn’t have that intangible spark that would elevate this to the top of everyone’s list. Considering this project was quickly thrown together during Kanye’s Wyoming studio sessions, it’s a nice addition to Nas’ lengthy discography, but might go down as simply an appetizer to the real comeback album that’s been in the works for years.
29. Forever M.C. & It’s Different – Forever M.C.
When this album’s tracklist started circulating around the internet early in the year, it sparked a ton of curiosity. Forever M.C. is still relatively unknown today, and yet he was somehow able to gather an all-star group of emcees to collaborate on his debut album. We’re talking underground/indie mainstays like Tech N9ne, Hopsin, and Chino XL; reputable spitters who shine in both the mainstream and underground like Royce 5’9″, KXNG Crooked, Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco; and even some OG legends like Snoop Dogg, DMX, Kool G Rap, and the Wu-Tang Clan. This album is absolutely filled with stars all coming together for the love of rapping, and the project can be summed up as simple as that. Forever M.C. is barely heard, taking a backseat as he lets the pros shine over his production, and while we still don’t know much about him, he at least provided a platform where we can hear an all-star cast of emcees simply slaying his beats.
28. Kanye West & Kid Cudi – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
Between the five albums Kanye West released in the spring, KIDS SEE GHOSTS may be the one where he sounds like he’s having the most fun. This one has him return to chopping up obscure samples and providing that bounce as he caters his sound to mesh with vocals from both himself and Kid Cudi. The two have worked together many times over the years, and display better chemistry as a duo than the aforementioned team up with Nas. Admittedly I personally haven’t been much of a Kid Cudi fan over the years, but there’s a synergy when he works with Kanye West that makes the music more enjoyable, as the two feed off of each other seamlessly. Kanye proves yet again that he can still be a master at placing other artists in the perfect pocket for them to thrive, and Kid Cudi executed well with him in delivering a soulful project that blends rap, rock and RnB with blurred boundaries.
27. T.D.E. – The Black Panther Soundtrack
This was a huge deal at the start of the year, with one of Hip-Hop’s hottest record labels given the keys to curate the soundtrack for what would become one of Marvel’s biggest superhero movies. Using samples and sounds inspired by the film’s score, Top Dawg Entertainment gathered its team to create some very enjoyable and unique Hip-Hop and RnB. Kendrick Lamar’s voice is prevalent throughout the soundtrack, channelling the energy of both King T’Challa and Killmonger in his raps, and he’s assisted by appearances from Vince Staples, The Weeknd, 2 Chainz, Travis Scott, as well as his T.D.E. team of Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, SZA, and Reason (who would sign to the label months after his appearance here). Also included are a handful of artists actually from South Africa, who effectively capture the setting of the film sonically. Between the smash RnB hits “Pray For Me” and “All The Stars,” the hyped “X” and “Opps,” and Kendrick Lamar’s incredible verse at the end of “King’s Dead,” there are plenty of memorable moments that will immediately put the listener back in Wakanda, and can be carried beyond the film.
26. Ghostface Killah – The Lost Tapes
Ghostface Killah albums post-2010 have largely been concept albums, and the idea behind this one is simple: dig out some old, lost soul & RnB samples and spit some raps over them. Produced entirely by Big Ghost Ltd, the blogger who became internet famous by writing album reviews while channelling Ghostface Killah’s slang and cadences, the album is filled with dusty samples that put GFK perfectly in-pocket. It’s also loaded with guest features from legends and newcomers alike, including Big Daddy Kane, KXNG Crooked, Snoop Dogg, E-40, Killah Priest, Chris Rivers, 38 Spesh, and of course Ghostface’s fellow Wu-Tang members Raekwon, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa. Some of the hooks don’t always hit, but Ghostface Killah has nothing to prove at this stage in his career; he genuinely sounds like he’s having fun doing what he loves, which makes for another enjoyable addition to Wu-Tang’s largest solo discography. With solo album number 14, Ghostface continues to add to one of the largest and most consistently great discographies in Hip-Hop.
25. Method Man – Meth Lab 2: The Lithium
This one is hard to rank since it only came out a few weeks ago, but Method Man’s follow-up to 2015’s The Meth Lab has him picking up right where he left off. It’s simply dope beats and dope rhymes, as he’s come out to slay the mic while sharing the spotlight with some local Staten Island emcees. Adding well-known affiliates like Redman, Raekwon, Snoop Dogg, and Streetlife into the mix, Method Man has created an action-packed series of raw rap. The album is split up into “episodes,” with his sense of humour shining on the “Commercial Break” skits that feature the cast from Impractical Jokers, and Thotti Gotti. While both albums in the Meth Lab series may not be doing much to further cement Method Man’s legacy as one of the greats, they don’t do anything to hinder it either, as he’s out here killing the mic as we all know he can do, all while giving back to his local scene by bringing Staten Island with him.
24. Lupe Fiasco – DROGAS Wave
Always known for supremely dense lyricism that takes an effort to digest, Lupe Fiasco has returned with his heaviest project to date. Clocking in at almost two hours, DROGAS Wave requires a lot of time and attention for it to be fully appreciated, which is something not every fan has in 2018. Those willing to put in the time will find compelling fictional tales of slaves discovering freedom by living underwater, and alternate versions of children who were killed in real life travelling through dimensions to save themselves. There are also a few nods to Lupe’s older work, with “Stack That Cheese” having ties to 2007’s “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” and “Mural Jr.” being a five-minute sequel to nine-minute “Mural” off Lupe’s Tetsuo & Youth album. With this being one of the longest Hip-Hop albums released in years, it will take some more time to fully absorb everything going on on this album.
23. Bun B – Return of the Trill
Bun B’s fifth solo album seems to have flown under the radar, but those that listened know that the Texas legend’s still got it. With thumping beats and hard-hitting rhymes, Bun B brings back that southern flavour while still maintaining potent lyricism that seems to be lost among this new wave of southern mumble rap. This album is more or less what we all expect from Bun B, except here the bulk of the production is handled by Big K.R.I.T., who has a similar cadence to the late Pimp C when he gets on the mic, making us reminisce of old UGK records. The collaboration between the two has Bun sounding inspired to bring back that old-school flavour, with a little more maturity. With beats to rattle the trunk and get your head nodding, and rhymes that will keep your ears alert, Return of the Trill is another display of Texas Hip-Hop excellence.
22. Apollo Brown & Joell Ortiz – Mona Lisa
Not hindered at all by the official split up between Slaughterhouse, Joell Ortiz is back doing what he does best. Teaming up with acclaimed indie producer Apollo Brown, Mona Lisa is an album that focuses strictly on the artistic aspect of rapping. With no regard for chart positions or sales numbers, Joell’s only concern on this project is focusing on the art form behind his lyricism, putting his sharp rhymes, wordplay, punchlines, storytelling, and creative song structure on display. Apollo Brown’s boom-bap beats and sample flipping mesh perfectly with Joell, as they deliver a traditional Hip-Hop sound that’s bound to get heads nodding. If you’re familiar with Joell Ortiz and/or Apollo Brown, this album definitely delivers on expectations.
21. Vinnie Paz – The Pain Collector
Between group projects with Jedi Mind Tricks and Army of the Pharaohs, Vinnie Paz has been killing it as a solo artist too, with The Pain Collector being his fourth solo album. Unlike his past solo releases, this one cuts back on the guest features, which allows him to be more in-depth with his lyrics and song structure, giving us the Vinnie we know from Jedi Mind Tricks’ albums but with a variety of producers. With beats from Stu Bangas, C-Lance, DJ Muggs, Oh No, Marco Polo and others, there’s a wide range of sounds for Vinnie to flex his skillset over, as he brings that hardcore we all know him for while also crafting some thought-provoking songs about government corruption and Philadelphia lifestyles. There are moments where Vinnie plays with his vocal range to sing some of the hooks, but he generally sticks to his comfort zone on this album and delivers on the aspects of his game he’s mastered over his 20+ year career.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll count down albums #20 – 11!