Maybe this list should be called “The Best Hip-hop and R&B Albums of 2018 So Far,” but let’s be honest. Hip-hop and R&B are the most successful music genres at the moment and also the most saturated with talent. And I couldn’t be happier.
I made a very good effort to listen widely in the first half of the year, so I don’t think this list is totally whack. The selection was from albums released before June 30th. Sorry Drake, Beyoncé (myself included), and Jay-Z fans: Scorpion and Everything is Love didn’t make the cut. Neither did Culture II, Die Lit, nor Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
I originally planned to pick 10 but decided I have to be ruthless and chopped projects that I felt didn’t truly deserve the title. In no particular order, these are the seven best albums of 2018 so far.
Kids See Ghosts (Kanye West & Kid Cudi): Kids See Ghosts
Kanye West and Kid Cudi, both veteran rappers who took refuge from the public eye to take care of their personal– more specifically, mental– health, emerged as a duo to form Kids See Ghosts. Their eponymous debut album is fiery, rough-edged, and intimate.
As expected, the largely Kanye-fueled production is expansive and free-flowing. It ranges from the enigmatic track “Kids See Ghosts” to hammering accompaniments to Kanye’s hilarious hard-hitting ad-libs on “Feel the Love” to almost a Western movie soundtrack song, “Fire.” A characteristic of many– probably most– great albums, each track has a unique sonic identity while making sense as a whole at the same time.
The lyrics offer a telling glimpse into two battered musicians’ psyches and also their journeys toward freedom. Though large portions of songs are laced with repetitions of key phrases, it doesn’t take away from the lyrical content of the album. The project is only 23 minutes, but what a powerful 23 minutes it is.
- Kids See Ghosts
- Cudi Montage
Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
The voice that beckoned the Grammys to action at the 2018 Grammys celebration, Janelle Monae has been one of the most powerful voices of the #MeToo Movement for her spotlight in both the movie and music industries. Dirty Computer continues, heightens, and wonderfully showcases different threads of that feminist narrative over smooth, elegant instrumentals.
The album features some of the most gorgeous and feel-good production of the year so far, ranging from the ethereal to futuristic to retro funk. Monae’s glossy voice blends into the instrumentals effortlessly at the same time she claims the spotlight in the listeners’ ears. Highlights include “I Got the Juice” with Pharrell Williams and the Prince tribute “Make Me Feel,” which has been dubbed a “bisexual anthem.” And you can’t miss the vulnerable and tender romance of “Don’t Judge Me” over lush strings and vocals.
On the lyrics, she holds nothing back in spelling out her vision for America. Several jabs at Donald Trump are entertaining, like when she sings, “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.” Monae is a fearless critic of social injustices, saying, “Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head / This is not my America / Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful / This is not my America.”
As a prominent black LGBTQ woman in America, Janelle Monae pushes many boundaries with her artistry. Ultimately, her accomplishment with Dirty Computer can be summarized with her bold declaration, “I’m the American Dream.” The phrase “Dirty Computer” provokes listeners to consider how the human race– with all its advancements and quirks– will grapple with the future.
- Django Jane
- Make Me Feel
- Don’t Judge me
Pusha T: DAYTONA
Pusha’s comeback after a long hiatus is stunning. He had several projects already under his wing, but DAYTONA is a clear pinnacle in his career. Riding off the success of his jaw-dropping diss tracks targeting Drake, leading to the revelation of Drake’s hidden son, Pusha proved his skill is not limited to dissing.
Throughout the album, Push’s voice is gnarly, his articulation biting. Kanye’s production is simple, but simple is best when the lyrics are this loaded. The beats mostly set up the atmospheres for each track: they are tense, suspenseful, like a spy hiding bombs all over a building to destroy clueless enemies.
Pusha-T is ruthless in this entire album. His opener “If You Know You Know” rides off his famous cocaine-seller persona, which was what he was mostly known for in the past. But he proves he has an incredibly sharp tongue and does not waste a single bar in laying out his agenda to destroy rappers who joke around. Declaring his favorite watch is the Rolex Daytona, Push shuts down tryhard rappers with showy jewelry in “Hard Piano”: “The Warhols on my wall paint a war story / Had to find other ways to invest / ‘Cause you rappers found every way to ruin Pateks.”
Push paves his own path to success and luxury. Hailed by many as the best rap album of the year so far (as of June 30th), this project is sure to add Pusha-T’s name to the strongest rappers in the game in the moment.
- If You Know You Know
- What Would Meek Do?
Jorja Smith: Lost & Found
This is about as good a debut album can get. Jorja Smith is absolutely fantastic on her first album, becoming one of my new R&B favorites in music right now. From the opening eponymous track, she shows off unorthodox melodies and acrobatic vocal skills. You immediately know she is something special.
Writing about youth and its struggles can easily become a cliché and failure. Thankfully, Jorja’s vulnerability and incredibly nuanced voice transform these common themes into a standout project. Her voice is both visceral and ethereal– listen to February 3rd. Speaking of romance, wandering, identity, and crises, her lyrics are deeply resonant and memorable.
Of course, the song that entered the mainstream was “Blue Lights,” a definite highlight of the album. Chronicling a story of the loss of innocence, Smith gorgeously details how the daily life overlaps with societal fears that can eventually suffocate people who have done nothing wrong. She urges black and brown people, “If you’ve done nothing wrong / Blue lights should just pass you by,” but sadly, those lyrics turn into, “You better run when you hear the sirens coming.”
Lost & Found is phenomenal lyrically and sonically, and Jorja Smith is a mandatory addition to everyone’s list of artists to listen to next.
- Lost & Found
- Where Did I Go?
- The One
- Blue Lights
Saba: Care for me
The first time I heard Saba was on Chance the Rapper’s feel-good track from Coloring Book (2016), “Angels.” Now, Care for Me was quite stunning, and I now know to look out for any new projects coming from him. This 10-track project makes the best use of its lean space. On this album, Saba criticizes himself, bares his deepest flaws and insecurities, and details his most painful history.
Care for Me is ultimately about failed communication, both with others and with Saba himself. Saba understands that despite being imperfect– or because we are imperfect– we desire. This album weaves together various accounts of desires and insights on daily life, especially the challenges of being young in this time and age. Tales of family, racial profiling, confusing romantic relationships, and depression are gorgeously told.
The instrumentals are always modest, intimate. Whether it is the soft piano of “calligraphy,” the gently undulating instrumentals of “FIGHTER,” the production complements Saba’s rapping and singing well. Saba’s voice is versatile, sometime sounding fragile, ready to crack any second yet hanging on by a thread. Other times, he is riveting.
I am so excited to see what Saba does in the future. Care for Me is a sensitive, smooth, yet thought-provoking listen.
- BUSY / SIRENS
- PROM / KING
Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy
My greatest fear after Cardi’s unprecedented rise to fame in 2017 was whether or not she could sustain it. I certainly wanted her to keep up her success and anxiously waited for her first album, Invasion of Privacy. Thankfully, she delivered even more than what I had imagined.
Opening with “Get Up 10,” a 4-minute tale of her path to the top of the rap game starting with next to nothing, Cardi is nothing short of hungry, and she has the bars throughout the entire album to match her ambition. Her delivery is, as always, incredibly satisfying.
In addition to the new party hit song “I Like It,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, one of my favorites was her tender and vulnerable “Be Careful,” the song to which Cardi revealed her baby bump on SNL. “Bartier Cardi” revvs up the other extreme of Cardi’s wide range of talent, spitting hard-hitting rhymes with unforgettable delivery.
But the immediately memorable tracks are barely the only good tracks. The album is well constructed, showcasing diverse sonic dimensions with productions ranging from mellow to suspenseful to electronic to bubbly. In addition to the arrival of her baby Kulture, Cardi B has more than enough to keep her gloating for the rest of this year.
- Get Up 10
- Be Careful
- Money Bag
- Bartier Cardi
Kali Uchis: Isolation
She used to be just a frequent Tyler, the Creator collaborator. But when Kali Uchis released “After the Storm” with Tyler and Bootsy Collins, I knew she was about to blow up. Isolation confirmed she is a more-than-welcome addition to R&B with her wonderfully varied sonic palette, silky voice, and sharp songwriting skills.
One word that can sum up this album would be freedom. Kali Uchis is constantly on the search for freedom, whether it be fully realizing her American Dream as an immigrant, finding love that preserves her independence, or rising on the top of the music industry. It’s refreshing to see such a wide range of themes in the R&B genre.
Sonically, Isolation is daring yet pleasant at all times. She’s not afraid to feature Gorillaz’-produced “In my dreams” to the unconventional and refreshing harmonies on “After the Storm” to the reggaeton track “Nuestro Planeta.” Then, tracks like “Miami” wrap up Uchis’s famed retro style, making for a truly enjoyable listen.
Isolation is a great debut album from a new shining R&B star, and I can’t wait for what else Kali Uchis brings to the scene.
- Just a Stranger
- Your Teeth in my Neck
- Feel like a Fool