Last year, I started writing for DJBooth, a publication that covers hip hop and which I deeply revere. I wrote three articles in 2017 and set a personal goal to double that in 2018. I’m now ending the year with 14 articles written for DJBooth in 2018, in addition to my first academic article on hip hop and religion going live in Black Theology: An International Journal.
That said, I am here to honor my annual tradition of sharing my favorite albums of 2018, in hopes that you might find something you like and might tell me about something I missed. This was a year marked for changes in my personal life: it was my first full year of marriage, I earned my Master’s degree, and I returned to teaching this fall. I also found my music choices transitioning, as older favorites began to disappoint and new favorites replaced them.
- Ravyn Lenae — Crush EP
- tobi lou — tobi lou and the Juice
- Cautious Clay — Blood Type
- Black Thought — Streams of Thought,vols. 1 and 2
- Bobby Sessions — RVLTN, chs. 1 and 2
20. Kids See Ghosts — Kids See Ghosts
19. Kali Uchis — Isolation
18. Smino — NOIR
17. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris — Everything’s Fine
16. Four Fists — 6666
15. Kendrick Lamar and Various Artists — Black Panther Original Soundtrack
14. Joey Purp — QUARTERTHING
13. Pusha T — Daytona
12. J.I.D — DiCaprio 2
11. 6lack — East Atlanta Love Letter
10. Big Red Machine — Big Red Machine
Of Justin Vernon’s many side projects, Big Red Machine became my favorite this year. In collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner, the pair made anthemic, heavy music filled with psalms of openness to life. “I will lay laid open,” Vernon croons, and I can’t describe a better feeling for this album’s effect.
9. Travis Scott — ASTROWORLD
I’ve been a Travis devotee since 2015’s Rodeo, and 2018 was his year to convert every skeptic. ASTROWORLD easily had the year’s best bangers, but its quieter moments (see “Coffee Bean”) prove Travis is more than just a hitmaker. Named after his hometown of Houston’s closed theme park, Travis takes listeners through the highs and lows of his own rollercoaster life.
8. Earl Sweatshirt — Some Rap Songs
Earl Sweatshirt returned from a three-year hiatus with a concise, focused effort that tracks his depression and growth both in sound and word. Earl is one of the finest examples of evolution in hip hop, and this 24-minute album is proof. As someone once famous for conflict with his mother and father, Some Rap Songs finds him grieving his father’s death earlier this year while also reconciling their relationship in subtle and beautiful form: “Mama said she used to see my father in me/said I was not offended.” Closing with a 3-song sweep that begins with Earl’s mother thanking him in a speech and his father reading one of his poems, and ends with his late uncle’s instrumental solo, Some Rap Songs is mourning and resolution all at once.
7. Vince Staples — FM!
Although just a teaser before a more official album next year, Vince Staples’ FM! delivers every punch I’ve come to expect from my favorite rapper since last year’s Big Fish Theory. Taking on a radio conceit to make a searing comment on the consumption of Black death in entertainment, Staples uses a sunny radio DJ set to undergird a much starker picture of the world as he sees it. “Do you really wanna know about some gangsta shit?” he accuses the audience, all the while trying to process his own grief over the loss of family and friends every direction he turns.
6. Tierra Whack — Whack World
Tierra Whack came out of nowhere to deliver the most exciting release of 2018. With 15 songs each running only 1-minute long, Whack capitalized on our short attention spans, singing and rapping herself in circles, only to cut songs off when she knew she has us. Watch the accompanying 15-minute music video, then see how quickly you press replay.
5. Noname — Room 25
Only two years after her Telefone debut swept me away, Noname returns with Room 25, a jazzier album full of lullaby raps. On first listens I felt relaxed by the music, but on repeat spins I found myself trying to catch—and hang onto—every word the poet spits. Room 25 is full of verses sacred and saccharine, and nothing is more beautiful than her reflection on her own name that closes the album and enfolds listeners into her vision of a better world: “No name for people to call small or colonize optimism/no name for inmate registries that they put me in prison.” Amen, Noname, amen.
4. Janelle Monáe — Dirty Computer
“We don’t need another ruler, all of my friends are kings,” Janelle Monáe sings on Dirty Computer. As America increasingly reveals how far it is from the vision of equality it proclaims, Monáe casts her optimism across every track, clear-eyed about issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia that persist, but hopeful that each of us can be a torch for progress by embracing who we are and who we might become. Blurring the lines between the personal and the political, Dirty Computer is the most timely album of 2018.
3. The Carters — EVERYTHING IS LOVE
I’ve been waiting a long time for JAY-Z and Beyoncé to turn their collaborative efforts into a full-length album, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE did not disappoint. The final album in a supposed trilogy that began with Bey’s LEMONADE and continued with 4:44, the resolution of EVERYTHING IS LOVE was hard-earned. Beyoncé is only getting better, and JAY-Z is leaning into the post-retirement dad raps that prove you’re never too old to out-rap your peers and protégés alike. This is an album full of joy that does not forget the pair’s increasingly critical political eye, nor does it allow you to doubt that this power couple’s place was ever in question.
2. Saba — CARE FOR ME
After the passing of his cousin John Walt in 2017, Saba set out to put his grief and depression on wax, and CARE FOR ME is what happens when therapeutic music reaches outside of a private moment to help a lot of people. The opening track “BUSY / SIRENS,” finds Saba mourning the ways that relationships fall apart while people are alive (“asking me how tour was/knowing I’ve been home like two months”), then transitions to a tragic vignette where a young Black man’s mere existence is a threat (“They don’t know me but they fear me”). From there, the album is full of more grey, grey moments detailing mental health struggles (“I’m not mad at God/I just can’t get out of bed”), mourning (“I tell Death to keep a distance, I think he obsessed with me”), and the search for the other side of pain. The closing tracks, “PROM / KING” and “Heaven All Around Me,” find Saba narrating the story of his relationship with his cousin, building to Walt’s tragic passing, and finally ending with Walt’s perspective, not a ghost but a spirit that lives on. It’s the most heartbreaking and beautiful ending to any album I’ve ever heard, and this album has already and will continue to carry me through life’s many greys.
1. Mac Miller — Swimming
Before Mac Miller passed away in September, I spent a month listening to Swimming every day, often multiple times. I don’t mention this to say that Swimming was my favorite album this year before Mac passed, but to say that this album was helping me understand a lot of things about my own seasons of depression and the struggle to swim after it felt like I might drown. “I just need a way out of my head,” he sings on the first track, and I let that line twist its way through my brain and live inside of my soul because I really understood it, deep down. Throughout the album, the lush production provides the perfect backdrop for Mac to narrate his downward spirals and slow climbs. The truth is I’m really quite speechless about what this album does for my brain and my heart and my soul. I want to quote every lyric and explain what it means to me, or describe the feeling I have when I listen to Swimming, but it’s hard. I guess there’s nothing really to say except, “Wish I could say thank you to Malcolm.”
Although a Tidal loyalist, I’ve made a Spotify playlist of my favorite albums and other songs from this year. Check it out.