The POW Best Rap Songs of 2018

You already know what it is.
By    December 16, 2018

A few notes on the list: As always, one song per artist. Singles prioritized over album cuts. If you’re mad that your favorite artist isn’t on here, they probably made the best albums list dropping very soon. If they still didn’t make that, maybe they shouldn’t be your favorite artist anymore. Or maybe you should just stick to reading algorithms.

In the best LA rap year of the decade, we believe in home field advantage.  However, we don’t believe in your favorite corporate rap songs still ripping off Juicy J. Yes, this list is intended to be  read entirely in the voice and cadence of Blueface.

Lastly, it takes a tremendous amount of time to curate, write, edit, and format this list. POW is 100 percent user funded. If you enjoyed this article, please consider donating a few bucks to the Patreon. Your support is very much appreciated and needed. 

50. Kanye West & Lil Pump – “I Love It”

“I Love It” is the dumbest rap song of the year, a goofball lark lobbed at your playlists by an overgrown man child desperately clinging onto his celebrity and a cut rate SoundCloud rapper that serves as the SoundCloud rap generation’s answer to powderpuffs like Ja Rule or Hammer. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an adult, which makes the song irritating by default, but that grating quality is also what makes it so vital to Hip Hop. This is 2018’s answer to The Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” NWA’s “She Swallowed It,” Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun,” and a hundred other politically irredeemable singles seemingly written to piss parents off.

“I Love It” is rap’s adolescent id, the audio equivalent of that kid in the back of the classroom making fart noises while the teacher’s facing the board. Pump’s auto-tuned warbling doesn’t stretch the boundaries of rap like say, Young Thug’s, nor does it break new lyrical ground. Instead, he (somehow) rhymes dork with McLovin, an act that will earn him more money than your favorite extra serious musical act’s entire album run. Think about that for a second. Kanye meanwhile, abandons his woe-is-me seriousness in favor of the role he was born to play: Rap’s dirty uncle, disguising lecherousness in a ridiculous Spike Jonze video. It beats Primal Scream therapy with Kid CuDi.

In an era where gatekeepers want to scrutinize your every musical choice for deviancy from the acceptable norm, “I Love It” is as fun as it is dumb, and proof that rap is still a vital middle finger to the stifling norms of decency. — SON RAW

49. AzChike – “Big Chop”

AzChike is minimalist to the point of being practically Spartan. The Lil Rece-produced “Big Chop” lasts just a minute and forty seconds, tied together by what can’t be more than four or five MIDI sounds. It’s frigid and barren, and his most immediate work. The raps are geometric—syllables jut off each other at 90 degree angles, forming phrases that are flipped and rotated ad infinitum before Tetrising into place without leaving a gap behind. The South Central rapper revels in the sentence as a complete form: the meticulously-placed rhymes and straight-faced wordplay (“I know I’m what you need, but what you want from me?”) could easily be transposed onto a 2010 YouTube cypher. The result is music that is compact, stretched taut with a tension that doesn’t derive from menace but from materials that are drawn to their limit.

Sometimes songs are short because they can’t go anywhere else, and sometimes they are short because they shouldn’t go anywhere else. “Big Chop” is short because it can’t be compressed any shorter, because its end bleeds into its beginning. All there is to do is run it back. — SUN-UI YUM

48. Saviii 3rd – “Another Day”

Signing Saviii 3rd was the first smart decision Cash Money West made after Wack 100’s pitch to Birdman led to the establishment of the offshoot earlier this year. “Another Day” became a regional behemoth in the spring, then expanded outwards beyond the ultra-specific streets that the Long Beach rapper references throughout the track. It’s a true-to-its-title, day-in-the-life tour of Saviii 3rd’s hometown, with an accompanying video that provides another layer of specificity to the calculated depiction of him and his surroundings. A slice of life with a hook anyone could latch onto.

With the recent addition of Blueface to the Cash Money West roster, it appears as if Birdman and Wack 100 are banking on the belief that the expansive talent pool and buzzing creative output of L.A.’s local music scene will resonate with a larger audience. If executed with the same business saviii that made so many Louisianan artists legends, Cash Money West could provide the capital and national marketing necessary to help artists like Saviii 3rd succeed. Some gentle guidance is all an artist capable of making a song like “Another Day” needs. — WILL HAGLE

47. SG – “Came Thru Crippin'”

Slim Gudda popped earlier this year with her take on Cardi B and Migos’s hit single “Drip.” On a bass-boosted version of the track, she rewrites the hook in a nod to her affiliate roots and retains only the best parts of the song while reinvigorating it with a hunger the original lacks outside of Takeoff. SG eschews Cardi’s verse structure for a more robust, freestyled first verse, and while feature Compton LA rolls out of bed just in time to give his own riff on the track, like the year in rap overall, “Came Thru Crippin’” is all about the woman.

With the relative homogeneity of mainstream pop music—rap or otherwise—it’s welcomed to get a spirited take from someone who’s got a lot she wants to prove. Not only does SG’s rework offer a new life to a song played out so much we may have become tone deaf to why it’s appealing in the first place, but it might also make us stop and think more about what makes the original so popular to begin with, and how someone else might approach that same sound given a different perspective and set of influences. — MATT MCMAHON

46. CupcakKe – “Cartoons”

On “Cartoons,” CupcakKe reminds us that there’s much more to her work than raunchy and hilarious hyper-sexual braggadocio. Songs like “Duck Duck Goose” may deservingly rack up millions of views (and form an integral part of CupcakKe’s persona), but sometimes that narrative drowns out the fact that she can rap her ass off.

Producer Turreekk crafts an early 2000s type beat with a little New Orleans bounce handclap flare, ergonomically designed for just straight mixtape-era, Wayne-style rapping, and that’s just what CupcakKe does. You can imagine CupcakKe being ready, willing, and able to body any beat the engineer put on during the session that birthed this track with lines like “If I see carats like Bugs Bunny/I’m Batman Robin for the money/Strip her bare feet like The Flinstones/Make a Tom and Jerry whole way home.”  I hope Hanna-Barbera didn’t send a cease and desist. — SAM RIBAKOFF

45. Roddy Ricch – “Die Young”

A smooth, bleakly triumphant song about trying one’s best to avoid an untimely demise became the cathartic anthem rap fans needed in a year filled with unexpected deaths. RIP Jimmy Wopo (21), XXXTentacion (20), Mac Miller (26), and Fredo Santana (27). Produced by London on tha Track, Roddy Ricch’s breakout single about a near-universal fear connected with a near-universal audience, catapulting him from an obscure Compton artist to a burgeoning star who closed out 2018 with a Marshmello single– not to mention a featured spot on a Meek Mill’s “Championships” track alongside obvious heroes Future and Young Thug.

With “Die Young,” Roddy Ricch turns pain and hopelessness into a clear-headed, focused, shiny, pop-friendly hit. With his loose connections to Kendrick and strong ties to LA’s current scene — as well as a sound that combines elements of several regional genres — Roddy Ricch could be poised to continue his streak into 2019. But no matter what comes of his career, let the record show that repeated streams of “Die Young” provided a soundtrack to 2018 more accurately, more poignantly, and more smoothly, than almost any other song by any artist — living or dead young. — WILL HAGLE

44. SG Tip – “So High”

Slaughterhouse Gang Tip first started drawing attention in 2017 with his raw, East Atlanta sound. Closely affiliated with 21 Savage, both rappers wear the dagger tattoo across their forehead and use the “on God” adlib. Yet SG Tip’s delivery is far more animated that 21, infused with a hungrier, more youthful venom.

In 2018, SG Tip released a slew of singles, with features from Young Nudy, SmokePurpp, and Young Bans. While his album, Block Boy, did well with singles like “Looking for Me” and “Lifestyle,” none of the album cuts hit the back road wildness of the loosey, “So High.” The beat’s whining guitar bounces like Devin the Dude or an early Goodie Mob track. From selling grams in school hallways to saying fuck the mall, it’s a hustler’s field guide, an anthem that welcomes beef and supports selling what you need to get by. In the video, SG Tip and associates brandish pistols while hitting donuts in a tinted Tahoe that’s souped with monster truck wheels.

A self-proclaimed “full time trapper, part time rapper,” SG Tip jeers the idea of clocking out from a day’s work with nothing saved for tomorrow. It’s these subtle details that reveal the deeper narrative of an artist — one that’s built on lessons learned in a volatile environment, where merely staying afloat can have morbid results. The boldness of “So High” is in its callous descriptions of motivation and survival. The song resonates because it sounds like it was recorded under the very circumstances of being too devoted to your trade to care about the imminent danger that’s tied to it. — EVAN GABRIEL

43. Speak – “LA Leakers Freestyle”

Speak looks less like a rapper and more like a wizened ex-warrior in a fantasy novel who lives alone on a mountain and only comes down when called upon by the village below when they’re in some serious shit. Like, seriously, look at the dude. Classic lone wolf hero vibes. Big hair, hair for days, face that looks like it’s seen a thousand hardships. And in truth, Speak’s had a strange career – knocking around the LA and Bay Area underground scenes, catching an unexpected break when a track he wrote for some unknown rapper named Kreayshawn called “Gucci Gucci” of all things went viral beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, then gigging as a ghostwriter for pop stars as his own career stalled out. After a post-drug crash left him feeling burned in LA, the Chicano rapper decamped for Mexico City, where he crafted A Man + His Plants – easily the best project of his career, and the one that most fully sums up his outsider-art sensibility in an increasingly branded world.

In light of all this, the freestyle that we’ve got here is indeed a classic tale of the fearsome warrior returning to the world he rejected so that it may be saved. His quest? Rap over the immaculate beat of Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back” and rip the damn thing to shreds. His weapons? A beard, a NAAFI t-shirt, some plants, and his pescatarian diet. He drops lines clowning so-called “tastemakers” who cake off throwing together Spotify playlists and inserting branded bars into their rhymes, flexes on his homemade Jamaica-and-Codeine recipe for “Mexican Screw,” drops some anti-ICE-anti-Clintons-anti-Bushes-anti-Kanye double-turbo woke “Go-On-Chapo” bars, and creates an ad-hoc bridge that’s catchier than anything you’re gonna hear on the radio. There’s real joy in this freestyle, a sense of warmth and humanity offered in everything from his voice to his call-outs to American imperialism. Speak’s bars are harder, his words smarter, and what’s most impressive is that he could probably make a whole album of raps like this in like five hours but just doesn’t want to. Oh and by the way, this is the only good thing that Power 106 did all year. I’m allowed to say that because like Speak, I don’t live in LA. — DREW MILLARD

42.YG – “Too Cocky”

Stay Dangerous came and went a little too fast, but YG’s agro charm plus a hook from Right Said Fred yields extremely sexy results. “Too Cocky” recalls YG’s jerkin’ roots, DJ Mustard providing the woozy, twilight-spare beat as YG turns his drawl into a swift 4/4 bop gun to match: “Now I’m big breaded / married to the game, big wedding.” Gangsters don’t dance, but they can twist through a blinders-on 2:45 AM rebound-slash-closing song that makes one want to pour shots for a room full of strangers. Skinny jeans optional. — EVAN MCGARVEY

41. Hot Sauce — “Really From the Village (Feat. Lotto)”

“I brought some friends,” Hot Sauce says in the remix of “Really from the Village,” gesturing to the twenty or so red-shirted compadres standing behind him in the video. The “Village” that Hot Sauce hails from is Baldwin Village, a south LA neighborhood prominently featured in Training Day that’s also referred to as the Jungle(s). Earlier this year, the LA City Council voted to approve a plan that would triple the size of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and add hundreds of new apartments and condos. It’s a move that will surely inflate the already high price of housing in the area. It’s just the latest ripple in what activists see as a wave of gentrification that threatens to turn what was the setting for Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in da Paint” video in 2010 into the planned community that the Simpsons move to in that episode where Homer works for a Bond villain.

Hot Sauce’s lyric on the song isn’t really political: he spends most of his verse lionizing a friend who’s locked up – I assume it’s “Juan Juan” based on his shirt in the video. But the choice of locale certainly is. Sauce and his crew post up outside the Louisiana Fried Chicken during a street festival, in front of the 7/11, and at—you guessed it—the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. They flash gang signs on the escalator and mean mug in front of Victoria’s Secret. The message is clear: you may cry havoc and let slip your dog daycares of war. They aren’t going anywhere.

But the song isn’t a maudlin tribute to a warehoused friend, nor is it assigned reading in sociology class. It’s a blast. Sauce and crew may be sending shivers down Jeff Bezos’ spine, but that’s not their intent. They just want to have fun in the city they’re from. And pay tribute to Juan Juan, who—if he’s still locked up—probably just wishes he could wake up in his old neighborhood, throw on some clothes not provided to him by the state of California, and spend a day with his friends. Good thing Hot Sauce brought some. — JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN

40. 1TakeJay – “Hello”

There are basically unlimited ways to answer the phone, or at least there were until Compton’s 1TakeJay came along. Now, the only acceptable way to greet an incoming call is a half fake-cheerful, half-exasperated “HELLO??” immediately followed by a hearty “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT???” There have been other songs whose beat samples the default iPhone ringtone—rest in peace to Young Pappy, by the way—but 1TakeJay’s is perhaps the most ambitious, merging beat and concept so that each cheerful marimba chirp seems to fuel his annoyance about getting yet another damn ass phone call from his ex. By the time we get to the end, Jay’s nearly steaming at the ears, dropping Mean Girls references and talking about how his energy’s all fucked up and also oh my god stop calling his phone. Call it a novelty song, call it comedy-rap, just don’t call 1TakeJay if you’re his ex because he’s blocked all 30 of your numbers, he can’t say that he’s not fucking with you enough times, and honestly you should maybe start thinking about moving on because it seems like he really doesn’t want to talk to you. — DREW MILLARD

39. Vince Staples – “Fun!”

There’s a lot going on in Vince Staples’ “FUN!”—like, for starters, sleigh bells, murders, and E-40. At first listen, the track stays true to its title. But fun, in this case an acronym for “fuck up nothing,” always has a dark side for the Long Beach MC. The lead single off his fourth studio album, FM!, “FUN!” tosses you around in typical Vince Staples fashion. In one fell swoop, he bounces from “Christian Dior” to “Crippin Bior” and right over to a “Nobu brunch.” As listeners, we’re along for the ride, bopping around until E-40 says his last “Mack a bitch down” for the 16th (but seriously, the 16th) time. And then, as the song comes to a close, we wonder…what the hell just happened?

On “FUN!” Staples confronts us as consumers, so eager to call his life our entertainment. He serves us a dose of reality mixed with irony, humor, and always, always wit. Collaborating with fellow West coast artists E-40, Kamaiyah, Kehlani, and Buddy; pulling from that classic West coast sound; and continuing the narrative of his small West coast neighborhood of Ramona Park, Vince Staples quite literally brings his message back home. He may be situated on his throne as a California hip-hop lynchpin, but Staples will always be watching from the Long Beach streets. — PALEY MARTIN

38. Maine Musik – “Soulja Slim Flow 2”

The best tributes are the ones that don’t require hyperbolic statements. Baton Rouge’s Maine Musik has no time to deal out tired platitudes when praying to Soulja Slim. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then maybe outright reproduction is the sincerest form of eulogy. Like he says on “Soulja Slim Flow 2”: “Same shit Soulja was spitting just in a different way.”

Slim, I don’t need to tell you, was one of the rawest artists to ever rep Louisiana before four bullets stole him from the world in 2003. Maine followed his hero by joining No Limit Records a few years ago. The stint failed to yield the kind of results he probably hoped for but the youngster has since become a chief disciple of Slim by dropping three excellent installments of his “Soulja Slim Flow” series. Part deux sees Maine’s voice hiss and warble over an old Southern pop ‘n’ click beat summoned from the archives. It’s a funky concoction, as New Orleans as Fats Domino or crawfish étouffée. If there’s a secret to Maine’s revivalism it’s that it appears he’d prefer to make records Slim would have listened to than be proclaimed his heir apparent. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN

37. OMB Peezy x Sherwood Marty – “Crash Out”

In the words of German MC Icon Dendemann: “please stop calling the poor software a stylistic device.” Of course, he’s speaking about Auto-tune, a thing we haven’t stopped talking about for yet ANOTHER year—mostly due to the anniversaries of 808s & Heartbreak and, well, Cher’s ’98 robo-camp anthem.

In “Crash Out,” Autotune is not used to alienating effect, nor to punctuate specific phrases or as a melodic crutch. Instead, it weighs heavy and fidgety over every single syllable, like a short-circuiting heat blanket. For no other reason than that this is what a certain strain of rap sounds like today. So, what really made OMB Peezy x Sherwood Marty’s first single from their collabo tape “Young & Reckless” an early 2018 treat, is the anarchic energy with which they head full-throttle into a nervous, ultra-violent breakdown, backed by a faux-G-funk production that sounds like DJ Quik had channeled Seth Firkins via Ouija board. Producer Drum Drummie’s paranoid funk is perfectly matched by subtle vocal glitches (is wonky really coming back?) in the chorus.

“How we gon’ eat, if we really listen to the pastor?” asks Marty on his verse. It’s this mixture of laid-back musicality and deeply conflicted lyrics that firmly locates both MCs in the tradition of their respective home towns, Sacramento and Baton Rouge. — JULIAN BRIMMERS

36. A$AP Rocky – “Praise the Lord (Feat. Skepta)”

Rocky’s TESTING didn’t quite click in the states. The album, experimentally curated Project Pat samples and I’m-Still-From-New-York boom bap intermingled amongst Moby production and FKA twigs features—largely lost steam alongside summer blockbuster releases, falling to #62 on Billboard’s EOY Rap/R&B Charts. Yikes.

A bright spot for Rocky? His Skepta-assisted, pan-flute-powered “Praise The Lord” flipped his worldwide playboy purview into the first fully trans-Atlantic rap smash: you couldn’t swing a dead cat in a European club this summer without hitting a DJ dropping “Praise The Lord” at a party’s peak.

Rocky sits atop the throne of an international fashion-rap niche genre born from the post-regionalist pressures of the internet, wedged open by Places + Faces photos, High Snobiety and try-hard Drake features, and, with a firm kick from the sole of a Raf Simmons boot, burst into a borderless nation whose citizens stand at attention in their designer sneaker-bubble jacket-black skully uniforms, tightly wrapped Rizla joints jutting out of gold-fronted mouths. “Praise The Lord” is their national anthem: boundaries decayed by WiFi waves, previously regional references flipped into a collectivist youth vocabulary. North Londoner Skepta interpolates DMX, Harlemite Rocky name drops Dior and a Guy Ritchie movie, and nobody bats a tastefully tattooed eyelid.

Globalizing forces have created a worldwide concrete jungle; Rocky and Skepta turned it into their playground. — LAWRENCE NEIL

35. Freddie Gibbs x G Perico x Mozzy – “Colors”

Looking back, people remember N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” as 1988’s rap music breakthrough. But Ice T’s “Colors” was the biggest rap single that year, and the first so-called gangster rap song to go mainstream. Teenage white boys across the country were rapping about sagging pants, braided hair, bloods and crips as Ice T’s voice infiltrated suburbia speakers to the fright of Tipper “Earmuffs” Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center supporters.

Marking the song’s 30-year anniversary, the production team of League of Starz released a version of “Colors” this year in stark contrast with the original. Where Ice T’s was a keyboard driven in your face flow meant to intimidate its listeners, the Starz track features a saxophone that sounds almost sad to be involved in a conversation still talking about the racial inequities in underprivileged communities resulting in gang violence. In Freddie Gibbs, G Perico and Mozzy, the track features three rappers who would have fit in comfortably spittin’ alongside Ice T in 1988. “Colors 2018” isn’t as catchy or shocking as “Colors 1988” was back in the day, but it’s an excellent song that improves with each listen, especially the versatile flow of Gibbs slowly crawling into your ears before speeding up with the beat as it kicks in. Gibbs carries the chorus and each MC delivers a strong verse, detailing their own gang-related experience; not bragging like Ice T, but chronicling the reality and necessity of gangs in the ‘hood.

Ice T really was a prophet when he said, “The gangs of L.A. will never die … just multiply.” — JESSE TAYLOR

34. Tyga – “Taste (Feat. Offset)”

Tyga’s resonant voice and rigidly articulated lyrics sell his sleazy dad-jokes. It’s an apathetic style that verges on deadpan comedy, and has somehow won the hearts of vape enthusiasts, strippers, Calabasas socialites, and, well, this guy. (I went to high school in the valley.) But Tyga is no ambi-turner. When he tries to turn left, it goes wrong. See Kyoto, his 2018 album of auto-tuned, quasi-Caribbean erotica and R&B. Somehow, that limp and lambasted flop exists in the same year as “Taste,” Tyga’s platinum and second highest-charting single since the Mustard-assisted “Rack City.”

Numbers notwithstanding, “Taste” is the best iteration of Tyga’s true (and possibly only) style, the Magnum to his Blue Steel, Le Tigre, Ferrari. He’s never rapped better about cash, cars, jewelry, and cavorting with the thick women who flock to those goods like he does to sparse, simple beats. While Offset’s verse is serviceable, Tyga’s true co-star is the D. A. Doman beat, which uses pitched vocal croonings to construct a melody as infectious as any STI contracted during the “Taste” video shoot. If you think that “Taste” and his other Doman-produced 2018 singles, “SWISH” and “Dip,” are virtually indistinguishable (lyrically, sonically, etc.), you are not taking crazy pills. But why do you care? You and I know there is more to life than rapping well about wealth and really, really ridiculously good-looking women. But how can we expect Tyga to rap if he can’t fit those things in every bar? — MAX BELL

33. Pimp Pimp P – “Like Desto” (Feat. Desto Dubb) / “In the Field”

If you didn’t know Pimp Pimp P and Desto Dubb were brothers, you would think they came from different orbiting moons. The latter is an exceptionally sound, exceptionally funny rapper who drills down to a song’s core—very rich people trust him to stand and rap next to Lil Pump and act as figurative muscle. But his little brother is something far more alien. In an age where everything is buried under mile-thick blocks of irony, Pimp Pimp P is unhinged, unmoored, and unbothered; he raps with all the carefree verve of a comedian but has no interest in fooling you or subverting the form.

In fact, at his best, Pimp doesn’t seem worried about audience at all: why else would he make a song about how he talks on the phone the way his big brother does? Which is arguably what makes these songs so resonant; the fraternal camaraderie is reminiscent of Clipse if they pushed codeine instead of coke or Rae Sremmurd if they came up in the Jordan Downs and got their mail delivered to Sam’s Hofbrau. It’s like Tolstoy said, every happy family is regular, but not normal. —  PAUL THOMPSON

32.Fredo Bang – “Status”

Fredo Bang’s typical mode is gravelly and brusque, more genre horror than marbled floors. If his music skews moody, there’s a good reason for that. To hear him tell it: “I don’t like gettin’ close to people / I lost a best friend twice.” That grim couplet was recorded shortly before BLVD Quik was left in a pool of blood on the sidewalk.

The tragedy stalking Fredo has been hard to reconcile with his growing profile. “Father,” a song he wrote in tribute to another slain friend, Gee Money, is at 12 million views and counting. It’s a despairing elegy scrawled from a jail cell for someone he couldn’t possibly have saved. Nonetheless, he doesn’t think that it absolves him of guilt.

The Baton Rouge rapper is a regional star with legions of fans, no matter how tortured and isolated he can sound on record. “Status” is a rare reprieve, so satisfied and pillowy the rest is close to slipping away. Fredo beams and lights on to vocal tones you’d scarcely think his brawny growl could reach. He warbles through candied melodies and boasts, getting higher than deities and rocking near a grove of palm trees. Sometimes, when you’ve cycled through all the other grieving options, the only thing to do is smile in its face and push on. — LUKE BENJAMIN

31. Migos – “Walk It Like I Talk It” (Feat. Drake)”

It was at the 3:25 mark of the “Walk It Talk It” video when the drip became different. The camera does a tight zoom on Offset, who’s complete with a rightly coiffed afro, pink pastels, and shades with lip-figure frames. You forget for a bit that it’s a group performance that includes Quavo and the pop artist behind “Nice for What.” He delivers a robot that is precisely stiff, yet perfectly fluid, and later, he sprinkles his fingers down on himself as his eyes look afar—not quite skyward, not quite at a forehead, but yonder. With a verse that acutely and seamlessly turns into multiple flows, Offset is a star that gives this particular drip an urgency.

The moment immediately feels like a sudden manifestation of the production’s color. A carousel of xylophonic keys rotate sleekly before we hit another gear for the hi-hats to bounce with us. In a way, it doubles as Culture II’s antithesis. The album was two hours of clutter and a trudge where you see press releases’ touting streaming totals instead of Migos’ trademark six-figure jubilance [ed. note CULTURE II IS UNDERRATED]. Its biggest highlight thrived on economy. “Walk It Talk It” is brisk with enough space for its stars to breathe. Drake, true to form, starts off his verse dazed as he stumbles into the moment before trying to make the best of it. Quavo’s voice on the hook works as its own sort of percussion, sly and precise like you’re tiptoeing to show off your red bottoms without creasing the shoe. Even his autopilot on his opening verse has the added gem of raising scoliosis awareness. — BRIAN JOSEPHS

30. Key Glock – “Cocky”

Memphis made 2018 a contract year. The city made sure that every hip-hop blog and magazine noticed what the city was cooking. Every rapper and producer from that city made sure that their voice was heard. BlocBoy JB. Tay Keith. MoneyBagg Yo. And now, Key Glock—Young Dolph’s protégé (and cousin).

Key Glock knows that he could use big features and producers to get noticed. Instead, he chose to claw his way to the top by showing off his own talent and creativity. You get the sense that he doesn’t want anyone to distract you from him. Which brings us to “Cocky,” the hardest fucking song on Glock Bond. Before his first verse comes in, he lets his iconic “THE FUCK??” loose, the only adlib of 2018 better than Sheck Wes’ “BITCH!”

His slow drawling, casual Memphis flow makes every single flex sound regular. He oozes confidence, “chillin with some thotties but these bitches look like barbies” — yet shrugging it off just like lightwork. He tells us how he just copped two new AK’s, which he cheekily names Kendall and Kylie. It’s just another a day in the life of Key Glock. This is how he lives; he just wants to give you a taste of it. — BRANDON CALLENDER

29. JPEGMAFIA – “Puff Daddy”

JPEGMAFIA feels a spiritual kinship with Sean Combs. It’s not based on finances or even career ambition; the connection is based on the fact that if you do your thing and nobody else’s for long enough, people will eventually catch up and respect you. Peggy’s ode to Puff, aside from a few iconic ad-libbed catchphrases at the end, is in name only; levels peaking out in the red, vocals being shouted like a particularly charismatic riot leader. The thunderous footprint of the beat—crafted by Kenny Beats, a very reliable pick for any 2018 All-Star Team ballot—bleeps, bloops, fires randomly, and lands heavy like a Megazord malfunction. Ever so slightly less caustic and abrasive than the lion’s share of tracks on the breakout project Veteran, but certainly no less confrontational.

“Conflict-averse” is a term downright laughable to use to describe JPEG’s artistry, stylistically akin to the hardcore punk section of his musical influence list. The full of “Puff Daddy” is spent scoffing at the market share of plastic rappers, storming college campuses to confront your friends, acknowledging being the father to many bastard styles, having guns the size and variety of Duke Nukem, pulling up on you but not at the three-point line. Peggy sarcastically refers to himself as a pop act in the first verse, but “Puff Daddy” is a tremendous exercise in easing his approach into something more digestible concurrent to his growing notoriety. As digestible as a shot of 180-proof liquor as compared to a shot of gasoline. Take that, take that. — DOUGLAS MARTIN

28. TEC – “Thru The Storm”

TEC only recently decamped from Baton Rouge to Houston. It was less a career move than a matter of necessity. Of his peers, Gee Money is dead. BLVD Quik is dead. Marley G is dead. BLVD Mel still sits behind walls. YoungBoy ostensibly made it out, but still can’t shake his ties completely. On his latest album, TEC named a song “Baton Vietnam.” It’s bloody, sentimental, and subtropical, reggaeton for between Sherwood and the 4th Ward.

Through this hale of stray shots and bounties, TEC still spun himself a a web of gold. “Thru The Storm” is the most glistering entry, less willowy and more openly antagonistic than YoungBoy’s original. TEC steals souls from a BMX bike, wakes up and sets someone else up. Then has to make sure that you know his eulogy for Gee Money isn’t some cruel irony. There will be more shellshock in the morning. If you’re too caught up in the sparring you may miss the granular specifics and contradictions, tracing the melody of YoungBoy almost as an implication of guilt.

It roughly strikes that very Baton Rouge tenor of being malign, mournful, and funny all at once. Two of the three is still miraculous. There is no empty space on a really good TEC record. “Thru The Storm” is no exception, and you get the sense he understands that maxim of life being brutal and short better than most, and so every opportunity to fill in or color a little more is vital. — LUKE BENJAMIN

27. GlokkNine – “10 Percent”

First and foremost, protect GlokkNine. The 18 year-old Orlando rapper was arrested on charges of gun possession and grand theft in October and, outside of this stellar 10-minute exercise, has laid pretty low since. Glokk has seen the inside of a jail cell at least 12 times now, according to his word, and the outcome of these recent charges is up in the air. Still, that’s only part of what makes “10 Percent” so urgent.

There are like three best parts to this damn song. There’s the moment where Glokk is deprecatingly self aware: “She know I’m kinda ugly it’s like Beauty and the Beast.” There’s also the point where more than halfway through the track, Glokk shouts out the producer, Sour K. Which like, general principle, any time a rapper slips the producer plug clean in the middle of an uninterrupted three-minute verse, they are very much in their bag. Oh and that shift Glokk makes immediately after this, where he proceeds to snap off the end of each line with a more kinetic energy than the last.

The song is a requiem in a year where it became impossible to separate rap from torment and tragedy—Mac died, Greedo is in prison, X disturbingly rose and fell, Drakeo and the Stinc Team still aren’t free. And while Glokk’s tracks like “5&1 Challenge” and “Az-Za” can lean more heavily into the grim, “10 Percent” registers as an anthemic synth-aided street ballad disparate from his persistent legal troubles.

This is despite the fact that the song’s genesis begins in an Orange County Florida jail cell, where Glokk wrote the whole verse while laying on a bunk with his cellmates. He then recorded and dropped it during the three months he was free. The video ties it all together: Glokk is waving a handgun with an extended clip in one hand and flaunting cash in the other while strolling around an AirBnb with his crew for three liberating minutes. The best part? He’s smiling the entire time. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE

26. FBG Duck – “Slide”

FBG Duck is an Ida B. Wells-born Gangsta Disciple who as a teenager watched drill’s first wave stars rise to fame while they mocked his slain 15-year-old friend’s name on breakout songs. When he begins tracks by telling his DJ, “I don’t want no autotune,” that’s both aesthetic disclaimer and targeted diss channeling extramusical resentment. He raps with a deep voice and favors animated accents and last-syllable flairs in the tradition of King Louie. He’s lost family members, taken two shots himself, and his music’s grinning energy presents these stakes with memorable numb glee.

“Slide,” Duck’s biggest hit to date, captures the thin line between taunts and attacks. Producer Lil Riico Beatz applies to porch-jumping the logic of The Drop, opening with bell tones and ticking hi-hats and claps, teasingly withholding bass until it explodes alongside screaming ad-libs. Duck follows suit, alternating between an amused trill and a “B.O.N.”-style squawk in revolving stretches of rising action (explaining why you won’t slide) and climax (what happens when you slide). He’s clever at every step: “I can’t shake your hand” is a warning; “Don’t wanna hear them loud sounds, then be quiet” is a helpful lesson. 21 Savage jumped on Duck’s official remix, and his version has 38 million fewer YouTube views.


25.Rae Sremmurd featuring Juicy J – “Powerglide”

Swaecation and Jxmmtro, like Speakerboxxx and The Love Below a generation ago, proved that a duo with country fried style and impeccable chemistry is better together than split in two. Thankfully, Rae Sremmurd also dropped SR3MM, nine tracks of money-throwing collaborations including the impeccable “Powerglide.”

Swae Lee admittedly carries the first half of the song. He raps about rolling his own weed at the strip club before his voice flips into falsetto to tell one of the dancers he has the hots for her. (His words, not mine.) Jxmmi’s verse is a staccato shock to his younger brother’s airy vocals.

Despite his blunt-singed tone, he’s thoughtful, turning down free dances in order to blow $20K on the dancers’ educations.

Mike Will Made-It, the 21st century’s fifth Beatle, turned up the bass and the tempo on a 2006 Three 6 sample to create the propulsive beat. The strings are always twirling up towards freedom from speed limits and hangovers. Juicy J serves as the duo’s older foil, like Gucci before him. He recorded his verse the same day Swae and Jxmmi met him at a party, which I assume is the only way anyone meets Juicy J. The Three 6 originator pays his respects to Lil Peep, but even the specter of overdose isn’t enough for him to stop popping pills.

Tupelo’s finest are this generation’s premiere party rappers, and “Powerglide” is a new peak. Anyone can rap about blowing smoke in foreign cars, but few can include the listener as joyously as Rae Sremmurd. When Swae Lee asks “Can you believe every night we do this,” it doesn’t even seem like a boast. It feels like you’re right there with him, careening off the ceiling of the brown and green Lambo Bruce Wayne would drive if he had a shred of style. — Jack Riedy

24. NBA Youngboy – “Diamond Teeth Samurai”

It’s not every day that you get to see someone wear a Young Thug chain while they deliver an immaculate Lil Wayne homage but “Diamond Teeth Samurai” isn’t an ordinary song. In a year that will be remembered by many as a ceaseless deluge of new releases, “Diamond Teeth Samurai” is a life changer. Had it come out during the height of the mixtape DJ era, it would have been rewound multiple times while Dutty Laundry or Bigga Rankin screamed “let’s get this bread” bromides at top volume.

He makes watching a movie with Meek Mill at Rick Ross’ house sound like the coolest thing ever. He compares himself to 2Pac and it doesn’t sound like delusion. He spends a sizable amount of the video rapping his heart out while hanging out of the passenger seat of a moving Bentley. Birdman shows up for the video because of course he does.

It’s the type of song that is impossible to listen to without getting out of your seat to engage in some top tier ‘rap hands’ action. The type of song that makes me relate to lyrics that I really have no business relating to. The type of song that checks every single box a rap lover could want. It’s a pure ball of energy and also one of the best rapping performances of the year…full stop. — Harold Bingo

23. Young M.A – “PettyWap”

Pettiness is a core human trait. It traverses time and commerce. Larry David flipped it into half a billion dollars. We are all petty sometimes, because modern life is too banal and overstimulating not to be. Fuck what you heard about civility or going high when they go low. Being petty is that good shit, oh yeah. It’s an essential component of the New York rap charm that has riveted imaginations for decades, from Phife complaining about John Starks’ ejection to Pun killing a man while he’s slurping spaghetti.

Young M.A is a precise, likable emcee, and she’s able to talk immense amounts of shit with an indefatigable smirk. She buys Fashion Nova dresses for her ladies to twerk in. She likes to eat, and assumes you’re down to cook. She needs you to call her, because she isn’t in the mood to text. She’s the Gary Payton of stealing girlfriends and leaving their men insecure.

Young M.A released five loosies on streaming platforms in 2018. All five were through her own M.A Music imprint, and all five exude deep confidence in both her sexuality and her position in her city. Is it petty to name the best of those singles after another rapper, one who has already been chewed out & discarded by the commercial cycle? Sure. Is it petty to argue that Young M.A might be the best rapper in New York, and has been for a minute? Yeah. It doesn’t matter, because pettiness is everywhere now. It’s what we practice. It’s how it all works. Disagree? Bitch just call my phone, don’t feel like textin’. — Steven Louis

22. Open Mike Eagle – “Southside Eagle (93 Bulls)”

In his Nobel lecture, the Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer emphasized that art must do two things: it must both entertain and instruct. When a thing is just entertainment, it’s merely escapism. If a thing is simply instruction, eyes glaze over; the message—however important—is lost. True artists manage to balance both, and Open Mike Eagle does this perfectly with “Southside Eagle.”

Early on, Mike was crowned prince of the small slice of hip-hop dubbed art rap; if we buy Singer’s criteria for art, it’s no surprise why. A long-time collaborator with Milo, Busdriver, and other Hellfyre Club expats, Mike’s catalog is filled with thoughtful, dark, often hilarious songs that both tell great stories and teach us how to be just a little bit better.

With “Southside Eagle,” the Chicago-raised, LA-based MC masters those qualities Singer held with such high regard. The song navigates life as a DIY-driven indie rapper: podcast appearances, struggles to keep the lights on with art, the battle for the open plug at the airport, and connecting with people of color in concert halls filled with Warby Parker-bespectacled white folks.

Mike writes about podcasts, the way that Future writes about codeine. But it’s his talent for specific detail that allows his audiences to commune with his rather unusual life. Like him, we’re over-caffeinated, worried about debt, and spend too much time on our phones. Through self-reflection and wit, Mike reminds us what our lives look like. — Justin Carroll-Allan

21. Key! x Kenny Beats “Toronto”

Key! has been a perennial force in Atlanta rap since he founded Two-9 with Curtis Williams almost a decade ago. Many first heard him in 2014, when he was featured on two of the city’s biggest hits, OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” and Father’s “Look at Wrist”. Before these, his solo projects Mothers Are the Blame and Fathers Are the Curse parried attempts to classify his style. “Grown Ass Man” from the former is soothing and paced, while the latter’s “Fabo” is drenched and talks about Nia Long. Both, like all his music, are surreal abstractions of wonky escapades layered with sardonic commentary.     

“Toronto”, from his collaborative album with Kenny Beats, is the same Key! just with all the dragon balls. Kenny creates depth with simple palettes and here gives the rapper a buzz melody amplified by slicing 808s. Key! is at peak confidence as he namedrops Vince Carter, the greatest to ever dunk a basketball, and Birkin bags, the deepest hiding spot for hammers. It’s psychedelic without dwelling on what that means, a song that compares diamonds to Spongebob characters and reduces Mercedes to second-class luxury while you’re too busy dancing to notice. Name another hit to use the phrase “tit fuck.” — Miguelito

20. Kendrick Lamar, Future, Jay Rock, and James Blake – “King’s Dead”

Is “King’s Dead” a metaphor? Unlike Lucy in 2015, Kendrick Lamar is not circling it over and over again with a red pen. In the seismic outro to what starts out as kind of a victory lap — after a year that included a Pulitzer Prize and curator’s placement on the soundtrack to a critically and commercially beloved blockbuster, Kendrick vociferously shirks a king’s praise and the lofty expectations that come with it. Coupled with the second movement’s earthquake bass, Kendrick refuses to be placed in a category and adopts a similar backstory and thesis to Killmonger, violence and nihilism and spiritual fatigue tied up into a hunger to be king at all costs.

Before the woozy James Blake passage that separates scorched earth from hydraulic switch bounce — Blake finally earning about as much cache in the rap world as one-time collaborator Bon Iver had in 2010 — Kendrick, Jay Rock, and Future do take that aforementioned victory lap in a 1983 Cutlass Supreme, freaking investments and baby’s mothers, going after what they want in life, spending Rolls Royce money on wristwear, and backing down tourists who act like tough guys. Future is as hooky as ever, Kendrick and Jay Rock are even hookier than ever, and the crowns spin like gold Daytons. — Douglas Martin

19. Blac Youngsta – “Booty”

An audio clip of “Booty” has 64 million plays on YouTube. The “Booty” video, which features Blac Youngsta at dollar bill size in some sort of depraved Gulliver’s Travel-To-The-Strip Club scenario, has 10 million plays. There’s probably a lesson to be learned from that. You know, something something personal branding something something crossover markets, yada yada yada. Blac Youngsta isn’t bogged down with this kind of nonsense. That’s what makes “Booty” great.

All that matters is that “Booty” will inevitably live on through someone’s YouTube dance team or at some strip club? somewhere? Anyway, Blac Youngsta has made undeniably better songs that talked about far more relatable experiences (the “Donald Trump fucking up everything, that man need to get slapped” bit on 2.23 is *chef’s kiss*) but the shit eating grin on his face in the video says it all. He’s been in on the joke for some time now but rarely has he taken it to this extreme.

To be frank, I’d be grinning like that if I got someone to bankroll my strip club trips and whatever special effects I wanted to add to them too. It’s not a song that has much utility from a daily listening standpoint but I could 100% see myself nodding enthusiastically to it while I hurl my meager wages at Spearmint Rhino. Thanks to “Booty”, I now have a renewed desire to live out this very misguided fantasy.  — Harold Bingo

18. SOB X RBE – “Paramedic!”

It would have been enough for Vallejo’s SOB X RBE to transform their loyal North Bay electro-rap nostalgia act into something a bit more widescreen. It would have been enough for SOB X RBE to issue two memorable albums in 2018 before potentially scattering to the winds. It would have been enough to appear on the Kendrick-curated Black Panther soundtrack; that’s a legacy maker. But the group evolved one step more, meeting producer DJ Dahi’s swelling clay-baked flutes with the kind of mic trading that evokes Cutthroat Committee and the kind of urgency that channels Franz Fanon. “If you need someone to call, I’m the man for the task / You ain’t standing for the ’cause; meet the man in the mask.” From NorCal to Wakanda, call it music to repatriate culture to.. — Evan McGarvey

17. Rucci – “That’s Norf”

Rucci’s wit is lethal and spontaneous, illuminating the tension between sinning and trying to sin less (“Deep In It”), a product of seeing “alotta shit as a kid” and maintaining ignorance (“Till The Day I Die”). El Perro del Norte is aggressive and approachable. He’ll “pass the henny” but draw the line if you reach for the bong.

Originally half of MackkRucci with the late Sean Mackk, Rucci feels a debt to Sean that he funnels into progression. Between his El Perro project in May and recent The Winning Team collaborative tape with OneTakeBoyz, Inglewood’s canine Piru released a string of loosies that rivaled his best runs to date. “That’s Norf” stands out as Rucci’s prime synthesis of humor, illicitness, and energy. He needs a U-Haul to carry his assault rifle, doesn’t mind paying for plastic surgery and wants you to know he respects New Orleans down to the gold in his mouth. Dupri’s production builds to a crescendo where Rucci demonstrates how to use his main declarative, ‘that’s norf’. For Rucci, whether speaking on family or fighting or food, that phrase summarizes the core of his music: North Inglewood and its people. — Miguelito

16. CBlack821 and Shawny Bin Laden – “CBSB”

Don’t let some bozo try to tell you what New York rap is supposed to sound like. New York rap is a lifestyle and the act of carrying yourself with an attitude that tells everyone you’re the hottest shit ever—even if you aren’t. Oh, don’t believe me?! Just listen to Queens’ CBlack821 and Shawny Bin Laden on “CBSB.” The first half of the song is CBlack and Shawny over a pounding bass and paranoia-inducing melody from Cash Cobain, that sounds like a high speed car chase with the NYPD on their tails. Their energy is high, but unbothered, because it’s New York the home of irrational cockiness.

The second half of “CBSB” removes that paranoia and ups the pace, incorporating rap’s most underrated instrument, gunshots. The duo take this opportunity to list off some of their daily activities including prepping their ski masks for robberies, doing donuts in the hellcat, and pressing a broke hater on the block. And in New York where life moves so fast, the two could realistically just be detailing their day before noon. For four minutes CBlack and Shawny take you into their world, and by the end you’ll be stuck in Queens with the same self-assurance that made CBlack say he was balling like the NBA’s worst shooter, Ben Simmons. That’s New York rap. — Alphonse Pierre

15. 1TakeQuan – “Grub Hub”

The first thing you hear in “Grub Hub” is the strings. A violin plays this back-and-forth Cruella De Vil pattern before Compton rapper 1TakeQuan hops in with some line-it-up shit-talking. A stuttered bassline unfolds to reveal an ‘04 Crunk beat that sounds like Lil Jon should be stomping all over it.

Quan hits all the necessary Jon-isms on the Yung Pear-produced hit with a similar swaggering absurdism and animated gruff. His voice has this croaky, gutteral quality that sharpens his words. Each bar feels like you’re being nailed by a Needler gun.

The sting of his bars isn’t just from his voice either. He throws shots with the best of them, but with such absurdity that one can’t possibly retaliate. It’s like when the bully says some funny ass shit about the way you’re holding a spork in the lunchroom. It’s a ridiculous insult in the first place, so defend yourself and you’re not playing along, or you can throw shots back and it’s not that deep. He’s won before you have the chance to respond.

Quan, along with 1TakeJay and Teezy, form the 1TakeBoyz, one of LA’s most outlandish rap crews. They thrive in that uncontrived absurdity and with Cali’s tradition of fooling with rhythmic expectations. But the grizzle in Quan’s voice cuts more sharply than any of his LA counterparts, setting him apart as a singular tone in the suddenly crowded ecosystem. — Harley Geffner

14. Young Thug featuring Elton John – “High”

Miles Davis is quoted as saying he changed music 5 or 6 times over the course of his career, but Young Thug may be gunning for his record in a single decade. First there was the mumbling and enigmatic  “Stoner” and “Lifestyle,” then Slime Season’s human file-dump stretching out in every considerable direction. Barter 6 saw Thug make concessions to the album format and Beautiful Thugger Girls was an open admission that rap was too small to contain him.

Now “High,” a two year-old Elton John flip seemingly made on a lark after Elton expressed his appreciation for Thug’s music, only barely pulls off the high wire act of nudging Thug towards accessibility without watering down what makes his music so engaging. That’s not because it fails however, it’s because Thug’s weirdness makes even what should be a blatant pop move sound like a bizarre ride to pop music’s frontiers.

“High” works because Thug isn’t particularly reverent towards Sir Elton’s source material, treating it for what it is once you scrub off the years of self importance: a pretty cool vocal line about taking drugs. There’s precedent here, Lil B’s weightless musings and Dipset’s raiding of 70s album oriented rock, but in Thug’s hands, it’s just another excuse to bounce through vocal cadences like a ping pong ball. It isn’t easy to grab a pop hook this big without it sounding like a jiggy era cash grab, so it’s to Thug’s credit that his weirdness and creativity ensure the song stands on its own merits and as a logical detour through his catalogue. — Son Raw

13. Metro Boomin featuring 21 Savage – “10 Freaky Girls”

When 21 Savage gained his first substantial mainstream presence on his Metro Boomin collaboration, Savage Mode, there seemed to be a sense that he wasn’t built for long-term success, due to what seemed like a limited skillset. Since then, 21 has revealed himself to be a flexible and interesting artist with one of the best on-wax personas in rap today; a dead-eyed hedonist with a sly sense of humor and a colorful array of ways to describe homicide.

“10 Freaky Girls” certainly wasn’t recorded to reinforce this long-standing fact, but it does that all the same by lightly deviating from the gothic paranoia that’s long been this pair’s trademark. 21 jumps between disconcertingly playful, legitimately funny and casually threatening – all to keep pace with Metro’s best effort from his “surprise” solo album. Metro busted out a few new tricks he picked up during his “retirement”  throughout the project but “10 Freaky Girls” easily does the best job of amalgamating his new ideas with tried and tested ones, thanks in large part to his chemistry with 21.

As for why Metro decided to bookend this banger with a sample from a Kashif and Whitney Houston collaboration? I have my thoughts but who cares? It’s 2018 and the shit sounds cooler than it did in 1984. — Mobb Deen

12. Shoreline Mafia – “Bands”

Last year, Shoreline Mafia made this list for “Musty,” the nocturnal classic that put the Los Angeles rap group on the map. Everything about that song was unpolished by design. The 808s blare off-key. The vocals are distant. Ron-Ron’s producer tag percolates throughout the bootlegged beat. “Musty” exemplified Shoreline Mafia’s winning formula: the anxiety of Los Angeles nervous rap resolved, or at least opiated, by the DIY verve of the SoundCloud era.

“Bands,” by comparison, is glossy and high-definition. It arrived on the heels of Shoreline Mafia’s signing to Atlantic Records and was tacked on to the end of group member Rob Vicious’ solo album Traplantic. The rapping here is leaner — they all fit verses and a very-long chorus into three minutes — and AceTheFace’s production sacrifices their older stuff’s monolithic character for sharper, more distinct layers. The song’s melody is dark, but the music video traffics in neon grandeur. The “Musty” video’s Hollywood smoke shop is now a mansion, complete with a radiant oasis and candy-coated Ferrari. This is Shoreline Mafia the major-label rap group, but they haven’t lost their identity. Ohgeesy checks the quality of his molly in one moment and counts the bands he made off it in the next. Rob Vicious needs money, weed, and drank.

The is still the sound of four graffiti-artists-turned-rappers bursting with charisma and hedonism. “Bands” proves that they haven’t flinched after getting the bag. — Mano Sundaresan

11. Future – “Hate the Real Me”

There’s a moment on season six of America’s foremost tragicomedy — Vanderpump Rules, obviously — where Jax Taylor sits down for a nice Mediterranean lunch with the mother and sister of his girlfriend, Brittany. They are here to enjoy Armenian and Lebanese small plates in an elevated setting, and to learn as to why Jax, a few months back, had unprotected sex with Brittany’s coworker in the bedroom of her elderly home-care patient.

There’s a short answer for this, which Jax has already told his bros: “If a squirrel had looked at me with a pussy, I would’ve fucked it.” And an even shorter answer, which is that he is a sociopath. But he goes a different route. “I’m not a mean person, by any means. I don’t do things to hurt people,” he stammers, his face pantomiming remorse through a mask of Botox. “I have a lot of problems with myself. I’m not happy with myself, AT ALL. Not even a little bit.”

“That makes me sad,” says Brittany’s mother in her wholesome Kentucky drawl. “It makes me sad too,” says Jax. “I bawl my eyes out. I’m a selfish, terrible person.” Later, Jax will seek redemption with the help of a reiki healer, who I would wager my next freelance check he fucked at least once, before dumping Brittany to “find himself.” They’ve since reconciled, and are currently engaged.

What I’m trying to say is that redemption arcs are overrated—and literally so, in a cultural moment where it feels like year-end rankings cater more towards narrativity than art. We love a bad guy turned good, or an underdog’s hard-fought acclaim, or a woman who’s loved and lost but learned so much about herself in the process. But there’s something to be said for being the villain, and for owning it. For considering that you’re kind of a scumbag and you’re only getting older and the constant in your near-perpetual misery appears to just be… you.

It was pretty obvious that America’s foremost bluesman hated himself before he said it outright; we all heard “Codeine Crazy.” And besides that, nobody with a healthy sense of self-worth has that many alter-egos. I myself have written tens of thousands of words on Future’s pain, and probably have tens of thousands more in me, and most of them are fairly sympathetic, maybe irrationally so. But the protagonist of “Hate the Real Me” is a dick, straight up—he’s belligerent, bragging about fucking groupies and slut-shaming his ex while re-emphasizing that all he really wants is true love. He’s a sad dick, to be fair. But a dick nonetheless.

I still wonder, after hearing it dozens of times, why Future would choose such an uncharacteristically triumphant Zaytoven beat for a song about self-loathing—the kind of production over which you can imagine Rick Ross barking about crab legs or Drake bragging about taking Millie Bobby Brown to Six Flags, but instead, here’s Future fantasizing about blowing his brains out. It’s ironic, really — the anti-revelation, the flattening of a redemption arc. In its own way, it almost feels like acceptance. — Meaghan Garvey

10. 2Eleven featuring Free Ackrite – “Blood Walk” / $tupid Young featuring Dmb Johnny Rose & WxldChxld – “Cuz Walk”

There’s a plainspoken simplicity to 2Eleven’s “Blood Walk” and $tupid Young’s “Cuz Walk”––they’re songs for opposing sides of Los Angeles County’s interwoven blue and red fault lines, done in language laypeople can intuit. 2Eleven, an Inglewood Neighborhood Piru Blood, raps “These .223’s will cause damage/Long red belt, red strings, Blood Walkin’ on stage”; In a surprisingly downy lilt, $tupid Young, a Long Beach Asian Boyz Crip, questions “I’m on your head like a durag/Ever seen an Asian with a blue rag?” Their videos, too, are parades of primary colors––fluttering liquor store bandannas, screen-printed t-shirts, rakish New Era ball caps (a Phillies cap for the Pirus; Johnny Rose’s Twins cap for the Rollin’ 30’s Harlem Crips). This is the contemporary American vernacular: brute force color-coordinated tribalism.

Inherent to this near-ceremonial sabre rattling is a sense of impermanence. In the “Blood Walk” video, a life-sized cardboard cutout of 2Eleven’s former protege, Sean Mackk, is paraded around by men in shirts memorializing him, the Inglewood rapper standing taller and more stolid than ever. (Had Mackk not been murdered last summer, he, like former partner Rucci, would’ve been at the forefront of Los Angeles’ burgeoning rap movement.) On “Cuz Walk,” Johnny Rose raps “Push start/She only likes the Crips ‘cuz we livin’ large,” but, as I write this, Rose is sitting in jail. All music is inextricable from the moment it’s created in, but the “Walks” feel especially fleeting––in a year’s time it might be someone else’s gauzy likeness on the memorial shirt, or someone else hashtagging #FreeMe from a contraband cell phone. The Bloods and Crips are forever; their membership is not. — Torii MacAdams

9. Blueface – “Thotiana”

With respect to music alone, no one seemed as divisive in 2018 as Los Angeles’ Blueface, the Mid City rapper, famous Schoolyard Cryp, and distinguished Inland Empire youth choir director. Releasing his first song in September of last year, Blueface’s catalogue reads like a string of quotable asides to his fans — from aspirational “don’t chase me, chase your dreams” to the congenial “welcome to the meatshow” — and exasperated diversions from “the beat” to his opponents. The back-and-forth intensified once his name spread beyond LAUSD lockers and West L.A. speakers.

On Twitter he’s either an iconoclast in the tradition of Suga Free or Courage the Cowardly Dog with face tatts and a drop fade. Most Blueface criticism centers around “He’s rapping off the beat,” with “the beat” referring to some unadulterated form of “how you should say words over drums” handed down a cold sixteen bars after the Ark of the Covenant. Blueface, no prisoner to the laws of God or man, responds, “I don’t go off the beat, bitch I off it.”

If he rides the pocket for any track, and if that means anything substantive, it’s on “Thotiana,” the song of the summer that dropped in early February. “Thotiana” has the familiar stripped down, shit-talking-in-traffic Scum Beats production of his first hit, “Dead Locs,” with a more traditional structure, i.e. it has a hook. There’s still plenty of room for absurdity. Besides congealing ass-shaking directives at his ideal dancer, Blueface compares revisiting old flings to relapsing and slides relationship culpability to his mother who always told him he would “break hearts.”

Last week, video showed Blueface getting booed as he opened up for Lil Uzi Vert in Philadelphia. He “fucks with Philly” though and the next day he got a warm reception headlining in Las Vegas, which included being groped on stage. People squabble over his music beyond character limits but he doesn’t seem to care. Someone will bust down regardless. — Miguelito

8. Valee featuring Jeremih – “Womp Womp”

If the rap gods were just, we wouldn’t have wasted any time this year talking about Wyoming, Twitter, or Charlie fucking Kirk in conversations about Kanye West or his label G.O.O.D. Music. Instead, we’d have focused all our attention on newly-minted signee Valee, the incredibly versatile 30-year-old rapper from Chicago, and his single “Womp Womp,” which transcends regional limitations and expands the possibilities of trap.

Valee’s maturity makes him stand out from the teeming hordes of rising rappers clamoring for attention. He puts more faith in his craft than the noise of hype. Rather than joining the melee with bombastic Instagram monologues, Valee chooses to let his quiet confidence reverberate loud and clear. Valee’s out here like Methuselah in a land of Sauls.

“Womp Womp” swirls and surges with subtle urgency. Made with minimalist sensibilities, the single doesn’t abide by current aesthetics. Its music, produced by newcomer Cássio, feels both contemporary and futuristic—something you could just as easily overhear on a teenager’s cracked iPhone on an L platform or on a remote space station eighty years after Earth’s collapse.

Valee celebrates his natural, fluid flow here. Though Valee’s delivery is quiet, it can’t be mistaken for lifelessness; his subtle wordplay enhances the understated beat and transforms the track into a low-key banger. His whispery, subdued delivery bounces confidently across the track’s four minutes with the vivaciousness of Mac Dre’s library voice.

The track features R&B singer Jeremih, and showcases both artists’ ability to align their styles. Jeremih proves his worth more than a hook; his bars are as formidable as anyone’s. Like The Twins from SuperJail!, the two Chicago artists camouflage their usually distinct voices and turn them into a quiet juggernaut powerful enough to destroy worlds.

Instead of clanging the bells, churches the world over should just play “Womp Womp” three times a day. — Justin Carroll-Allan

7. Sheck Wes – “Mo Bamba”

During Lil B’s brief reign of sorts at the beginning of the decade, I can’t imagine anyone anticipated just how deeply that mostly lovable weirdo’s influence would persist. Based God’s popularization of the ‘celebrity name as song title/theme’ finally reached its literal and figurative apex in the form of our introduction to Sheck Wes and his ode to his childhood friend, former basketball teammate, and fellow Harlemite/West African, the 7-foot NBA player, Mo Bamba. Ellen DeGeneres is cool and all but no one, including her, ever inspired a song this monstrous.

Ostensibly, 2018’s most raucous rap single draws parallels between Sheck Wes’ record label recruiting process and Mo Bamba’s college basketball recruiting experience but I suspect 99% of the humans that have lost their shit to this track had no idea that was the case before, during or after hearing the track. Shit, even Sheck Wes probably stopped believing that yarn after the second time he shared it.

Not that I’d blame Sheck or anyone else. We once thought a stylist like Playboi Carti would represent the final evolution of minimalist, non-lyrical rappers ascending to the top of the hill but Sheck Wes took this formula and turned it up to eleven with the aid of an aggressive delivery (the latest in a long lineage – RIP Tim Dog)  and the most most cognitively dissonant production I can recall in a long time – if the BASS didn’t get you, the ice cream truck synths did. The combination of those two elements was the sonic equivalent of running outside because you heard the ice cream truck heading your way then getting body-slammed by the ice cream man for touching said truck. If you somehow managed to escape the beat, then the simple power of Sheck Wes’ stadium level chants and adlibs masquerading as lyrics probably did the trick.

In any case, Mo Bamba’s omnipresence this year can simply be explained in one word: ENERGY. There are a few different ways to make a hit but sometimes all it takes is bringing the right energy to the room. For as long as Rap remains a thing, we’ll always have room for a shouty MC or two, largely because the youth will always find melodic energy infectious and the mob mentality will suffice for everyone else. Lucky for Sheck Wes, he just so happened to be the architect of loudest and catchiest jingle of the year. BITCH! — Mobb Deen

6. Queen Key – “Tell”

Queen Key is a minimalist. The starker the beat, the harder she goes in, bodying 808s with her deadpan delivery and lines about being really good at fucking. On “Tell,” the Chicago-born rapper is at her best, working through ways to tell an anonymous woman that she wants to have sex with her husband. This isn’t a moral dilemma as much as an inevitability, and as such, Key is simply trying to figure out the quickest way to get what she wants.

Queen Key is a hysterical rapper, but her best work is dark and self-aware. Whereas contemporaries like Cardi B and Rico Nasty feed their work with aggression and fervor, Queen Key is more laconic and dry; there’s an all-knowingness to her delivery in which she lays out a set of rules we must follow. This is her world, and all we’re allowed to do is watch the orgy.

Queen Key is, for all intents and purposes, a rapper who focuses almost exclusively on sex, but to peg her as 2 Live Crew 2.0 would be misguided. She’s an assassin of an emcee, reveling in her ability to talk dirty in an unending amount of ways. One listen to “Tell” reveals a nuanced stylist far stronger than her 21 years would suggest.

On “Tell” Key is staggeringly forthright about her mission: “How do I tell this bitch I wanna fuck her husband/I’m that bitch so she might let me/bitch might try to interrupt us.” This is the first line of her first verse. She’s not shy, that’s for sure. The beat is helmed by Willeam, who surrounds Key’s unrelenting flow with paranoid synths that scratch up against the bass heavy drum line. The minimalism allows Key’s best lines to flourish, and although “Tell” is exactly two minutes long, she’s able to rattle off rhyme after rhyme that would be the best moment on songs from her contemporaries.

Picking a favorite line is like picking a favorite Young Thug song, but I’m partial to, “I got a rich n***a scanner/ I might put his dick in my planner.” It seems like if Queen Key puts your dick in her planner, you’ve gotta acquiesce.

“Tell” is a standout on Queen’s 2018 release, Eat My Pussy, which, well, takes a certain gravitas to pull off. It’d come off as a gimmick if Key wasn’t so resolutely in-tune with this vision of sex-as-poetry. And that sounds corny as hell, but these rhymes are complex and effortless, the sort of meandering from point a to point b that all good rap achieves in one way or another. Queen Key gets their by rapping about how perfect her you-know-what is, and after spending 2018 with “Tell” on repeat, I’m inclined to believe her. — WILL SCHUBE

5. YNW Melly – “Murder on My Mind”

The first time YNW Melly fired a gun, he was in fourth grade. He found it at his junkie uncle’s house and growing up on the low end of Gifford, Florida, he got used to them. By middle school, he was brandishing a pistol of his own, hidden in a lunchbox to avoid detection. Just as in many of the small, overlooked communities of South Florida, gun violence is central to the DNA of Gifford. In a city of only 9,500 people, everybody knows someone who’s been affected. People clock in for a midnight shift at their second low-wage job and have no choice but to act like everything is normal, while many of them will never get to laugh or cry with a best friend again.

At only 19 years old, Melly lives with the emotional turmoil of this bleak outlook every day. He processes the harrowing reality of this broken climate through wildly soulful and tender melodies that speak to a generation of trauma-riddled teenagers. With “Murder on My Mind,” Melly offers a piercing first-hand account from one of those teenagers, who had accidentally shot his best friend.

He gazes hauntingly into the camera from inside a jail cell, lamenting his new reality in which he can’t roll swishers or hug his mama around Christmas, before taking us to the moments that landed him there. Blood is spilled all over Melly’s bare chest and has run through his friend’s white tee as Melly holds the dying boy in his arms, surrounded by yellow tape. His friend says he’s afraid to die and Melly looks down to tell him “it’s too late my friend it’s time to say goodbye.” It’s one of the most agonizing and visceral tracks of the year as Melly empties all that pent up frustration into silky melodies like Young Thug with PTSD.

The track is backended on his album I AM YOU by “Mind on My Murder,” a look at the same incident from the perspective of the victim. It’s these inspired narratives combined with his instinctual pop sensibilities and the ability to paint his emotions with tender vocal flairs that make Melly uniquely capable of rendering the South Florida experience. — Harley Geffner

4. Azealia Banks – “Anna Wintour”

Hip-hop and house grew tangentially and simultaneously. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, at clubs like Nell’s in New York (where Biggie shot the “Big Poppa” video), you could hear DJs play both genres on the same night. As hip-hop and house entered the mainstream, countless hybrid tracks emerged. Some were awful, and some were okay. (e.g., Jungle Brothers’ “I’ll House You”). If this information is arcane to you, you’ve at least heard the most commercial and insufferable “hip-house” song: C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Azealia Banks’ “Anna Wintour” is the antithesis of that, the only and greatest answer to the question, “What if Crystal Waters (of ‘100% Pure Love’ fame) had leaned into rap?”

In the context of Banks’ slight but fascinating and incredible catalog, “Anna Wintour” was inevitable. You can chart her affinity for electronic music—and house specifically—on every release: 1991 (“212,” “1991”), Fantasea (“Fierce”), Broke With Expensive Taste (“Chasing Time,” “Miss Amor”), and Slay-Z (“Big Beat”). It’s fitting, then, that “Anna Wintour” is a song about finding and embracing yourself with unbridled joy. Produced by Junior Sanchez (“The Love Within”), “Anna Wintour” pulses to a prototypical but engaging house rhythm.

Banks elevates the instrumental to rapturous heights, moving so gleefully and seamlessly between vocal registers, from singing to rapping, that the beat is not secondary but tertiary. When she sings, her voice is at once passionate and entrancing, as if she’s voguing behind the pulpit. When she spits pointed lines about her sartorial and rap prowess in a rapid but controlled staccato, she reminds you that, despite her off-record antics, she should be in the conversation with any rap peer — male, female, non-binary, etc. In the hip-house lane, though, Banks has no choice but to embrace her solitude. She has found the alchemical formula that eluded previous generations. She is peerless. — Max Bell

3. Sada Baby & Drego – “Bloxk Party”

I’m not sure if, since I first pressed play on the video for “Bloxk Party,” that my internet-addled brain has ever fully shut it off. Without prompt, my perfectly smooth pate will flash to a brace-faced Drego standing on a McMansion kitchen island or to Sada Baby, with his Woolly Willy beard and subtle paunch, wriggling and giggling. Can a series of unselfconscious, unchoreographed dances be considered anthemic? What about a song without a chorus, in which a “big-ass shotgun” is said to look like a Finnish stretch-four on the most shambolic team in the NBA?

There’s no historical analogue for the success of “Bloxk Party” — Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” and Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” benefited from sensationalist media coverage, and neither were rappin’-ass rap songs which, beneath its roiling depth charge bassline, “Bloxk Party” secretly is. There’s a reason for its uniqueness: as it’s currently constituted, the rap industry is designed to confine songs like “Bloxk Party” to their regions of origin. Its resounding success has defied every contemporary orthodoxy: it hits like brass knuckles left in a freezer overnight; its lyrics are about pill presses and sneaking guns into parties; its low-budget video is an series of wonderfully goofy dances; and it comes from Detroit, a city whose rap scene has, for too long, been overshadowed by a pale 46 year-old recluse with an inexplicable fondness for military caps.

This New Detroit is just as hard as the Old Detroit, albeit without its alienating self-seriousness. In this newfound looseness, they’ve found common cause with birthplace of rap psychedelia, the Bay Area––they, too, are gun-toting criminals and pill-popping dancers and find no contradiction between the two activities. Detroit rappers will still fuck the party up––but, as Sada Baby raps, it might just be with their dance moves. — Torii MacAdams

2. Pusha-T – “Story of Adidon”

There are no rules in rap beef because there are no longer any rules at all. Our society is built for branding geniuses who understand the power of the grift. As long as you’re convincing, conviction is irrelevant. The truth is built on shifting sand. You can be the greatest rapper of your generation and you don’t even need to write. You can be from Toronto, but also from Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Tottenham, Kingston, and the Meat Show. You can be Wheelchair Jimmy with Mob Ties. You can steal sauce, flows, and entire songs from fledgling talents and pass it off as “putting them on.” You can dodge tough interviews for an entire career because who needs press when a streaming company, partially owned by your label, can turn over the entire machine to you. And you have an exclusive deal with the other one. This isn’t God’s plan because there is no God. But it’s a clever Instagram caption, I guess.

Pusha T is 41-years old. The first lines of his career were “playas we ain’t the same, I’m into ‘caine and guns.” His brother followed it up, 90 seconds later, by bragging about helping their grandmother import yay from the Bahamas. Terrence Thornton grew up seeing Biggie and Puff outside of Virginia Beach clubs, hearing rumors about the D-Boys who made them to perform, security concerns or not. I doubt that he’s played Fortnite and his definition of twitch is surely distinct from yours.

By constitution, he is diametrically opposed to Drake. The 32-year old that still goes by “the boy” does most musical things modestly well. Pusha does one thing—and one thing only—as well as nearly anyone to ever do it. Drake is a politician with villainous sympathies. Pusha is an avowed villain, but people actually describe him similarly to the greatest victim of rap beef: “he’s nice, but that’s on the low though.”

Who cares what these two were originally bickering about? It was mostly inconsequential, a series of trivial feuds sparked by other members of their camps. Drake and Pusha hated each other because some people are just supposed to hate each other. They believe in different ideals, their visions of the world are in natural conflict, that’s how art is supposed to work. You can make this about rap, but artists in all mediums are infamously petty. Fuck a rap song. Novelists have devoted entire books to settling scores. Michaelangelo stopped Da Vinci in the streets of Florence to diss him for never finishing a statue of a horse in Milan—presumably in the cadences of the “Duppy Freestyle.”

Every line of “The Story of Adidon” is a guillotine blade severing a jugular vein. It’s not for everyone because it’s the audible version of Red Asphalt. Or maybe it’s the Red Wedding of rap. It never wound up a surgical summer because the operation was too effective on the first go-around. Run through the greatest rap disses of all-time, and this is easily Top 5. I’ll give you “No Vaseline” and “Takeover,” but then what? “Ether” can’t compare because half of it is tasteless homophobia. Pusha starts this off by spotting Drake the ghostwriting fiasco. He doesn’t need to bring in Sauce Walka’s claim that T.I.’s friend pissed on him in an Atlanta movie theater. He’s fighting with one hand behind his back, and he never flinches.

Don’t tell me that it’s not great because it’s someone else’s beat, because so was “Hit Em Up.” Even the selection was artful and pointed, somehow re-contextualizing Jay’s best song of the decade. Don’t tell me that the artwork wasn’t a knockout punch off top because of Drake’s Instagram explanation. It’s not that a very young and naïve Drake made a foolish mistake by trying to be edgy, it’s that he was corny and lame enough to do it in the first place (and think that people wouldn’t once again notice he was biting Phonte).

Every line is an individual decapitation. Pusha drops the best music criticism of the year (“your music is angry and full of lies.”) It features the year’s best investigative reporting (“You are hiding a child” makes “you are not deep” look like “you are the sunshine of my life.”) He mocks the unpaid royalties and tithes that Drake has had to pay to burnish his credibility. And Dennis Graham will never look at his suit closet the same way again

It’s not merely that Pusha exposed Drake for being a deadbeat dad or his desperation to keep up the gilded public image that disguises a seedier side. It’s the sardonic tone and caustic contempt you hear in his voice. He backs Drake so deep into the corner that no response was actually possible. He’d have had to go even more scorched earth, which would have done more damage to the America’s sweetheart image that he rigorously cultivated. Pusha doesn’t have to go on Ellen.

Every syllable is sneer delivered through fanged teeth: the middle point between “Takeover” and “Hit Em Up” without any of those bullshit Outlawz verses. It’s brilliant because it exposes the inner rot behind the façade, the hall of mirrors that Drake has so brilliantly, emptily constructed. The most painful insults aren’t supposed to be mean; they’re supposed to be true.

The only ontological philosophy unifying millennial life is that nothing matters. Our society was always hideously flawed and grotesquely hypocritical, but it inevitably aspired towards a certain rudimentary logic: authenticity was important, honesty was essential, and making money wasn’t intrinsically synonymous with success. Once upon a time, post-modern theorists and Adam Smith flunkies viciously attacked those ideas with polemical screeds. Now you just get a LOL emoji.

In a world where the truth has never mattered less, Pusha reminded us for three minutes that there are still those who hold some things sacred. It held up Drake under an ultraviolet light so you could see the stains. What kind of a sociopath unveils their baby to promote a new line of sneakers? Whatever happened to those Adidon shoes anyway? — Jeff Weiss

1. Drakeo X 03 Greedo- “Ion Rap Beef”

“Upon completion of probation and advancement to the rank and pay grade of Police Officer II, an officer WITH a college degree (AA or higher) OR at least two years of military or prior law enforcement experience shall be paid $70,136.” –– City of Los Angeles Personnel Department, “LAPD Annual Salaries (Jan. 2015)”

I spent most of this year poring over Drakeo’s music: tracing its rhythmic tics, decoding its slang, putting the mythology in the right order—why do all the foreigns sound like burdens and the B&Es like acts of God? I’ve sunk fully into the album and all the mixtapes; phrases that would seem totally inscrutable to most English-speaking people have become like hot keys in my brain. I can’t turn it off. This is something the LAPD and I have in common.

At the time of this writing, Drakeo the Ruler is also inmate #5198096, awaiting trial––or bail, or any movement really––after being charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and multiple counts of conspiracy to commit murder. All indications so far are that the case against him will rest largely on what he’s said in his music, which has become a phenomenon in Los Angeles. A very popular rap collective will be presented to a jury as a gang. You could, of course, object to this practice on First Amendment grounds. Good luck.

This is what the criminal justice system is: a cold, capricious beast that groans to life whenever it likes and crushes anything that’s underfoot. It is not a solitary, symbolic police cruiser chasing you down the highway––it’s endless strings of hearings and concocted probation violations and dubious gang enhancements. That’s what 03 Greedo learned, when what was becoming a rapid ascent toward the top of hip-hop was derailed by a 20-year sentence on drug and gun charges, enhanced by old felonies and by, well, you already know. He’s somewhere in Texas right now, waiting, too.

It would be difficult to overstate what it meant in the city when Drakeo and Greedo finally aligned with one another last year. Go back to “Out the Slums.” They rap like they’re superheroes, one step ahead of the beast. Drakeo: “Thought I had life until I posted a dub.” Greedo: “Bailed out two times on one case and we still mobbin’.” But, again, they’re not––at least not right now.

All of which is why it’s so spine-chilling to hear Drakeo taunt the crewcuts swarming a desktop computer, taking notes. “You ain’t learn from Cold Devil?” he sneers, a minute into “Ion Rap Beef.” “I’m a nuisance.” This is after he deadpans that “You ain’t do it right if no detectives come,” and it’s after he grumbles with faux lament that the family’s going to have to find a “suitable” picture for Fox 11 News. And it’s right before he dispenses with the cryptic threats and goes for the vein:

“I got dirty money on me but I just got out the shower

I’ll shoot up everything––we ain’t squabbling for hours.”

The brilliance (and it is brilliance) of Drakeo’s music is that it follows the exact folds of his brain, in the way it lurches from scowled threats to inside jokes, from arcade game ephemera to the thread of paranoia that runs through all his work. It’s really mumble rap, in the sense that it’s the kind of self-aggrandizement and handwringing you mutter on the way to your car, feeling for your keys. It’s nervous, except when it’s cackling at the moron cops who can’t figure out how he got the front door unlocked.

Drakeo’s verse here––and the chorus, where he’ll concede only that he’s dealing with some things you might perceive as post-traumatic––is about control. It’s precise. Greedo’s, by contrast, is wailed, as if the gator-skin loafers and military-grade weapons are the only things comforting him at his lowest. Their voices could not be better counterweights for one another, and at the time each was dragged off to jail, he was peerless in his hometown save for the other person on the track.

There are rumors that Greedo might be allowed to leave Texas very early, as soon as 2020. And from behind bars Drakeo has not only kept faith, but has made tweaks to his own legend. “Come to the prelims,” he asked his fans through an interview with this website. “You’ll see me sitting there with my Cartier glasses, all white buffs.” Courtroom attire is one thing, of course, but Drakeo insisted his wardrobe is turning heads even in the dorms. “I be sitting here in jail right now wearing Champion shorts and these Nikes,” he teased, “and everyone in here is asking me where I got them from. You’d have to be in here to see it.” That’s the same interview where he revealed how much he’s raking in––legally, off music––every month: about $70,000. — Paul Thompson

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