The POW Best Albums of 2018

The annual return of objectively the best Best Albums list since 2008.
By    December 24, 2018

Note to our readers: it takes a tremendous amount of time to curate, write, edit, and format this list. POW is one of the last fully independent music blogs still standing and is 100 percent user funded. Please consider donating a few bucks to the Patreon. Your support is very much appreciated and needed. 

In the interest of whatever passes for objectivity, we declined to put any of the artists on POW Recordings on our year-end rankings. Because we believe that they are exceptionally brilliant and deserving of recognition, they are celebrated here as honorable mention. If you’re so inclined, you can purchase their records on the POW Bandcamp here

And yes, there is a playlist at the bottom. 

Honorable Mention: Ness Nite – Dream Girl [POW Recordings]

Ness Nite’s music lives in the gauzy time between the party’s peak and the sunrise. The 23-year-old singer’s debut Dream Girl is a pleasant haze like a fever brought on by secondhand smoke and body heat. Her voice is a clear siren call through the foggy keys and cracking drums, produced by Mike Frey and engineered by Alex Tumay.

Throughout the album, Ness revels in female pride, dedicating her music to her “mama’s birthday mama’s mama” and her “daughter’s daughter’s daughter”. Her songs are queer because, as she told The Mac Weekly, “queer people need songs that they can just relate to without having to be explicit about it. This is just our normal life — why do we have to say what we are all the time?” When she’s flexing, she’s taking pics in a fur coat trying to blow up Malia Obama’s inbox. Even when she’s breaking up with a girlfriend, she’s more wistful than hurt. Goodbyes don’t get more gracious than “I’ll save the page when your name’s in the Times.”

Ness rejects any prefab genre label for Dream Girl. Make no mistake, Ness is a skilled rapper: check the tongue twister hook of “Watercolor Roses” and the swagger in her voice when she proclaims “I ain’t got no motherfuckin expectations”. But she also has an impeccable ability to write pop hooks, as if Taylor Swift grew up on Future instead of Tim McGraw. Ness prefers the term “braless” music, a fitting label for music that brings the unrestrained intimacy of the bedroom to the chaos of a party. — JACK RIEDY

Honorable Mention: The Outfit, TX – Little World [POW Recordings] 

When The Outfit, TX released Starships & Rockets: Cooly Fooly Space Age Funk in 2012 it felt like lightning in a bottle, an album so easy and effortless it was easy to imagine Mel, Jayhawk and Dorian skipping off the rap atmosphere never to be seen again.

But in subsequent years the Dallas trio slowly focused their sound and became a touchstone for what’s become a more nuanced and detailed definition of southern rap music. You might miss Dorian’s sighing, buttered input (his “quietude” as senior PoW contributor Torii MacAdams neatly puts it) but the straightforward juxtaposition of the sneering, snide Mel and Jayhawk’s firebrand loopiness has given TOTX a protein pill firepower that’s hard to match; from Down by the Trinity to last year’s Fuel City, their dueling verses have steadily become more harebrained crazy.

Little World feels like the logical endgame of this evolution, a hectic collection of creepy trunk busters with Mel as sideways sinister as Jayhawk is brazenly manic. The album itself is lean and focused.

You see it on the spooktacular “Name on the Wall” and the music box glide of “Conviction”, while something like “On My Name” is maybe the most brutally efficient piece of rap TOTX have ever released. That said, tracks like “Money Truck” bulk up brilliantly, 03 Greedo a natural fit for the album opener’s sirens and Carpenter synths, Dorian swinging in for a verse also (otherwise, TOTX’s third member largely confines himself to mixing and mastering duties).

On Little World, The Outfit, TX feel like they’re capturing the sound of a city. Compared to Houston or Atlanta, Dallas’s rap scene has been largely ignored in a wider sense. There are plenty of emerging artists but few who have built a discography as cogent as TOTX. Little World is a compelling play to seize the scene’s high ground. — MATT SHEA

Honorable Mention: Chester Watson – Project 0 [POW Recordings] 

It may be a fool’s errand to attempt to contextualize the year in rap before it is even officially over, but 2018 felt like it was the year that rap finally stopped needing to make sense- where genre-aping, the counting of syllables and a strict, technical adherence to rhyme schemes finally began to matter less to more.

Chester Watson’s Project 0 waged it’s own war on convention this year but its battle was one of nuance. Assembled as a pre-cursor or maybe as a fine-tuned piece of catharsis Project 0 arrived in lieu of a larger work entitled A Japanese Horror Film. It is the most cohesive project the “necromancer, ex-folk dancer” has released thus far and in its dense brevity Project 0 disarms the notion that Watson is merely for those still glued to the constructs of genre—something that Watson himself has expressed prior anxiety over.

Sure, the beautifully warped samples that comprise large portions of Project 0 lend themselves to lysergic daydreaming, Earl comparisons and the urge to light one before breakfast (all things which I condone by the way) but for those willing to read beyond the lo-fi atmospherics and the tired nomenclature typically ascribed to them, one will find Watson focused on far more than skateboards, weed and Ouija boards and often within the same breath.

Watson’s stream-of-conscious-raps sit between wisdom and wandering and often are delivered like confessions of a close friend. What bewitches him is relatable. Whether it is the prospect of purchasing real estate or grappling with the idea that the bling-bling era is worthy of both aspiration and existential dread, Watson sounds both beyond man’s carnal desires and willingly susceptible to them.

Watson’s greatest power is his unapologetic humanity and Project 0 is the best distillation thus far. Watson’s moods are transient and sometimes it’s not immediately apparent how they are all related but as I reflected on 2018 I realized so were mine. So in a year where things didn’t always need to make sense it seems fitting that a voice that expressed the desire to simultaneously die, see some boobies and to buy a mountain only to blow up to in favor of a cave made all the fucking sense in the world. — ATTICUS GRINCH

Honorable Mention: Vince Ash – Do or Die [POW Recordings] 

Welcome to the 219. Do Or Die is the debut album from 21-year-old Vince Ash, a fearless coming of age tape. It centers most heavily on Ash’s experiences growing up in Hammond, Indiana between the ages of 17-19. The youngest of five brothers and raised by a single mother, Ash’s family surrounded him with hip-hop early. His father lost his life at just 22, when Ash he was just three months old, which left a deep void.

“6 Feet” opens the album sounding keyed up and course. The sped up choral sample hangs over the low-end like a deranged muse. A blue collar work ethic has morphed into mafia maneuvers. Ash’s voice is possessed by numbed trauma. In the heart of the rustbelt the work hours stretch way past midnight. He ditched a factory job at Illinois Tool Works where he made car door handles. Music proved a positive alternative to the mundanity of the assembly line, as well as the bullshit of the streets. The decision ultimately led to the first body of work from a promising talent from a region many consider “fly over territory.” Yet in that territory, it’s kill or be killed.

With the album standout “Mobbin,” Ash marks his trajectory. The intro is tastefully lifted from Paid In Full, and the verses read like scriptures passed down from generations of OGs. Eerie taunts form meaning, and illustrate the frigid nights that made Ash and his Deuce Mob so solid. Do Or Die is steeped in loyalty and Midwestern family sensibilities. A few Doggystyle-esque radio skits appear, but the goofing off only lasts so long. ‘What you know about them dark nights, candle lights at your crib, staying out damn near all night, no food up in the fridge?’ Ash asks on “Ride With Me.” In his interview with POW, he spoke about his mother opening up their home to his homies when they were out of options. Experiences like this are what build bonds that last a lifetime. Ride or die. — EVAN GABRIEL

Honorable Mention: Zilla Rocca – Future Former Rapper [POW Recordings]

How much time do you have? Philadelphia rapper/producer Zilla Rocca wants to know. On Future Former Rapper, his first POW album, rap’s Philip Marlowe is preoccupied with time: how much has passed, how much he has left, how much he can devote to a rap career that will eventually end. As he tallies the number of bled bottles and corpses between adolescence and adulthood, he cauterizes decades-old wounds and grapples with the bleak fiscal realities of rapping in the streaming era. The beats split the difference between grimy, east coast boom-bap (e.g., “Favors Are Bad News”) and the ominous and avant-garde (e.g., “Enemy/Stranger/Friend”). They are the score to dark, smoke-choked speakeasies and the 24/7 diners still standing in our incorporated dystopia. No matter the style of production, Rocca has never sounded more assured in his writing or delivery. Even in the darkest moments, Rocca’s self-assurance is synonymous with peace. He’s found it in himself, his music/career, and his life. The album ends with a love letter to his son and wife, a tender paean to the joy they add to his life and the hours he spends with them. It’s a flex without equal. Zilla Rocca made it. Rap is secondary. — MAX BELL

* 50. Migos – Culture II [Capitol Records] 

What the fuck did Migos ever do to you? I’ve rarely felt as apologetic and argumentative as I do writing a piece endorsing an album as one of the fifty best made in this year but fuck, I don’t get it. Culture II could win an award for the album most commonly slotted in at 50 on these year end best of lists. And look, I get it. The album suffers from bloat. It’s a two-disc, 24-song, nearly two hour behemoth. But last year the first album in this “suite” was our fourth best. Fourth! This year a meditation that at least shares the leaning of the first statement is 50th? What changed?

The first Culture was a tight career summation that featured a world destroying single you’ll see once a generation. Where a group that took nearly a decade building a sound and a style underground captures the zeitgeist with the perfect song for its moment. As most double albums are, this thing is all over the place, playing more like a maximalist mixtape than a concentrated, curated single thought.

But here’s the thing: This album is full of brilliant jams. It shows real growth at times, and real mastery of the style we were all praising without qualification a year ago. Personally I would scale back the Quavo autotune shit but there are times it works in sad, brilliant ways that beat the Futures of the world at their own game, and at other times, it’s like the original Culture never ended. Culture II joins very rarified air as an intriguing, exciting, and at time frustrating double rap album. You could argue it could be shorter and either less or more experimental but you could’ve said the same thing at the time for the other two really great double rap albums released in the ’90s and I’m now personally forever grateful they held back on the restraint. — ABE BEAME

* 50. (tie) Lil Wayne – Carter V [Cash Money]

In 1935, an Austrian physicist developed a thought experiment to critique the then-dominant theories of quantum mechanics. If you’ve taken an intro-level philosophy course, you’re familiar with this. In an effort to show that popular understandings of quantum superposition––the idea that two or more quantum states, i.e.– an organism being alive or dead, can be added together, and therefore create a third, valid quantum state––were not necessarily applicable to large objects, Erwin Schrodinger posed a hypothetical: if a Cash Money legacy artist’s new album were locked indefinitely in Baby’s vault, would it be possible for it to simultaneously exist and not exist?

Tha Carter V was not a static document. Actually, I’m not even sure Wayne is aware of its final form—the album was cobbled together by Mack Maine, Wayne’s childhood friend and wartime press secretary. Wayne apparently didn’t know who XXXTentacion was until he was in the booth, cutting “Don’t Cry.” The sessions for it presumably span many, many years, and the singles that were cut were presumably given the axe because—as in Schrodinger’s hypothetical—the act of observing something necessarily changes it. (This is approximately his level of involvement in the final sequencing of Tha Carter III which, if you’re keeping score, is one of the defining rap albums of the 2000s.) But Wayne is a generationally gifted rapper, and hearing him dart and amble through a variety of different templates—some of which feel like they came from an alternate tail end of the Reagan years—will always be rewarding. G Dep gave his life for this. – Paul Thompson

 

49. Ski Mask the Slump God – Stokeley [Republic Records]

The question was could Ski Mask The Slump God release a major label album as cracked and weird as the excellent Beware The Book of Eli? We’re talking about a mixtape that saw the South Florida rapper threaten to drown his enemies in the river of lost souls, dress like Nosferatu, and, for no good reason at all, name a track “Bukkake” (get the extended, 13-track unreleased version of the record if you can). Thankfully, Stokeley does find him on a similarly mad voyage. Forget the pressures of big business: Ski Mask is chilling near Pluto (“Unbothered”), reinventing the geek as a smooth operator who rocks diamonds from Wakanda (“Get Geeked”), and somehow referencing Soulja Boy, Transformers, Child’s Play, Spongebob Squarepants, and The Duchess of Cambridge in the same verse (“Far Gone”).

When his twisted proclivities are allowed to run unchecked, Ski Mask can pass for an unhinged young henchman of an evil overlord, his lunacy punctuated by strange couplets as his craggy voice lashes out streams of “yup yup”’s, “ooh”’s, and “huh huh”’s. Nominally a Soundcloud rapper, an affinity for throwback sounds has also helped set him apart from his peers: the riotous “Foot Fungus” is a worthy pastiche of Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Stokeley didn’t need all of the singing bits, but when the songs are as gratifying as “Adults Swim” and “Faucet Failure”—freak-outs that channel one of Ski Mask’s chief influences, Missy Elliott—there can be few complaints. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN

48. Sam Wilkes / Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes – Wilkes / Music For Saxofone & Bass Guitar [LEAVING RECORDS]

The ambassador for L.A.’s jazz scene is Kamasi Washington, and for good reason. Washington channels the deep history of Central Ave’s jazz, gospel, soul, and hip hop music history from Horace Tapscott to The World Stage through Clara Ward and Kendrick Lamar. On the other side of the city though, inspired by similar jazz forbearers, but marked by different experiences, saxophonist Sam Gendel and bassist Sam Wilkes are adding a different voice to the local jazz scene.

Like other local jazz-adjacent artists like Anenon, the Sam’s are seemingly inspired equally by local jazz legends Pharoah Sanders, Charles Mingus, and Alice Coltrane, J Dilla, ambient music, ECM experimental classical music, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Over the course of these two records (one attributed to the pair, the other to just Wilkes) the Sams make ouroborus, nocturnal, looping, jazz, more concerned with texture and mood than Kamasi’s soul baring virtuosic jazz. Like the lost soundtrack to Michael Mann’s underrated classic film Collateral, this is music to get lost driving around downtown L.A. to, and a great addition to L.A.’s jazz culture and history. — SAM RIBAKOFF

47. Nef the Pharaoh – The Big Chang Theory [KILFMB / Sick Wid It / EMPIRE]

The story of Vallejo, CA is strange and tragic. The city’s long history includes a half-dozen heartbreaks, including the fact that the city was the first to go bankrupt in California. For rap fans, however, Vallejo is Mecca. Its streets gave birth to E-40’s infinitely slick lexicon and gave Mac Dre his supernatural swag. Sure, San Francisco gave us RBL Posse, and Oakland gave us Too $hort, but any Bay Area music fan worth their salt will tell you Vallejo is the rap holy land.

It’s fitting, then, that Nef the Pharaoh, with his splashy, playful delivery, and bottomless swag would call Vallejo home. With the viral “Big Tymin’,” the young MC’s ode to Juvenile and his crew of Hot Boys, Nef was immediately heralded as the next big voice in rap. And while you won’t hear Neffy on Rap Caviar or see him singing carpool karaoke with James Corden any time soon, Nef’s consistent output has earned him the undying loyalty of local fans and endless respect from Bay Area rap royalty. For anyone with a 415, 510, or 707 area code, that’s better than international acclaim.

With The Big Chang Theory, Nef’s latest project, he proves his ability to shapeshift not only in his sound but in his subject matter. Songs like “Boostin’” peacock over bouncy basslines with poetic flair, while “Victim” examines the deadly nature of racism with sobering, unwavering insight. Throughout the record’s forty-two minutes, Nef experiments with melody and delivery, and pushes his writing to the next level. The result is a sprawling, uncompromising display of the rapper’s talent and a testament to his place in the cannon of Bay Area MCs. Vallejo ought to erect a bronze statue of him in his mink coat and ski goggles in front of city hall. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN

46. Miss Red – K.O. [PRESSURE]

K.O. isn’t a dancehall record—like everything Kevin Martin (The Bug) touches, it’s corroded and twisted, and even a genre as dear to him as ’80s-’90s ragga doesn’t escape unscathed. Jamaican music’s bass is present, and Miss Red’s flows are on point enough to have most non-Jamaicans doubting her Israeli background, but harsh electronics and blaring industrial noise ensure that nothing here will ever be confused for a King Tubby or Ward 21 production. It’s a musical backing that frees Red to be far more than a dancehall tribute act, and the record stands out for its honest depiction of her experiences, both as an Israeli in Haifa and an artist in Berlin.

That’s not to say the record is grim, tracks like “Shock Out” and “Money Machine” start the album off with high intensity hip shakers, but displaying growth from her previous mixtape work, Miss Red also digs deeper, whether through slowing the tempo down to a crawl or incorporating a shoegaze album’s worth of reverb on tracks like “Clouds.” 2018 was the year ‘tropical pop’ went from chart novelty to formatted banality, so in a sea of identikit pop attempts, K.O. is a refreshing blast that’s both reverent in its appreciation of roots music, and daring in its attempts to forge those influences in a new, idiosyncratic whole. — SON RAW

45. Burna Boy – Outside[Atlantic Records]

With a clutch of hits to his name, Burna Boy has already built a name for himself as a reigning king of Afro-Beats. But his latest, Outside is the culmination and the logical end point to “Afrofusion”, Burna Boy’s preferred classification for his music.

Even after all of the success he has achieved (Drake came looking for ideas! Fall Out Boy called for a collab! He got to record on Pete Townshend’s boat!), Burna Boy never loses sight of where he came from and how it shaped him. “City Vibration” lets the listener ride along as he takes them through Port Harcourt, Nigeria and explains just how deep his roots run. He also takes time to shout out the Niger Delta Avengers, a youth group believed to be responsible for recent attacks against the oil and gas industries (“We get sinister/know say Niger Delta boys no trust no minister/that’s the reason dem ah bust the cylinder”).

“Ye” is one of the year’s most insistent tracks, Burna Boy’s “Africa type twist” (his words, not mine) on the stylings of Puff and Ma$e. “Sekkle Down” allows Burna Boy and J-Hus to build on the excellent chemistry that they already displayed on Common Sense & leans in the bashment direction. J-Hus’ lascivious rapping serves as the perfect counterpoint to Burna Boy’s melodies, creating one of the album’s many standouts.

“Streets of Africa” sounds best on a warm afternoon with the windows down after you’ve begged off early from work. “Koni Baje”, which loosely translates into “when the lights go on, you can’t go wrong”, is a universal smash, no matter what your first language may be. He even brags about his newfound standing, while cracking a joke at Jidenna’s expense. Outside pulls off the most delicate balancing act of all: appealing to everyone while remaining singular. — HAROLD BINGO

44. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited[4AD]

It’s easy to overlook the weight of the subject matter Meg Remy tackles on In a Poem Unlimited—including but not limited to physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, infertility, and drone strikes—on first listen. Unlimited, the newest and best album from Remy’s Toronto-based psychedelic art-pop project U.S. Girls, is thematically ambitious, but its heaviness is often masked with brightness and even danceability. This isn’t necessarily an unsurprising evolution for Remy, whose pop instincts have always been sharp but whose albums have leaned thornier, more avant-garde. Unlimited, then, feels like the balance that she has been building towards for the duration of her ten-year career, easily digestible but dense and rich. It also is by far her most collaborative record, boasting more than twenty different contributors. The result is one of 2018’s most eclectic records, swinging without so much as blinking from shimmering synth-pop to a bluesy sludge that could soundtrack a particularly brutal Quentin Tarantino climax.

This makes for an album that is actually less accessible than it appears at first glance, crafted with uncanny pop inclinations but anchored by unsettling undercurrents. Songs here drip with red-eyed venom and violent imagery; the coolly casual homicidal small talk of “Velvet 4 Sale” and the searing, unblinking indictment of Barack Obama’s foreign policy in “M.A.H.” are particularly striking. Most of the villains here are men in powerful positions with impure intentions, a grim (and timely) landscape that Remy navigates with clear-headed grit and stark humor. That the songs are so joyfully rendered only makes the darkness at the core of Unlimited all the more harrowing. It isn’t until the swirling, vibrant disco of “Rosebud” silences for a brief a capella outro that you fully register what she’s been trying to tell you all along: “It’ll hurt, I promise you.” — ALEX SWHEAR

43. Laurel Halo – Raw Silk, Uncut Wood [Latency Recordings]

Laurel Halo plays piano like only a DJ can. She’s classically trained, having played in orchestras, improv groups and free jazz ensembles. But her compositions mostly reflect the time she’s put in at nightclubs or community radio stations in Michigan and Berlin. DJs double as educators. They put sound in context, studying its angles and adapting a series of lenses, both theoretical and deeply visceral. Whether Halo is armed with a violin or two turntables, she’s going to teach you something new.

The ambient Raw Silk, Uncut Wood packs a complex set of references and influences, from figurative paintings to Ursula Le Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way), a Chinese text that dates back to 6th century BC. In her introduction, Le Guin writes, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.”

Halo’s first lesson: art informs art, and art exists in all forms. The voice she adapts on her mini-album speaks in ambiguous terms, yet with a guttural impact. With contributions from cellist Oliver Coates and percussionist Eli Keszler, Halo sews sound collages that leave broad strokes of feeling in their wakes. Unlike 2017’s synth-poppy Dust, her latest record contains no vocals. “Mercury” builds around suspenseful jazz sensibilities. Despite its name, “Quietude” spins anxiety with soft, metallic notes, ringing like muted pinballs or the spinning of a slot machine. “Supine” reconciles duel meanings: the meditative pose and the quality of spinelessness. Her emotive thread is never too heavy-handed — Halo never has to be. She’s a DJ, and DJs know how to work a room. By the end, you feel exactly how she wants you to. — CORY LOMBERG

42. Hailu Mergia – Lala Belu [Awesome Tapes From Africa]

Ethiopian musicians like Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekurya have had a profound influence on jazz over the past 30 years, bringing new soul and technique into the canon with the adaptation of Ethiopian folk melodies and scales, haunting atmospheres and hypnotic triplet rhythms. Hailu Mergia has also been staking out a legacy as a great innovator over the past several years, and Lala Belu—his first album of new material in 30 years—serves as a joyful reinvention.

A former keyboardist for the Walias Band, Hailu Mergia got his chops playing gigs for diplomats and clubgoers at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa in the 1970s. The band persevered through revolution and the rise of a rigid communist regime, staking out an independent position in the country’s mostly state-backed music scene before eventually breaking up after a two-year stint in Washington, D.C. Since 2013, Mergia has revived his once-dormant music career through small-combo tours and reissues of his unique, meditative solo recordings on the record label Awesome Tapes from Africa. A feeling of sweetness and reflection permeates Lala Belu. The album is full of gently confident grooves, colorful organ and accordion parts and even a solo piano piece (“Yefkir Engurguro”). Mergia takes his time as he makes his way through a melody, breezing through ornamentations and accents, taking detours as he likes, as though stooping down to smell the flowers on a Sunday morning stroll.

This six-track effort is so lovely and chill that it’s easy to overlook how the musician is changing rules and subverting expectations all the while. Though other artists have rendered the Ethiopian standard “Tezeta” in dark and mysterious tones, in Mergia’s hands it becomes cucumber-cool smooth jazz, replete with smears of psychedelic synth and a funky-drummer breakdown at the end. Call it “Ethio-jazz,” or just call it jazz; either way Lala Belu is an album that will leave you feeling fresh and open to new possibilities. — PETER HOLSLIN

41. Henry Canyons – Cool Side of the Pillow [Backwoodz Studioz]

If we agree that there is such a thing as SoundCloud rap, and that that thing is defined by single tracks, punky demeanor, high energy vs low production quality, and infinite potential for scalability—then we can also agree that there is something like Bandcamp rap. I swear, that is a good thing.

You know what it is: a wholesome, crafty and witty form of rap (see how I didn’t say “mature”?) that fits on your tab bar right next to the Quelle Chris & Jean Grae album, or the Homeboy Sandman x Edan EP that you, in theory, liked a lot but ended up listening to a little less than you wanna admit. It’s the album format of digital rap offerings. With Cool Side of the Pillow, Henry Canyons made a spot on Bandcamp rap record, and a very good one at that.

Canyons is a classically-trained sax player and MC from Brooklyn, now living in LA. His musical background and formative times in the Eastcoast underground shine through in the beats he picks, as well as in a slightly overacted yet charming delivery. In musically-minded white rapper terms: this is definitely more Edan than Paul Barman. It clearly helps that production duties are handled by Bones, a life-long friend of Henry’s who knows how to pick loops that leave enough space for his elastic flows.

Less testimonial and heady than its precursor Canyonlands, Cold Side of the Pillow is an unapologetically fun jazz rap album. Give it a few spins in the right environment, and it exudes an effortless cool that allows Henry stunts like giving considerate life advice over a mouth harp riff without sounding corny. Try that in your spare time. — JULIAN BRIMMERS

40. Chris Crack – Collected [New Deal Collectives]

In a year where Chicago’s once-greatest got “cancelled” and the city’s newly-christened  pop-gospel heir “savior” trickled out little more than a Kit Kat jingle, Chris Crack has (so far) released somewhere in the range of four to six full-length albums. It’s difficult to discuss the artist in terms of one project, or even within a definitive length of time, because he releases new projects at random, seemingly all the time. Within the past eleven months, however, from late May’s Let’s Just Be Friends to last week’s Thanks Uncle Trill, Crack has been steadily developing his voice and elevating the quality of his output in real time, to anyone paying attention.

Crack’s [collected] discography of 2018 encompasses everything great about the music the afore-hinted-at popular artists from his city historically made: humorous self-awareness, inflated ego conflated with underdog attitude, and, most importantly, slick bars over soul loops. For a broader comparison, Crack proved this year across each of his full-length projects that he can flow endlessly like Curren$y, Roc Marciano, and Conway (who features on Thanks Uncle Trill). He showed he can toss out hilarious lines and mess with the listener’s expectation like Jpegmafia. He fine-tuned the likable-but-menacing character that he’s been cultivating on the mic like Freddie Gibbs.

Yet Crack is comparable to no one else who released music in 2018, because he’s remained resilient towards the outside forces attempting to lead him astray. “When you give up you die, that’s what Cutta told me,” Crack says on Being Woke Ain’t Fun’s “Maria de Jesus Ayala,” in a nod to Paul Gulyas, the producer who’s helped Crack find and hone his sound over the course of 2018’s and (almost literally countless) other past projects. Given the fact that he’s still putting out new music with seemingly no regard for the year-end break that the rest of the industry takes, it appears as if he doesn’t want his finally-burgeoning career to die. It would feel like oversaturation if each album weren’t increasingly getting better and better. — WILL HAGLE

39. Vince Staples – FM! [Def Jam Recordings]

With the exception of his brilliant and sprawling debut, Summertime ’06, Vince Staples’ career has been a mastery of short-form. From Stolen Youth to Hell Can Wait, Prima Donna to FM!, he’s a genius at concision, aware that sometimes the less you say, the more you’re capable of conveying. Despite his latest project running a mere 22 minutes, Staples doesn’t need a second more to grimly detail his adolescence in Long Beach.

With Kenny Beats supplying high caliber heat, Vince offers a gloomy chill to contrast. “Passed Alyssa house, could’ve took a different route/Wouldn’t be without, think about her every day,” he raps on “Feels Like Summer.” Later on, he elongates his syllables over the bouncy bass-ricochetting production of “Relay,” sharing a somber story of a woman raising her child alone because they “got her baby daddy for a GTA.” FM! is filled with sobering thoughts on what living in seemingly picturesque California is actually like. Radio personality Big Boy narrates the Vince Staples show, with cameos from California favorites E-40, Ty Dolla, Kamaiyah—and even some snippets from Earl and Tyga. If Spotify curated playlists are built for corporations to win, FM! is the artist-curated playlist where creativity and concepts prevail overall.

Vince Staples has never been afraid to make albums for himself, something that typically doesn’t garner the sort of commercial success he’s received. The haunting raps of FM! could be worth mourning, but it’s also worth running back and forth like an old tape cassette. A pointed statement of purpose that ends too soon and right on time. — ETHAN DAVENPORT

38. Serengeti – 6E [PEOPLE]

Serengeti is a psychedelic spirit. Not in the clichéd way that’s deployed to describe any music that’s a little bit weird, but in a fundamentally human way. The Chicago-bred rapper born David Cohn is a dissident, intent on following unpredictable muses instead of a paycheck. He’s had success in the independent rap world, but any opportunity to capitalize on a big break has only manifested itself in a wide-sweeping left turn. Serengeti’s vision of Chicago rap isn’t related to drill or Apple-sponsored “independent” mixtapes. Rather, Serengeti’s music is a translation of the workingman’s existence. Day jobs, O’Douls, Michael Jordan debates, and the White Sox. Don’t ever mistake ‘Geti or his alter ego, Kenny Dennis, for a Cubs fan.

While KD could easily come across as a half-baked schtick, Serengeti’s almost pathological commitment to the development of character and history lends the melodrama a gravitas that demands to be taken seriously. Despite producing some of his best work as Kenny Dennis, I’ve always found the character to be a slight distraction from the eerily despondent work of Serengeti’s main project. Kenny Dennis III is a classic, but I’ve always been partial to Family & Friends. In that vein, 6E, ‘Geti’s collaborative LP with Fog-frontman Andrew Broder, is a work devoid of side hustles and odes to Jueles. It’s Serengeti at his rawest. But because the two projects have been thoroughly intertwined, 6E often mingles ‘Geti’s voice with Kenny’s sensibilities (even the album cover finds ‘Geti sporting a KD mustache), which only lends the record equal doses of fact and fiction. Serengeti’s entire career has worked towards this: Truth and fable don’t create stories. We do.

On 6E, Serengeti once again proves that he’s rap’s great tragadist. If humor is loss plus time, Serengeti is that equation’s silent element. The loss never goes away, we just grow increasingly numb to it. On “Winter Clothes,” ‘Geti bluntly lays it out: “Memories I used to have come back like winter clothes.” Elsewhere, softball blunders haunt like lost loves and the wackness of other emcees inspires a vengeful reproach. Serengeti conflates the micro and macro such that the tiniest details receive the same reaction as cataclysmic events. And Serengeti’s music is nothing more than staggeringly poignant details stacked atop each other until a world is clear enough to break your heart and then laugh about it when the tears run dry. Whether this is sketched by Serengeti, Kenny Dennis, or some unnamed omniscient narrator doesn’t really matter. The designer is David Cohn and with 6E he’s built his masterpiece. — WILL SCHUBE

37. Brandon Coleman – Resistance [Brainfeeder Records]

West Coast Get Down’s Brandon Coleman, aka Professor Boogie, crafts hook-heavy funk that idolizes late-’70s Herbie Hancock’s post-disco vocoder grooves. Resistance, his major introduction as lead man, presents an earnest vision of the tradition’s pop possibilities. Coleman plies the fat bass, orchestral swells, horn runs, kit drums, and lead vocoder vocals into efficient songs that urge living in the moment, shooing away buggers in your head, and that, above all, demand we love each other. His wholesome idea of resistance recognizes the personal is political and presents neighborliness as revolution.

Coleman debuted the record in Highland Park with a dozen-plus band that included Kamasi on sax and BattleCat on backup talkbox, connecting generations of Los Angeles funk. The show climaxed with “Giant Feelings,” a neck-breaking groove with Epic-style choral support that begs, over and over, “We must try to love.” Near the end Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder label issued the LP, stood on the corner of the stage, raising to the ceiling a picture of Mac Miller, who died days earlier. Everyone was in their feelings, dancing to a robot pleading for humanity. — TOSTEN BURKS

36. Blocboy JB – Simi[Bloc Nation]

BlocBoy JB could be forgiven for having a little whiplash. His year has lurched in six different directions and that’s all before a video game played by overstimulated tweens and incoherently rich social media stars co-opted his dance. Or as should probably be clear, stole it. Luckily, this was not the main narrative thread of BlocBoy’s last twelve months: there was the two year mixtape run that preceded it all—now newly celebrated; “Shoot” and its corresponding dance overwhelming every middle school dance floor and touchdown celebration; and the appearance of a certain owl emblazoned pop star just as everything started to get really heady.

Against this backdrop, Simi pointedly thrives off of, and removed from, the spectacle of Drake and Ninja and label deals and thefts. For all those indoctrinated by the shiverry stutter and dada humor of “Look Alive,” Simi is the just overlong and more sinister deep end. The throughlines may be darker and wary of some very Memphis blues, but over eighteen tracks the whole jerks into some dance-y and sunny kineticism. BlocBoy enunciates in a round drawl with a leering snap, breaking off punchlines with enough force and color to keep them rattling around your head until the next turn.

Just as you settle into Simi, past “Look Alive” and a dexterous Lil Pump guest spot, is “Good Day,” extra spacious and eddying, on its face basking in some lucrative and massaged everyday but just below on an edge enough to ask only for “a good day”. After the midpoint is the YG featuring “Nike Swoosh,” paced faster than Prefontaine and buzzing with threats along with sirening absurdities like “Ooh, you know I ball like Caillou” and “These n*ggas, I call ’em Twitter the Tiger (tiger) / You are not a hitter you a typewriter (you a typewriter).” The drums are jittery, the bass can be subterranean, and BlocBoy is always a singular performer, parrying twisting and halting flows off of pockets and packing in as many carnival mirror metaphors as he can.

The whole project and title is roughly a tribute to a fallen friend, and there’s just enough menace and spilled liquor to hue to that after the delirious fun of “Mexico” and “No Velcro”. Every coronation, it is understood, means one king is absent. — LUKE BENJAMIN

35. Delroy Edwards – Rio Grande [L.A. Club Resource]

Like an early autumn sunset, Delroy Edwards’ Hangin’ At The Beach had some wild-ass, near-indescribable hues. It flicked at listeners dashes of pastel peach, slashes of brackish blue, and splashes of righteous red. It felt specifically Angeleno in its execution: behind its veil of sometimes jarring, disjointed lo-fi musics was an album both winsome and warm. Two years later, Edwards has returned to the sunbaked Southwest with Rio Grande, an album seemingly crafted in the cool shade of an orange escarpment.

Rio Grande is the Western soundtrack Ennio Morricone would have recorded if, instead of being groomed by a Roman conservatory, he’d been raised in Los Angeles, obsessed with analog synthesizers and crackling cassettes. But, unlike Morricone’s dramatic compositions, which seemed to brighten the glint of every spur, Edwards’ work, which leans toward dance and rap, is gritty and sparse. The album seems to mimic the cinematographic elements of Westerns––there are bits which sound like a bedraggled and dehydrated cowpoke searching for his mount (“Rio Grande”), a parlous chase astride a sheer cliff (“Midnight Rendez-vous”), and a slow trot into a broad horizon (“El Bandito Pt. 2”). The album is strange, ambitious, and singular—only Edwards could have made it. And in that way, the Rio Grande is like a cimarron confidently galloping beneath desert skies of wild-ass, near-indescribable hues. — TORII MACADAMS

34. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs [Tan Cressida/Columbia Records]

A deconstructionist masterpiece or a half-baked album of sub-demo quality interludes? “One of the best rap releases of a year packed with such things” or, “He spent the better part of two years working on this?” Everybody with an opinion about contemporary rap music picked their side of the fence swiftly and seemingly without mercy. Even as some fans bitterly lament Sweatshirt, by design, still not delivering the consensus classic rap album he’s most certainly capable of, Some Rap Songs signals a profound moment of clarity and growth for the erstwhile prodigy.

Described on record by his mother as a “cultural worker and student of life” who “only gets better with time,” Earl possesses designs to be in immediate comparison to Mach-Hommy, Roc Marciano, and Ka. His writing is too impressionistic and ruminative to be considered a peer to the former two, and still needs at least another ten years to acquire the hard-earned wisdom of the latter. But as most young men with strained relationships with their fathers know, hero worship ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

A collection of disciples in the background (“I was in the kitchen with that nigga MIKE”). Jimmy Cliff and Ishmael Butler, his poet father and jazz musician uncle. A microfiction format to explore thousand-page concepts; it takes a special kind of artist to pack such depth in a space this short. The conflict between apprehension about being a famous rap artist and craving the roar of applause. Closer to Knxwledge than Madlib or Dilla; beats showing its thick seams, sampling the asymmetrical corners of far-away songs. The beats here are brief—slight, even—and not easily digestible. “The Bends” sounds like a vintage RZA beat wiped out in flood water. “December 24th” is moody, “Riot!” is celebratory, the memories of lives lived before they dissipate. Shit bang like two mallets, too callous for your bitch taste.

Recorded in a period surrounding the death of his father Keorapetse Kgositsile—Earl half-quipped about potentially receiving a cease-and-desist for sampling a reading of his poem “Anguish Longer than Sorrow”—you could say Some Rap Songs is about grief. There are certainly allusions to it, but it’s not an album-length examination. Grief is not something that happens to you; it’s something that you pick up along your path in life, put into your pocket, and carry it with you.

School of fish swim around in Beefeater while Earl looks back on his grandmother’s last days “on the drip drank.” He forgets his dreams, wakes up to long showers, frequently offers gratitude to his mother, goes missing from the rat race of rap stardom for two years, cracks his brain by taking bad acid. Whether from charred bodies or extinguished blunts, the wind ends up carrying the ashes away. The album’s short format leads some to believe Earl is just fiddling with the immense gifts he’s been given. But Some Rap Songs is a potent collection of memoirs in micro, a poetic rendering of black young adulthood. A reminder that Earl is not his name; behind the brilliant, skeptical, stoned wordsmith is a man seeking spiritual relief as he goes through life earning accolades and losing things far more important. — DOUGLAS MARTIN

33. Sudan Archives – Sink [Stones Throw]

Sudan Archives immediately commands your attention. The 23 year-old singer and producer’s melange of experimental electronica and modern R&B recalls similarly-minded contemporaries like Nao and Moses Sumney. Her sensual, airy voice lends a levity and mystique to even the deepest, densest grooves.

But the L.A.-via-Ohio artist just as much evokes the spirit of slightly lesser heard, cult favorites Moor Mother, Nidia Minaj, and Zebra (“Fucking”) Katz. These are artists, Sudan Archives square among them, who create music that’s deeply indebted to not only the sights and sounds and politics of their respective scenes, but to exploring and honoring the traditions of their disparate backgrounds. She deftly weaves global instrumentation into idiosyncratic tunes like the UK garage repurposer “Mind Control” and string-laden afro-beat thump of “Pay Attention.”

All these geographically diverse influences inform the rest of her production. By translating a tactile Sudanese fiddle into bass soundboard programs and mimicking its melody, she uncovers novel, elastic rhythms. Go listen to “Nont For Sale” and tell me you’ve heard another beat that sounds like it does—no, seriously tell me, because if you have I’d really like to learn more about it.

Like her name (and her studying of ethnomusicology) implies, listening to Sudan Archives sounds like combing thru a wide ranging catalog of Sudanese records, if those records were reworked to approximate what they might sound like if a history of government obstructions had not stilted and stifled its development. And while I’m personally interested in hearing what some extended experiments might sound like in her hands, which the album’s wordless coda hints at before abruptly cutting short, that’s what a future full-length album–which she’s perfectly positioned for with the notoriety Sink earns her–could have in store. — MATT MCMAHON

32. Kevin Gates – Luca Brasi 3 [Bread Winners’ Association]

Rap has never known what to do with Kevin Gates. The Baton Rouge native is an unabashed eccentric, whose exacting storytelling is girded by a sometimes horrifying, always fascinating sincerity. But rap is pop music, and Gates has prioritized dense verses about the internal politics of heroin sales, his newfound devotion to Islam, and heartwarming Instagram posts of his young family over bubblegum choruses. A series of videos circa 2014-2015, in which he admitted to having sex with his cousin and espousing the myriad virtues of anilingus, made him appear an unserious curio and, worse yet, the 15 months he spent in prison between October 2016 and January 2018 only further isolated him from rap’s mainstream. Gates now exists in musical purgatory: he’s a nearly unparalleled talent whose consistency (and apparent personal stability) has led him to be taken for granted.

Which is a damn fuckin’ shame, because Luca Brasi 3 is excellent. Gates’ lyrics have long expressed a complex, often contradictory morality, and marriage, prison, and his adherence to the tenets of Islam add to, rather than clarify, the byzantine code by which he lives. On “Great Man,” he pauses to note that “From Allah we come, to Allah we must return” before rhyming “I pour a four in a two liter” with “I put a hoe in a two-seater.” His internal conflict between base criminality and enlightened godliness has never—and likely will never—reach a peaceful resolution, and the third entry in the Luca Brasi series is a continuation of this battle rather than its conclusion. His left hand still talks to the right hand, but they remain locked in an intractable argument. The left hand cooks crack, the right lays flat on a prayer rug. — TORII MACADAMS

31. Ryan Porter – The Optimist [World Galaxy / Alpha Pup]

Before the features on Kenderick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, before Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, before the performances at Coachella, Red Rocks, and on the world’s biggest stages, a corps of young prodigies squeezed themselves into a sweltering Inglewood garage to play jazz. It was a tiny space—large enough to comfortably fit four. There were eight of them. The incessant roar of jet engines from nearby LAX meant that the windows and doors needed to be kept shut during recording. It was September in L.A., and the expansion of stifling air put pressure on each musician to perform each take perfectly; if one made a mistake, they’d all have to sweat through the song again. It smelled like tube socks and backpack straps and there was nowhere they’d rather have been.

This was 2008, an era removed from the present moment by more that just the passage of time. The end of the Bush administration and Barack Obama’s candidacy for president made it seem like anything was possible, like the world was teetering on the precipice of profound, positive change. It was this excitement and unbridled optimism that trombonist Ryan Porter sought to capture as he composed his first album, and that motivated him, Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves, Kamasi Washington and the other members of The West Coast Get Down as they endured those sticky sessions in Washington’s parents’ garage.

Released a decade later, Ryan Porter’s The Optimist is a gem formed from those emotions being subjected to heat and pressure. The prism of its facets creates a window to a different time, one where the ebullient hope he and his fellow musicians encoded in notes could fly free up and down the scales, unguarded and unchecked by skepticism or cynicism. Considering its roster, the playing on The Optimist is as brilliant as one would expect. But Porter’s skill as a composer, his ability to channel such a spectrum of feeling into each of its songs, is nothing short of stunning and resulted in a modern jazz classic, at once time capsule and timeless. — BEN GRENROCK

30. Rico Nasty – Nasty [Sugar Trap]

In a year overflowing with female brilliance, few riot girls made bigger noise than Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised Rico Nasty. The Soundcloud phenom capped off a seemingly inexorable four-year rise with Nasty—a cyanide-laced jawbreaker of a trap record that heralded the arrival of an arch, shatter-smoking infanta to be reckoned with.

Her first major label release sees her build on the viral success of earworms like “I-Carly”, “Poppin,’” and “Hey Arnold”, as naturally as a rightful heir ascending to the throne. With an aesthetic somewhere between the day-glo sex and violence of Spring Breakers, the nihilism of Three Six Mafia and icy class politics of Mean Girls, Nasty has concocted a candy-coated gut-punch of a record concerned with only one question – how you should comport yourself in the presence of her greatness.

It’s an enquiry that allows Rico to explore fully explore range her talents as a writer and rapper over an infectious melange of trap sounds that twinkle one moment and decimate the next. Nasty ups the stakes on the irrepressible fight music and whip-smart attitude that’s made her a cult hero. She spends much of the album rolling down the proverbial strip in a foreign, daring you to look. Is she going to acknowledge you as a groveling subject or wet you up for rubbernecking like a peasant?

But it’s on tracks like “Oreo”, “Life Back” and “Won’t Change” that explore the true cost of grappling with a court full of snakes where she is most compelling. In the face of the unrelenting bullshit that comes with being nice as hell, she is by turns withering, defiant, majestic and world-weary. Don’t get it twisted, though. The emotional heart of the record isn’t her struggle. It’s her continuing (and completely justified) disbelief that you still don’t love Rico Nasty unconditionally. — JOEL BISWAS

29. Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs, & The Alchemist – Fetti[ESGN / Jet Life Recordings / ALC / EMPIRE]

Despite recording the entire album separately and nearly two months apart, the chemistry between Curren$y’s and Freddie Gibbs’ flows sound like they recorded shoulder-to-shoulder in the booth throughout the entire 23-minute run time of Fetti. The intra-song connections are mainly due to Gibbs first listening to all of Curren$y’s lyrics (each over beats produced by The Alchemist) before recording his (in just two days!). It feels like the good ol’ days of duos feeding off each like Daz and Kurupt on Death Row, or Andre and Big Boi in the dungeon. Gibbs creates corresponding lines about the Air Max’s they’re wearing (White and Yellow for Curren$y, Virgil’s for Freddie) and the different things they do in a Westin Suite (sketching in his notebook for Curren$y, fucking females for Freddie).

Despite a relative lack of mainstream notoriety, it’s easy to make an argument that Freddie Gibbs is the best rapper alive, with Curren$y being our most skilled and consistent wordsmith. They both add to their legacy on Fetti. You may have heard a certain writer associated with a particular website once compare the consistently boring excellence of Curren$y to Tim Duncan. While Curren$y drops 20 and 11 on 50% shooting built on put-back lay-ups and turn-around bankers, Gibbs plays the role of Manu Ginobili, Euro-stepping all over the tracks, changing speeds on reckless drives through the lane with no idea where he’ll end up. You can listen to a Gibbs song 10 times and still get lost in predicting how he’ll finish each line he rhymes. And fuck Tony Parker, The Alchemist is more like Greg Popovich, wizening and old school, supplying head-bobbing beats and perfectly directing his teammates.

Fetti is a beautiful record. As Curren$y says, “It’s like divin’ out the plane / Once that music hit our veins.” The rush he gets from making music is the same the listener feels while listening to Fetti. — JESSE TAYLOR

28. Pat Kalla & Le Super Mojo – Jongler [Favorite Recordings]

During the first two weeks of December , the Sawabuntu gather on the banks of the Wouri River in Douala, Cameroon for the Ngondo Water Festival. The Sawabuntu – Sawa for short – are often referred to as “the coastal people.” The centerpiece of the Ngondo Festival is a ritual held by members of the jengu cult—named for a water spirit—where members submerge themselves in Wouri Bay for hours, only to emerge completely dry.

The promotional material for Jongler calls the album Pat Kalla’s tribute to his Cameroonian father, who has roots in Sawa culture. (Kalla himself is based in Lyon, France.) It’s his attempt “to put a bit of primordial lightness in a rainy world.”

But I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. Rain—the rain we can’t stand, the rain that makes us run and hide our heads—is an irresistible metaphor when the world seems like shit. But rain is renewing, cleansing, a necessity. To view rain simply as a wight is solipsistic.

Jongler feels like a rainstorm, but the kind rainstorm you pray for after years of drought. It leverages Kalla’s father’s heritage in its tempering of the fervor of Makossa, a popular style of Cameroonian dance music. But I also spotted the cascading guitars of Congolese Soukous on “Lady Angola,” Afrobeat’s military horn discipline on “La Terre,” and traces of the soul-baring minimalism of Angolan Semba on “Laissez-moi danser.”

The Sawa act as the hosts of the Ngondo Water Festival, but at least thirty ethnic groups take part—including the Tondé, Jébalé, Ewodi, Bakoko and Bassa peoples. Jongler, with its purifying, pan-African by way of France grooves, feels like a worthy fete in absentia. And the right kind of rain for a world full of the wrong kind. — JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN

27. Roc Marciano – RR 2: The Bitter Dose & Behold a Dark Horse [Marci Enterprises]

Imagine rap without Roc Marciano. New York would be a half a dozen pop rappers kowtowing to national radio and a marginal Brooklyn drill scene. Indie rap would be a mix of Wesleyan dropouts, Nuyorican Cafe expats, and Fat Beats refugees, all of them wearing Costo brand polos.

Instead, Roc’s influence feeds every rapper and producer who isn’t on Xanax. You can hear it when upstarts like WestSide Gunn rap about Barneys shopping sprees over discordant electric guitars and when elder statesmen like DJ Muggs and DJ Scratch mute their drums.

Roc released four albums this year, all of which contain sounds with scarcely any precedent in his or any rapper’s catalog. On RR2: The Bitter Dose he shouts down a dusky vocal sample (“Muse”) and channels the electronic punk of Martin Rev (“CVS” and “The Sauce”). Behold a Dark Horse returns to austere soul samples like a modern take on Liquid Swords, but expands his repertoire ever still. The bongos and piano stabs on “Congo” are more art house Italian crime drama than blaxploitation flick. “Secrets” folds together four or five genres and marries them to Roc’s aesthetic—and he sings on it, to boot.

His gloriously retrograde persona intermingles street corner humor and Gstaad excess with eye-watering rhyme schemes. He cut a path for rappers with a proclivity for cocaine noir and Louboutin footwear because every man wants to be the untouchable arch-pimp with the acerbic pen.

And yet, mere stylists don’t have their annus mirabilis eight years after their debut. Rap is full of lucky authors of motifs that every rapper and producer copies for a year or two. Rather, Roc Marciano walks with a school of music in his shadow. He presides as the dean of extravagant street shit, the laureate for rap that challenges itself to subvert and beguile. — EVAN NABAVIAN

26. DJ Koze – Knock Knock [Pampa Records]

Hamburg’s Stefan Kozalla AKA DJ Koze got the family-friendly pronunciation of his nickname, “Kosi/Cozee,” from Germany’s first female MC, Cora E. Initially, his moniker evoked the German word for vomit (“Kotze”), which didn’t fly with Cora’s Zulu Nation-informed hip-hop ethics. Throughout his years with idiosyncratic rap pranksters Fischmob (the closest thing Germany ever had to the Beastie Boys) or with his early excursions into house and minimal techno, Koze has always honed his status as a musical outlier.

Having fully re-invented himself as the rare kind of peak time-DJ with unshakeable underground cred, Koze pulled his biggest trick yet with his solo albums Amygdala (2013) and Knock Knock (2018). Eschewing the antics of his past without losing his humor, Koze crafted two kaleidoscopic pop records with features from all corners of his record collection. On Knock Knock, Koze focuses even more on a core strength that is harder to achieve than any other: timelessness. Tellingly, his biggest hit in 2018, “Pick Up,”—a quasi-French Touch anthem that would have fitted perfectly on any Roulé Records b-side twenty years ago—has been a staple of his DJ sets for many years.

But instead of making a straight 4×4 business card to keep the booking agents happy, Koze weaved a sonic tapestry that suits Moloko’s Róisin Murphy (who he describes as “coming from an entirely different planet, with her Grace Jones-zaniness”), just as well as indie-shapeshifter Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, fellow top-tier DJ Mano Le Tough, and Speech (yes, of Arrested Development. No, really.) Koze’s gift is not to “be his own genre” or anything pompous like that; instead, he bends and breaks down all of his influences until they match his own, outlandish ideas of beat-driven music. — JULIAN BRIMMERS

25. Westside Gunn – Supreme Blientele / Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 3 / Conway – Everybody is F.O.O.D. [Griselda Records]

Someone sitting at an office desk with a calculator and framed Sears portraits on it might look at Griselda’s 2018 and conclude that it was a disappointment. “After all,” they might say, minimizing the Excel file on his second monitor, “they were signed by Shady but spent the ensuing year pressing limited-run vinyls and dropping tapes which may or may not have turned up on major streaming platforms.” Where were the blockbuster collaborations, they might ask, the big-budget videos, the beat placements from Dre?

In staying the course (so to speak), the Buffalo triad circumvented the pitfalls which were the undoing of their anointed street rap predecessors, while managing to scale bigger, better, and more thrilling over three solo opuses. In attaining a half dozen Alchemist beats they ensured legitimate torch-passing moments with longtime producer Daringer; Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes, and Elzhi were conscripted as repeat contributors. Daringer’s “Joe Pesci 38” was among the most evocative beats of the year, whereas Green Lantern’s “The Scorpion” makes one of the best cases yet for this no-drums shit.

Still, it’s the briefest of moments which set these records apart: Meyhem Lauren’s promise to “treat your necklace like a continental breakfast”; Westside Gunn’s bragging about another man ironing his clothes like it’s the very peak of opulence; the beat change on “97 Hov” which separates two coming-of-age narratives; Royce da 5’9 likening a woman with a synthetic ass to The Last Airbender. “I don’t know why I keep saying I ain’t gon’ lie,” he admits, closing his verse on “Who Are You.” “Man, I don’t even tell lies.” — Pete Tosiello

24. Pusha T – DAYTONA [G.O.O.D. Music]

It’s no surprise that Pusha T knows how to do a lot with a little. On his third studio album, DAYTONA, King Push made one of the most culturally significant albums of the year. In its mere seven tracks, the project — the first of Kanye West’s Wyoming-era rollout — found the G.O.O.D. Music president beefing with Drake and Lil Wayne, nodding at Jay, discussing success with Rick Ross, addressing the formerly incarcerated Meek Mill, giving Kanye a platform to talk MAGA, practicing santeria with 070 Shake and, well, we haven’t even talked Whitney yet.

From the album art, a National Enquirer photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-infested home bathroom (a steep $85,000 purchase), to the spectacle surrounding “Infrared,” a seething Drake diss track, this project packed a punch from its first bar to its very last. It’s typical Pusha for you — no frills, hard-hitting, and lyrically seamless. And, despite the noise it created, DAYTONA is far from attention-seeking. Instead, Kanye and Push channel the historically classic appeal of their collaborations, creating their own cinematic world through minimal, sample-heavy sonics. As a result, Pusha’s words are elevated, and listeners lean closer into every line. DAYTONA grabs you all 21 minutes through, and when it’s over, sets you on your way with all of your belongings and a shiny collection of residual Rolex (and Pyrex) dreams. — Paley Martin

23. Kamaal Williams – The Return [Black Focus]

The Return is billed as collaborative work between Kamaal Williams and Henry Wu. They are very much the same person, though. The former is the name adopted by the London-based acid jazz producer once he had converted to Islam, while the latter honors his mother’s Taiwanese heritage. Fuck semantics, they’re both on this thing. The Return is conversational, elastic and often transportive — a busy but meticulously-tailored rhythm exchange between dual grooving souls. No single measure is wasted, and no flourish comes without some sort of shadowy reciprocation. It’s like being alone, but feeling certain that you’re not actually alone, because how can you be? Solitary thoughts suddenly taking shape before a chambered audience. I walked along the sidewalks of Los Angeles listening to this album for much of the year. It leaves such generous room for you to make your own emotional assignments, to find your pace, and then invert it.

Williams flanked his early development with constant collaboration, primarily as one half of Yussef Kamaal, an outfit that took pride in its lack of formal training and its reverence for Herbie Hancock and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On The Return, Williams strives for galactic funk and off-kilter choreography in a more personal statement. “Catch the Loop” shoots straight for the chemical synapses and goddamn nails it; two tracks later, “Medina” supplies seven minutes of dark jazz that twinkle and numb like the strongest sedatives.

Along with bassist Peter “Mr. Sketch” Martin, drummer Joshua “MckNasty“ McKenzie, and, on the album’s climax, guitarist Mansur Brown, Kamaal Williams layers a tapestry that’s as precise as it is dreamy. The Return has no connection to our mortal concerns. It’s a collaboration between one person, but also between a lot of people. It’s the sound of space, and love, and partnership. It’s weird, and lovely, and maybe I’m just back-seat driving as The Return journeys us to somewhere both deeply & unrecognizably human. Steven Louis

22. Space Afrika – Somewhere Decent to Live [Sferic]

The peril of releasing anything even vaguely ambient is to be dismissed as mood music. Something interchangeable to be not so much listened to as overheard, at home after a long day or a swanky restaurant during off hours. Space Afrika’s combination of dub techno and beatless ambiance neatly sidesteps this trap by virtue of its sheer power. Far from receding into the background, Somewhere Decent to Live is all-encompassing, and heard through the right system or headphones, it can feel like a return to the womb, complete with massive kicks serving as a primordial heartbeat. It’s undoubtedly a relaxing listen and one that’ll compliment most edibles, bong hits and dabs, but the scope is cinematic and ultra-modern – equal parts art exhibit and sound-portrait.

If Somewhere Decent to Live is rooted in anything, it’s place rather than genre. The duo behind the record have proudly flown the flag for their northern home of Manchester, and have credited time spent in the city’s heterogeneous club scene for the mix of styles that they subsumed within their music. Yet listening to the record from an ocean away, I’m reminded less of the city’s tired caricature of decaying industry and more of the sleekness of international travel: airports and train stations.

There’s a coldness to this music that approximates the bizarre combination of hospitality and distance that one experiences in these transitory spaces, and it’s this frigidity and separation that keeps the album from sounding like yet another synth-n-fx exercise on for production geeks. A masterwork in mood and restraint, Somewhere Decent to Live is the rare album that feels like a balm for modern insanity while also managing to critique it. — Son Raw

21. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer [Atlantic]

The Kansas City-raised futurist and arch-android has spent the last decade ambitiously blending R&B, pop, funk and rap into an original fusion that exists in its own wing in the 21st Century pantheon. Call it Prince pastiche at your own peril. After all, the Purple One co-signed Monae as his chief protege. Monae, herself, confirmed how instrumental he was in the album’s creative process, aiding in terms of production ideas and the overall shape of sound.

Take “Django Jane,” where Monae flips a flow you’d expect to hear on any major label rapper’s “serious song.” But here she infuses it with a new sense of purpose and some of the year’s best rapping. Rather than hear about Drake’s latest struggles with fame or something similarly overwrought, Monae claps back at the haters who tried to disrespect the foundational unclassifiable components of her being.

“Crazy, Classic Life” comprises four minutes of top shelf pop — the sort of song that could easily score the end credits of a teen drama — but winds up giving way to a rapped verse that flips the song’s whole conceit on its head. She subversively cuts to the core of America’s racial divide in a few words (“The same mistake/I’m in jail/You on top of shit”).

To make a great pop album that has something deeper to say about the way we associate with one another is a simple enough goal. But Dirty Computer manages to cover the entire breadth of our current existence. Janelle can make time for a Trump diss during a goofy Zoe Kravitz sex romp and invite Pharrell over for another goofy sex romp, never allowing the album to drift into self-serious territory. She’s not interested in the boxes some might try to put her in and we are all much better off for it. — Harold Bingo

20. City Girls – PERIOD [Quality Control]

Two months after JT and Yung Miami — collectively, City Girls — put out their debut mixtape PERIOD, JT turned herself in to Miami’s Federal Detention Center on charges of fraud. She’d reveal in the days leading up to that Saturday morning that she had been out on bond for almost the entirety of the group’s existence. Not long after Yung Miami and JT teamed up to release their first song “Fuck Dat Nigga” in the fall of 2017, JT was arrested and held on these charges.

While JT was locked up, Yung Miami pushed their only song with the tenacity of a full marketing team, tipping DJs to get them to play it and convincing girls to sing it on their Instagram stories. She even lined up shows for her and JT as soon as JT was out on bond. Coach K of Quality Control took notice and signed the duo, in spite of JT’s legal troubles. He was unphased by the risk of City Girls’ dissolution in as soon as half a year. They were that good.

You’ve heard City Girls if you scrolled through Instagram or turned on Top 40 radio or went into a bar or ever interacted with an Algorithm at any point this year. They’re on “In My Feelings.” You know, the cool bounce part. The remix might be the best thing they’ve done to date.

That song aside, PERIOD is currently City Girls’ defining work, even it it might end up their least developed project. 16 songs, no features, all City Girls. Yung Miami and JT are still experimenting with their voices here, but unlike most budding rappers, they’re never short on confidence and make the process fun as hell. The tape opens with a song about period sex and basically stays at or around that level of I can’t play this anywhere in my parents’ home for its remainder. The production is all over the place, from Miami bounce and R&B to no-melody beats, but it’s never bad. It’s very raunchy and ridiculous and necessary.

2018 played out like a race against time for City Girls, which, as pressure tends to do, led to time-cooked excellence. Luckily, they are still together. JT can go home March 21, 2020. Then, the world is theirs. Period. — Mano Sundaresan

19. Hermit & the Recluse – Orpheus vs. the Sirens [Obol for Charon]

 

Ka calls for things like “heat for the coldest” and “peace for the soldiers” as Hermit & The Recluse, the latest incarnation featuring the cryptic Brownsville powerhouse. He excels at describing values and grudges in harsh detail. Breathy, interlocking rhymes devour string stabs and eerie soul loops; sparse yet lush and echoey. Part DOOM, part Roc Marciano in the highest regard those comparisons bring, Ka’s quietly crafted a sizably hypnotic songbook spanning over two decades. Orpheus vs. the Sirens is introspective enough to feel biographical yet situational enough to feel fictional. The antagonists here are cunning and choose to pillage yet want forgiveness; the authentic killer that doesn’t look back — like Norman Mailer once wrote, “Of course, real killers never do.”

Philosophical, seedy, unsettling, Orpheus is wrought with industrial imagery of windswept abandoned buildings and cold stares. Ka has little concern for what’s momentarily fashionable (See 2016’s: Honor Killed the Samurai) and his booming direct-to-fans business model is a triumph in today’s streaming universe. At best it’s another year where he’s made incredibly uncompromising and, dare I say, exquisite rap music. At worst, the 46 year-old New York City fireman is an inspiration, a longtime community champ whose output is peaking before us.

Orpheus vs. the Sirens unravels like long division with a gaze through proverbs and Greek mythology. Brilliantly moody backdrops helmed by producer Animoss. On the track “Atlas,” despite debating the merits of “…longevity or a quick stunt?” Ka openly proves the former, the long game of long games. Nonchalant in delivery but clearly painstakingly pre-planned, his songs are like scenes from a disarming Bergman noir where you sense an impending sea change beneath your feet but it’s too late, you’re too frozen to move. Orpheus is a whisper in a windstorm you can’t help but listen to. – David Ma

18. Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings [International Anthem]

Of the lineup-of-death Chicago jazz label International Anthem has deployed this year, it’s drummer Makaya McCraven who has established himself as the franchise cornerstone. Bred from Chicago’s everything-goes improvisational scene, McCraven is a template for the ideal 21st century bandleader — steeped in tradition yet drunk off the unfamiliar. He’s as much Metal Fingers as DeJohnette. In the Moment, McCraven’s debut for Anthem, was the label’s foundational jewel, and the basement tape energy of his following two mixtapes cemented the spirit of the label’s all-inclusive team. His sweeping opus, Universal Beings, is its Larry O’Brien. With McCraven acting as Universal nucleus, Beings is an odyssey of diasporic genius. It’s brilliant people being brilliant, communally.

Universal Beings plods along at McCraven’s predestined pace, and through him the best of his cast is funnelled. At the end of “The Count Off,” McCraven asks for a “gust of energy coming down this mountain that I feel on my back kind of vibe,” and the following cut, “Buterss’s,” feels like a gust of energy coming down a mountain on your back. Labelmate and fellow Chicago alum Jeff Parker’s whacked out guitar in the victory lap recalls Tomeka Reid’s equally wonky cello in the opening stretch, and the double bassists that bookend the album nod to each other across the Atlantic.

Considering the governance required to actualize a vision as singular as Universal Beings, the synergy present is stark mania. McCraven had laterally unlimited talent at his disposal, something that would drown the loftiest auteur. Two countries; fifteen players; four live-recorded sessions, each in a new city, each with a new band. That’s the short of it. The long of it is a single conversation, spoken in four dialects. Universal Beings is a step forward in at least that many directions. — Thomas Johnson

17. Payroll Giovanni and Cardo – Big Bossin Vol. 2 [Def Jam]

When the Detroit rap collective Doughboyz Cashout popped up earlier this decade, it was apparent that Payroll Giovanni was the HNIC of sorts, so it’s been nice to see him flourish over the last few years — especially whenever he links up with the underrated-but-not-for-much-longer Cardo. The pair have a casual chemistry they’ve honed over a long series of songs, including the first installment in the Big Bossin series from 2016.

Big Bossin Vol. 2 dropped way back in January but if you’re anything like me, it stayed in rotation all year. After all, ain’t no time limit on highly motivational playa shit — and guess what — ain’t no rapper working today better at stretchin’ the 10 Crack Commandments across an enjoyable 40 minutes. I shit you not, Payroll is basically Dear Prudence for hustlers but even Prudie offers some trash advice every so often — Payroll’s too calm to make mistakes. Of course, he takes a verse or two to stunt but you always get the sense he’s only doing that shit for everyone else’s comfort — he’s a rapper.

Payroll’s motivational (and cautionary) bars never get tiring since he’s doing that shit over a perfect swirl of Detroit, Cali & New Orleans sonics — all of which Cardo has an easy mastery of — give or take a few cowbells. To be fair, Cardo probably doesn’t consider Big Bossin Vol. 2 his personal highlight of 2018 given that he made a number one hit with Drake (“God’s Plan”), but that takes nothing away from the fact that he and Payroll Giovanni crafted a producer/MC project great enough to stand alongside classics from duos long gone. There’s probably a larger point to be made regarding the increased level of quality you get from single producer/MC projects but let’s set those obvious thoughts aside and just be thankful for this gem. — Mobb Deen

16. Quelle Chris & Jean Grae – Everything’s Fine [Mello Music Group]

On their ode to contemporary anxiety, Quelle Chris and Jean Grae — two generations of indie rap royalty — explore how Americans stoically dismiss their feelings for the sake of appearances. Everything’s Fine documents the faint line between paranoia and compliance, the solipsistic detachment we display to our loved ones, the revelation that “survivin’ ain’t the same as really livin’.” It’s a jittery record populated by obsessive, overmedicated wrecks lampooned in De La Soul-style skits and loose, lively dialogues. Shrugging at mass media hypebeasts and the reduction of complex humans into convenient symbols, the rappers toe an ambitious tightrope between defeated sincerity and uproarious oddball humor.

While Grae wields the verbose precision of a Babygrande alumna, her enthrallingly weird husband Quelle undertakes spacey discursions which occupy multiple perspectives simultaneously. “I woke up, ate my breakfast, a plate full of posts and texts / Saw somebody else got shot up, this time by some cops in Texas or Virginia,” he raps on “Breakfast of Champions,” a compulsory treatise housing such chilling snapshots as children who “calm their mamas while they stare at daddy’s entrails.” Minutes later, Nick Offerman drops by to extol the virtues of ambivalence: “You don’t have to do anything about issues that don’t affect you.” It’s a joke, of course, which like all of the funniest tracks on Everything’s Fine encases a searing truth. When showing your anger might get you executed by the local P.D., flippancy is a safe, affordable alternative. — Pete Tosiello

15. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo [Night Time Stories Ltd. / Dead Oceans]

On Con Todo El Mundo, their second full-length proper by Khruangbin, the trio take a southwestwardly track as they continue to explore the further reaches of what Morphine’s Mark Sandman once called “low rock.” Combine the sultry allure of Chris Isaack’s “Wicked Game,” the laid-back R&B of Toni Braxton’s “You’re Making Me High” and the unmistakable sexiness of Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo,” and you’re in the ballpark of the Khruangbin sound. While their debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You, drew heavily from South East Asian sources, CTEM delves further into the sounds of the Mediterranean and Middle East, particularly Iran, as well as the obvious sounds of Texas blues that waft throughout. As per their usual modus operandi, Laura Lee on bass, Mark Speer on guitar and Donald “DJ” Johnson on skins, run through a gamut of emotions without ever sounding jarring or disturbing.  

This is music without sharp edges, all smooth turns and calming angles. “Maria Tambien” is one of the harder rockers in the band’s still young catalog, and “Evan Finds The Third Room,” in addition to becoming a live favorite, is the disco funk track of the year, at least. Tracks like “Shades of Man” and “Lady and Man” hue closer to the unhurried grooves of earlier works, while songs like “A Hymn” and “Rules” tend to go further into somber territory. The album is in part dedicated to Lee’s Mexican-American grandfather, explaining, “My grandpa would always ask me, ‘Como me quieres?’ (how much do you love me?), and he’d only ever accept one response: ‘Con todo el mundo (with all the world).’” At this rate, it won’t be long before everyone feels that way about Khruangbin. — Chris Daly

14. La Luz – Floating Features [Hardly Art]

What separates La Luz from every other band worth their weight in reverb pedals is how the Los Angeles by way of Seattle group (I’m still crestfallen about them leaving, don’t @ me) finds the beauty in eeriness. It’s in the songs about the golden hue of California, it’s most certainly in the songs about loose teeth and eyeballs floating in cream, it’s in the songs about the hungry monster of greed, it’s in the songs about being a nomad and wondering how somebody’s love for you could possibly deepen when your changeable nature reveals a new side every day.

Shana Cleveland’s lyrics present evocative, far-reaching themes dressed in plain clothes; her singing voice (augmented by three- and four-part harmonies and the defined instrumental prowess of Alice Sandahl, Marian Li Pino, and Lena Simon) is the kind that floats along in dreams or draws sailors in close enough to crash their ships. Her parables are often set in transit or dreams, seeing creatures while in the throes of sleep paralysis and the sun glistening from the surface of ocean water. One part surf, one part garage, two parts florid 60s girl-group guitar-pop, emblematic of four exhaustively talented musicians coming together as one.

Devotion is treated more as an ever-present fog than a jewel from the tomb deep inside oneself: “My Golden One” is pretty self-explanatory but traces images of wood taped to paint and being brain-fried from the hot sun. The woozy doo-wop of “Walking into the Sun” ponders the value of being the coolest person in an otherwise unoccupied bedroom and whether or not possessing someone’s heart is worth the cost of personal freedom.

The confidence from already having dropped a classic album (2015’s Weirdo Shrine) overflows and spills out of the speakers on the climax guitar solo of “The Creature” and Floating Features’ startlingly good opening track; titled after the record, standing atop their group-standard instrumental tunes. La Luz’s third full-length renders the world depicted in their music with even more depth, building a richly drawn catalog worthy of one of the best rock bands currently making music. — Douglas Martin

13. Future – Beast Mode 2 [Epic]

Like most Future projects, Beast Mode 2 is pompous, hedonistic, and painfully honest — sometimes all three at once. It’s an erratic crash course of emotion, both in the suddenness with which it was delivered and the fleet of passion from track to track. “DOH DOH” and “WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT” are lavish braggadocio colored by Zaytoven’s tilting major keys. “WIFI LIT” and “CUDDLE MY WRIST” are serenades to achievement but not far removed from his persistent drug-addled depression.

If you separated Future’s drug lore into three chapters, the third would be Beast Mode 2’s closer “HATE THE REAL ME.” An apparent follow-up to the lean dependence illustrated on “Codeine Crazy” and the frail attempt to fight addiction on “Perkys Calling,” “HATE THE REAL ME” is Future’s look in the mirror that reflects complete submission. The track is perhaps Future’s most explicit expression to date of the blur between his public flashiness and worsening drug addiction. Lines like “a sober mind wasn’t good for me” feel like defeat. It’s a sobering closer on an album that otherwise successfully couches Future’s trauma and tragedy in a shallow opulence.

Somewhere lost in the epicenter of the glitz is “RED LIGHT”—a haunting ballad recounting a father who abandoned him and a childhood of sleeping on project floors. It’s simultaneously a plea for his father’s understanding (“I was such a worried child, just wanted you to be a part of me”) and for his own mind to forget the man exists (“I pray I forget my dada”). “RED LIGHT” stands out not just as the best song on the project but Future’s most personal and impassioned performance since “Use Me.”

frenetic but a glorious return to form by trap’s Stevie Wonder, BM2 also feels hauntingly open-ended. Future is without resolve and candidly searching for answers. Hopefully, he finds them before he crashes. – Myles Andrew-Duve

12. Proc Fiskal — Insula [Hyperdub]

At long last, I have reached the age at which I have absofuckinglutely no idea what it must be like to be a youth. What are their hopes, their dreams, and did they buy the first Drake album on CD? At 18 I was buying Skoal for my friend’s little brother while waiting for another friend’s big brother to buy us a case of Bud Light; would the me of today be copping Juuls and ordering crystalline alcohol power from Canada using Bitcoin? The mind boggles at the possibilities. My point, if I could possibly be said to be making one, is that when trying to figure out what’s going on in the brain of someone whose past and present experiences have all taken place in what you yourself define as the future, you’re faced with a gap which, much like the ones in the London tube stations whose grit and, uh — god damn it I’ve written myself into a corner here so I’m just gonna say it — grime helped birth the paranoid and insular sound of Grime music itself, cannot help but be minded. Or is it mound?

Look, what I’m trying to say is that Insula is a record that exists because Proc Fiskal is 21 and from Edinburgh and listened to a bunch of Grime music on the internet instead of going through the Grime Wave firsthand, watching in real time as Dizzee and Wiley gave way to Skepta and instrumental grime and then to Grime as experimental music and then Skepta again because culture goes in cycles and don’t let him being cool fool you he once made a song called “Ed Hardy Party” so let’s not act like the guy’s always been this paragon of taste. Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah, if you’re young all of this stuff is flat — you pick from it what works while adding and subtracting from the palate as suits your talents and preferences. Insula is a fantastic record, one whose ahistoric, intragenre schizophrenia enhances its intelligence and sophistication, not detracts from it.

There aren’t any lyrics on the thing but words are old and like old people, words suck ass a lot of the time. The kids speak with their hands these days, haven’t you heard?  — Drew Millard

11. Blueface – Famous Cryp [5th Amendment]

More people are talking about Los Angeles’ Blueface every week and all parties are getting more ludicrous. Most of it is pleasant insanity; tweets about alchemy (“I turn nothing into something”) that are funny without the manga reference, eyebrow slicks while belittling the Ford Focus, Daylyt giving the best rap criticism of 2018, et al. Famous Cryp, his first project since debuting last year, is surreal in its own right. Necks morph from jewelry holders to mouthpieces before they’re removed (“Respect My Crypin”), nudes are unsolicited (“Fucced Em”) and Blueface becomes one with the elements (“Dead Locs Pt. 2”). Well, just the wind. Maybe that’s why his name keeps spreading. 

Though as everyone flocked to have a take on the sensation from Mid City, they muddled his stylistic origins. Type ‘blueface bay’ into Twitter and dozens of users say “he’s biting the Bay Area,” some even claiming he’s from there, which is unequivocally wrong. The problem isn’t the suggestion of influence but its severity and lack of L.A. rap context from the last couple years. Slapping Blueface with a “Bay” tag also unintentionally slights the area by reframing it as a homogenous collection of “whatever-led-to-Blueface” instead of distinct pockets with idiosyncratic contributions. Vallejo is not Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh is not Oakland.

Blueface was inspired, at the very least tangentially, by luminaries of that estuary. The lexicon was nurtured in L.A. soil. He squawks ad-libs between bars and two of his most frequent, “bop” and “yeah, aight,” are Los Angeles terms. The former is on Stinc Team and 1TakeJay tracks from as early as 2016 and the latter has a history in the city’s gang culture along with the more obvious “locs.”

This isn’t splitting hairs, it’s just never a clean transfer when cultures interact and the L.A-Bay connection stretches decades before “Thotiana” dropped. Blueface echoes flourishes of Suga Free, who is a fly-for-life mix of the regions, growing up in Oakland but moving to Pomona before greasing Quik’s compositions. (Also, we’re done talking about “off beat,” this wasn’t written for someone who thinks beats come with instruction manuals.) Too $hort went in reverse, born in South Central and migrating north in his late teens. More recently, the New L.A. producer Fizzle was raised in the Bay and you can hear it in his beats. This doesn’t even begin to address how Detroit fits into the mix, though the famous cryp isn’t the example you’re looking for from L.A.

Blueface is used to people trying to “bleed him” and that takes many forms, like unintentional misrepresentation. Ultimately he bleeds us — especially if you despise him — because all this conversation keeps him paid just to show up. — Miguelito

10. Valee – GOOD Job, You Found Me [G.O.O.D. Music]

In Chicago rap history, new talent is often accompanied by hype as loud and penetrating as the wind coming off Lake Michigan. Kanye’s breakout was enhanced by the truth of “Through the Wire.” It was the kind of redemptive, Phoenix-like rise from hardship people can sink their teeth into. Similarly, the noise, hype, and rumors surrounding Chief Keef are just as responsible for the rapper’s rise as “Love Sosa.”

In contrast, the most notable thing about G.O.O.D. Music up-and-comer Valee’s introduction to the world is how quiet his story is. At nearly 30, Valee seems beyond the need to clamor and careen toward the spotlight. He’s a father and a Yorkie enthusiast. In fact, the Chicagoan’s career came late, after he’d taught himself how to build things with his hands, mend his own clothing to his sartorial satisfaction, and futz with the wiring of his house. Music was just another thing to learn, then master.

While other new talents have started beefs, fed online rumors, and tattooed the number 69 on their face to facilitate their climb to the top, Valee has focused more on honing his craft, and that quiet dedication is what led to the understated beauty of GOOD Job, You Found Me.

Throughout the lean, fourteen minutes of GOOD Job, Valee proves his power comes in effortless flow and his ability to pump life into menacing, minimal beats. The 29-year-old rapper’s understated vocals drip, effortlessly peacocking as effectively as any 19-year-old with two-hundred thousand followers on SoundCloud.

There’s lots of joy and good times in Valee’s music, but there’s also a caginess, a subtle danger that flexes with quick lines like “[I’ll] come up on you like front steps do,” that quicken the listener’s pace like a hiker who’s just seen the glinting eyes of a mountain lion in his flashlight’s beam. But it isn’t all show and bluster; “Vlone” is a slow meditation that languishes and twists like a stoned, summer afternoon and “Shell” is, well, a fucking banger. GOOD Job is the perfect introduction to the kind of performer that needs nothing but his portentous talent and the time to master it. — Justin Carroll-Allan

9. DJ Taye – Still Trippin’ [Hyperdub]

Footwork at its core is house music with quicker tempos, all the better for dancers to show off their speed. It is perhaps Chicago’s greatest musical innovation this millennium, but though it has spread internationally, its influence is still relegated to underground dance scenes. Still Trippin’, the debut album from DJ Taye, is a glimpse into a future where footwork fully permeates the mass culture via hip-hop hooks and pop song structures.

Still Trippin‘s footwork is 160 bpm MPC jazz sculpted into pop form, equally equipped for house parties, club shows, and Lolla. Taye was only 16 when he successfully auditioned for legendary footwork crew Teklife, and here he shows what seven years of work can do. “The Matrixx” blends vinyl scratches and video game beeps into one ecstatic whine as claps fall into the groove haphazardly like hail. On “Smokeout,” the drums under Taye’s blunted call and response bars leap from a laid-back pocket into dizzying double time like switching from indica to sativa.

Taye and his producer peers prove that the best way to rap around the triplet kicks is to program them yourself. Lead single “Trippin’” is a dismissal of footwork poseurs and xanned-out partygoers, and Taye’s nimble rhymes stay constant as his beat morphs around them. Local luminary Chuck Inglish becomes one of the few rappers brave enough to ride a footwork beat on “Get It Jukin’”, his voice eventually dissolving into rapid chops. Most importantly, Taye knows when to let the beat speak for itself, like the gleaming chords of opener “2094”. Each track on Still Trippin’ hums with energy like a block party forced inside by a Chicago winter. As essential as the dearly departed DJ Rashad’s Double Cup. — Jack Riedy

8. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth [Young Turks]

Kamasi Washington’s The Epic dovetailed with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to create a moment bigger than jazz itself. After a decade-plus of musically accomplished, if critically unacknowledged gigging, Washington, a towering, leonine tenor saxophonist in vibrant Pan-Africanist robes, was suddenly a star who transcended the genre. The beautiful Epic wasn’t just a boon for Washington, but for other members of the West Coast Get Down, a tightly-knit collective of Los Angeles jazz musicians that includes bassist Miles Mosley, trombonist Ryan Porter, keyboardists Brandon Coleman and Cameron Graves, drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr., and vocalist Patricia Quinn. Washington was the lead, but the triumph of The Epic was shared by longtime friends helping recast jazz for 21st century audiences.

With the addition of trumpeter Dontae Winslow, Heaven and Earth recreates that dynamic — the album’s wide-ranging ambition and dualistic concept of body (Earth) and spirit (Heaven) are Washington’s, its sterling execution the efforts of a small village of jazz cats. From sizzling opener “Fists of Fury” (a Bruce Lee film theme repurposed as a message of black empowerment) to slinking bonus disk closer “Ooh Child” (a Five Stairsteps interpolation), the Get Down alumni are in perfect sync. Washington’s transforms Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones” from a Hard Bop standard into a polyrhythmic cascade of Africanate drums; trombonist Porter, whose decade-delayed The Optimist was one of this year’s best records, composed, arranged, and solos nicely on “The Psalmnist”; pianist and vocoder crooner Coleman, whose own Resistance was excellent and bright, channels Roger Troutman on “Vi Lua Vi Sol.” The Epic made Washington a name-to-know outside traditional jazz circles; Heaven and Earth should do the same for his gifted cohort. — Torii MacAdams

7. Rucci – El Perro [Mackk & Company]

The rappers responsible for Los Angeles’ continued rap renaissance have few idols. Most eschew the styles and sound of their predecessors in favor of cadences, slang, and production that align with contemporary triumphs, vices, and perils. This is not the g-funk revivalism of YG’s Still Brazy — it is “nervous music,” “traffic music,” “creep music,” or so on. Rucci, however, stands firmly with one foot on either side of the generational divide. The 23-year-old Inglewood native is an ardent formalist — his lyrics enunciated and in the pocket — with an ear for beats that smack of bygone eras of west coast rap while evoking the same paranoia as the music of his peers.

Rucci wasn’t a formidable soloist until recently. His first projects, Notorious (2014) and Still Notorious (2015), included multiple guests on virtually every song. MackkRucci (2016), his collaborative album with the late Sean Mackk, proved he could hold his own for more runtime. While he was still sharpening delivery, his charisma and raw talent were undeniable. 2017’s Dawgystyle, his first true solo effort, marked a significant artistic leap. Backed by beats that nodded to and interpolated ‘90s LA rap, Rucci displayed a fully formed persona — gleefully hedonistic and fatalistic — and his best songwriting yet.

2018’s El Perro’s is a more focused, personal, and emotionally arresting continuation of Dawgystyle, the album that should cement Rucci’s status as the best Inglewood rapper since Mack 10. Throughout, plinking keys and minor chords sound between bouncy low-end that will test the strength of your rearview.

Rucci ricochets between each portentous kick and snare, his momentum mounting with each bar. It’s as if he is wary of what slowing down might mean. He doesn’t spend more than a few lines reflecting on seeing his first dead body at six-years-old, the death of his friend/mentor Sean Mackk, or missing his father. He laments bringing a gun to label meetings, but he can’t dwell on its necessity, on the rivals plotting his demise. There’s another check to get, another woman in his DM’s, another distraction. He’s drowning his sorrows in Hennessey and codeine, snuffing them with indica smoke, cloaking them in designer fabrics, but he somehow sounds joyous. He’s gone from Rogers Park to the stage at Rolling Loud. The pain and ceaseless anxiety may soon be behind him. I can’t wait to hear what Rucci sounds like when he can slow down and relax, when he can boogie in peace. — Max Bell

6. Armand Hammer – Paraffin [Backwoodz Studios]

I was 11 with the widow’s peak
Either way I’m on topic:
Stay the fuck from police
You don’t work, you don’t eat
Take it from me, go get that degree
You’re a fly on the web, those that could, fled
Light skinned n***** chucking threes, I wish them the best
Old school, whole house smell like soul food
I told papi to chill on selling babies Hot Takis and blue juice
Duel of the iron mic never made the news
This is america, somebody got to lose
Put that work in a bassinet
Before earth, there was black
And then there was crack
Bless the mamas locked behind the prison
Your god is distant, your father never listened
Chili garlic ginger, head spinning
When in doubt, assume everybody with it
If we gotta ride, let’s ride
Somebody said don’t put the date in your rhyme
Shit don’t rhyme no more but making more sense in my mind
Play me on wax forever
Lowkey oppressors call me brother
Told the money lenders I could do you one better
Let me get your supervisor on the phone
Shitty crack bundles litter my path back home
This ain’t the righteous way to go
That site passed on your album, nothing seems to stick
Spliff like a pen, everything I wrote was in the wind
Winked at the audience before the plot twist
When uncles and cousins caught the illness
Speaking to an unframed sky
The rent’s still too damn high
I was surprised to find people would rather die than cut you a slice of the pie
No photos please, I got warrants
I don’t leave the apartment
I be up too early, when he spit, the room darken
I eat too much pussy to be a rasta
No such thing as halfway crooks be the mantra
I demurred with the African accent
I elect “Nature of the Threat” as the new black national anthem
Hole in his brain
“You built it on Indian graves!”, the lead character exclaims
The way I see it, we all sell pain — Zilla Rocca

5. Mitski – Be the Cowboy [Dead Oceans]

Compared to Mitski’s last album, Puberty 2—compared to anything, really—the songs on Be the Cowboy are minor and brief, strange and divergent. Mitski, who is unafraid of dark and foreboding sounds but who has a preternatural gift for pop, will flit from despair to a performance of optimism, from heartbreak to global warming. Any component part, stripped from here and heard in isolation, would strike you as the rare, naked, “stripped-down” type of thing that could be a climax for an album, a summer romance, a nervous episode.

Like Drakeo or Anais Nin, Mitski draws a lot of power from the specificity in her word choice; Saying that she’ll “take” coffee, rather than “order” it or simply drink it, feels a little like wearing your dad’s suit jacket, with the sleeves hanging past your fingers, which is how the speaker in “Old Friend” might believably feel. That’s the other thing—Be the Cowboy is best understood as a series of fragments that, in aggregate, say something about loneliness or longing or performance, but individually show a remarkable gift for narrative and for the kind of ventriloquism that makes characters feel like more than warped reflections of herself.

The sound is not radical, though it is unsettling, designed so that the hooks string you along into uncomfortable territory. Be the Cowboy is the kind of album that betrays more than enough raw commercial potential to pitch its creator for stadium tours and an endless purgatory of Kimmel performances, but weird enough that you feel confident she’d give Jimmy’s producers heart palpitations. – Paul Thompson

 

4. JPEGMAFIA – Veteran [Deathbomb Arc]

JPEGMAFIA is the Internet rapper we both need and deserve. While every artist and their mother earnestly begs you to vote, Peggy is busy wishing death on Morrissey, comparing his AR to Lena Dunham’s celulite and threatening the type of Williamsburg resident that undoubtedly considers themself “the good kind of white person” (spoiler: they’re not). That he did it by sampling Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s croak, harsh noise and drum patterns out of some DMT elf nightmare made his breakthrough Veteran even more fascinating, since there was no way to pin him down and no preexisting box to contain him.

It’d be lazy to dismiss Veteran as “punk rap” — punks in 2018 are scolds, and ‘Peg is just as interested in naming tracks “Libtard Anthem” as he is dismissing the alt-right as a non-threat to strapped up B-More residents. More accurately, JPEGMafia is to contemporary hip-hop as Frank Zappa once was to rock: too clever to buy into either straight society OR the shallow performative wokeness that his peers are using to sell a couple of records.

This isn’t an easy way to make music, and most rappers would fail, or at least be condemned to an alt-rap hell touring with Tech N9ne, but Veteran succeeds because JPEGMafia, behind all the trolling, knows his shit. He’s got an ear for not only noise, but also R&B, and he isn’t afraid to rap his ass off if necessary, with a delivery that makes even his throwaway lines sound convincing. The result is an album full of twists and turns that’ll always leave you unsure of whether you’re in on the joke or just the butt of it. Considering most noisy rap settles for a bland distortion + politics = anger formula, that uncertainty, humor and sense that the record is indiscriminate in its attacks feel like a remarkable achievement

By the end of 2018, JPEGMafia was on the cusp of something far bigger than Veteran – covering a Backstreet Boys single and working with Kenny Beatz on a grime track hints at his potential to take his high wire act to a far larger audience. That doesn’t make Veteran any less important however, instead it positions the album as a breakthrough, and perhaps the last time we’ll hear this kind of straight talk without him having an audience to consider. Whatever may come next however, no album captured the frustration of dealing with bad faith arguments and dogmatic assholes quite like Veteran. Plus, he named a track “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies” so… yeah: right side of history there. — Son Raw

3. 03 Greedo – Wolf of Grape Street & God Level [Alamo]

Why not say what happened? 03 Greedo has suffered in this life. His father died when he was one. As a child, a tympanostomy tube held one of his ear canals open, and he now has permanent hearing loss on that side. He’s been shot. A metal rod holds his tibia together. Homeless as a youth, institutionalized on and off, and moved among Kansas and St. Louis before arriving at the Jordan Downs housing projects in Watts as a teen, 03 Greedo really might be the musical torchbearer for, as he told Rolling Stone, “The skaters, the bums, the homeless people, the fuckin’ project n****, the me-against-the-world-ass n*****, the gangbangers, the flockers, people that break in houses.”  

The fire rises from there. Greedo is unaffectedly iconoclastic in interviews, saying that Timbaland doesn’t know what he’s talking about, saying that 2Pac recorded a bunch of boring songs and wasn’t that tough, saying that R&B is dead, declaring himself a culture god. When critics say things like this, you take them to task. When an artist says things like this, well, you turn to the art.

His offerings: An armada of mix tapes since 2010, Stevie Wonder’s nasal tenor, shot through with Devin the Dude’s twang, the murmuring of a more toothsome BG, Boosie’s blend of elegy and anger, and the sense of abundance that drove Gucci’s pre-incarceration mixtape run.

The streak culminated this year with Wolf of Grape Street, a 21-track mixtape that swirls paranoia, lust, love, and the Irish-wake-esque pair of sorrow and mania. Underneath that, too, drifts a mood best encapsulated by what Greedo told an interviewer, “Where I’m from, you either almost make it, or you don’t.”

Greedo’s work on Grape Street never shirks those glimpses of unfulfilled lives. The tinny, spectral harmonica loop turns “For My Dawgs” into blues. The hook on “Never Bend,” the last and maybe the best song on Grape Street, makes the man inseparable from his surroundings: “If these walls could spit bars, all of they songs be this hard.”

God Level, his major label debut, drills further down into 03 Greedo’s strengths. The songs are more direct and feel pitched to the broader audiences. Grape Street sounds like one long weekend confessional; God Level’s a bigger tent, room for Lil’ Yachty fans, Drake fans and Sada Baby fans all. “Dibiase” and “In My Feelings” is for one audience subset; “Finally” and “Basehead” for another. Even with the demands of a commercial project, and, you know, the title, Greedo still makes his voice personal, “If I go to back to prison, would you send me some pictures?”

Greedo himself will soon enter a Texas prison for a term of at least five years. Prior felonies and a specious police stop in rural Texas in 2016 brought a potential 300-year sentence. He pled out. As the story has it, Greedo has about 600 songs in his back catalogue, ready to keep his name alive while he waits out another purgatory in bondage.

While he is gone, his music seems fated to soundtrack the next few years of whatever happens to Watts and to Los Angeles and the youth of this nation. It’s a special thing to be utterly representative of a time and place, but 03 Greedo’s warping, personality-drenched music does speak to Los Angeles, to the Ozymandian folly of the 2028 Olympics which is destined to sacrifice working class neighborhoods on the altar of VISA, to the tent camps, to the trust fund-fueled dispensaries with strains named for Nate Dogg songs the prick owners haven’t even heard, to the Teslas, to the LAPD, to the eerie too-early hour in which the city seems to shutdown, to the gangsters, to the forgotten, to Grape Street, to the Katrina and Harvey refugees in Watts, to the disabled kids in the projects, to all that is ill and mesmerizing and damaged and sprawling in 03 Greedo’s world as he’s lived it. — Evan McGarvey

2. A.A.L. – 2012-2017 [Other People]

Nicolas Jaar has never chosen to speak to us how others do, but he has always had something to say. The transmissions come via unfamiliar channels: chanted lyrics, inscrutable release schedules and ambient alternate soundtracks to 1960s century Soviet films. 2016’s Sirens, Jaar’s last studio album, was the staggering culmination, a murmured manifesto embedded amongst soundscapes that sunk stories deep, wrought by tribal patterns that whirled into walls. It was protest mapped onto unfamiliar and alien terrains, shot through with secular and melodic discord alike.

The project that Jaar quietly slid onto the online store of his record label this February, released under a rarely-used alter ego and left to go unnoticed for nearly a week, is a surprising departure from the difficult path he has forged. Our foremost electronic explorer has found beauty in constraint — A.A.L (Against All Logic)’s 2012 – 2017 is an endeavor less about sketching out brave new forms and more about coloring by numbers with bright, neon markers. If the main Jaar catalog lies beneath the ocean in the undercurrent, intent on plumbing its depths, “I Never Dream” preserves a wave’s apex, gasping for air atop it for nearly seven whole minutes. Hallelujahs (“Some Kind of Game”) are unrolled onto a canvas, prayers protracted and pored over.

It sounds like a memory we already had in our possession: music we had already lived with before ever hearing. And that temporal displacement feels essential to the album — after all, it’s a collection cobbled together from six years of work, drawing from a recent past that now feels like distant history. 2012 – 2017 is carved with a classical toolbox, assembled from the repertoires of house and disco and even footwork, and sown with the familiar, pitched-up threads of The Delfonics and ‘70s soul. The result is a fearlessly foundational album, both present and past. Even at his most chaotic Jaar is never aimless: and there is a message here, just not coded how it has been in the past. Even as he vaporizes dense breakbeats and lush, liquid currents into something hazy and incorporeal, the smoke always hovers and resolves into signals.

The warmth that 2012 – 2017 stretches out into the ether to retrieve is not embodied by Jaar’s voice, as the accusations of Sirens were. Instead, he finds hope in repetition. Even in its disorientation and dissonance, each broken loop always finds a new groove, a new home. It is both constancy and perseverance. If Sirens was a screed, 2012 – 2017 is a sermon: chopped up and delivered piecemeal through the mouths of others and its words warped through time to re-emerge decades later, spiritually intact. And today, it sounds like what any proper, endless night should sound like: dancing through two in the morning, faltering at four, and gasping at six, a heart-racing hurtle towards the morning. — Sun-Ui Yum

1. Drakeo – Cold Devil [Stinc Team]

During the final throes of the great depression, the self-help pioneer and sometime scammer, Napoleon Hill wrote what was intended to be his masterpiece: an imaginary dialogue with the devil, where Satan demanded to be addressed as your majesty and revealed the secrets of his timeless gift for treachery. An entire chapter is devoted to the “astounding law of hypnotic rhythm.” The sinister implications terrified Hill’s wife so much that she refused to let him publish it. After she died in 1984, Hill’s nephew attempted to usher it into print, but his own wife forbade him for fear of blowback from occult forces.

Nearly three quarters of a century after it was first written, Outwitting the Devil finally materialized in the light of day before swiftly retreating into the shadows and winding up in the Los Angeles County Men’s Jail cell of Drakeo the Ruler. He told me that it mostly reiterated knowledge already acquired growing up in the Hundreds, and surrounded by the thieves vainly trying to manipulate him behind the walls. But it’s not hard to imagine that the Stinc Team leader appreciated Hill’s entrepreneurial ambition, affinity for crashing Rolls-Royces, and boasts that he received strange visitations from holy spirits. Hill also called himself Mr. Earthbound, which doesn’t have the ring of Mr. Everything or Mr. Big Banc Uchie, but it was 1938 so we’ll let that slide.

In his last weeks of that 11-month jail stint, the South Central native procured a cell phone, which enabled him to unleash a legendary streak of shit talking from behind bars. More importantly, it allowed him to select the beats and scrawl the lyrics to “Big Banc Uchies,” “Flu Flamming,” and much of what become the best album of the year, Cold Devil. Should you ever doubt the chimerical genius of Darrell Caldwell, consider that he wrote a song personifying a luxury department store to convey his utter disdain for his rivals who will never have a personal shopper—all while wearing the county blues. Neiman & Marcus should build him a bronze statue on Rodeo Drive.

Upon his release last November, Drakeo recorded Cold Devil in just two weeks, an offhand fact that in a different generation would’ve led people to start rumors that he’d made a crossroads pact with his album’s namesake. If his first three mixtapes hinted at Hall of Fame potential, this is evidence of full mastery— the complete transformation into the devil, the vampire, the Grinch, and the motherfucking cookie monster. The best Christmas villain since Hans Gruber. Robert Johnson returning to Clarksdale wielding an original blues revolution that could barely be traced to previous permutations of sound.

If Drakeo came up in a jerkin’ crew, morphed into the idol of the flockers, and became widely known to the city after a Mustard co-sign, this is where he fully shed any allegiances to previous styles, flows, and slang. The allegation that he stole his lingo from the Schoolyard Crips is an exaggeration so ridiculous that it reminds me of when Superb claimed that he ghostwrote Supreme Clientele.

Imagine anyone going up to Drakeo and telling him to write, “Sheesh/I been wilding out/chopsticks/mopsticks/all at my momma couch/bath with the apes/I been strangling snakes/hop out the Batmobile/I’m Bruce Wayne in some Maisons/all mud in my kidneys/my plug is a gypsy/this a fully-automatic/I let my kids hold the semi.”

Cold Devil isn’t a matter of borrowing a few slang words; it’s the invention of a new rap language, a startling declaration of uncharted terrain when you thought that every last corner of LA gangsta rap had been claimed. It’s both cartoonishly absurd and chalk outline brutal. In one minute, he’s standing on hundreds in the booth, knocking down Macho Man, somewhere between Sideshow Bob and Luke Skywalker playing laser tag. In the next, he’s driving a Nascar with blood on his thousand dollar sneakers, and no, he doesn’t know nothing about no murders. It’s a conversation with the Devil, where Drakeo inhabits both roles: the wrathful lord of the underworld and the hero tested by heavily armed enemies.

The hieroglyphics are as cryptic as Ghostface Killah in his prime, but bear no resemblance to that tradition. It’s like Athena springing fully formed out of Zeus’ skull, clutching an F&N and mudwalking through Barneys. A quantum leap that sounds like when Snoop first emerged a quarter century ago— purposeful and iconoclastic, apart from regional trends but still shaping them, relaxed and effortless but precise and poisonous.

The caliber of taunting rivals vintage 50 And Cam. When he wheezes, “lord, keep me away from these bums,’” it’s as lethally disrespectful as LeBron tweeting “u bum” at Trump. “Flu Flamming” ends with a mumbled rant about using “Sport Mode,” which you wouldn’t know what he’s talking about because “old cars don’t have that type of shit.” It’s the coldest and most nonchalant demolition since Jay mocked other rappers for not knowing the difference between a 4.0 and a 4.6.

It would be innovative enough just off sheer lyrical originality, but the production bears the hollow-tipped destruction of what Drakeo branded “nervous music. It’s a sinister splinter sect of grim piano chords, murda muzik synthesizers and executioner’s drums. The bounce of ratchet, but hijacked, possessed and used as brutal artillery. The beats thunder from a fusillade of different producers including Ron-Ron and Ace the Face, Fizzle, and Bruce24K, but it’s shockingly cohesive. A sound perfectly tailor-made to his muddied and dense torrents of syllables that somehow run counter-clockwise to the beat but never feel off-balance. He raps like he’s being chased by the police in a $100,000 car, flipping a U-Turn to drive on the wrong side of the freeway, and somehow escapes cleanly.

Of course, there is the doomed reality that haunts this album. Shortly after its completion, the LA County Sheriff’s Department stalked Drakeo and the rest of the Stinc Team, picking them up on what were then undisclosed charges. In the police station, they reportedly played Cold Devil back to Drakeo, spitting lyrics that he probably hadn’t even memorized himself. Over the last year, they’ve tried to portray his entire catalogue as a confession to crimes and conspiracies that would practically make Rick Ross cough up a lung—the real one who grew up just a few blocks away from the Ruler.

Thus, the chaos surrounding this record makes it feel even more monumental. Drakeo currently sits in Men’s Central Jail facing first-degree murder charges; his raps will be used against him in a looming trial. The members of the Stinc Team, who shine on Cold Devil like those marauding cameos from the early Death Row Records, are also incarcerated — their primes being wasted by the notoriously corrupt and racist Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. There are two collaborations with Greedo too. Along with our song of the year, “Ion Rap Beef,” it seemed like they might wind up the Pac and Snoop of this generation. Instead, Greedo rots in a penitentiary in Western Texas, his momentum stalled by drug charges that threaten to sideline him for years to come. Only OhGeesy is free to prosper and remind us what could have been — at least until they all come back home. If they ever do.

Even if this winds up the high point of this moment in LA rap, it will be enough. It’s an unequivocal masterpiece of hypnotic rhythms, a reminder of the barbarous cruelties of the criminal justice system, and the circumstances that conspire against those just trying to make it up out the slums. Cold Devil is a modern West Coast classic, sacred evil built to soundtrack high-speed chases and blunt cruises for decades to come—even if might not make sense to the rest of the world for another 75 years. — Jeff Weiss

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