POW is a website without ads. We don’t do sponcon, we don’t do clickbait, we don’t have any corporate overlords. This list that you’re about to read is a labor of love, inasmuch as anything can be a labor of love in this hellish griftocracy where algorithm knows best.
Even labors of love come at the significant cost of time. This is the result of hundreds of hours of labor. Three editors and 36 contributors attempting to capture the spirit of the old weird Internet. For the last 18 months, we’ve had a Patreon that has helped us continue, but it only goes so far. If each reader contributed $5 a month we could flourish. Should you value what we do, please consider donating to the Patreon.
We purposely don’t do put our articles behind a paywall or private substack because we believe it’s important that everyone have access, whether they can afford it or not. We do have Patreon-only playlists though, which I promise are real and spectacular. Either way, we all appreciate you taking the time to read this and will never stop going in, ask Rich Homie Quan. Apologies in advance for your favorite rapper not making the cut; sometimes it do be like that. – ed.
Unranked: (POW Artists)
Gabe Nandez – “The Return”
When international man of mystery Gabe Nandez announced his return, you’d be forgiven for wondering just who this guy thought he was. But “The Return” isn’t just a fancy way to say he’s been here for years, it’s announcing the latest chapter in a journey that goes deeper than rap. An introspective ode to a life that’s taken him from Africa to New York via Montreal and beyond, the track is a world-weary look at the other side of jet life, dedicated to a restlessness that’s become more of a home than any individual city. That makes “The Return” an outlier in rap, a genre where civic pride and home grown roots are a defining factor; but like the beat’s plucked guitar, this perspective is invitingly different, with a universal appeal going far beyond the relationships Gabe is looking back on. — SON RAW
Kent Loon – “Rome” ft. Chester Watson
There is a type of telepathic chemistry that you can’t fake. That’s why the best rap duos have almost always known each other since the very start. Q-Tip and Phife from Linden Blvd. Erick and Parrish, making dollars in Brentwood L.I. The Bun and the Pimp from P.A.T. So it’s only right that Kent Loon and Chester Watson formed Nu Age in the halls of high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, a pair so intrinsically tethered that they can complete each other’s bars or imprecations.
“Rome” finds them refining Kent’s deranged batch of acid trap, dazed but dangerously lucid, finding the northwest passage between dripping and tripping, a beat that sounds beat sounds like it’s being dragged like a cup of mud. The lyrics sound like they were inscribed in THC resin on the walls of each other’s minds. This is the kind of communion you can’t discover overnight. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. – Jeff Weiss
Natia – “Renaissance Armada”
When Natia comments on the power of his collabs with producer Sunny Marley, it’s actual not metaphysical. The drums on “Renaissance Armada” are overstated and make any output sound like it’s rattling through subwoofers too big for their containers. Natia finds a way to laud Issey Miyaki and tell you “chase your dreams” in a way that doesn’t sound like the closing statement of a D.A.R.E. lecture with one exasperated breath. — MIGUELITO
Chester Watson – “Cloud Mask”
Chester Watson’s demeanor can be equally liminal and mischievous. On “Cloud Mask,” he sets his flow to a kind of hop-skip-and-jump rhythm over a beat that might float away in a puff of weed smoke. The result is a piece that feels it’s set to induce stoned laughter. Watson sounds only half present in his room but his cadences mesmerize as he spills these loose ruminations — amusingly realizing mid-verse that maybe his music should mean something: “But let’s switch the topic to somethin’ of substance/Like where are the laws for the hungry or sufferin’?” Before long, Chester just wants to talk about his favorite music: “Bumpin Portishead, Nujabes, Yasiin, and DOOM.” The hypnotism of songs like “Cloud Mask” makes him one of their best disciples.— DEAN VAN NGUYEN
Rhys Langston – “Master Fader on Speed Dial”
Rhys Langston says more in “Master Fader’s” one minute than your favorite rapper does in 40. The Jesus of Los Feliz lands somewhere between Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle, blending the vocabulary and dexterity of the former with the wit and cunning of the latter. He’s an honorary Blowdian for our age, fighting against the apathy of consumers and the vindictive reign of gentrification. “Master Fader” is the thesis to an EP of the same name, quick jabs disguised as one-liners backed by boom-bap drums and a soul sample yanked from heaven. Langston turns a Pro Tools function into an extended metaphor on the nature of art itself, easily shifting between double-time cadences and a sing-song flow. It’s a minute-long masterclass available with a Spotify subscription or for nothing at all. This is rap raging against the dying light. — WILL SCHUBE
The Outfit, TX – “Brudda’dem”
The Outfit, TX are an unstoppable force of Southern hip hop. Whether as solo acts, or as a group, the Dallas, Texas born and bred group are constantly putting out solid, nocturnal, gritty, Southern Gothic bangers that feel like Quint Black was smoking with Flannery O’Connor in a studio. “Brudda Dem,” is one of those immaculate loosie tracks that The Outfit, TX throw out regularly. The group is at their smoothest, most Texas, on “Brudda Dem,” featuring a grimey Chasethemoney beat, and a guest verse by the Rio Grande Valley’s gruff voiced poet laureate, Dro Fe. Even when they’re just cruising, The Outfit, TX are far ahead of their competitors.— SAM RIBAKOFF
Ness Nite – “GucciPrada”
Has love ever felt more illusory? More radical? In 2019, an act as simple as really loving someone is considered revolutionary. The version that’s on Instagram is usually capital, an accessory, leaving Gen Z even more confused than previous generations about what the hell love is.
Ness Nite somehow captured all of this in a single line: “I’ma make her feel like Guccipradachanellouisvuitton.” They dipped into Kreayshawn’s Frankfurt School to alchemize “Gucciprada,” a dreamy slice of pop rap that cuts deep, exposing how love has become commodified. The anti-capitalist banger of 2019. — MANO SUNDARESAN
Zilla Rocca – “2 Steps From Perfection (Feat. Curly Castro)”
Philly’s Zilla Rocca has a gift for picking beats. Production on his last two, Future Former Rapper and ’96 Mentality, have been a master class in marriage of lyrics and tone, at times haunting and others forceful. Zilla’s laconic yet detailed flow, double entendres and concise hooks, noir laced with everyday realities, keep his efforts floating. “2 Steps From Perfection” featuring the always exuberant Curly Castro exemplifies just that. Over a chopped-to-bits Aretha Franklin sample (the gorgeous “One Step Ahead”) the pair have all the right weaponry — playfully referencing “dollar store slip-ons” and “fruit loops” before sharply ending at two-minutes, easily making it standout in a year of standouts. Extra points for the Company Flow nod— DAVID MA
100. Kool Keith X Paul Wall – “Foot Locker”
Kool Keith exists out of time and place. His ultramagnetism draws us back to the golden age, when he fractured the existing cadences of rap. He lived astro in the shiny suit era, exploring space on a major label budget. More recently he is one of hip-hop’s most dogged road warriors, criss-crossing the country playing dates, touring a torrent of new material at a Bob Dylan-like pace routed by the next opportunity, recording prodigiously in between.
Touring is notoriously degenerative on the spirit, the long stretches of boredom and loneliness punctuated only by the performances and rest stops at suburban malls. Here Keith and Paul Wall each deliver long lecherous verses in classic sex style over skeletal Psycho Les drum machine work, some well-deserved retail therapy for a true legend in the game, the last MC of his generation that is still able to surprise us. — DAD BOD RAP POD
99. Injury Reserve – “Jawbreaker”
Three kids from the lyrically devoid deserts of Arizona form a rap group and make records filled with avant odes to culturally woke warriors and vintage Bulls jerseys. They make their first album in one of the dental office of a member’s grandfather. It’s too ridiculous to make up. But Injury Reserve has outlasted the schtick and are thriving thanks to a Loma Vista record deal and an abundance of top-billed guest features on their first LP. “Jawbreaker,” the Rico Nasty-assisted standout, goes after sexual assault in the fashion industry, a bold play considering that these dudes are a manager’s email away from copping an Ian Connor co-sign. With a beat that leans more towards experimental minimalism than headbanging hip-hop, the trio slide and evade the norms and status we’re trying to lay upon them. They’ve got the attention of the rap-fashion hierarchy but know that their impact is worth more on a song than in some new fits. — WILL SCHUBE
98. Choosey X Exile – “Low Low (Feat. Aloe Blacc)”
G-funk brought gleaming, gravity-defying Impalas worldwide. But they bounced in barrios long before The Chronic. On the Exile-produced “Low Low” from his debut, Black Beans, San Diego’s Choosey subtly delivers a cruising history lesson over blaring horns and souldie samples. For him, owning a lowrider is synonymous with love, family, and upward mobility in SoCal’s overpriced sprawl. It’s about remembering your roots every time you hit the switch. — MAX BELL
97. Roc Marciano – “Richard Gear”
Marcberg sparked an aesthetic revolution for East Coast rap a decade ago, when Roc Marciano set out making world-building sweeping Robert Moses gestures to re-make the sound of New York rap. Each of creation since then is dense with smoke, soul strings and sampled soundbites, crafted for maximum atmosphere. There is a fundamental tension that keeps Roc’s music compelling as his discography grows. The luxurious production envelops the listener, drawing you in to a warm, honeyed soundscape, but the verses are born of ice-cold pimp code, uncaring and flinty. We’ve been hearing the same story for years, but Roc draws in new shades of gray and blue, describing the hustler’s life from a remove, an omniscient narrator using the language of prayer, cars, basketball and guns to describe his “wild adventure” of a life. — DAD BOD RAP POD
96. Quelle Chris – “Obamacare”
The wired, frantic “Obamacare” finds the often-meditative Quelle Chris asserting his status as a hip-hop great, flexing the success he earned without ever having to compromise the oddball visions present on past albums like Everything’s Fine. If the backdrop of clanging bells and piano loops sounds more menacing than his usual droll, thoughtful fare, it’s because Quelle wants you to understand that he’s now ready to seize his roses and isn’t fucking around. — NITISH PAHWA
95. Wiki – “Eggs”
You can almost picture DOOM turning this beat down, the metal mask covering a face that otherwise wouldn’t be able to hide his disenchantment with the simplicity of Madlib’s beat. Dig the soulful strings and vocal sample, the DJ Premier-esque scratches, and the unfussy drums—its orchestration that seems unlikely to tickle the taste of the super villain who once favoued Lib’s trippy complexities. But in the hands of Wiki, the lack of dressing is hard to resist. “Eggs” is as classic as a round-neck tee as the New Yorker slides on the beat with fun, rhythmic cadences: “Young Caesar, the crowd-pleaser, the town leader in a round theater”. It’s true that Wiki’s loyalty has always been to the core tenets of classic hip-hop but this is the most he’s ever sounded like a retro revivalist in the vein of Beast Coast. The only question mark is why “Eggs” was left off OOFIE. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN
94. AllBlack X Kossisko – “304”
“304” finds two Bay Area pimps comparing stat sheets. AllBlack, the “real 16” with a pitbull’s intensity and a septum piercing, and Kossisko, who slid from mack rapping under the 100s moniker at the start of the decade to serenading women in exercise infomercials. Kossisko’s voice blends with the guitar melody while Allblack shows how few degrees of separation are between carne asada and mint green choppers. — MIGUELITO
93. Conway the Machine Feat. Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher – “Tito’s Back”
In which Buffalo-born rapper Conway the Machine rhymes the same words with the same words: “Ima be honest,” “water in the bucket,” and “broken 40”—technically it’s “broken 40” with “broke and 40.” Three times, he more or less repeats the same phrase. And it works. It’s a neat microcosm for what his Griselda crew does writ large: they more or less repeat C-N-N and Mobb Deep. And it works. — JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN
92. BandGang Lonnie – “Detroit 2 Inglewood (Feat. Ice Burgandy, Beno, Drego, BandGang Masoe & VVSBeezy)”
Lots of things happen at 4:47am in a Los Angeles Airbnb but few are as quick and cinemagraphic as “Detroit 2 Inglewood”. A consortium of Detroit (Drego, Beno, Bandgang) and Inglewood rappers (Ice Burgandy, VVSBeezy) give you a two-and-a-half minute, one shot glimpse of their party spot complete with pillows on the stairs and a Super Nintendo. Detroit rappers have a knack for handing off verses about nunchucks or Dubai-based plastic surgery like a game of hot potato and their Norfside companions fit well in this style. — MIGUELITO
91. Vic Spencer — “7 Feet Deep”
A rap diehard toiling away at his craft since the group home placement with sneakers stacked to the ceiling, Vic Spencer rocks a crown shaped like the skyline of his native Chicago while boasting the work ethic of the village shoemaker. “7 Feet Deep” is a substantial highlight from the four dozen tracks worth of music he released in 2019 (an impressive feat for most rappers but just another year in the life of the bar-barian).
Over a blaring sample of squealing trumpets provided by Louminoti, Spencer offers a monument to the murderers turned murals and the cats who gave their lives in the pursuit of having pre-release Jordan colorways, urges rappers thinking 90 BPM is too brisk a tempo to give up their vocation, and rebukes promoters who try to pay performers in weed. (Imagine doing that to an artist so experienced in cannabis consumption he could probably write editorial for Leafly.) Spencer is often contextualized as the second coming of Sean Price, but he’s spun a bounty of gold being the shit-talking stoner pitching bars from way out of left field. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
90. Chris Crack – “Black People Can’t Be Racist”
Through the beat-jacking allegations, falling out with former friends/collaborators, and the personal motto of “troll ’til they fold,” the events of Chris Crack’s 2019 threatened to distort the Chicago-bred MC’s status as one of hip-hop’s most thoughtful lyricists. Yet still he produces potent, often bite-sized songs at an uber-prolific clip, all of which would be considered marvels even if they weren’t so exhaustively writerly.
In less than two minutes, Crack weaves a veritable life story over the aforementioned jacked beat, all smooth jazz saxophones and block party drums with an arresting pitch-shift halfway through. Purple heart emoji are used as a reminder of hard living, stabbings lead to guiding the youth, pimping is the lifestyle that litters the background. He shows his love for Missy Elliott, his hatred for Papa John’s (I know everyone who grew up in Chicago has strong and informed opinions about pizza), his need to keep a cowboy revolver or a full clip or 100 rounds in the semi-auto, the strain of weed in his cigarillo. You know you’re a talent worthy of recognition when Gangsta Boo clears a sample right in front of you. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
89. Serengeti – “Dennehy Bulls”
Serengeti commits to the bit. The Chicago rapper’s catalog is full of fictional characters to whom he gives voices and verses. Kenny Dennis, the nasal, diehard Chicago sports fanatic with a mop mustache, is his greatest recurring character and muse. 2006’s “Dennehy” was the whimsical and wistful character study that spawned Dennis EPs and albums. “Dennehy Bulls” is a Dennis fever dream made real: the Chicago Bulls hit him for a Bull-centric remix. Geti still goes full Dennis, sounding lovably deranged as he genuflects at bygone Bulls lineups and pines for a decent Fiero. This is sponcon done right. The juices are still in the chops.
— MAX BELL
88. OBN Jay – “Freestyle”
Any Louisiana rapper born after the new millennium has a discernible list of influences. Sure, there are the obvious tentpoles of Boosie, Gates, and Weezy, but there’s also a newer crop of young stars that have shown a way forward. NBA Youngboy’s PS4 Rap is a place to start, as is the recent ascent of his signee, Quando Rondo, with whom the Louisiana native, OBN Jay, scored his first major hit in 2018. Jay is a synthesis of these various emcees, but on “Freestyle,” he lets his gravelly, melodic flow tell a tale independent of his forebears. It’s a perfectly satisfactory day-in-the-life track, but Jay stands out for the way his lines unfurl atop each other, his Southern drawl adding a layer of thick sludge to his words. “13 years old I got my first glizzy” just hits harder out of his mouth. OBN Jay is one of many in a new generation of Baton Rouge rappers, artists that blend the old street soul of the elders with the digital savvy of today’s stars. — WILL SCHUBE
87. Birdman X Juvenile X Lil Wayne – “Ride Dat”
For a song with a hook unabashedly about dick riding, Juvenile, Birdman and Lil Wayne’s ‘Ride Dat’ packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Maybe it’s the palpable chemistry, the late-career half-reunion of the Hot Boyz, or the always welcome Rich Gang tags — or maybe just the impassioned rapping and New Orleans’ bounce-inspired beat. Or maybe it’s the heartwarming feeling you get from Juvie burying his and Wayne’s old animus for good in the opening bars.
It’s tempting to view the song—as well as the Juvie-Birdman collaboration Just Another Gangsta from which it came—as an exercise in nostalgia. And it is a brilliant encapsulation of what made Wayne and Juve click all those years ago: the vulgar punchlines and frenetic rapping made famous by the former, alongside the syrupy flows and world-conquering slur of the latter. But here, the rappers (and the propulsive beat) sound eternal.
As a jazz piano twinkles, Juvie paints a picture of his post-400 Degreez paradise: crickets chirping, birds tweeting, dining by candlelight with a selection of designer label-clad ladies. It’s idyllic and moving and hilariously over-the-top, completely true-to-self. When Weezy flicks his lighter after a gloriously nonsensical Birdman verse, you realize that everything you came for is exactly what you’ve received. — COLIN GANNON
86. Dee Watkins – “Hell Raiser”
From just outside of Jacksonville, Dee Watkins is the epitome of carefree, Florida verve. Starting with the terrifying monologue from The Purge and surrounded by serial killer masks, Dee’s sleek flows shine through in an anthem for doing hoodrat things with your friends. Though singles from Rico Cartel or 438 Tok aren’t making it on to most lists, the combined output of Florida’s sunny-style rappers this year makes it one of the strongest regional scenes going into 2020. — HARLEY GEFFNER
85. Nef the Pharoah – “South Vallejo”
I’ve never been to M&M Liquors but let it be known, I’m willing to go to the mattress to fight anyone who denies that it’s the best damn liquor store in Vallejo. That’s the power of the hometown pride that exudes from Nef The Pharaoh. Aided by DJ Fresh’s thick slab of Bay Area funk, “South Vallejo” sees Neffy extols the virtues of the Sick Wid’ It stronghold. With all the charisma that has sanctified the young star as a spiritual successor to Mac Dre and 40 Water, he offers a guided tour of the area (“If you never hooped at Patterson, you not from South Vallejo”), calls out the cops, and lays out the area’s unwritten rules. Locals will bump this one for years. For the rest of us, it’s easily one of the most fun raps songs of the year.— DEAN VAN NGUYEN
84. Mach-Hommy – “Mozambique Drill”
Mozambique Drill is named after a close-quarters shooting technique. There’s a taxi cab partition with a money tray, Mach threatens to flip his adversary like Hacksaw Jim Duggan while insisting he never did it for the gram, and a sample sternly insists that you can’t perform around him tonight, lest there be a million purse snatchings for crab rappers on the menu. It’s enigmatic as it is beautiful, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to send me a DMCA takedown for quoting his lyrics. — SON RAW
83. Earl Sweatshirt X Mavi – “El Toro Combo Meal”
Since his therapeutic 2018 comeback, Earl Sweat has been nothing but artistically impressive and brutally honest. “El Toro Combo Meal,” with its ’04 Pistons s/o and heartfelt RIPs (Ras G, specifically) over chopped soul harmonics, adds another quality: it’s blissful. All lame memes about “East” aside, this here is the essential tune on “Feet of Clay” — Earl’s celebratory promise to keep the new-found fire burning, and a crowning ceremony for next-in-line prodigy, Mavi. — JULIAN BRIMMERS
82. Rucci – “Bong in the Booth”
Whether on stage or in the studio, Rucci is bringing his bong. At this year’s Rolling Loud festival, he looked at home on the Zen Stage, flanked by his brothers as he pulled on the dirty downstem to snap up hits of weed cut with tobacco. If there was a headrush, it wasn’t visible through his oversized Gucci shades as he gazed at thousands of outstretched hands.
Produced by Bruce24K, it offers an authentic porthole of access into Rucci’s creative process. When he’s “lost in the booth,” he inevitably finds the secret “sauce in the booth.” Over the last few years, the Inglewood native has made a habit of regularly packing out clubs with fans, friends, and family who show up to scream his lyrics. The Youtube comments on “Bong In The Booth” are indicative of just how tapped in his fanbase is: “I won four tickets to go see him today at the observatory in Santa Ana,” a comment from Rambo Sayaboulom reads. Another one reads: “Favorite performance at rolling loud 💯.”
Rucci makes bangers that aren’t frivolous or filler. Instead he utilizes his immense gift for language and beat selection. These are party anthems that balance molly popping and Henny chugging with painful war stories from the past. It’s this emotionally charged conviction that remains at the core of Rucci’s musical temperament. He talks shit and truth simultaneously, admitting that since dropping out of high school, he hasn’t written anything down. While “Bong In The Booth” is no exception, it’s an exceptionally well-written song for being off the dome. As a wise Mackk once said, that’s norf. — EVAN GABRIEL
81. Suga Free – “Premium Game”
Did you think that the Me Too-era would somehow dull the sleazy, white lines and white linen savoir faire of the Pomona pimp with the silkiest perm since Charlotte’s Web? That’s about as likely as being able to talk astrophysics with a rhino. Besides, giving a fuck never went with Dejuan Rice’s outfit. If the squares still give Blueface credit for liberating beat from flow, Suga Free has been doing it long before the rapping cartoon ever saw a schoolyard. And sometimes, he only needed a table and pencil.
For his only solo album of the decade, the forever macking, never lacking street gospelist lived up to the lofty claim made in its title: this was nothing less than a resurrection. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been contributing the occasional classic verse before disappearing back to do whatever luxuriously seedy things that Suga Free does on the average Tuesday; but rather, it’s that Suga Free is pushing 50 and still out-rapping people half his age — classic as a vintage Bordeaux with the eternal recklessness of a 40 of Old E. There are so many all-time Suga Free punchlines that it’s hard to know where to start. He’ll get more money out of aluminum. Don’t ask him what to do with vinegar. This is premium game, spit with the unsavory dark evangelism he’s been pumping out since 97. It is the world’s oldest profession after all, and Suga Free stays timeless.— JEFF WEISS
80. ComptonAssTG – “40 Show”
Hailing from, you know, Compton, and having spent years behind bars, TG carries himself like a walking stink face. The type that somebody flashes at you and you think, “yeah, I’m in trouble.” “40 Show” is TG at his meanest, pants sagging so his 40 shows, robbing the plugs, and then rapping circles around them in their own kitchen. The LA rap ecosystem is bursting with talent and it’s a shame that guys like TG, Saviii 3rd, Rucci, G. Perico, and the 1Takeboyz basically only see shine on the pages of Rosecrans Ave and this site. — HARLEY GEFFNER
79. LNDN DRGS – “Sideshow (Feat. Conway the Machine)”
Hot take: LNDN DRGS may have the year’s finest contributions to the Roc Marciano school of low-bpm, open-space-filled slick talk. In a departure from his typical candied ‘80s funk flips, producer Sean House turned his attention to elegant soul like the Stylistics and Leon Ware on the duo’s smooth-ass EP with Curren$y, and he mastered the vibe on the September single “Sideshow.” Blue Magic’s chopped big band groove rides like its tracking an ironic Scorsese sequence of slow-motion murder, and the falsetto chorus plays like an intermission; looping without futzing is simple but basically always works when you’re working with source material this cinematic.
Jay Worthy and honorable guest Conway cannily dial into the same flow, hammering the same A-A rhyme scheme—Kangol hats, Cadillacs, Macs, table scraps, Cognac—for 20 measures until the latter breaks and closes with the perfect bar, “Roscoes on Pico, eatin’ Obama special / My momma told me that I was special, n*gga.” (That’s three wings and a waffle, in case you were wondering.) It was the Griselda affiliate’s most memorable verse in a breakout year. — TOSTEN BURKS
78. Nfant – “Reloaded”
A native of L.A’s Baldwin Village, Lil Infant has dropped the first four letters of his name since “Red Flag” in 2016, but refined his greasy flow and delivery that erodes each bar into the next. The beat for “Reloaded” sounds like an audio rendering of catching tunnel vision and the video shows a hotel party that would quickly impair your vision. “Reloaded” is the kind of song that works better without a hook so a sweaty Nfant has more chances to compare a double-sized clip to Rikishi’s thighs. — MIGUELITO
77. SlumpBoyz – “Walk ‘Em Down”
The rap canon is rife with gang affiliates writing soundtracks to their lives. Clipped memoirs spit in members-only slang, gun-tucked avowals of set/neighborhood pride, chronicles of days spent corners that might lead to the coroner. In short, locally grown and supported reportage.
SlumpBoyz are from the Southside of Oxnard and affiliated with the Sons of Samoa Crips. If you didn’t know from the “S” on their Mariners hats, they tell you in nearly every song. “Walk Em Down” is their greatest contribution to the gangster rap canon to date. It’s joyous yet serious G-funk that’s reverent not rehashed, part of a tradition. The hook is as smoothly crooned as the content is grim, somewhere between Nate Dogg and Bone Thugs. Each member raps with varying degrees of skill about firing on rivals and riding with the clique, but their personalities make up for lack of polish.
This is rag top back, running red lights on the way to BBQ music that slaps and feels like sunshine. “Walk Em Down” dropped at the end of July and has over one million views on YouTube and SoundCloud, respectively. No press releases or press. You can’t manufacture street hits like this. — MAX BELL
76. Mustard – “Ballin’ (Feat. Roddy Ricch)”
This shit right here is spiritual. Roddy makes pain music sounds menacing and hard shit still sound painful. “Ballin’” lands somewhere between there with verses that tip toe in the pockets of Mustard’s buoyant 808s and an anthem of a hook that niggas can’t help but sing out loud.
The song is a tribute to Roddy’s growth, his success, and he wears his struggle on his sleeve in the booth. Lines like “‘Cause I’m getting money now I know you heard that” really hit different when they’re followed by “Young nigga on the corner, bitch, I had to serve crack”. It’s a rapper who’s come up fast but doesn’t have to look too far behind to see where he came from.
So wake up to this. Light one to this. Play it in church. “Ballin’” is a breath of fresh air and the anthem among many Roddy anthems. One that feels prosperous, hopeful and breathes a little life into a city still recovering from the loss of its most reliable moral compass every time it’s heard bumping on the corner and out of car windows. There is still a voice out there putting shit on for the city. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE
75.YS X OhGeesy X 1TakeJay – “Bompton Remix”
A YouTube search yields something like half a dozen different songs called “Bompton.” The Bompton that YG valorized is south of Rosecrans, in between Aranbe and Acacia. Actually, it’s more specific than that: it’s the 400 block of Spruce Street, kitty-corner from the 76 station. The Bompton that YS claims— Campanella Park or “the Nellas,” named for Dodger great Roy Campanella—is two miles west of YG’s, and half a generation removed. A song called “Bompton” becomes something like the rap equivalent of the Old Oaken Bucket passed between factions claiming superiority for their territory. Aided by fellow Hub City native 1TakeJay and Ohgeesy of Shoreline, it doesn’t matter what block it represents: any song called “Bompton” is a rising tide that lifts all boats.— JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN
74. Huey Briss – “Regardless”
Huey Briss isn’t meant to be boxed in to any single style. Originally hailing from the northside of Long Beach, he caught a wave of attention a few years ago when a freestyle video went viral, and eventually landed him on an episode of the In The Kitchen With No Jumper podcast.
Since then, Briss has since been on a consistent trajectory as one of the best new rappers out of Long Beach, releasing 2018’s Black Wax album with producer Niko Beats (the son of DJ Babu). This year, Briss branched out, working with producers such as Burnin Giraph (“KnowitAll,” “Cardoors” featuring Seafood Sam) and RonRon of Hitmob, who laid the beat for Briss’s biggest hit in “Regardless.” The song dropped seemingly out of nowhere on Jan 14, yet it was instantly obvious that while Briss is capable of suturing his various influences, he is anything but a one-dimensional artist.
Illustrating Briss’s versatility, this is a street single that’s stripped down and direct. A maxim that details the deep desire for success. As his own clothing label reminds us, Briss don’t miss. — EVAN GABRIEL
73. G Perico – “Dog Year”
As he appears in the video for “Dog Year,” G Perico—suave, bright-eyed, jheri-curled—seems like he’s big enough to carry Nipsey Hussle on his back, if not Tupac. He is ambitious, sure, but he presents more as a South Central community organizer than the Next Big Thing. Other would-be standard bearers often end up sludge through endless name droppings. But G Perico makes gangsta funk not merely to celebrate Eazy E and DJ Quik’s legacy. He does it because he knows that, despite the adage, sometimes we are blessed rather than doomed to repeat history. — JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN
72. 03 Greedo x Kenny Beats – “Disco Shit (Feat. Freddie Gibbs)”
“Disco Shit” makes you think about collabo hierarchies and the power of inviting someone into your world. Kenny Beats x 03 Greedo on album length was a grand idea from scratch. The odd couple dynamics had Greedo go batshit in his more cartoonish registers, while his overall slickness kept Kenny from falling into formulaic bangers. Bring a trapper and crooner-at-heart like Gibbs into the mix and it’s a wrap. Everyone here feels soulful and comfortable, and it shows. — JULIAN BRIMMERS
71. Polo G – “Through Da Storm”
Polo G flips lullaby keys into tear-jerking songs about perseverance to make the kind of music that makes you stop and consider your place in the world. As the leader of the post-drill melodic wave of Chicago rappers, Polo treats his trauma from growing up with violence around every corner as something that informs the man he’s becoming. Every one of his successes is that much sweeter when he considers the alternate paths he could’ve taken. He sings of living like a king for all the nights he and his brother starved and re-routing his course when he saw himself slipping in to a life that so many of his friends fell victim to.
While many of us can’t relate to watching our mothers cry in court while we’re shackled up or thinking that heaven is the place to be because that’s where all the real ones are, Polo knows he’s just being tested, acknowledging how everybody goes through something. It’s impossible not to root for this kid. — HARLEY GEFFNER
70. Clipping – “Nothing is Safe”
Don’t underestimate the power of a one-finger piano motif. Julias Eastman used it in his minimalist compositions as a base to then erupt into ideas. John Carpenter used it to create tension with his Halloween score. Even Kanye knew how to utilize it to build pressure towards an emotional release on “Runaway.” Clipping. takes these influences, a big gulp of 90’s Memphis rap, a dash of Gravediggaz, and a sense of theatrical musicality, and builds a track around a single plucked piano note that personifies the police state looming eye, propelled by the omnipresent spectral horror of history. In five minutes, the mid-city trio made the scariest, realest, movie of the year. — SAM RIBAKOFF
69. Teejayx6 X Kasher Quon – “Dynamic Duo”
One of the first songs that took Kasher Quon and Teejayx6, members of the Detroit scamming pantheon, to a viral level, “Dynamic Duo” phished a lot of attention this summer. Masquerading through the gym and parking lot of a self-important L.A. apartment complex, Teejay and Kasher get more frantic and paranoid as they layer bars about paying their mom’s cable bill with stolen credit card info on top of “Givenchy > Pink Dolphin” flexes. Insults are where they really shine though. There’s a specificity and progression to the list of items just outside your price range—SCAT pack Dodge Chargers, a quarter ounce of weed, the phone bill, three beef jerky sticks—that carries into darker lines about the utensil they’ll use to bury a family member. Fuck phantom indices, the fact scammers are having to catch Spirit flights too shows the economic health of a nation. — MIGUELITO
68. Pop Smoke x Lil Tjay – “War”
The story of a young American going from high school to fame in the blink of an eye isn’t surprising; it’s the standard coming-of-age tale for pretty much any young rapper or creative that uploaded something on SoundCloud this decade. Two flag bearers of New York Rap share this common trait, blowing through their respective hits, “Welcome to the Party” and “None of Your Love.” Lil Tjay, The South Bronx’s “Justin Bieber” with the Rambo always on his hip and Pop Smoke, the 20-year-old Amiri Jeans enthusiast with a 45-year-old voice navigate the link-up with a numbing maturity, determined not to hit virality then fade into obscurity, and in a clutch moment, they created one of the most riveting songs in rap while still not even being old enough to buy liquor yet. — ETHAN HERLOCK
67. Hook – “Stand It”
Hook’s next project will be called I Crashed My Car, which apparently has happened almost ten times. This fact alone tells you what you should know about the Riverside-raised, LA-based rapper: her sound is slightly deranged, destructive and wildly entertaining.
The 20-year-old was responsible for a number of sonically inventive tracks this year, which felt so new that they might foreshadow the general direction of rap in the 2020s. But it’s Hook’s innovative vocals that makes songs like the celestial, sub-bass-heavy “Stand It” stick. An ad-libber and vocal contortionist in the mold of Playboi Carti or Ski Mask, her voice coos one moment, blasts rounds of monosyllabic bullets the next. Always bending in weird, unexpected directions, her vocals bleed psychedelically into her preferred strain of maximalist beat. That’s the thrill of Hook: her freestyled melodies make the songs seem rollicking and and uncertain where they’ll wind up. Disjointed bars, haywire ad-libs, breathy vocals, a subversive sense of humor—she makes subtly riotous songs that sound like an alternative universe Rihanna who grew up on Mista Thug Isolation, Die Lit and the Based God. — COLIN GANNON
66. Lil Bean – “Down 2 Ride”
Lil Bean’s music seeks to tell the story of a San Francisco that’s been overshadowed by app makers and invaded by nerds on motorized skateboards. San Francisco’s true spirit is comprised of hustlers, poets, cons, and smooth talkers, and Lil Bean’s raps add to that rich tapestry.
In the moody “Down 2 Ride,” Lil Bean spits with a stylish smirk about the struggle of making it. Over ethereal synth and piano that sounds like something from the opening credits of a Carpenter score, you can hear the Bay’s influence through Bean’s dazed staccato delivery. And while his voice has a soft, almost delicate lilt like The Jacka, his lyrics are spiked with menace: “Say you step and get stepped on/ Bitch, I’m always in my city/ ain’t no vest on,” Bean adds some quiet to the ear-splitting bombast that is Bay Area rap. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN
65. Valee – “About U (Feat. DRAM)”
Valee and DRAM are rappers that often don’t sound like rappers. So you can file “About U” in the category of “Love Songs That Don’t Sound Like Love Songs.” CHASETHEMONEY’s beat grinds like an industrial engine at work. The bass knocks like it’s hiding in a basement and the synths squeal like they’re emerging from a young Dre’s dungeon.
But love’s not an afterthought. It’s the underlying sentiment. The hallmarks of a real heart-rendering ballad are present, sure — exorbitantly priced underwear (Versace, tres chic), a Wockhardt sponsor, general designer paraphernalia. Yet the duo hold firm to a requisite emotional hierarchy: the dope shit, and U. That’s real. — THOMAS JOHNSON
64. KingMostWanted X MCM Raymond – “In My City”
KingMostWanted (17 years old) and MCM Raymond (20) represent the youngest demographic making rap in L.A. They’re from San Bernardino and Inglewood respectfully and learned as much from The New Boyz as they did from Greedo (even if they’re never where the Grapes at). Like other regional L.A. hits this year (“Vintage and Adventurous”) “In My City” has sparse production and, when the drums do hit, they sound like they’re filled with pebbles. It’s springy whether King bites that he’ll snatch a chain or Raymond hums he’ll do the same. — MIGUELITO
63. Maxo Kream – “Meet Again”
Maxo Kream’s “Meet Again” is Nas’ “One Love” updated for 2019, right down to the conceit: a letter to an imprisoned friend in which the Houston rapper recounts personal hardships, like how his own father may die in prison, or how a cousin is now addicted to drugs after cooking up with him. With a faint flicker of sadness in his voice, Maxo tells him that he gave his mother enough money to buy books for him to read in isolation, and runs him through the state of affairs in their hood: friends dying, his baby mother acting up, his young daughter that he cannot hold is now learning to walk and talk.
It’s the granularity in Maxo’s writing that gives it its power. Redro was blasted eight times during a recent shootout, but will survive. Sto Groove, on the other hand, was only shot twice but he “ain’t make it through”. Last year, in May, a “crackhead junkie killed Young Doof”. It’s unforgivingly bleak, and there’s enough scene-setting, flashbacks, conflict, character development, and endless novelistic detail here to showcase Maxo as a writer’s writer. What’s missing is denouement, because incarceration offers everything except resolution.
The lead single and opening track from his Brandon Banks album, “Meet Again” sees Maxo’s lively staccato glide effortlessly across Mike Dean and Teej’s production. The synthesizers are warm and fuzzy, rendering the mood somewhat triumphant. But sullen keys, a lonely buried horn, and the bluesy hook combine to give the song an undeniable melancholy. Even though the song’s endowed with such obvious sadness, Maxo refuses to be eaten whole by apathy. He promises to never lose faith, to eventually break his lifelong blood brother out. It might be symbolic and hopelessly hopeful, but sometimes an act of faith is the only weapon of resistance we have.— COLIN GANNON
62. Lil Uzi Vert – “Free Uzi”
Whether or not DJ Drama and Generation Now are really holding Uzi back, or if Uzi is just dropping tracks whenever he feels like it, [maybe the truth is somewhere in between,] it’s obvious that Uzi doesn’t need rap, rap needs him, and “Free Uzi” is a sly smirk to the camera letting us know that he knows this. From the decision to release a track with an old DJ L beat, to the decision to pitch shift his vocals, to the decision to shoot a video with New York drill director Qasquiat, Uzi is able to naturally synthesize his strangeness, his unpredictability, and his influences with the sheer force of his endless charm and wholesomeness. That and the fact that he’s always been a very solid rapper. — SAM RIBAKOFF
61. Skitz – “Bby Laana”
The first songs that brought BBY Laana notoriety were high school diss tracks that went viral on Twitter. Given this context, the San Francisco rapper’s debut single “Skitz,” released through EQT Recordings, makes too much sense. It’s lean and formless, a single, incendiary verse brimming with threats that are definitely directed at an actual person and their mom. BBY Laana is sticking to what she knows, writing in prickly barbs delivered with smooth, Bay Area menace, and if Twitter liked it so much, then that may be all it takes for her to make it out the scene.— MANO SUNDARESAN
60. DB Boutabag – “Dreams of a Wraith”
What’s funny in 2019? Zack Fox, Tiffany Haddish, Tim Robinson? Yes. Adam Levine revealing a CALIFORNIA tattoo across the chest like God’s Son? Sure. The President of the United States talking about flushing a toilet 15 consecutive times? Maybe, fine. I think the funniest thing from the past year just might be DB.Boutabag’s hook on “Dreams of a Wraith.” Mary had a little lamb? Well, DB’s had your bitch. That’s it. The delivery is perfect. The South Sacramento rapper proceeds to “smoke a funky extension” and “eat him like a parfait.” Hilarious, without sacrificing an inch of locality or authenticity. The entire Bag Klan Misfit mixtape slaps with a syncopated, buoyant delivery. He’s worth watching for, and probably worth asking your significant other about. Fuck your little lamb. — STEVEN LOUIS
59. Kevin Gates – “Walls Talking”
Despite his mercurial musicality and bright turns of phrase, I find Kevin Gates most compelling at his most insular—the solo opuses mainlined directly from his brainstem without any buffing for palatability’s sake. Lately a ward of the state, “Walls Talking” finds him “a prisoner in my own mind,” sweepingly surveying the violence and iniquity which culminate in feelings of inadequacy. There’s a direct line to be drawn between Gates’s lockup soliloquys and those of fellow Baton Rougean Boosie Badazz, as well as their ineffable discernment of when it’s okay to bemoan their own plights. Yet the emphatic melody, tuned with Richie Souf’s appropriately somber production, is pure Gates. — PETE TOSIELLO
58. Young Thug X Gunna – “Hot”
Young Thug doesn’t have anything left to prove. After years of sustained leaks, claims of being unable to understand him and fumbled album rollouts, everything crystallized for Thug in 2019. “Hot” is a celebratory victory lap for the hall of fame Thug/Gunna duo. The Wheezy-produced song has it all from a triumphant horn loop to Thug scolding you for smoking synthetic weed inside his Rolls Royce. Gunna is fully locked in, with his verse full of internal rhyme about surprising his girl with a new car and putting diamonds in his watch. Whenever the energy at a function slowed to a crawl, DJs would throw this song on to fan the flames and bring the party back to life. If anything’s for certain, “Hot” is an undeniable hit that won’t be going anywhere. — BRANDON CALLENDER
57. Sheff G X Sleepy Hallow – “Automatic”
Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow should’ve blown out of the Brooklyn Drill bubble into the rap stratosphere, but they seemed more focused on portraying stories that offer a lens into their solipsistic philosophy — one that orbits around loyalty, morality and the streets. “Automatic” is a bludgeoning minimalist tapestry that shows Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow as stern underdogs with chemistry both organic and confidently relaxed.
Those creeping synths capture the existential gloom of Brooklynites trying to survive in a life-sucking environment. Survivors of those precarious environments, Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow refuse to gloss over the details or preach but use their voices to chronicle their lifestyles. Maybe, Sheff G or Sleepy Hallow could see their songs hit the charts like the rest of their contemporaries who made 2019 their year, but Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow seem to rap with interest about what they know and while it’s depressing at its core. It’s anchored with a dogged determination that gives The Unluccy Luccy Kid single a weight that other rappers couldn’t lift in their music.— ETHAN HERLOCK
56. Danny Brown – “Combat”
Look, I’ll champion Don’t Quit Your Day Job more than any sane person should but if you told me that Q-Tip would produce one of the best tracks (and albums) of 2019 and that it would feature the ghost of Consequence, I would’ve asked you what in the hell precipitated Dave Chapelle taking over Warp.
All jokes aside, Q-Tip’s frenetic production perfectly mirrors the psychosis and dexterity of Danny Brown’s genius. On his first verse Danny is cool and almost indifferent as he flicks lines like “I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck” and “got more pills than the Olsen twins,” but as Q-Tip’s horn sample nauseatingly swirls over and over Danny begins to sound more and more untethered.
Like a wind-up doll that’s coming to terms with its own futility, Danny begins to flail, Then just before he completely unravels Danny gains control and once again seems to find himself sobered by the fact that he’s surrounded only by fiends and a system that has deprived so many of so much. Danny recedes but the point lingers as the album comes to a close. — MICHAEL DUPAR
55. Tree – “The Verdict”
Tree returned from a hiatus with three brilliant albums in five months, a capstone course in his trademark trap-soul which wows upon first listen and rewards devoted students. His 2019 output is at once prescriptive and inward-facing: he’s obsessed by the inextricability of his grown self with the homes and community which produced him. “The Verdict,” a loosie from August, is an instinctive howl which plumbs the depths of systemic and historical injustice. It is a monologue with multiple speakers, choir voices gradually layered over Tree’s red-eyed preacher, concerned with police violence specifically and persecution in general. Tree stays up nights agonizing over power, who has it, and how and why it’s wielded; he is weary, and he is relentless. — PETE TOSIELLO
54. Lil Keed – “It’s Up Freestyle”
JetsonMade has rightfully become a producer of the moment. While the North Carolinian has no shortage of bangers on his resume (“Suge” is an all timer), none can match the sheer wattage of “It’s Up.”
To discuss Keed is to discuss his stylistic debt to Young Thug, but out of the whole post Thug subgenre, he’s arguably done the best job of finding his own spin on the template. Others have been working to master one flow or element of Thug’s style. Keed is able to effortlessly tap into the entire set of tools in a way that his contemporaries often can’t.
The result? Music that sounds like all of the best parts of Thug, without lapsing into complete Jeffery karaoke. Keed bleeds into the beat in a way that is reminiscent of 2013-14 Thug, finding all sorts of pockets that even the most dedicated Thug mimics would never reach. He gets inside of the beat, as opposed to merely riding it. The inscrutable lyricism is there, too. “These racks extra green like spinach” is reminiscent of “I get mostly green, like a salad” in the best way. — HAROLD BINGO
53. Lil Chicken X Jigg – “Fast Cash Babies”
One of the more underrated joys of rap fandom is seeing the rappers that you love enjoying the same songs as you. “Fast Cash Babies” has rapidly emerged as one of the biggest songs in Milwaukee history, racking up millions of plays on YouTube and Soundcloud without a video.
Who needs a video when Sada Baby is uploading himself vibing out to your song, though? Lil Chicken (now known as Chicken P) is one of the top rappers that Milwaukee has to offer, but he takes a backseat to Jigg’s infectious hook, a hook that you will be hard pressed to shake loose from your brain once you’ve heard it. The way Jigg stretches the syllables on “beep beep” and “eat eat” will have you hard pressed not to sing along.
It’s easy to see why Sada (and millions of others) have enjoyed it so much. Chicken and Jigg have proven to be a potent combination in the past (go look up “We Gone Ball” on YouTube and try to get that one out of your head, too) but this song is next level. Chicken is no stranger to bangers and yet this one seems destined to become the best song of his career, reaching parts of the country that were previously inaccessible to Milwaukee artists. — HAROLD BINGO
52. ILOVEMAKONNEN – “Drunk On Saturday”
If history repeats itself, there should be a string of popular radio hits that borrow the skeleton of “Drunk on Saturday” while Makonnen is already charting the next landscape. The “getting drunk & missing an ex” trope is too universal to ever fade but Makonnen’s tone collapses the space between inebriated sincerity and playful indifference. The opening line of the first verse points out how tempted women are to go down on him seconds after he spirals longing for an old flame in the hook. The production acts as a glitzy amphetamine to shoo your brain away from reconciling the two pictures. He can see through his own false tension and plainly states, “I keep the girls at the strip club working” because, in the moment, that’s probably more important than defining his motives. — MIGUELITO
51. Open Mike Eagle – “Whiskey and Push-Ups”
Spend enough time alone thinking, reading the news, and trying to write before meeting dozens of strangers at shows and you too will develop strange coping mechanisms for the inevitable psychic toll. Open Mike Eagle, the Chicago-born Blowedian behind some of the best rap of the 2010s, has a simple analgesic: whiskey and push-ups. Recorded for Chicago-based label Closed Sessions, “Whiskey and Push-Ups” encompasses Mike’s greatest talents. His hook is half-sung and wholly earnest, melodic and unforgettable. He articulates the chilling paranoia of telecom surveillance and the unending neurosis that plagues the depressed. BoatHouse’s thundering, quasi-trap beat, with keys that sound like they’re echoing from crumbling churches, offers the perfect complement.
In each verse, Mike drops highbrow cypher boasts that reference everything from extraterrestrial tech and X-Men, to ’90s rap and rave clothes. The final verse ends with the revelation that everything is weighing on Mike’s chest. This is one of the best songs he’s released this decade, and therein lies the rub. I hope his liver and muscles hold up for another ten years. — MAX BELL
TIE: 50. Zack Fox X Kenny Beats / “Jesus Is the One (I Got Depression)
Zack Fox’s bike was stolen a week before he started delivering Jimmy John’s, but rather than lose out on the job, he ran all over town, sandwiches in his clutches. Earlier this year, the Atlanta comedian appeared on his friend Kenny Beats’ web series The Cave, rapping with his pants around his ankles. Like many other unlikely hits this year, Fox’s gonzo non sequiturs picked up steam on TikTok via fan-edited rips. Fox and his producer quickly released an official version culled from the same sessions because Fox does not pass up opportunities to get his bread.
“Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression)” is a deep fried meme of a song with a post-vaporwave beat to match. Fox recounts a packed itinerary of dirtbag activities: he’s decked in rhinestones with musty pits and dusty kicks, he’s stealing singles from strippers through glue on his shoes, he’s plowing a stolen car into white-owned storefronts. The song ends with the best Doritos and genitals punchline since Danny Brown. Maybe the holiday season has me sentimental, but Fox describes his capers with a misguided zeal that reminds me of a sauced uncle recounting his bachelor party debauchery despite the sensitive ears of children.
To hear Zack and Kenny tell it, the success of “Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression)” is an albatross. “This song is bigger than all the serious shit I’m working on,” the producer laments to Genius against a taunting yellow background. The track’s hook is full of vocal stumbles: mis-pronunciations, the delay between syllables in “thousand island dressing”, the voice crack after he threatens to rob his own mother. They’re the sounds of someone discovering brilliance in real time. “Jesus Is The One” is an extremely funny rap song. Don’t over think this shit. — JACK RIEDY
JPEGMAFIA – “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot”
“Jesus Forgive Me, I am a Thot” is a prayer for continued excellence in the face of diminishing returns, false prophets, and mass shooters. A measure of solidarity for punks (meaning rebels) who aren’t punks (meaning chumps). A call to arms for all proud thots to stand up for our happiness. A marriage of newfound sonic beauty melded with traditionally skittering and distorted drumbeats. A reinforcement that Peggy was only half-joking when he called himself a pop act on last year’s “Puff Daddy.”
“Jesus Forgive Me, I am a Thot” is a prayer for your homies, my homies, everyone’s homies behind bars literally or ideologically. A prayer the names of the realest will love forever as long as they’re verified. A charity donation to not totally embarrass rappers and cause them to retire. A question of where the profits go. A pledge for all of us who put our entire souls into every bar we write. Praise the motherfuckin’ lord, amen. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
49. Lil Loaded – “6Locc 6a6y”
Songs that live on the charts live everywhere. In the public eye, they start to lose their regional foundations. They spawn dance challenges, remixes, late-night performances. They’re packaged and re-packaged for mass consumption, shot through the industry machine and converted to borderless waveforms.
That’s what happened to NLE Choppa’s “Shotta Flow:” an incredible Memphis rap song that spawned a bidding war among major labels for the rapper, has been remade four times, and is now chanted in high school locker rooms nationwide.
But for every “Shotta Flow,” there’s a “6locc 6a6y.” The haunting minor keys and bass are still there, but Cole Bennett is nowhere to be found. Instead, Lil Loaded is in his native Duncanville, TX, posted up in front of the dried-out, eroding brick architecture of his hood. His voice trembles and curls up as he strings together phrases that melt into one another. The writing is perfectly recursive, the chorus looping and winding around itself and into your brain-folds. Lil Loaded will inevitably go supernova — “6locc 6a6y” has already amassed millions of plays — but for now, he’s still home. — MANO SUNDARESAN
48. 1TakeJay – “Drip Walking”
If you spend a few minutes scrolling TikTok, it’s impossible not to hear 1TakeJay declare: “Big swag, Mike Amiri on my jeans, that’s drip walking!” The song has been pantomimed thousands of times by moms and teens on all sides of the country who didn’t know what crip walking was until now. Released at the beginning of June, “Drip Walking” rapidly permeated into the collective conscience just in time for the summer.
“Drip Walking” is an example of how quickly a hit can translate from regional bop to national smash. From the lightspeed entertainment sectors of our phones, 1TakeJay’s nasally inflection entered driveway dance offs and packed party floors in no time. The song is common code for having too much fun while caring too little about bullshit. It’s the kind of viral hit that demands immediate participation and presence when the DJ drops it in the club or pep rally.
While plenty of hot take Blueface comparisons were made, 1TakeJay represents his own unique brand of rowdy sans clownishness. Where Blueface bleeds the line between effort and evasiveness, 1TakeJay sounds much more intentional with his delivery, more grounded in his cadence. He won’t tell you how to dance, but he’ll show you how to drip.
Ten years ago, this song would have inspired countless jerkin videos. Included on his G.O.A.T. album, a 12-track project with features from Shoreline Mafia, Rich The Kid, and Kalan.frfr, “Drip Walking” was the smash that revealed 1TakeJay’s universal appeal. It fits 2019 so well because of its redeeming mixture of confidence and fun. In the visual, 1TakeJay kicks up his heels in the rain, careening with a clear umbrella and spraying cologne aimlessly. Two middle fingers the dripless. This ain’t Pink Dolphin. — EVAN GABRIEL
47. Icewear Vezzo & Babyface Ray – “Champions”
One of the coolest parts of the Detroit YouTube gold rush is the increase in shine for the artists who have quietly carried the scene before the more outsize (read: memeable) personalities like Sada and Teejay showed up. I’m talking about artists like Babyface Ray, Peezy, and Icewear Vezzo. Artists who didn’t always get their flowers before Detroit rap started receiving attention from record labels and trend chasers.
“Champions” is one of the best songs to emerge from the scene this year (or most years). A knock on Detroit (or a virtue, depending on taste) is that many of the songs sound like they could have been released at any point during the past 10-15 years. This would certainly describe “Champions” but this isn’t an insult.
It is a sign that the song is destined to become timeless. This Queen sample has been flipped many times before but Ray and Vezzo find a new way to attack it, trading bars with the sort of effortless ease that makes you wish the song were longer. 2 minutes and 25 seconds isn’t nearly enough.— HAROLD BINGO
46. Bandhunta Izzy – “How to Rob”
Twenty years ago, when 50 Cent dropped the original “How to Rob,” the major label system was supposed to whir to life –– to leverage him at radio, to strong-arm The Source, to somehow pay the Trackmasters. Little went as planned. It would take a near-fatal shooting and hundreds of mixtape tracks, churned out across innumerable trips to Toronto, to make 50 a star. But “How to Rob” elicited a shocking number of responses from the most famous and consequential rappers of the moment: Big Pun dissed him on his final album; Sticky Fingaz and Kurupt lashed out; there’s that “I’m about a dollar” passage on “Some Like It Hot” and there’s a skit about him on Supreme Clientele.
This year’s redux comes from the Baltimore native Bandhunta Izzy (and a delirious D-Dot, reprising his Madd Rapper). Unlike in the original, the heists here are almost uniformly condensed to a single bar; Uzi and Pump and 6ix9ine and Gunna and Nudy and Takeoff and Quavo and etc and etc all get got in a minute 50. But in keeping with tradition, this “How to Rob” is less a star-making vehicle than it is a big ante, a bold move to show/prove/raise stakes to dizzying degrees. Izzy, who’s been rapping since high school, is still only 22, but his voice is rich, deep, and muscular, an ideal piece of the Baltimore scene that has quietly emerged as one of the decade’s most varied and consistently exciting. And so even if there are no fifteen-figure Vitamin Water deals on the horizon line, it seems inevitable that Bandhunta Izzy will be rapping circles around his targets for years to come.— PAUL THOMPSON
45. EKT 40 – “Yeeah”
A two minute melodic vamping session where the artist uses “yeah” to rhyme every line sounds like a recipe for something forgettable but “Yeeah” transcends. It’s the sort of song you hear once and think “hey, that’s kinda decent” before moving onto the next thing. After all, there’s too much music to sift through anyways. But once you listen again, you realize “Yeeah” is a different sort of monster.”
The next thing you know, you’re singing “all my diamonds hit, yeah” at inappropriate intervals and trying to emulate the dance moves from the video. That’s probably just me but let’s go with it anyway. It sounds like Lil Durk went to the studio after listening to old Juvenile singles and the level of emotion he puts into his music elevates him above the typical midwest boilerplate. Who would have thought Columbus, Ohio would birth one of the catchiest songs that you are going to hear all year? — HAROLD BINGO
44. YNW Melly X Jackboy Toby – “Unreleased”
Like his former neighbor YNW Melly, Jackboy Toby is currently incarcerated. He’s facing 15 years for an unspecified charge, but in a recent interview insists that it’ll be closer to five. Toby discusses his case and life behind bars with a staggering nonchalance. Maybe it’s from the lean he’s sipping, maybe from a life spent being hardened to the realities that an exorbitant amount of poor black men face. “Unreleased,” a leak which features Melly, will still be bumping from cars in Toby’s hometown of Vero Beach long after he’s locked up. The track is menacing and infectious, with a delicate acoustic guitar occasionally interrupted by guttural bass accents. There is the chilling talk about shooting and robbing that you’d expect.
Despite being a YouTube only bootleg, “Unreleased” is an anthem that’s reverberated outside of Florida as well. The beat was swiped for NFL Toon’s regional hit, “City Rollin,” a song of the year candidate in Baton Rouge. But Toby’s approach is distinctly Floridian. He’s got that natural melody to his voice, but with enough drawl to toughen and muddy the style past any prettiness. Melly adds star power to the track, but Toby’s likely been warned to stay away from any association with the embattled rapper. In that same interview, Toby discusses their childhoods, when they carpooled to school in Vero Beach. “Shit was all cordial and gravy back then. But that was back then.” — WILL SCHUBE
43. Tierra Whack – “Clones”
Once in a blue moon, an artist comes along who flips our definition of “cool” on its head. On “CLONES,” the Philadelphia MC protests the whacky wannabes trying to cop her style. And while we sympathize with Ms. Whack, it’s far too easy to see why folks would take to Tierra. Since the 2017 release of her GRAMMY-nominated “MUMBO JUMBO” video and her 2018 debut LP, Whack World, the IDGAF-meets-WTF, outlier-meets-outcast artist has evidenced a head-tilting appeal. The album, her first with Interscope Records, was a 15-track project clocking in at just under 16 minutes long. With no song over one minute, Whack World and its accompanying visual, directed by and starring Whack herself, was a potent sampler of the young artist’s otherworldly imagination.
Swerving from trap to R&B to country, Whack felt like the much-needed surprise we didn’t know we’d been waiting for. This year, she released a string of five singles for Whack History Month, each coming just one week after the next and covering topics from only child syndrome to self empowerment and, of course, copycats. From her world tour with 6LACK to her feature on Beyonce’s Lion King album and, most recently, a well-earned spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Music Class of 2020, Whack’s world has skyrocketed in ways even she might not have imagined. So, yeah, it’s tempting to try to be like Tierra. But this transformative visionary comes from a planet far, far away, and no matter how close they come, even the clones couldn’t hold a candle. — PALEY MARTIN
42. Lil Tecca – “Ransom”
The video for “Ransom” was instantly iconic from the moment it was uploaded without notice back in May – an anonymous 16-year-old rapper picked right out of an Xbox Live party, deadened eyes fixed on the camera flanked by (Dominican! says the outro) strippers, and drifting in golf carts. Irony and Self-Awareness aside, this was legitimate, serious music, the type of hit that was locked-and-loaded for 9 figures on YouTube the moment Nick Mira uploaded the beat to Dropbox.
But most of the time a hit that looks like this is shoved in your face this quickly, Lyrical Lemonade sticker and an Internet Money bow on top, the future writes itself. Another entry in an endless conga line of Lil Moseys and Lil Xans, with foundations so obviously rickety that you can tell from day one that they’re just one brutally awkward Ebro interview and a MuchDank mashup away from sub-TikTok oblivion.
That’s kind of the rub here, though, because you can only shatter a rapper’s persona if there was something to shatter in the first place. Cue up the video again and the whole staredown almost feels like a challenge: nothing here is true and we all knew it even before he stared us down in the video, or before he laughed through an entire Genius Explained on a pit stop to the stratosphere. Lil Tecca does not have a Ghost or a Phantom or twin Glocks but that was the joke from second 3 of the music video. So even though it’s all a little too perfect, it turns out suspension of disbelief and a collective shrug lifts some weight off the shoulders after all. Who cares when your song is flawless, loops perfectly on repeat, and you make good Trillers? Alexa, play “Ransom” again. — SUN-UI YUM
41. PG Ra — “PFK”
You hear his tag early, but it takes a whole minute for JetsonMade’s iconic 808s to enter the mix on “PFK.” And well before that first bass note lands, there’s the opening line: “Gettin’ high to try to ease the pain, but I know I can’t.” This isn’t a DaBaby song.
JetsonMade was most closely identified with him this year, his quick-striking beats the ideal landing strip for the superstar rapper’s jet-fueled volleys. But look beyond DaBaby and you’ll find that the Columbia, South Carolina producer been building with others for the past four years, with an eye towards homegrown talent. Chief on that roster is rapper PG Ra. Besides both being from the Carolinas, he and DaBaby share almost nothing in common. While DaBaby churns out light-hearted hits, PG Ra turns inward, rapping in a gruff, muted tone on “PFK” about loss, being confused about fame, and trying to feed his family.
“PFK” is gripping because PG Ra’s weighty writing pulls you in instead of creating distance. Jetson and Neeko Baby’s beat is somber, piano keys spilling over drums. The closest comparison is Kodak, but PG Ra is growing into a singular talent. — MANO SUNDARESAN
40. Quin NFN – “Talkin’ My Shit”
There’s a certain sense of reckless exuberance that those of us above the age of, say, 24 just don’t have access to, kind of like how we lose the ability to ability to hear certain frequencies over time. But it turns out there’s actually a fantastic way to tap into that feeling, and it involves listening to songs like “Talkin’ My Shit.” The Austin rapper Quin NFN is only 18, but if you ask him, his mind is old (“I feel like I’m 23,” he told PoW’s own Will Schube); however, when things get real his warm heart doesn’t turn cold as much as it turns up to levels that were heretofore only theoretical. On “Talkin’ My Shit,” Quin starts out sounding like he’s rapping a nursery rhyme only to morph into a bizarro-world version of Waka Flocka, But Make Him A Teen Battle Rapper.
The beat is very much in “Dope Boy Magic”/“Grindin’” territory, the type of thing where the producer clearly decided that the most rhythmic and guttural parts of the beat were also the best and most exciting parts and therefore should be the entire beat. (This might sound tautological, but if you’ve listened to anything Kanye’s done since Yeezus you’ll understand that this is actually way harder than it should be.) There’s something inherently exciting about a young artist from a city not conventionally known for its rap scene, especially when they clearly have the talent — and perhaps most importantly, the energy — to drag their entire city into the spotlight. I get the feeling that even if that doesn’t happen for Quin NFN and Austin at this very moment, he’s got enough jet fuel in his tank to turn around and make a hundred more songs this great. — DREW MILLARD
39. Shootergang Kony – “Charlie”
Entry number one in the argument that Sacramento has the best and deepest rap scene of any non-mega city in 2019: ShooterGang’s single from his Second Hand Smoke mixtape blends the best of his nonchalant style and a warm soul sample that sounds just enough like Bill Withers murmuring to make it all blend. He brags about knowing someone with a song on the NBA2K soundtrack. He knows someone who is going to blowup your car like “shook up soda.” Bouncy, relentless and with a light touch, “Charlie” sounds like a great lost Too $hort song, Kony as simultaneously gussied up and perturbed as $hort at his best. If there is a Sacramento style in 2019, it’s Kony here. He carries both NorCal’s tradition of deeply idiosyncratic MC’s wedged into the perfected LA mid-tempo pop song structure. — EVAN MCGARVEY
38. Doggystyleee – “We Different”
Haters who dislike the avant garde relationship many of Los Angeles’ young rappers share with their beats must be relieved that the city still yields stuff like “We Different.” San Bernardino’s Doggystyleeee is a classicist who wears Wallabees, glides within his production’s conventional pockets, and interpolates ‘90s G-Funk hits. His breakthrough single, a neighborhood anthem produced by AC3Beats, evokes Kurupt’s perfect song “C Walk” in specific musical ways, but also in tone, with that fine blend of groovy reserved menace. It’s a laid-back style with a sense of measured tension that more vocally expressive peers lack. Doggystyleeee takes his time with his lyrics so motherfuckers can hear it, he tells us in the first verse, but a sly sense of humor keeps things from feeling workmanlike: “When it comes to some pussy, I’ll be there in a minute.” I know from personal experience that something like “We Different” doesn’t work as well in places with real winter, but in permanently sunny streets, it will never die. — TOSTEN BURKS
37. NFL Toon – “Free Ziggy”
The beat sounds like it cost eight dollars to make. The song itself feels like it required about one total hour of recording time. NFL Toon has claimed the verse as recorded was freestyled. But all the improvisational, instant elements of “Free Ziggy” do is highlight the song’s organic strengths: Toon’s easy, melodic emotional register—“he played me close like we was kin”—and his post-Cash Money, post-Trill ability to blend menace, weariness and giddy murmurs in a single moment. Quiet, clever, and able to two-step images across lines: “bodies in my pocket / that’s those Franklin’s and those Benjamin’s.” He pauses perfectly mid-verse and doesn’t fill the silences with a cough or tic. Toon doesn’t need anything more than a spiky little MIDI sample to weave his way through threats and being the world weariest teen from Baton Rogue since Boosie. — EVAN MCGARVEY
36. Yella Beezy – “Rich MF”
“Rich MF” may not be one of Dallas rapper Yella Beezy’s bigger hits, but it’s definitely among his catchiest and best. Here, his buoyant, jaunty flow, previously fine-tuned in local hits like “Trap in Designer” and “Up 1,” meets the bouncing drums of a Pharrell beat that recalls the producer’s early-career best, creating an irresistible groove you can bob to no matter where you’re listening. It’s a testament to Pharrell, who can still bring the best out of the rappers he works the sounding board for, but especially to Beezy, who here sounds as comfortable rhyming over smooth flute riffs as he usually does over Texas trap beats.
And he makes the most of this moment, flaunting the spoils of his recent come-up while bringing the Neptunes legend to his hometown (Oak Cliff, the Dallas neighborhood Beezy grew up in, is consistently shouted out in Pharrell’s signature falsetto). The rapper’s knack for tight songwriting is apparent here—no matter how many times he calls himself a rich motherfucker, or how many different ways he describes his decked-out wrist, his quick, tireless two-minute performance never loses its zest and flair, and his affluence-colored braggadocio remains infectious throughout. “Rich MF” is just-over-here-stacking-a-couple-thou rap at its finest, joyous and celebratory but never garish and hacky. It likewise demonstrates that Beezy has a keen pop sensibility that before now had yet to be fully fleshed out, and that could prove the key to even bigger crossover success next year, considering all the promise he’s shown up till now. — NITISH PAHWA
35. Ambjaay – “Uno”
Let’s get this out of the way now: yes, this song is kinda’ racist. It’s well-meaning (I think) but racist nonetheless. Ambjaay’s bad Mexican accent threatens to sink the entire record, if not for an irresistible chorus that sticks to your brain like gum under a desk. The repeating of “uno, dos, no tres, she a thot tho” has a hypnotizing effect that works you over against your better judgement.
It also follows in a long history of novelty smashes that are so goofily constructed and freewheeling that it feels like it was done on a lark and for not cynical virality. The Watts rapper gave his breakout hit he quality of a Tik Tok video drawn out into a full song.
This was a year and decade of “prestige rap,” where every sound and sample are meticulously employed in an effort to be impressive or, more significantly, to portray all-caps “IMPORTANCE;” but more often than not, it really feels overwrought and quite empty. “Uno,” by contrast, revels in it’s vacuousness, gleefully pointless beyond a vague ambition to “turn up.” it’s refreshingly honest, a track free from any pretense and indifferent to being categorized as dumb because either way it’s too undeniable to be dismissed. In a year of L.A. rap songs that built on kinda’ racist Mexican stereotypes (“Go Loko,” whatever Tyga’s been doing), Ambjaay made the most fun anthem of the bunch, and it’s hard not to have fun with him. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
34. NLE Choppa – “Shotta Flow”
“Shotta Flow” was such a strong beginning-of-the-year breakthrough that it not only propelled NLE Choppa to instant fame, but also spawned an entire extended universe, with three sequels, a Blueface-assisted remix, and a small YouTube industry of hopeful rappers freestyling over the sparse piano-and-bass beat themselves. That this neophyte from Memphis, Tennessee, accomplished all this before he turned 17 is impressive enough, but what’s really notable is the rapid evolution that led to his big moment. On his first recordings, released just last year, Choppa took on the syncopated rhythms of fellow Memphis rapper Blocboy JB and the singsong flow of NBA Youngboy, perfecting the formula in a standout opening verse on the regional collective Shotta Fam’s late-2018 posse cut “No Chorus Pt. 3.”
But for “Shotta Flow,” released not long after, Choppa completely switched his style up, tossing away the more melodic vocals and bringing in the sheer overpowering energy of one of his other big influences, Meek Mill. You can hardly keep up with Choppa on this joint as he switches up breathless flows and throws out vivid snipes with hardly a pause (“So many bullets, it confused the doctor”), never turning down the volume for even a second. Like a master craftsman, he makes this shit look dizzyingly easy, and as you can glean from the dance-heavy, gun-waving scene depicted in the music video, he’s clearly having a lot of fun with it. Choppa raps like he already knows he’s made a banger for the ages, an inimitable template for others to aspire to, and realizes he’s only getting started.— NITISH PAHWA
33. Rio da Yung OG X RMC Mike – “Inergee”
Rio and Mike take turns trying to create the perfect punchline on “Inergee.” They challenge each other in eight bar volleys to create a line that cuts harder or funnier than the last. The best ones are over-the-top threats with pop culture tie-ins (“Blow his head off from far away, J. F. Kennedy”) and self-deprecating bon mots (“Bought my bitch some Louis, took ‘em back, she got fat ankles.”) Rio Da Yung OG deadpans his savagery. Raspy-voiced RMC Mike has more spleen, announcing his verses with a guttural “bitch!”
The Flint, Michigan rappers depict pudgy neighborhood drug peddlers who will shoot their videos outside gas stations or inside a bedroom studio with wads of cash splayed on the desk. They’re not carving out a millennial subculture like their scam rap cousins an hour away in Detroit. Mythos wouldn’t suit Rio anyway. When he was twelve, he fucked up the right side of his face in an incident involving hot cooking oil and french fries. (He was high.) He describes this in an interview from September where he’s reclining on a faded leather couch with his stomach hanging out.
The duo style themselves as dumb and dumber but their self-caricature is slicker than that. They’re lean-drinking superheroes with fake rolexes, big guns, and acerbic pens. Listen and you’ll want to quote everything they say. — EVAN NABAVIAN
32. Xanman – “Gucci Down”
Xanman is equal parts R&B heartthrob, horror film enthusiast and comedian. Xanman was quickly gaining momentum in 2018 due to G-mixes like “Many Men” with Lil Dude as well as singles like “Point” and “Drug Man.” At 19 years old, he has an appreciation for flipping 2000s R&B hits into a genre he calls “R&B Slide Music.” Xanman exists at the intersection of Jamie Foxx and 50 Cent, belting out beautiful ballads about hollow tips and relationships.
“Gucci Down” finds a way to package everything that makes him special, including a dance challenge to go along with it. He’s begging for five minutes so he can dive in like Trey Songz, bragging about having the “junkies off the bath salt,” and talking about how his new car makes him feel like Bruce Wayne. “Gucci Down” is a song about moving work disguised as one about dressing your girl up in Gucci. You can always tell how much fun Xanman has while recording songs. It’s impossible to listen to him without laughing at a punchline’s absurdity or wincing at its gruesomeness. — BRANDON CALLENDER
31. Denzel Curry – “Ricky”
I’m going to guess that Ricky – Denzel’s father and first supporter – didn’t put much stock in the early 90s beef between Luke and Dr. Dre. Why else would his son name a track so richly steeped in cross-continental gangsta rap lore after him? Perfectly positioned between Ruthless Records’ early drum machine aggression and the South’s subsequent gangsta rap takeover, Rick is an ode to family and loyalty over an impossibly hard beat. This is next generation rap done right, tipping its cap towards a historic lineage while propelling the art form further, with Curry’s next level flows switching on a dime.
This challenging balance between older god wisdom and a young man’s energy was an extremely welcome outlier in a year that saw the latest generation of emcees fall victim to drug abuse, violence and aggressive, racist over-policing. Don’t get it twisted, “Ricky” is hard as nails, propelled by a bass low enough to incite mosh-pits at festivals and indiscriminate elbow throwing in the clubs, but it’s the track’s dedication to street knowledge that separates it from the pack. This, not a butter soft abstract track, is the antidote to the ig’nant meme rap that your boy in the timbs keeps harping on, because hard flows, 808s and Fat Pat quotes never go out of style, and all the game Denzel’s folks gave him growing up still applies to this day. — SON RAW
30. 54 Baby Tree X Mari Boy Mula Mar – “Noon”
There’s a rich history of rap songs that sound radio ready with an undercurrent of menace running beneath (think of songs like “Hypnotize” and “Party Up”); “Noon” fits proudly into that lineage. It also proves that Milwaukee is more than capable of stepping outside of the Chicago/Detroit shadow, offering plenty of music that is clever and original in its own right. While there’s plenty of stuff that sound right at home in either of the aforementioned cities, Mari Boy has carved out a unique path for himself, creating music that sounds region-less and owes more to Young Thug than either location.
There’s something about “I sent that boy a thinking emoji face” being said in a threatening tone that sends me into hysterics every time, especially over a beat that sounds tailor made for a wine bar or Barcelona eatery. It took a minute for Mari Boy Mula Mar to click for me but now it’s easy to see why he’s one of the biggest rising stars (if not THE biggest) that the city has to offer. His use of melody scans differently than most of his contemporaries. His songs push the boundaries of what Auto-Tune can accomplish and the songs are fun in a way that doesn’t always take place anymore. He’s eccentric and yet still accessible—-a hard needle to thread. — HAROLD BINGO
29. EBK Young Joc – “In They Feelinz”
Central California is a notoriously dangerous section of the state and while it never was a major regional rap force until now, it’s begun to produce some of the best West Coast rap at the moment. Stockton has positioned themselves at the forefront, with multiple artists who are starting to make a name for themselves (shout out Young Slo-Be). Sometimes, you don’t need a bunch of fancy words to say that a song is hard as fuck. I’m not a “you gotta hear this song in the car!” guy but you gotta hear “In They Feelinz” in the car.
EBK (short for Everybody Killa Gang) is a product of this environment and “In They Feelinz” is a clear mission statement. In a year where an investigation into the crew led to multiple arrests, celebrating a song like this one can feel somewhat perverse. On the other hand, the beat is harder than frozen peanut butter and EBK delivers both of his verses in the sort of exaggerated sneer that anyone can identify with. It’s destined to become a mean mug anthem for the ages. “Big dog, you don’t wanna see me pissed off” is an A1 opening line and it only gets better from there. — HAROLD BINGO
28. Saviii 3rd – “Politics”
A grinning Saviii 3rd leaves prison, dancing and posing, and is received ecstatically by his homies, who regale him in the car on what he’s missed while away. The world-weary rapper responds bluntly: “It’s politics”.
These are the opening moments of the music video for “Politics,” the East Long Beach rapper’s bruising hit from earlier this year. If something is compared to politics, the implication is that it is dog-eat-dog. That backstabbing is inevitable, that tattooed allegiances are unbreakable oaths, that his hood and its constituents must be repped wherever he goes.
Instead of filibusters, behind-the-scenes plotting in townhouses, and attack advertisements, Saviii 3rd’s chosen method of political maneuvering is, well, violence. He serves up a stark reminder: if you try to destroy him or his kin, you’re signing your own obituary. “Politics” brims with outlandish images of gunshots sending bodies flying into the air, squabbling turning to bloodshed in a flash. The Cash Money West signee spits bars so dramatically that they transport you to the street he grew up on. “Pain mixed with the pride, see it all in my eyes / Some shit I can’t hide,” he raps on the second verse, one moment of introspective respite from intense fuck-the-other-siding.
Everything is hoarsely growled by the rapper, whose volcanic and refreshingly belligerent energy is some profane marriage of Lil Boosie, Snoop, and DMX. War stories are one of Saviii 3rd’s main strengths, and “Politics” is one of his most potent yet.
— COLIN GANNON
27. City Girls – “Act Up”
You heard those first few notes and just knew that everything was about to go to shit. Let’s not get things confused: “Act Up” is by women and for women. The song is a rallying battle cry against exes of all flavors (rich, poor, scammers), directed at every man who has ever brought Yung Miami and JT down. A cut off their 2018 album Girl Code, recorded before JT served a year-long prison sentence, City Girls realized its potential (how could they not?) and repurposed it this year as a single.
It was always meant to be massive, everywhere, immune to criticism. Its run wasn’t even phased by Lil Yachty coming out saying that he wrote most of it — City Girls featured him in the video as a news reporter and writing coach. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that good music is good music. Rap is meant to be fun, and no duo understands that better than City Girls. — MANO SUNDARESAN
26. Future – “Please Tell Me”
For most of us, retail masochism would be the type of thing that would warrant a lengthy invoice to one’s therapist and a lot of ducked calls from creditors, but not Future. Over the course of the past decade Nayvadius has deftly fused his emotional indifference and his penchant for designer goods into its own VIP Lounge within the Billboard Top 100.
While “Please Tell Me” doesn’t offer the same pop-gloss as 2017’s HNDRXX or the Actavis-tainted boasting of DS2, it is yet another inescapable reminder of how no one thing has molded the past decade of rap quite like Future’s paradoxical blend of nihilism and capitalism.
Never has one man bought so many Chanel bags and felt so empty. — MICHAEL DUPAR
25. 42 Dugg – “Dog Food”
Detroit’s home to a bunch of colorful characters: dancing gangsters, teenaged card crackers, and a mononymous angry old white man. There’s so much music coming out of the city, but only a few singles have managed to garner national attention since the city’s resurgence in the rap game. 42 Dugg might be the crossover star the city’s been waiting for. After going to jail in 2017, he realized he had to take rap seriously to get out of the streets and started making music as soon as he could. Because of singles like “The Streets” and “Free Mines,” he caught the attention of Yo Gotti and Lil Baby’s labels, eventually signing to both under a joint deal.
“Dog Food” is a drug dealer’s battlecry. While Dugg’s music doesn’t have the same unmixed and unpolished edginess of his peers, he retains the same hustling snarl in his lyrics. When he’s not bragging about being able to push weight off any phone, he’s calling in shipments from across the border. His dry delivery on punchlines like “I mean, I’m a hooper baby,” after describing how well he shoots gives the line a sinister touch. The power of this song rests in the hook: When Dugg yells out “Dog Food,” you need to be ready to scream “We want all blues,” right back at him. Dugg’s hooks are unforgettable, you’ll always be chanting along. — BRANDON CALLENDER
24. Zay Bang – “No Relations”
Most years, the best up-and-coming Bay Area rappers hail from the eastside of the San Francisco Bay, but this year’s talent hails from the Geneva Towers on the southside of the City. ZayBang, along with frequent collaborator and fellow 2019 POW honoree Lil Bean, have attracted a lot of eyes thanks to their subtle swag and back-to-the-Bay-roots approach to writing. With the exuberant confidence of Mac Dre and the lyrical precision of Andre Nickatina, ZayBang’s “No Relations,” is both thoughtful and catchy, and deserves a spot on your “Bay Area” playlist somewhere between “Feelin’ Myself” and “Smoke Dope and Rap.”
“No Relations” is a two-minute and thirty-second showcase of ZayBang’s talent. Hookless like last year’s Bay Area banger “Onna Gang,” “No Relations” rides the line between nihilism and melancholy, discussing the difficulty of living through endless tragedy and the crutches we use to ease the pain: “They cremated my brother, I don’t think you feel me/ My Nana kept me strong, boy that shit was finna kill me.” Despite its heavy themes, ZayBang’s single feels like more of a celebration than a eulogy. His flow lilts and slithers, and his funny, playful style—he often shows off his round belly and wears his hair in twin rattails—brings some light to his track: “That Tesla got itself drivin’, you ain’t gotta park it.”
“No Relations” is good enough to transcend regional boundaries, but Bay Area enough to blast from an ‘86 Cutty at a sideshow in East Oakland. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN
23. Conradfrmdaaves – “Vintage & Adventurous”
Renewed fervor for L.A. rap can work retroactively. New artists like Ambjaay and MCM Raymond benefit from the attention of novel channels but those eyes also fall on talent that’s been relevant in their section since the start of the decade. Conradfrmdaaves (formerly known as Conrad) left his first stain on the city in 2012 with “Hit Yo Rollin”, the Rollin 60s Crips answer to “Hit Yo Ricky” that originated in the Jordan Down projects of Watts. He steadily released music from 2014-2017 before an abrupt incarceration at the end of 2017. Then he was quiet until “Vintage and Adventurous” this year.
I saw “Vintage and Adventurous” get meme’d before I heard it at gas stations, which doesn’t usually happen in the county limits. JoogFTR, member of the Hit Mob collective and the song’s producer, put that gif of Snoop dancing with champagne and the fur coat with the caption: “I’m from where you better keep a thumpa” and a link to the song. “Vintage and Adventurous” summarizes the year for L.A. rap with psychedelic minimalist production, ruthless quotables and Conrad’s almost methodical slurring. “Look at the bezel” and “doorbells, 223s in your house” demand to be hummed and fall out of your lips in line at the grocery store. You get funny looks, sure, but if your wardrobe costs a single-family home you can get away with it. — MIGUELITO
22. Freddie Gibbs X Madlib – “Bandana (Feat. Assassin)”
There is a meanness in Freddie Gibbs. At one end, there is 21 Savage. He escaped the streets and became a philanthropist. He is > he was. At the other, Freddie. Messr Gibbs is 37, he’s worth close to two million dollars, he has an adorable daughter he spends Sunday Fundays with.
But here he is, proclaiming “crack lives matter,” handicapping haters with hand cannons, dirtying up brand-new hammers with blood stains, making the Occam’s Razor argument that if you’re gonna kill somebody, you should at least do it right so you don’t end up locked up.
The Freddie Gibbs of “Practice”—soul-baring, penitent—is the one we want to believe. The song arrives in the bridge of Bandana, the passage of the album that slows down and says, “Hey. Let’s get real.” The Freddie Gibbs of “Bandana”—clinical, remorseless—is the one he worries he really is. Or maybe it’s a character. Gibbs the Baby Face Killa, the Cold Ass Ni**a, Half Manne Half Cocaine.
The reality is that Freddie Gibbs is triune, just like all of us: he is the aspirational self, he is the reflexive self, he is the simulacrum. Most of us want to believe that the person we want to become is who we really are. Maybe it is. Maybe not.
Maybe that’s why Freddie left “Bandana” off Bandana. It’s not the foot he wants to put forward. But he opted not to change the title of the album, and he couldn’t bear to scupper it entirely. Perhaps simply because it’s a heater.
Or perhaps its omission is an admission, the calling-card left by a killer, the clue to their true identity. “Do you want to know who I am?” Freddie asks. “Do you see?” — JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN
21. 22Gz “Sniper Gang Freestyle”
In 2017, 22Gz’s career was in the air as the 19-year-old rapper was slapped with a second-degree murder charge and a second-degree attempted murder charge after an incident about a parking space that left two people dead and another man seriously wounded. Jeffery Alexander spent five months in jail before the case was dismissed. Two years later, 22Gz dropped his most popular track yet, a curt freestyle that also doubles as a scorching diss track towards a man with a prone addiction to sampling 90’s Media and a rainbow-colored social experiment conducted by Harvard University and its pitiful attempt to co-opt the Blicky ethos.
“Sniper Gang Freestyle” embodies Brooklyn Drill at its core; horrorcore-ish production, low-budget videos shot in their neighborhoods, menacing threats and immaculate wordplay. This hits all three on its nose with creeping piano notes, a vertiginous video featuring 22Gz and Blixky affiliates aiming guns at the camera while lyrics about killing niggas like YNW Melly aims at your head like a red dot.
Although it was placed as the outro for his debut tape: The Blixky Tape. “Sniper Gang Freestyle” feels so central to the rugged edges of 22Gz and symbolizes the appeal of Brooklyn Drill that makes you wanna do the Blicky or fight someone as if you’re going to end up on WorldStar. While it’s only a minute and 42 seconds long, 22Gz sends shots towards multiple figures in music, showcases his skill at morphing the grotesque into the writerly (see: “bullets burning like I’m frying bacon / niggas dying, waiting”) and in the process stamps his flag in the Brooklyn Drill scene. — ETHAN HERLOCK
20. Saweetie – “My Type”
To let you in on this process a little bit, I originally thought of putting in “Hot Girl Summer” over Saweetie’s breakout single. The anthemic and eagerly anticipated record was meant to deliver on the resounding promise of Meg’s Hot Girl Summer movement. But I ultimately thought against it at the last minute because, while Meg has had a hell of a year and created a whole #mood for the summer, her track felt more reactionary and try hard without ever quite capturing the spirit behind HGS.
If anything, it was Saweetie’s “My Type” that came the closest. The swaggering pronouncement of big attitudes and choosy lovers more naturally carries the vibe and freespirited-ness of a true Hot Girl Summer. “My Type” follows in the lineage of Destiny’s Child’s “Soulja” or MC Lyte’s “Roughneck,” an ode to a love affair with a certain classification of men that actually reveal more about the women lusting than the actual object of desire. And it remakes “Freak-a-leak” in the process. The Oakland rapper’s bratty earworm chorus very easily inspires you to take part in its call-and-response style. Whether it’s the original or the remix with City Girls and Jhené Aiko, “My Type” is irresistible as a party anthem and an example that while Saweetie hasn’t exactly blown up the way she could’ve, it feels imminent. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
19. Baby Keem – “Orange Soda”
The component pieces of Baby Keem’s “ORANGE SODA” are all a bit recognizable, even familiar. Half the vocal tones are from Kendrick’s watercolor board, and there’s a bit of the 2017 Carti conversationalism; maybe even some of MADEINTYO’s lilt. But maybe that’s why it’s so jarring to see these pieces jammed into each other at awkward angles, molecular chaos forcibly gridded, a ping pong ball ricocheting across a five-sided table. Every other bar doesn’t even rhyme – this is not linear rap. “ORANGE SODA” isn’t really the emotional climax of DIE FOR MY BITCH (to be accurate, it’s tucked into the back half of the project), but it does feel like a series of individual 5 second climaxes stacked on top of each other in rapid succession, the pitch and the pounding in your ears rising with each one.
A lot of the best LA rap of the last couple years has been bleak, a notion that first felt like a shared musical strand of DNA and now has become retroactively pronounced as Greedo and Drakeo remain imprisoned into the new decade. It’s a lot of sharp edges, measured vocal tones, darkened eyes; even the newfound shimmer painted over Shoreline Mafia’s music can’t hide how deep the water goes. It’s harder to place where Kendrick’s Vegas-raised cousin belongs in this newly-uprooted LA landscape.
What Baby Keem and Cardo (quietly one of the most dedicated vendors of ‘80s LA nostalgia in America) are presenting here is a different vision of what LA rap might look like in the 2020s, electric but self-contained. Keem does not engage in digested, palatable chaos: every individual line is easy to follow, but explodes upon impact and ricochets into five different directions by the next bar. Even when the walls on “ORANGE SODA” start to close in, he’s locked in his own intricate and incomprehensible patterns, not moving a step off the song’s refrain. Solipsism all 2020. — SUN-UI YUM
18. Playboi Carti – “Kid Cudi / “Pissy Pamper”
It feels like only some shit like this could happen in 2019. Carti’s most popular song this year was not even his song, but a 45-second snippet of his verse and hook on an unreleased Nudy song titled “Pissy Pamper” laid over a Pie’rre beat that speeds up the intro to “Tasogare” by Japanese singer Mai Yamane who worked on a lot of the music behind Cowboy Bebop. The song was never officially released on Nudy’s Sli’merre due to sample clearance issues. It blew up in March off a fan-made video that looped Cari’s verse twice. The leak with Nudy reached No. 1 on Spotify via an anonymous fan, Carti performed it at Coachella, and to this day it still “doesn’t exist.” Most links to any semblance of “Kid Cudi” now have either been swiped from the internet or thoroughly codified. Look “Kid Cudi / Pissy Pamper” up on Spotify now and it’s songs by artists you’ve never heard of just trying to rack up plays.
“Kid Cudi” is not the best Carti leak but it’s the most important one. It is the Carti leak that has elevated so much beyond the stratosphere of “leaks”. It’s also again technically not even his own song. The virality of the entire thing speaks to Carti’s pull over his global cult of fans and the rap world at this very moment. Its origins also speaks to the increasingly insidious nature of that same cult of online fans/leakers who strip artists of sovereignty over their own work and profit for whatever selfish reasons.
The song is also just special. Carti really isn’t saying shit at all and the baby voice makes his hook and verse addicting off rip, Pie’rre’s production shapes its own world, and Nudy floats effortlessly per usual. Without the bullshit, the song could have been an even bigger moment and it’s a shame it never got a proper release but ay, listen here if you’d like. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE
17. Melvoni – “No Man’s Land”
At only 16 years old, from Flatbush, Brooklyn, Melvoni is a ready-born entertainer. One of his biggest cited musical influences is Michael Jackson. During a Genius interview, he went on about dancing around his room all day as a kid to MJ and even broke out into a rendition of “Man in the Mirror.” On “No Man’s Land,” the ghosts of the king of pop reappear in the form of Melvoni’s polished swerving between vocal pitches like he’s testing out a new Ferrari on the freeway for the first time.
He’s Justin Bieber, filtered through a line of Brooklyn storytellers, singing about the challenges of growing up and going to school in the trenches, field, or any other synonym for a hood. Melvoni is painfully aware of the choices that people from his background usually face, but knows his chance for a better life lies in his power to make sweet melodies, singing, “between hell and a cell, I choose neither / shout out to my fans and my believers.”
Because the beat felt vaguely West Coast to Melvoni with its minimalist structure, heavy keys, and bouncy bass, he saved it to record over for when he was in LA. It’s apt that the place so many rappers view as a symbol of securing a better life for the future, is where Melvoni recorded a song about selling nickels and dimes because he had to. If he keeps pumping out songs like these, he certainly won’t anymore. — HARLEY GEFFNER
16. YG – “I Was on the Block (Feat. Boogie & Valee)”
There’s a place and time for reveling in well-earned riches. For YG, the time is now, and the place is where it all began: on the block. In the Mustard-produced “I Was on the Block,” off of YG’s fourth studio album, 4REAL 4REAL, the Bompton MC invites Def Jam label mate Valee and fellow LA MC Boogie to join him in a quiet, braggadocious celebration. Where the LP’s second single, “Go Loko,” finds YG at his most brazy, “I Was on the Block” plays its counterpart, opening with an urgent message: “The time is now!” A measured baseline reminiscent of “Mikey Rocks” is soon to follow, ticking along until pulsing booms warn of whispers to come. From the ominous soundscape emerges YG, a sing-song storyteller commemorating his own come-up. He’s joined here by fellow BPT representative Boogie and Valee, sipping red in Amiri jeans whispering parables in his codeine catburglar voice.
A decade beyond his “Toot it and Boot It” beginnings, the red-bearing rapper has cemented himself as a leader in West Coast gangsta rap and, above all, a brazen Blood who stays true to his turf. Starting with his 2014 breakout LP, My Krazy Life, YG has touted four consecutive Billboard top 10 albums, founded his own 4HUNNID record label imprint and clothing line, and collaborated with a lineup of hip hop heavy hitters from Nicki to Weezy. At first glance, things on YG’s block seem pretty sweet. Yet, there’s a seedy underbelly that’s been lurking beneath the sheen. It’s the same one responsible for both creating YG’s empire and trying to take his life in a 2015 studio shootout, and the same one that tragically killed his “brother from another color,” the great rapper-entrepreneur-activist-father-son-brother-boyfriend-and-so-much-more, Nipsey Hussle, in front of his South Central Marathon clothing store earlier this year.
So, don’t be fooled. “I Was on the Block” isn’t just about bragging rights; it’s a two-sided cautionary tale, a soundtrack to unsteady roots, and an ode to the place where YG slips on his freshly polished penny loafers and keeps a keen eye on the corner. Oh, and Boogie’s verse? I can’t talk about it; it’s still an open case. — PALEY MARTIN
15. Megan Thee Stallion – “Big Ole Freak”
“Big Ole Freak” originally dropped in June 2018 on Tina Snow, a mixtape named after Megan the Stallion’s pimp-ish alter ego, itself an homage to Pimp C’s alias Tony Snow. It’s a song full of scenarios that might make her idol blush delivered in nimble cadences that might make him jealous. She commands her partner like she’s his ranking officer, and after a few drinks she plays with his dick while he drives, automobile safety be damned. The Texas history extends to the instrumental too. Producer LilJuMadeDaBeat, the London on da Track to her Thugger, builds the track around the same bassline as DJ DMD’s classic “25 Lighters.” Rather than selling dope hidden in Bics, Megan leaves men fiending for physical pleasures courtesy of her 5’10” frame.
The song started to blow up this February thanks to its frankly jaw-dropping video. But, as she raps on the hook, Megan has taken up residence in so many men and women’s brains because of her sheer enthusiasm, not just because of her body. Women rapping explicitly and passionately about sex is an honorable tradition in hip-hop. Megan Thee Stallion has established herself as its latest and greatest practitioner. — JACK RIEDY
14. Bris – “Panhandling”
To an affiliated few in Sacramento, December 15th is better known as YEET Day. Allegedly in honor of a fallen G-Mobb soldier, the 15th means that “gang tensions run high, and there is an increased likelihood of firearm possession and gang violence.” Critically, this is all according to the California Court of Appeals in Sacramento’s Third District. Deandre Marquis Rogers, rapping under the name Lizk, had his Dec. 15 music video release date used against him in a trial earlier this year, and he’s now serving 30-to-life at the age of 25. It mirrors the plight of Drakeo at the Compton Courthouse. Lizk was allegedly beefing with Mozzy, the city’s breakout star who says that he was involved in organized crime at 11 years old. Sacramento is where the cops murdered Stephon Clark in cold blood. It’s where all this shit happens in broad daylight, while also serving as the capital city of the largest economy in America, where tech sycophants and billionaire real estate interests dine with ultra-powerful senators.
Enter Bris: Sacramento’s hottest out. Baby-faced, snarling with technical brilliance, sporting a clean fade and a singular braid running down the back of his neck. The beat is hypnotic, groovy, and downright fucking terrifying. “Better watch out, aim that beam where your man’s standing/pan in my hand, two-hand it, call that panhandling.” Everyone in the video looks real damn young, and some are struggling not to laugh as they pantomime the punchlines or pass the Henny. It’s a somber salute to the soil, one that just so happens to bop and even pay homage to Marvin Bagley III. I’ve watched this video about 30 times without encountering a single ad, or for that matter, even one off-putting comment? “Panhandling” is an oasis of uncut, darkly funny realness. Knowing the life-altering ruling passed down to Lizk earlier this year, it’s chilling to watch Bris throw up gang signs and point with the infrared beam. “I be paranoid, you blow your nose and I might blow the choppa.” Shit, can you blame the man? — STEVEN LOUIS
13. RiFF RAFF X Chief Keef – “TipToe3”
The development from “TiP TOE WiNG iN MY JAWWDiNZ” in 2014 to the 2019 edition with Chief Keef is staggering. The original landed on NEON iCON as a Vine-viral rap-dance, encompassing this weird squatted toe-tap that more likely resembles what goyim imagine us Jews do at our wedding receptions than a success mirroring the millie rock. Part two features Slim Jxmmi, which means less video of RiFF RAFF in a cowboy hat, but…wrong Rae Sremmurd member. With part three, RAFF has perfected it.
“TipToe3” is eerie, with Keef’s aura permeating the entire track even though he doesn’t appear until verse two. That’s the appeal of star power. The name Chief Keef explodes in marquee bulbs without the Chicago hero even having to sing a note. RiFF RAFF elevates his game here, too, crooning a haunted and infectious chorus, a diamond-encrusted stanza equal parts absurd and believable. When he sings, “I don’t really care about money no more,” it’s easy to imagine him paying for his 7-11 sushi with a diamond and asking for 12 karats as change.
It’s slightly odd seeing two stars who helped define the first half of the decade link up for one of the year’s best tracks, but the cultural footprint of both emcees is as visible now as it was in 2012. For all the drama, Keef is still a legitimate star and a modern architect of popular rap music heading into the new decade. And RiFF RAFF might be the most deceptively self-aware cultural icon we have, knowing exactly the role he needs to play and laughing his way to the bank. Or all the way to the jewelry store. — WILL SCHUBE
12. Juice WRLD – “Bandit (Feat. NBA Youngboy)”
Our existence doesn’t always fit tidy narratives. Obituary writers would have undoubtedly found it fitting if the final single released by Jarad Higgins before his death had been filled with pain and vulnerability—one of his many pieces on devastation in everyday life. “Empty” would have worked. “Feeling” perhaps. Instead, Juice Wrld produced one of the tightest pop-rap songs of the year. That “Bandit” is an anthem that depicts drug taking as such an easy-breezy part of of life is perhaps the most tragic sign-off he could have left us with.
“Bandit” shouldn’t work this well. The concept is hardly revolutionary—Juice Wrld and NBA Youngboy ostensibly rap about drugs as though the tiny pills were girls—while the guitar riff axis on which the song spins on is plain enough that it’s been easy for tab websites to figure out. But when Juice Wrld mutters the intro incoherently, it plays as almost a taunt to those who talked down to the whole mumble-Soundcloud-emo-rap trend of recent years. From there, his tuneful word play is so lively that every line feels like a hook, with NBA Youngboy’s Baton Rouge fury offering suitable back-up. “Bandit” is a great time, but with the incredible sadness that followed, hearing Juice Wrld’s declare “I don’t need no molly to be savage, uh/When I’m on that molly, I feel savage,” you feel the presence of a ghostly spirit riding through the party. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN
11. Sada Baby – “ SkubaRu”
During a year that emphatically stamped Detroit rap back on the national map, Sada Baby’s run of singles stood out among it all. Besides his two albums, one of which was exclusively available on DatPiff and MyMixtapez, the slew of loosies spread through Detroit’s video chroniclers is the best since Keef singles were dropping every week after his breakup with Interscope.
There is no feeling quite like the anticipation that Sada builds as he ramps up his flow on a song. He slowly stacks his tones, jabbing and hesitating in his windup, before blowing the lid off with screaming streaks of flame. And when he gets to the top, they just keep shooting out like those rotating t-shirt cannons in NBA arenas that hold hundreds at a time.
His kill you and dance on your grave aura is singular. His dance moves have gotten even hotter and his threats, scarier this year. It’s to be expected that someone who’s favorite meal is the lamb chop at a strip club hasn’t run out of absurdities, and over the brooding melodies of the “SkubaRu” beat, he’s physically held in a burping position to demonstrate how his man burps the baby that he whips up. And the effect of waving red dreads in music videos hasn’t worn off since Famous Dex made it hot in 2014.
Sada owned a Moment of 2018 when he had everyone fucking parties up with his dance moves, but 2019 showed his potential to be one of, if not the best rapper in the world. If any regional star is going to truly break out in 2020 like DaBaby did in 2019, it’s the guy who’s ringtone was “Tell Me When To Go” for a full year. Seriously, imagine the type of person who would make that their ringtone. There’s no more accurate description for Sada Baby. — HARLEY GEFFNER
10. 03 Greedo – “Gettin’ Ready”
The summer before last, I spent 24 hours with Greedo right before he was condemned to disappear for 20 years. We shopped for Cartier shades on La Brea, or at least he did, because the sunglasses cost as much as a black market kidney. We went to the Bloomingdale’s at the Beverly Center, where he trash-talked an arrogant sales clerk with a gusto unseen since Kevin Garnett compared rival’s wives to honey-accented breakfast cereals. A long-time nemesis, the flustered and disgraced employee once regularly shooed away the Watts living legend, back when he was broke and vainly browsing the 20 percent off racks. Now, fresh off a seven-figure deal, Greedo was getting show money to match seven months of the employee’s salary. Thing is, it does little good when your spending options are about to be limited to commissary Skittles and box ramen. While trying on what looked like slim-fitting Hammer pants, 03 told me that he’d finally become the rapper that he’d always wanted to become. Euphoria and sadness echoed in his voice.
Afterwards, we hopped in his new Ford Escape with Texas plates. 96 hours of freedom left, so he did key bumps at red lights, whipping the car down Jefferson right into the enemy hood, towards the squat stucco home in the 30s where his girlfriend lived with her parents. He was going to marry her in a few days, he told me, but first wanted to ask for permission from her father. Inside the house, he quickly disappeared into his girl’s room to change into the Off-white shirt purchased at the mall. From behind the door, you could faintly hear what seemed to be a minor fight. Nothing too crazy. Your average lover’s quarrel between a chemically wired fledgling superstar and his soon-to-be-bride, in the dwindling hours before he popped the question and walked into the pen with all his diamonds on. When it finally ended, he was all smiles and we went to the weed dispensary, where he stuffed high-octane canisters into a designer bag so big that he matter-of-factly claimed you could fit an Uzi in it.
A few hours later, we wound up at DJ Mustard’s studio in the Valley, where Greedo was frantically recording what eventually became Still Summer in the Projects. There was no time to write anything down, so it was all berserk five-minute freestyle cantilations which were eventually carved into loaded tangents. He recorded three songs in an hour, one of which became “Bet I Walk.” The others are presumably moldering on a hard drive somewhere next to a platinum Ella Mai plaque. I’ve never seen anyone move with such obsessive purpose and death letter immediacy. Admittedly, the vintage Bowie quantities of blow helped, but every second was kinetic chaos intended to ensure that his legacy endures no matter how many times his parole gets denied. After the hour elapsed, he rushed to a different corner of the Valley to shoot the “California to Chicago” video with Z Money, goosestepping inside a creepy dust and paint-splattered warehouse space. After the shoot wrapped, it was late and I went home, but Greedo returned back to Mustard’s lab to record into the bleak pre-dawn hours.
I’m not sure what he laid down during that vampire session, but I want to believe that it was “Gettin’ Ready,” one of the best and most overlooked songs in a supernatural catalogue. From the Tin Pen Alley concept to the battered music box melody, it distills everything that makes him one of the most important L.A. artists of the decade. There is the idea itself: a brutally depressing but gorgeous love song for his wife to play while she gets ready to go out at night, knowing that brief conjugal visits in hell could be the closest she’ll get to him for a decade.
There is also a universalist pop streak to it, creep music applicable to anyone dazed by a distant lover scenario. Greedo’s “emo music for gangbangers” outwardly exists at the intersection of Boosie and T-Pain, but a sequin torch singer eccentricity simmers below. He is also the alternate universe triangulation of Lana Del Rey and Rick James, profanely bragging about how his dick stands like the Eiffel Tower but possessed by this forlorn hauntology that makes his songs seem divined from a diseased, offbeat, but somehow still idyllic California. The sunshine-noir dialectic working its familiar magic on the unfamiliar nerves of a hood legend from Grape Street who knows every syllable and groan of the Blink 182, Lana, and Sublime catalogues.
“Gettin’ Ready” could go platinum if it were covered by Ariana Grande. It’s both dreamily romantic and used condom-on-the-floor filthy, shot full of the blinkered static of a sleepless haze and drug residue smeared on a glass table. It casts a gnawing, anxiety-crippled vision of a future where you can’t be there for something as simple as your lover putting on eyeliner. The paranoia that compounds when you can’t be present for those moments that you should otherwise share, whether celebrating a job promotion or a hit single, or something as mundane as watching Netflix and eating Thai food in bed. “Gettin’ Ready” sounds urgent because it has no other choice. Neither gifts nor financial support can substitute for the emotional connection only possible when the person you love is sleeping next to you in the same room. But until you come home, she can play this song. — JEFF WEISS
9. Pop Smoke – “Welcome to the Party”
On the surface, “Welcome to the Party” is the sound of drill boomeranging back from the UK and landing in New York city, with a fresh coat of paint and enough bass to satisfy even the pickiest sound system fanatic. Take a closer look at New York’s song of the summer though, and you’ll start to marvel at how we got here. First, there’s that topline, an IDM-ready web of sub-zero synths that points less to the song’s hot weather peak and more towards its NYC winter genesis, landing somewhere between Autechre and Havoc in the frigidity department. Then there’s the sub, a murky, festering undertow that threatens to submerge any club its played in 50,000 leagues beneath the sea, a bass line so menacing as to immediately send featherweight EDM DJs running for the hills in shame. The drums, skittering on top like an alien menace with the snare doing little more than keeping time, feel positively perfunctory. Clearly, Roc Marciano isn’t the only New Yorker finding success flowing over minimalist production.
Then there’s Pop Smoke, scowling menacingly in between Pharell-via-Wiley “Grinding” crashes, welcoming you to the proverbial party. At first, naysayers objected to the whole exercise, wondering what this New Yorker could even add to a formula birthed in Chi-raq and mutated across London. Clearly, these critics underestimated the evergreen appeal of a New Yitty growl, because “Welcome to the Party” just wouldn’t be a hit without that voice, a scorched early rasp that sounds like late-era 50 Cent with a throat infection, crossed with the slasher flick serial killer the NYPD hallucinates on every BK street corner not yet colonized by a Panera Bread. “Welcome To the Party” isn’t a lyrical exercise, but it’s an extreme example of doing more with less, expanding and contracting every other bar with each word twisted to deliver the maximum amount of atmosphere for a minimal amount of syllables.
Pop Smoke’s in a tenuous position. There’s never been a harder time to be a young New York rapper, and the world is waiting on his re-up. Yet listening to “Welcome to the Party,” all I see is upside potential: this is a song that sounds like a New York winter, without falling prey to throwback revivalism, and a flip on Chicago and London’s innovations that nevertheless feels completely new. — SON RAW
8. Shordie Shordie – “Bitchuary (Betchua)”
Around the time he amicably parted ways with Peso da Mafia, the Baltimore-based trio who showed off “the money dance” two years ago while a drone hovered above, Shordie Shordie decided he wanted to make songs for women. While it doesn’t seem like “Bitchuary” would appeal it off from nomenclature alone, it, like most of his catalogue, are championed by women.
Shordie has enough subtleties to pull it off. Really “Bitchuary” is about honesty, reciprocity and openness with your partner. He calls his girl a “dog” but doesn’t exempt himself from that status, it’s a shared interest. His delivery is raspy and soft and he’s frank about prioritizing romance over waving his gun to meet some metric of toughness. Plus the beat syncs perfectly with that Blueface dance (remember him?) which just fits the theme. — MIGUELITO
7. Young Thug – “Blue Jean Bandit”
In a year where Young Thug only officially released one project, configured specifically to cement his status as a star to the masses, it figures that a leak stands out as his best song of the year. “Blue Jean Bandit” is the extraterrestrial Young Thug we all fell in love with, reaching to the furthest recesses of his chest to let out guttural growls and vocal screeds that crack and echo around his fanatical yelping. His sclerotic reverbs sound like a possessed mouse scratching around the cupboards above the studio as Thug takes turns being pulled by a chariot and sprinting through the intergalactic race that is the beat.
It can probably be traced back to around 2016, as it’s time-stamped by Thug saying “that new UberPool thing,” unless Thug is just so rich that he didn’t know the Pool option existed until 2018, which is when some around the Thug-stan corner of the internet say this song was recorded. 2016 makes more sense, as that was the post-Slime Season Thug world where the term “Harambe voice” was popularized.
Nobody in the history of music, literature, poetry, or any art form has better ways of talking about diamonds than Mr. Williams does. He says he’s got Jordan Zimmerman diamonds in his ring, that they’re moving so much he thinks they’re busy, he screeches about them being tall and showing them around, and calls them flyer than “Aladdin rug.” We all know Thug can still make wild associations like these and now A&R with the best, but the question is whether he’s still capable of letting his impulses run wild enough to make another song as good as “Blue Jean Bandit.” — HARLEY GEFFNER
6. Tyler, The Creator – “Earfquake”
If for whatever reason you need conclusive evidence as to how a decade of living can change a person, look no further than Tyler, the Creator. At the start of the 2010s, he was the lead fire thrower of transgressive rap clique Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All, a frighteningly millennial Lost Boys whose ethos were “kill people, burn shit, fuck school” sketched in donut font. As we bring the ‘teens to a close, Tyler has reinvented himself into a Warhol-esque bob wig-wearing pop savant trying to hide his sincerity behind the camp and irony and rape jokes which defined him as a teenager — and sort of failing at it. Of course we’re all the beneficiaries of his inability to cloak genuine feelings, as evidenced by “Earfquake,” assuredly his most popular single since he was eating roaches in the “Yonkers” video.
Even as that anarchic teenager, Tyler always had a singular vision when it comes to his productions. Look at songs like the aforementioned “Yonkers,” the stirring minimalism of “Bastard,” his musical growth on Scum Fuck Flower Boy. The foundational influence of the Neptunes has graduated into Tyler creating late-period Pharrell marked all over with his own fingerprints. Along with Playboi Carti and Charlie Wilson, Tyler crafts a personal accountibility anthem with intergalactic arpeggios and heartsick, high-pitched synths. Using the age-old metaphor of comparing love to a natural disaster, the once and future king of Fairfax Avenue finally uses his gift for musical arrangement to make an unforgettable love jam. I would posit there are more in his future, but who really knows with Tyler? Genius is often unpredictable, as the cliche goes. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
5. billy woods X kenny segal – “spongebob”
There’s no tenderness to “Spongebob,” an allegory of broken promises told over droning Kenny Segal production. Taken from this year’s excellent Hiding Places, the song, like much of woods’ writing, is wrought with intensely sobering novelistic detail. In a 2013 interview, the reclusive rapper who came of age when Scribble Jam and Def Jux ruled message boards, said this of his work: “I’m aware of the fact that I’m doing something that’s not necessarily going to appeal to a ton of people.”
Despite a lengthy career path, both solo and as part of groups (Vordul Mega of Cannibal Ox was an early partner) it was 2012’s History Will Absolve Me that signaled newfound interest in his work, and in many ways a second coming. It was then his voice began cutting through the music, his presence more pronounced. He founded Backwoodz Studioz, an imprint whose projects (Armand Hammer’s 2018 Paraffin for example) have gained increasing critical praise beyond the typical niche rap circles.
woods writes from Brooklyn but is a global citizen, a worldview informed by growing up in Washington D.C. and Zimbabwe. Summers were also spent between Harlem and Jamaica. His mom a Jamaican intellectual and his dad a Marxist refugee who fled after civil war ended in his country (at the time called Rhodesia). woods credits them and an open upbringing for framing his political views, as well as his dark humor, one that underscores a lot his work, springing from songs when least expected. On “Spongebob” he says: “Came back to God like, ‘Motherfucker you promised!’”
The video, much like the song, is a series of cold vignettes, loosely associated and non-linear. He’s in the basement of a bodega referencing Fibonacci numbers. He’s holding jugs of unidentifiable liquids in a tree fort in the forest. He’s drinking fancy cocktails in black mask in an empty bar. The song’s soundscape, slow and contemplative, benefits from a slow, molasses-like guitar riff that heightens the whole thing. Says woods: “The whole operation is under water.” Both in videos and in his songs, woods is the constant protagonist, uneasy and distrusting, face obscured to hide him from the world—or, perhaps hide the world from him?
I say this and mean it with highest praise, that woods is reminiscent of Chuck D, where message is key and sentences end with a deafening finality. Says woods: “Your days feel rehearsed, nights come back in short bursts.” Indeed they do. Sometimes a promise broken can provide clarity and “Spongebob” feels like just that.
— DAVID MA
4. Drakeo the Ruler x 03 Greedo X Bambino – “Let’s Go”
Everything about “Let’s Go,” from the single’s napkin sketch cover art to the song’s dying ember energy, feels like a distant message from the Outer Rim, faint and rapidly decaying.
Credit to 03, who’s as GreedyGiddy as ever, a bull in the china shop raging against the dying of the light. (Greedo is currently serving a 20-year sentence in a Texas prison.) But Bambino’s hook is mixed low — Paul theorized the track might be unfinished — and Drakeo is barely there, mumbling threats at a croak just loud enough to hear over a collect call from the pen. (Drakeo currently sits in a cell in Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA, and fellow Stinc Team member Bambino is locked up as well.) Jeff has reported extensively on the case, but the heinous absurdity is worth repeating: the Stinc Team is being warehoused principally because of the DA’s assertion that they are a gang rather than a rap crew.
You watch the video, which foregrounds the “missive from the past” thing by making half of it look like home video footage, and you imagine the names of the accused and the dates they left our world flashing up on screen like in The Irishman or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows before it.
It’s impossible not to be struck by the sheer needlessness of it all. This past July, a jury acquitted Drakeo of all murder and attempted murder charges. They were hung on two counts—criminal gang conspiracy and shooting from a vehicle. California has the biggest immigration court backlog in the country, with over 178,000 pending cases. Yet the district attorney deemed Drakeo et al such imminent threats to public safety that they decided to retry those two counts. Thus Drakeo sits.
Drakeo and 03’s words—like any great stylist—carry a transfigurative quality. They imbue the gruesome banalities of life on the streets with an extraordinary, fantastic air. Drakeo’s gun becomes Pippy Long Stocking; home invasion becomes flu flamming; staggering around on lean becomes mud walking. Their words are almost a spell, an incantation that if muttered in just the right cadence might deliver 03, Drakeo, and Bambino from evil.
But instead, their words are put to the dullest, most vile use: prosecutors are using rappers’ own lyrics to put them in jail. America has already stolen their neighborhoods, their music, and their futures. Now we’re taking their words.
#FreeDrakeo. #FreetheStincTeam. #FreeGreedo. Free everybody though. — JORDAN RYAN PEDERSEN
3. Nipsey Hussle – “Racks in the Middle (Feat. Roddy Ricch)”
When “Racks In The Middle” came out in February, Nipsey Hussle and Roddy Ricch were each riding out unique crests of their respective careers. Nipsey’s decade-plus industry grind had finally been validated with 2018’s Victory Lap, which debuted at number four on the Billboard charts and received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. Roddy Ricch had closed the previous year with an unexpected hit in “Die Young,” and seemed poised to burst out into a musical landscape that values the medley of sounds and styles he employs. Roddy Ricch ends this year still riding that success, and experimenting further with form on his recent mixtape, Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial. Nipsey Hussle, of course, befell an unspeakable tragedy.
That fatal shooting outside his own The Marathon clothing store on March 31, 2019, arrived at a time when “Racks In The Middle” was still blaring out of car windows, and newer, even better Nipsey music seemed poised to arrive. The anthem seemed so emblematic of Nipsey’s deserved success in spite of insurmountable odds. He was rapping about seeing his grandmother on his private jet, detailing the calculated steps that led him there. He was rapping about making money off of retail, from the store he purposefully built in his own neighborhood as a way to build Crenshaw up, in lieu of fleeing for safety beyond the smog-covered mountains. A good portion of the song is dedicated to Nipsey’s friend and All Money In label co-founder Fatts, who was shot to death in 2017. He asks, “how’d you die 30-something, after banging all those years?” Nipsey was 33 when he passed.
For the remaining nine months of 2019, the marathon did its best to continue. YG—an improbable ally whose career revolves around a color scheme opposite of Nipsey’s—memorialized him with an “In loving memory” dedication on the album cover for 4Real 4Real. Murals sprouted up throughout Los Angeles—along the parade route where fans lined up to watch his body pass, and elsewhere—with candles and offerings laid at Nipsey’s painted feet. The murals will fade away as time moves on, like Nipsey might’ve done regardless, even if he’d lived to be 100. But everything Nipsey represented to the communities of which he was a part, will continue.
Of the many treasures Nipsey left behind, “Racks In The Middle” is the perfect tragic stopping point to mark his untimely end, leaving everyone else to move the marathon forward. In an ideal world, we’ll all be cruising into 2020 with a V12 that has racks in the middle. For now, we’ll let Roddy Ricch remind us what that feels like. — WILL HAGLE
2. Teejayx6 – “Dark Web”
It’s become in vogue to talk, sneeringly but seriously, about how all of America is a scam: Horatio Alger, Ronald Reagan, Shark Tank, Wall Street, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the War On Terror, the War On Drugs, health insurance, Hollywood, fashion magazines, magazines, two-year college, four-year college. The most popular book released this year is built around an essay called “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams.” There are two documentaries about a scam of a music festival thrown (or not thrown, crucially) in the Bahamas; the documentaries are available on competing streaming services, which are themselves undoubtedly a scam of their own kind. Nothing is as it seems, everything is burning, this is Rome etc etc etc. But I am not interested in the ways our souls are being stolen piece by piece from us in a grand, spiritual heist. I’m interested in regular robbery.
Teejayx6 is an 18-year-old from Detroit who has named himself after a piece of handheld hardware you can use to clone credit cards. Sometimes he raps about how expensive his clothes are or how many guns he owns, but more often he raps about how you can siphon money out of Wells Fargo if you drive far enough away to buy a burner phone and download their new mobile-payment client, send yourself about a thousand dollars from an account whose principal and routing numbers you bought online for cheap (and probably in bulk), then ditch both phones as soon as the money’s withdrawn and moved once, twice, enough to dead the trail. He will then warn you, sheepishly, that this method might have been addressed by the bank’s IT team by the time you’re hearing the song.
It’s striking how literally Teejayx6’s music lays out its lessons. Think about a song like “Ten Crack Commandments” –– there is advice to be gleaned, but rappers have usually written about drug dealing in ways that are elliptical and aphoristic, turning the hustler into a Western hero or a moral crusader or a slick pulp protagonist. The hero in Teejayx6’s songs –– if there is a hero at all, the hero is him –– is generous with his advice, which is littered with jargon and unnervingly value-neutral. There is no moral code to scamming. There are only valid CVV codes that beam green and bad ones that blink red. This is a nihilist’s cookbook, rich in detail and audaciously free of lessons on how to command respect. It does not glamorize struggle or physical fortitude, placing a premium instead on dogged research, the willingness to spend hours bathed in the glow of a computer screen. (The clearest antecedent, then, might be YG’s “Meet the Flockers,” which walks step-by-step through a home invasion; still generous, but you can’t flock from your futon.)
What makes a song like “Dark Web” unforgettable is the way it remembers to cut against that literalism. The beat-by-beat account of downloading an anonymous, open-source browser to snatch money from stolen credit card accounts is elevated by Teejayx6’s gaudy insistence that it’s the government who previously banned him from the dark web. He does away with the mystery and selective revelations that can burnish a myth, then goes ahead and builds one anyway through sheer hubris. His outfit costs $5,000. He will never, under any circumstances, bring a girl into the club with him if her shoes are even a little bit scuffed. And if all of this is unmoving to you –– if what you came here for is, in fact, the tidy little slogan that explains the whole ecosystem –– he’s willing to hand that over, too: “This shit illegal, but it’s green, I gotta get it in.” — PAUL THOMPSON
1. DaBaby – “Suge”
When DaBaby’s “Suge” played at a friend’s wedding reception, my date told me she didn’t know how to dance to it. The beat, produced by frequent DaBaby collaborator Jetsonmade and Pooh Beatz, begins with a simple, albeit slightly warped piano melody. It’s the sound of a cloaked cartoon villain tip-toeing in time with each key. Then strings of hi-hats wind around concussive, speaker-blowing drums hit like haymakers from an NFL player turned bodyguard. That’s the beat. Like DaBaby’s flow, it never switches.
Obviously, my date hadn’t seen the video for “Suge.” There DaBaby teaches you how to dodge the tinnitus-inducing 808s, how to squat with swagger and walk stiff-armed as though you’re pushing a small lawnmower. The “Suge” video also explains part of DaBaby’s appeal. His charisma radiates from him in every frame. “Suge,” like the rest of his 2019 videos (or that time DaBaby wore a large diaper in public), is a cartoon come to life. It’s the best Ludacris or Busta Rhymes videos of yore with a lower (also read: 2019) budget. When DaBaby isn’t moonlighting as a negligent mail carrier, he’s comically dressed as Suge Knight, fake muscles bulging beneath a black turtleneck. If he weren’t rapping, he would’ve eventually found his way to acting. (He still might.)
Charisma doesn’t always translate to record, but the proud North Carolinian doesn’t have that problem. DaBaby’s resonant voice sits above the percussion. Unlike many chart-topping compatriots, he enunciates every word. The hook is essentially the hashtag rap of the early aughts done with more finesse and sometimes a few extra syllables (“Pack in the mail—it’s gone / She like how I smell—cologne”). He raps as though he’s strutting and stopping to wink and smile at the end of each line. In both verses, he sounds like he’s trying to stack as many words as possible without dipping into speed rap or Migos triplet territory. He succeeds, rapping about his bank account, the hordes of women in his DMs, and how he’ll body a hater at the slightest provocation without sounding rushed. He makes being a bully sound like fun. You laugh at DaBaby’s threats with trepidation—like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
DaBaby may have one flow, but he raps that one flow very well. “Suge” ranked on several Billboard charts, received Grammy nominations, and appeared on the latest Now That’s What I Call Music compilation. Can you dance to it? Depends on who you ask. — MAX BELL