At this point, hip-hop has officially become the most dominant genre in popular music. It's a genre so robust at the moment it's hard to keep up with the prolific output of rappers who can become the next big name seemingly moments after uploading a single to SoundCloud. No one can blame you for not being able to keep up, so check back with Esquire.com throughout the year as we run down the best rap songs of 2018.
BEYONCÉ / JAY-Z – "APESHIT"
The Carters are pop music. They're hip-hop. They're culture. On “Apeshit,” Beyoncé and Jay-Z analyze cultural institutions that fail to include black artists. The video places black dancers and the Carters in front of white artwork in the Louvre in Paris. They call out the Grammys, which invite black artists for ratings at the ceremony but don’t reward these musicians with actual trophies. As a combined force, the Carters are an establishment of their own, one that’s capable of challenging the likes of the NFL and the Recording Academy.
TEYANA TAYLOR – "ROSE IN HARLEM"
Among releases from Pusha T, Kid Cudi, Nas, and Kanye himself, Teyana Taylor lands among the best of the West-produced albums in the summer of 2018. Even Pusha said her K.T.S.E. was his favorite of the G.O.O.D. Music projects. The highlight of that release comes on "Rose in Harlem" a song that acts as a biography of her making it out of her home neighborhood. Over a passionate cord progression, and a genius sample of "Because I Love You Girl" by The Stylistics, Taylor sings of her past: "Been through more than a lil' bit / But I ain't callin' no names out / No, no free promotions."
LIZZO – "BOYS"
This marks the second year in a row that a song called "Boys" has shown up on our year end list. And like Charli XCX's 2017 song, Lizzo's "Boys" is a celebration of sexual liberty from a powerful female perspective. With musical influences ranging from Prince to Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back" and even "Mambo No. 5," Lizzo flips what's historically male musicians objectifying the female body.
MEEK MILL FEAT. MIGUEL – "STAY WOKE"
On April 25, Meek Mill was released from prison, where he was sentenced two to four years for parole violations. The sentencing set off waves of protests with Jay-Z and Pennsylvania's governor supporting the rapper. He knows first hand how the criminal justice system in America is working against young black men. And on "Stay Woke," his first new track since being released, he uses his moment to carefully outline the horrors of mass incarceration. He at once admits his own mistakes that landed him in legal trouble, while also pointing out how the system is designed to keep him in prison rapping on the song, "In a world where black is wrong and white right, it's like a combat / We go to war for our freedom, they say we equal."
JAY ROCK – "REDEMPTION"
"If you had a second chance in life what would you do?" Jay Rock asks in the opening of the title track from his excellent new album. This marks the Top Dawg rapper's first release since a motorcycle accident nearly took his life. Like his label mate Kendrick Lamar (who appears on this song and throughout the album) it outlines themes of rebirth, faith, and redemption from their South LA neighborhoods.
PUSHA T – "THE STORY OF ADIDON"
The surgical summer officially began on May 29, 2018. A decade-long beef sizzling in the subtext of hip-hop, exploded into the most vicious diss track in years with Pusha T's "The Story of Adidon." It's a song that completely dismantles Drake's good-guy persona, picking apart his alleged use of ghost writers and rumored child with a former porn star. Drake's response to Pusha's "Infrared" was good, but "The Story of Adidon" took this feud to a mythical status. There's possibly never been a diss track as rhetorically sound, calculated, and damaging as what Pusha wrote (Drake was even forced to issue an explanation of the questionable album art). This ranks among the greatest diss tracks in rap history, and one of the most game-changing songs of the year.
CHILDISH GAMBINO – “THIS IS AMERICA”
The sheer scope of Donald Glover’s body of artistic work is so incredible that he even made it into a gag in his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. Music, movies, TV, unmade cartoons, writing—the list of his talents goes on and on. Starting as a playful hip-hop moniker, Glover’s Childish Gambino persona has evolved into something completely unexpected with his Grammy-winning third album, Awaken, My Love. On that release he moved from rap to a falsetto-led collection of soul and R&B. But after the success of that pivot, he does so again with the jarring and brilliant “This Is America.” The song, and its accompanying video, is a surreal critique of race and violence in this country. And it’s another essential piece of Glover’s catalogue.
KID CUDI & KANYE WEST – "KIDS SEE GHOSTS"
"Kids See Ghosts" is one of the moments on the joint album from Kid Cudi and Kanye West album of the same title where each part contributes to make a transcendent hole. Together, Cudi and West make something completely unlike each of their solo output, where the moody stoner anthem finds a perfect equilibrium with unchecked ego. Here's a moment where both Cudi and West drag each other out of their melodic and compositional comfort zones.
A$AP ROCKY FEAT. FRANK OCEAN – "PURITY"
One of his rare musical contributions since Blonde, Frank Ocean appears in the closing track of A$AP Rocky's Testing to bring the album to a pensive conclusion. Taking cues from Ocean's masterpiece, "Purity" is anchored by a gentle, bubbling guitar. Here, producing team Finatic N Zac, Dean Blunt, and Rocky mix into Ocean's formula a sample of Lauryn Hill's "I Gotta Find a Peace of Mind." Through it all, Ocean and Rocky seek clarity of mind freed from brands, Xans, and love. Ocean has always had his own helpless love-at-first-sight romantic view of the world, which can best be described in this song with his lyrics: "One blink and I'm precummin' / That could turn every no one into someone."
KANYE WEST – "VIOLENT CRIMES"
Love him or loathe him, but no artist has commanded the spotlight in 2018 quite like Kanye West. Some of the things he's said and done this year are unforgivable. But in the soul-searching gospel of "Violent Crimes," West examines the inherent evil of men. At the end, West finds something resembling hope at the conclusion of a dark and fucked-up album.
J BALVIN – "PELIGROSA"
J. Balvin's success stateside has been building since Beyoncé dropped vocals on a remix of "Mi Gente" last summer, when Blue Ivy was a fan of the song. Now, with his own album combined with Cardi B collaborations, Balivn is prepared to own Summer 2018. It comes at a perfect time, when his reggaetón style is at the forefront of popular hip-hop music. Even though his influence and genre can be heard all over mainstream American music, his sound, especially on the buttery "Peligrosa," will make everyone forget about "Despacito."
VALEE FEAT. JEREMIH – “WOMP WOMP”
The latest signee to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, Valee shares his fellow Chicagoan’s I’ll-do-it-myself mentality. As the New York Times described him recently, “He does carpentry, construction and electrical work, and builds koi ponds, too. He customizes fast cars—full-size and remote control—and cooks. He’s tattooed others, as well as his own arms and legs.” And that type of attitude is clear in his music, which is playful, curious, and multifaceted. A natural pairing with Jeremih, Womp Womp is an effortless exploration of hip-hop at its most laid-back and fun.
CARDI B – “I DO”
Cardi B ends her brilliant debut album with a call to action about men: “If they can't make you richer, they can't make you come.” It’s a song that sums up the running theme of female empowerment from the album, where Cardi raps, “I think us bad bitches is a gift from god.” The album highlight also brings in SZA, the breakout star who released one of the best albums from 2017, to explain that she just leaves dudes on read because she feels like it. Hell yes.
DRAKE – “NICE FOR WHAT”
With a spinning sample of Lauryn HIll’s “Ex-Factor,” Drake doubles down on his good-guy thing, rapping about female confidence—both online and IRL. He tells the story of a woman doing her own thing: paying bills, going to clubs, living life without a partner or “without a mention or a follow.” In fact, it’s a song so good, it even got the Lauryn Hill approval when she covered it in concert in late April
SABA – “LOGOUT”
There’s something so poetic about a Chicago rapper singing about just logging the fuck off. “If you press log out, you get forgotten / What's a post, but a reminder just how boring our lives ar-ar-ar-are / Look at how much fun I'm havin' / Ain't no beauty in the absence, of broadcastin' to your followers.” In hindsight, that seems like such an insightful statement given what Chicago’s most prominent rapper did in late April. Alongside Chance the Rapper, it’s good to know that a new generation of artists from Chicago gets it.
TYLER, THE CREATOR – "OKRA"
Two months after his first nomination for Best Rap Album at the Grammys, Tyler, the Creator returns with an absolutely dizzying boast track. In includes some of Tyler’s most impressive wordplay, with an assault of references, jokes, and brags. In just a single line, he jumps from referencing shoe sponsorships to a Robert De Niro pun: “Red Ones look like Aidan Mackey, spent dinero like Taxi Driver.” In another just before that, Tyler once again slyly addresses his own sexuality, which was a major point of discussion on his critically acclaimed 2017 album Flower Boy. Tyler isn’t going to let you forget the year he had—no, he’s going to make you bask in it with him.
VINCE STAPLES – “GET THE FUCK OFF MY DICK”
A day before releasing “Get the Fuck Off My Dick,” Staples set up a GoFundMe campaign called #GTFOMD where he asked fans to fund his early retirement. “No songs, no interviews, no anything,” he said. “Get off of my dick or fund my lifestyle.” While he didn’t end up retiring (the GoFundMe was actually pulled down by the site), he did release a song with the same kind of sentiment. In it, he touches on the hypocrisies of the entire entertainment and media industry, rapping “I ain't takin' no more calls, might think 'bout callin' it quits / Press is tryin' to block my blessings, no more talking to Vince / NPR and XXL, man, I can't tell which is which.” He follows that by calling out his own record label, along with the Grammys for snubbing his 2017 critically acclaimed album Big Fish Theory. He proves nothing is off limits, continuing to be one of the most punk rock rappers out there today. And isn’t it just therapeutic to tell everyone and everything to “Get the fuck off your dick” once in a while?
JUICE WRLD – “ALL GIRLS ARE THE SAME”
Juice Wrld's “All Girls Are the Same” is an excellent example of our era of the vulnerable rapper. While hip-hop was once dominated by materialistic boosterism, a new generation has rebuilt the genre on a basis of sad beats and an oversharing of feelings. If anything, this type of life is a lot more relatable. Take this song for example, where Juice Wrld agonizes over how he can’t fall in love. That’s almost the exact opposite of our traditional understanding of rap. “I just want real love, guess it's been a minute / Pissed off from the way that I don't fit in, I don't fit in / Tell me what's the secret to love, I don't get it,” he raps on the track. It’s tragic, it’s universal to everyone, and it’s honest.
SABA – "LIFE"
With a few mixtapes and his debut studio album, Saba has made an early case for himself as one of the most inspiring new voices in Chicago hip-hop. On “Life,” Saba incorporates the sounds of R&B and jazz for a stunning track that tosses bursts of brilliant social commentary. Saba goes in hard right away in the first verse, rapping: “They want a barcode on my wrist / To auction off the kids that don't fit their description of a utopia (black) / Like a problem won't exist if I just don't exist / If I grew up without a single pot to piss in / Pardon me for venting / Congress got the nerve to call itself religious / Rich just getting richer, we just tryna live our life.” He offers vivid critiques of the black experience, one that comes in a flow that Saba switches up in the moment—sometimes a breathless rapid fire, sometimes slow, thoughtful and analytical.
LIL YACHTY – “66”
Lil Yachty is less of a rapper and more of a big kid who someone gave some cool beats and a microphone. And that’s why his music is always so airy and playful. And "66" almost feels like the music equivalent of the movie Blank Check, in which Yachty is some teen who randomly got a bunch of money, “High school, servin beans,” Yachty raps, “dropped out, now I’m rich, flexin’ ‘till I’m 66.” He goes on to discuss his Bentley truck that he bought “ain’t no rentin’." And, honestly, good for Yachty: He creates music that’s become the epitome of pop rap, based not really on what he says, but how he says it.
DRAKE – "GOD'S PLAN"
Whether he means to or not, with every new release Drake is able to out-Drake himself. With "God's Plan," he played up his nice guy schtick with a truly touching philanthropic music video. And since this is Drake, fans took it and packaged the idea into the pervasive God's Plan Starts Playing meme. And plus, this might be the most Drake line of all time: "I only love my bed and my momma, I'm sorry." It's impossible not to love Drake, I'm sorry.
MOZZY WITH SJAVA AND REASON – "SEASONS"
In one breath, emerging Sacramento rapper Mozzy talks about the corrupt justice system, racism, classism, police brutality. On "Seasons," he raps, "I cried when lil' brotha died, got high and watched the sunrise / Wiggle on 'em if it's one time, they done hung all of my people / I love all of my people, I'm in the slums with all of my people / They trynna tell us that we all equal / We gettin' no justice so it ain't peaceful, yeah / Think they bluffin', they ain't gon' beat you / Paid attorney, we gon' need it." It's a beautiful and powerful verse, one that's shocking to hear on a soundtrack for a Disney movie. It's just another stunning contribution to popular culture from Kendrick Lamar and Black Panther.
MIGOS – “MADE MEN”
Migos didn’t hold anything back releasing Culture II on the anniversary of their groundbreaking major label debut. It’s a massive dump of 24 songs, which indicates that they could have maybe used some discretion while pairing down that final album. That’s precisely why there are a number of forgettable tracks along with some truly great ones. Obvious standouts are the Pharrell-produced "Stir Fry" (which technically came out last year, so we can’t include it here) and “Made Men.” On the latter, the beat is a glittering and classy late-night boast. Taking the phrase from classic American mafia, Takeoff casually brags in his first verse, “Not Toby, but we slave for it / No Kunta Kinte, but we slave for it / I waited some days for it” in a brilliant Roots reference.
RAE SREMMURD – "POWERGLIDE"
The melodic vocal gymnastics of Rae Sremmurd are usually something most rappers don't mess with. Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee play around in those upper registers that make for truly addictive pop-rap. And they can do it over any type of beat, from a bleary trap beat to a driving beat like "Powerglide" featuring Juicy J.
JPEGMAFIA – “MACAULAY CULKIN”
I’ll be the first to admit that JPEGMAFIA might not be for everyone. He embodies the true punk aesthetic of SoundCloud hip-hop. He’s artistically hyperactive—he’s already released three albums this year of frenetic lo-fi rap. These albums have songs like “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies” and “Libtard Anthem.” But beneath that abrasive provocateur is a compelling lyricist, and when he tones it down a bit, like on "Macaulay Culkin," that writing truly shines. Over a lost, melancholy guitar, he raps Orange is the New Black references and admits, “I play my albums front to back and make it feel important.”
SAINT JHN – "I HEARD YOU GOT TOO LITT LAST NIGHT"
As hip-hop has statistically taken over as the dominant genre of popular music, it's sometimes difficult to find the line between R&B, pop, and rap. SAINt JHN incorporates all of it, with the woozy, low-end beat and the melancholy sing-song flow so popular. But, like a hazy hangover, the Brooklyn rapper recounts a night out as if it's a morning drained of dopamine.
SOB X RBE – "LIFESTYLE"
There's a perfect balance at play on SOB X RBE tracks. Yhung T.O.'s seductive club choruses are the perfect packaging for forceful, dangerous verses. Take "Lifestyle" for example, where Yhung T.O. sings in the chorus, "I remember late nights all alone / I remember long talks with my cousin through her phone / RIP all of my niggas dead and gone / Give it all to bring you back and to bring my niggas home." It's followed by an opening verse from Slimmy B where he raps about people getting murdered at stoplights.
CUPCAKKE – "CARTOONS"
Quite possibly the greatest hype track ever written solely dedicated to cartoon references. There's certainly no greater joy in hearing the sex-confident chorus dedicated to giving Smurfs blue balls when she raps: "I'm a snack so I attract Scooby Doo's / Give 'em Smurf dick, that's balls blue / I don't look for niggas so fuck Waldo / Bitch, I'm cocky like Johnny Bravo."
MAXO KREAM – "ROACHES"
On "Roaches," Maxo Kream comes out firing with an opening chorus rapping, "Back when the face tatts was for OG killas / Now I'm seein' tear drops on you Soundcloud niggas / Remember back when music had content and metaphors / Way before the mumble nonsense and poppin' handlebars." It's a visceral attack on a new era of rappers finding pop stardom like Post Malone. What follows is vivid account of his childhood shooting guns, watching his uncle get shot.
TEE GRIZZLEY FEAT. MEEK MILL – "FIRST DAY OUT REMIX"
Meek Mill is currently incarcerated for violating probation—a sentence that's caused mass outrage, even causing Jay-Z to pen a New York Times op-ed. And the bitter irony is that Mill's latest verse comes on a remix of a Tee Grizzley song called, "First Day Out." Likely recorded when he was out on probation, Mill's verse touches on everything from Nicki Minaj to his beef with Drake, "I made a milli from rappin' and I ain't look back / I brought that Dawn in my hood, they was like, "What's that?" / They tried to tell me I lost, nigga, I shook that (shook)," he raps. Anyway, free Meek Mill.
From: Esquire US