From newcomers like Sheck Wes and Tierra Whack to vets like Anderson .Paak and Drake, it’s time to reflect on the best songs of 2018.
Great and grueling.
That’s the phrase we would use to describe the music released in 2018, a very long year. Streaming had artists competing with time; releasing music at rapid-pace and for the consumption of listeners longing for more with shortened attention spans, and higher expectations.
Despite the relentless pace, a select number of artists and songs were able to break through. In 2018, we saw standout songs from tried and true veterans, like Drake, Anderson .Paak, and Kendrick Lamar. But it was the wide-eyed rookies who really impressed, from the electric Sheck Wes to the tender Ella Mai to the unpredictable Tierra Whack.
It was a great year in music. But it was long. Sit back and reflect with us as we list the 18 best songs of 2018.
18. Anderson .Paak & Kendrick Lamar – “Tints”
On his 2018 album, Oxnard, Anderson .Paak opted for shine over struggle. To almost cartoonish levels of prosperity, his debut under Dr. Dre’s powerhouse imprint paints .Paak as the happy-go-lucky dynamo finally reaping the fruits of a decade-long shape-shifting act. Joining a prestigious roster of deft and decorated daggers, the album is imbued with equal parts star power and misplaced pressure. The whole is fraying and unfocused, save for a handful of bright spots. But if there’s a piece of Oxnard that feels particularly propulsive, fluid, and familiar, it’s the transformative two-step of “Tints.”
More than a convenient link-up between high-powered Aftermath heroes, the first official Oxnard single is a pristinely polished post-disco trot. Melding the magic of .Paak’s rhythmic rasp and a rarely carefree Kendrick, the label-mates dodge the trap-and-clap radio dial template, forging a future-funk anthem that wreaks of kush and assorted West Coast trimmings.— ZO
17. Tierra Whack – “Cable Guy”
Tierra Whack’s masterful debut, Whack World, showcases her versatility as an artist. There are 15 one minute tracks; each song is different from the other. But there’s something about “Cable Guy” that just sticks out. From the downtempo production to Tierra’s half-rapped, half-sung delivery, the Philly artist holds a former friend to task in a way that’s playfully insightful in its retrospection, Tierra having changed the channel on this part of her life. — Elijah Watson
16. Meek Mill, Rick Ross & JAY- Z – “What’s Free”
“Word to God this is off the head.” This is how JAY-Z ends his verse on Meek Mill’s Championships standout “What’s Free.” Of course JAY’s full of shit. There’s no way a verse this dense, with this many layers, was off the top of his head.
In fact, you get the sense JAY has wanted to unleash these bars for a while. His verse — which spans 200 years of history — is a summarization of the themes he’s been pondering as he became an elder statesman in rap: ownership, financial freedom, representation.
JAY is the star of the track (and he’s definitely set up to be). But Meek Mill and Rick Ross are excellent as well. (Even though Ross punctuating his verse with a gratuitous homophobic slur is a terrible look.) Everyone on the track knows the stakes at hand, rapping over a flip version of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef.” — Dimas Sanfiorenzo
15. Teyana Taylor, Ghostface Killah, Method Man & Raekwon – “Gonna Love Me” (Remix)
Teyana Taylor’s “Gonna Love Me” melts like ice in the sun. This one is all about sentiment, the same things being repeated and re-shaped as she sings lines like “are you gonna hold me?” with all the loving longing in her voice. She wraps it up with a charming harmony with The Delfonics sample at the end, a graceful bowing out of a carefully crafted track that has gone to show that Teyana Taylor is a versatile artist who warrants respect.
14. Lil Wayne & Swizz Beatz – “Uproar”
Fans have been anticipating Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V for six years. After years of lawsuits and courtroom battles, we finally got the album. Upon the LP’s release, “Uproar” instantly became the anthem. The track, which samples G. Dep’s street classic “Special Delivery,” is Lil Wayne at his infectious best, carefree and relentless.
Instantly the song went viral prompting dances like the #UproarChallenge. Lil Wayne, along with many of his fans, posted videos of themselves doing the Harlem Shake to the Swizz Beatz-produced track.
Leave it up to Lil Wayne to reclaim the Harlem Shake. — Yannise Jean
13. Blood Orange, A$AP Rocky & Project Pat – “Chewing Gum”
Like much of Negro Swan, “Chewing Gum” duels with its double and triple duties. The fourth studio album from Dev Hynes as Blood Orange digs into the grey and pain of underrepresented communities. The organic and imposed dualities of being both victim and witness to targeted terror, of picking your callouses from reliving and inheriting trauma via viral vices and hashtag memorials. “Chewing Gum” is the album’s careful case study on the invention of manhood and the persistence of misogyny.
Bolstered by booming 808s, Hynes (the vulnerable, prodding pop polymath) Project Pat (the heavy-footed Memphis rap pioneer) and A$AP Rocky (the inquisitive Harlem intermediary,) span the spectrum of modern masculinity, from touchingly transparent to preternaturally toxic. Dreamy melancholy morphs into a chopped, never slopped, Southern hip-hop screed at the behest of a ghostly chorale, presenting a lean-lit vigil for the old guard and a freshly excavated floor for new identities to flourish — where complexity is not a crisis, but a conversation. — ZO
12. Kanye West “Lift Yourself”
Why, in 2018, would anyone want to listen to a Kanye West song expecting to hear good Kanye West rapping? And yet, when “Lift Yourself” dropped there was disappointment. The song, which kicked off the MAGA-Ye era, was seen as troll. The song contains no formal rapping. Rather, the last moments of the track feature Kanye repeating “Poopy-di scoop Scoop-diddy-whoop Whoop-di-scoop-di-poop.” You can hear the smirk in his verse. (It was later revealed that the song was basically a fuck you to Drake, who wanted the beat so much he sent purple Emoji threats over it.) But. here’s the thing: is “Scoop-diddy-whoop” really that much better than, say, bars about a bleached asshole? Like, what is the value of a Kanye verse in 2018?
So maybe “Lift Yourself” is a time to recalibrate our artistic expectations for Kanye: the era of expecting insightful, clever lyrics has come to an end. And that’s OK. Because, as an instrumental, “Lift Yourself” is an absolute monster: an energizing and unpredictable ride that probably tells you more about Kanye’s psyche than anything on that dreary Ye album. — Dimas Sanfiorenzo
11. Ella Mai – “Trip”
Props to Jacquees, man. He has sort of manifested this King of R&B thing into an actual debate, as if King of R&B was an actual accolade — or something he should be in the running for even if it was an actual accolade. Before this week, his biggest claim to fame was “quemixing” Ella Mai’s “Trip,” a gorgeous retro R&B song about not losing yourself in a relationship.
Widely seen as a hater move, DJ Mustard, the producer of the song, sent a cease and desist letter, forcing Jacquess to take his version down. (Piracy is in the bloodline of hip-hop and R&B; only recently has tech made the issue more complicated.) It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to collaborate on this officially. Both versions are stunning: Ella’s version is thoughtful, while Jacquees’ track is seductive. Mix the two versions together — a version Hot 97 has in steady rotation — and it instantly makes you nostalgic for a time where singers didn’t handle complicated emotions with icy indifference. — Dimas Sanfiorenzo
10. Nicki Minaj – “Chun-Li”
Nicki Minaj has alter egos. She has notoriously shapeshifted between more than 10 characters; from The Harajuku Barbie to Roman Zolanski, who helped the Queens MC outrap both JAY-Z and Kanye West. This year Minaj birthed a new alter ego: “Chun-Li.” Her rap character is based on the Street Fighter video game character of the same name. It’s immediately clear why Minaj assumed the role: the original Chun-Li was the first female fighter of any fighting game franchise; a trailblazing hero of sorts. Minaj, who has helped reshape the landscape of hip-hop in her own right, ironically attaches “the bad guy” to her characterization of Chun-Li (a “good guy”), perhaps to argue that whatever fight she endures or engages in is, in her eyes, for the purpose of the greater good of the game.
Beef after beef, critique after critique, and assumed tension with a new reigning raptress saw Minaj victimize herself as “the bad guy.” “Chun-Li” peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, elongating Minaj’s record for most top 10 singles of any female rapper. It also became the subject of cultural criticism, some valid, and dialogue about cultural appropriation, most wayward. Because Minaj has run with the ambiguous-pan-Asian schtick, on-and-off for a majority of her career, via costume and lyrics. Being part Asian, her heritage isn’t up for critique, but rather — with presentations like this song— intent, representation, and accuracy are. During her mixtape days, she would sometimes evade questions about her ethnicity likely to maintain mystique and pique interest and to play into the exotification of black women in entertainment — an issue that predates her and rap. Some interpreted her “name go ding-dong” line in “Chun-Li” as a heinous play on Chinese names and Asian languages. But long-time Nicki fans can dispense through context that the line functioned with an unrelated motif that’s run through her discography for years; “name go ding-dong” is an onomatopoeic extension of her signature “my name ring bells” rap variate. Despite the contention, the song saw Minaj position herself as a lyrical and literal assassin, taking shots at haters, naysayers, and epigones alike. — Ivie Ani
9. The Carters – “Apeshit”
The King of Rap was flexing on this track; Beyoncé flaunted her confident, diverse rap style with “Apeshit” while her husband played steady hypeman. Over Pharrell’s bouncy 808s, The Carters name drop all the trappings of extravagant wealth, an infectious victory lap of a song that has Beyoncé rapping with unbelievable speed and deft: “All of my people/I free ‘em all” and everybody in the club feeling like she really did. — Caira Blackwell
8. Kali Uchis, Tyler, The Creator & Bootsy Collins – “After the Storm”
“After the Storm” is all slow smoke and warm haze. Produced by the popular jazz group BadBadNotGood, Kali Uchis pierces the noise with a sanguine message about working through hard times in wait of the calm clarity that follows a storm. It’s a perfect intro for Tyler, the Creator to burst through her vapor to deliver his short, characteristically clever verse before evaporating into the background. It’s back to drizzle and sunshine; the light peeking from behind dark clouds.
It’s not surprising that the Uchis, Tyler collaboration produced pure gold, as the pair have a growing list of tracks that have garnered a lot of love. But the feature from funk legend Bootsy Collins only added fire to the silky flame that is “After the Storm.” — Caira Blackwell
7. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future & James Blake – “King’s Dead”
The claustrophobic “King’s Dead” was the second single from TDE’s Black Panther: The Album. That version features Kendrick Lamar’s obnoxious “red light green light” jibber jabber verse. (He’s supposed to be rapping from the perspective of Killomonger.)
Thankfully, that verse is stripped away from the far-superior version that appears on Jay Rock’s Redemption album. There you can hear two of the finest rapping performances of the year: the gruff Jay Rock, spitting with a charm you don’t usually see from the workman-like MC. And Future, relieving the tension the song builds by implementing Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob On My Knob” into his verse. — Dimas Sanfiorenzo
6. A$AP Rocky & Skepta – “Praise The Lord (Da Shine)”
TESTING, A$AP Rocky’s 2018 album, was a spastic, at times disconnected, mood board of Rocky’s high fashion proclivities and growing affection for art gallery glamour. A bleary-eyed, acid-blotted tour of luxurious spaces and famous friends, TESTING’s curiosity is both brave and a little half-baked for the sake of touting expensive taste. But “Praise The Lord” is a focused and fun cross-pond flex. With Rocky gliding over the nautical trills of a barely-vintage Garageband loop (c/o 2006 “World Music” Jampack) and Skepta borrowing DMX’s serrated “Who We Be” staccato, the ascendent duo crafts an ode to self-advocacy and actualization, tipping a hat to uptown and pleading for the holiness of the hustle all at once. — ZO
5. Travis Scott & Drake – “SICKO MODE”
The highlight of Travis Scott’s Grammy-nominated ASTROWORLD was “SICKO MODE;” the track has ultimately become the center of Travis Scott’s psychedelic hip-hop world. Travis Scott and Drake boast about being above their competition over haunting melodies and heavy bass. Drake emerges with arguably one of his best verses this year, while Travis Scott cements his place in hip-hop as a hype man, more than an MC.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what kind of universe “SICKO MODE” is grounded in. But it’s clear that Travis has an ear for sonic arrangements and disruption. — Yannise Jean
4. Kids See Ghosts – “Reborn”
Kanye West’s collaborative project with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts, was one of the few bright spots of the G.O.O.D. Music summer. The album featured the pair confronting their mental health issues. One of the more notable tracks to come from the album was “Reborn,” which comes toward the end of the project. The plinking of bright but melancholic keys sets the tone for the track, Kid Cudi singing “I’m so, I’m so reborn, keep moving forward” that makes it feel like a mantra. It’s redemptive and optimistic even in its poignancy, a shining light among the darkness that dominated rap this year. — Elijah Watson
3. Drake – “Nice For What”
Drake is everything to everyone. A rapper, an entertainer, a lyricist, a singer, a pop-star, an OG, a student, a veteran, a rookie. It leaves one to wonder how much effort Drake puts into this confuddled craft of his. “Is he a desperate appropriator in search for his next global sonic conquest?” is one of the more critical concerns of the last two years. “Is he a womanizer posturing as a good guy?” is one that doesn’t emerge often enough. “Does he write his own lyrics?” is only a question that reemerges alongside his beefs.
What is he the best at? His 2018 single “Nice For What” answers this question. Drake isn’t much of a creator; he’s a curator. And an extremely good one, at that. “Nice For What” is exemplary of this basic but keen skill set. The Murda Beatz-produced track features Lauryn Hill’s ubiquitous “Ex-Factor” and vocals from New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia and a star-studded Karena Evans-directed video featuring Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi, and Serena Williams. As Drake’s ode to women and what they do and don’t have to do, “Nice For What” can be interpreted as the average ally anthem, or critiqued as him pilfering from and pandering to a social movement that should see him on the margins and not in the center. But the thing about the song that leans more toward the former is it feels like the track belongs to everyone but him. Drake is a guest star, while the women he sings about, to, and through, run the show. — Ivie Ani
2. Sheck Wes – “Mo Bamba”
1. Burna Boy – “Ye”
The lead single from Nigerian Afrofusion artist Burna Boy’s album, Outside, garnered more traction in the U.S. over the summer when Kanye West released Ye; it prompted an uptick in streams and an accidental rediscovery of Burna’s preexisting song of the same name.
With its progressively patriotic rallying cry and club appeal, it lingers in minds the way words and melodies of a national anthem would. It spawned more viral moments and music, like Osh’s “My Yé Is Different to Your Yé,” and permeated the purviews of tastemakers, partygoers, and internet listeners alike. In the video for “Ye,” Burna brandishes a flag with the printed face of late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. On this one song, he’s rapping and singing in Nigerian pidgin, Jamaican patois, Ebonics, and English while fusing hip-hop, reggae, afrobeat, and pop. Therein lies the root of his global appeal; lingual accessibility and sonic digestibility.
“Ye” interpolates Kuti’s 1977 song, “Sorrow Tears and Blood.” Where the shortcoming of new, popular Nigerian songs presents as excellent song orchestration meets vapid lyrics, Burna, on the other hand, superimposes simplicity with profundities — loading his lyrics with history, cultural context, emotion, and stories. Many Naija artists stake claim as the “new Fela” without any semblance of his socio-political leaning lyrical lens, grand charisma, and supreme live performance, but Oluwaburna comes close — not nearly in Fela’s totality, but in his spirit. “Ye” sees Burna as the fashion-forward people’s champ with substance, an ear to the callings of the past, a foot on the grounds of the present, and an eye to the future. The song has potential to stand the test of time and define this period where modern African music that held true to its roots did more than pique international interest overseas; it made waves. — Ivie Ani
Feature Illustration by Laura Alston.