Okayplayer's Best Albums of 2018
We’ve officially survived another year, and it’s time we reflect. Before you gear up to go into the new year, check out our list of the 18 best albums of 2018.
Despite what you might have heard, the album, is, in fact, not dead. Yes, while big tech and fans’ listening habits have done irreparable harm to the album, the format is still thriving. (for now.)
This year, we saw thousands of albums drop. Usually in one week (JK!). And, because the internet is so vast, but accessible, it makes it difficult to wade through what’s worth listening to and what isn’t. In light of this, there have been some standouts this year that we would be remiss if we didn’t highlight.
There have been quite a few triumphant returns, from artists like Meek Mill, Lil Wayne, Earl Sweatshirt, and Nicki Minaj. Those artists are all vets, and they prove they can compete with the young hotshot talent, like Saba, Rico Nasty, and Tierra Whack.
We’ve officially survived another year and it’s time we reflect So before you gear up to go into the new year, check out our list of the 18 best albums of 2018.
18. Lil Wayne – The Carter V
On Tha Carter V, a nearly 90-minute behemoth, Lil Wayne brought something new to the table: a surprising streak of vulnerability that exemplifies the pain and trauma he has been wrestling with over the seven years this album has been in the making. “Let It All Work Out,” for example, addresses his attempted suicide as a kid, when he shot himself in the chest; “Dark Side of the Moon” is a sad ballad that visualizes an apocalyptic world; “Open Letter” reminds us that the rapper, despite having a discography that runs back 20 years, is only 36 years old, and a father at that.
The album is a handshake between the new and the old, paying homage to the peak era of Wayne, while also incorporating some elements of contemporary rap. “Don’t Cry,” the second track on the album, brings in some of this newness with a featured appearance from the late XXXTentacion, whose wailing voice drags in the background. While the bizarre, ambitious Kendrick Lamar-featured “Mona Lisa” calls back to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Got A Story To Tell” with its long, full-bodied narrative. It won’t be recognized as the best album out of Tha Carter series, but Tha Carter V is a heartening effort that has Lil Wayne showing us that he has both paid his dues and been looking onward to the next generation to come. — Caira Blackwell
17. Kamasi Washington — Heaven and Earth
There’s a grandeur to Kamasi Washington. His major label debut album, The Epic, was a long and sprawling project that found the Los Angeles jazz musician celebrating and challenging ideas of jazz while solidifying himself as one of the genre’s most promising new artists. With Heaven and Earth, Kamasi only expands on what he began with The Epic, creating a two-part album that is rich in its showcasing of musicianship, Kamasi leading his band through ethereal soundscapes with a confidence that is present throughout.
Even in its ambitiousness, Heaven and Earth is cohesive; Kamasi brings together genres and sounds in a way that’s challenging but digestible. The psychedelic free-jazz of “Connections;” the Latin polyrhythms and vocoder of “Vi Lua Vi Sol;” the hard bop and gospel of “Show Us The Way.” In Heaven and Earth, Kamasi has created a follow-up to The Epic that is easily the most fascinating work of his career thus far. — Elijah Watson
16. Meek Mill – Championships
Meek Mill is best when he’s in the streets. Despite “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro)” being the best rap song of the decade, Meek’s albums have paled in comparison to his mixtapes. You want dirty braids-Meek — not the Meek who is chasing chart success.
And that’s why Championships is great, and probably the best studio album of his career: the album, which is Meek’s fourth, sounds like a mixtape. Sure, there are signs that an A&R had a sticky Hennessy-drenched hand on the album. (Case in point: the random Anuel AA feature on “Uptown Vibes,” just so the track can get on the ¡Viva Latino! playlist.) But this is a street album. Meek is rapping over flips of samples as if this was a DJ Clue tape, from The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef” to Mobb Deep’s “Get Away” to JAY-Z’ “Dead President.”
Championships features some of the most thoughtful rapping of Meek’s career. Songs like “Trauma” and “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” are a triumph both technically and content-wise. (On “Oodles O’ Noodles” he raps: “I’m on my mom’s steps, it’s like a bomb threat. The violence pursuing us, I ain’t meet God yet ‘Cause I’m on the block where It’s just me and Lucifer, look what they do to us.”)
15. Saba — Care For Me
On February 8th 2017, John Walt, a promising rapper from the west side of Chicago, and a founding member of Pivot Gang, was stabbed to death. Walt had talent; prior to his death his single “KemoWalk” was a local hit.
The murder was felt in the city. However, very few people felt the death as fiercely as Saba, who is John Walt’s cousin. Walt died about a month before Saba was to go on tour for his debut studio LP Bucket List Project, a project where the young rapper was chasing commercial success.
The album he would start working on would be different: dense, insular and emotionally heavy. That album would be Care For Me, which was released in April of this year. Care for Me is ten songs, with a run time of around 41 minutes. It’s not a breezy listen. The album is completely drenched in grief.
There are no sing-along tracks on here. No “World In My Hands.” Instead, tracks are carried by Saba’s vivid storytelling, most acutely seen on the album’s two final songs: “PROM / KING,” which details the moments up to Walt’s death, and “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME,” a song were Saba raps from the perspective of someone going to heaven.
This is an album that has Walt’s spirt all over it, even if he would never hear a second of it. A couple of months after the album was released, Saba would tell Rolling Stone:
“I was listening with one of the producers and he actually pointed it out: ‘Damn dude, all of these songs are about Walt…I didn’t even realize.”
14. Vince Staples — FM!
On his tertiary studio album, Vince Staples is more an ambassador than an embodiment of his Long Beach, California haunts. Where Big Fish Theory crafted mercurial dance tracks out of gloomy glitches and morbid realities, his latest employs a sobering wit to diffuse the darkness in the heart of his hometown. Bleak and burly bars are densely stacked over bright G-funk frameworks and hypnotic hyphy homages, threaded by light-hearted drops from Big Boy and a whos-who of West Coast rap royalty.
Acutely aware of Cali’s cornering of the rap market, Staples offers his guests a range of roles on the cinematic short-stack of radio-rigged anthems, produced almost entirely by ATLien hit-maker Kenny Beats. On the album opener, “Feels Like Summer,” Ty Dolla $ign bends a buoyant cut to the whim of a hedonistic hook. On “Don’t Get Chipped,” Jay Rock daggers into the frenetic fold with a cautionary chorus. Kamaiyah bursts through the frill-less boom of “No Bleedin,” while Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga appear as Easter eggs instead of full-blown features on winding interludes.
Another 2018 project that pushes just past the 20-minute marker, FM! is curt and far from candied. A humbling reminder that sunny skies are often less than peaceful in the LBC, a city that’s never afforded the seasonal reprieve from outbursts of violence. — ZO
13. Mac Miller – Swimming
It’s easy to get reminiscent about Mac Miller’s music—he was a feature in the soundtrack of people’s lives as they were still growing into their own. This realization didn’t seem to come to light until the news of his death came out, about a month after Swimming dropped. Suddenly, everybody can remember at least one Miller song that they bumped in the background. “2009,” the title of the second-to-last song on Swimming, calls back to these old days we can all remember, a reflective piece of work that has Miller going through the years and vocalizing the lessons he’s learned since. It’s a small, beautiful taste of what the album as a whole is about: living and learning from past mistakes. “I was drowning, but now I’m swimming,” he harmonizes on the opening song of the album, “Come Back to Earth.”
Swimming chronicles an artist trying to keep his head just above water, finding an equilibrium between sinking and flying. If he hadn’t passed away, it might even come across as the beginning of a successful healing process, a call for help, the start of a more well-rounded, sober Mac Miller. But, to say so is a useless contemplation that will never come to fruition; the reality is that the album serves as a devastating swan song.— Caira Blackwell
12. Rico Nasty — Nasty
Listening to Nasty is equivalent to fist-fighting a horde of ain’t shit men. And winning. Rico Nasty, queen of mosh pits, comes out swinging on the first song of the album, “Bitch I’m Nasty,” an aggressive, raunchy self-portrait she paints for her listeners. It’s a coming into her own that describes not one of her side personas, like Tacobella or Trap Levigne, but Rico Nasty herself. The song is a prelude of what the album holds: fierce, fiery, funny, and sometimes soft expressionisms of the multifaceted artist. Though Rico Nasty is the reigning personality of Nasty, her others do make appearances. Tacobella, the sugary singer, pops up on “Why Oh Why,” exposing a gentler side of Rico, the one who’s uncertain, struggling, trying to keep track of her life. Trap Levigne also leaves a mark on the album in “Pressing Me,” the inner hypewoman who adds some abrasiveness to the sweet.
Rico Nasty has positioned herself among a growing list of brash, outspoken, liberated rappers, and she has battled her way up the proverbial industry ladder with sheer blunt force. Her sound is violent, laced with the kind of brutality we don’t see a lot from female performers, the kind that turns the idea of the femininity on its head with defiance, verse after verse. — Caira Blackwell
11. Burna Boy — Outside
Burna Boy is among the handful of artists at the helm of modern African music’s evolution and international appeal. The 27-year-old Nigerian musician’s album Outside is a seamless listen from beginning to end. It places Burna as the hybrid harbinger of the Afrofusion sound that bridges genres of the diaspora — afropop, afrobeats, reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop— to forge the cynosure of all ears. With his grandfather, Benson Idonije, known widely as the first manager of the late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Burna’s gift may be a bloodline thing as much as it is a honed, and developed talent. This isn’t his first go around. His 6th album, Outside places Burna’s bid as the quintessential golden child of a promising period in global music at the forefront of this transitional year. But as genres bend and cultures collide, this album piqued the attention of masses overseas, while adhering to the sound, history, and palette of his people.
The term “Instant classic” isn’t quite befitting; the project is anchored by its timeliness and timelessness. What started as one of his many submissions for the intended diaspora playlist, Drake’s 2017 More Life, ended up a diluted version in the form of the album’s track “Get It Together.” This ultimately developed into a measure of Burna’s magnitude with the introductory track on Outside, aptly titled “More Life.” Burna’s adjacency to hip-hop is one of his strongest feats. As a rapper, he’s a formidable lyricist, and when it comes to crafting songs and projects, he’s a dept conceptual storyteller. When it comes to musicianship, he’s a respectable vocalist with enough range and skill to complement the more natural elements of his artistic allure. Burna Boy has ushered in a rockstar-meets rapstar-meets reggae star status of a new variety. He is the prototype for a new African superstar with all of the ingredients for crossover success. — Ivie Ani
10. Mariah Carey — Caution
On the titular track of Mariah Carey’s 15th album, the hook alerts listeners to “proceed with Caution.” By that point Carey’s acquainted us to her signature brand of foxy R&B-serenatas— a tropical vocal whine demanding “GTFO,” and five- octave-coos embellishing DJ Mustard’s “With You.” During the album’s runtime, Caution successfully argues why her pending induction into the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame class is warranted. In a hitmaking span of 30 years, the self-proclaimed Elusive Chanteuse has not only been an instrumental gamechanger in pop and R&B, but a hip-hop force. That’s evident with a blunt “Crush on You” sample on “A No No,” and Slick Rick waltzing through the storytelling of “Giving Me Life.”
Carey flexes her ability to juxtapose the colloquial lingo of hip-hop with millennium-recalling midtempos “One Mo’ Gen” and the Gunna-co-signing “Stay Long Love You;” sing-raps a rapid 16 alongside Ty Dolla $ign on “The Distance;” and hits her whistle register on “8th Grade,” over Timbaland’s beatboxing breakdown. By the final notes of Caution’s closer, “Portrait,” the Songbird Supreme has not only surpassed a victory for herself, but gifted a conceptually triumphant and refreshing masterpiece only a living legend could.— Da’Shan Smith
9. Pusha-T — Daytona
Only a few weeks after Kanye announced his month-long campaign of seven-track micro-albums from G.O.O.D. Music stalwarts, the first of the Wyoming sessions appeared at the backend of May. An unconventional scheme from a producer perpetually slipping in the court of public opinion, West had more to lose than anyone on his roster. But DAYTONA, the cold-hearted commencement of a five-week, five-album onslaught, proved that Pusha-T, G.O.O.D. Music’s CEO — already bearing a singular legacy in hip-hop — is still the camp’s ace in the hole.
Every piece of DAYTONA is air-tight and tailor-made. From the grandstanding opening of “If You Know You Know”, to the ferocious fuzz of “Baby Come Back,” to the lasering left-hook of “Infrared.” West’s productions contour his star rapper’s staggering endurance. Not a soft syllable in sight, Push cuts through the chaos with poise and uncanny serration, making quick work out of holy grail soul and psychedelia. — ZO
8. Nicki Minaj — Queen
Nicki Minaj has managed to pique and retain the public’s attention for the entirety of the last decade, remaining a dominating figure in music. This year marked many music anniversaries, and in turn, an examination of artistic legacy and what it means. Since her 2007 debut mixtape, Playtime Is Over, Minaj has proven her abilities as a rapper keen on cultivating her craft and placing the pen over all else. Her rise saw her simultaneously fill a void in the game while paving a new path for women in hip-hop. More space has been made for women in hip-hop now. Minaj won’t give up the throne just yet, so she’s leaving her signature on it.
Queen, her fourth studio album, is that statement, signed, sealed, and delivered. Minaj is a hip-hop traditionalist at her core. Her focus, which is most apparent on Queen, is adherent to the old New York standard of rap that’s informed her career since its early aughts. Queen is Minaj’s best to date. It is less concept, and more statement, declarative of what the Jamaica Queens MC does best: rap. The 36-year-old is a student of hip-hop, having come to form at a time when rap was in transition from nascent provincial proverbial, to a booming billion-dollar business. Nicki Minaj learned both worlds, taking her cues from older heavyweights like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and The Notorious B.I.G. Queen’s “Barbie Dreams” is her interpolation of Biggie’s “Just Playing (Dreams)” that honors the humor, wit, skill, that’s defined her style and that of the pioneers who’ve preceded her.
Aside from the standout tracks — “Good Form”, “Chun-Li”, “Coco Chanel” — the highlight of this album rollout was Queen Radio, one of the few recent moves she’s made to help advance and honor her status as a legacy artist, proving she’s animated enough to add color to soundwaves, sharp enough to jump from topic to topic, light or deep, and extract a gem or two in the process. — Ivie Ani
7. Janelle Monáe — Dirty Computer
Janelle Monáe took claim of her narrative this year, with the release of her conceptual album Dirty Computer. The imprint of Prince, her mentor, is apparent on the structure and styling of this project, but it remains more attached to Monáe’s own voice and vision that’s guided her work for over 10 years. Her third studio album, Dirty Computer and its accompanying “emotion picture” visual counterpart of the same name, effectively amplified Monáe’s voice and illuminated her image in the pantheon of pop music megastars with enough edge and singularity to be championed as avant-garde.
Monáe didn’t sacrifice sound for the sake of statement; the album proves that as a singer-songwriter, producer, and actress, Monáe is committed to nuance, reinvention, political statements, personal storytelling, social commentary, and — most importantly — good music. Whether it’s her case for a femmed-out future on songs “Django Jane” and “Pynk,” or her pointed political commentary on the state of the nation with “Americans,” she preserves herself and her art in America’s political and musical landscape, all while making the case for a new kind of genius: the black, woman, artist kind. — Ivie Ani
6. Earl Sweatshirt — Some Rap Songs
Throughout the past several years, fans of Earl Sweatshirt have witnessed the rapper trying to escape the persona projected onto him as one of Odd Future’s primary figures. Some Rap Songs is the culmination of this, a deconstruction of the rapper that finds him at his most experimental. But it’s also indicative of Earl trying to come terms as the son of Keorapetse Kgositsile, the South African activist and poet who passed away this year. In reckoning with these identities, Earl offers introspection that is rich and vulnerable, the album centered around his relationship with his parents. This is best captured on “Playing Possum,” one of the album’s last tracks, where a sample of Cheryl Harris, Earl’s mother, speaking at a keynote bleeds into a sample of Kgositsile reading his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” It’s a beautiful and conciliatory song made tragic by the fact that Earl’s father didn’t get to hear the track before his death. — Elijah Watson
5. Prince — Piano & a Microphone 1983
Like the man himself, Piano & a Microphone, is equal parts revelation and affirmation. Pried from The Vault, the first posthumous album from Prince’s estate was cut from a home tape recorded live and in one take at Prince’s pre-Paisley Park facility in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Throughout the 34-minute eavesdrop, Prince plots out early sketches of revered compositions, unreleased gems, and tender covers. Stringing together half-cooked lyrics with squeals, squalls, coughs, and grunts, a torrential pacing plows through with fits of accidental brilliance and humanizing frustration.
A snapshot of the short breather between his domestic breakout, 1999 and Purple Rain — an audiovisual bomb that would propel him to global stardom — Piano & a Microphone bolsters the myth of a one-man hit factory with rare glimpses of the artist sorting through infant concepts and all possible variants. “Purple Rain” is outed as a slow-churn country anthem. “17 Days” flips from b-side floor-burner to gospel funk freakout in its own right. “Strange Relationship” dials back to an icy crawl. And “Little Mary Don’t You Weep” is transformed into a searing, godless blues spiritual (“Got a bad bad feeling, your man ain’t coming home.”)
And though there’s a certain level of guilt in hearing a recording Prince may have never intended for us to access, Piano & a Microphone presents a painfully intimate portrait of an artist notoriously discreet and guarded in his pursuit of absolute perfection. It feels almost intrusive. Like his next pause could revoke the privilege of your presence, bar you from witnessing his greatest illusion: that he was never actually alone, but united with all he may have ever needed. — ZO
4. Travis Scott — Astroworld
Where so many summer drops tested the oversized album template, Travis Scott molded a fairly moderate marvel. Standing 17 tracks tall, Astroworld hit a sweet-spot between the Cruel Summer sequel’s seven-track script and Scorpion’s bloated double-album framing. But it splits the differences between the album’s warring step-dads — Kanye and Drake — in more than just runtime.
The follow-up to 2016’s Birds in The Trap Sing McKnight displays Scott’s growth as both curator of pop’s elite and co-pilot to its LSD-leaning, trap-entangled future. Resurrecting a piece of his hometown’s shuttered history, the Houston rapper lines the big top walls with elite attractions, never straying too far from the spotlight. But never entirely entering it either. A towering guest list casts deep, immersive recesses for Scott to slip in and out of the frame; cuing and commanding formidable features with ease and precision.
He laces together Frank Ocean’s floating hooks on the smoldering send-up “CAROUSEL;” proves a worthy sparring partner to Drake on the buzzing, three-headed beast “SICKOMODE;” and leaves the preaching to Stevie Wonder’s quivering harmonica on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” before James Blake washes over the ascendent anti-fame anthem with rapturous howls. And though the conquer-by-committee ethos is lifted straight from Kanye’s book — his mentor’s touch undeniably engrained into the iridescent sheen on Astroworld — the album’s full-body glow is indebted to a newly crystallized understanding of streamlined song structure and preternatural hospitality. — ZO
3. Cardi B — Invasion of Privacy
Everyone loves an underdog story, and Cardi B’s meteoric rise in 2018 is proof. Her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, saw a swift shift from Cardi’s past projects, her raw, underdeveloped but momentous mixtapes, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Cardi got a new set of tools and she knows how to use them, superimposing her newfound status as media and music darling, with her industry backing, an organic online and real-life following, inimitable charisma, and intense work ethic. Cardi has been committed to utilizing everything at her disposal to the best of her ability.
This year, many have tried, but have not been able to regurgitate the results of her formula. Cardi B parlayed a dance career, to social media stardom, to reality TV stardom, to a music career. Her single “Bodak Yellow” set the stage for her transition to becoming a household name. She matched and then surpassed the feats of Lauryn Hill, making history as the first female rapper with three number ones on Billboard with her singles “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves),” “I Like It,” and Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You.”
Cardi and Ms. Hill, deemed polar music opposites, share a similar fate in motherhood and career; carrying a child while at the zenith of their success. It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Cardi — motherhood, marriage, and a number one album — but Cardi B made a case for herself as the biggest rapper in the country from the birthplace of hip-hop. The South Bronx star is a natural-born entertainer with enough drive and foresight to have been able to steer her unpredictable career in the direction that would inspire others to try to do the same. — Ivie Ani
2. Tierra Whack — Whack World
Philadelphia’s Tierra Whack properly introduced herself as one of rap’s most promising artists with her debut album Whack World. The project can be enjoyed on its own but it’s best when paired with its visual counterparts; Tierra made one 15-minute music video containing each of the album’s 15 songs. The auditory and visual experience complement one another, bringing Tierra’s world to life as she raps and sings about everything from being allergic to insects to missing friends who’ve passed away. As a concept album, Whack World offers brief but engaging moments into Tierra’s artistic persona. It ends so quickly that you’ll willingly return to her surreal world again and again. — Elijah Watson
1. Teyana Taylor — K.T.S.E.
In April, Kanye West went to Twitter and announced that he was releasing five G.O.O.D. Music albums in five consecutive weeks. Who would have guessed that, with the exception of the 20 solid minutes Pusha gave us, the four tolerable songs on Kids See Ghost, and the release of Teyana Taylor’s brilliant sophomore album, the G.O.O.D. Music rollout would be a colossal failure.
K.T.S.E. (Keep that Same Energy) was the last G.O.O.D. Music album to drop. It’s also the best. A modern-day rough-around-the-edges R&B classic. The album — which was criticized for its choppiness — has the charm and grit of a great demo tape. (Teyana, forever the perfectionist, does not feel as enthusiastic; she has openly complained about some of the songs feeling unfished.)
With so much soft, latte-ass R&B out there, it’s a pleasure to get an R&B album that bangs like a great rap album. You feel songs like “No Manners,” “Gonna Love Me,” and “Rose in Harlem” right in your chest. And this is where we have to give props to Kanye: for most of the G.O.O.D. Music rollout, he’s felt like a nuisance. Just constantly in the way (especially on the confused Nas weed plate Nasir.) But here, it really feels like he’s giving Teyana the floor. (Or maybe this is Teyana taking the floor?) In the ultimate act of defiance, K.T.S.E. is eight tracks, instead of seven, with the last slot being “WTP,” a song that goes, but is out of place sonically.
K.T.S.E. is our album of the year. Even if it’s not clear she likes it all that much. — Dimas Sanfiorenzo