2018 has been a remarkable year for hip-hop.
And after 12 months of quality releases, it’s time for each member of the SOUTHSIDERS crew to reveal the five albums that stood tall above all others.
So, without further ado, here are the albums that defined our year.
5. K.A.A.N – Subtle Meditation [Redefinition Records] – Boom bap hip-hop from the verbally speedy rapper with beats from upcoming Smuff tha Quiz.
4. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine [Mello Music Group] – Hip-hop’s quirky couple offer up some hilarious off-kilter raps.
3. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar [Ninja Tune] – Scottish Trio deliver another powerful album with their unique mix of slightly discordant anthems.
2. Milo – Budding Ornithologists are weary of tired analogies [Ruby Yacht] – Stream of conscious rhymes from the Ruby Yacht MC take you to places you never knew existed.
1. Noname – Room 25 [Independently Released]
Room 25 shows Noname’s progression to startling effect. Whether embracing life, discovering moving away from her native Chicago or lamenting how “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?/ Maybe this your answer for that” Noname comes correct. And answer that question she does. With an adept ability to utilise a multitude of flows, but equally able to draw comparisons to neo-soul stalwarts Erykah Badu on ‘Montego Bay’ and, self-admittedly, D’Angelo on ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, Noname unveils her evolution since 2016’s excellent ‘Telefone’.
Standout track ‘Ace’ features St. Louis rapper/singer Smino as well as fellow Chicagoan Saba going verse for verse, praising their own merits and seemingly just having fun, all the while peppering in enough cynicism to keep themselves grounded.
Throughout the LP, over orchestral strings, soulful bass and live drums she once again bares herself to the world as a human being with real life troubles, something we can all relate to but is all too often glossed over or ignored by other artists. With her soothing mix of rapping and singing, Noname proves you can speak volumes without raising your voice.
5. Four Fists – 6666 [Doomtree Records] – A barnstormer of an album from the jump with so much to enjoy. We can never get enough P.O.S. either.
4. Shad – A Short Story About A War [Secret City Records] – A hugely enjoyable return from Shad after a five-year hiatus. Not given enough love by many.
3. Atmosphere – Mi Vida Local [Rhymesayers Entertainment] – As Craig said, Atmosphere are special. If nothing else, the duo’s sustained excellence over so many years is something to celebrate.
2. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts [GOOD Music/ Def Jam] – Short but so damn good. Great guest verses, catchy tracks and endless replay value.
1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer [Bad Boy Records]
Some might say that it takes a fairly broad definition of hip-hop to include Dirty Computer as there are a bunch of tracks where Monae doesn’t rap at all but this is exactly what hip-hop should aspire to. Dirty Computer is an effortlessly mesmeric mix of funk, soul, R’n’B and hip-hop which deserves to be heard again and again.
Dirty Computer has rightly won plenty of comparisons to the late, great Prince and there are times when it feels as though Monae is channelling his spirit but at the same time embracing her own swaggering pansexuality. The album is packed with charming, melodic tracks from start to finish with virtually no wasted space at all, with the zenith being the magnificent ‘Django Jane’ where Monae blends her own personal history into a defiant feminist anthem. The song starts with a shout-out to the Women’s March “We gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot / Or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet / Look at that, I guarantee I got ’em quiet” and then finishes with Janelle claiming the throne for her own “For the culture, I kamikaze / I put my life on a life line / If she the G.O.A.T. now, would anybody doubt it?”
Certainly I wouldn’t.
5. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD [Epic Records/ Grand Hustle Records] – Named after a now defunct theme park in Travis Scott’s home town, this album functions as a thematic rollercoaster ride start to finish.
4. Pusha T – DAYTONA [GOOD Music/ Def Jam Recordings] – “To all of my young niggas, I am your Ghost and your Rae/ This is my purple tape, save up for rainy dayz…” Cuban Linx circa 2018. If you know you know.
3. Noname – Room 25 [Independently released] – Following Noname’s groundbreaking 2016 mixtape telephone, the Chicago native continues to display her subtle yet powerfully-impressive talents as an emcee.
2. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar [Ninja Tune] – The minimalistic yet expansive production serves as the perfect foundation for some of the most infectious pop hooks and religious, iconoclastic lyricism you’re likely to hear.
1. Saba – CARE FOR ME [Saba Pivot LLC]
CARE FOR ME is an emotional tour-de-force centering around the real life tragedy of Saba’s twenty-four year-old cousin, best friend and fellow rapper Walt, who was fatally stabbed in Chicago February 9th, 2017.
Saba’s most effective songs on CARE FOR ME celebrate nuance; they often manage to be joyful and tragic, triumphant and anxiety-inducing, all at once. ‘Calligraphy’ is a perfect example. Saba discusses his coping mechanism for dealing with his depression in the aftermath of Walt’s passing, this being the writing process itself.
The production on CARE FOR ME was handled in-house by DaedaePIVOT, Daoud and Saba, all members of Pivot Gang; as Walt was also [the name derives from the iconic scene in Friends where Ross shouts “Pivot” as the gang attempts to carry a sofa up a narrow stairway]. The subtleties within the production reflect tones of sorrow and joy with a functioning emphasis on the lyricism. When viewed together, the palette that both producer(s) and emcee drew from has created a beautifully-powerful demonstration of catharcism; one narrated with such transparency, has laid the foundation for this unflinching epitaph.
5. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar [Ninja Tune] – This isn’t just an honourable mention because YF are Scottish. They are the real deal. Have been for some time. In Cocoa Sugar we find a very mature record that stands out for its sonic diversity and its hymn-like melodies. Powerful stuff.
4. Jay Rock – Redemption [Top Dawg Entertainment/ Interscope] – It was a good summer for hip-hop. Plenty of new releases to enjoy and some of them make it on this list. After the disappointment of Nasir died down this became a daily listen. Easy-going rap the likes of which I craved growing up as a young head, and still do.
3. Lupe Fiasco – DROGAS Wave [1st & 15/ Thirty Tigers] – Having been disappointed with recent Lupe albums, this one appealed to me a number of levels. The thematic link of slavery and the nice couplings of characters and narratives across make up for an album weighted down by some off-the-mark tracks.
2. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts [GOOD Music/ Def Jam] – From too long (Lupe) to perfectly concise, this album was my AOTY before my AOTY dropped. I try and stray from using the term ‘perfect’ for a record but this one comes close. It’s one of the best examples of the short record cooked just right. Production, samples, delivery (shout out to Mos Def). A home run.
1. Atmosphere – Mi Vida Local [Rhymesayers Entertainment]
I’m biased, obviously. Atmosphere have long been my favourite hip-hop duo. Like I said in the recent album review, MVL is part of a special trilogy in Atmosphere’s catalogue where death pervades the subtext without the violence of Cage, Sadistik, etc. With that hard-hitting opener ‘Jerome’, Slug and Ant set the tone for an album that doesn’t fuck around.
The lyrics are typically golden and concise. Few can come close to this Hemingway-esque insight. In ‘Specificity’ Slug hits us with: “Your paintbrush might have made the stars in space/ but they ain’t got nothing on my partner’s face/ I had to read it, study it, learn what I was up against/ Burn the older testaments of what we used to struggle with.” This kind of imagery, woven through simple life experiences and reflections, is entirely unique in hip-hop. Hitting us on so many levels while retain a battle stance (“they ain’t got nothing”) is the reason I come back to Atmosphere so eagerly at every turn. But in this record especially I get the sense that Ant is really enjoying himself: in ‘Virgo’ he takes us on a sonic journey reminiscent of that ever-popular ‘Always Coming Back Home to You.’ In the closing two minutes of ‘Delicate’, and throughout ‘Graffiti’ too, Ant is at his very best. Despite the harrowing undertones, MVL is a calming, even faith-restoring album with few setbacks. Go get it in you.
5. Atmosphere – Mi Vida Local [Rhymesayers Entertainment] – Slug and Ant craft another gem. From politcally-charged anxiety to familial gratitude, the vibe may be local but the reach is far and wide.
4. Dessa – Chime [Doomtree Records] – Dessa is in the form of her life on Chime. Melodic, challenging, stirring – this is an essential listen.
3. Four Fists – 6666 [Doomtree Records] – An album smacking you in the face with ferocious tempos before dabbing your wounds with a wet sponge. This is music to make you a better person.
2. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar [Ninja Tune] – Masculinity, race, sexuality, faith, empowerment – Young Fathers hand over the pieces, how they are put together is up to you.
1. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts [GOOD Music/ Def Jam Recordings]
Kids See Ghosts is a stunning ode to redemption.
Clocking in at 23 minutes and seven tracks, Kid Cudi and Kanye West show bravery in brevity. The album is jam-packed with lush soundscapes, bold samples and is abound with vulnerability from both performers.
Rousing choruses and contributions from Yasiin Bey, Pusha T, and Ty Dolla $ign, also give life to a project that, determinedly, faces the uncomfortable consequences of mental oblivion.
Cudi’s warcry of “I CAN STILL FEEL THE LOVE” on the album’s opener, ‘Feel the Love’, is a lesson in thematic framing. Pusha T’s butter smooth verse against a backdrop of clanging production lights the fuse for an emotively explosive exercise in catharsis.
Following years of estrangement, Kanye and Kid Cudi’s reunion on this album is littered with tales of palpable suffering, and on track five, the gorgeously ugly ‘Reborn’, they drop an instant classic – an anthem for the forsaken.
And so it continues, ‘Cudi Montage’ masterfully samples a guitar riff plucked from a demo of Kurt Cobain’s ‘Burn the Rain’. Naturally drawing parallels between Kid Cudi and the late Nirvana frontman, the album’s closer evokes a sincere pain.
Cudi’s vocals resonate like an old drunk singing into his chest at four in the morning under a street lamp – “Lord shine your light on me/ Save me, please” It speaks to the universality of overcoming hopelessness, of not losing your sense of self in the midst of the struggle.
All fragments of the human condition are displayed on this album. The cover art, the topics, the premise – they are all nightmarish. Life is a daily assault on the mental; it’s terrifying by design.
But the end product, Kids See Ghosts, this is a good dream – with the listener waking up hopeful for a better reality. Keep moving forward.