2018 was the Best Year in Hip-Hop History
Evan Dale // Jan 3, 2018
We may very well be in the midst of the single most important moment in hip-hop history. Never before in any genre has such an unprecedented onslaught of high-profile and artistically innovative releases come to our ears over such a short period of time.
This, of course, will be a very unwelcome opinion to hip-hop’s traditionally staunch, stubborn, and masturbatory epochal fan bases. In accordance, it’s equally important to recognize 2018’s storied and impressive competition in such a discussion.
When asked about influential moments in hip-hop history, many grant supremacy to 1988 – citing its inventive and critical compositions lyrically and stylistically as being the true starting point of modern hip-hop.
In 1988, Public Enemy, with the intent of creating the hip-hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released the strongly-messaged, socio-politically themed, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It has rightfully become one of hip-hop’s most influential albums both musically and socially – even being ranked 48th on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The same year, in the same spirit of social commentary but with a more violent and abrasive approach, N.W.A. released their debut album, Straight Outta Compton. The project not only pioneered the Gangsta Rap Era and launched the subsequent platinum solo careers of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (not then a part of the group), but also earned its way to immortal preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its “culturally, historically, and artistically significant” subject matter and artistic direction.
Continuing with the theme of social commentary, derived from the aftermath of groupmate and DJ, Scott La Rock’s murder, Boogie Down Productions, a group who, in the wake of their producer’s death was composed of KRS-One and D-Nice, released By All Means Necessary. The album was a true effort in the early stages of conscious rap, exploring police corruption, safe sex, government involvement in the drug trade, and violence in the hip hop community.
These three albums would come to form a trio of pillars necessary to the strong foundation of hip-hop’s subsequence. Beyond their direct influence, 1988 also hosted acclaimed releases from Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Ultramagnetic MC’s, EPMD, Eric B and Rakim, The Jungle Brothers, and MC Lyte.
When the masses are polled, hip-hop traditionalists and particularly fans of gangsta rap have reason and tendency to refer to 1994-96 as the most important and innovative span brimming with a relentless pace of releases. They certainly have a case.
1994 saw an impossible string of debut solo studio albums: Nas’s Illmatic, and with it the start of a career unparalleled in either longevity or lyrical prowess; The Notorious B.I.G.’s keystone, Ready to Die which would go on to become quadruple platinum and forever be labeled one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time; Method Man’s, Tical which launched an onslaught of Wu-Tang Clan members releasing solo projects of their own; And Jeru the Damaja’s debut, The Sun Rises in the East, which, in combination with the previously mentioned three, would play a pivotal role in the revitalization of East Coast hip-hop. Beyond that, another notable and arguably even more influential debut, OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was also released, bringing Southern hip-hop into the limelight and marking the starting point to not only the tenure of one of the most important hip-hop groups of all time, but simultaneously the careers of Andre 3000 and Big Boi as eventual solo artists. The same year, Common blessed the world with his sophomore album, Resurrection, O.C.’ released Word… Life which included what would become one of the most recognizable samples throughout hip-hop history – Time’s Up, Scarface released The Diary, Gang Starr, Hard To Earn, and Organized Confusion, Stress: The Extinction Agenda. It’s easy to look back and see just how incredibly influential 1994 would become. Such a number of hip-hop’s historic elite graced the year with not only their presence, but their very introductions.
The next year, the East Coast, Wu-Tang Clan in particular, continued the intangible pace. 1995 saw the debut solo projects of Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx, GZA – Liquid Swords, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Continuing the trend with features from Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Q-Tip, Mobb Deep released their star-studded East Coast collaborative project, The Infamous…, KRS-One released his self-titled sophomore album, Smif-N-Wessun created the cult classic debut, Dah Shinin’, AZ released his critically-acclaimed debut, Doe or Die, and Big L put out Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous – the sole project released during his lifetime. For fans of 90’s East Coast hip-hop, there could be no better, no more infamous year on record than 1995.
But the year did not belong to New York City alone. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal, produced by and dedicated to the group’s mentor, Eazy-E, would come to be a bold and innovative project whose influence, interestingly enough, is being felt more today than at any point since its historic release. Goodie Mob got in on the action with their debut album, Soul Food, which would become a key spark on the South’s imminent rise to the tops of the hip-hop spectrum and also included within it the first use of the term “The Dirty South.” And finally, 2Pac’s infamous Me Against The World, which was released during his imprisonment and shot to the top of the US charts, not only left its mark on 1995, but stole from the East Coast any inarguable claim of owning the year in its entirety.
1996 was again pivotal in the subsequent development of hip-hop as a whole. Ghostface Killah’s keystone album, Ironman was littered with an insane collection of Wu-Tang features. Jeru the Damaja’s sophomore project, Wrath of the Math continued his classic East Coast tradition. Kool Keith, then under the persona of Dr. Octagon, gave hip-hop some of its early flamboyant, theatrical roots with Dr. Octagonecologyst. Jay-Z made his first appearance with Reasonable Doubt, Nas released his sophomore project, It Was Written, The Roots blessed us with illadelph Halflife, and Mobb Deap released Hell on Earth. Outside of the East Coast, the Southside began to take true form with the release of UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty and OutKast’s ATLiens.
But the most important events of the year undoubtedly revolved around Tupac Shakur who in February released what many to be consider the most important album of his career, a double album in fact by the name of All Eyez On Me, which was also the final release during his lifetime. Tupac’s death, just six months later, marked another key moment, albeit shrouded in darkness, for the year’s importance to hip-hop’s history.
In the wake of Tupac’s death and Biggie’s the following year, hip-hop experienced an understandable lull (Dr. Dre’s marathon masterpiece, 1999 of course is an exception) until 2000 where again, a large population of hip-hop fans place their emphasis.
Eminem’s The Marshal Mathers LP, his third studio project and the one that many consider to be his pinnacle, broke further ground that at that point had become expected from the always surprising star. Deltron 3030 released their self-titled debut and brought into the spectrum an interesting new look at the hip-hop collective. Ghostface Killah again with Supreme Clientele furthered the Wu-Tang cause while Common did the same for the conscious rap movement with Like Water For Chocolate. Xzibit released his career’s most successful album, Restless, while Outkast did the same with their defining masterpiece, Stankonia.
Even with all of the success from established artists in consideration, the most important and most defining project of the year came at the hands of a kid from St. Louis. By the time Nelly’s Country Grammar had earned its way to certified Diamond status, selling more than 10 million copies, its cultural importance was worth even more. Hip-hop was changed forever and would become almost unrecognizable from its 1988 glory by the time some of the most cherished years were to follow.
Of all the years that followed, 2007 and 2008 came together as one of the most defining conglomerates in music history. Not only were the years host to a barrage of releases from hip-hop’s old and new; Not only were the years an obvious crossover between vastly differing eras of hip-hop history; But the years also represented the moments when hip-hop came to dominate the realm of the mainstream.
Timbaland’s Shock Value, El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, U.S.D.A.’s Cold Summer, Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad, Dizzee Rascal’s Maths + English, Fabolous’ From Nothin’ to Somethin’, T.I.’s T.I. vs. T.I.P, Common’s Finding Forever, M.I.A.’s Kala, 50 Cent’s Curtis, Kanye’s Graduation, Jay-Z’s American Gangster, Alicia Key’s As I Am, and Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams were all blessings of 2007. Artists who defined the past shared airwaves with artists redefining it all. Strict rappers frequently collaborated with R&B-predominant vocalists. A blending of hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, and electronic came to redefine pop music under the umbrella of hip-hop’s vast influence.
And 2008? The Carter lll, 808’s & Heartbreak, Paper Trail, I Am… Sasha Firece, Rick Ross’s Trilla, Usher’s Here I Stand, Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One, Young Jeezy’s The Recession, and Ne-Yo’s The Year of the Gentlemen were amongst the most celebrated hip-hop projects of the year. And yet, a lot of them, along with many from the list of projects from 2007 felt altogether different than the kind of music that had been labeled hip-hop in the 80’s, 90’s, and even the early 2000’s. The genre had, by 2007, outgrown itself and been entirely redefined by its tendency to utilize elements from other stylistic fields. Though R&B, maybe even funk and jazz, had always been influential on and influenced by hip-hop, now the same was being said about music as a whole. By the end of 2008, hip-hop was the most popular mega-genre in the globe and only continued to grow and evolve, bringing with it more keynote annuals, and of course, more classicists and traditionalists who denounced it altogether.
And though so much has happened in the decade since, no moment has better expressed hip-hop’s endless sense of duality and insane expanse more than 2018. The old and the new, the traditional and the experimental, the lyrical and the melodic, the rapped and the sung, the internationally popular and the staunchly underground, the acoustically instrumental and the boldly electronic. 2018 has not only defined hip-hop’s history but also redefined its innumerable courses. And through all of the adversity and all of the diversity, something about all of the hip-hop releases that blessed us in 2018 are still able to slide under a single banner.
A collection of albums from the established dominant forces in hip-hop have brought everyone’s attention to the scene. Migos released their follow-up to 2017’s Culture, Culture ll, once again unleashing a landslide of impossibly catchy and impossibly popular anthems on the world’s hype-hop trap scene. Kendrick Lamar brought together an enviable group of friends and collaborators for a project that reached far beyond music with The Black Panther and its accompanying soundtrack. SAINt JHN, one of the most influential and quickly growing young acts in music, released his heavily anticipated debut, Collection One, which more than lived up to its explosive expectation. J. Cole released KOD, yet another work of meaningful, lyrically-endowed, grass-roots hip-hop. Raury went in a similar direction but stuck to his anti-establishmentarian ways with The Woods. And that all happened before May was over.
From mid-May to mid-June, hip-hop amped it up even more. Major projects from the lovable KYLE and the not-so-lovable Pusha T; an experimental gem from the genius mind of A$AP Rocky; a long-awaited solo full-length from West Coast creative mind, Hit-Boy; another addition to the Kanye West solo construct; and yet another from the ever-emotional, ever-experimental Kid Cudi under the guise, with his friend Kanye, as KIDS SEE GHOSTS.
In the following months, a long-awaited project from R&B, hip-hop crossover specialist, Jacquees (4275) was released. Jay Rock continued his impressively lyrical and incredibly underrated rise through TDE with Redemption. Drake gave the world his polarizing marathon A-Side / B-Side project, Scorpion. Dom Kennedy gave us all Summer fever with Addicted to the Underground (and repeated the process a couple months later with Volume 2), Buddy added his unique take to the West Coast auditory aesthetic with Harlan & Alondra, and Jazz Cartier finally, finally put out FLEUREVER.
And then of course, Travis Scott’s Astroworld.
But 2018 didn’t stop there. The bubbly and lovable Aminé switched up his direction and dropped the surprisingly dark ONEPOINTFIVE. Chicago’s spoken-word heroine Noname delivered the most lyrically-prolific project in memory, Room 25 – giving even the eras of hip-hop firmly rooted in the purity of lyricism a run for their money. Mick Jenkins delivered another cult classic with profound Pieces of a Man. Innanet James brought his signature funk and positivity to hip-hop with the best project of his career to date, Keep It Clean. Smino dropped another classically indefinable work of Southern hip-hop and Midwest conscious blendaline genius with NOIR. Anderson .Paak lived up to the expectation with the transcendental Oxnard. And JID exploded onto the lyrical storytelling foundation of J. Cole’s Dreamville Records with his heavily anticipated DiCaprio 2.
In an emotional state of affairs, two artists key to rap’s current build and perhaps more pertinent to its future, Mac Miller and XXXTentacion also released projects this year. Mac Miller’s Swimming was the keystone project of his career and displayed growth and maturity both musically and personally that his fans had always wanted. He died a month after its release. XXXtentacion was murdered in June and his third studio album, Skins was released posthumously on November 8 to an incredibly strong cult following.
In the particularly high-energy corner of hip-hop’s stylistic diversity, Rae Sremmurd released a marathon triple project, SR3MM, while Playboi Carti delivered his acclaimed sophomore album, Die Lit.
But those are only the stars of the now. If we’re pandering to hip-hop’s foundational generations, there’s plenty here for them, too. Nas released his Kanye-West produced project, Nasir, Jay-Z piggy-backed off his talented and modernist wife, Beyoncé to bring us a joint album from the Carters, Everything is Love. Andre 3000 brought us an emotionally-experimental jazz concept, Look Ma No Hands. Even Eminem dropped Kamikaze, a surprise project in more way than one.
And all of those projects are just a collection from the artists that have already defined and have been altogether redefining hip-hop and its surrounding, expanding grey area for years. What gives any year a shot at being labeled the most influential, the most important in hip-hop history is its existence as a breeding ground for the creatives that will come to define not only hip-hop, but all of music’s mysterious future years down the line. And in that way, 2018 is even more absurd than by the gauge of its established, high-profile releases, which already outnumber any annual moment in recollection.
What kind of direction will the school of artists blending the sonic geography of traditional R&B and hip-hop take in years to come? If TDE’s SiR who earlier in 2018 released his debut studio, November; Cautious Clay, the Brooklyn artist whose debut project Blood Type and sophomore tape, RESONANCE are paving the way for the Cudi-esque artists of the world; ODIE whose ANALOGUE boasts a similarly reminiscent texture; K. Forest whose Forest Fire 2 exists somewhere at the Toronto-born crossroads of hip-hop, R&B, electronic, and reggae; and Naji whose Misfit redefined the notion of a rapper-vocalist hybrid many times over have anything to say about it, hip-hop’s future founded on their 2018 projects will be bountiful and vast.
What kind of influence will the international scene continue to have? Its expansion hasn’t only made hip-hop larger and more well-rounded but has also driven American hip-hop to adapt and learn from other culture’s and their take on the craft. In 2018, Rejjie Snow released his incredibly long-awaited and highly anticipated debut project, Dear Annie. He’s from Dublin. Gracy Hopkins, one of the most dynamic and experimental artists in music released For Everyone Around Rage (FEAR) from his studio in Paris. Jay Prince, one of the most popular hip-hop artists in London, gave the world CHERISH, featuring two of the most promising acts coming up in the hip-hop mega-sphere, Mahalia and Kojey Radical. And Mahalia and Kojey Radical returned the favor, each release catalogues of songs that furthered the UK-centered hip-hop grey area mega-sphere. Also from the UK, garage-rooted Murkage Dave releases his indefinable thesis, Murkage Dave Changed My Life.
And what about the underground? Sure, its very definition has been altered by technology and the internet, but the underground hip-hop scene has never been stronger, more wide-ranging, and more talented. In 2018, we were introduced to Brooklyn old-school-reminiscent lyricist, Ur Maa, Atlanta’s multi-dimensional Kelechi, Southside classicist, Reaux Marquez, Southside experimentalist, Pink Siifu, Boston’s futurist lovechild, Rothstein, Chicago’s Just Adam, German-Ghanaian star on the rise, Serious Klein, underrates Toronto poet, Terrel Morris, and wide-ranging hip-hop collective Low Hanging Fruit. The bubble rap movement began to take shape with positivist lyricists like Tobi Lou, Hugh Augustine, Warm Brew, Rexx Like Raj, and Dave B. Conscious, socio-politically motivated artists followed the path of The Philharmonik and his genius, important self-titled debut album.
And we’re just one publication. For every one of us – for every writer and blogger – a similar list exists, exploring the depths of music’s impossibly infinite catalogue in search for what and who just might be next.
When we really sit back and think about what an important year in hip-hop history might be, its reasoning exists in that notion – the notion that within a calendar year, seeds were planted, and crops were yielded. The stars delivered beyond their expectations, the veterans of hip-hop’s past proved their continued influence, and most importantly, the future of hip-hop was undeniably, firmly rooted by a wide-ranging, diverse, broad, and innumerable collection of classicists and experimentalists, transcendentalists and purists, multi-disciplinarians and one-trick-ponies, lyricists and melodists, instrumentalists and vocalists, producers and jacks of all trades. In no way has any year other than 2018 ever before delivered hip-hop in so many ways at such a large scale. There is something in it for everyone and looking for it isn’t even hard anymore. The only thing difficult about modern hip-hop and the year that 2018 delivered is simply that it has become so unbelievably huge. Having completely outgrown itself, it is really a vibrant collection of stylings and sub-genres tethered together by the thread of hip-hop’s illustrious timeline in both directions. As fans of hip-hop, we should celebrate, not berate its growth.
At the end of the day, 2018, above any other year, saw that growth at unparalleled pace, and hip-hop exists stronger and more well-rounded than ever before. It reaches more people by the hands of more artists than it ever has. It is defined by more experimental, groundbreaking artists than ever before. It is solidly the most popular mega-genre in the world, and its only just beginning to truly take shape as a completely redefined sonic space.
2018 was the greatest year in hip-hop history.